Friday, June 29, 2012

The Rice Christian Cycle

Consider a political view that is out of fashion--conservatism or libertarianism c. 1960, say. Not many academics, not many authors, support it. But the ones who do are committed supporters because nobody else would pay the costs of being on the outside.  And, on average, they will be abler than the opposition, both because they have been exposed to both sides, the other being all around them, and because surviving intellectually when everyone thinks you are wrong is hard work.

Suppose some change, say the Reagan revolution, reverses the roles. One of the reasons for the change is that the outs, while less numerous than the ins, were of higher quality—more committed, with better arguments. It is hard, after all, to do a good job of rebutting views that you don't take seriously and, in any case, are rarely exposed to.

Now being a conservative is not only respectable, it is the route to a good job in Washington, perhaps a profitable and prominent career. The number who choose to support that position increases sharply but their quality decreases, both because it is much easier to maintain a position when it is in favor and because quite a lot of them are rice Christians--the equivalent, in the intellectual and political world, of Chinese who converted to Christianity because the missionaries had rice. 

On the other side, things are moving in  the opposite direction. Only those who really believe in liberalism (modern American sense) continue to support it, now that it looks more like the wave of the past than the wave of the future.

And since the new ins are getting flabby, and the new outs, if less numerous, are now of higher quality than they used to be, the wheel turns again.

Not, I am sure, a full explanation of political cycles, but perhaps at least a partial explanation.

Consequences of the Verdict

A number of commenters opposed to Obamacare have argued that the verdict, while an immediate loss for their side, might be a win in the longer run, either because keeping the unpopular program will hurt the Democrats in the election or because the legal principles on which the case was decided restrict government actions in important ways, even if not enough to render the mandate unconstitutional.

I do not know enough about either law or politics to have a confident opinion as to whether they are right, but I think there is an important consequence they are missing. 

First a digression ... 

One puzzle for public choice theory, the economics of politics, is why people vote even though they know that, in a large polity like the U.S., their vote has essentially no chance of affecting the outcome of the election. The answer I find most convincing is that most people vote for the same reason that many people cheer for their team in a football match. They enjoy being partisans, feeling "part of the team." That, in my view, is the reason why sports teams, unlike most other sorts of firms, are routinely connected to cities and universities. The connection brings with it a precommitted band of partisans and so increases the value of the entertainment being provided.

One round has just been completed in a giant game that is played out every four years with the future of the world at stake, a game that you can be a player in at the cost of a few minutes spent in the voting booth. However the other side may try to spin it, Obama won that round. Part of the fun of being a partisan is identifying with your side. It is, on the whole, more fun to identify with winners than with losers.Whatever other effects the outcome of the Obamacare case may have, that one will be a significant plus for Obama's team.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It Only Took Forty Years

One chapter in my Machinery of Freedom proposed what I described as "jitney transit," organized ride sharing for pay, as a low cost form of mass transit. The capital and operating costs are already covered, since lots of people are already driving from one place to another with empty seats in their cars. All that is needed is some way to connect riders with drivers. I did, however, note one problem:
The other difficulty is political. Many large cities have regulations of one sort or another to control cabs and cab drivers; these would almost certainly prohibit jitney transit. Changes in such regulations would be opposed by bus drivers, cab drivers, and cab companies. Local politicians might be skeptical of the value of a mass transit system whose construction failed to siphon billions of dollars through their hands.
I just got an email from a friend, pointing to an article on a modern version of the idea currently being implemented via a cell phone app. The entrepreneur responsible describes regulation as the key obstacle. Existing legal restrictions are avoided by making the payment nominally voluntary; the rider makes an offer of payment via the app, chooses how much to actually pay when he arrives. But there remains the risk of future regulation, pushed by incumbents to slow down innovation that competes with them.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Are There Sophisticated Fake Reviews and Reviewers?

Quite often, before choosing a restaurant, or buying somewthing, or hiring someone to work on my roof, I check the web for reviews. Occasionally I find a suspicious pattern—lots of very positive and rather generic reviews, along with a smaller number of very negative reviews that sound as though they were written by real people—which suggests that the positive reviews are fakes, written by someone working for their subject. On one notable occasion, that pattern warned me off of a roofing firm that, I concluded, was the third generation of a serial scam. There exists at least one online firm whose business is improving a firm's online reputation—I do not know enough about them to say whether they restrict themselves to honest ways of doing it.

Recently, looking for a furniture store, I came across what I thought might be a less clear version of the same pattern. The reviews were on Yelp, which lets you  click on the name of the reviewer and see the rest of his reviews. If all of one reviewer's reviews are in praise of a single firm, one might suspect that he works for them—and his job is writing favorable reviews. The reviewers I was looking at did not fit that pattern.

Which started me wondering  how sophisticated the people who sell the service of improving a firm's reputation might be by this time. Are there some who deliberately create believable reviewers, write real reviews of a number of products or businesses, and then sell the service of having the same reviewers write glowing reviews for anyone who will pay for them?

Anyone know?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Salt, Official Truth, and the New York Times

The New York Times recently published an interesting op-ed on the subject of salt. Its thesis is, first, that we have been and are being told by a variety of authoritative sources that we ought to consume less salt, second, that there is not and never has been adequate scientific support for that claim, and third that there is now evidence suggesting that the official advice is not merely mistaken but dangerous, that reducing salt consumption to the recommended level might well be bad for one's health.

What struck me about the piece was not mainly its contents—I had seen reports in the past on evidence that reducing salt consumption was bad for one's health—but its placement. I am not a regular reader of the Times, but my impression is that, in other contexts, it is sympathetic to arguments from official truth, arguments that start with some version of "all scientists agree that" and treat anyone who disagrees as either misinformed or in the pay of some interest group that wants the truth suppressed. Global warming is the obvious example, but I think there are others. So it was interesting to see them publish a piece debunking one version of that argument.

A close parallel to the case of salt is the case of saturated fat. A few decades back, the official wisdom, promoted by more or less the same sorts of authorities that now tell us to eat less salt, was that saturated fat was bad for the heart and one should therefor switch from butter to margarine. Further research eventually led to the conclusion that, while saturated fat was somewhat bad for the heart, trans-fats were much worse—and the margarine we were being told to switch to was made from hydrogenated vegetable oil, hence replaced saturated fats with trans-fats. In that case, as best I can tell, the official advice was not merely wrong but lethally wrong, a fact which led to less skepticism about official truth than it should have. Any readers better informed about the subject—nutrition is not an area where I can claim any expertise—are welcome to correct my account, but I think it is accurate.

I was, perhaps, less inclined than most to take official truth at face value due to early experiences in what was to become my field. As an undergraduate at Harvard in the early sixties, I had a conversation with a fellow undergraduate who informed me—he had no idea who I was—that he could not take an economics course at Chicago because he would burst out laughing. Even aside from what I knew about the controversy between the Chicago and Harvard schools, it seemed to me that the fact that a student who had probably taken one introductory course in the field thought himself competent to judge, with confidence, which school was correct, was a good reason to be skeptical of the claims of his teachers. And, within a decade or two, the Harvard school had largely conceded that, on at least some of the debated points, they had been wrong.

In the case of global warming, I am inclined to accept the official version of the climate science, since I don't know enough about the subject to be competent to question it. But the official version of the associated economics, the claim that the rate of warming implied by the climate science will have large negative effects, strikes me as unconvincing and probably wrong, for reasons I have discussed here in the past. 
(Many more of my posts on the subject.)

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Is TSA Vandalism Deliberate Policy?

My previous post described a case of TSA vandalism that I recently encountered and raised the question of why the note informing me that my luggage had been searched did not identify the particular TSA employee who searched it—that being an obvious and inexpensive way of discouraging both pilfering and vandalism. One commenter on the post described his own repeated experience, along lines similar to mine, and offered an interesting explanation. 
The TSA agent is telling you not to bring stuff like that in your luggage anymore. Jars within jars containing some weird material need to be investigated by TSA agents. That means work and they don't like it. They are trying to teach you a lesson. The lesson is stop bringing that type of stuff on the plane with you.
Seen from this standpoint, the vandalism is not merely tolerated by TSA it is, at least tacitly, approved of. Which explains why TSA does not take obvious and inexpensive steps to prevent it.

It strikes me as a plausible conjecture but, short of getting a TSA inspector to confess, I cannot think of any easy way of testing it.