Thursday, 29 July 2004

Nerdier than thou

Prof. Bryan Caplan revels in his nerdiness at Marginal Revolution.

In case you haven't guessed, yes, I consider myself a nerd. I'm such a nerd that I worry that my sons will fail to embrace their nerd heritage. The best game show in history, Beat the Geeks, began by asking each contestant "What's the geekiest thing about you?" I still wish I could have been a contestant just to give my response:

"I am the Dungeon Master for an all-economists' Dungeons and Dragons game."

Beat that, geeks!

That sounds like a challenge to me. Or perhaps a new blog-meme. Okay, here’s the geekiest thing about me:

I met my wife because we were both subscribed to a Sandman fanzine entitled Dream Lovers.

And to tie it all together, here’s a blast from the past: a mailing list discussion on free will from 1995 between Caplan, me, and several others. In the midst of this discussion, I announce my engagement. Wow, it’s been nine years.

IIRC, Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, founder of the Wikipedia, was also a member of that mailing list. Although maybe that was a different philosophy mailing list.

Parties versus interest groups

Chip Taylor solicits comment from political scientists on last weekend’s New York Times Magazine piece on the efforts to create a Democratic-leaning interest group infrastructure to rival the similar arrangements on the right. He writes:

That made me think about the Reform Party. After Perot was done dabbling in presidential politics, the Reform Party infrastructure was left with no real leader or agenda. It did have state and local party officials across the country, ballot access in many states, and eligibility for at least one more round of public funding for its presidential candidate.

Consequently there was a struggle between Buchanan and his organization and (if memory serves) the Natural Law Party apparatus (such as it is was). Neither was exactly committed to the principles of the Reform Party (to the extent that they existed); they were after the political assets of the Reform Party organization.

Now, I’m not saying that the Democratic Party is anywhere near the empty shell the post-Perot Reform Party was. But it seems that to the extent it is composed of coalitions of disparate interest groups, it is more vulnerable to a “hostile takeover.”

I wrote about this topic late last year:

With the institutional power of American parties in rapid decline relative to both candidates and interest groups (witness George Soros’ large donation to, rather than the Democrats), thanks to the incumbency advantage, widespread adoption of open primaries, and McCain-Feingold, it seems likely that the United States will see more of these fights for the heart and soul of the party, as candidates and interest groups try to gain control of the remaining institutional advantages of the major parties—their automatic access to the ballot and their “brand recognition.” Why build a third party from scratch when you can just hijack the Republicans or Democrats?

More broadly, I think American politics has moved away from the system of parties articulating voter preferences (articulated in part here by James Joyner) to a system in which interest groups are the primary vehicle for public influence of the political process—with electoral competition something of a vestigial sideshow, necessitated more by constitutional requirements and the need for some elected oversight of the bureaucracy than it is required for functioning representative government. I don’t know that the central thesis here is anything too original—go read Schattschneider or Dahl—but I think political actors have finally come to recognize this reality in a way that they didn’t before, prodded largely by the search for loopholes in campaign finance laws and continual weakening of the institutional position of political parties in the system.

Public opinion is crap, redux

I think Bryan Caplan has really stepped in one here:

Larry Bartels has gotten national attention for his work on Bush’s income tax cut, inheritance tax cut, and public opinion. (Here is the full article; here is the digest version; here is what Alex Tabarrok had to say about Bartels). Bartels’ main point is that public opinion verges on contradictory: the public believes that inequality has gone up, agrees that inequality is bad, agrees that the rich should pay more taxes, BUT still supports two tax cuts that mostly benefit the rich.

Bartels is right, although since I belong to the tiny minority of people who favors however much inequality the free market delivers, for once I have to celebrate the public’s folly.

What Bartels does not seem to realize, however, is that the contradiction he laments is only one of many. [emphasis added]

I suspect very strongly that Prof. Bartels does realize this, as he is one of the foremost experts on public opinion in American politics. Mind you, Caplan’s broader post is a nice primer on the contradictions in public opinion that political scientists have known about (and attempted to explain) since the 1960s—contradictions that Bartels, and any other political scientist studying public opinion, would be well aware of.

Quantify everything

Tyler Cowen calls on Dan Drezner to self-assign p values to his fence-sitting. My gut feeling is that this approach would be ineffective; based on the cognitive psychology literature, I’d have to conclude that Dan is probably not the best judge of his own objective probabilities. Instead, I recommend employing content analysis of Dan’s posts to arrive at estimated p values at given points in time, or using a panel of raters, or some other more accurate technique.

Incidentally, the only p value I have a good handle on for myself is that p=1.00 that, on election night, I will be sitting with my undergraduate methods class at some venue with available libations making fun of Brokaw, Rather, and/or Jennings on the big-screen as they call (and uncall) states. Assuming the dean doesn’t put the kibosh on the short field trip, that is…

Don't confuse me with Larry Sabato

Here’s my lame-ass election prediction: Kerry wins. And you can take that to the bank. At least, you can take it to the bank that you took my “Dean will be the nominee and Osama (not to be confused with Obama) will get a woody” prediction to (I suspect the tellers there aren’t that bright).

Now if I can just buy the Kreskin outfit and crystal ball prop from the local magic supply store, I’ll have some real respect in this discipline.

Lawyers and Attorneys

Eugene Volokh, defending the legal profession from charges that the This song is your song controversy is all the lawyers’ fault, writes:

But at most what we have here is a few special lawyers-by-training -- many of whom are no longer even lawyers in private service, but are lawmakers of one sort or another -- making unsound decisions. We do not have some general ethical failing on the part of the legal profession as a whole.

I don’t have anything substantive to say about Prof. Volokh’s post, but this does give me an opportunity to advance a linguistic mission of mine: to bring about a distinction between the words lawyer and attorney.

Now I’m not claiming this is distinction is found standard American English, but I think it would be a good distinction to make.

If we make the distinction, a lawyer is a person who has a certain professional training, whereas an attorney is a person, usually a lawyer, who represents people in their legal affairs.

An attorney is not necessarily a lawyer. Judges and law clerks are almost always lawyers, but (at least in the federal judiciary), they are not permitted to be attorneys. And someone who decides to represent himself in a legal matter is his own attorney, even though he may not be a lawyer.

We may make a similar distinction between doctor and physician. Senator Bill "Cat Murderer" Frist is a doctor, since he has a medical degree, but he is no longer a physician.

UUEncode makes a comeback

I just received the first UUEncoded email attachment I’ve seen in about half a decade. Now I have to remember how to decode one of the bloody things.