Archive for March, 2008

Fair Tax Straw Men

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Neal Boortz, fresh back from vacation:

Slemrod says in that article that there is not one reputable economist of any political stripe that would support the FairTax. Tell that to the economists who support the FairTax, like Lawrence Koltikoff, the chairman of Boston University’s Economics department.

What Slemrod actually says:

In “The FairTax Book,” the syndicated radio host Neal Boortz and Representative John Linder, Republican of Georgia, claim that replacing all federal taxes – income, payroll and estate taxes – with a national sales tax would increase the average household’s purchasing power by about 20 percent, end the need for the I.R.S. and turn April 15 into just another spring day. “Once the FairTax takes effect,” they declare, “you’ll be receiving 100 percent of every paycheck, with no withholding of federal income taxes, Social Security taxes or Medicare taxes – and you’ll be paying just about the same price for T-shirts and other consumer goods and services that you were paying before the FairTax.”

For a book that claims in its introduction to be “about honesty,” this statement falls far short. No reputable economist of any political stripe would support it. The honest truth is that replacing the current tax system with any system that raises the same amount of revenue (as Boortz and Linder claim their plan does) may make us better off, but only by redirecting our resources away from dealing with complex filing requirements and improving our incentives to work, save and innovate – not by creating the kind of free-lunch miracle suggested here.

Slemrod is right and Boortz is wrong. No economists would agree with the statement that, under the Fair Tax, prices won’t go up but takehome pay will. That is mathematically impossible. And Boortz himself has admitted it.

Sunday Night Linkorama

Sunday, March 30th, 2008
  • Here’s a tip. If you’re going to accuse someone of plagiarism, make sure he’s not plagiarizing himself.
  • Speaking of plagiarism, it’s probably not a good idea to steal your honor code.
  • I have to come up with one of these.
  • The Hillarys and the Huckabees. I like it.
  • How lovely. People get foreclosed on and trash the house, demonstrating the same responsible behavior that got them foreclosed on in the first place.
  • The Toy Model of Iraq

    Friday, March 28th, 2008

    It’s now been five years since the invasion of Iraq. I was going to post about it earlier this week, but something in my essay bothered me. I’ve now been able to unravel what was wrong.

    Everyone and their uncle is contemplating their belly button, trying to figure out what we can learn from Iraq. But the more we parse, the more we break the issue down, the more I think we miss the basic point, a very fundamental point.

    Let me back up a moment. One of the things we do in astronomy is construct models. Models of stars, models of galaxies, models of the whole damned universe. Models are good tools for understanding complex phenomena. You plug in some basic physics and input parameters and see if the model reproduces what you observe. If it doesn’t, you revise the model or replace it with one that works. Really simple models are known as toy models.

    This isn’t unique to my profession, of course. Everyone tries to construct toy models to help them understand the basics of complex phenomena. Whether it’s historians trying to figure out the rise of Hitler or sociologists trying to figure out why men like football, we construct paradigms for reality so that we can peek behind the mess of life and glimpse the underlying engines of the world.

    It’s easy to forget — especially with models that tell us what we want to believe — that they are necessarily imperfect. They are useful for understanding phenomena in general but can be problematic when applied to specific situations. Little factors you’ve ignored in the big picture can become very significant when dealing with messy reality.

    Moreover, models work best in a *passive* sense. I would never presume to construct a star based on our very sophisticated models. It’s almost certain that we’ve missed something and the star will fail to ignite or explode. Models are useful for insight, not guidance of future action.

    So what does this have to do with Iraq?

    A principle reason I’m conservative that I distrust toy models of society. Leftist ideology — or more precisely, Hagelian ideology — posits that bright people can construct toy models of society and use them to improve the world. Marxism, for example, is nothing but a toy model that assumes the government can create an egalitarian economy.

    Unfortunately, these models tend to run into the harsh complexity of reality with devastating results. The model predicts communism should work, but the model’s imperfections condemn millions to the gulag. A toy model of “let’s give people money to erase poverty” runs into the harsh reality that you can create more of something you subsidize. A toy model of “the government should give people medicine” runs into the harsh reality of rationing and stagnation.

    Some of the most frustrating and persistent problems in our world are the result of smart people coming up with big ideas and refusing to believe that those ideas aren’t working. It was underfunded; it didn’t go far enough; it was sabotaged by special interests; something, anything has to be at fault. Because our beautiful ideas for remaking the world can’t be wrong.

    In 2003, we bought a particularly shiny toy model. We were assured by various egghead theorists that they understood Iraq. Their theories told them that Iraq wouldn’t blow up in our faces; that ethnic strife would not appear; that all we had to do was boot out Saddam and democracy would bloom. Their toy models said so. Even worse, we supported this toy model of society with a toy model of the military in which Don Rumsfeld assumed that he was so smart that he could make one American soldier do the work of five.

    And now, 4,000 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis have experienced the grim failure of yet another sophisticated social experiment.

    That’s the failing of Iraq. We listened to a bunch of smart people with smart theories assuring us that they could make democracy bloom. It is the same intellectual fallacy that gave rise to marxism, fascism, the welfare state and the run-and-shoot offense. As conservatives, we should have known better.

    ———

    Now — all that having been said, I still wonder if it could have all worked out if only we’d had more competent management. A 500,000 strong occupation force, competent leadership and reconstruction duties given to people who knew what they were doing might have soaked up a lot of the slop for our failed model of Iraq. But you only get to roll the dice once.

    And I worry about the movement to get out of Iraq now. It seems to me that the desire of many on the left is not to do what’s best given the current situation. What they really want is to un-invade the country. They cling to the illusion that if we pull out now, it will be as if we never went in. They will have been right, Bush will have been wrong and they can crow about their rightness for the next few decades (witness how many leftists view our withdrawal from Vietnam).

    The debate we need to be having from this point is not whether we should have invaded or not. Issues of WMDs and NIE’s are of academic interest. The debate is that Iraq is one step from chaos. What responsibility do we have to the Iraqi people? What is within our ability to do? Let’s let historians judge the decision to invade and focus on what’s going on today.

    That's Nice

    Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

    I sent a DVD to Netflix this weekend and the next shipment was delayed by Monday’s much-publicized outage. Today, I got an e-mail apologizing and offering a 5% rebate on my monthly fee (i.e., for the day that they were down). It’s like a buck, but it placates me.

    It’s amazing how much customer goodwill can be generated with such a little bit of effort. I will never understand companies that think infuriating the customer is good business.

    Spin

    Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

    Was just watching Conan and he was doing a segment on spinning wedding rings. I tried it with my own and can easily get 30 seconds and sometimes as long as as minute.

    The question I have is why does the ring spin so well? This is obviously before his physicist guest. I would guess the symmetry of a plain band combined with the low friction of gold.

    Tuesday Night Linkorama

    Tuesday, March 25th, 2008
  • The first sex happened 570 million years ago and involved a twelve inch … organism. Not mentioned? 569,999,999 years ago, the first funisia dorothea porn hit the internet.
  • Interior decorators think licensing their profession is equivalent to licensing doctors. Somehow I don’t think anyone has ever died because the carpet didn’t match the curtains.
  • This is pathetic. A warden is refusing to grant a furlough to a man whose 10-year-old daughter is dying of cancer. What an asshole.
  • A must-read. Our efforts to stop slavery are being hamstrung because feminist and religious twerps are insisting that all forms of prostitution be lumped into slavery.

    Over the objections of a few anti-slavery stalwarts in the Justice Department, the House of Representatives passed a bill in December that expands the current anti-trafficking legislation to cover most forms of prostitution, coerced or not. If approved in its current form by the Senate and signed by the president, the law will no longer address slavery exclusively and will instead become a federal mandate to fight prostitution on a broad scale.

    Prostitution is always degrading, and it is often brutal — but it is not always slavery. Equating the scourge of slavery with run-of-the-mill, non-coerced prostitution is not only misleading, it will weaken the world’s efforts to end real forced labor and human trafficking.

  • Hatin’ on Film

    Monday, March 24th, 2008

    Queenan via Massie via Drezer via McCardle has this to say on bad movies.

    To qualify as one of the worst films of all time, several strict requirements must be met. For starters, a truly awful movie must have started out with some expectation of not being awful. That is why making a horrific, cheapo motion picture that stars Hilton or Jessica Simpson is not really much of an accomplishment. Did anyone seriously expect a film called The Hottie and The Nottie not to suck? Two, an authentically bad movie has to be famous; it can’t simply be an obscure student film about a boy who eats live rodents to impress dead girls. Three, the film cannot be a deliberate attempt to make the worst movie ever, as this is cheating. Four, the film must feature real movie stars, not jocks, bozos, has-beens or fleetingly famous media fabrications like Hilton. Five, the film must generate a negative buzz long before it reaches cinemas; like the Black Plague or the Mongol invasions, it must be an impending disaster of which there has been abundant advance warning; it cannot simply appear out of nowhere. And it must, upon release, answer the question: could it possibly be as bad as everyone says it is? This is what separates Waterworld, a financial disaster but not an uncompromisingly dreadful film, and Ishtar, which has one or two amusing moments, from The Postman, Gigli and Heaven’s Gate, all of which are bona fide nightmares.

    Six, to qualify as one of the worst movies ever made, a motion picture must induce a sense of dread in those who have seen it, a fear that they may one day be forced to watch the film again – and again – and again. To pass muster as one of the all-time celluloid disasters, a film must be so bad that when a person is asked, “Which will it be? Waterboarding, invasive cattle prods or Jersey Girl?”, the answer needs no further reflection. This phenomenon resembles Stockholm Syndrome, where a victim ends up befriending his tormentors, so long as they promise not to make him watch any more Kevin Smith movies. The condition is sometimes referred to as Blunted Affleck.

    I actually like Kevin Smith movies, but I see his point.

    I would add point 7 — a movie must have its defenders. Nothing can make you hate a movie more than someone insisting that some piece of shit is actually a good flick. That’s why the movie I hate most is Jerry Maguire. It meets all seven requirements.

  • I had no expectation that this movie would be awful. It was an oscar nominee and made many critics’ top ten lists.
  • Definitely famous.
  • It thinks it’s a good movie.
  • Not only does it have one of biggest stars in America, it had the misfortune to make two more. The movie’s defenders point to Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Renee Zellwegger as reasons the movie is good. But: (a) Jerry Maguire turned Gooding, a talented actor, into a perpetual joke with the most over-rated performance in movie history; (b) I tired of Renee’s “acting”, which consists of a pout, by about reel three of Maguire. She was great in Bridget Jones, but I have yet to think Renee was good in anything else.
  • The movie fails on the negative buzz scale, unfortunately. But this requirement doesn’t carry much with me. As one of McCardle’s comments says, a bad movie should be more like a kick in the balls — sudden and unexpected. But eve failing the buzz test, it more makes up for it with-
  • Having its defenders. Maguire rates a 7.2 at IMDB. It was nominated for five oscars, including Best Picture and made a large number of top ten lists. And any time I mention it, people look at me goggle-eyed, as if they can’t believe that someone would hate such a wonderful movie. And their arguments only make me hate the movie more. A primary one is, “It’s got everything! It’s got sports for the guys and romance for the girls!” As if all guys need to watch a romantic movie is sports and all women need to watch a sports movie is kissy-faces.
  • So why do I hate the movie? First, there’s the execrable acting. Maguire might be the most over-acted movie in cinematic history, from Cruise’s somnambulant turn at enunciation to Gooding’s scenery chewing. Then there’s whatever message it’s trying to push. Maguire’s diatribe makes me puke anytime I hear it.

    But mostly it’s the horrid script. Rarely do you see a script that is: (a) completely ignorant of its subject matter — most sports agents have lots of clients because very few of them will make money; (b) riddled with cliched dialogue stolen from other better movies; (c) lacking i any kind of subtlety — the “you’re a strong black man” scene is painful to think about, let alone watch; (d) responsible for the most over-rated and over-used movie quotes in history — which I will not repeat here for the sake of decency.

    It’s Jerry Maguire that makes me sympathize with people who hate Lord of the Rings, a movie I obviously love. No film is worse than the one everyone else loves. And the more they try to argue with you and persuade you that “no really, it’s a great movie! How can you not like it! Don’t you love this line!”, the more you hate it.

    Daddy’s First Illness

    Monday, March 24th, 2008

    Appropos of my angry post on vaccinations, I think I just got my first illness from my baby. Veteran parents tell me that I won’t be fully healthy until the last child moves out of the house. But we put Abby in day care two half-days a week some time ago. And last week, we were both tired and very gassy. Abby can’t speak, but I had a bad bellyache as well.

    Now, for me, that’s par for the course. In fact, if there were ever a Wikipedia entry on me, I would probably be described as “tired and gassy, with an achy belly”. But for Abby, it was unusual.

    Ah, so much to look forward to. I can’t wait for flu season.

    Easter Movies

    Monday, March 24th, 2008

    It tells you a bit about how I think about religion that on Easter I watched both Life of Brian and Ben-Hur. I’m both awed and amused by faith.

    While I’m on the subject, atheist guru Richard Dawkins was in Austin last week. I didn’t seem him speak — partly because the line was around the block an hour before hand.

    Clueless

    Monday, March 24th, 2008

    Is anyone surprised that scientists find that men aren’t very good at reading signals from women?

    I was always on the “she doesn’t like me” side of the equation. I assume that either there were a number of women who were interested in me who escaped my noticed or that women just weren’t interested me. I don’t know which would be worse. Having missed some opportunities or having not had many.

    I Predicted It

    Thursday, March 20th, 2008

    Stand by for more bullshit like this. Now that we may be in a recession, all the nitwits who have been predicting it every year for the last eight years are coming out of the woodwork to proclaim that they were right.

    It tells you something that economist have a worse record of prognostication than sports columnists.

    No Beer and No TV Make Mike Publish

    Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

    I’m screwed:

    Ever since there have been scientists, there have been those who are wildly successful, publishing one well-received paper after another, and those who are not. And since nearly the same time, there have been scholars arguing over what makes the difference.

    What is it that turns one scientist into more of a Darwin and another into more of a dud?

    After years of argument over the roles of factors like genius, sex and dumb luck, a new study shows that something entirely unexpected and considerably sudsier may be at play in determining the success or failure of scientists — beer.

    According to the study, published in February in Oikos, a highly respected scientific journal, the more beer a scientist drinks, the less likely the scientist is to publish a paper or to have a paper cited by another researcher, a measure of a paper’s quality and importance.

    The results were not, however, a matter of a few scientists having had too many brews to be able to stumble back to the lab. Publication did not simply drop off among the heaviest drinkers. Instead, scientific performance steadily declined with increasing beer consumption across the board, from scientists who primly sip at two or three beers over a year to the sort who average knocking back more than two a day.

    Actually, I think there may be other factors. My current situation means that I can not afford beer and I’m publishing as frantically as I can to try to keep my job.

    But then there’s this:

    Moderate drinking may actually improve brain power, according to Japanese research.
    It is thought that an ingredient of alcoholic drinks may help prevent or restrict the hardening of the arteries which could lessen blood flow to the brain.

    However, there are other factors linked to moderate alcohol consumption which could also be linked to improved IQ.

    The researchers, at the National Institute for Longevity Sciences in Aichi Prefecture, near Tokyo, tested the IQs of 2000 people between 40 and 79 years old.

    Men who drank less than 540 millilitres of sake or wine a day had an IQ 3.3 points higher than men who did not drink at all.

    Women drinkers scored 2.5 points higher than teetotallers.

    So is booze good for you or bad for you? I’m so confused. I need a drink.

    Horny Governors, Batman!

    Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

    Apart from the amusement factor, I really could care less about the new New York’s governor’s misbehaving. For one, he’s New York’s problem. Have fun, guys. For two, I suspect this sort of thing goes on a lot more often than we admit. Marriage among the rich and powerful is more about … well, money and power than about love (see Clintons, Bill and Hillary). Even the heartland isn’t at 100% fidelity. Or even 75.

    Most importantly, it doesn’t seem that Patterson broke any laws. If the GOP laughs it off, it will put the lie to the “the impeachment thing was just about sex” mantra the Dems have been reciting for the last ten years.

    Tuesday Morning Linkorama

    Tuesday, March 18th, 2008
  • Sometimes I want to give a chance to the Democrats. But then their majority leader says something really stupid. Who knew the Founding Fathers liked earmarks?
  • Ewww. OK, it’s clean and tidy. But yesterday, I put my daughter in a box and pushed her around the room like she was in a racing car. She laughed and giggled the whole time, her eyes alight with glee. Can your zombie babies do that?
  • I was never that big a fan of David Mamet and could give a rat’s ass about his politics. But Gutman is right. Hollywood will now find him cliched and sooo 90′s, now that he’s a libertarian.
  • I’m with Bob Barr, who is so much more likable now that’s he’s not in Congress. Seizing cars because they are driven by illegal immigrants is going to ruin a lot of innocent people. I hate seizure laws; hate them.
  • This story, about a man losing his dead wife’s voice mail in an upgrade, is just heartbreaking. I’ve never had that situation, but once, after a breakup, I kept an ex-girlfriend’s last phone message on my machine for a long time (an “I love you” message, not a “go to hell” message).