Archive for August, 2012


unemployment numbers as a case study in the contradictions of american politics

I’ve been trying to learn enough about the employment numbers to get beyond the debate as I’ve seen it, which consists of one side showing one chart and then saying “see, no one’s employed,” or throwing out one chart and sneering “Obama has done better than Bush at creating jobs.”

It’s all more complex than anyone wants it to be though, and this post is what helped me open it all up.

One reason comparisons are tricky is that recessions don’t coincide neatly with presidential terms. Obama took office in the depths of a recession, but Bush was in office for a while before 9/11 happened (though the economy was soft before that). Another reason things are tricky is that one needs to distinguish between JOBS and PEOPLE EMPLOYED. The numbers are not the same. As quirk of the data, there are usually about 9M more people who are employed than their are jobs. This is a result of the methodology used in creating these numbers. Last, one needs to consider the category of employment being discussed. Seasonally adjusted or not, private sector or total jobs (private+public).

In short, one should consider:

1. timing

2. statistical methodology

3. statistical category

The post I cited above puts these together nicely.

The most interesting thing I learned is that Bush’s employment numbers were buoyed pretty significantly by public sector employment. For example, Obama created more JOBS than Bush had created by the same time in his presidency, but he has also created MANY MORE private sector JOBS.

I capitalized “jobs” in the preceding paragraph because things are different when one looks at “number of people employed.” Bush increased the NUMBER OF PEOPLE  EMPLOYED much more than Obama by this time in his term.

But again, comparing the same point in Obama and Bush’s first term isn’t that helpful. More instructive is to compare numbers from the same time after the “bottom” of the recession. Bush had created a good deal more JOBS 28 months after the worst of his recession hit. However, again, in keeping with the point about Bush’s reliance on public sector employment, he only created slightly more private sector jobs than Obama.

On the other hand, Obama has created slightly more EMPLOYED PERSONS in the 28 months since the big 2008 recession.

Now for a philosophical point. None of this matters as much as people says it does. People compare Bush and Obama as if it somehow settles an important political point. Obama supporters reason that if they can show that Obama has done better than Bush, than conservatives must “shut up” about the economy. But there is nothing that can be proven by these comparisons. The reason is that political choices are made in terms of comparisons. One might be happy with Bush’s performance due to believing that it’s better than Al Gore’s, and dissatisfied with Obama because of confidence that McCain would have been even better.

Or alternatively, a conservative who voted for Bush might think that Obama is doing better, but nonetheless believe that he’s doing badly in an absolute sense. This is not hypocritical. One’s preferences can change. One might have believed that Bush managing the economy well due to deception or just partisan fervor, but after seeing Obama do slightly better and still realizing that it’s not very good overall, reject both presidents as bad and vote for Mitt Romney.

What is actually important for voting in November is one’s relative confidence in Obama and Romney in the next four years. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of information that no voter has access to, mainly because we don’t really have any idea what either person will do if elected to the 2012-2016 presidential term. I mean, it’s shocking how little information is available to the average voter. Sure, one could look at Romney’s past policies, but how relevant are they to his presidency. And even Obama might try radically different policies depending on what Congress looks like.

The curse of American politics seems to be that voters are thrown irrelevant information because the information that would make a difference basically can’t be had.


Great writing on employment statistics

There is so much talk about employment numbers and there is SO MUCH deception and missed nuance. However, today I found this post and thought it was fantastically helpful. From other posts and comments you can tell this woman REALLY knows her stuff. Some flamer wrote a comment that was just partisan hackery, and she dropped the hammer. Was great to read.

(Philosophical aside: think of anything you do at a high level. How often to people get the details of your knowledge area right, even very informed lay people? In my experience, almost never, which leads me to believe that we all labor under significant deceptions for most of our lives, because its simply very hard to learn a body of knowledge or skill to the degree that one really can MANIPULATE and OWN the relevant complexities)


the french revolution as the turning point to modernity

The French revolution has been thought of as a separation point, between the feudal class societies of the past and the modern, democratic societies that we live with now. I’ve always had a vague appreciation for this fact, but nothing approaching understanding. 

Here is the quote that helped me start to put things together more coherently. 

France was also, potentially before 1789 and actually after 1793, the most powerful country in Europe. It may have been the wealthiest, though not per capita. With a population of some 24M the French were the most numerous of all European peoples under a single government. Even Russia was hardly more populous until after the partitions of Poland. The Germans were divided, the subjects of the Hapsburgs were of diverse nationalities, and the English and Scots together numbered only 10M. Paris, though smaller than London, was over twice as large as Vienna or Amsterdam. French exports to Europe were larger than those of Great Britain. It is said that half the gold pieces circulating in Europe were French. Europeans in the eighteenth century were in the habit of taking ideas from France..

What this suggests to me is that France was the pinnacle of European cultural development and so showed, before several other countries did, the unsustainable nature of European society. It’s rough balance between king and nobility and its class system with the clergy and other classes installed in hereditary (or at least unchallengeable) positions of power. 

If France was Europe’s collective future, it showed that such a future was riddled with contradictions. Sure enough, Europe was overwhelmed with revolutions in the years after the French Revolution. In my mind, we are very much living in the shadow of the French Revolution and all the excesses and innovations that it played with. 

Second, the above quote speaks to me in terms of the improbable. Even the wealthiest, most powerful, most “enlightened” country could be seized by revolution. These days, stability seems to be the watchword of most developed countries, but perhaps we may again confront a turning point at which the best examples of the old way of doings things is rendered obsolete. 


Pew’s Muslim Survey (is great)

This survey was really well done. To me, it’s a really responsible form of journalism because it tackles an important but little-understood area, and it uses a fairly sophisticated set of data to do it.

I found it pretty incredible that only 6% of the surveyed Muslims went to Mecca. For me, that tenet of Islam is so interesting and unique that I somehow just assumed that it was a common thing. Not so. Very few people go to Mecca and pilgrimages are rarer the further one gets from Saudi Arabia. I assume part of this had to do with the fact that many Muslims are clustered in some very poor parts of the world. Trips are hard to arrange.

Second, a lot of the statistics in here point out that fundamentalism is really an AFRICAN phenomenon. I would like to see how the % of Muslims in Africa has changed in the last hundred years. Africa has always had significant Muslim ties, but my uneducated guess is that Muslims have skyrocketed as part of the population as Islam has become a kind of global protest religion and Africa has a lot to protest about.

I also think adding Iran and Saudi Arabia to this would be useful.


anchoring effects in the law

I’m working my way through Daniel Kahnemann’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, in which he sums up decades of his research on decision making. There are a bunch of examples in this book, and I like it because it has confirmed for me a division that I have always believed to exist, the division between deliberation and intuition. That is not, technically, the division that Kahnemann talks about, but it’s close enough. The point is that we have two ways of answering questions, one which is fast, effortless, and potentially very inaccurate, and a slower more effortful process that I think is fair to term “rational” because we are capable of entertaining deductive arguments within it.

I have to review the book before I can make any bigger points, but here is a smaller one.

Kahnemann notes that capping damage awards in certain types of lawsuits may have an anchoring effect. In other words, imposing a cap of $100,000  on damages may prevent people from imposing $120,000 in damages, but it may also move people closer to the anchored amount. In other words, the average juror has no idea how much damages will compensate for an acid spill of some magnitude or for damage to someone’s health in a botched surgery and so jurors will INVOLUNTARILY (confirmed in numerous experiments) latch on to the only number available — the anchor number and make damages closer to that number.

Absent a damage limitation amount, the jury may award $50,000 in damage, but if they are told the limit is $100,000 the same jury is much more likely to move to something higher and closer to the anchor, like $80,000.

Kahnemann goes on to make the smart point that big companies likely favor such caps for two reasons. First, it means that damages can’t get too onerous, but it also means that smaller competitors might face damages that are close to the damage limit and so threaten their survival.

What this suggests to me is that juries should not be told damage limitations up front. Rather, they should be allowed to pick a damage number. If the number is too high, they should be told that they must go lower. However, at no point should they be told the damage limitation number.

All of this course would be premised on the results of studies looking at whether the jury awards tend to over or undershoot the true economic cost of some damage (if it’s meaningful to measure “true” economic cost).


Emotions And De Re Thoughts

In this post, I would like to contrast two types of thoughts with one (and possibly two) types of emotions.

One type of thought is a thought that is in the space of reasons. The paradigm example is a belief. If I believe something, I may believe it for good reason or not. Whether my belief is justified or not is an objective fact about the belief and it’s not something that depends on me or what I think. It’s a justificatory fact. One example might be a simple logical mistake. Say that I think that global warming scientists are money-grubbing opportunists, and on that basis disbelieve the idea that global warming is human caused. The fact that I take the avarice of climate scientists to support my disbelief in global warming does not make me right. It is a fact that the avarice of climate scientists does not justify a disbelief in climate science. Such thoughts have objective attributes (i.e., they have certain attributes, like their justifiability, that are based on things unrelated to the thinkers who think them).

Another type of thought is a de re thought. These thoughts are different than objective attribute thoughts. Objective attribute thoughts get their attributes from the state of the world, but de re thoughts get their very coherence — their existence — from the state of the world. Pretend I’ve met two twins, one who is named Alice and the other who is named Abigail. I’ve interacted with both of them over a period of time but all along I mistakenly believed that I was only interacting with Alice. Then I say to myself “The girl I met today has a dramatic personality.” This thought does not get off the ground. It’s not a coherent thought because I didn’t just meet one girl, I met two. Therefore, my statement cannot be assessed for truth or falsity.

Now for the analogies in terms of emotions.

Some emotions are “within the space of reasons” meaning that they are normative and so can be appropriate or inappropriate. Anger is one such emotion. “He has no reason to be angry,” or “he has every reason to be angry.” So in this respect, emotions are like belief (though they don’t often respond so strongly to new reasoning as beliefs do). We don’t flip our anger off the moment we think it’s not justified.

The question though is: are there de re emotions. Emotions that fail to be the emotions they are aiming at when the corresponding state of affairs doesn’t exist? It would be nice if such emotions exist, because I think happiness would be one of them. Happiness is a feeling, but it is both rationally responsive and constitutively requires certain things, such as goals and projects. One cannot induce a feeling a happiness without also providing a project to the person. Such a feeling would not be happiness just as “that is round” would fail without there being an object for “that” to refer to in de re fashion.