Tuesday, January 15, 2013

You know what I've noticed about these songs that say "Don't fear the reaper," "Don't fear death," or "Only the Good Die Young" in various ways? They never say not to fear a particular cause of death. Like, "Don't fear the land mine." Or "Don't fear the HIV Virus." Or, "Don't fear falling into the meat grinder."

Take Pink Floyd's "The Great Gig in the Sky," "Why should I be afraid of dying? There's no reason for it. You've gotta go sometime." How about "Why should I be afraid of being mauled by a rottweiler? There's no reason for it. You've gotta go sometime."

As long as we're using restaurant metaphors, Mr. President, I can't resist. Since birth, I've been coerced into going to the same restaurant as everyone else and intimidated if I speak out. At this restaurant, my say in what anyone else orders is 1/n, and I have no say in the size of the n. Even if the bill were divided evenly, and it's not, everyone would be tempted to order the surf and turf because others are doing it too and sticking everyone else with the bill. Since most people have little control over the outcome, they pay little attention to what others are ordering anyway. Every time people complain that we should leave the Ruth Chris Steakhouse and go to Howard Johnson, you make a scene. You and a million Officer Barbradies before you insist this is a good way of doing things. In these circumstances, maybe I would be tempted to not pay the bill if it's the only way to prevent you from making a scene the next time I suggest Howard Johnson's.

Thursday, November 8, 2012



The Childhood Goat Trauma Foundation was created in 1982 by a small group that originally came together as a an informal support group for problems that were the result of traumatic experiences at petting zoos as children. This group realized that there were many others out there who were afraid to come forward with their horrific stories and wanted to find some way to help as many people as they could. The Childhood Goat Trauma Foundation is the result of their dream.

Through its programs and workshops, individuals from all walks of life have been able to live happier and more fulfilling lives, without the ever-present ghosts of their personal goat traumas. Some have even made such progress that they have been able to put their traumas completely behind them and rejoin mainstream society.

No matter what the effects of your trauma, we can help you. The effects of a childhood goat trauma vary widely from person to person, depending on the severity of their trauma. Such problems as irrational fears, unexplained twitching, and insomnia could all have origin in a goat trauma.

The Childhood Goat Trauma Foundation is here to help anyone who has suffered a traumatic run-in with goats. If you think that the foundation can help you, please contact one of our counselors.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Obama's second term

The mantra of Obama's campaign was "forward," but this election seems more like a lateral transfer to me.  With the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, we can expect at least another two years of gridlock.  And does anyone ever control the Senate anymore, anyway?

One of the talking heads on NPR said that "I don't know if he has a mandate, but he has wind in his sails."  That's putting it kindly.  There were some inspiring speeches last night, but as you all know, reality has a way of setting things back to normal as quickly as possible.  You're a sour loser if you're not gracious on election night but there's no reason to think the divisions won't return very soon.  Furthermore, in the Senate, the Tea Party has added to its strength with Ted Cruz and Jeff Flake.  Along with Rand Paul and Mike Lee, they form a Tea Party contingent much smarter and seasoned than the House amateurs.

Beyond the first two years, Congress will be likely be more gridlocked from 2015-2017.  The president's party has lost 30 House seats on average during midterms and four Senate seats.  Usually, presidents lose more in the second midterm election than the first.  In the second midterm, Reagan lost 8 Senators and Bush the lesser lost 6.  On top of this, there are 23 Democrats up for reelection in 2014 and 10 Republicans.  All of the Republicans are in red states.   Some of the Democrats will be running in states like South Dakota, Louisiana, Montana, Alaska, and North Carolina.  They were elected in 2008, a good year for Democrats.  The Senate races are the Republican's to lose, like they were this time around (21 Democrats up for reelection, 10 Republicans).  On top of that, if you buy into Skowronek's theory of the presidency, which I like, presidents in Obama's place in political time lose more midterm seats than other presidents (averaging 37 House seats instead of just 30).  Republicans might overreach, as they did with the Clinton impeachment, which added to Clinton's totals.

One area with real differences will be federal judges, who will have a large impact even if Scalia and Kennedy don't retire/die.  The "Fiscal Cliff" eyewash is also on the immediate horizon.  Rewinding a little, Obama really won the budget deal last year.  The deal avoided substantial cuts as well as tax hikes for the wealthy.  Obama milked the "eat the rich" theme for what it was worth, which he could not have done if Boehner had agreed to the deal.  Obama and others (including newly elected Republican Senators) worry that the fiscal cliff, in which tax hikes and spending cuts automatically take effect at the end of the year, will plunge the economy back into a recession.  I predict that Obama won't be able to get his tax hike on the wealthy, but he will be able to kick the can down the road.  Congress will agree to table the tax hikes and spending cuts for 6 months.  And he can probably get similar agreements if we're still in the recession at that point.  When the recession is over, he won't be especially worried about the spending cuts, largely in defense, and he can blame the tax increases on the Republican's unwillingness to cut a deal.

Now that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for recreational use, Obama will send the DEA after any large producers.  A DEA spokesperson has already said "The Drug Enforcement Administration’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged,"  They will also sue the state based on the Supremacy Clause, since marijuana is a federally controlled substance.  Still, prosecutions will become less common and the federal government will only resist the tide of public opinion for so long.

I predict Obama will attempt a face-saving immigration package.  Anything too radical and 1) it doesn't go through and 2) it becomes a liability for blue dog Democrats.   And people will congratulate each other on insignificant bipartisan reform.

Leftish talking heads are already calling for the Republicans to change with the times.  Concerning gay marriage, the Hispanic vote and immigration, they have a point.  Romney wisely avoided gay marriage during the election.  Republicans would also be wise to avoid nominating candidates who utter ridiculous Leibnizian statements about rape.  On economic issues, Republicans have little reason to move to the left.  Romney was a weak candidate who let his opponent define him and could never get out the message "are you better off than you were four years ago?"  Nonetheless, it was a very close election.  Of all of the presidents who won reelection, Obama won by the smallest share of the two party vote.  If you add Libertarian Party Gary Johnson's 1 million votes to Romney's that's 49% of the popular vote for Romney compared with Obama's 50.4%.  Johnson was more fiscally conservative than Romney.  In Indiana, Murdouck would have won if all of the libertarian candidate's votes were added to his total.

In sum, this is more of a Pyrrhic victory for the Democrats than one might see at first glance (it would also be a Pyrrhic victory for Romney, who would be incapable of uniting his own party behind him).  He'll be boxed in for the next four years.  His presidency will also cause the Republicans to unite, and meanwhile, candidates far more talented than Romney (Rubio, Christie) will gain experience.

The last three presidents to win reelection with a comparably thin margin had their parties soundly repudiated four years later.

             Incumbent (Wilson - D)           Challenger (Hughes - R)
1916           49.2%                                          46.1%

was followed by

              Incumbent Party (Cox - D)      Challenger Party (Harding - R)
1920              34.1%                                         60.3%

             Incumbent (Truman - D)           Challenger (Dewey - R)
1948           49.6%                                            45.1%

was followed by

              Incumbent Party (Stevenson - D)      Challenger Party (Eisenhower - R)
1952              44.3%                                                             55.2%

             Incumbent (Bush - R)           Challenger (Kerry - D)
2004           50.7%                                            48.3%

was followed by

              Incumbent Party (McCain)      Challenger Party (Obama)
2008              45.7%                                          52.9%


Who is going to be the next Warren Harding?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Why Nothing Works

Here are some proposals to avoid going Greek that are far better than anything I'm hearing from the candidates, and that could appeal to median voters. Republicans could even keep the Bush tax cut, and Democrats could keep most of their programs for the poor.  Doubtless friends would have more but these would be a start. But no candidate would pass this package.

1. Make Medicare means-tested so that upper and upper-middle class seniors do not get government assistance for health care. (Incidentally, Republicans in the 1990s suggested this but didn’t get very far). Crap, I just lost Florida.

2. Treat marijuana like alcohol. The sin taxes would bring in new revenue. Crap, I just lost the Bible Belt.

3. Release all nonviolent drug users from prison and all nonviolent 420 sellers. This will save a ton of money in incarceration expenses. Crap, I just lost the prison guard unions.

4. Eliminate corporate subsidies and farm subsidies. Corn farmers can make high fructose corn syrup on their own dime, not with taxpayer money. Crap, I just lost the cow states.

5. Make birth control available over the counter. Then we can stop this silly debate over government funding of it.

6. Upper class college students pay actual cost at state universities and colleges.

7. Cut defense spending by 1/3 or so. We'd need to cut the overall budget by 1/3 to get the budget balanced and defense is one of the largest items. We’d still be the best-defended nation on Earth.

8. Eliminate George W.’s prescription drug benefit. Every Bush did was bad, right? (Kidding aside, it was the most expensive program since the 1960s). Crap, I just lost Florida and Arizona, too.

9. Liberalize immigration. Once immigrants are legal, they will form a larger tax base and a base for social security retirees as our young population dwindles. Crap, I just lost the Tea Party.

10. Eliminate the mortgage tax deduction and child deduction for the wealthy.  

If you think a candidate could never win with this package, you’re right. So, tell me, if you think they are otherwise good ideas, why are elections are a good way of making rules for other people and allocating resources?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Free Will and Institutional Constraints in The Wire

I finished watching all five seasons of The Wire.  Overall, it was a really addictive and enjoyable show.  According to one reviewer, one of the themes of the show is the power of institutions, which perpetuate themselves despite the intentions of individuals (http://sepinwall.blogspot.com/search/label/The%20Wire%20Season%205).  The writer has also mentioned institutional bars to success in an interview.

In many cases, The Wire succeeds in presenting the institutionalist case with flying colors.  For example, it shows that as long as there are people demanding drugs, people will supply them to make money.  Each season finale shows a new drug dealer getting his supply out after the police put away the drug dealer of the past season (which the police only do with great difficulty).  Politicians are also faced by electoral incentives that cause them to cater to voters, colleagues, and bureaucrats when they clearly see that doing so perpetuates problems.

However, all of this glosses over the consequential decisions - often foolish - that individual characters on the show make, sometimes against institutional incentives.  The show
needs to make unrealistic projections of what characters do in order to end season 5 on the overall sour note.

A new mayor running on an anti-crime platform would not have cut the budget for the investigation of the 22 dead bodies uncovered in season 4.  Catching the perps would lead to far more positive headlines than any kind of increase in school performance.  

Detective McNulty does something highly illegal in season 5 to get more funding for the police department.  Institutional incentives weigh strongly against what he did - he lost his job and risked losing his family. As it turned out, he created a copycat killer, and he's lucky the police
didn't pin the "murders" on a scapegoat.
Had the mayor not cut Lester's budget, McNulty would not have manufactured a serial killer to get funding for a wiretap. In turn, the evidence against Marlo Stanfield would not have been tainted.

Without the tainted evidence against Stanfield, the intelligence Lester obtained against Maurice, the defense lawyer, would not be compromised as a bargaining tool.  Maurice was arguably a worse villain than any of the criminals in the series because the criminals ultimately get caught, but he goes on enabling more criminals.  In fact, the city's institutional incentives
were arguably to prosecute Maurice over Stanfield, since he may have been able to
give the city information that led to lots of much-needed money in property seized from
drug dealers.

The city lawyers knew that federal courts would have been more likely to convict State
Senator Clay Davis than the city court.  It was their own foolish decision not to turn the case over to the feds, not any institutional constraints.    

Finally, the show depicts the school system as failing all of the students except Namond, who only succeeds because he's placed with a caring family.  But the school does provide ways out; the young 'uns simply
make foolish choices against the incentives. Michael could have turned to teachers or Cutty to help with the home situation, but concludes irrationally that because his parents were bad to him, all adults are to be distrusted.  Another young'un decides to live with heroin addicts who scavenge the street for metal even though he has good academic skills.  The show makes it clear that Mr. Pres, among perhaps other adults, would have found him a way to get through school, but he for some reason the student doesn't. It's believable that teenagers make foolish choices, but tough to blame on institutions alone.

Finally, the newspaper decides to promote stories  with unattributed quotes instead of accurate quotes about what is really happening in the city.  By the time that the show aired, more than one reporter for a prestigious newspaper had been fired and disgraced for making up false information.  Reporting on false reporting actually makes for good headlines.  I thought it was unrealistic that sailing was so smooth for the unethical journalists.

The acting and writing are good enough that all of the choices above seem believable, but if the show was meant to show that institutional forces weighed against good choices by individuals, it only partially succeeded.  

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Mortified is the name of a comedy show of sorts springing up in cities nationwide.  Regular people share "mortifying" events of their past with old diaries, illustrations, letters, videos, and other mementos of traumatizing events.

I wasn't sure if I'd like it.  It turned out to be a hilarious evening.  Some highlights:

Speaker 1: Was raised by hippie feminists.  Her mother taught her about sex, including body parts and male arousal, at age 4 using the graphic feminist book, Our Bodies, Ourselves.  This inspired her to draw lots of pictures about sex on construction paper.  This included body parts and men and women in pajamas with cigarettes in bed.

Speaker 2: Decided in elementary school that she wanted to marry Indiana Jones and formulated plans to follow in the footsteps of his lover in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  This meant becoming a journalist with an expertise in archaeology until she finally met her Indiana.  She thought she found this person - the editor of her college paper - and joined the paper and became a hard working assistant editor.  She lied to get him to give her rides home.  At one point she was interviewed by the paper and she decided to playfully reveal her lifelong crush on Indiana Jones and how the editor was her Indiana.  It didn't come across as funny, but creepy.  She had to quit.

Speaker 3: This speaker brought in letters to his parents - and his goldfish and his bike - from camp at age 10.  The letters to the goldfish and the bike were funny enough, but there were also reports of what other boys were claiming to do with the girls.  One of them got his "nuts fingered."

Speaker 4: This speaker drunk-journaled in high school.  She'd steal her dad's liquor and write journal entries about a friend who might have been more than a friend, and who claimed to be a magic user.  She lost her virginity to this guy at age 17.  More mortifying, she revealed this at a previous Mortified.   As the first Mortified in DC, The Washington Post printed it and  her grandmother read it.

Speaker 5: Revealed his love for the Nintendo entertainment system, showing video clips of him playing Mario brothers.  He wrote letters to Nintendo about how he couldn't afford the second Nintendo system and they should give him one.  They wrote back about strategies that other kids used to buy one, including paper routes, etc.  Nintendo said "many customers report enjoying the product more after working to earn it."  As soon as he saved up for the second version, the third version came out.  However, he now reviews games for a living, so the story has a happy ending.

Speaker 6: was a gnome enthusiast in elementary school.  For his 5th grade science diorama on an endangered species he did gnomes.  This made him unpopular with other boys, so by junior high he had a new obsession - Barbara Streisand.