Friday, March 7, 2014

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is Chicken Little

I'm not sure how, but at some point I got on the mailing list of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I recently removed myself from the list, because their messages were getting  tiresome and repetitive. Here is a selection of subject-headers from messages they sent the past 3 weeks (about half of all messages they sent me between Feb. 12 and Mar. 5):

devastating loss
crippling blow
devastating defeat
dead in the water
horrible loss
enormous loss
this could be the end
devastating blow
 devastating loss

In this era of micro-targeting, I am having a hard time understanding what target group they believe would find such a barrage of sameness anything other than annoying. And I'm doubly puzzled as to why they believe I am in that group.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fact-checking Clarence Thomas' memory

So apparently Clarence Thomas waxed nostalgic today about race relations in Georgia in the early 1960s:
My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up,”
I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds that hard to believe. Even postulating that Savannah was, in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words, "the most desegregated city South of the Mason-Dixon line" at the time, this doesn't jibe with what little I know about school desegregation in Georgia.

In fact, just a few minutes searching online turns up some rather different accounts from that same period in Savannah:
“I lived in Garden City,” she said of the late 1950s and early ’60s in west Chatham County. “I knew how ugly some white people could be.”...
Even that did not fully prepare her for those first days at Groves.
The name-calling began even before she got to school.
“That’s when the real taunting began,” she said. “It continued the entire school year.”
Bryant described the three-story school on Washington Avenue as being less hostile than what his cohorts found at Groves on the westside, but said it was not a comfortable fit....
Frequently, a white classmate would jostle him and send his books flying. When he tried to pick them up, another student would kick them down the hall.
It was especially hostile in the cafeteria, he said.
“They didn’t like us in there. One guy actually spit in my food,” Bryant said.
and so on. There are more reminiscences in this article (by Jan Skutch), all covering high school experiences in 1963. Here's more, from another article (by Ralph Nichols), about desegregating a middle school two years later:
Going to the bathroom was the worst part of the day for Phyllis Slack.
Teenage girls wearing pleated skirts and blouses with Peter Pan collars laid in wait for Slack, a black girl in an all-white Savannah middle school. Occasionally, boys joined the girls waiting to ambush her in the bathroom.
Sometimes, Slack got away. Other times, she got caught and was subjected to a flurry of kicks and punches.
How can we reconcile these accounts with that of Thomas? I see just 3 possibilities:

1. He magically lived a completely non-representative experience and is disingenuously extrapolating from that to everyone else's experiences in Georgia at the time
2. He is lying, in order to make a political point
3. His memory is going
None of these are particularly encouraging, given Thomas' position as a Supreme Court judge.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The importance of reading and writing carefully

Two interesting recent blog posts underscore the importance of both reading and writing very carefully when grappling with an argument.

First, AidData's blog The First Tranche (disclaimer -- I'm associated with AidData, though I am not directly involved with the blog) posts a valuable overview of Chinese aid and influence in Zimbabwe, by Amber Will. The post on the whole is very good and well worth reading.

However, there is one key sentence that is problematic: "AidData uncovered $3.82 billion in official Chinese finance to Zimbabwe, accounting for 4.9% of all official Chinese financing to Africa." The issue here is that the second part of the sentence needs the same qualifier as the first: "AidData uncovered". After all, we don't know the total amount of all Chinese financing to Africa -- all we know is the total amount found by AidData's media-combing/crowd-sourcing approach.

Indeed, even the qualifier "AidData uncovered" is less than ideal: strictly speaking it should be "AidData uncovered references to" aid -- whether those references are accurate is unknown. I suspect that both the $3.82bn figure and the 4.9% estimate for the portion of total aid are, if anything, under-estimates. Still, we really don't know enough to be as confident of either as the post suggests.

In a second example, the Duck of Minerva blog recently featured a debate about what caused the Iraq War (here and here), inspired by an article in the current issue of International Organization by Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro. Again, the blog posts are well worth reading, but Debs and Monteiro's argument is weakened by the following statement introducing it: "we argue that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq can be accounted for strictly within a rationalist framework."

I have not yet read the original article in IO, but this is a very lame claim: it is trivially true that the US-led invasion can be accounted for within a rationalist framework -- all you need is to specify appropriate preferences and information. The claim becomes interesting only if you can show that key actors held those preferences and had that information, and that other models fall short.

The invasion can also be accounted for by a divine inspiration framework: all we need to do is posit that Bush believed God talked to him directly and told him to invade Iraq. In the absence of additional data showing what Bush believed, that claim is just as credible as the claim Debs and Monteiro make: constructing a model is only a first step, and not a particularly challenging one at that (in this particular example).

In the remainder of their post, Debs and Monteiro do in fact provide some data to move their argument beyond simply positing a particular model. This suggests that they simply do a poor job of summarizing their main claim at the start (although some critics may not be convinced by the data they supply).

Be that as it may, both of the examples given here underscore the importance of writing (and reading) carefully.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The emptiness of sales language

I spend a lot of time in my research reading what politicians have to say about one issue or another. There are often reasons to doubt that they are being entirely (or even at all) sincere. But generally they are at least saying something.

I just heard an ad on the radio for some medicine (I don't even remember what kind of medicine), which included, near the end, a statement along the following lines: "People who have been addicted to alcohol or other drugs may be more likely to become addicted to this product." Note the "may" — in effect, this sentence says absolutely nothing. Presumably it satisfies some legal requirement somewhere, but I can't imagine what.

I have a similar gripe with the very common sale announcements along the lines of "you could save up to 15% or more" — again, what information is being conveyed here? Taken literally, the statement is beyond meaningless: you could replace the "could" with "will" and it would still be true. I suppose the goal is to convey a particular focal point (15%) to listeners, but wouldn't there be better (less meaningless) ways to say this?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Terrorism, safety, and statistics

Just a juxtaposition of a few items:

A cartoon: "This is why people should learn statistics"

Joe Nocera's "Gun Report", a blog with daily examples of gun deaths.

John Mueller and Mark Stewart's "The terrorism delusion: America's overwrought response to September 11", published last year in International Security.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Transparency in Central Banking (and in the sky :-)

Last week I was at the International Studies Association annual conference in San Francisco. I participated in a panel on the euro crisis, at which Matthias Kaelberer (Univ. of Memphis) presented a thought-provoking paper (available on the ISA conference website) arguing, inter alia, that the transparency of the ECB has made a valuable contribution to its political legitimacy (and that of the euro).

Some audience members disagreed, arguing instead that transparency was bad for legitimacy (national central banks have traditionally not been very transparent and yet quite legitimate; the appearance of indecision or disagreement within the bank will not increase people's faith in the institution) and for economic outcomes (probably because transparency makes it harder for banks to make unexpected moves and thus to affect the expectations of economic actors).

By coincidence, I read an interview today, on Bloomberg Businessweek's website, with the Dutch economist Petra Geraats, based in Cambridge. The interview (by Simon Kennedy) highlights her work on the economic benefits of central bank transparency. Her research indicates quite strongly that transparency is actually good for economic outcomes. Towards the end of the interview, the article provides some nice examples of how central banks are increasing their transparency. Interesting stuff.

Speaking of transparency: apparently Geraats is interested in astronomy, but the skies over Cambridge are insufficiently transparent (too cloudy), so her telescope remains "at her father’s home in the Dutch province of Lindbergh." From this, we can conclude two things:
1. The interview was by phone, and
2. the interviewer has no idea what provinces there are in the Netherlands
    (Geraats, must, of course, have said Limburg)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Where do they find these people?

Alaskan Congressman Don Young (Republican), in an interview with Ketchikan (AK) radio station KBRD:

Young also believes that Americans need to bring industry back to this country rather than relying on imports. Doing so would increase jobs, although he understands that automation has reduced the number of labor positions available.
“My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” he said. “It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”

Two questions:
- How does someone holding national political office in the twentyfirst century not know to avoid
  such an offensive slur?
- How can the radio station report this section of the interview without comment? Surely someone
  there knew that this was offensive?

The mind boggles.

Update: It appears the House Republican leadership has forced Young to apologize. He now states he "meant no disrespect". Assuming for the moment that is true, doesn't that simply underscore just how clueless this guy is?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Making sense of statistics

Morton Jerven has a fascinating post up at the Guardian, "Lies, damn lies and GDP", in which he discusses the striking unreliability of GDP figures for African countries. Best line:
The knowledge that currently there are 40 "Malawis" unaccounted for in the Nigerian economy should raise a few eyebrows.
The low quality of development statistics is well known to those in the field. Jerven's account reminded me of an apocryphal story about an aid official tasked with analyzing trends in economic growth in a particular aid recipient. After much work, he finally found a powerful pattern, noting that economic growth was almost exactly 1.25 times population growth. Proud of this insight, he traveled to the recipient country's economic ministry in order to share his new-found knowledge. As he was waiting at the desk of the official he had come to brief, however, he noticed a faded post-it note taped to the official's desk: "when unable to get growth data for the annual report, just use population growth times 1.25".

Jerven (whose book on the quality of these statistics, Poor Numbers, has just been published by Cornell University Press) correctly points out that
governments, international organisations and independent analysts need these development statistics to track and monitor efforts at improving living conditions on the African continent.
However, the problem is less serious for at least one particular use of these statistics. As I argue in my book, if we wish to study how a country's GDP factors into decision-making on the part of aid donors, international financial institutions, etc., what matters is not some "true" GDP, but rather what these international actors believe the GDP to be. For this purpose, then, the flawed statistics these actors had access to at the time they made their decisions are, in fact, preferable to retroactively "corrected" GDP estimates, regardless of how much better those new estimates reflect "true" GDP.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Let the pandering for 2016 begin...

Obama has only just been re-elected, and Florida senator Marco Rubio has already started pandering to the "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge" crowd. Here he is in an interview in the Dec. 2012 issue of GQ:

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?
Marco Rubio: I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries.

Of course, the reverend John Lightfoot already solved this mystery in a sermon in the early 1800s, determining that the earth was created in 3960 BC, or, to be even more precise: "That the world was made at equinox, all grant — but differ at which, whether about the eleventh of March, or twelfth of September; to me in September, without all doubt." (from Whole Works, 1822, vol. 7, p. 322).

Since Rubio thinks there are multiple theories (after all, bishop Ussher's more famous calculation has creation in 4004 BC), he is not, apparently, interested in any of the scientific knowledge accumulated in the past two centuries. Ignorance for president in 20165. Yeah!!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Robert Samuelson embarrasses himself

Robert Samuelson thoroughly embarrasses himself in a Washington Post op-ed published on Thursday. His column attacks a New York Times editorial he claims is so wrong-headed as to move him to write a column "refuting" an editorial for the first time in 35 years. Unfortunately for him, the only thing the column refutes is the idea that he understands what he is talking about.

Others have already done a fine job tearing apart his argument, including Josh Bivens (at EPI), whose data the New York Times cited, as well as Dean Baker (at CEPR) and Paul Krugman. I just want to make one additional point that has not yet been made.

Samuelson's key claim is the following assertion: "What the Times omits is the money to support all these government jobs. It must come from somewhere — generally, taxes or loans (bonds, bills). But if the people whose money is taken via taxation or borrowing had kept the money, they would have spent most or all of it on something — and that spending would have boosted employment."

From this he concludes that government job creation must substitute "public-sector workers for private-sector workers," and hence does not count as real job creation. Note the faulty logic: if he is right, then the exact same argument can be made in the opposite direction — not taking money via taxation increases private jobs only by reducing government jobs. Depending on your starting point, then, the private sector doesn't create jobs either.

So where does the logic go wrong? Well, Samuelson's simplistic analysis fails to take into account 2 1/2 considerations. First, not all jobs cost the same amount of money, so if we're just moving money back and forth between the government and the private sector, job creation takes place in whichever sector jobs cost less. Second, jobs are not the only thing money is spent on in either sector, so job creation/destruction may depend on which sector spends a greater proportion of its money on jobs.

Third (and this is the 1/2 consideration above), "real" job creation happens, of course, not by shifting money back and forth between the public and private sectors, but rather when certain jobs and certain spending have a multiplier effect and generate further jobs. Samuelson knows this, but simply asserts  that only private sector jobs & spending can have this effect.

Of course, Samuelson does not offer even the tiniest scrap of evidence for this claim, and others who have responded to his column (especially Dean Baker) have already highlighted its flaws.