Friday, May 23, 2008

The Census Results

Let's imagine two countries with equal populations of 100,000: Richistan and Pooritania. They have the same income distribution, except that at each point on the distribution, individuals in Richistan have twice the income of people in Pooritania. The 1000th richest person in Richistan makes twice as much as the 1000th richest person in Pooritania and the 90,000th richest person in Richistan makes twice as much as her counterpart in Pooritania.

Let us suppose that over the next 20 years, 20,000 people, randomly distributed across the income distribution, move from Pooritania to Richistan. As a result of their move, their incomes go up by 50%.
Everyone else in Pooritania and Richistan just gets an increase of 5%.

What would the statistical result be? Median wages in Richistan would stagnate, and the incomes of the lowest quintile would go down. Much like the census results. But everyone would be materially better off.

Some in Richistan might still object that it has become more unequal (or, equivalently, more diverse). These objections are not necessarily unreasonable -- there are costs as well as benefits of greater diversity. But the objections are to the presence, rather than the existence, of poor people.

Lots of Interesting News

But no time to write much about them.

*The Bouchard-Taylor report is released. (You can get an abridged English version here.)From the Globe account, it seems they have taken a firm cosmotarian stance, reminiscent of Taylor's old antagonist, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. They are about to find out how Lord Durham would have felt if he had cared about French Canadian opinion.

*The always-dangerous concept of fiduciary obligations by corporate officers to bondholders has, as Malcolm X or the Reverend Wright would put it if they were corporate law nerds, come home to roost. The Quebec Court of Appeal stopped the takeover of BCE by the Ontario Teahcers Pension Plan, a $35 billion transaction. BCE is trying to get to the Supremes before June 30, which would be virtually unprecedented. (The only example I can think of where the red nine tried to move that fast was the misguided decision to give leave in the Tremblay-Daigle dispute over whether a biological father can prevent an abortion.)

*In Khadr, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that agents of the Canadian government operating in foreign parts are only exempt from the requirements of the Charter where they are acting in accordance with Canada's international law obligations. The SCC relied on Rasul and Hamdan to conclude that Guantanomo Bay was operated contrary to the Geneva Conventions at the relevant time. (Of course, the Bush administration was loud and proud in saying that the Geneva Conventions didn't apply.) This fits with my thinking that the SCOTUS's decision would inveitably embolden the judiciaries in other Western countries to help shut down the Bushian war on terror.

Update: I wonder if someone better informed about African-American culture than myself could explain what is so threatening about chickens.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Why Cap-and-Trade Schemes Ought to be Giveaways to Business

Megan McArdle thinks that, morally, we should allocate rights to pollute under a cap-and-trade system by auction, rather than by giving the rights proportionately to those who are already emitting. However, she thinks giving the rights to incumbents makes sense politically.

I disagree about the moral case. "Prior in claim is prior in right" is a precept every legal system uses. By hypothesis, the incumbents had every right to emit prior to the cap-and-trade being put in place, and they made investment decisions in reliance. Allocating a valuable cap-and-trade permit is just providing compensation for an expropriation for public benefit, in just the same way that making private land with an endangered species into a park calls for a cash payment for the value of the land.

Also, from a social-democratic perspective, an auction would probably have the features of a regressive tax. There is no clear distributional impact of giving incumbents tradeable rights to emit.

The one downside is that if you allocated rights to emit to incumbents, and everyone knew that's what you were going to do, then you would create an incentive to increase emissions now. So you should use some past year before the cap-and-trade scheme was seriously contemplated.

Update: That commie Greg Mankiw disagrees.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Repugnance: Wise or Dumber Than a Bag of Hammers?

Nothing's more uncool than outrage at insensitive (or "insensitive") comments, so I'm going to try to get to a bigger point about Reagan's statement about digestive diseases. One of the more admirable liberal/progressive impulses is suspcion of disgust as a basis for moral sentiments. Martha Nussbaum recently wrote a book on the subject, although it clearly goes back at least to Mill and probably to the New Testament's solicitude for lepers, prostitutes and agents of the Roman imperial fisc. Here at least is a meta-ethcial idea that has had real impact: we shouldn't confuse moral reactions with aesthetic ones, and we should realize that those who disgust us are just as human as healthy kinfolk. The idea is meta-ethical because it cuts directly against the moral intuitions natural selection in fact endowed us with. In fact, the liberal/progressive tells us we should try to undo our instictive repugnance when it conflicts with a more rational understanding of morality.

Leon Kass is famous for articulating a conservative opposition to this progressive meta-ethical program. Repugnance, he tells us, is wiser than we are. And surely there is at least something to that. Just because we can't give reasons not to do something is not itself a reason to do it, or to make it socially acceptable.

But how do Kassians react to something like digestive disease? Nothing is as ingrained in human nature as that emissions of the digestive tract are simultaenously funny and disgusting. Every parent knows that. You have to train people to take a utilitarian or sceintific view of such things -- fortunately, such training is usually possible. Part of the symbolic role of heads of state is to tell people that they should, in fact, ignore repugnance.

How do Kassites distinguish these cases.

Update: Steven Pinker on Leon Kass and human dignity here. Pinker isn't entirely reliable about people he disagrees with. His key point -- that restrictions on consensual losses of dignity have to be justified by clear empirical proof of tangible harm -- is underargued, while he spends a lot of time making it sound like having Catholic buddies is a bad thing.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Let's Be Liberal-Progressives and Laugh at People's Diseases

I have always had a fondness for ex-pat Scott Lemieux, who has been very kind to the Pith and Substance enterprise. And I like his co-blogger, Rob Farley, although I do not share his fascination with battleships. I found their subsequent co-bloggers, "d" and Bean, to be predictible and boring American liberals, but figured mediocrity needs representation too.

Still, I am a bit amazed that anyone over the age of five would find digestive diseases funny. One of my family members has suffered terribly from colitis, and I have known someone who died from Crohn's. A big part of what makes these diseases terribly is the social humiliation. And the juvenile attitude of people like "d" reduce their ability to get the kind of scientific funding other diseases attract -- although the truth is that there are few ways of dying prettily.

Adventures in Speech Act Theory

Hillary Clinton said:

I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

"There's a pattern emerging here," she said.

Leaving aside the probably-unintended implication that non-whites are not "hard working", what is the objection here? After all, what Ms. Clinton cites is a fact. She won the white vote in both states.

Similarly, it was a fact that the secession of Quebec was defeated in 1995 by the ethnic vote. But M. Parizeau was widely criticized for getting drunk and angrily pointing this out.

I'm never quite sure how sincere these questions are, but they do provide for a good illustration of how unimportant the truth sometimes is. (Another example of the unimportance of the truth, dear to the heart of the Clintons, is the deliberately misleading statement under oath. But there will be time enough to return to that.)

All utterances include the pragmatic implicature that they are relevant. For politicians, this means that you have to add to everything they say, "And that's a reason you should vote for me." So when Ms. Clinton cites the fact that she won the white vote, she claims not only that she won the white vote, but also that that constitutes a good reason that the audience of her remark should vote for her.

In this case, the audience is Democratic superdelegates. She is therefore saying that they should not pay attention to the vote totals, but to the white votes.

It will be said in defence that she is not saying that the superdelegates should do that because white votes are in principle worth more than black ones, but because the white vote is needed in the general election, while the black vote can be taken for granted. That claim might be false if the superdelegates take her advice. But further, the claim is objectionable because there is no difference between saying someone should not vote for a black candidate because other people won't then there is for any other reason. Acting negatively towards someone because of their skin colour just is the objectionable conduct, and the reasons for that conduct are irrelevant. George Wallace is just as much a segregationist because he was motivated by political ambition as he would have been if he were otherwise motivated.

Clinton is advocating an explicitly discriminatory course of action on the Democratic Party. She is in effect calling for the repeal of the Voting Rights Act and the Fifteenth Amendment. Since the former is the proudest achievement of her party in the twentieth century, she is deserving of criticism.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Shameless VP Thread

OK, there are few things less important than who snotty Canadians think the Presidential candidates should choose as their running mates, but a man has to think of his Google Ad revenues.

What groups are up for grabs? Middle aged women in industrial states, particularly if Catholic, and middle-income Hispanics. But you can't forget party unity.

My picks:

Obama has to go with Hillary Rodham Clinton, unless she's taken.

For McCain, I'd say Condolezza Rice, although it would be way better if she were Hispanic. Or at least married and Catholic.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Crystal Ball -- 2012

Mike Huckabee sucks up to some Catholic theocon intellectuals, puts together an appealingly Christian Democratic policy platform, and wins the Republican nomination. If the economy's bad, he wins the White House too.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Some Good Advice

I'd say the chances of the Obama campaign taking advice from Steve Sailer are low, but you never know what might happen to a meme when it's out there.

Sailer's dead right. The person Obama most needs to distance himself from is his younger self. What Obama needs is a "I used to be a radical... but then I had kids" speech. If he does that, he wins the election in November. If he doesn't, it's Presiden McCain.

Actually, I imagine such a speech would be quite good.