Friday, October 29, 2010

So You Want to Get a Ph.D. in Political Science?

Check out this scathing video of the political science discipline:

Most of the charges leveled here against political science are valid (and hilarious), but poly sci still has a lot of merit. Watch this space over the next few days and I'll speak to why I think political science is useful, and indeed more necessary now than ever.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Normative Economics of Dating

Anyone who's ever been in a longer-term relationship will probably be familiar with the bothersome issue of picking up the bill after a nice meal out.  Who should pay?  What is the most just allocation of the couple's scarce resources?  This is a pretty complex issue, but by breaking it down we can generate some nice rules that simplify the whole question, leaving us free to ponder other mysteries, like what to get our significant other for valentine's day.

Before we can deduce a set of rules, lets take a look at the situation as it exists today.  By comparing the complexity of payment rules with the strength (seriousness, length, etc.) of the relationship, a striking pattern emerges:

Initially, the guy pays.  Sorry dudes, but that's just the way it is.  The upside is that it's simple.  As a relationship gets more serious, it becomes absurd for one person to constantly pay, so some cost-sharing scheme usually emerges.  This middle phase is by far the most complex: how often should each person pay, and what practical method should be used to determine this cost-sharing?  As a relationship matures (cohabitation, marriage, etc.) some form of economic union usually forms, again simplifying the issue.

So what about that middle phase?  For the sake of argument, let's assume the couple wants to split costs 50-50.  It's a huge hassle to split every bill, especially given credit card transactions.  Conversely, keeping a record of all expenses then settling up later is just too weird, and may hinder progress along that x-axis.  Alternating every other meal is dangerous, because the person not paying that day has a huge incentive to spend a lot.  What we need is a rule that's simple and keeps both people uncertain about who's paying.

What we need is expected value.  Here's the rule: every time that pesky bill arrives, flip a coin.  Heads, one person pays the entire bill.  Tails, the opposite person pays the entire bill.  It's incredibly simple, plus nobody knows in advance who's paying, which eliminates the risk of dessert inflation.  Let me head off a possible objection: what if one person gets stuck paying the entire anniversary meal at a really expensive restaurant?  Shrug it off.  The perceived injustice is a fallacy.  The other party has paid for half the meal in a probabilistic sense.  Because each person's expected value (probability of paying multiplied by the amount) is the same every time, this rule is perfectly equitable.  Furthermore, the rule is easily modifiable by using different-sided dice (maybe the guy should pay 60% of the time, because he tends to eat more).

 If you end up paying for three anniversary dinners in a row, don't get discouraged.  Over time, the proportion of money paid by each person should come to reflect the agreed-upon probabilities.

Information Nexus

1. Legalize It
2. Crisis of the Humanities
3. Visualizing Sustainability
4. Short Story: Scanners Live In Vain by Cordwainer Smith
5. Improbable Probabilities

Monday, October 25, 2010

Governor Moonbeam Pt. 2

As November 2nd approaches it looks increasingly likely that Jerry Brown will best former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and reclaim the governorship.  I've already commented on Brown's "unique qualities," but this interview with Google's Eric Schmidt really shows the merits of Brown's constant philosophizing.  Worth watching the whole thing, but Brown really shines at 16:00 in:

Also, check out this hilarious campaign ad by Brown.
The perfect statesman?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Grey Dawn

Foreign Policy has a fantastic report (and accompanying photo essay) about global aging, dispelling some common misconceptions about this concerning demographic trend:

"China, for now, continues to enjoy the economic benefits associated with the early phase of birth-rate decline, when a society has fewer children to support and more available female labor for the workforce. But with its stringent one-child policy and exceptionally low birth rate, China is rapidly evolving into what demographers call a "4-2-1" society, in which one child becomes responsible for supporting two parents and four grandparents."

This is not your typical black-and-white public policy issue.  Although rapid demographic aging is bad for individual societies and economies, it is also the natural precursor to population decline, which is a good thing for the world overall.  Malthusians have been raising the alarm about overpopulation for a while now, so it's easy to discount their environmental concerns and focus solely on quality of life and economic growth.  The problem is simply a trade-off: to what degree do we split resources between the people alive right now (who are quickly greying) and the generations to come?

One thing's for sure, we'd better navigate this sensitive issue with care... OR ELSE.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


The Place Where Progress Goes To Die

Over the past few years something has become increasingly clear to me: more than anything else, the rules of the Senate are to blame for government's legislative inadequacy.  That's a pretty sweeping statement, so let me explain.  The legislative branch has always had problems getting things done, but three important reasons dealing with the Senate have really killed off the idea of a creative and dynamic government.

1. The majority is always up for grabs.  Throughout much of our nation's history, the legislative branch has been dominated by one party.  In such a situation, the minority has no chance of reclaiming the majority, and so plays for policy influence.  A strategy of total obstruction by the minority party would reduce bargaining power and result in outcomes farther away from their ideal policy.  These days, however, the majority is always up for grabs: party identification is down and the electorate contains a massive group of independents who simply ping-pong back and forth between parties.  A strategy of total obstruction now makes sense.  If a party holds out in opposition for a little while (giving up policy influence), it will soon find itself in the majority, able to pursue its own ideal policies.  Why settle for nudging policy a bit when you can wait a few years and then run the whole show?  This new incentive for obstruction really matters for the Senate, where obstruction opportunities are legion.

2. Parliamentary system with a supermajority requirement.  Everyone knows about the 60 vote requirement in the Senate.  In the past the idea of the Senate as a "cooling saucer," a less-partisan filter for impetuous public opinion, made sense.  Political parties used to be ideologically diverse, with many shifting coalitions based on geography and ideology.  This flux and uncertainty made a strategy of total obstruction impossible.  But in recent decades, our political parties have changed to resemble those of a parliamentary system, with absolute loyalty among legislators and uniform strategies.  The problem is that the senate institutions have not shifted accordingly.  There's a reason parliamentary regimes operate on majority rule--to do otherwise would prevent anything from getting accomplished.  It's nice to think that our lawmakers can sit down and make policy garnering sixty, seventy percent support.  Unfortunately in the real world, that type of consensus rarely occurs.

3. Unique senate rules allow for extreme obstruction.  Besides the fillibuster, Senate rules grant individual senators amazing power to block legislative action.  Because senators use these tools to obtain power and bring money to their states, no single senator has an incentive to change the rules.  LBJ was correct when he asserted that "the difference between being a member of the Senate and a member of the House is the difference between chicken salad, and chicken shit."  Read this horrifying article about how time (yes, time) is a precious commodity in the Senate.

The good news is that Senate rules, including the 60-vote requirement, are modifiable.  The first party to eliminate the obstruction rules will, despite much squealing and outrage from the minority, be able to pass tons of legislation and confront big, complex issues.  Though branded as tyrants of the majority, that party will reap the benefits of making big, exciting stuff happen.  Now the only question is, who's got the guts?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Power Players: Benoit Mandelbrot

Last thursday Benoit Mandelbrot died in Cambridge, Mass.  Mandelbrot was a hugely important figure in mathematics: he refined the concept and study of fractals--an object that looks the same the closer you zoom in on it.  The discovery of fractals showed the world that mathematics could be applied to realms previously off-limits to rigorous inquiry.  Just as calculus unlocked the mysteries of change, fractal geometry revealed the inner structure of nature's jagged contours.  A nice obituary is here.

In honor of Mandelbrot, I'm re-posting this spectacular documentary about fractal geometry done by Nova.  It includes many great clips of Mandelbrot and of the crazy computer-generated imagery we've all seen but never really understood.

Microsoft's Desperate Ploy

Check out this vicious attack ad by Microsoft.

I've never seen a corporate attack ad.  I've also never been so repulsed by an online video.  This move by Microsoft is creepy to me in a deep sort of way.  In political campaigns, desperate politicians often resort to whatever-works, nothing-to-lose attacks and ploys.  Microsoft is lashing out because it is trying to hold onto it's power position within a medium that is rapidly and inevitably changing.  In fact, Microsoft was one of the key players that shaped this new computing terrain.  Microsoft's anger reminds me a bit of the music industry's failure to control the move to digital music that they championed but ended up regretting.

Unlike a political race, Microsoft's enemy will not be defeated on election day.  An attack ad will do little to change the course of big, structural technological changes.  So what does it accomplish?

Monday, October 4, 2010

What Is Politics?

Defining the different branches of social science is not easy.  They blend continuously into one another, and overlap, but even still there do exist general categories based on each one's respective object of scrutiny.  Economics generally looks at scarce resources.  Sociology and anthropology study culture.  Psychology is concerned with modeling individual behavior.  Political science... that's tricky.  Another classification scheme looks at the dominant methodologies used by each branch: sociologists use a lot of statistics, economists build mathematical models, psychologists run experiments, anthropologists do ethnographies, political scientists... hmm.

Because political science doesn't really have a dominant methodology, we'd better take another look at the object of study--politics.  But what is politics?  I've come across dozens of definitions, and the best one so far comes from William Riker (not the Star Trek character): politics is the authoritative allocation of value.  This definition is broad, but encompasses a lot: the study of government, the struggle for power, the realization of morals, and it even hints at the social process of deciding how value is allocated physically.

According to Riker, authoritative decisions can be made by either individuals (like dictators, or heirarchy situations) or groups.  Group decisions are made in either a quasi-mechanical way (like a market or price mechanism), or made by a conscious process.  The latter is by far the biggest category, and the one political science focuses most heavily on.  In the study of group decisions, if the group is larger than two individuals, outcomes are the result of coalitions.  Thus, much of political science focuses on the formation and maintenance of coalitions and their effect on outcomes.

Roughly speaking, political science is usually broken down into five categories:

1. national politics (studying political institutions, public policy, law, campaigns, demographics, positive political theory, etc.)
2. international relations (interactions between states, NGOs, warfare, diplomacy, etc.)
3. comparative politics (formation and evolution of governments)
4. political theory (philosophy of politics and government, critical theory)
5. methodology (studying the political science discipline itself)