Saturday, July 08, 2006

Word, Man: Word

Will Wilkinson lays down a challenge to J. Chait, who is a fine writer but ran afoul of the chortling, self-congratulatory virus sweeping the (otherwise) moderate and sensible political left.

As Mr. Chait famously said (I'm paraphrasing), liberals are empiricists and conservatives are evidence-free ideologues.

Excerpt (since the article is for subscribers):

Since the mid-'70s, the GOP has grown steadily more conservative, and therefore less pragmatic. Genuine ideological conservatives, banished to minority status since Eisenhower, briefly resurfaced under Barry Goldwater, and, after falling back again, began to take control of the Republican Party. Conservatives correctly see George W. Bush as one of their own. Bush does frequently depart from conservative orthodoxy, as with his tariffs, farm subsidies, and Medicare drug benefit. Yet conservatives understand that Bush sees these compromises as politically expedient, not a genuinely felt embrace of expansive government. His signature proposals--massive tax cuts and Social Security privatization--both reflect a belief that reducing government is an end in itself. Outside events exert not even the slightest influence on his policy goals. Bush steadfastly embraced his tax cuts as the economy veered from boom and surplus to slowdown to wartime to recovery and deficit.

Meanwhile, Democrats have continuously reexamined their policies in light of changing conditions. Bill Clinton came to office planning to spur the economy with a Keynesian stimulus, but abandoned those plans after fierce debate among his staff economists. Instead he embraced the novel goal of sparking recovery by slashing the deficit in the hopes that lower interest rates would enable sustainable growth. As that policy seemed to work, moderate liberals continued to embrace the credo of fiscal restraint. But, after the economy slid toward a recession in 2001, liberal economists abandoned short-term restraint in favor of temporary tax cuts to encourage spending.

Now, there is something to that, in some quarters. There are parts of the GOP for which that description is only slightly exaggerated.

But Mr. Chait has gone on to conclude that ONLY liberals use evidence, and that even critics of GOP conservatism, including CATO, resist all reason and evidence. In fact, anyone who believes in markets MUST, segun Mr. Chait, have committed to a vow rather than the "science" that Mr. Chait and his special, smart friends study at the Kennedy school. (I should admit that I cancelled my subscription to TNR soon after this vapid screed was published at the end of February 2005. I had to go worship my own evidence-free beliefs, and being challenged by someone so much more evidence-focused was just too upsetting.)

Word, Will.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Freakonomics Cultists Must Die

What in the world is the deal with all this "Freakonomics" worship?

I am, as Cheech and Chong famously put it, sick up and fed with all of this Freak-o crap.

It's a perfectly good book. I admire Levitt. He is a fine man. Very smart, and may bring Economics as a discipline back toward an empirical focus. (I'm sure Stephen Dubner is also wonderful).

But Freakonomics is simply arm-chair, superficial, first-thought-that-comes-into-your-mind social science. (Yes, it is TESTED empirically, but not all alternatives occur to you in the first thought that comes into your mind).

At the IHS conference, I talked a bit about several results in political science and econ. Two different students demanded that I immediately explain why all the journal article results were different from the Freakonomics results.

(For example, the Freak-o claim was that campaign spending doesn't matter, at all. That's nonsense. People have shown that both challenger and incumbent, but especially challenger, spending matters a lot. SL is flat wrong about that. Plus, he mismeasures things, and ignores the fact that he would need an equilibrium model to solve the endogeneity of spending).

Now, I love Freakonomics. The emphasis on testing, the idea that we can learn things from empirical work...all great.

But one of these kids at the Stanford conference demanded that I come with him and go over the Freakonomics claims. I said I wasn't interested. He said, "Why are you so afraid of the truth?"

Gosh, fella, I've studied this question myself, and the literature on this question, for 20 years. There are dozens of different papers that show that Levitt has this wrong. And the reason is simple: he has misspecified the model, in ways we have understood for decades. I have no interest in explaining in detail why Levitt is wrong in this instance, at 11 pm when we are having cocktails. I am particularly uninterested in explaining it to a junior grad student who is proud (and rightly so!) of the great depth of his ignorance of political science. That makes me AFRAID?

(SIDENOTE: Does that argument actually work for you sometimes, kid? Is that how other people got you to drink your first beer in high school? "Do it or we will call you 'big chicken-face'?" You need to get out more, pumpkin.)

More and more people have this belief that Levitt is some kind of prophet, a god-like figure. Levitt does not present himself that way in person, and makes NO such claims in his book. He just wants to make the read think. So it is not HIS fault.

He got a lot of profit (I'm punning on "prophet", you see) out of Freakonomics, sure. But much of the work in that book is simply provocative, and intentionally so. It is designed to make the point that it is fun and interesting to do your own tests. I agree with all that.

But it is not surprising that he got a lot of things wrong. That is one of the great things about empirical work: I *know* he got it wrong, and I can prove it. Challenger spending definitely matters, even controlling for challenger charisma. And the data are not IID, because in equilibrium it is true that charismatic challengers get more money. But that doesn't mean the spending doesn't matter.

Anyway, bottom line: Steve Levitt--way to go.

Young goofballs who think that Levitt's empirical work is perfect, and doesn't itself need to be tested--you are missing Levitt's own point.

This is statistical inference, not religion class.

UPDATE: I should be more careful. On rereading, my interpretation of the book is unduly harsh, and inaccurate. SL does not really say campaign spending doesn't matter at all. In particular, he never makes the equilibrium claims I attribute to him above. Those claim were made by his self-appointed hit men in my audience. Mea culpa. The hit men can still bite me, however.

I would edit the post, but that would violate basic blogger ethics, since someone may have seen, and linked to, the earlier (admittedly incorrect) version. So this update will have to do.

There is something odd about this....

1. 4th of July, 1993, San Fran baseball park
2. The Grateful Dead
3. A Viet Nam veteran's group

The GD's are singing the National Anthem. And they just sing, it straight up. No Jimmy Hendrix distortion, no evident irony, other than the irony evident in their singing it.

Just watching it makes me feel like I pulled a muscle in my brain.

I mean....check this.

The vets who came back from the 'Nam were damaged. And they didn't want to be over there. But the self-appointed masters of morals spit on the vets, and judged them morally corrupt. (Or did they? This is quibbling, people. The vets were treated very badly)

I guess we have made some progress. Now, involved in another war (very different, yet eerily similar), antiwar protesters seem to be able to separate the bad war and the damaged warriors.

Or, maybe I'm just wrong. Maybe the Grateful Dead were saying "thank you" to the vets. And, if not, let me say it: Thanks, American soldiers, from all our wars. Most of you did your best, and it was usually more than good enough. When it wasn't, the problem wasn't you.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Sign Up for Courses and Take You Some Stats

This is pretty catchy.

But then, so is syphillis.

The video is VERY work safe, and the song is good. Can't get it out of my head. "Got your difference on the top, and your error on the bottom."

Some observations:

1. The one poor black kid had to feel a little strange doing this. Absolutely NONE of the white kids, with the exception of the one tall woman in the black beret and the wife-beater undershirt (she is at least adequate), can rap at all. So, when the black guy does get his chance, it goes so much better. Other than those two, tho, all the performances are pretty painful.

2. Lyrics and graphics are quite nice. Generally very well done.

(Nod to JM, who can rap it down pretty well herself)

What a Commercial!

A Nike commercial.

It's hokey.

But, anytime the explanation for why a group of guys has to steal a ball is, "It's rounder", you have go with it.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The String Section

From the WSJournal, via NWFlorida Daily News (!)

(AP) - Nobel physicist Wolfgang Pauli didn't suffer fools gladly. Fond of calling colleagues' work "wrong" or "completely wrong," he saved his worst epithet for work so sloppy and speculative it is "not even wrong."

That's how mathematician Peter Woit of Columbia University describes string theory. In his book, "Not Even Wrong," published in the U.K. this month and due in the U.S. in September, he calls the theory "a disaster for physics."

A year or two ago, that would have been a fringe opinion, motivated by sour grapes over not sitting at physics' equivalent of the cool kids' table. But now, after two decades in which string theory has been the doyenne of best-seller lists and the dominant paradigm in particle physics, Mr. Woit has company.

"When it comes to extending our knowledge of the laws of nature, we have made no real headway" in 30 years, writes physicist Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada, in his book, "The Trouble with Physics," also due in September. "It's called hitting the wall."


(nod to SdM, who seems to have lost his mind)


My spiffy, splashy new essay on EconLib, about rent-seeking, goes up officially tomorrow.

But, in EXCLUSIVE for M. End can read it a day early!

Here is the essay. And I would be interested to know what you think!

Write Your Own Headline

I tried to think of just the right headline for this, but....
So, I am soliciting comments. Help me out, in comments: what should the title for this story be? Winner gets a special mention.
Former Judge Donald D. Thompson, a veteran of 23 years on the bench, is on trial on charges he used a penis pump on himself in the courtroom while sitting in judgment of others....
Thompson's former court reporter, Lisa Foster, wiped away tears as she described tracing an unfamiliar "sh-sh" in the courtroom to her boss. She testified that between 2001 and 2003 she saw Thompson expose himself at least 15 times.
"I was really shocked and I was kind of scared because it was so bizarre," said Foster.
She testified that during a trial in 2002, she heard the pump during the emotional testimony of a murdered toddler's grandfather.
The grandfather "was getting real teary-eyed, and the judge was up there pumping on that pump," she said. "It was sickening."
The allegations came to light after a police officer who was in Thompson's court heard pumping sounds and took photos of the device during a break in the proceedings.
Thompson took the stand in his own defense, saying the device was a gag gift from a longtime friend with whom he had joked about erectile dysfunction. He said he kept the pump under the bench or in his office but didn't use it.
"In 20-20 hindsight, I should have thrown it away," he said....
...Dr. S. Edward Dakil, a urologist called as an expert witness, repeatedly prompted laughter from the jury when discussion turned to the penis pump. Dakil defended use of the device after defense attorney Clark Brewster said it was an out-of-date treatment for erectile dysfunction.
"I still use those," Dakil testified.
Brewster paused.
"Not you, personally?" he asked.
"No," Dakil responded as jurors laughed. "I recommend those as a urologist."

(An anony-nod to my main man, who has cause)