Thursday, September 30, 2010

What Would Happen If... put your hand in front of the beam of the Large Hadron Collider?  Let's ask the experts:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Service and Flow Fundraising

I'm starting to see more and more advertisements asking individuals to donate money to a specific cause by texting.  This scheme really took off during the Haiti earthquake, and it's proved to be a remarkably effective way of raising money.  I find it especially interesting because the donor doesn't give money directly to an aid organization.  Instead, the network provider has worked out a deal with the aid organizations whereby the provider actually contributes the money, but then collects the texted donation amount from the donor in their next phone bill.

The idea of a "middleman" has typically been associated with bureaucracy and waste.  A new business trend responding to the explosion of information and communications technology belies that notion.  Stemming from the idea that sometimes too much information can be a bad thing, companies like Pandora help individuals navigate the ocean of data by simplifying the process of satisfying wants.  This is where the idea of service and flow comes in: often times an individual or organization wants only a service, and doesn't really care about the details.  Providing services often involves a fixed investment, like purchasing a CD to get music or a cooling system to get coolth.  The risks and details involved with fixed investments discourage a lot of services from being provided.

If a middleman comes in with the fixed investments and expertise already established, they can provide services to a much broader set of people who were initially unwilling to pay for the service due to risk aversion, lack of expertise, etc.  This is basically the idea behind a lease.  Service and flow companies take the idea of a lease and apply it to non-traditional things.

Although these businesses have been around for a while, their foray into the field of fundraising is new and promising.  The most brilliant example is Kickstarter.  Clients wishing to raise money for projects purchase the service of fundraising, and pay only if the target amount was met.  A middleman company like Kickstarter can specialize to a high degree in one particular endeavor, generating fascinating conclusions about what works and what doesn't.

Check out this TOTALLY KILLER PROJECT in New York being funded by Kickstarter.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Talk with SC Justice Stephen Breyer

Last week I attended an interesting Q&A event with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, moderated by NYTimes journalist Linda Greenhouse.  Justice Breyer is out with a new book, Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View, and the discussion loosely focused on the role courts play in facilitating a functioning democracy.  Justice Breyer is one of the court's more liberal judges, and his responses to questions both from Ms. Greenhouse and from the audience shed much light on his approach to law.

Much of the discussion focused on philosophies for interpreting legislation, because that's about 60% of a judge's job.  Justice Breyer's approach focuses on "purpose and consequences."  He believes in identifying the main purpose of a law, then applying it using today's standards, with much weight given to the practical consequences.  Values stay, but the way they are applied can change.  He contrasted this approach with a detail-obsessed, text-based historical analysis.  In his view a text-based historical approach limits too severely the ability of government to adapt to changing circumstances.  To illustrate his point, Justice Breyer used a great example of a law passed to protect specific endangered species.  If future information reveals that a species that wasn't on the original list is in fact endangered--and was the whole time--then the law should protect that species.  It's obvious the law was passed to protect endangered species, yet a detail-driven textual analysis would rule against protection.

Another reoccurring topic was the interaction between national security and the law.  According to Justice Breyer, the famous Korematsu case, where the Supreme Court sided 6-3 with the government over the constitutionality of Japanese internment during WWII, was one of the ugliest moments in U.S. legal history.  Although the courts must have a hands-off approach to security issues (they cannot run a war), their actions have massive implications: the president will either break the law too much (unnecessarily infringing on people's constitutional rights), or too little (unwisely endangering the security of the nation).  According to Justice Breyer, "The Constitution is not a suicide pact."  So what's the answer?  "Let them do it" Breyer states, "then punish them after."  But under no circumstances should the court rule the way it did in Korematsu, because that ruling "makes a precedent that lies there like a loaded gun."

Most interestingly, Justice Breyer refused to offer in-depth analyses of certain contemporary hot-button issues, such as the health care mandate and the Park51 mosque.  These issues may someday end up on his desk, and taking a strong opinion now, without proper research and information, is unwise.  "Beware of cocktail party conversation," Breyer quipped.

One issue that caused me to rethink an existing view was that of allowing television cameras inside the courtroom.  Previously I, along with many liberals, have advocated it as a way to help the public learn about the court and build its power.  "It is the weakest branch," Breyer admitted.  The problem with allowing cameras in is twofold.  First, some witnesses may be unwilling to testify for fear of retribution.  Secondly, oral arguments are only a tiny fraction of a supreme court case.  A case is mostly conducted in writing, and so to publicize the oral arguments so glamorously would terrible bias people's perception of the court.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Took a Shit, Made the News

The whole Koran-burning media explosion compounded by this new Kenyan anti-colonialism thing makes this video extremely relevant again.  Maybe it's the inevitable price we pay for freedom of speech and a free press, but clearly something is different.  These cynical media-manipulations seems to be occurring everywhere now.  

Maybe it's the internet and new communications technology (clearly there are new opportunities and incentives), or maybe we can best explain it with cultural changes.  Whatever the reasons, people are increasingly super-rational in pursuing ends: we understand now better than ever how information moves and propagates, and so it is much easier to make informed strategic decisions.  We're really seeing a collective action problem that can probably only be fixed through technocratic, science-based authoritative intervention.  Ever thought about a "systemic risk regulator" for the media?  I have. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thoughts on Political Science

Ezra Klein has a fantastic article in today's Washington Post about last week's American Political Science Association conference in D.C. (if you can't access the link, you might have to sign up, but it's free).  Klein walks away with four simple findings that political scientists wish to convey to the general public.  All very interesting, but he misses a few details:

1. Presidential speeches don't make a big difference.  Not true.  Although presidential speeches don't move public opinion closer to a presidents' preferences, they can have a major impact on policy outcomes in a different way.  By making a major speech on a certain issue, a president raises the importance and visibility of the issue.  Legislators respond to this increased issue salience by shifting their stated policy preferences closer towards the publics.  By making an issue super-important, presidents can increase the political costs of having policy preferences greatly at odds with the general public.  A presidential speech can make a big difference, but not in the way we generally assume.  For more, check out Who Leads Whom? by Brandice Canes-Wrone.

2. 'Citizen legislators' empower the very special interests they're meant to fight.  This conclusion by University of Wisconsin political scientist David Canon is counter-intuitive and fascinating: "If you have a bunch of rookies in there who don't have much experience, you're basically turning power over to the permanent government in that town: the staffers and the lobbyists the newcomers end up relying on."

3. Lobbyists don't run the show.  Obviously true, but misleading.  Lobbyists may not be able to change a legislator's vote, but they can have profound influence on policy outcomes.  By the time a bill comes to vote, it has already passed though a myriad of hurdles.  Starting with the agenda-setting stage, lobbyists and interest groups affect outcomes by gaining access: they provide expertise and information to policy makers, update people about political incentives, and even write legislation.  For the same reason that major corporations give money to both sides of the partisan divide, lobbyists do have an impact.

4. Politicians should talk to political scientists.  Hard to argue with this one.  Rigorous analysis of politics increasingly reveals that all the little tactical stuff consuming politics and media probably doesn't matter nearly as much as the larger structural factors like unemployment, health, and education, etc.  Although this sends a great message--policy makers can stop fretting and get down to business--it's not that simple.  Tactical details like speeches, ads, debates, etc. might be necessary but not sufficient.  Raising tons of money and never making gaffes probably doesn't guarantee a candidate's victory, but a candidate who doesn't play along probably won't get very far.  I think policy makers should put more emphasis on rigorous scientific thinking, but I understand that strong incentives exist to obsess over mundane horserace politics.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Agglomeration Is Forever

It's difficult to predict the future, but futurists and commentators who prophesied the demise of the city were way off.  Way back in 1954 Arthur C. Clarke predicted extreme globalization due to advances in communications technology.  More recently Thomas Friedman's book The World Is Flat saw location becoming increasingly irrelevant in economic activity.

There are two compelling reasons why the world will probably never be reduced to a "point" or become "flat" (pick your metaphor).  Firstly, increasingly expensive energy will severely curb the great driver of globalization: cheap international shipping.  Even though many products are made abroad very cheaply, increased transportation costs will change the economic calculus, bringing some production back.  Barring the development of teleporters, transportation costs will always create incentives to cluster at least some economic activity, which brings us to point number two: cities.

The discipline of urban economics (or economic geography) has long understood the huge benefits of clustering economic activity and labor.  The logic of the city revolves around the idea of increasing returns: a city is greater than the sum of its parts because of agglomeration effects.  These effects are numerous and include things like pooled creativity among workers, more mobile labor force, location of production closer to location of consumption, etc. etc.  For a good description of the role cities play in the global economy, check out The World Is Spiky by Richard Florida.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Why History Matters

Political scientist Sven Steinmo has a pretty concise list:

"There are at least three important ways in which history matters.  First, political events happen within a historical context, which has a direct consequence for the decisions or events.  An early example of this is the seminal work of Alexander Gershenkron who argued that when a country industrializes necessarily affects how it industrializes.  He shows us why late-comers cannot go through the same long trial-and-error process followed by early developers.  In other words the process of industrialization is essentially different for late developers than for early developers.  This is a huge insight that is easily missed in large-scale quantitative, cross-national comparisons, which very often pool data across continents and time periods and treat the time/place as inconsequential (or assume that it will 'wash out' of the analysis)."  

"The second reason history matters is that actors or agents can learn from experience.  Historical institutionalists understand that behavior, attitudes and strategic choices take place inside a particular social, political, economic and even cultural contexts.  Rather than treating all political action as if fundamentally the same irrespective of time, place or context, historical institutionalists explicitly and intentionally attempt to situate their variables in the appropriate context."

"Finally ... expectations are also moulded by the past.  While some might point to America's adventure in Iraq as a simple product of power politics and/or the demand for oil, a historical institutionalist would more likely look to the patterns of past wars for an understanding of why this country reacted in the way it did to the 9/11 bombings.  Certainly they were mistaken, but there should be little doubt that America's past successes in Germany and Japan -- to say nothing of their perceived victory over Communism at century's end -- led policy-makers in the Administration to believe that they could assert American power and bring successful capitalism and democracy to a former dictatorship."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why Sci Fi?

I love science fiction, maybe because I'm a huge nerd, but also because sci fi deals with interesting concepts (social arrangements, trends, technology, etc.) in an extremely accessible way.  Sci fi isn't shackled by the requirement of believability, so concepts and ideas can be dealt with explicitly and without subtlety.  A lot of sci fi occurs in the future, which makes commentary on contemporary concepts and issues much easier: the reader doesn't have to analyze and speculate on their own about about the impact of current trends or technologies.

Here's a great list of some major works in science fiction, although a few big ones like Dune and Foundation are conspicuously absent.

Note: Unfortunately sci fi isn't known for it's cover art.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Fight Apathy Or Don't

We tend to consider political apathy a bad thing: lack of information leads to irrational beliefs and voting decisions, low levels of participation decreases trust in government.  Apathy reduces the manpower and psychic energy devoted towards important political issues.

So does apathy have any possible redeeming qualities?  Political scientists Richard Niemi and Herbert Weisberg raise a few interesting points:

"For one thing, not voting might be a 'correct vote' for some citizens who are cross-pressured. If a person cares only about two issues and passionately takes the Republican position on one (say, affirmative action) and equally strongly takes the Democratic position on the other (say abortion), would it not be 'rational' for that person to abstain? ... indifference and noninvolvement contribute to the smooth operation of a democracy. [Bernard] Berelson made the point nearly fifty years ago when he noted that we have a variety of conflicting expectations. For example, we expect individuals to care deeply about elections, but afterwards we expect reconciliation. With that in mind, he asks rhetorically, 'how could a mass democracy work if all the people were deeply involved in politics?' "