Tuesday, 31 August 2004

Believe it or not

You can tell your perceptual screens are kicking in at full throttle if you’re tempted to go out and verify that Kahneman and Tversky actually wrote what Mark Kleiman says they wrote.

Alas, my PDF of the original article (cited in my dissertation, no less) is not in front of me…

Druthers and all that

David Adesnik apparently misses a nuance in the position of the FRC:

On a related note, I’ve been meaning to post about the Family Research Council’s fortune cookies, which say offensive things like “Real Men Marry Women.”

That’s just disgusting. What does the FRC have to say about all of the gay soldiers in our armed forces, risking their lives for the United States of America? Are those men (and women) not “real enough”?

One suspects the FRC doesn’t want “all of the gay soldiers” to be in the armed forces in the first place, and would jump with glee if the whole lot of them were thrown out of the military. So, yeah, the FRC does think they’re not “real enough.”

ObDisclaimer: Signifying Nothing does not agree with the position of the Family Research Council on this—and perhaps any—issue.

The fuzziness of public opinion

Laura McKenna of 11D links and discusses an interesting New Yorker piece by Louis Menand on political scientists’ research on public opinion. It’s good as far as it goes (focusing largely on Converse, Fiorina, and Popkin), but I think it would help to have incorporated more recent research like Zaller’s Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion and Alvarez and Brehm’s Hard Choices, Easy Answers, not to mention the whole “affective intelligence” approach, all of which take issue—in important, but differing, ways—with the Conversian public incompetence thesis.

I’d also argue that Converse’s more important and lasting contribution was “Attitudes and Nonattitudes,” (1970) rather than “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” since I think most contemporary political scientists who study public opinion would reject the concept of “constraint” as an indicator of political expertise or competence.

Monday, 30 August 2004

Electoral College

Funnily enough, my American politics class decided to support the continued existence of the Electoral College by a margin of 13–7, with 1 abstention, after a 20-minute debate.

Perhaps more interestingly (and surprisingly), nobody put forward a partisan argument either for or against its abolition.

A RNC-free zone

What Chip Taylor said. Unlike Elvis, I can’t afford to use a revolver as a remote, so I’m just going to stock up my TiVo with Stargate SG-1 episodes to watch instead.

Update: Dan Drezner has a better reason to abstain from blogging the RNC, although I personally think watching Amanda Tapping is a perfectly good one myself.

Saturday, 28 August 2004

Party hearty

I sometimes wonder what our students would think of us if they knew what their professors did at parties.

Then again, it would probably just reinforce their stereotype of us as nerds who sit around and talk a lot, even considering the presence of a margarita machine (which, alas, I did not partake of, since I drove to the party) and various incredibly obscene discussions.

Thursday, 26 August 2004

Explanation, prediction, and the Fair model

There’s been some discussion of late of Ray Fair’s model, and particularly its prediction that George Bush will walk away with 57.5% of the two-party vote in November. Bill Hobbs and Don Sensing find this to be interesting—and, at some level, I suppose it is. But I have to mention a couple of caveats:

  1. I seriously doubt either major-party candidate will get 57.5% of the two-party vote. A few numbers for comparison: Ronald Reagan’s landslide in 1984 against Walter Mondale netted 59.2% of the two-party vote, while Bill Clinton’s pounding of Bob Dole got 54.7% of the two-party vote. I’d frankly be surprised if Fair’s forecast is even correct within his stated margin of error (±2.4%). To be gracious to Fair on this point, he does candidly acknowledge that there could be specification issues that would inflate the forecast.
  2. I think forecasting models do a poor job of explaining the causal mechanisms that take place. The national economy doesn’t vote—rather, about a hundred million Americans do, and the effects of the national economy on individuals are for the most part weak (but, admittedly, can be quite strong for voters in particular industries and regions).

Of course, a third caveat is that forecasting the national vote-share is (in my opinion) a misspecification of the institutional conditions under which the election takes place; there are 51 elections (in the 50 states and District of Columbia) that allocate representation in the electoral college, and I generally think that understanding those 51 elections is much more important than forecasting the headline figure, which only has a tenuous relationship with the substantively meaningful outcome (who wins the election).

Also (potentially) of interest: back in my slightly-more-prolific days, I posted a brief exposition of my distaste for (and disinterest in) election forecasting models.

So that's why it's called "Platinum Plus"*

From CNN:

Researchers have found high concentrations of platinum in women who got silicone breast implants....

Gmail bonanza

I have five Gmail invites up for grabs, and I can’t think of anyone offhand who’d want one (that probably doesn’t have one already). Drop me an email (lordsutch@gmail.com) if you want one.

Wednesday, 25 August 2004


Kids are funny, and Sheila O’Malley’s nephew is no exception. Even without visual aids, it’s a great story.

Ixnay on the APSA

William Sjostrom detects a hint of bias in the speaker selection for the upcoming APSA conference. Dan Drezner, while acknowledging the potential bias, also points out that the speakers’ appearances will be lightly attended, largely because political scientists have better things to do. He also manages to summarize part of my research methods class last night:

[T]here’s a difference between political science and politics. Most of the presentations and papers given at APSA do not address normative debates about the way politics should be. Instead, they are more detatched analyses of why things are the way they are. Sometimes the answers can be ideological, but most political scientists just care about whether their answer is correct—or more precisely, whether someone else can demonstrate that their preferred answer is wrong.

That said, something I didn’t mention last night is that many scholars’ normative beliefs drive their scholastic inquiry; witness the cottage industry of campaign finance scholarship, the whole “peace science” coterie, or most inquiry into racial and ethnic politics in America. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Update: Meanwhile, Nick Troester notes that people disagree what “political theory” means. Most often, I see it used as a synonym for normative theory, rather than formal theory, which I gather is Nick’s conception of the term—the latter is sometimes referred to as “formal modeling” to reduce potential confusion, and occassionally (erroneously, in my opinion) as “positive” theory.

Tuesday, 24 August 2004

Flying with an expired license

Flying back from Long Island today, the security guy at MacArthur airport (I’m not sure whether he was with the TSA or not) checked the expiration date on my Tennessee driver’s license. He told me that it had expired. I pointed out the extension sticker on the back, and he let me through. He told me that if the license had actually been expired, I would have had to go back to the counter, presumably to present further proof that I was indeed the person I claimed to be.

God forbid that someone fly with an expired driver’s license.


Our long national nightmare, the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson saga, may finally be nearing an end. The Kerry front organizations left wing of the blogosphere claims there’s an indictment of “Scooter” Libby on the way, while the Bush stooges InstaPundit (and the Washington Post) reports that Libby is cooperating with investigators by waiving his right of confidentiality in dealings with Time reporter Matthew Cooper.

Postmodern Politics

I once described (off-handedly) Bill Clinton as the first postmodern president—and I think that was a pretty valid description, considering he managed to create public debate over the actual definitions of such straightforward words as “sex,” “is,” and “alone.” Today, Steve at Begging to Differ makes a pretty convincing case that postmodernism has pretty much taken over political discourse.

The Gweilo Plan

Conrad is busily planning a takeover of the Philippines. As someone who’s taken a mild interest in Philippine politics over the years, I can authoritatively say he’s probably got a better plan to solve the country’s problems than the extant administration.

Having said that, I’m less willing to blame the voters than some commentators—Philippine politics somehow manages to combine the worst traits of Huey Long, Richard Daley, and E.H. Crump without producing any of the benefits one typically finds in a machine-politics regime, and until that is sorted out I’m not sure the voters will make that much difference.

Monday, 23 August 2004

Bush is one bad-ass MFer

Alex Knapp, Steven Taylor and Ted Barlow all agree that President Bush’s apparent call for regulation of all political speech is idiotic, although John Fund argues (somewhat, but not completely convincingly) that it’s the inevitable result of McCain-Feingold, while James Joyner notes that it’s not like the Bush campaign has changed its position on the 527 phenomenon lately.

I get the feeling my intro class is going to have a fun debate over campaign finance regulation and the first amendment; I just wonder what side I’m going to have to play devil’s advocate for.

Sunday, 22 August 2004

Parallel Kerry

James Joyner and N.Z. Bear both ponder an alternative universe in which John Kerry has a campaign message that doesn’t revolve around what he did (or didn’t do) in the Mekong Delta before I was born. Left unpondered is whether or not “parallel Kerry” has one of those cool-looking goatees like Spock did in “Mirror, Mirror.”

Also worth reading, linked from the same InstaPundit post, is Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond’s devastating critique of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, including its hamhanded handling by the former Coalition Provisional Authority, from the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs.

Friday, 20 August 2004

Assume the position of the Times

Alex Knapp ponders the assumptions underlying Dahlia Lithwick’s op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times calling on Democrats to act like George W. Bush is an adult—not so much because Bush isn’t an imbecile, but because such talk alienates swing voters. Alex writes:

Of course, swing voters (like myself) probably don’t take kindly to discussions about how best to manipulate them (I know I don’t).

With that in mind, there seem to be two unspoken assumptions in this article.

  1. That most Kerry supporters really do see Bush as an idiotic, bumbling child.
  2. That swing voters don’t read New York Times op-eds—Kerry supporters do.

Alex doesn’t think either of these assumptions are necessarily true. Certainly statement 1 need not be true; notably, even a small minority of Kerry supporters could damage his cause. For example, one suspects most Kerry supporters aren’t sending their hard-earned cash to prop up 527s like ACT and MoveOn.org, instead free-riding on George Soros’ pocketbook.

But I think statement 2 is true; swing voters, by and large, don’t read the Times. Most politically-aware people (essentially, the Times’ audience) are partisans of varying degrees of strength; politically sophisticated fence-sitters like Alex Knapp and Dan Drezner are relative exceptions.* To the extent the Times influences mass opinion, it does so as an elite signaling mechanism for writers at the newspapers and wire services that swing voters do read. If the Times chooses to bury the Swift Vets as partisan hacks instead of leading with the fact the group has already caught Kerry in a lie about his presence in Cambodia, it gives the “all-clear” signal for the Commercial Appeal or Clarion-Ledger to do the same. Thus, if Lithwick (and, by extension, the Times) can influence some Kerry supporters to alter their rhetoric, their “team” will probably come out ahead, even if a few fence-sitters have their noses tweaked in the process.

Thursday, 19 August 2004

Ask and ye shall receive

Because we considered Signifying Nothing‘s pages insufficiently cluttered, we have added the manual trackback link to individual post and daymode pages, as requested by James Joyner.

And, before you ask, no, we wouldn’t jump off a cliff if he asked us to.


Sorry, I’ve been busy with this stuff for the past few days, plus I have a parent in town. More blogging this weekend, hopefully.

Tuesday, 17 August 2004

Worthy cause

Lee Iacocca is leading an effort to raise 11 million dollars to fund human clinical trials of a potential cure for type I (juvenile) diabetes. Mr. Iacocca has already given a million of his own money to the cause: one million down, ten million to go. So go donate some money.

Ahead of the fashion curve

Will Baude notes that according to the NYT, hats are making a comeback. This is proof of the powerful fashion prognostication you'll find here at Signifying Nothing. Back in April, I wrote:
Have faith, Will! One day, men’s hats will come back in style, and you and I will be ahead of the fashion curve.
Signifying Nothing: spotting the trends in men's fashion before the NYT.

They're blogging this

The blog revolution has apparently reached this corner of academe; one of the topics of discussion at lunch (not raised by me, mind you) among our group of incoming faculty members was whether or not faculty members could set up class blogs on the college server.

That said, I’m still leaning against using blogs for any of my classes, although I do think it would be a good way to help fufill the whole “writing across the curriculum” thing that the college is pushing in some courses.

All you wanted was someone who cares

Well, half of orientation is over. I think I’m starting to recover my enthusiasm for the job (see here and here), in no small part because of the warm welcome I have received from my new colleagues. My fellow new faculty members (numbering seven total, including me) are a pretty interesting and diverse group. So far I’ve been invited to dinner, been interviewed via email by the editor of the campus newspaper, and gotten a new computer for my office (replacing the steam-driven Gateway monstrosity that was there before), in addition to various and sundry activities.

The only real irritant so far is the heavily Microsoftized campus computing environment—I am quickly learning to despise Outlook with a passion, and I suspect my laptop will be getting a lot of use for getting actual work done.

Anyway, I probably should be off to bed so I don’t doze off during Day 2.

Monday, 16 August 2004

Revise and resubmit

Last month, I wrote the following:

Not to start a big brou-ha-ha like the recently-raging conflict over the relative “hotness” of libertarian women, but I‘ll put any five randomly selected young Mississippi women (18–35) against a comparably-selected slate of native Michiganders any day.

A couple of minor clarifications are in order. In general, the above statement is empirically valid, but one should not make the ecologically-fallacious assumption that all young native Michiganders are less attractive than all young native Mississippians, a statement that would be quite untrue. The second clarification is that, ceteris peribus, Michigan girls have somewhat cuter accents (in this gentleman’s opinion, at least), which may or may not be “hot” in your particular book.

Sunday, 15 August 2004

The costs of incarceration

Tyler Cowen, remarking on an NYT article on charging prison inmates for room and board, says

I'm not comfortable with this notion, since I don't think government prisons should move toward becoming profit centers.

That’s an understatement. If one is of a libertarian bent (as I am) with regard to victimless crimes such as drug use and prostitution, the problem would seem to be that imprisoning people doesn’t cost the government nearly enough. After all, the marginal prisoner is a lot more like Tommy Chong than Charles Manson.

From an economic point of view, the problem is that a huge portion of the cost of incarceration is borne by the person being incarcerated: which, of course, is the intent, for otherwise the threat of imprisonment wouldn’t have a disincentive effect on behaviors the state has prohibited. But since the full cost of imprisonment is not borne by the state, economics suggests that there will be too much of it.

Here’s my not-entirely-facetious* suggestion for getting government incentives right with regard to imprisonment. For each person the state imprisons, the state should hire, at whatever price the free market will bear, an innocent person who will be imprisoned under the same conditions for the same amount of time. (It need not be one single person for the full duration of the sentence. Presumably this job would have very high turnover.)

This way, the government will imprison someone only if the benefit to the government (which will be aligned to some degree with that of the public in a democracy) is greater than the cost, as determined by the free market, to the person being imprisoned.

Of course, there are other costs of imprisonment the state bears, such as maintaining buildings and hiring prison guards, so we would might end up with too little imprisonment under a such a one-for -one scheme. So perhaps the state should hire four innocents to be imprisoned for every five actual prisoners, or two for every three.

At any rate, the government would be a lot less cavalier about locking people up left and right under if it followed such a plan.

Saturday, 14 August 2004

Weekend weather

There are only two sorts of weather that occur on summer weekends: it's either too lousy (hot or rainy) to get out and mow the lawn, or it's too nice to waste mowing the lawn.

Friday, 13 August 2004


Comments on blogs are a mixed bag. Sometimes they’re excellent, as those at Crooked Timber almost always are, and sometimes they’re uniformly awful despite the quality of the blog, like those at Political Animal.

Sometimes you stumble on a real gem buried in blog comments, like this bit by Charlotte Pressler, professor of philosophy and English at South Florida Community College, at Matthew Yglesias’s blog:

I teach an introductory philosophy course in rural South Florida and so might be able to contribute some analysis (quickly, before Hurricane Charley gets here). Almost all my students are evangelical and/or charismatic Christians who believe in the literal truth of the Bible, and almost all believe that truth is relative. I found this contradiction interesting, and looked into it further.

It appears to have two sources. First, my students apply the word “truth” to all of the statements they believe, and don’t distinguish between claims of fact and claims of value. They are not encouraged to make such a distinction by the local culture; the local authorities frequently describe obvious value claims as “facts,” adding that “you can’t argue with facts.” “Truth,” in my students’ dialect, thus winds up meaning something like “my basic orientation to the world, the way I see things, my perspective”—which would be correctly described as personal, individual, and “relative.”

I might add that an article in the journal Teaching Philosophy (apologies to the author, whose name I can’t remember) argued that the beginning philosophy students who claim that “truth is relative” are really trying to say something like this: “I don’t agree with Mom & Dad any more about a whole lot of things, and I love them, so I don’t want to say they’re wrong, but I don’t want to give up my own point of view either.”

The second reason my students believe that truth is relative, however, strikes me as much more pernicious. They have grown up in small, tribal, tightly-knit, highly conformist communities that (needless to say) did not encourage free discussion or debate. In college, they meet for the first time people who do not share their presuppositions, and they begin to get an inkling that the wider world contains many more. They have never been asked to defend their own belief systems before, and, in all honesty, some of their beliefs are quite indefensible. When students in this position say that truth is relative, they are trying to exempt their own belief system from the requirement of rationality. They want to be able to go on believing whatever their local community has decided to believe, even though both argument and evidence are against them. Again, they are encouraged in this by the local authorities, who teach them to devalue reason and (especially) “book learning.”

The fact is that my students will be ostracized by their local communities (it’s called “disfellowshipping”) if they disagree in any point with their community’s creed. It is a public, brutal shaming, and any human who could avoid it, would. If this sheds any light on the “relativism” of the American public (or, perhaps, the persistence of “creation science” and other follies), I would be glad.

(Reproduced with permission from the author.)

Prof. Pressler really should be blogging.

Checking out of AA

This will probably be my last post from Ann Arbor; the hovel doesn’t have Internet access (or any other communication facilities), and Sprint gets annoyed when I use my cell phone to connect to the Internet. I think I’ll have Internet access in the motel tomorrow night, so I’ll probably have something to say tomorrow night.


Russell Arben Fox has some thoughts on living and working in the relative boonies of academia that may be a worthwhile corrective to the attitudes articulated here by other friends and colleagues.

Thursday, 12 August 2004

Boardgaming group article in CA

The local group that I play boardgames with, the Memphis Strategy Boardgaming Community was the subject of a writeup in today’s Commercial Appeal (reg. required).

The accompanying picture is of Joe, Alan, and me posing in front of a Settlers of Catan board. (We actually played Modern Art that evening.) That’s me in the hat, and the drink in my hand is Maker’s Mark.

Technology marches on

From my office in Ann Arbor, I scheduled a recording of Virginia Postrel’s appearance on Booknotes this weekend on the TiVo in my living room in Jackson, over 1000 miles away. I have to say that’s pretty cool.

Now, if only I could watch all the programming I’ve recorded at home while I’ve been away on my laptop here. Actually, I probably could, although it’d probably take a month or so to download all the shows.

One born any minute

I’d love for someone to review the last 48 hours of my life and explain to me how, exactly, I got conned into driving two entirely different groups of people out to eat at the exact same restaurant twice in 24 hours. I really, really want to know this. I can’t possibly be that gullible.

Incidentally, I’ve about had it with today; it’s been one lousy day from start until this exact moment. Thankfully, tomorrow is only 6 hours and 25 minutes away.

Tomorrow couldn’t possibly be worse… or could it?

Update: The guy who takes on the role of “surrogate older brother” in my life emailed the following theory:

Answer: there was a chick Chris thought was cute in one or both groups; a situation, like a black light on bodily fluids, that brings out the word "Doormat" on Chris' head.

While the latter part of the statement is sadly true, I’m afraid all seven people (actually six; one Danish guy talked his way into both groups) whose asses I hauled to dinner were male. What may be even sadder is that I enjoyed both events.

Wednesday, 11 August 2004

Mystery of the day

Why does the bread I buy seem to come in loaves with an odd number of slices?

What he said

Alex Knapp on prison rape jokes:

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I don't care what the context or who it is--prison rape is no laughing matter. This is especially true in the case of a person who, although a scumbag, has not been proved to be a murderer in a court of law.

Prisons are nasty, brutal places, and dehumanize all parties involved. I don't know that there's a viable alternative to prison--especially for hardcore violent offenders, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to figure one out. Jokes about prison life don't really make matters better, and the overall feeling that prisoners somehow "deserve" what they get (even though non-violent offenders are the most common victims) is nothing short of disgusting.

And on an unrelated note, the new site design at Heretical Ideas looks great! Kind of a Scott McCloud look. I don't care for the way the links change fonts when I mouse over them, though.

California Feint

Robert Garcia Tagorda questions the Bush team’s strategy of talking up its chances in California, noting (correctly) that Arnold Schwarzenegger is hardly offering up his 65% approval rating for a coattail effect. However, a look back at 2000 would be instructive—in that campaign, too, the Bush campaign talked up its chances in California and devoted more than token resources to the state, which forced the Gore campaign to follow suit, diverting ads from the battleground states that Bush was truly focusing on.

One suspects that Kerry will not fall for the same trick again, and—unlike in 2000—his surrogates supporters ABBers at MoveOn.org and other 527s can devote virtually unlimited resources to counteract any Bush spending in the state without hurting the campaign elsewhere, while the Democratic party organization is more free to devote resources to get-out-the-vote efforts than in the past (mainly because it can’t spend its money on much else, thanks to McCain-Feingold). But, nonetheless, it’s not a completely bad strategy, because there’s absolutely no way Kerry can win the White House if he loses California.

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

Saparmurat Niyazov, the megalomanical dictator of Turkmenistan, "has ordered the construction of a palace made of ice in the heart of his desert country, one of the hottest on earth."

Perhaps he fancies himself as Kubla Khan from the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice!

UPDATE: Great minds think alike.

The perils of campaign spam

James Joyner received spam* from the Kerry campaign. Hilarity ensues.

Redistricting initiative in California

Professor Bainbridge links the text of the California anti-gerrymandering initiative. It looks more-or-less like a good idea to me, but the selection procedure for the “special masters” looks overly complicated. But, I suppose, that’s the way California politics works…

Monitor this

Unlike James Joyner, I don’t see a problem with plans by the OSCE to observe this November’s presidential election. Indeed, I think I’d put this one under the category of leadership by example: if we expect thugocracies and ex-thugocracies to admit OSCE observers to assure free and fair elections (consider, for example, the ousting of the Sandinista government from Nicaragua in 1990, which would not have been possible without outside election monitors), the least we can do is allow them to observe our elections too.

The predictable refrain is that this will somehow help the “liberal media” paint this election as illegitimate. My gut feeling is that, even if the media were so inclined, they’ll certainly be able to find plenty enough evidence of corruption and malfeasance by election officials on their own.

Elsewhere: Alex Knapp largely agrees with me, while Robert Garcia Tagorda cheekily says it’s Bush multilateralism in action.

Tuesday, 10 August 2004

Volokh the wishy-washy

Eugene Volokh applies his theory of political slippery slopes to gay rights, noting that anti-gay bigots do indeed have something to fear from the end of government anti-gay discrimination, such as anti-sodomy laws.

The gay rights movement has won many victories, and has influenced many people even where it hasn't (yet) won -- such as in the gay rights debate -- by essentially asking "How does it hurt you?" How does it hurt me that two homosexual adults can have consensual noncommercial sex with each other in their own home? How does it hurt me that they can get married, or adopt children? (One can say that it may hurt their children, but many people, myself included, are skeptical about that.)

But that question ignores those gay rights proposals that would reduce the liberty of others—and it ignores the way the various proposals are, as a matter of practical politics, interconnected. As a logical matter, it’s possible to bar the government from discriminating based on sexual orientation, but to leave private parties free to do so. But as a psychological matter, many people’s judgments about what private people (or government officials acting in their private capacity) may do are affected by what the government may do. The more homosexual relationships are legitimized, the more many (not all, but many) people in the middle of the political spectrum on this question will condemn even private discrimination against homosexuals.

The analogy to race discrimination that gay rights advocates often cite is really quite apt here. People who oppose homosexuality are understandably worried that their views will become as stigmatized—and acting on those views will in many ways become as illegal—as racist views are now. And one way to fight this possibility is to fight it early, for instance in the marriage debate, rather than to wait until that’s lost and the gay rights movement moves even more firmly towards restricting the private sector.

Prof. Volokh sees the analogy to race discrimination, but in his final paragraph he goes on to say this:

So the result is pretty sad: Maybe we do have, as a practical matter, a choice between a regime that suppresses the liberties of homosexuals and benefits those who don't approve of homosexuality, and a regime that benefits homosexuals and suppresses the liberties of those who don't approve of homosexuality. Perhaps it's clear that one of the options, despite its flaws, is better than the other; as I said, I strongly support some parts of the gay rights program and tentatively support some others, despite the risks that I identify. [emphasis added]

Perhaps? Let’s alter that last paragraph a little:

So the result is pretty sad: Maybe we do have, as a practical matter, a choice between a regime that suppresses the liberties of blacks and benefits those who don't want to associate with blacks, and a regime that benefits blacks and suppresses the liberties of those who don't want to associate with blacks. Perhaps it's clear that one of the options, despite its flaws, is better than the other; as I said, I strongly support some parts of the civil rights program and tentatively support some others, despite the risks that I identify.

There are some libertarians who think that private employers, private businesses, and private landlords should be able to discriminate on the basis of race, while government should not. I disagree with this position (it’s at the top of my “Why I am not a libertarian” list), but I can respect it.

But if Prof. Volokh is right, and the slippery slope condemns us to one extreme or the other, restrictions on the liberty of racial minorities, or restrictions on the liberties of racial bigots, I can’t imagine a decent human being who would choose the former over the latter. And if it comes down to a choice between restricting the liberty of gays, and restricting the liberty of anti-gay bigots, it’s perfectly clear to me what the right answer is.

I sincerely hope you get that Federal judgeship you’re gunning for, Prof. Volokh. You’re smart, fair-minded, and seem to be a first-rate legal scholar. If I were President, I’d nominate you.

But I also sincerely hope that when you get it, you’ll grow a spine, and start denouncing bigotry for what it is.

UPDATE: According to Clayton Cramer, I'm part of an "enormous threat to civil liberties." (Hat tip to Will Baude.)

Great Taste, Less Posting

Apologies for the relative silence as of late. Tests to grade, articles to referee, karaoke to sing, ladies to woo—you know the drill.

In keeping with Brock’s posting, I probably ought to offer some advice for incoming freshmen and graduate students. A former Ole Miss professor had what was infamously described as the “Bull Durham speech,” which is deeply pessimistic but nonetheless accurate, and was known to send potential grad students away in fits of tears. Personally, I think Monty Python said it best: “Run Away! Run Away!”

Monday, 9 August 2004

Advice for incoming college freshmen

Very soon now, college campuses will be swarming with incoming freshmen. I have two pieces of advice for any who might be reading this blog. More to the point, I have two pieces of advice for incoming freshman boys. Never having been a freshman girl, I don’t have any particular advice for them, although perhaps some of what I have to say will be applicable.

First, if you are not an experienced drinker, you do not have a good idea how much alcohol you can handle. Always keep this in mind, because if you drink more than you can handle, you are likely to make a complete jackass of yourself. For example, if you drink the better part of a bottle of Absolut vodka, you might throw up in the social room of the freshman girls dormitory, get thrown out by the RA, and not remember it the next day. Or, if you get thoroughly schnockered drinking fuzzy navels, you might call the cute girl you have a crush on, confess your love, and not remember it the next day.

Second, always be really nice to all the freshman girls, because they are taking notes, and they are sharing them. If you do something to make a complete jackass of yourself, perhaps something involving alcohol, they will tell all their female classmates about it, and you will have problems getting dates for the next four years. You’ll probably have to date girls from another school in your city, who will not know what a jackass you are.

That delicate, satin-draped frame

Actress Fay Wray, the star of the original King Kong, is dead at 96.

Those who fail to run candidates are doomed

Mike Hollihan explains in detail why neither major party can afford not to run respectable candidates, even in seemingly unwinnable races.

I crush dissent in Ashcroft's Amerikka

I did something quite uncharacteristic today: I went out of my way to be rude to some people. A small group (I’d say 6–8 people, mostly college-age kids) of protestors or leafleters or something had set up shop in front of the graduate library, and were intent on wasting my time on my daily walk from my barely-furnished hovel to my office. The central feature of the event was a sign that said “Bush Intelligence Czar = Oxymoron”—which, I suppose, made more sense to them than it did to me, especially considering that Bush got better grades than Al Gore did in college. But why let the facts get in the way of your preconceived notions?

I suppose the proper behavior for a political scientist would have been to stop, listen to whatever they had to say, and thank them for acting in the civic spirit—and then come here and belittle them in my blog. Unfortunately for them, I was hungry, annoyed (after walking a mile), and not really in the mood for Chomsky-lite on the way to my lunch. So I blew right past them, trading barbs with a particularly moronic member of the group who insisted on shoving some paper in my face. Mea maxima culpa.

I really, really need to get out of this town.

Update: I’ve made this my entry in today’s Beltway Traffic Jam. Later, I found some of their literature (an incredibly amusing “platform” that I’m confident was not adopted in Boston), and it turns out they were LaRouchies. Now I don’t feel quite so bad…

Sunday, 8 August 2004

Pickering back in the news (barely)

Charles Pickering (who the national Democratic Party would have you believe is a racist hatemonger, even if many Mississippi Democrats and the reliably left-wing Clarion-Ledger editorial board disagree) just issued a ruling in a racial segregation case, and somehow managed to do so without declaring the Civil Rights Act of 1964 unconstitutional. Stuart Buck and Howard Bashman have more.

Past posts on the Pickering smear campaign here.

“Six Flags over Jesus”

Brock’s post reminds me to share my (past) favorite name for Bellevue: “The God Complex.” But now I think I have a new favorite…


Juan Non-Volokh writes:

Dahlia Lithwick has her first guest column in the New York Times today. It's a very thoughtful piece on the unintended consequences of rape shield laws. It is further proof that most of the Times' guest columnists are better than the real thing.

Would that this were true of guest bloggers at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Roy's Rock on Tour

The controversial Ten Commandments monument is making a stop (reg. required) in the Memphis area today, at Six Flags over Jesus and at the First Assembly of God Church.

If you go, be sure to take special note of number 2.

Quiz time

Since it’s the cool thing to do, I decided to take Michelle Malkin’s diversity test. Apparently, you get 5 points for every statement you agree with.

  1. I have never voted for a Democrat in my life. No.
  2. I think my taxes are too high. Yes.
  3. I supported Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Yes.
  4. I voted for President Bush in 2000. No.
  5. I am a gun owner. No.
  6. I support school voucher programs. Yes.
  7. I oppose condom distribution in public schools. Yes. The bastards ought to have to pay for them, just like the rest of us do.
  8. I oppose bilingual education. No.
  9. I oppose gay marriage. No.
  10. I want Social Security privatized. Yes.
  11. I believe racial profiling at airports is common sense. No.
  12. I shop at Wal-Mart. Yes (but not when I’m in Michigan, because Meijer is better up here). Do I get bonus points for also shopping at Sam’s Club?
  13. I enjoy talk radio. No. I’d rather have my teeth pulled sans anesthesia.
  14. I am annoyed when news editors substitute the phrase “undocumented person” for “illegal alien.” Yes.
  15. I do not believe the phrase “a chink in the armor” is offensive. Yes. Etymology, it’s a wonderful thing.
  16. I eat meat. Yes.
  17. I believe O.J. Simpson was guilty. Yes.
  18. I cheered when I learned that Saddam Hussein had been captured. Yes.
  19. I cry when I hear “Proud to be an American” by Lee Greenwood. Yes. (There goes any chance of me ever being seen as “macho.”)
  20. I don’t believe the New York Times. No, I believe more than 50% of what’s in the New York Times. Not all of it, mind you…

Well, I scored 60/100. What do I win?

Saturday, 7 August 2004

Eppur si muove

Over at Flack Central Station, conservative economist Arnold Kling sees a nefarious plot in the new survey-based happiness research, pioneered by Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Vernon Smith.

Referring to the paper How Not to Buy Happiness by Cornell economist Robert Frank, Kling writes:

... [I]t is Robert Frank who wants to impose a rigid conformity on our mode of living. In his model society everyone would commute by mass transit to work. So much for people who like to work from home, or live in a rural environment, or walk to work.

I am afraid that “happiness research” amounts to nothing but a flimsy excuse for left-wing academics to claim that they should be given control over how the rest of us live.

Kling doesn't bother mentioning that Frank makes no public policy recommendations in his paper. The paper could just as well be taken as personal advice to individuals: a Lexus won’t make you any happier than a Honda; you’ll be happier if you buy a smaller house close to where you work, instead of a large house far away; no one ever wished on his death bed that he’d spent more time at the office.

The most interesting passage in Kling’s essay is the following bit:

In making his case, Frank places a heavy intellectual burden on "happiness research." As I have pointed out before, economists traditionally have not bothered to try and measure happiness. We take it for granted that people act in their best interests.

Frank, on the other hand, takes seriously the notion that happiness can be measured by surveys. He views the fact that surveys show little increase in happiness over the past few decades as evidence that higher incomes do not lead to more happiness.

Frank’s problem, according to Kling, is that he takes new evidence seriously. Kling, on the other hand, is a virtuous economist who never questions traditional assumptions.

Kling reminds me of the Catholic priests railing against the Copernican revolution in astronomy:

It upsets the whole basis of theology. If the Earth is a planet, and only one among several planets, it can not be that any such great things have been done specially for it as the Christian doctrine teaches. If there are other planets, since God makes nothing in vain, they must be inhabited; but how can their inhabitants be descended from Adam? How can they trace back their origin to Noah's ark? How can they have been redeemed by the Saviour? (From the Wikipedia article on Galileo.)

Like the Catholic priests in the 17th century, Kling's world-view is upset by new evidence, and he'll add epicycle upon epicycle to preserve his central assumption.

(Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.)

Friday, 6 August 2004

Gerrymander this

Jeff Jacoby has a moderately interesting column in today’s Boston Globe about reforming the redistricting process, citing Iowa’s use of an independent commission to set constituency boundaries—a practice that is also followed in Commonwealth countries like Britain and Canada. Needless to say, I’m generally in favor of such proposals; however, I do think there are two issues that ought to be of concern:

  • If many or all districts are competitive, small vote swings—say, a nationwide increase in Democratic support by 1%—will lead to large changes in representation, a problem seen regularly in British and Canadian elections. Existing gerrymandered “safe seats” pretty much guarantee that small vote swings will only affect a limited number of seats, negating much of the “manufactured majority” aspect of plurality elections.
  • Dilution of majority-minority districts, and other Voting Rights Act issues, could be problematic in states that are less homogenous than Iowa—which would be, er, most states. On the other hand, many of the most egregious districts from a gerrymandering point of view were specifically designed to meet VRA requirements. (This is less of an issue for people like me, who believe substantive policy representation is more important than descriptive representation, even though there is some evidence that at least some degree of descriptive representation improves policy responsiveness to minority groups.)

I also think most of the benefits of ending gerrymandering could be arrived at by using so-called “mixed PR” electoral systems—even a few “top up” seats in most states would negate all but the most egregious gerrymanders. However, about half the states don’t have enough representatives to make “mixed PR” really work for federal elections, and I’m not one of those who thinks the House of Representatives should be much bigger (although I would increase probably increase its size to allow any state not declining in population to not lose seats, and would definitely increase its size if a new state were admitted to the Union). Even in smaller states, though, I think it would be of value in state legislative elections.

For further reading: some recent discussion of the merits of top-up PR is available from Mandos of Points of Information and Andrew Coyne, albeit in the Canadian context.

Globe link via Eugene Volokh.


Pieter of Peaktalk is the latest person I’ve seen who notes an incredibly small “undecided” share of the electorate.

It seems to me that this flies in the face of everything political scientists believe about presidential elections; while the default reaction of most partisans, and independent leaners, is to vote for their party’s nominee (despite the caveat of reciprocal causation—party identification is influenced, in part, by the candidates fielded by the parties), it seems unusual for voters to declare themselves so firmly committed in the early stages of the fall campaign, and usually there is some shifting in commitments over time as the campaign continues. By contrast, the media analysis seems to reflect the degree of elite polarization, which—while high—is typical of presidential campaigns.

Thursday, 5 August 2004

Eugenics advocate runs for Congress

Via Abiola Lapite, I learned that this pathetic racist piece of shit is running for the Republican Congressional nomination in Tennessee’s 8th district, which includes part of Shelby County (although not Memphis).

Unfortunately, he’s the only one on the ballot. According to this AP story, Tennessee Republican leaders didn’t bother fielding a candidate, since the 8th district is considered a safe Democratic seat for Rep. John Tanner.

The polls will be closing in about ten minutes. Nevertheless, I’d like to wish good luck to Dennis Bertrand, who is running as a write-in candidate.

UPDATE: The racist piece of shit is in the lead, 4907 to 416, with 48% of precincts reporting. Sigh.

UPDATE 2: The racist has won. This has not been a good week for race relations in western Tennessee.

Just for fun

My first thought on seeing the headline

Recreational Use of Viagra on the Increase

was, “What other sort of use is there?”

On second thought, however, there are some people who use it professionally, or so I’ve been told.

Not so swift

I somewhat agree with both Glenn Reynolds and Lorie Byrd that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad (link only works in Internet Explorer) is “devastating”—mind you, leaving aside the truth of the charges it makes against John Kerry. And I think the Kerry campaign is going to have to do much better than threatening to sue any TV station or network that airs the ad, even if the ad is maliciously false and libelous under the NY Times v. Sullivan standard—a legal standard public opinion doesn’t care much about.

That said, charges of lunacy toward some of the “Swift Boat Veterans” (say that six times fast!) are flying on both sides of the political aisle, while Steven Taylor is skeptical and cautious, but points out three reasons that the SBVfT account of events may indeed be credible:

  1. It strikes me as odd that a large number of veterans would come together to make these allegations, knowing the amount of public and media scrutiny they would have to endure. ...
  2. The leader of this group, and the first named author on the book, Houston lawyer John O’Neil, has had some compelling character witnesses, if you will, who also give me pause for thought. ...
  3. Mr. Kerry’s own words give credence to some of the accusations.

On the other hand, I agree with von of Obsidian Wings that it’d be real nice to have the actual evidence these accusations are based on before pronouncing judgment on their veracity—or, for that matter, the sanity of Kerry’s accusers.

Wednesday, 4 August 2004

Time keeps slipping

For some odd reason, the ntp server on my laptop refuses to keep sync with any servers on the Internet; instead, it’s decided to just go off and run several minutes slow, for some odd reason I can’t quite understand. Maybe it’s a 2.6.8-rc kernel bug or something. I noticed it yesterday too—my laptop lost nearly a half-hour over a day, somehow.

Once more into the breach

Stephen Bainbridge (via Glenn Reynolds) isn’t impressed with the use of NOMINATE scores to cast John Kerry as more of a centrist; nor is he particularly thrilled with methods like NOMINATE to begin with:

Personally, I find the interest group scores much more accessible and transparent. For one thing, NOMINATE counts all nonunanimous roll calls, which can include a lot of procedural and uncontroversial (even nonpartisan) bills. The interest group rankings focus on bills that really tell us something about the political philosophy of the candidate in question. For another, the interest group ratings are widely used both by the media and, perhaps more important, by politicians themselves.

I’d respond that NOMINATE (and related methods) are preferable to interest group scores precisely because they count all nonunanimous roll calls; this avoids the selection effect where interest groups choose, say, twenty “key” votes as a litmus test for an entire session. And, presumably, those who vote on party lines on “nonpartisan” and “uncontroversial” bills are even more partisan than those who join with their natural opposition. Another worthy point in favor of NOMINATE: the “procedural” versus “substantive” distinction is largely subjective; cloture votes in the Senate, for example, are technically procedural motions to end debate (and potentially stop a filibuster), while procedural votes on rules in the House often have serious substantive consequences (by ruling certain amendments out-of-order, framing and controlling debate, and sometimes even amending the legislation in question).

Now, Clinton, Jackman, and Rivers are quite correct to point out that the statistical properties of NOMINATE are, at best, nebulous, although Lewis and Poole recently made a worthy effort to gain additional leverage on the bias and uncertainty of NOMINATE in Political Analysis. And, while some of the differences in the results of the techniques are the result of differences between the distributional assumptions of NOMINATE and the CJR scaling method* (which explains the differing positions of Kerry in years in which he missed a lot of roll calls), there are some good reasons to prefer the CJR technique—most notably, it’s significantly more tractable; you can estimate the model almost trivially using MCMCpack.

Anyway, for those with a morbid curiosity about these techniques, the latest American Political Science Review has an article by Clinton, Jackman, and Rivers called “The Statistical Analysis of Roll-Call Data,” which I recommend highly (and which you may or may not be able to access via this link).

I’ve posted previously on NOMINATE and related methods (again, in relation to John Kerry’s voting record) here and here. This is my entry in today’s Beltway Traffic Jam.

Another gift from Memphis to the nation

Michael Totten has the scoop on the latest idiocy from the Memphis city council, this time perpetrated by city council chairman Joe Brown, who barred a group of visiting Iraqi officials from city hall, apparently out of concern that they were terrorists. Nor could the city or county mayor be bothered to meet with the group. On the bright side (?), at least they did get to meet mayoral aspirant and city councilwoman Carol Chumney, albeit not at city hall. Needless to say, Memphis-area residents are uniformly shocked, but not all that surprised, by this boorish behavior from their elected leaders.

One suspects that, overall, the Iraqis are better off not having had a chance to meet these rather dubious examples of American officialdom, lest they set a bad example.

Update: Mike Hollihan has more on the fallout from this mess; Chumney is making some political hay with the issue, but I honestly don’t see how she beats Herenton in a head-to-head contest, despite the latter apparently being under investigation by the FBI.

Textbook review

One of the little ways us wanna-be professors make a little side money (a couple hundred bucks a pop) is by reviewing textbooks for publishers. At the moment, I’m reviewing an American government textbook for its n+1th edition, which is nothing unusual, except what they sent me to review is the nth edition—which I already had a copy of at home anyway, since I was planning to adopt it for American government in the fall until O’Connor and Sabato was foisted upon me. So I guess I’m technically “pre-reviewing” it, or “post-reviewing” the nth edition, or something. And, in four chapters, I’ve only managed to come up with about a page of comments (and mostly silly stuff like “Unorthodox Lawmaking rocks, add it to the recommended readings on Congress,” rather than stuff like “only an idiot would write this paragraph”). I guess that means it’s a good book or something, but for $X I think they want more than a page of comments.

Tuesday, 3 August 2004

Discovering S

Michael Jennings has been taking a crash course in R and S-PLUS programming. I’d still have to say my R is quite weak, for largely the same reasons my Perl is pretty weak—there’s too much overlap with C, which leads to bad coding style.

Probably the moral of the story is either that I need to start working with RPy, or need to figure out how to convince colleagues that becoming more proficient in R (and contributing to it) is hireable/tenurable activity.

Monday, 2 August 2004

Load factors

Since arriving in Ann Arbor last week, I’ve had something of a curious reaction to the revelation that I have a job. The near-uniform reaction, after hearing the details of the position, is that it’s a “heavy” load—which, given that it’s three courses a semester (or “3–3,” in the lingo) and five* preparations over the year, I suppose is a fair assessment, although it’s something of a godsend compared to the 4–4s at complete backwaters (“Research support? That’s your desk.”) I interviewed for, and the load itself doesn’t account for the relatively small classes or the generally engaged undergraduate student body. It’s enough to put something of a damper on my enthusiasm for starting my job in the fall.

Now, it’s possible that these folks just aren’t attuned to the realities of the academic job market, or perhaps just don’t recognize that for many potential scholars, taking a job at a non-Ph.D.-granting institution is a necessity rather than a preference. But it’s also possible that they’re on to something; is it possible that several years’ training as a researcher and methodologist is pretty much wasted if most of what I do the rest of my career is teach “textbook” political science and bivariate regression to undergraduates? Should I really settle for teaching three classes a semester when I could go elsewhere and teach three courses a year, if the research expectations for tenure are such that I’d end up doing the same amount of work anyway, especially when you account for the lack of graduate assistants?

The decision may, in the end, be made for me—if this past year’s experience is any guide, serious research institutions aren’t exactly clamoring to hire graduates of lower-tier (or even middle-tier) Ph.D. programs. But I suppose it’s something I’ll have to bear in mind this fall.

Things that should go without saying

The CDC’s Division of Parasitic Diseases has reported that many Americans are getting sick each summer from diseases spread in public pools.

One of the largest pool-related outbreaks in the country happened last August in Lawrence, Kansas, when as many as 600 people may have been sickened by the parasitic disease cryptosporidium. The CDC found that the parasite was spread through local pools, day care centers and people who lived together.

This summer, the Lawrence-Douglas County health department has been trying to help pool operators and swimmers learn how to keep their pools germ-free. The No. 1 message: Don’t swim if you have diarrhea.


Indestructible memory cards

Digital Camera Shopper magazine reports that most digital camera memory cards are virtually indestructible:

They were dipped into cola, put through a washing machine, dunked in coffee, trampled by a skateboard, run over by a child's toy car and given to a six-year-old boy to destroy.

Perhaps surprisingly, all the cards survived these six tests.

Obviously they can only be destroyed by casting them into the volcanic furnace in Mordor in which they were forged.

Sunday, 1 August 2004

USA Today 1, AAPOR 0

Glenn Reynolds links a USA Today report on its post-convention poll:

Last week’s Democratic convention boosted voters’ impressions of John Kerry but failed to give him the expected bump in the head-to-head race against President Bush, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll finds.

In the survey, taken Friday and Saturday, Bush led Kerry 50%-46% among likely voters. Independent candidate Ralph Nader was at 2%.

The survey showed Kerry losing 1 percentage point and Bush gaining 4 percentage points from a poll taken the week before the Boston convention.

The change in support was within the poll’s margin of error of ±4 percentage points in the sample of 763 likely voters. But it was nonetheless surprising, the first time since the chaotic Democratic convention in 1972 that a candidate hasn’t gained ground during his convention.

In fairness, the report’s headline (“Poll: No boost for Kerry after convention”) is appropriate, and I’m generally all for the reporting of null results when they are substantively interesting. But I wonder how many readers will really appreciate the meaninglessness of the change in support, given that the disclaimer is after the discussion of the marginals, which show a statistical dead heat and zero meaningful change since the previous poll.


I went to the 11:10 pm show of Dodgeball last night, and found it hysterically funny. Ben Stiller as fitness magnate/doofus White Goodman is clearly the central comedic character (and parry to Vince Vaughn’s slacker straight man character), but I found the pairing of Gary Cole (as “Cotton McKnight”) and Jason Bateman (“Pepper Brooks”) as the ESPN8 commentary team the perfect send-up of sportscaster pretentiousness and inanity. Plus, you’ve got to applaud including a bar named “The Dirty Sanchez” in a PG-13 film.

Modern Art

I’ve posted a review of Reiner Knizia’s game Modern Art at Settling Catan.