Archive for September, 2010


Betting on the NFL

My friend has a blog about trying to make money on NFL games. The format is really well done and the content is interesting (coming from someone who doesn’t even really watch the NFL).

Basically, each week, my friend looks at the odds for all the games a makes a pick fo a team is going to cover the spread. He writes a detailed article (very detailed) explaining his prediction, which is fun to read even though I don’t even know about what’s being talked about. Then, in the aftermath, he writes about why he was right or wrong.

So far, he’s been wrong a lot, but that’s kind of the point: betting is hard, even for someone who knows a fair amount about football.


Politics isn’t all that corrupt (maybe)

I read this paper along time ago and thought it was great. I skimmed it again recently and realized that it is FANTASTIC. As a consequence, I’ve added to the section of my favorite papers, which is pretty small at the moment.

Anyway, if you read one scholarly, technical paper, I would recommend this paper. It covers so much in such a clear way and it makes several very thought provoking points. I’ll try to grab some of the highlights.

Overall, the point is that everyone should just chill out about how much money there is in politics and rhetoric to the effect of “our politicians are all corrupt, accepting money from every direction.” The implication is that power groups are manipulating our political process through cash. And they undoubtedly are to some degree. The question is: how dire is the problem? According to this article, things aren’t so bad.

First, only %60 of fortune 500 corporations even have PACS, and those that are active don’t give anywhere near the limit on PAC contributions. If companies are so rich and so eager for influence, why aren’t they giving as much as they possible can? In fact, to approach the limit in this country on PAC contributions, such spending would need to increase THREE FOLD. Also, another striking but somewhat ambiguous factoid is that in one study of 15 large corporations,  roughly 1,000 million dollars was given by these companies to charity while only 16 million was given to campaigns. Again, if corporations are making money off of these contributions (because they “buy” deregulation or subsidies or whatever) then why aren’t they spending more? Also, when 9/11 happened, according to this article, charitable giving from companies went up and political contributions went down. Why would corporations shift to a non-money making use of money from a money-making use?

This is just a subset of a further puzzle, known as Tullock’s puzzle, which suggests that if politicians’ votes have such high economic worth, they should be able to extract a lot of money from corporations. For example, in the sugar subsidy vote of 19…88 (I think) something like $182,000 bought 5 billion dollars in subsidies. A politician who can tilt the odds on a 5 billion dollar law could command a lot more contributions, but we don’t see contribution totals even approaching the amount of money that important bills can sway the bottom lines.

Of course maybe this just means that corporations have all the leverage and so can command huge benefits with a small amount of money. Hard to see how this could be just on an intuitive level since the politicians control the federal government and a 1 trillion dollar budget or whatever…seems like they’re in the driver seat. But in any case the article makes a further point that in almost all cases, most of the money in politics comes from individual donors who are giving about 100 dollars a year on average. So, politicians are not beholden to corporations for most of their revenue and what I find ESPECIALLY interesting is that in close elections, even more of a politician’s money comes from citizens.

This is the significance of the marginal dollar, by which I mean that when a campaign gets tough, you don’t turn to a corporation or an interest group to get the cash you need to win. Rather, you turn to the constituents in your district. And since individuals make the difference in close races, it seems that the money of corporations doesn’t have that much say in what a legislator does. He can likely get elected without them.

There’s even more than these arguments in this article; basically these throw the kitchen sink at the claim that corporate money runs our political system, and some of their other points are really interesting.

There interpretation of the data is different. They suggest that rather than treating corporate giving as an investment designed to spur a quid pro quo with legislators, its better to think of giving from all groups as a consumption good. This is a radical and fascinating point, because the idea is that people spend money on politics not to change it, but because, like charity, it makes them feel good. People want to participate in politics and giving money is one way they can.

Now, this article is a dose of optimism for those like me who are concerned about our country’s political system, and this article deserves to be taken very seriously (these guys surveyed 40 articles and did some regression of their own. This stuff is no joke). But at the same time, something tells me that its not all roses and candy (what’s the actual saying? Not all ____ and _____). Rather, there are probably some ways that money is circulating in deleterious ways in our political system, but at least the article refutes the a crude “interest groups run everything” position. And that’s as it should be. Our legislators are at the center of many forces, and one of the big forces is just plain old ordinary citizens. We should never forget that.


Making decisions

I’ve been working intently on a paper recently so I had to take a break from posting. Amazingly, traffic to this blog didn’t really fall as I took a break, a sure sign that people, old and new are making their way through the posts.

I want to talk about making decisions, but I also want to share this awesome invention.

Back to decisions then. Philosophers distinguish between practical reason and theoretical reason. In theoretical reason, we decide what to believe, and even the word “decide” is deceptive, because we can’t just believe anything we want. Rather, we judge what we should believe on the basis of evidence and by concluding our judgment, we create a new belief in ourselves. If you don’t believe me, try to believe something that you think that all the evidence, taken together, supports. You can’t do it. Belief follows judgment.

Practical reason is about reasoning about what to do. Here things are much more open ended. In theoretical reason, we know what we want, which is the truth. If we judge something to not be true, we cannot believe it. But in practical reason all sorts of values can be relevant.

Anyway, my friend sent me this article about making decisions (thanks Jesus), and I think in many ways it’s spot on. There are people who always have to think every decision to death and there are those who are more comfortable just surveying things and quickly deciding, in a dramatically decisive fashion, what to do. According to the article, this is a psychological feature about humans. Some people like to keeping thinking and others prepare to act.

There are many interesting things to note. One is that making detailed decisions requires taking time and time has a cost. So, when doing research on a decision, one has to try and weigh the cost of one’s time against the likely value of the new information that will be gained by the decision. Weighing of this kind is really hard to do because by definition you don’t know the information you will discover by doing more research. So imagine you’ve been doing research on where to apply to law school for 5 hours. Should you go for another hour? You know what the hour will cost you: your hourly wage if you have a job or an hour of fun with friends, however you rate that, or an hour of sleep which I personally rate very highly. What you don’t know is what the hour will gain you. In that time you might find something about the UVA that will effectively decide the matter of where to apply or you might decide you don’t want to be a lawyer at all, a discovery that is worth TONS of saved time, money, and stress.

Things are doubly hard though because not only do you not know what you’ll find out in the marginal hour of research, but you don’t even know if returns to research increase or decrease over time. As with all things, its most likely that research becomes less valuable the more you do of it. If this is true, then the stuff you discover during hour eight (the names of Professor so and so’s pet dog) is going to be much less important than the things you figured out in the first hour of research (say, the average LSAT score of the school you’re applying to).

Importantly though, new information is different than the skill with which one puts together ideas. So even if returns to research decrease over time, returns to thinking might actually increase. One thing is for sure, snap decisions, even with perfect information are usually pretty bad, which returns me to this article. I don’t think the complexity of decisions is MERELY psychological. Rather, I think complexity is a FEATURE OF THE WORLD, meaning that on average, more thinking results in a much better life lived. As a general rule, when I’m asked a question, I respond with “Let me think about it.” This small rule I’ve found helps me make enormously better decisions.

Still, as I’ve said on this blog many times, sometimes snap decisions are better, especially when interacting with the opposite sex. Thinking something through might help you find a good job or write a good article, but thinking about what to say to someone you like is almost a recipe for failure. Instead, instinct and intuitive understanding is what’s prized.

But I digress. I was talking about thinking longer about something versus thinking shorter. In philosophy, there are INCREASING returns to thinking so that what you figure out in hour 10 is almost guaranteed to be better than what you figured out in hour 1. This is why a) most philosophers do their best work when they’re older, unlike mathematicians who often reach the peak of their abilities early (prodigy phenomenon) and b) most philosophers spend their whole lives on seemingly silly problems. B is more interesting to me I think, because it often explains why its necessary to obsess about a problem and think about it night and day for many years (possibly one’s whole lifetime) before real progress can be made. Then again though, making a philosophical theory is not practical reasoning (about what to do) but merely theoretical.

Almost certainly, practical reasoning starts to give decreasing returns to thought after some, probably short, amount of time (like 20 minutes).



Obama and Medvedev signed a new START treaty which would codify modest warhead reductions as well as an inspection regime for said reductions.

This is good stuff, and this report in foreign affairs nicely concludes that there is no danger in doing so: both countries can still wreck things for the human race even after the reductions are done.

I just want to make small point which is my stock nuclear deterrence point. Why do we care so much what Russia does? We’re always trying to play chicken-shit games with Russia about who is going to reduce by how much and who gets to verify. Then there’s a big deal if one country does a little more than the other or vice versa. But really, we should want less nuclear weapons even if Russia wants to keep theirs. The reason is that a lot of land based nuclear weapons are kind of worthless and probably risky to have around.

Really what we want is keep a solid amount of nukes (enough to destroy the world of course) based on submarines. Submarines are the most survivable nuclear platform in that they are (nearly, probably completely) invulnerable to a first strike. In other words, subs, no matter what a potential enemy does, will be around after the bombs have fallen and can retaliate as we see fit. Since a deterrent is mostly (exclusively?) about the reliability of the second strike, our deterrent would be unaffected. We could get rid of a bunch of expensive nukes and their silos and if the Russians didn’t want to follow than that’s their problem, because more missiles can’t help them against ballistic missile submarines.

One problem might be that if we didn’t have every possible nuke at our disposal, we couldn’t mount a first strike, but I really hope that is not on anyone’ s policy radar, come what may. Also, if we had to first strike, again, subs could get very close to Russia making warning time very small. Unless of course Russia also has ballistic missile submarines…which they do. So, everyone wins if we could stop buying useless things to feedthe military industrial complex.

Don’t get me wrong, I think our military should have the best weapons are our disposal, but I don’t think it’s helpful to keep unhelpful weapons lying around and to simultaneously NOT make our weapons more dangerous and survivable.


Within U.S. migration

This is a pretty nifty map that shows migratory patterns within the U.S.

One lesson of this map is that everyone goes to Florida eventually. The other lesson is the Chicago is probably the most (nationally) cosmopolitan city. Not surprising given its central location.

There are some other things you might expect, which is that it looks like everyone is fleeing Boston as fast as possible.


Musings on Led Zeppelin and Boxing

Tomorrow is going to be one of the busiest days of my life, and so I spent most of today just getting ready for it.

Anyway, I still feel like I have a worthwhile post, though its shorter and in two parts.

First part. I listened to Led Zeppelin today, just came on the radio randomly, which is the best way to experience any song, because as I’ve said on this blog before, sometimes, part of the fun of hearing a song you like is knowing that it came to you purely BY CHANCE. Something about that realization really puts the cosmic order in perspective.

Anyway, I was listening to a pretty obscure song called “hots on for nowhere” and the lyric that really strong me in this song was just several words long. At one point, the lyrics talk about “the land of the not-quite day.” Now this seems pretty innocuous, but think about how many songs have sung about night and day and dusk and dawn throughout the years. I think this is just a really interesting way to put it, and this small kernel of insight led me to two others straightaway.

First Led Zeppelin loves rocking about water. They have “the ocean,” they have “down by the seaside,” “the rain song,” “when the levee breaks,” and actually many others that I always think about but never succeed in making a master list.

Anyway, the big philosophical lesson here is that good work, of any kind, is the kind you can keep coming back to. Nietzsche is a great example. I’m about to read the Genealogy of Morals again, and I’m sure I’ll notice so many new things. In a way, the best works are infinite portals into knowledge: they speak to you in all ages and whether you’re sad or happy, in a good place or in a bad place in your life. And then I thought that the street runs both ways. A brilliant piece of work always grants new lessons, and by the same token, a good person (one aspect of being a good person) is charitable to his fellow human beings, and here I mean that in a specific sense in that one is always READY to learn lessons from them. Great interpretations can result from a great piece of work, but as literary critics new, a new interpretation is also the work of the mind doing the intrepreting.

A great person is someone who seeks to aggressively theorize the actions and words of another person so as to craft a beautiful interpretation of that person’s character. This is one of the most noble things someone can do; to lionize, complicate, and appreciate the lessons offered by another human being. When we fail to find the lessons in another person, we fail to be proper interpreters and we miss the opportunity to create something beautiful.

This is not to say we have to accurately characterize every person we meet. After all, all interpretation is part fantasy and part myth, but the point is that if we build someone up in our mind, even if it is a caricature, we’ve made the most of their interactions with us. It’s like eating all the food put in front of you at someone’s house: it’s just shows respect.

Anyway, there’s a line in the “rain song” that I think is earth-shattering in its profundity. It goes like this, “Talk Talk – I’ve felt the coldness of my winter /
I never thought it would ever go. I cursed the gloom that set upon us… /
But I know that I love you so.” The way Robert Plant delivers this line gets me every time. I curse the gloom that set upon us everytime.

Second part. Check out this great article for an accessible and thought provoking philosophical essay.


LeBron James (just a link)

My friend wrote this piece about LeBron James, and I think its a really excellent sports article, because it seamlessly blends careful sports knowledge with a philosophical or pyschological approach to our collective sports fantasies. There’s even a lot of relevant and well placed videos.

Well argued and convincing. Check it out if you like basketball.