Monday, November 30, 2015

Reducing Disparities

File under: doctrine of unintended consequences.

S.799 - Protecting Our Infants Act of 2015

Whitman's Sampler:
HHS must publish a report that includes: 
  • an assessment of existing research on neonatal abstinence syndrome; an evaluation of the causes, and barriers to treatment, of opioid use disorders among women of reproductive age and recommendations on preventing opioid use disorders in these women; 
  • an evaluation of, and recommendations on, treatment for pregnant women with opioid use disorders and the effects of prenatal opioid use on infants; and 
  • an evaluation of the differences in prenatal opioid use between demographic groups and recommendations on reducing disparities [emphasis added].

A curious approach to legislation. Mandated demographic discrimination. I'm sure this will proceed swimmingly.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Klingon Bastards

On Twitter:
That last tweet of mine there (I'm Spivonomist) demands a little explanation.

In case you aren't a Trek fan, the Kobayashi Maru is a computer simulation given to last-year Starfleet officer candidates. With the original programming, it is an unwinnable scenario. Your ship receives a distress call from an allied vessel. If you choose to respond, you are quickly ambushed and destroyed. If you ignore the call, your ally is annihilated. There is no classic Pareto-enhancing victory strategy.

Except to cheat.

That's what Kirk did: cheated. Both in the original Roddenberry film and in the Abrams reboot, James Tiberius Kirk surreptitiously rewrote the code for the simulation and emerged victorious over the Klingon (presumably Romulan after the Khitomer Accords were signed) foes. In the Abrams reboot, I think the screenplay suggested that the cheating itself was part of the test. Or if not, by the time Picard's crew was tooling around, it surely would be.

If this test is as meta as I hope, it checks for lateral thinking and a willingness to bend the rules. In 1982, when Wrath of Khan introduced the test, Kirk's cheating came across as sincere cheating. In 2009, the cheating seemed part of the game. If the metaphor was meant to extend to the nexus of politics and financial markets, Jones is right on the money. Even Hollywood sees that the Commanding Heights are big-time cheaters, and so long as the consequences are still beneficial, the audience should be okay with it.

I think Roddenberry [ed. Adam Gurri reminds me that it was Nick Meier, not Gene Roddenberry who wrote and directed Wrath of Khan. Thank you, Adam. ed. add.: via GJ Jack Sowards coined the term Kobaysahi Maru after his neighbors] would have been appalled. There's a certain type for whom the rules are sacrosanct. Cheat not lest ye be cheated. Tinkering with the architecture of big-time institutions is risky on scales I think even pretty well educated people probably don't comprehend very well. And our political and commercial elites have been tinkering for many decades, with no plan to stop. If Jones is right, and I see no good reason to dispute his point, the real trick is to make sure any further tinkering is done with the grave lessons of good public choice economics in mind.

And like I tweeted, this is a very good trick if you can pull it off.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

High Hermeneutics

When you read the word "satire," tell me: what springs to mind? Do you imagine the aroma of freshly-roasted Irish baby? Do you recall that four legs are good, yet two legs are better? Do images of Dorian Gray fill your memory? Would it offend you if I claimed that Swift, Orwell, and Wilde were plebeian satirists, that if you want the good stuff, you have to look a little deeper?

Middle-tier satire will still be eminently accessible to the pedestrian reader. A pusillanimous high school student is quite capable of recognizing that Inferno is much less an ecstatic religious treatise than it is a savage condemnation of 13th century Italian aristocracy. Mediocre college sophomores are more than adroit enough to grasp that Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince not as actual advice to the Medici family, but rather to mock an entirely different cohort of corrupt Italian aristocrats two centuries after they failed to take Dante's hint. Same goes for Chaucer: if the Knight's tale doesn't convince you he's taking the piss out of Feudal notions of propriety, the Reeve's Tale surely will.

But top-shelf satire? That rarefied spirit? That hermeneutic philosopher's stone? That ambrosial bathtub gin nearly impossible to brew without a pint of divine genius? That stuff is hard to find. It's harder yet for most folks to enjoy properly. I confess without great embarrassment that a great deal of the finer satire the world of literature has to offer will often escape me. I occasionally see some double meaning in Coleridge or Wordsworth. Milton was so peerless in concealing his savage condemnation of the Stuarts to the extent that even an attentive reader might mistake Paradise Lost for an actual account of Lucifer's fall. And Joyce? Impenetrable. Half the time I read Finnegan's Wake, I imagine it's a fever dream brought on by whiskey and tuberculosis. The other half, I think he's playing a great practical joke on the popular press and his peers. Of course, these interpretations are far from mutually exclusive, which makes him one of the rare masters of the form.

Masters which now include one "Jencey Paz."

Writing at The Yale Herald, this lugubrious essay manages to accomplish in a mere ten paragraphs what it takes Ann Coulter an entire novel-length book to achieve [ed.: the link appears to be broken, excerpts are as-is. Apologies for the inconvenience]. What Paz appears at first glance to deride is the shrinking violet sensibility recently popular on college campuses:
Today, when a group of us, organized originally by the Black Student Alliance at Yale, spoke with Christakis in the Silliman Courtyard, his response once again disappointed many of us. When students tried to tell him about their painful personal experiences as students of color on campus, he responded by making more arguments for free speech. It’s unacceptable when the Master of your college is dismissive of your experiences. The Silliman Master’s role is not only to provide intellectual stimulation, but also to make Silliman a safe space that all students can come home to. His responsibility is to make it a place where your experiences are a valid concern to the administration and where you can feel free to talk with them about your pain without worrying that the conversation will turn into an argument every single time. We are supposed to feel encouraged to go to our Master and Associate Master with our concerns and feel that our opinions will be respected and heard.
Good stuff so far. Middle-tier, if you will. But what elevates Hurt at Home to TOP KEK-grade satire is that it has the audacity to take on a pernicious, yet cherished political metaphor: that of organization-or-nation-as-family. Witness:
My dad is a really stubborn man. We debate all the time, and I understand the value of hearing differing opinions. But there have been times when I have come to my father crying, when I was emotionally upset, and he heard me regardless of whether or not he agreed with me. He taught me that there is a time for debate, and there is a time for just hearing and acknowledging someone’s pain.

I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns. I feel drained. And through it all, Christakis has shown that he does not consider us a priority.
Whatever else you might believe about the Ivy League institutions, you have to appreciate any school that can produce students who can produce such sublime satire. I aver here and now, my beloved readers, that I have with my own two ears heard Very Serious Thinkers fall prey to the bizarre assertion that the family is different only in scale to the state, that the relationships that blood kin share are only a matter of scope difference to the anonymous community. I have seen with my own two eyes words written by Humans to be Taken Seriously that the nation is basically just an extended family. That parents must expunge the fallacy that their children belong to them. And as the little child proclaimed the emperor has no clothes, a Yale student has unceremoniously mooned the great nattering mass of aspirant despots who seek dominion with sleazy appeals to faux kinship.

And the best part? Otherwise bright people appear to have fallen for the ruse. Cervantes at his best couldn't have hoped for more success. I doff my cap, Jencey Paz. You are a modern virtuoso of satire. Please, for the sake of the art, continue to write. The world is richer for having you in it.

It's been fun watching some of the campus conflict from afar. Viewed as unstructured negotiation, it's obvious that there are some pretty severe strategic lapses on both sides. The transaction of higher education services appear to be less and less euvoluntary over time, at least on the aggrieved margin.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Free to Negotiate

"Choice" is unilateral. "Negotiation" is multilateral. One of the astonishing accomplishments of the modern agora was to modify a negotiated transaction to something that more resembled unilateral choice. I don't have to argue price with a grocery store clerk when I decide to purchase a can of tuna. The benefits of impersonal, anonymous exchange are obvious and many. Sparing customers the hassle of the haggle frees both customers and producers to concentrate on doing whatever it is they do best. In my case, if today's breakfast is to be believed, it is preparing the finest buttermilk and apple pancakes this side of the Pecos. I'm only half kidding. If you're ever in the Northern Virginia area, hit me up and I'll ruin the pancake experience for you forever. You may never eat another pancake that can live up to what I am able to deliver. I've even discovered the secret of putting pomegranates in flapjacks. What the even?!?

Focusing on "choice" as a rhetorical device appeals to folks' inherited intuitions about the wonders of the market. Look at this guy and tell me he isn't impressed by choice:

Of course, that's just what's seen. What's unseen is the enormous tacit negotiation that has to take place to put all those different varieties of butter and cheese in that display case. You don't see the supply chain, the individual dairy farmers, the commodities traders, the accountants, or the managers. To a customer, it looks like choice. To an economist, it looks like negotiation, albeit tacit, ex ante, and by proxy.

The rise of the matching* economy exposes the tacit negotiation of the marketplace to the customer. Airbnb isn't just a matter of booking a reservation at a property held by limited-liability corporate entity. It's someone's home. Uber isn't an infinitely-replaceable convenience livery selection. It's someone's car. There's an explicit negotiation there, even if it's conducted quickly and painlessly with the assistance of software. But make no mistake, that negotiation is embedded in each exchange opportunity anyone pursues. Perhaps our rhetoric might benefit from acknowledging that negotiation. Particularly so when one party's "freedom to choose" abuts another's.

Then again, perhaps such a rhetorical shift is to the disadvantage of people with an ideological axe to grind. Changing "school choice" to "school negotiation" runs the risk of recognizing that education professionals have a stake in the learning process. "Women's health negotiation" might inadvertently acknowledge that more than just one person could be affected by reproductive decisions. I suppose I can see the peril in my proposal. Taken far enough, this could be a real mindkiller.

Exercise caution, you guys.

*The phrase "sharing economy" is misleading, even if the term comports with lessons taught in Kindergarten. It's less "sharing" and more "quickly and cheaply finding mutually beneficial pairwise exchange opportunities." I quibble because I care, people.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Loud and Vociferous

With apologies to Murray Rothbard, It is no crime to be ignorant of firearm safety, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be the purview of police and the soldiery. But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on firearm subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.

Kaili Joy Gray evidently cannot be bothered to learn even rudimentary mechanics of how a sidearm operates. As even a complete novice to a range might tell you, the only way a break-action weapon might discharge with an open breech is for a foreign object to strike the primer with accuracy and force mimicking the firing pin. This is a sufficiently unlikely occurrence that should it occur, the direction the muzzle of the shotgun is pointed is of distant concern. Again, this is painfully, dismally obvious to anyone with even a rushed afternoon's introduction to the operation and care of sidearms.

It is an oddity then that someone plainly demonstrating such obdurate ignorance about firearms should retain a loud and vociferous opinion about their handling and accessibility.

Then again, this is America, where we let law professors who lie about their ethnicity establish national-scale regulatory agencies aimed at curtailing poor citizens' access to retail credit markets, so who's to say Gray isn't keeping in the highest traditions of our fair nation?

Firearm irresponsibility is a serious issue and each negligent death is a senseless tragedy. But using a cartoonishly buffoonish example to illustrate the problem saps the discussion of the vigor it deserves. Nincompoopery has a place, but it is not here.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Cold, Hard Cash

Microwaves thaw faster than stovetops.

Negative interest rates (or the threat thereof) are encouraging Swedes to hoard cash. Curious.

It's my impression that most ordinary folks don't pay very close attention to the deliberations of central bankers. Only when inflation runs amok or oddities like negative interest rates show up will the casual observer take note. Stuffing currency into mattresses or switching to barter systems are gentle revolts against the monetary authority. I occasionally wonder what the 21st century version of torches and pitchforks would resemble.

Perhaps we'll find out in Viking country.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I Know Why the Caged Black Canary Sings

I'm old enough to have accumulated journeyman's badges in a number of fandoms over the years. I cut my NBA teeth on the Lakers/Celtics rivalry when it meant something, practicing my skyhook in the driveway decades before the term was appropriated by one Mr. Booker DeWitt. I'm just scarcely enough of pop/obscure film buff that I am happy to bore you to tears with a comparative analysis between the career arcs of Cedric Hardwicke and Alfred Molina. I'm conversant enough in tabletop gaming to know the important differences between GURPS and d20. But I can't tell you much about the starting lineup of the 2015 Heat, nor spew encomiums to Robert Wise, nor recount the details of the Horus Heresy. At least not without looking it up first. The Internet is great for looking smart to strangers over Twitter.

So it is too for comic books. I've been on the periphery of fandom since I was a teenager. I remember TMNT from when it was still a dorm room book mocking Frank Miller. I remember watching as the King of Dreams took John Constantine's nightmares of Newcastle from him. I remember how living wizard Alan Moore set the medium ass over teakettle with a pitch-perfect deconstruction that somehow got turned into a plastic, summer, popcorn film adaptation. Yet for all that, I don't think I could name a single graduate of Xavier's Academy for Gifted Youngsters who hasn't appeared in either film or video games off the top of my head. So you can imagine how it is the CW melodrama Arrow and its other licensed properties appeal to me. They're perfect for casual fans who know just enough canon to know the names Merlyn and Thawne, but aren't quite attached enough to get all bent out of shape by the Flashpoint arc or by what Wanda did in House of M.

I also remember John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen. In fact, I remember the 90s run of The Flash as being one of the best things on television at the time. In the interest of avoiding S1 spoilers for those who've yet to binge it on Netflix, I'll just say the show writers gave a continuity nod to the earlier iteration and it was clearly made in the Tim Burton-digests-Batman era of DC properties on screen. "Less campy than Adam West and Burt Ward" is accurate, if not particularly informative. The Arrowverse has a low bar to clear is what I'm saying here. And they've cleared it fairly well. At least for a superhero show made by a network whose demographic appears to be teenage girls.

It's that demographic that allows me to overlook the non-stop shipping. I understand how it might be important to some viewers which characters end up in romantic relationships with other characters. If I want just the punching, ma'am, I can stick with Daredevil. Or hope that the MCU jettisons Whedon (#sorrynotsorry). I have a harder time excusing other cinematic sins. For example, epinephrine is not even remotely a "close enough" substitute for lidocaine. Swords emerge from scabbards quietly. Pistols don't rattle. Grand jury hearings do not proceed in that manner. A boxing glove on the end of an arrow is incapable of knocking a grown man on his ass. You. Don't. Shock. A. Flatline. But for all these sins, they did get one important thing right.

Minor-to-negligible S3 Arrow spoilers follow.

There's an AA scene. One of the principal characters listens as an extra recounts how her boyfriend beat her up again when he was drunk. After the meeting, this principal character tells her father that she wishes she could use that information to sic the police on the abusive boyfriend. The father responds with a sentiment that any economist would instantly recognize: the moment you start sending cops to AA meetings is the moment the drunks stop coming.

In economics, we call this the "Lucas Critique." It's a way of saying that things that start out as measurements have a frustrating tendency to become targets. People adjust their behavior when they think someone's watching. If GDP is an international contest rather than simply a metric for the strength of an economy, vainglorious political elites have an incentive to build gigantic Potemkin cities, complete with uninhabited skyscrapers and empty roads. Corporations filing annual reports will gently massage balance sheet items of interest, squirreling disastrous unfunded liabilities or eventual goodwill damage quietly away in the comments.

Maybe it's just me, but I find it funny that a screenwriter who has no problem insulting the audience with the ol' "it's just a flesh wound" trope gets a very important social science point right and to do so with an economy of dialog that I have not endeavored to mimic in today's post.