Friday, May 1, 2009

100 days of Obama

Given the popularity of rating the progress of our new president, I figured 'what the heck', I'll jump onto this band wagon and throw in my two cents. So, in no particular order, my thoughts on the first 100 days of the 44th president of these United States.

The Bailouts - Here I give him a resounding 'meh'. No better or worse than I would have expected from a politician. I would have greatly preferred that he move instead to protect investors and provide a fallback lending program to insure businesses could get credit, and then just let the wall street firms collapse. There may be good reasons that this could not be done, but I get the impression that it has more to do with the strength of the lobbying groups than anything else. Lower ranking for the auto bailouts. These are companies that were marginal when the economy was good, they need to be replaced with something better. I would prefer to see this handled by letting them fall and providing assistance with rebuilding whatever rises from the ashes. I would say he is doing a little worse on this than I would have expected.

The Stimulus - I am neutral on this. If I understand the theory here, the notion is that we need to spend a buncha money to get things moving, and as long as we are spending it may as well be on Democrats dream list of improvements. I don't agree with all of their projects, but I am not offended by most of them either. Here I would have to say he is doing what I would have expected him to.

The Budget - This ties in heavily with the previous two. There is little arguing that he is spending at a level not seen in generations. As far as I can tell nearly all of the increase is the bailouts and stimulus, so I will not deal with that separately. His long term budget relies heavily on expected savings from programs not yet implemented to show things will get better, this is a classic case of 'counting your chicks before they hatch'; Before the eggs are even laid in this case. I could knock him for that, but this is pretty standard fare. He's dealing with an emergency situation; I do not think we can fairly judge his normal behaviour from this.

Foreign Policy - Here is where I think he really shines. Never mind that he is not getting instant results from his practice of showing respect to smaller countries; We are in this for the long game. Will someone mistake this for weakness and try to push us? Maybe, maybe not. If he caves when pushed, we have a problem, but I do not see him doing that. Countries that flat out hate us will not be won over by this, but they are largely a lost cause at this point anyways. It is the ones on the fence that are going to be affected. We have the most offensively capable military in the history of humanity, and the most powerful economy to go with it. Kudos to him for realizing that acting tough is not necessary when you are tough. This is one area where he has exceeded my expectations.

Inexperience - This is a mixed bag. The way he handles himself, and some of the errors made clearly show his lack of experience running things. Then again, so does his simply ignoring trivial attacks and his general tendency to not act like a politician sometimes. I like this. Whether I agree with him or not, I see him focused on doing what he thinks needs doing more than on playing at politics for it's own sake. The small errors are the price for this, and well worth it. (As a practical matter, I think he had better stay on target with what he does - the general public is willing to overlook small errors because he is seen as above the trivia, let him stoop to lower tactics just once or twice and they will turn on him with interest.)

Executive Power and Transparency - The big failure. Moving to expand protections for domestic surveillance and the moving of Gitmo operations to Afghanistan are unacceptable and the only area where he has really disappointed. Apparently things look different from the big chair. If the Republican party had not decided to go with an 'attack everything' strategy, they could hammer him hard on this; as things stand it is getting lost in the poutrage. Respect must be given to the grassroots Left for calling him on this, but the parties are not paying enough attention to keep it on the news, and that is what it takes to change stuff like this.


I am sure I missed stuff, but that is all I feel like typing for now.

My general impression? Pretty damn good for a Democrat.


Thursday, April 30, 2009

Practical Application of the Silly Putty Theory of Society

Having built a base with my last post, it is time to look at the practical applications of the theory. In the end any model is only as good as the utility it provides.

The main conclusion that I draw is that focused regulations will always result in undesired consequences. While one can point out specific flaws in individual regulations, that it not the true cause. The real cause it that a fluid system moving towards equilibrium of the forces acting upon it will always adapt around localized obstructions. The individual mechanism may matter in the details, but in a macro sense, not so much.

This should not be taken to mean that no regulation can work. It is rather an assessment that only actions that act as a force on a significant 'volume' of the system will ever achieve their desired goals.

In the comments in my last post Tao raised the question of the FDIC. At first I would have considered this a limit, but really it is a force. It creates a vector the magnitude of peoples faith in the governments ability to meet the guarantee, placed in precise opposition to their fear that money in the bank could simply vanish if the bank collapsed. The existence of the FDIC is probably the single most important difference between this recession and the great depression.

Social security, food stamps, and various 'here's your money' programs act to prevent those who fail to succeed in society from going into unrecoverable free fall. Even from a purely economic sense, it is hard to deny the importance of this. People with nothing to loose are dangerous. The proper balance between this type of assistance and programs oriented towards providing an upward impetus is a question not yet fully answered.


A truly blatant example if what I don't like about focused legislation is here (by way of the Coyote Blog) . The response may be to say that policy can be better designed. I would disagree. Anyone who has ever tried to get management types to do a use case scenario analysis for software design will understand why. Even people whose main job is to look at the big picture are incredibly bad at envisioning all the ways a system may be needed to act. Rarely can you get them to come up with more that half a dozen cases. And of course they complain the software has a bug when it does exactly what they asked for and yields a bad result.

(An unrealated observation. It is hard to type while on an excercise bike. But is easy to pedal a long time when typing. Go figure.)


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Society, Governmental Regulation, and Silly Putty

Like many libertarian leaning people, I have a distinct lack of regard for governmental regulation. I find that I have a difficult time expressing the reasons for some of this to people who don't share the view, but I recently developed a model that describes it. Using silly putty. I use silly putty because 1) It describes the effect in a visualizable way, and 2) I think it's funny.

For those unfamiliar with silly putty, it has some odd characteristics. Given an applied force (like gravity) it will flow to conform to a container. Strike it suddenly, and it will bounce or even break. This is important, as we shall see. (can you imagine me as a professor?) For the purposes of this post, I will use the putty as a model for society, with government represented by actions applied to the putty. I divide the actions into three types.

First up is forces. Forces act by pulling or pushing society in various directions. These are the most basic effects on society and act in a very broad fashion. The desire for stuff, need for security, and political ideology are examples of forces. The need for politicians to do what it takes to get elected would be another. Governmental examples would be criminal law enforcement and broadly designed tax incentives. Forces act in ways that have effects that are usually fairly predictable in a large sense, but less so in the details. When measured by statistics, forces tend to create a 'bell curve' shape if they are balanced by another force, or a 'hockey stick' if they are not. In the silly putty model, forces control where the putty tries to flow towards.

Next up are limits. Limits are properties of the system that keep it within artificial bounds. This would be things like Social Security, Welfare, and minimum wage. I cannot think of any that are not governmental, but that does not mean they do not exist. Limits also act in ways that tend to be pretty predictable, but not always the ones desired. When measured by statistics, limits tend to express as a 'pooling' effect at the limit. (See chart 3 on this report that Luis showed me... this is what got me started on this analogy). In the silly putty model, limits are the container that bounds some areas.

Lastly are focused forces. Focused forces are specific interactions aimed at narrowly target goals. Note that they can push or pull. These would be things like regulations against specific chemicals, incentives towards specific technologies, and demographically targeted laws. The only thing predictable about the results is their unintended consequences. When measured by statistics focused forces tend to express as a temporary 'spike' or 'divot'. In the silly putty model, this is analogous to pushing against the putty with a pencil, or pulling with a hook.

My personal notion is that forces are the best way to manipulate a system, followed by limits. Focused forces have a brief effect, but the inevitably fluid nature of any complex system will always cause it to flow around the obstruction, often with results worse than what the action was trying to fix. Limits are a middle option, to be used when necessary. Broad forces are the least attractive to many policy makers because of the lack of easily predicted point results, but in terms of making real and lasting changes are by far the most effective.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

Societal Inertia

As those of you who have been so patiently following my musings know, I have been doing a lot of research lately on statistics about the economy,government, and society over the last however many years I can get data for. And I have finally come to one important conclusion.

The government has a lot less control than most folks think. There are underlying currents in society that have a vastly larger affect than any set of policies or any political party.

Something changed in the behaviour of society in the mid to late 1970's. People started to save less and spend more. Credit went from being a necessary evil to be used only when absolutely needed, to a way to buy conveniences and luxuries.

I would guess this to be a generational change. This was the point at which people who had not lived through the Great Depression began to economically 'outnumber' those who had not.

Government changed also. Government spending, which had been increasing steadily, levelled off. We went from a steady budget surplus to consistent deficits, following just a few years after personal expenditures did the same.

What strikes me about this is that Government followed the public, not the other way around. It is popular to talk about Reagan as the start of this change, but I think that he was a symptom, not a cause.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Loosing By Winning

For most of my life, one defining characteristic of the Republican party has been their political effectiveness. Not necessarily at accomplishing anything, but at winning. They developed the concept of party unity and discipline to an extent that the Democrats never did. It kept them winning elections, and to a large extent controlling congress even when they did not win elections.

And it is what is killing them now. The current crop has learned a pattern of behaviour that has been successful their entire careers, but that is all it is. A pattern of behaviour. The ideas and ideals have long since been replaced with talking points and dogma. It's not enough anymore, but the party structure has no room for new ideas.

But because it has always worked, they cannot adapt. They lash out in frustration, doing the same things they have always done, and they cannot understand why it doesn't work anymore. Look at their 'budget' proposal. That has to be the most pathetic thing I have ever seen. Lower taxes but then expect the deficit to fall because people will voluntarily pay more than required? Seriously? Freeze spending? Oh, yeah, and then I'll make my car run better by cutting off 20% of the fuel. They attack Obama for everything but breathing, and hell they will probably start in on that next. This is particularly bad because there are some things he is doing that do deserve some serious scrutiny, but no one is listening to chicken little anymore.

The Republican party needs to grow the f$%! up and start looking at what they can learn from Obama. It is not about strategy. It is not about tactics. It is about having a real plan about policy and a real goal for the future.

And the Democrats should probably be looking closely at the failure of the Republicans. This is the long term risk success brings.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Measuring Sucess

So a little bit ago, I posted a question about how we would measure the success or failure of our society and government. The silence was deafening. The only direct response was regarding health care, and I while it is a worthwhile area of study, it is certainly not enough by itself. Later I have received comments rejecting the concept of quantitative measurement as a means of assessment altogether. This does not work for me either.

I think the problem with settling on a set of quantitative measurements is that one will quickly discover that the most tightly held beliefs are often not supported by the evidence. Two obvious examples would be 'tax and spend democrat' and 'rising cost of living'. A review of the deficit will quickly sink the first, the consumer price index the latter.

It is simply the nature of how the brain works that we easily accept information that matches our world view, and we challenge or outright reject information that contradicts it. Humans are incredibly poor at weighing the costs and benefits of actions in a rigorous fashion; it is an ability that must be consciously and rigorously developed. Witness the popularity of video poker. A few seconds thought will make it obvious that as the lottery turns a consistent profit, the players must turn a consistent loss. And yet ask those who play and 99 out of 100 will tell you they are 'even or maybe a little ahead'. The emotional impact of winning and loosing is not a linear affect, so many small losses will be outweighed by the rare large win, even though the net over time is always a loss.

Likewise, the benefits of policies we agree with are easier to see and have more emotional impact than the costs. The opposite is true of policies we disagree with. Attached to this is the tendency to apply a binary 'good'/'bad' label to the policy. The reality is messy and unattractive; all policies have costs and benefits. There are vanishing few pure gain or pure loss actions.

So I conclude that an objective quantitative means of measuring society is necessary to make any kind of informed decision. As a matter of practicality, some of the means will slant one way, some will slant another. As long as they balance out reasonably well, the imperfections of any one indicator are not a huge problem.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tea Parties Revisited

The Rasmussen Report released this report about the public perception of the 'tea parties'.
On a sub page they have less processed numbers. Note that they show only 1000 respondents, which is pretty typical of polls like this; that seems a strong argument against taking polls like this too seriously.

Living on the internet as I do, it is strange how much my sense of things like this gets distorted. The week before the 'parties' commentary about them just dominated the left blogs. Right blogs that were promoting the 'parties' didn't spend half the words as blogs questioning, criticizing, and of course mocking them.

Myself, I can't say I had a lot of interest in the 'parties' themselves. They need to have a message more clearly defined than 'I don't like this' before I am going to pay much attention.

I do find the accusations of astroturfing amusing. First off, I was a regular at one of the blogs that helped launch the whole thing at the time it caught on. I watched it develop in real time. Secondly, look at these people. They are just not organized well enough to be a planned campaign. Where are the catchy, universal slogans? Note the lack of buses. Note the blatant inexperience with things like permits. The interest groups are not driving this, they are trying to cash in on it.

Also interesting is how much this is portrayed as a Republican thing. At least one of the liberal bloggers I follow was active. Supposedly, Steele himself was turned down when he asked to speak, although he denies asking. Most everyone I have read who went for any purpose but heckling mentioned the effort spent on keeping it non-partisan. Elected officials of any stripe were largely excluded.

Really, this was a libertarian protest; most libertarians are just Republicans. Many don't know it.

In the end I think I will neither support nor deride their efforts. Their message is too poorly developed to deserve my support; their protest too heartfelt to deserve my scorn.


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