Monday, January 27, 2014

Lawful Evil

Should Stephen Glass be a lawyer? Natasha Lennard argues that he's no worse than most:
The [legal profession] is littered with self-interested careerists willing to put themselves above all else. But here’s the difference between a Glass and, say, a John Yoo. The latter used the letter of law to enable evil. Glass went against the rules of his profession. The law makes room for evil before it will make room for rebels.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Newsflash: Politics is Rife with Hypocrisy and Cynicism

Every once in a while, some says something that I have thought about for ages but have never been able to phrase so eloquently. Kevin Drum:
[L]iberals and conservatives tend to be tolerably consistent and principled on matters of policy. Working politicians obviously tailor their messages depending on when, where, and to whom they're speaking, but generally speaking, liberals aren't going to suddenly oppose national healthcare just because Obamacare is having some growing pains and conservatives aren't going to suddenly favor high capital gains rates just because bankers have become a wee bit unpopular.
However, when it comes to matters of process, neither liberals nor conservatives tend to be very principled. Both sides have switched their view on filibuster reform based on who happens to be in power, for example. Likewise, they've traded places on their tolerance for broad claims of executive power between the Bush and Obama administrations.

Rhetorical Bestiary: Social Engineering

On social engineering, I must defer to Aimai's eloquent definition:
It's “social engineering” to try to get people to share but it's just nature to let the free market reign. It's “social engineering” to try to stop bullying but it's just nature to let the jocks and the high status people bully the gays and the outcasts. It's social engineering to institute Title 9 and affirmative action policies but it's not social engineering to have legacy acceptance criteria for private schools or for there to be all male organizations.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Unemployment is Down, Hooray!

In most of the employment reports over the last year, the headline unemployment rate has declined. This is almost invariable coupled with the caveat that the decline did not come from more people finding work, but from more people choosing not to look. (The denominator in the unemployment rate excludes anyone who is not trying to find work, such as children, the retired, and anyone who has given up looking.)
There have also been monthly employment reports where the employment rate ticked up due to an increase in the number of people looking for work. I hope you will forgive me for not recalling which months, or whether the uptick was lost in the revisions.
If a declining unemployment statistic is often a bad thing, and an increasing unemployment statistic is often a good thing, why is the statistic even being reported? It is clearly unable to convey how well the economy is doing.
One common alternative is the employment-to-population ratio. Unfortunately, the employment-to-population would be trending downward even in a better economy, because the baby boom generation is retiring from the workforce. A neat way around this problem is constant demography employment.
To calculate this statistic, you first divide the population into age groups. In Paul Krugman's post, linked above, he uses the groups 16–24, 25–54, and >54 because they are provided by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. You then choose a reference year (2007 for Krugman). Finally, you compute the weighted average of the age groups' respective employment-to-population ratios, weighting according to the relative sizes of the age groups in your reference year.
Unlike the conventional unemployment rate, constant demography employment won't produce screwy numbers when people drop out of the labor force. Unlike the conventional employment-to-population ratio, it won't trend downward as the boomers retire. It is time to see this statistic included in the monthly articles on the employment report.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

No, It Will not Be Mandatory to Hire Potheads. Why Do You Ask?

Douglas Wilson is even more worried about marijuana legalization than David Brooks.
[W]hat we are seeing is not an expansion of personal choice, but rather a transfer of personal choice away from responsible citizens and to irresponsible ones.
Perhaps Douglas Wilson has a different definition of personal choice than I do? In my definition, personal choice means that you get to make personal choices. In Douglas Wilson's definition, you apparently get to make personal choices only if Douglas Wilson approves of the choices you make.
Suppose an employer does not want to employ potheads.... [For] a job that the employer believes (rightly) will be affected negatively by the pot.... Suppose... [the employer] has sound reasons for his concern about likely impairment. He has a factory full of very expensive and high-precision equipment. Or he is a hospital administrator writing standards for the neurosurgeons. Or he hires airline pilots who fly passengers around the country.
If the employer does not want to employ potheads, they do not have to, no matter how legal marijuana may be.
Anybody who thinks that the inevitable clashes that are coming between bosses and potheads are going to be decided in favor of the bosses... is a person who hasn’t been paying attention recently.
Illegal reasons to fire or refuse to hire someone:
  1. They are female.
  2. They are not the same race as you.
Legal reasons to fire or refuse to hire someone:
  1. They are gay.
  2. They are pretty.
  3. They are not pretty enough.
  4. They like My Little Pony.
  5. They donate a kidney to their boss.
  6. They have a Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker.
In case you aren't getting the picture, employees can be fired at any time, for any reason. Anybody who thinks that the ongoing clashes between bosses and potheads are going to be decided in favor of the potheads hasn't been paying attention recently.

David Brooks v. 21st Amendment

In a recent column, David Brooks writes with melancholy about the spreading decriminalization of marijuana. Some people will read it and nod sympathetically through the whole thing; I did to a degree. Many will still favor decriminalization, even after accepting Brooks’ premise. Perhaps because there is another drug with similar effects that is legal to use for those older than 21.

For a while in my teenage years, my friends and I drank liquor. I have fond memories of us being silly together. Those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.
But then we all moved away from it. We didn’t give it up for the obvious health reasons: that it is addictive; that drinking and driving kills you; that young people who drink go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests.
We gave it up, first, because we each had embarrassing incidents. Drunk people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I took a few shots one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a loser.
We gave it up, second, because one member of our clique became an alcoholic. He may have been the smartest of us, but it was sad to see him sink deeper into his cups.
Third, we developed higher pleasures. Drinking was fun, but it was repetitive. Most of us figured out that drinking liquor doesn’t make you funnier or more creative (academic studies confirm this). We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
One close friend devoted himself to track. Others fell deeply in love and got thrills from the enlargements of the heart. A few developed passions for science or literature.
Finally, we saw that drinking liquor was not something to be proud of, not something to be admired. We were trying to become more integrated, coherent and responsible people. This requires the powers of reason, temperance and self-control—not usually associated with being drunk.
I think we had a sense, which all people should have, that the actions you take change you, making you a little more or a little less coherent. Drinking less gave us a better shot at becoming more integrated and interesting. Drinking all the time seemed likely to cumulatively fragment a person’s deep center, or at least not do much to enhance it.
So, like many who try liquor, we aged out. We left alcohol behind. I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets buzzed from time to time, but being drunk is not an uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.
We now have a couple states—Michigan and Wisconsin—that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging alcohol use. By making liquor legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One Carnegie study suggests that gross liquor prices could plummet. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Michigan and Wisconsin are producing more users.
The people who debate these policy changes usually cite the health risks users would face or the tax revenues the state might realize. Many shy away from talk about the moral status of alcohol use because that would imply that one sort of life is better than another sort of life.
But these are the core questions: Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors we want to encourage? In healthy societies government should tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being drunk.
In ratifying the amendment, citizens of Michigan are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Fuzzy Math

In 2012, the mean annual income of the bottom quintile of American households was $11,490. In 1979, the comparable figure (adjusted for inflation) was $11,808. Seeing that $11,808 is bigger than $11,490, I am at a loss to explain how Bret Stephens thinks that the mean annual incomes of the bottom quintile of American households have increased by 186% since 1979.