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July 2014 - December 2015

The Mismeasure of Man

The Ben Carson Gambit

Facts Checked? Not!!

The False Promise of Transparency

Due to ... just too many things going on, I did not pen any blog entries from June of 2014 until August of 2015.
But, I did write some things for the local paper (which may still make their way here) and I did add to my
Hiking Grand Canyon section as well as write up a trip report on my recent trek up Kilimanjaro.

Monday, August 31, 2015

   The Mismeasure of Man -  [With apologies to Steven J. Gould]  When it comes to economic measurement, there are awful measurements (like GDP, for instance) and then there are absolutely meaningless measurements.  By and away the worst of these are rankings.  For example, a study was reported on in the local paper not too long ago with regard to the performance of public schools in Arizona.  The headline read, "Study ranks Arizona public schools 4th worst in U.S."  As if it wasn't bad enough that such a ranking is valueless, that it's headline classifies this as "4th worst" is truly inane.

     We can start with the obvious - there is no definition of "worst" except to mean "least" or "lowest."  That is, Arizona ranks 46th out of 50 states.  One cannot possibly describe anything below the median (i.e., the 25th ranked state) as worse, nor any above as better, because it there is no meaning to the words better or worse, unlike the words highest and lowest.  The point that always gets my goat (except that I've never had a goat) is that everyone seems to be clueless that there will always be a lowest ranked state.  Or a 4th lowest.  It is in the nature of the measurement.  Suppose that the highest per pupil spending was $20,000 per year and that the lowest was $19,950.  Would we really discern any meaningful difference, even though some state is ranked last?  Of course not.

     What if the difference between the highest and lowest was $10,000?  That is, the highest amount is $20,000 while the lowest is $10,000.  Would that prove anything?  No.  Different places have different costs of living and this averaging out does nothing to illuminate that difference.  And, it still doesn't prove that $10,000 is too low, yet that is invariable the interpretation given in these types of "studies."  Perhaps it is the case that $20,000 is too high?  Indeed, in the article, it is noted that Arizona ranks 27th in average SAT test scores.  Given we are 46th in spending, it seems that our spending is generally quite effective.

     This raises another critical point here - there is no way to measure the value to the consumer of public education.  We can only measure inputs (like spending and classroom size) and try to correlate them to measures of output (like SAT scores and graduation rates) that poorly represent consumer value.  Of course, if we left this all to the private sector, we wouldn't need to measure any of this!!

     Still, the point is made over and over again that in a ranking of 50 states (or any other number of political units), there is something wrong/bad/inefficient about being at the lower end of the ranking even though there must always be a lower end.  I guess you could say this was just a special case of the Lake Woebegon syndrome.  I am reminded of John Kenneth Galbraith's description of a squirrel running on his wheel as a suitable model for some economic behavior.  I don't agree with how he used it, for something he called the "dependence effect," but it certainly seems appropriate when it comes to the drumbeat for government action to keep us from being ranked low on the scale of ____ (fill in the blank).

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

   The Ben Carson Gambit -  Who wouldn't want to see Dr. Ben Carson as our next president?  The soft-spoken neurosurgeon who sees the world pretty much the same way I do rocketed into the national spotlight with his schooling of President Obama on health care (and other topics) at the National Prayer Breakfast a couple of years ago.  As someone outside the political process it is automatically assumed that he can't make it.  But, wait.  We have Donald Trump stirring up the pot and taking up the bulk of all political reporting and that may be just the ingredient that is needed to propel Carson to the Republican nomination.  Putting on my speculative glasses, here's how ...

     Trump continues to poll at around 25%.  Carson and Fiorina are almost at 20% between the two and I expect that to continue rising.  This leaves all of the "political" candidates scrambling for a share of what remains.  With many local favorites, this makes it very hard for anyone to even crack the 10% mark.  Everyone seems to agree that the main group of these contenders would include Bush, Walker, Cruz and Rubio.  Barring some terrible blunder it is hard to see how any of these candidates can catch fire and bounce to the top of the charts.  If it was just between the four of them, then I would predict a long and exciting primary season.  But, I am quite sure that none of them really wants Trump to be the eventual nominee.  So, as we get closer to primary time, it is going to be decision time for these candidates - do they wage war on Trump (which so far hasn't been successful) or do they drop out and support another candidate?

     I can't see any of the politicos eager to support one of their own, both because it goes against the grain of their being and because that candidate would still probably fall short of being viable against Trump.  But, if they turned their support to Carson, that would change everything.  Trump can't bad-mouth Carson the way he does Bush, et al.  And as long as Carson looks viable, he can easily drain away supporters from Trump.  The first step has to come from Bush.  As of now, he looks to be repeating John Connolly's performance in the 1980 election - raising boatloads of money and having little/nothing to show for it.  If Bush can't beat Trump, and I think he'll come to that decision eventually (after all, he can't outspend him!), he can step down and swing his support to Carson.  Perhaps, in return, Carson will accept Bush as the VP candidate, giving Jeb a strong voice in a Carson Administration.

     The other candidates will then have to weigh their option to keep fighting a losing battle or to join this bandwagon.  Those who do so earlier will likely negotiate better quid pro quos than those that come aboard later.  Some may hold out because they are content with their current status as governor (Walker and Kasich; maybe Jindal) or as senator (Rubio and Paul).  I think Cruz will stay in for the long haul as will Christie, although if the latter is tired of being the governor of New Jersey, he might try to parlay his support into a cabinet seat.  All the other "semi-serious" candidates ("the 1%ers" as I like to call them - insert smiley face here) - Huckabee, Santorum, Perry, Pataki - are unlikely to have any relevance no matter what they decide to do. That leaves only Fiorina.  She will be a huge asset on the campaign trail next fall, as a foil against Hillary.  I think she should stay in the race to the end even if she is just polling in the low double digits.  And, I'm sure a place can be found for her in a Carson Administration as well.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

   Facts Checked? Not!! -  Following the first GOP candidates debate in August, the Associated Press (AP) ran an article of the "fact check" nature titled Candidates veer from the truth.  The idea is fine with me since politicians have an incentive to lie given that they only need to win once (well, per election).  Contrast that with a business that needs to win customers every day - start lying to them and you'll soon be out of business.  But, for a fact check to be useful, one must first start with facts.  That's not what this writer (Josh Lederman) did.  Instead he brought his own biases to the table and tried to pass off his opinions as fact checks.  Here they are, in order:

Trump on illegal immigration.  Trump said that if it wasn't for him, the press (and others) would be ignoring this problem.  Is there anything more obvious than that?  I can't imagine that there is.  Yet Lederman "fact checks" this by noting that it has been the subject of discussion for thirty years.  And, that proves what?  Nothing!  Indeed, it is the kind of statement that cannot be fact-checked because we don't know what the prevailing discussion would be in the campaign if Trump had decided not to run.

Bush on 4% annual growth in the economy.  This is the one that really got me, for obvious reasons.  Of course the economy can grow this much, and in the past it was quite the norm.  But the government has done so much to stymie economic growth that it seems we have become used to the lousy performance of the last five years.  Yes, it has been ten years since we've had a year-over-year growth of 4%, but Lederman's proof is that such growth is viewed as "unlikely" by "most economists."  Yeech.

Bush on replacing ObamaCare.  Bush argues that we can find a better way that won't kill jobs.  Lederman's "facts" here are that the unemployment rate has fallen since the ACA was signed into law.  OMG!  Does he not know the difference between correlation and causation?  That alone doesn't prove anything about Bush's comment on ObamaCare.  Indeed, with so many people dropping out of the labor force over the last five years, the unemployment rate is not especially useful as a jobs measure anyway.

Christie on balancing his state budget without tax increases.  This one is especially awful.  Lederman notes that Christie cut the earned income tax credit in his first term but later raised it to a higher level later.  Is that proof that he didn't raise taxes?  It hardly seems so.  Then he goes on to note that Christie has delayed implementing another tax credit.  Well, that still isn't a tax increase.  And, that he tried to raise taxes on e-cigarettes, but failed to do so.  The only actual tax increase cited is a sales tax on internet purchases.  While I think that is a horrible idea, it still doesn't really disprove Christie's claim - either this sales tax is rather trivial, or other taxes have fallen to offset them.  I don't really know the answer here, but I presume that if this statement really was false, then Lederman could have looked up the actual tax revenue generated in New Jersey.  If he really cared.

Trump on his net worth.  Trump claims he is worth $10 billion.  And, Lederman starts off by noting nobody knows what Trump is worth.  Yikes!!  How can you fact-check this if you don't have any facts???  He says that there is some documentation that shows his wealth may be $8.7 billion while other sources contend it might be a mere $2.9 billion.  Absolutely ridiculous issue, and why should it even be considered an issue?  He's rich.  Move on.

Bush on job creation.  Bush claims that while governor 1.3 million jobs were created in Florida.  And, what is Lederman's research show about this claim?  That is it true!!!!  But, Lederman notes, most of those jobs were lost during the recession (after Bush was governor).  OMG times 100!!!!!

Carson on the Air Force.  Claiming that the Air Force is the smallest it has been since 1940, Lederman jumps on that claim by noting that the Air Force was created in 1947.  Aha, finally a fact to be checked!  I wonder if Lederman also checked the fact of whether there really are 57 states as then-candidate Barak Obama said back in 2008?  Of course Obama knows how many states there are.  It was just a mistake and while it was funny, it wasn't telling in any way.  Nor is the actual date that the Air Force was created.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

   The False Promise of Transparency -  On November 8, the Daily Sun ran an editorial on the subject of so-called dark money.  The main point was that any contribution to a political cause (or candidate) must be made a matter of public record.  The notion that one should be allowed some anonymity was dismissed, in part with justification from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.  Of course, this hardly means that the editor has some new-found appreciation for anything else that Scalia says.  The bottom line here is that there may be some ballot initiative next year that deals with these issues.

     I penned a letter in response and submitted it via the web four days after the editorial ran.  I thought that since this was a topical issue that my letter would run relatively quickly.  But, days passes by and then weeks.  Not seeing anything show up by this past Friday (Dec. 4th), I sent a note to the editor about it.  He said he didn't see it and so he placed it at the front of the queue.  It ran in today's paper and appears below.  This is not the first time that one of my letters has disappeared.  Should I suspect a conspiracy?  I don't know.  But, the Sunday edition after I sent my letter was full of all liberal nonsense letters with no balance whatsoever.

To the editor:

With all due respect to Justice Scalia, the notion that one must reveal to whom they have given money for political purposes goes against the spirit of the founding principles of this country. The requirement that you must stand up and be scrutinized, harassed and intimidated for such contributions is part and parcel of the establishment of a one-party state.

My views on this changed when I heard a presentation some years ago by FEC Chairman Bradley Smith (appointed by President Clinton). He read off names of contributors and the amounts they gave before an audience of some many hundred and asked whether that seemed fair to do. Then he told the story of how many in the Johnson Administration, frustrated by the President’s support for the war in Vietnam, secretly gave money to his opponents in 1968, primarily Eugene McCarthy. It was McCarthy’s success in New Hampshire (he lost but got 42 percent of the vote) that led to Johnson bowing out of the race. The so-called “clean elections” rules we have today would have suppressed those voices, and we would have been the worse for that.

The “problem” of money in politics isn’t money; it’s politics. As the government extends its reach over more and more of the economy anyone with a vested economic interest has a compelling motivation to influence the outcome, either for good (get government to leave you alone) or for bad (get government to support and subsidize you). The real solution is to reduce the size of government, as Rand Paul recently said, “so small [that] you can barely see it.”

I don't remember the exact date of the event I mentioned in the letter.  It was a lunch sponsored by the Goldwater Institute and I want to say it was at, or near, the Biltmore Hotel.  Going in I was definitely in the "transparency" camp, although opposed to limits on donations.  But, as Smith started rattling off names and amounts, I changed my mind and ever since I have been against any of these rule.  Of course, as I noted, the problem really isn't the money, it is that government has too broad a reach.  You can find his book, Unfree Speech, at Amazon and a review of the book here.

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