Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Incisive News Analyst

The newest Rap News video has been released, and it's definitely further outside the box than previous episodes:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What I've Been Listening To

I've noticed that in the basket of mediums that comprise my information stream (blogs, books, magazines, websites etc.), podcasts play a surprisingly large role. As such, I think they deserve a nifty new sidebar to accompany my other lists. A quick rundown of some of the podcasts that I attempt (in vain) to keep current with:

Math Mutation: A fantastic little podcast that covers a wide variety of math-related topics. It's short and read from a script, which usually entails tons of awkward but endearing jokes that fall utterly flat. (2-5 minutes, monthly)

On Point With Tom Ashbrook: The single greatest current-events interview show ever. Covers everything, with an emphasis on policy, authors on book tours, and trends. I get a lot of reading list ideas here after listening to interviews with the author. Definitely worth checking our regularly. (45 minutes, weekdays)

EconTalk: GWU economist Russ Roberts interviews economists about their specialities, with an emphasis on epistemology and the limits of economic inquiry. Roberts, who also blogs, is a fairly ardent libertarian but manages to keep the interviews mostly impartial. (60 minutes, weekly)

Scientific American: This magazine has a number of super-short factoid-podcasts that I absolutely love. There's one for psychology/neuroscience, earth sciences, space exploration/astronomy, health/medicine, and technology. It's probably the single best way to stay updated on interesting new scientific research papers. (60 seconds, weekly)

Science Friday: An interview show covering obscure topics in science. It's fun because it's probably the only major public exposure for many scientists (outside of the 'ol academic journal, that is), which means everybody is always super-excited. (100 minutes, weekly)

It's All Politics: My guilty pleasure, and a political scientist's nightmare. This podcast is devoted solely to horserace politics and predicting outcomes. (23 minutes, weekly)

Political Gabfest: This politics podcast is actually really terrible, and I only listen to it in order to remind myself of the importance of rigorousness in studying political topics. (50 minutes, weekly)

Surprisingly Free: A great interview show about the economics of technology. Associated with the Technology Liberation Front, a great blog. (30 minutes, weekly)

Philosophy Bites: Interviews with academic philosophers about their specialities. Sometimes it's great, but more often than not I walk away thinking many contemporary philosophers are excellent wordsmiths, but end up saying very little. Rarely does a guest argue against accepted public wisdom on any topic of importance. (20 minutes, monthly)

What The Solyndra "Scandal" Says About Government and Innovation

It's pretty clear that the Solyndra bankruptcy has been blown out of proportion by Republican politicians looking for a great attack line. But this extremely minor event is interesting because it helps us understand the conflicting incentives faced by many government programs. As many commentators have pointed out, the bankruptcy is no big deal: firms like Solyndra receive federal assistance precisely because their footing in the market is (at least initially) shaky. In fact, a company that exists at the limit of technological innovation going out of business could even be seen as a positive indicator; a sign that government is taking risks.

Critics are not without a point, however. As a general principle, wasting millions of dollars is never a good idea, and sinking $535 million of loan guarantees into a company that goes bankrupt provides a pretty decent prima facie case for asserting a government boondoggle. But consider the implications of jumping immediately to criticism. Are we really prepared to say that government should never, ever, spend money on stuff that might fail miserably, even when there's a chance of a massive positive outcome?

All organizations must manage the tension between cost-effectiveness (which encourages conservatism and status-quo practices) and innovation (which increases productivity and encourages experimentation). This tension is especially vexing for government because criticism is so intense in both directions. If government doesn't innovate (or use cutting-edge technology), it's a calcified mass of bureaucratic inefficiency. But when new programs or institutions fail (as they necessarily will), spendthrift government squandered our money on ridiculous pipe-dreams. Generally the second outcome is perceived as worse (it certainly makes a bigger media splash), which breeds an unhealthy level of risk aversion among politicians and civil servants.

So what can we do? Well, unfortunately there's no real solution on the level of a single organization, but there are ways to get around the problem using a more systems-minded approach. The free market innovates because one big success can more than make up for several past failures. But this solution only works because failures disappear pretty quickly, which frees up capital for new experimentation.

Government's real problem is not that it loses some money on bets that don't pay off (like Solyndra); the potential rewards are well worth the risk and on the whole public support for innovation is a good idea. The problem is with businesses like Solyndra who receive government assistance and don't go bankrupt. Zombie assistance programs that continue to draw resources with no probability of big future rewards are the real culprit. Unfortunately it takes time to identify such programs, by which time vested interests have entrenched themselves around the new status quo.

Still, this gets to the core of the solution: government programs should be more willing to subsidize research and innovation, but--critically--be more willing to cancel funding once a program's long-term survival ability without government support becomes known.

There are exceptions, of course. If the magnitude of a potential reward is large enough, more loyal assistance programs might be called for. Nuclear fusion energy research is a great example: the joke that fusion is 30 years away and always will be is true--until it's not. The point is that for innovation, government should adhere to the principle of cost-benefit analysis, but only in the aggregate and only in the longer run. So don't complain about government boondogglery when one subsidy program proves to be a waste of money. It's the system that counts.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Total War of U.S. Politics, PA Edition

A few months ago I commented on Ronald Brownstein's fascinating (and horrifying) observation about the changing nature of U.S. politics. He puts it best:
American politics increasingly resembles a kind of total war in which each party mobilizes every conceivable asset at its disposal against the other. Most governors were once conscientious objectors in that struggle. No more. 
During the health care debate it became clear that the courts, in addition to governors and state legislatures, have increasingly become players in national policy disputes. This political homogenization (eliminating political diversity in favor of party identification, e.g. political parties are the only coalitions) has in fact been occurring for years. The Senate and House have historically been dynamic institutions with ever-shifting coalitions based on multiple identities (region, state, gender, etc.), but lately political rationality based solely around national political parties has become the main driver of public debate.

So what are the limits to this ever-widening political total war? Nick Baumann reports on the latest attempt to bring new firepower to the fight: changing select states' electoral college vote apportionment rules from winner-take-all to a roughly proportional method based on congressional districts. Nebraska and Maine already split their electoral votes (Obama got one vote from Omaha in 2008), but if specific battleground states unilaterally make this change, it could be devastating for Obama's reelection prospects.

This plan hatching in Pennsylvania (also applicable in other Republican-controlled purple states like Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin) is a great test of how far down in the layers of federalism the partisan total war goes. That's because such a move on the part of Pennsylvania's Republicans would be explicitly favoring a political boost to national Republicans at the cost of local and state power. Let me explain.

Historically, states employed all types of different methods for selecting their electoral college votes, but over time they discovered that a winner-take-all system (like the one found in most states today) affords the most power and influence during the election contest. By grouping all their electoral votes together, a state maximizes its prize, forcing candidates to pay attention to it in the form of campaign visits and policy concessions. So by shifting away from winner-take-all, Pennsylvania would help the Republican presidential nominee at the expense of influence and attention. Just ask yourself, why would Obama (or his opponent) sink scarce resources into Pennsylvania when at most they might shift one or two electoral votes from the suburbs.

So it's clear that in the realm of presidential politics, there exists a major trade-off between state power and national party rationality. But Pennsylvania's boat-rocking doesn't worry me too much. I find it hard to believe that very many low-profile state politicians are willing to severely reduce their state's power in order to help out their national party. Just look at their actions on the related issue of presidential primary contests, where many states have pushed to move their nominating date earlier and earlier in order to garner influence and attention, all while drawing strong rebukes and threats from national party leaders. Although Pennsylvania's plan probably won't take off on a national level, it does seem like total-war true-believers are popping up in more and more local offices, and it might only take one state to swing the race in 2012.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Some Straight Talk on Obama's Jobs Speech

Ezra Klein gives a biting analysis of Obama's upcoming jobs speech:
Obama’s speech will achieve nothing. It will go nowhere because it has nowhere to go. A speech can rally the base, and maybe even temporarily change the topic in the news. But it can’t change the fundamental fact of politics right now, which is that the two parties disagree on the most profound question in Washington. It’s not: How do we fix the economy? It is: Who should win the next election?
As far as mainstream reporters are concerned Ezra Klein, with his emphasis on political science, provides the most accurate diagnosis of our country's political problem: perverse incentives due to bad institutional structures. Take the filibuster, for example. The minority party wins when the majority loses face publicly (say, by not proactively addressing national problems), and the minority has the power to make the majority lose. Political parties used to be internally diverse, with many ever-shifting coalitions based on regional geography, culture, religion, etc. But now party identity is the only thing that matters, which means we've basically got a parliamentary system without majority rule institutions!

The first president to bully the senate into changing its rules might be temporarily labeled a tyrant, but will quickly make up for it by passing lots of creative and meaningful policy. Even if those policies end up being terrible, voters will at least know who to hold accountable and can punish them in the next election. That would be a welcome development going forward.

The High Art of Entertainment Marketing

Everybody loves movie trailers (which are often better than the movies themselves), and it seems like the medium is popping up more and more among a wider set of industries. Video games long ago matured to the point where artistic narrative and immersive settings became the main focus for some titles, and now the marketing is catching up. This trailer, for a newly released dystopian sci-fi game, really shows how far they've come. The low costs of creating and distributing high-quality short videos also opens up new opportunities for fans previously confined to writing fan-fiction. Just check out this amazing short film based on the popular puzzle game Portal.

Shorts with sufficient quality and originality sometimes get picked up by major movie producers and made into full-length movies: 'District 9' was an adaptation of this short film, and the animated film '9' originated here. Even book marketing is getting in on the action, although finding the money for higher production values might be a challenge. It will be interesting to see where this trend leads.