Saturday, December 15, 2012

10 Best Songs of 2012

Usually I only get a little bit of new music each year, and usually the "new" music I get actually was released a few years ago. But this year was a big exception; I found a lot of truly new music that I really liked. So here are my top 10 songs of the year (and yes, by "best" i just mean best at being what I personally like). The rules I used are: only one song per artist, must have been on a 2012 album, and due to bias I can't list my own music :). Going from 10th favorite to most favorite:

10. St. Vincent - Grot

The background vocals throughout this song are what make it so great to me. This is really heavy without being "metal". The lyrics are cheesy but for some reason are better that way. It's a song you imagine playing while making a sacrifice to Satan - but with a smile on your face.

9. Death Grips - Lil Boy

The only hip-hop song on my list. I like when musicians get outside their comfort zone, and the drummer for this group was one I already liked from math/noise rock bands Hella and El Grupo Nuevo, so it's really cool to hear him making something completely different. But the main reason I really like them is the rapper - the tone of his voice sounds angry and insane... in a good way.

8. Regina Spektor - Small Town Moon

I still prefer her earlier music, but Regina is one of my favorite singers ever. English is her 2nd language (she moved to NY from the Soviet Union when she was really young), and I think that's part of the trick of what makes her so unique. She's American enough to be as comfortable with our language as anyone else, but because she learned English differently than everyone else, she thinks about word usage, accents, etc. differently. There's so much subtle detail and quirkiness in what she does with her voice that is so addictive to me. Case in point: "But everyday begee-IEIns the saAaAaAaAaAaAaAame."

7. Exitmusic - The Night

I'm really bad at understanding what music people will like. This song is from this band's debut album, and I would have guessed they'd get way more popular over the year (their official music video for this song doesn't even have 40k views?). It's a fairly basic and catchy song but with really great textures in the sounds.

6. Animal Collective - Honeycomb

Animal Collective is at their best when they sound like a group of eccentric, off-balanced, drugged out geniuses trying to make the music for a weird children's show. Kind of like the equivalent of Dr. Seuss for music.

5. Cloudkicker - LA After Rain

I want to be him. I bought a guitar pedal because it's one that he uses. I bought Superior Drummer to manually program drum beats because it's what he uses. Like me, he's a bedroom musician - he just makes music on his home computer and puts it online for free. He doesn't ever play shows, and he's not trying to do this as anything more than a hobby. Except unlike pretty much any other musician like that, he's making some of the best instrumental music out there. The guitar tone in this whole album is just perfect, and the last 2 minutes of this song always gives me goosebumps. For some reason, this album is especially good to listen to while driving.

4. Drop Electric - Empire Trashed

The way this song evolves from something very minimal to something very explosive is pretty much everything that is best about post-rock in 5 minutes. And I'm particularly excited about this band because this is just from a self-released 4-track "sampler platter". They've now been signed to a record label, and I can't wait to hear what they do next.

3. The Mars Volta - In Absentia

Through college my taste in music got really really narrow - I was mostly only listening to 5 bands. Then I listened to The Mars Volta's first album, and it pretty much changed and expanded my musical tastes ever since. Their album this year wasn't my favorite from them, but I really liked how it surprised me. Over the years I have listened to them so much, that even though they try to experiment a lot and change their sound, I felt like I had them "figured out". But this album was not at all what I was expecting; I really like how the guitars have become such a minor role in this album.

2. Kishi Bashi - Bright Whites

I said this earlier about Exitmusic, but it REALLY applies to Kishi Bashi - I don't know how he didn't take over the world this year. I just don't understand how anyone could not like this song. When I first heard it, I figured it'd be something that would be stuck in my head for a bit but get boring fairly quickly. But instead, the more I listen to it, the deeper it digs into my brain. And it's maybe the happiest sounding song ever.

1. Sigur Ros - Ekki Mukk

I have a theory that there are 3 types of people:
1. People who are obsessed with Sigur Ros.
2. People who haven't listened to them enough to develop that obsession.
3. People who have no soul.
As someone who makes music, I often can't help but mentally dissect any music I hear into its separate parts and think about each piece in some critical manner. But that just doesn't happen with so much of Sigur Ros's music - it's like they just make one big piece of organic something that just fits perfectly together and you don't even think about HOW they did it. And it doesn't sound like something that could be made by human beings. Nobody else could make a song that is this long and this slow that seems to take up just an instant of time.
And I also hear shades of Sigur Ros in many of my other favorite songs of the year. It's in the big guitar sounds at the end of Exitmusic's song. It's in the vocals and build-up/release of energy in Drop Electric. It's in some of the ebow usage from Cloudkicker (not in the particular song above though). And Kishi Bashi's album has a very similar feeling to Jonsi's solo album Go.
Anyway, if you think you have a soul but aren't obsessed with Sigur Ros, go spend some time listening to them.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Biggest Flaw in the Democratic Party?

This is a problem that I often wonder about, but I don't know what the right answer to it is...

A big (main?) principle of the Democratic Party is to tax the rich to provide more help to the poor in our country, mostly for 2 reasons:
1. Utilitarianism: the poor can benefit more from an extra dollar than someone who is already rich. So it is viewed as an overall good thing to set up society such that the rich may not be able to afford as many vacations, but in return more people are able to have access to health care and education.
2. Fairness: your success in life isn't just a matter of hard work. Those who are born into wealthy families are much more likely to become wealthy themselves: access to better education, a safer environment to grow up in, less stress and therefore easier to do well in school, family connections in business, etc. So redistributing some degree of wealth is seen as making up for natural unfairness.

Obviously, Democrats would laugh at a proposed policy to raise taxes on those making over $250k just to give more to people who make $100k-250k. If the goal is to reduce the suffering of poverty and ease the worst cases of unfairness, obviously we should focus on those who actually need the most help.

With that in mind, how do the poor in America compare to third world countries? On a global scale, wanting to tax the upper classes of America to give more to the lower classes of America is a lot like the ridiculous case of welfare for people making $100k. From the utilitarian perspective, helping end malaria in third world countries does more good-per-dollar-spent than making sure every American has comprehensive health insurance. And when it comes to fairness: someone born in a poor part of America can complain that they didn't get a fair shot at success, but not compared to someone born in the Congo.

Democrats often accuse Republicans of failing to have a global perspective. But if your political philosophy is largely based around alleviating poverty/inequality, and your solution is to focus on increasing the social safety net of one of the richest countries in the world.... what would you call that?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How The GOP Could Win My Vote

After the election, one of the popular topics is what the GOP needs to do to gain more voters. Within the Republican party, here's some of the opinions from George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and David Frum. Probably the most common idea is a more open immigration policy to win more of the Hispanic vote (even Hannity has said he's now "evolving" on that issue).

Our political parties are always changing in some ways. The one-dimensional scale of "left vs. right" is a huge over-simplification of reality, so there are plenty of options for policy changes without switching sides on that spectrum. So, as a current Democratic voter, here are policies the GOP could adopt that can remain consistent with conservative philosophy and probably win my vote:

1. Market monetarism. In my mind, the weak economy is clearly a case of low demand, and the fact that inflation remained low after our monetary and fiscal stimulus should count as proof of that. Unfortunately, most Republicans don't seem to agree that's the problem. Democrats do, and they mostly support Keynesian fiscal policies as the cure. But market monetarism is another potential cure for the same problem. It seems to be gaining a lot of support lately among economists and wonks, but not really any politicians yet. I don't know if market monetarist policies will work, but I'd be willing to vote for finding out.

2. Carbon taxes. Climate change is another area where I wish our political parties could agree on the same problem and move on to arguing solutions. Climatologists virtually all agree that global warming is real and that humans are involved. The conservative approach to this problem, which I think would be best, is carbon taxes. Basically, come to some agreement on the long-term costs to the environment from burning fossil fuels, and add a consumption tax of that amount to them. Then the free market would have the right financial incentives to pursue a path toward cleaner and more efficient energy with the right balance. To stay true to conservative philosophy, the revenue gained from that tax could all be used to reduce our taxes on income. And with a broad approach like this, we could also end all the targeted government regulations in this area like energy requirements for cars or light bulbs.

3. Consumption taxes. Conservative states generally prefer consumption taxes over income taxes. And most economists agree that is more economically efficient. So it doesn't seem like much of a stretch for Republicans to support a national VAT of some level, and they could use all the revenue to lower taxes on income (though it wouldn't hurt to use some of it for deficit reduction either). On this and the above issue though, I would want something to be done to avoid it becoming too regressive though.

4. Build on, rather than end, Obamacare. Originally, conservatives fought against Medicare, but eventually gave up. Similarly, I want Republicans to give up repealing Obamacare and instead move forward and improve it. If the private insurance exchanges+mandates+subsidies end up working well (which it already does in Switzerland, Massachusetts, etc.), then we can end the employer tax incentives for providing insurance to workers and use that for individuals themselves. Republicans don't want obstacles for starting or growing a business; and that's what our current system is. Other conservative ideas I may be able to support would be reducing the requirements of what insurance must cover and making the insurance exchanges an alternative option for Medicare.

5. Open borders. The essence of a free market is that if a person wants to hire another person for a job, at a wage agreed to by both sides, to provide something that customers want to pay for, they can do so. Strict immigration laws are nothing more than "big government" intruding in the free market with arbitrary rules. It's not at all consistent with conservative economic values.

6. Marriage equality. The fact that prohibiting gay marriage creates real harm on real people should be enough to support marriage equality. But if not... homosexuality will exist whether or not gay marriage is legal. So from a socially conservative viewpoint, even if you personally disapprove of homosexuality, you can support legal gay marriage as an institutional encouragement of monogamy over promiscuity. Besides, this is coming anyway, and the GOP will have to join the future on this issue at some point. Might as well do it now. Another alternative is to just get the government out of marriage entirely and only recognize "civil unions" as a legal issue, regardless of whether the couple is gay or straight.

7. Marijuana legalization. Nobody seriously thinks the Prohibition was good policy. It attacked people's freedoms, made criminals out of ordinary people, and empowered criminal organizations. How is our war on drugs any different? This is another change that seems to be coming sooner than we previously would have guessed. And Obama is still against it. So this is an opportunity for the GOP to lead on an issue that will embarrass us in the future when we look back on it. Plus, it's consistent with the conservative philosophy of getting the government out of people's lives. And let's face it; you'll win a lot of the youth vote. This doesn't have to mean encouragement of drug use; we could put a hefty tax on it, and use the revenue to reduce taxes on work.

I could go on with things like patent reform, filibuster reform, chilling out on military spending, etc.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Jetsons and Politics

Possibly the biggest fundamental issue dividing people politically is the question of if and how much the government should redistribute the wealth that a free market creates/allocates. On one side, you hear many people claim that redistribution is just fundamentally wrong, and a pure free market will always work best overall. On the other side, you hear many people claim that there's a fundamental right to things like health insurance, retirement, a "living wage", etc. Neither side makes sense to me, and thinking about the world of the Jetsons (and its opposite) is a good way to explain why.

First, what are the pros and cons of different sides of the redistribution scale, regardless of where you think the optimal point is?

I think most people will agree on 2 main problems with doing too much redistribution.  There's the moral problem where it just feels wrong to take too much money from those who have made it. And there's the economic problem, where it makes everyone poorer by reducing incentives to work and leaving less money for long-term investments in technology and such.

Similarly, there's 2 main reasons why people get uncomfortable with too little redistribution. Morally, we want to minimize human suffering, and some amount of redistribution does that. And economically, social safety nets can encourage risk-taking, and other services such as public education enables the potential of those who wouldn't be able to afford to do so otherwise.

Now imagine a future where technology has advanced to the point where we live like the Jetsons. Robots do everything for us that we could ever need or want. There would be no jobs other than making and maintaining those robots, and we'd only need maybe 1% of the population to do that. This would be a really weird society to be a hard-core conservative. With no redistribution, everyone would be at the mercy of the all-powerful 1% that makes/maintains the robots. It's pretty clear that in a situation like that, we might as well be mostly socialist and let everyone enjoy the things that we can easily afford to universally provide.

On the other hand, if you go far back in time, or if we have some sort of apocalyptic event that takes away all our technology, it'd be very different. If we have no real health care, what does it mean to say that health insurance is a human right? If we have hardly any technology, such that we all have to work extremely hard and struggle just to survive, it's not possible to ensure food/shelter/water for those who get too sick/disabled/old to work. And it wouldn't make sense to have unemployment insurance; you can easily find a job because there's so much that needs to be done. In that kind of society, it wouldn't make sense to be a liberal. For society to continue, we would need those who are able to produce the most to flourish. And any programs to take from the better-off to help the worse-off would be taking away money that may be spent on the technological progress that would end up benefiting everyone in the future.

Neither of those two extremes may ever happen to us. But thinking about the extremes makes it clear that there's not one right answer on redistribution that can apply to all possible scenarios. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, it makes sense for government redistribution to grow as (if?) our technology and economy grows.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Presidents & The Economy

Perhaps the most common argument you hear in favor of electing Romney is the following:

A. Obama is president.
B. The economy is weak.
C. Therefore: A must be the cause of B. We need a Republican president.

But the underlying logic to that leads to some uncomfortable conclusions for Republicans. Here is a graph of job growth/loss per month during (and a bit before) Obama's presidency:

He became president, and quickly passed the stimulus, in February 2009. Soon afterward, we went from economic free-fall back toward recovery. One thing to notice from the graph is, whenever you hear claims about the total number of job losses under Obama, clearly that's the result of those first few months. And despite what many try to imply, the recession has been over for a while. I'm not trying to claim "everything is fine!" though. Job growth has been slow, especially when you consider how long it will take to bring back all those jobs that were lost, and it's important to have real debates as a country around identifying the causes and cures of this slow recovery.

However, if your economic argument right now is pretty much the one I summarized earlier, then what does that underlying logic really say about the job chart above? Do you prefer slow recoveries or severe recessions? And if you think economic growth during a presidency is a good way to know which policies are best, then there's a lot more history to look at besides just Obama and Bush...

Before Bush & Obama, here's the break-down of how the economy has done on average under Democratic and Republican presidents. In all categories, we've done significantly better with a Democratic president.

In fact, for as long as we started officially tracking recessions, we've entered a recession in the first term of every Republican president we've elected (link). If Romney is elected, let's hope he's the very first one to break that trend.

And if you also consider congress, we've had the strongest economic growth when Democrats have both the presidency and congress (link). You also see some of that from the job chart during Obama's presidency. The employment situation improved rapidly in the early months of Obama's presidency when there was a Democratic super-majority. You don't really see great results coming from the loss of that super-majority in 2010 or the Republicans gaining the House in 2011.

That being said, this doesn't necessarily prove anything; there are a lot of factors involved in how the economy does other than the president. I don't think Obama is to blame in any significant way for the slow recovery. And I don't think the Great Recession is Bush's fault just because it happened while he was president. But if you do hold the simple view of "economy bad, Obama president, therefore Obama bad", then the last thing that analysis of the economy should do is lead you to vote for a Republican president.

Friday, August 3, 2012

GOP & Govt Health Care Programs

This is something I meant to blog about back when Facebook was blowing up about the Supreme Court ruling on the "Obamacare" health insurance mandate. Aside from the legal arguments about constitutionality, I just have no idea how to understand the GOP's stance on when the government can make us pay for health care coverage.

Here are some government programs where you have to pay for someone's health care:

  • Medicare - for old people.
  • Medicaid - for poor and disabled people.
  • CHIP - for children.
  • VA - for veterans.
  • Employer tax subsidies - for most businesses.
  • COBRA - for temporarily unemployed people.
  • EMTALA - for emergency care.
  • USMS - for prisoners.
  • The "Obamacare" mandate - for yourself.
The Republican party right now wants to repeal the mandate, saying it's an unacceptable infringement on liberty. But I'm not hearing any calls to end other government programs that provide health insurance. The biggest government health care program is Medicare, and only a small minority of Republicans support even making cuts to it, much less ending it completely. Pre-Obamacare, we were already close to universal health care coverage. Obamacare (mostly) gets us the rest of the way, but only on top of existing government programs that Republicans support.

So... why are the vast majority of Republicans OK with all government programs that force you to pay for health care except Obamacare?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Obama: Cutting Taxes for the Rich

So Obama wants to let the "Bush tax cuts" expire on the rates above $250,000, and now there's all the discussion on whether it's good/bad to raise taxes on the rich, accusations of class warfare, etc. But that would actually be a tax cut for the rich...

The "Bush tax cuts" were temporary tax cuts set to expire in 2010. If they expired, you'd pay more taxes now, but it wouldn't be quite right to say "they raised my taxes". Remember when Bush also did a 1-year tax cut/refund in 2008 to help stimulate the economy? When you didn't get that same cut the next year, nobody said "Congress raised my taxes." There's no reason to differentiate that from the bigger "Bush tax cuts." It just feels different because 10 years is a long time.

Those tax cuts did not expire in 2010 like they were supposed to. That's because Obama passed a new law to keep them in place for 2 more years, which means Obama gave all of us a big tax cut.

Now it's set to expire again, and Obama wants to pass another law to keep them in place for all income under $250,000. Again, that in itself would be Obama cutting taxes since these temporary cuts were designed to end. Understood properly, not only is this a tax cut rather than a tax hike, but it is also a tax cut for everyone, including the rich. That's because our tax rates for different income brackets are marginal.

As a simple hypothetical example: pretend we have an income tax system of 10% on income up to $10,000 and 20% on everything over that. That doesn't mean that the moment you make $10,001, you now pay 20% on all your income. It means you pay 10% on the first $10,000 of your income, and 20% only applies to your last $1. Therefore, passing a law that cuts taxes on all income under $250,000 is cutting taxes for everyone who makes over that amount as well.

It's funny actually. With the tax policies proposed by each side, both the Democrats and Republicans are trying to cut taxes for everyone. They are only actually arguing about how big of a tax cut to give to the rich.

* mostly stolen and expanded from here.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Choosing a Charity

(if you don't feel like reading all this, basically I'm just recommending GiveDirectly as a good starting point for being more picky when choosing how to give to charity)...

There's lots of stuff out there aimed at motivating us to give more of our money to others. That's good, but I really believe there's not *nearly* enough emphasis on HOW to give charitably. If the goal is just to pat yourself on the back for making a sacrifice, then maybe it's not necessary to be picky about choosing a charity. But if the goal is to make the world a better place and help people, intentions aren't the only thing that matters.

Likewise, it's good to invest some of your money for retirement. But that doesn't mean you should just buy a random stock and then pat yourself on the back. You're saving/investing money for a goal (retirement), and to actually reach that goal you don't just need the intention to invest. You also need to invest in something that will make money rather than lose money. It's the same thing with charities; if our goal is to help people, we shouldn't just give to a random charity. If you generously give money to Komen's Race for the Cure, but they use it to shut down other charities, you may have actually done more harm than good. If you're at the grocery store, and they ask if you want to give a dollar to some random charity at the cash register, the best response to that feeling of pressure and guilt isn't to give to that charity you know nothing about. The best thing to do is to use that as motivation to carefully select the best charity.

GiveWell, a great (IMO) charity evaluator, puts it best on the problems of not putting enough emphasis on results:
Fundraising often involves social and emotional manipulation, and almost never involves fact-based demonstrations of programs' effectiveness. This means that lots of charities raise money and run programs without ever demonstrating that their programs actually work.
Just like investing money, giving charitably has risk. Someone who receives money may just use it to fuel a drug addiction. A lot of aid to poor countries tries to work through their government, but then corrupt bureaucrats keep it for themselves. If you give a bunch of food to a poor village, the farmers will suffer because the people will need to buy less food from their local markets. Then less people will farm, which leaves that village more vulnerable to food shortages once the aid decreases. That itself is one big problem people often don't consider; when something becomes available for free, it distorts that market and hurts the people who sell that item to make a living, which can end up with much wider consequences.

I've come to believe that the best starting point for giving more effectively is with cash transfer programs like GiveDirectly. It basically makes one-time payments to a random person in poverty. I was very skeptical of that approach at first. The first major concern I had was that the money would be spent poorly. And of course, that can and will happen in some cases. But what I've come to realize is: the only alternative is for someone else to decide what the poor need even though each person is in a unique situation, and so we have that same problem either way. And how much more overhead does it cost in the charity to have employees/volunteers make more decisions for the people we are trying to help? In general, a person in need knows what they need more than some rich person half-way around the world from them.

As an example, let's say you don't trust giving money to a person in need far away, so you give them shoes instead. If they already have shoes that work fine, that was a waste. And if they did want or need new shoes, you may have just made their local shoe seller lose a customer. Imagine being the poor person trying to make a living selling shoes, but then you lose your business because of foreign shoe donations. Each person will have unique needs that we won't be able to guess. With money, regardless of what they spend it on, it will help business in their area instead of hurting it. And that money will continue to circulate among people there through a series of new purchases. There will be some cases where the money is spent on a harmful addiction. But if you give them food or clothes instead, what's to stop them from selling or trading it for drugs? There's no way to guarantee that won't happen no matter what you give someone.

GiveDirectly also avoids the problem of creating dependency. One-time payments made in a random fashion can provide overall help without any person thinking they can rely on it.

Another benefit to cash transfers is scalability; the charity will be less likely to run out of things to do with more money. Many charities just put your money in the bank for a while because their funding needs are already currently met; GiveWell has more on this consideration with charities here.

The other major benefit to GiveDirectly, which every charity should do, is that they are very transparent and are doing careful studies in the areas where they've provided help to evaluate how much good it really does. They are actually making and altering their decisions (such as how much is the optimal amount to give an individual person) based on methodology and facts they are making public. Many charities don't do this; largely because people don't seem too interested in the actual results of a charity.

That being said, the best charity in the world is likely one that is providing something a poor area really needs that its markets aren't providing. For instance, GiveWell's top pick is Against Malaria, which distributes bed nets and teaches people how to use them to stop malaria. I'm not arguing that cash transfers like GiveDirectly are the best possible charity. But I do think they are the best starting point for people looking to give more effectively. We should give money to those in need and let them decide how to spend it unless we're REALLY sure we've found a better alternative. A poor, uneducated person in Kenya may not know the BEST way to spend new money they come across, but you should start off assuming they know what they need better than YOU do. And if they buy something in their own markets with extra money they get a hold of, that doesn't have the same potential for harm and distortion to their local economy like a bad charity does.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

One way to improve unemployment

I've blogged before about how, not long into Obama's presidency, the private sector began and has continued job growth, but it's the public sector where we've continued to lose jobs. Since then, I've somewhat-planned to try to do some math with the raw data to see how different the unemployment rate would be if we hadn't cut so many government jobs. Luckily, my procrastination paid off and they did this for me on Wonkblog.

Here's the change in public employment in the last 4 recessions:

And here's the numbers of how today's unemployment rate would be different if we had taken a different policy towards government jobs:
Since Obama was elected, the public sector has lost about 600,000 jobs. If you put those jobs back, the unemployment rate would be 7.8 percent. But what if we did more than that? At this point in George W. Bush’s administration, public-sector employment had grown by 3.7 percent... If you add those hypothetical jobs, the unemployment rate falls to 7.3 percent.
But the unemployment rate would actually be lower than those 2 numbers because, at least in the short term, cutting a government job will also hurt the private sector, and adding a government job will help the private sector (unless you're at full employment, which we clearly are not). Because when you fire a bunch of teachers, cops, etc., they have less money to spend. So they buy less things, which means other companies will make less money due to their lost purchases, so then those companies will have to cut jobs. Likewise, if throughout this recession the govt hired more people, more people would have more money to spend, which would allow other companies to hire more employees to cover their new customers. This is what people are talking about when they say WW2 got us out of the Great Depression.

So it seems like the simplest thing we should have done differently to fight this recession is to, at the very least, hold government employment steady. But unfortunately, the 2010 elections brought in a big push toward "smaller government" (i.e. firing many people who currently work for the government). Regardless of what "size" you think the government should be under normal circumstances, it's pretty clear that it's best to have a temporary increase in government jobs during recessions and then trim those back as the economy recovers. Even if we should reduce the number of people the government employs in the long-run, this is a pretty crappy time to do it.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Total Taxes People Pay

One of the biggest focuses of political debate is how much taxes people should pay relative to each other in different income brackets and if either the poor or the rich are paying "their fair share". If you just listen to liberal pundits, you may imagine the wealthy are all paying half the taxes the rest of us are. If you just listen to conservative pundits, you might think that the wealthy are paying at least 50% in taxes and almost everyone else pays nothing. That's because a lot of people choose to talk about only specific situations in specific areas of our tax code, not the overall picture. For instance, there's been a lot of talk lately about how around half of Americans pay no federal income taxes. It's true, but people get misled because they think of that as all our taxes, or at least as all the taxes that are deducted from your paycheck, which isn't the case.

So here's an interesting graph on how much the average person in various income groups pays, as a percentage of their income, in total taxes:

It's much more evenly distributed than most would probably guess.

* found this from Wonkblog.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Money & Grades Are Different

Over time, I think I've seen this argument made on facebook by 4 different people now. The argument is that "liberals" who favor wealth redistribution or progressive taxation are contradicting themselves if they don't also think grades should be redistributed in school. And we all agree it'd be ridiculous to redistribute grades, so the conclusion is it must be ridiculous to redistribute wealth (or just tax it differently). But nowhere have I seen anyone even try to make that connection - why are grades and money analogous in this way? You can't just say they are without giving a reason.

The main reason not to take this argument seriously is that nobody believes we should have the same principles about redistribution of grades and money anyway. Maybe you believe the government shouldn't redistribute money at all. But you still believe that *you* can redistribute your money, either by purchasing something or just giving it away. Does that mean you must believe we should be able to redistribute our own grades? If I have a 4.0, can I sell .5 of that to someone? No... there's not a single person who believes money and grades should be treated the same with regards to rules of redistribution. That's not a contradiction - we have different rules for different things because they are ... different things.

Grades and money are both things we invented and use because they make society work better. As our inventions, we get to make up the rules for how they are used. The best rules for each one would just be whatever produces the best results; there's no reason we have to pick one rule to apply to both things. There are valid reasons to believe a variety of things about how best to treat money, but "it must be the same way we treat grades" is just not one of them.

And besides that argument not making any sense, it is also strange to me when people think it's just "liberals" who support wealth redistribution. I've never met anyone who opposes public roads, education, police, national defense, etc. And yet those are things that everyone benefits from regardless of how much you pay for it, if at all. And they are provided to everyone by taking money from some people and giving it to other people. The differences along the political spectrum aren't about whether or not you support any "redistribution", it's just about the amounts and forms of it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why We Should Pay Teachers More

Just wanted to write a bit about this while I was starting to read The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen. I don't know what fuller picture he'll give of his opinions on what we should do to improve/reform education, if at all, but one point that was made early in this book was that, as measured by a variety of tests, we don't seem to have made much progress in K-12 education since the early 70's even though we've been continuing to spend more money per capita on K-12 education since then. I've heard variations of this before from people basically saying we should cut public education spending, or at least not have increased it. I think that's wrong.

First, I don't want to suggest there are not things that could be cut from public schools that are not worth the amount of money we put towards it. Just think of how much more money some schools are spending on football stadiums and such. And a lot of increased spending over time will just be because we, as a nation, become wealthier, and in proportion to that, people demand "nicer" schools in ways beyond just what is actually providing more education.

But, despite the disheartening statistics that seem to show we've very little gains in K-12 education despite increased spending there, I think it's oversimplifying things to say this means that we shouldn't have spent more. That assumes that if spending had not increased, education results would have stayed the same as they had been. But I think the quality of our education would have decreased had we not spent more...

The main reason comes from this book that I recently blogged about. A few decades ago, if you were a smart, educated woman who wanted to start a career, your options were much more limited than they are today. Because there were only so many jobs that were viewed as "appropriate" for women, in 1970, about half of all college-educated women were teachers. Even though it's never been a high paying job, we were able to get many of the best and brightest women to teach. Today, those cultural barriers are either gone or much weaker, and now 47% of our teachers come from the bottom 1/3 of their college classes. Because of the freedom that women have gained, we can't get away with paying teachers low salaries and expecting as many highly skilled people to do it.

This does not mean sexual discrimination was ever a good thing... likewise, ending slavery made farming more expensive but that doesn't justify slavery at all. And because I know this is coming: no Tracy, what I'm saying should not be interpreted as an insult toward you or any of the teachers you work with. This is about averages, not about every individual teacher. And it would be expected that a high-end district like FISD would have access to the highest quality teachers and therefore wouldn't really be an example of an "average" American school.

So anyway... all things held the same, we should have expected the quality of K-12 education to decrease after 1970. But we haven't seen that, so the extra money we've put into it must have done something right. Paying teachers more is not a waste of money. And if we want a better educated nation, one of the main things to do would be to make teaching a better paying profession!

But more importantly: my wife is a teacher, so if we give teachers a raise, I get a raise!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Policy Contributions to the Deficit

Everyone knows our budget deficits have gotten huge over the past 10 years (after having a surplus in 2001). But one of the things people don't often take into consideration is how much a recession impacts our budget. When the economy takes a hit, that lowers the amount of taxes the government collects; surely the worst recession since the Great Depression is going to be responsible for worse deficits for a while. And part of the reason we went from a surplus under Clinton to deficits under Bush was the stock-bubble-recession when Bush took office.

So ignoring the effect of the economy on our budget in the past 10 years, here's the actual policy contributions to the deficit from Bush and Obama:

I understand being concerned about the national debt. But what blows my mind is how many people consider that a reason to vote Republican. How many Republican congressmen that voted for our biggest budget-busters of the past 10 years are now the same ones feigning concern for the national debt? And how many people are falling for it?

It's also important to remember, when people claim "we have a spending problem not a taxing problem", that the Bush tax cuts are the biggest policy contribution to our deficits. And the graph above only shows their cost within Bush's presidency, not the full long-term cost.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Obamacare's (Un?)Constitutionality

The Supreme Court has started hearing the initial arguments on "Obamacare" this week - the central issue being whether or not the individual mandate (buy health insurance or pay a fee) is constitutional. If you assume pre-Obamacare health care laws are constitutional, I've never understood how you could think Obamacare is not. But this interview with one of the main legal experts opposing the mandate helped me understand that opposition a bit better. Maybe it comes down to a very fundamental difference in thinking...

A health insurance mandate already exists: Medicare. I have to pay for it. With Obamacare, the difference is that it's a private insurance company instead of the government. From the perspective of government power versus individual liberty, they are effectively the same. If anything, Obamacare is less intrusive because there are multiple choices for your insurance plan. The government also already gives tax credits for employers to buy private health insurance, and that's effectively the same as Obamacare's mandate. In both cases, someone has the option of buying insurance or paying extra taxes. This is why I always figured that if existing law is constitutional, then Obamacare must be as well.

But here's what Randy Barnett, the lawyer from the interview, said: "Just because the government does have the power to do x, doesn’t mean they have the power to do y, even if y has the same effect as x." That seems like a simple idea, and the logic is quite basic and valid, yet for some reason it really took me by surprise. In my mind, when 2 things have the same result, I consider the differences to be unimportant - a technicality or semantics. I guess I just need to remember that not everyone thinks that way. Maybe the ultimate divide of opinion on the constitutionality of the mandate can really boil down to whether you focus more on the ends or the means... (though I suspect most people just decide based on whether they like the law).

Anyway, for anyone who thinks our pre-Obamacare health care policy was constitutional but the mandate in Obamacare is not, I'm curious to hear opinions on a couple of things:

1. Instead of making you pay some extra taxes if you don't buy health insurance, what if the bill just raised taxes on everyone and then offered a tax break for those who buy insurance such that the benefit/penalty was the exact same? Would that be constitutional?

2. Would it be constitutional if there were a public option? That way, you don't have to buy something from a private company; you can choose to get it from the government just like you're already forced to do with Medicare.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Becoming Republican

I originally wrote this as part of my previous post: Book Plug: Launching The Innovation Renaissance. But this went off-topic and seemed like it should be its own thing...

Reality is complicated, and trying to reduce all politics to the one-dimensional left/right scale can't represent all the possible solutions to the world's various problems very well. I'm a Democrat in that I see them as the best option available, not the best option possible. And not because I'm ideologically opposed to all things "conservative". The parties do change over time, so I often wonder in what ways they could change where I would start to lean more Republican. And some of the ideas in Launching The Innovation Renaissance are a direction the Republican party could potentially go over time that could win my vote.

I don't understand the less-govt-everywhere-except-more-in-the-military mentality that currently dominates the Republican party. It scares me when Santorum acts like we should base our government on his religion. It scares me when Ron Paul talks about economics. And I do believe the government should redistribute money to reduce poverty. But I could support a platform of reducing welfare+defense so that we could invest more in R&D and education. And I wish that political party existed.

Book Plug: Launching The Innovation Renaissance

If you are interested in politics/economics, read Launching The Innovation Renaissance. The e-book is only $2.99, and it's short and easy.. only 1137 "locations" on the kindle, and the book actually ends 70% through that (the rest is references). The author is a libertarian-ish economics professor, but I think people of all political persuasions can find something interesting and convincing in this book.

The book argues that our society needs to be more structured in favor of technological advancement and gives a few suggestions for how our government should change and why. It gives really interesting statistics on how times/places of high innovation truly help everyone as well as how different policies contribute or hold back. Most of the arguments are really persuasive with data to back it up. One example that was particularly interesting was why a much lighter patent system would foster more innovation. I was disappointed with his arguments for deregulation though; on that part he seemed to just explain the logic of his thinking but without many concrete examples to show that what he claims is actually true.

The book is conservative, but it doesn't really match up well with a particular political party. He describes the basic functions of government as split between innovation, warfare, and welfare, where we can't realistically put much funding into all three. Republicans generally want more spending in "warfare" at expense of the other areas, Democrats do the same with "welfare", and Libertarians usually just argue for a reduced government role in all three. But this book argues for increased government funding in innovation which would require reduction in both "warfare" and "welfare". One convincing way that he argues for this is by saying that Republicans/Democrats are usually arguing over zero-sum games: how to shift the same amount of resources within society between the wealthy and the poor. But focusing on innovation is win-win.. it benefits everyone.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The GOP and Obamacare

One of the most persistent themes in the Republican primaries is how bad, socialist, and unconstitutional Obamacare (universal health care via a federal insurance mandate) is. And many Republicans talk about how this is a big weakness for Romney since he passed the same basic plan as governor of Massachusetts. He now tries to pretend it's different because he doesn't support it at the federal level, but that isn't true.

What so many people still don't realize is that this isn't just Romney. 3 of the 4 remaining GOP candidates supported this idea at the federal level and seemingly forgot they ever supported it once it became known as "Obamacare". The only difference between Romney and Gingrich and Santorum here is only that Romney was successful in passing it. Newt even openly supported it as recently as 2009.

In fact, "Obamacare" used to be a mainstream Republican plan for health reform as opposed to the type Clinton tried to do. The Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act on 1993 was sponsored by Republicans still in Congress. Bush Sr had a plan for health reform via an individual mandate, as did Bob Dole. And Democrats opposed it; Obama even opposed the individual mandate during his presidential campaign.

The whole history of attempts at universal health care has been a lot like this. Teddy Roosevelt (Republican) was the first president who tried to pass universal health care, via a single-payer system. Then that became the Democratic plan that Republicans opposed. The GOP later switched to supporting an employer mandate; that was Nixon's plan but Democrats opposed it out of preference to a single payer system. Later the Democrats came around to supporting an employer mandate instead - that's largely what "Hillarycare" was. By that time, the GOP moved on to supporting the individual mandate and opposing an employer mandate. Then, of course, Obama proposed a plan based on the individual mandate, and suddenly the whole GOP is against it.

Now, this doesn't mean it's not OK to oppose Obamacare as a Republican. Just because it used to have broad support in the Republican party doesn't mean every Republican supported it. But it does mean that when the Republican candidates talk about how Obamacare is some shockingly socialist, extreme, unconstitutional worst-idea-ever, they are just lying (with the exception of Ron Paul). Opposing Obamneycare is not a reason to support Santorum or Gingrich over Romney. And the fact that so many people are unaware of this is a great example of the failure of the media (some of it, at least).

Friday, February 17, 2012

Media Bias

I was reading this article on measuring media bias. It's a good read, but I think people usually focus on the wrong issue here. Our main concern with the media should be that they are biased towards truth, not whether they are perfectly balanced between left and right.

Of course, there are some political differences that are a matter of values and philosophy, where one side can't be demonstrated to be more or less true through evidence, and in those cases all sides should be presented with equal weight. But that's not all cases.

Example: there was a moment in a debate a few months ago where Perry accused Romney of saying in his book that the Massachusetts health care reform would be a good model for the whole country, and then removed that from later editions. Romney of course said that wasn't true. But all the viewers got to see was 2 people disagreeing on the facts and not knowing who to believe. It should be the job of the news for one of the moderators, right then and there, to tell us exactly what the truth was. In that case, Rick Perry was right. If they had done that, people may say it wasn't unbiased between the candidates. But sometimes truth has a bias, and it's the truth that matters.

We should judge our news sources on how well they push aside the BS and show us the facts. Just getting an equal amount of BS from both sides doesn't help you become a more informed citizen. And if focusing on truth instead of "balance" leads to an overall impression of bias towards one side, that's fine.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Contradiction Du Jour

Mitt Romney:

This week, President Obama will release a budget that won’t take any meaningful steps toward solving our entitlement crisis. The president has failed to offer a single serious idea to save Social Security and is the only president in modern history to cut Medicare benefits for seniors.

Does this:

A) show how dumb Romney is
- OR -
B) show how dumb Romney thinks voters are

Friday, January 27, 2012

Foreign Oil

Saw this on WonkBlog the other day and was surprised. According to the EIA, over the past few years we've been producing more of our own oil and importing less:

..doesn't really square up with the criticisms you hear from the GOP about Obama blocking our domestic oil production.

It's also interesting to see where we do get our imported oil from. He's the top countries, listed by thousands of barrels imported per day in 2011 (again from the EIA):


The way you see this talked about on TV, it's easy to imagine that every dollar we spend on oil goes to Iran. I'm not at all saying our foreign oil dependence (or just plain oil dependence) isn't a problem, it's just not quite the problem we can sometimes think.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


One of the things Obama emphasized in the SOTU today was increasing manufacturing jobs in America. You frequently hear all types of politicians and pundits talk about the importance of the manufacturing sector. It has been in decline, and many view that as the reason for widening income inequality. But is there anything special about manufacturing?

Matthew Yglesias has written a few articles about this I thought were really good, explaining how arbitrary the difference between manufacturing and services is:

if I make pasta then dry it and stick it in boxes, I'm manufacturing. If I make fresh pasta and serve it to you on a plate with my pea pesto that's services. The difference between manufacturing and services is not an ontological void between making things and not making things. It's really a gap between putting things in boxes and not putting them in boxes. Like if you build a bookshelf and ship to a store and I buy it, that's manufacturing. If I hire you to come to my house and install custom built-in shelves, that's services.

Plus, whereas people often act like our loss of manufacturing jobs is a recent phenomenon, you can see in this chart that it's been in basically the exact same steady decline since WW2 ended.

While there has been a correlation between manufacturing decline and income inequality, it seems to me that there's nothing intrinsic about manufacturing that should lead us to think that correlation is causation in this case. We need jobs and less income inequality, but I don't think that's any reason to have policies specifically favoring manufacturing.

This could turn into another topic, but I also generally don't like the idea our goal is to bring back jobs that have been outsourced. If a job is better done somewhere else; keep it there. I think that once we restore aggregate demand in our economy, the market will adjust to provide new jobs for people without policies designed to bring back the old ones.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Founding Fathers and National Banks

This has been bothering me from a debate last week, and I never saw any talk about it. Members of the audience got to ask questions, and one guy asked Gingrich something like "The founding fathers were opposed to a national bank, thus no Federal Reserve. Who has a better grasp of what's best for our country: you or the founding fathers?" Gingrich made some comment about how he's a historian, and he knows the founding fathers know best, which is why he wants to reduce the Federal Reserve.

But.. one of the major points of disagreement amongst the founders was this very topic. The main supporters of a national bank were Washington, Adams, and Hamilton, and Washington created one. Jefferson and Madison were the main ones opposing it, but after getting elected President they ended up supporting it. So they were conflicted on the topic of a national bank, but if anything it'd be more accurate to say they mostly favored it in the end. Did Gingrich not know that? I assume he did; but why would he pretend the guy was right?

This is just one example of the weird misconceptions that are so common about the founding fathers.. acting like they were infallible mouth-pieces of God who agreed on everything and were divinely inspired to write the inerrant Constitution. In reality, they were not one thing; they were individuals who disagreed on interpreting the Constitution and on what should even be in there in the first place. It's usually meaningless to say "the founding fathers wanted ...". And if you're going to treat their beliefs like religious dogma, at least know what they really believed.

But even if they did all oppose a national bank, that guy's question is still extremely frustrating because of its implication that it'd be so unacceptable to disagree with the founding fathers who must know what's best. I'd like to know his opinion on slavery.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ending Minimum Wage

The EITC and the minimum wage have the same goal: reduce poverty through higher income for people with low-paying jobs. Which makes me wonder.. why don't we figure out which one is more effective, and then get rid of the other while proportionally expanding the better one?

I'd need to be way less ignorant to say this with any certainty, but it seems like the EITC is preferable over minimum wage. The benefits can be more directly targeted to where it's needed. And its costs can be more spread out instead of specifically making it more expensive for employers to hire more people.

Of course, reality is complicated, and there may be good reasons to keep a mix instead of one over the other. But it seems strange that I never see this topic brought up in political news.