Category Archives: Social Justice

Is the U.S. an Oligarchy?

I came across something the other day that isn’t particularly noteworthy on its own, but serves as a useful example of a common journalistic malpractice. Plus, it’s from the Washington Times, so it presents an opportunity to abuse a non-MSM source while getting in on the ground floor of the predictable internet arguments over the subject matter of the article.

The article in question bears the arresting headline, America is an oligarchy, not a democracy or republic, university study finds, which seems like pretty good click-bait for an article that doesn’t contain a word about a single Kardashian. Now, for those of you without a lot of time to spare, I’ll tell you right now that this “study” finds no such thing, so you can move along now and sleep comfortably. But there’s quite a bit to unpack from this silly article.

First, there’s really no such thing as a “university study”, despite the fact that newspapers constantly use this term. What this thing is, and what all such “studies” are, is a humble little academic paper written by two guys with jobs as professors at some universities. It gets worse in the main body of the article, where this paper is pimped as a “study jointly conducted by Princeton and Northwestern universities.” The casual reader would be nearly blameless in inferring that high-ranking officials at those two schools had decided to order members of their faculties to drop everything and get to work studying the state of the American polity. But that’s a laughably incorrect notion of academic life, where in reality profs are rewarded for grabbing some “external funding” for their research. The subject matter is of no particular interest to university officials unless it generates a lot of bad publicity. The only things that really matter to them about research are the money kicked in to the university’s general slush fund and the number of publications the authors can squeeze out of their projects.

OK, what about the research that underlies the bold claim of the headline?  The basic argument is that organized interest groups exert some degree of influence on the US government. Oh, and business lobbying is aimed at increasing business profits. No, I’m not kidding. That’s it. Pretty much stuff that Marxists and libertarians agree on, although they differ radically on the implication of this for the optimal size and scope of government.

So where does the “oligarchy” stuff come from? The actual “study” uses the term only in reference to work by another Northwestern political scientist, Jeffrey Winters, who–as far as I can tell–argues that concentrated wealth is the same thing as concentrated political power. Wealth inequality in the US therefore means oligarchy because money buys influence over policy. You can get a pretty good idea of Winters’ views from his recent post at HuffPo.

Of course, this argument is nothing more than underwear-gnome logic without specifics about the influence that the wealthy exert over policy. Did they install their fellow rich guy Mitt Romney as president? Did they kill Obamacare? Going back a few decades, when the oligarchs gave us President Nixon, why did they allow him to sign the laws creating the EPA and OSHA?

No, Prof. Winters isn’t so foolhardy as to claim that oligarchs rule the US in the way that they run, say, Russia. Instead, our unambitious oligarchs largely concern themselves with lowering the top income-tax rate. Which is to say, they’ve had to deploy all their political might to reducing the amount of their wealth voted away from them. This has got to be the most sorry-ass oligarchy ever.

The argument made by Winters’ colleagues, in the study that is the subject of the WashTimes article, is a bit different. They look at opinion survey data for the US and contrast the for/against views for an unspecified group of policy proposals, distinguishing between the responses of the top 10% of income earners and those of “average Americans”. They then attempt to estimate the responsiveness of each actual policy outcome to the preferences of these respondent groups (plus some lobbying groups). Unfortunately for the authors, the policy views of “elites” and average Joes in the US are highly correlated (to the tune of a .94 correlation coefficient, where 1.0 represents exact conformity, 0 represents complete independence, and -1 represents completely opposing views). So the main thing to be learned from their study is that there’s hardly any class warfare at all in the US.

But that’s not what the two scholars in question concluded. Being determined to sort out the differential influence of the people being taxed heavily relative to those being taxed lightly, they proceeded to massage their data in the name of eliminating “measurement error”. I’m not competent to evaluate their procedure–and only partly because they do not describe it in this study, but refer the diligent reader to a separate paper–so I’ll only report that the “cleaned” data are used to find that the opinions of ordinary Americans have no influence on public policy.

Now, one important thing to bear in mind is that merely fitting a statistical model like this and getting some estimated effects of assorted variables doesn’t necessarily tell us a lot about the importance of the results. It’s the “predictive” power of the model that tells us how important it is, and this paper never discusses that. (One type of measure of this is reported, and it’s very small, but we’re not told which of the several possible measures it represents.) In fact, this study doesn’t even contain the customary table reporting the simple summary statistics for its sample. So, for example, we aren’t told what percentage of the 1,779 “policy proposals” in question were actually enacted. This is pretty important to know in order to assess the statistical model. In a world where you get 50% “positives” and 50% “negatives”, a model that can predict positive outcomes 75% of the time is pretty good. On the other hand, if only 5% of the outcomes are positive, there’s not much to explain.

Furthermore, real-world policy outcomes aren’t binary, which means that the data used in this study contain an unknown degree of subjective opinion. Suppose, for example, people are asked if they favor or oppose an increase in the top income-tax rate, and that high-income earners oppose it while average earners favor it. Also suppose that there are three options considered by Congress: Raise the top rate by 10%, raise it by 5%, and leave it unchanged. If what passes is a 5% increase, should that be classified as a “win” for the fat cats or for the hoi polloi? And that’s a simple case. Suppose what happens is that the top rate is increased but the income threshold for being in the top bracket is also increased? How would you code that? And, given that a lot of policies are rolled up into a single mess of an omnibus bill, what are we to make of the assorted logrolling deals that were made to get the ultimate legislation passed?

I don’t mean to say that this study is rubbish, but it does seem awfully weak to serve as the basis for the view that the US is an oligarchy.  What I do mean to say is that the Washington Times report on this study is indeed rubbish, and not at all unrepresentative of MSM summaries of social-science research.

Oh, plus this: The Constitution is supposed to establish a republic, not a simple democracy that quickly passes laws that embody the weakly held, indifferently thought-out views of a simple majority. I can’t believe that I have to make that point in writing about a study by a political scientist, but then the other author is a sociologist.



Filed under Media, Politics, Social Justice

What Makes a Baseball Player “Most Valuable”?

It happens at the end of every baseball season: the argument over what “valuable” means in the context of the sport’s Most Valuable Player award. I enjoy a good argument, especially over relatively minor things like awards to multimillionaires (or, in the case of very young players, imminent multimillionaires). But I don’t enjoy reading sports columns in which the writer sets himself up as the One True Arbiter, dismissing as a fool anyone who disagrees with his value judgment. There are plenty of examples, such as this one, by Dave Cameron at Fangraphs (a site that has consistently mismeasured the value of a win, btw).

Another example of an off-puttingly high ratio of self-regard to actual merit has been written by NBC Sports columnist Joe Posnanski. Now I’ve got to stipulate up front that Posnanski is a good writer, especially when the subject is his family. But when it comes to the MVP award, Joe’s writing turns into a caricature of internet commentary. His opinion is not only correct, but it’s the only logical opinion. Anyone who disagrees with him is a fool or a knave. Sometimes that’s true, of course–you’ll find plenty of those arguments in the archives of this very blog–but it’s silly to think that considerations of “value” could possibly be inarguable.

There are two distinct parts to the question of value. Essentially, they are quantity and quality. In the case of baseball, the “quantity” aspect is a player’s level of performance. For hitting, this is pretty measurable, although there’s still a split between those who cling to the measures used in the past (particularly batting average and runs batted in) and those currently in vogue such as “offensive WAR” (don’t ask). The measurement of players’ value as fielders is recognized as imprecise by pretty much everyone.* Evaluating defense still relies heavily on direct observation, which means it’s somewhat subjective.

What’s the “quality” aspect of player value? To answer that question, you’ve first got to answer the question, How does a baseball player create value? To his employer, of course, a player’s purpose is to help sell tickets. What sells tickets? One obvious answer is a winning team. There’s plenty of evidence that that’s true, anecdotal and otherwise. During Boston’s legendary “Impossible Dream” 1967 season, for example, attendance more than doubled relative to the previous year. But there’s also the “Ted Williams” answer. Once Ted went off to fight in the Korean War, the Red Sox entered a period of mediocrity that got even worse after he retired. The main reason people bought tickets to Red Sox games after he returned from Korea was to watch Williams hit. Attendance hit rock bottom after he retired (from over 1.1 million in Ted’s last season to 733 thousand two years later). So there’s obvious value in a player’s pure performance level no matter how good or bad his teammates are. The precise balance between these two aspects of value can be debated by reasonable people, but it’s clear that the value of an additional win to a team’s fans is entirely context-dependent. This is a point that is completely missed by Fangraphs.

The Posnanski/Cameron position is either that the value of a win isn’t context-dependent, or that a player’s “value” should be measured without regard to the value of the wins he contributed to his team. (They never specify which position they’re taking, because they never show any awareness of the distinction at all.) I think of the first view as the Gertrude Stein position: A win is a win is a win. And for the same reason that Stein is wrong, so is Posnanski. The evidence supports anyone’s intuition that an extra win is worth more to a team that’s in contention for a championship than it is to a team that’s out of the running. In fact, the data show that an extra win is worth a lot more to a team that’s already likely to win 90 games than it is to a team that’s likely to win only 80 games.

The second interpretation of Posnanski’s opinion is that a player’s value should be considered independently of his team’s record. It’s not fair, in this view, to give a player credit for what his teammates do. This view is simply a personal judgment, but Posnanski claims that his position is somehow more logical than the other.** That’s not merely completely, utterly, incontrovertibly wrong. It’s also illogical.

Dave Cameron implicitly recognizes this. He doesn’t like the fact that people can argue over “value”, so he wants “MVP” changed to “Best Player”. The counterargument to this is that Major League Baseball already has many “best player” awards: the Cy Young award for best pitcher and the Hank Aaron award for best hitter. In addition, the MLB Players’ Association bestows an Outstanding Player award. There is a Gold Glove award for each fielding position, and recently a Platinum Glove award has been introduced (although it’s not an official MLB award) to honor the best overall fielder regardless of position.

So what’s left to recognize with an award? Value, in all its debatable glory.

Let the debate continue, but in complete awareness of what the fundamental issues are.


*Unnecessary detail: “Errors” have long been  understood to be unreliable statistics because a fielder who manages to get close to a relatively small number of balls in play can have a low error total but still be of low value. “Assists” are equally unreliable. Many infielders’ errors are due to errant throws, which means that a really good first baseman will improve the stats of his fellow infielders. The credit for his performance is misallocated by “assists”. For outfielders, “assists” are earned by throwing runners out on the bases, but when an outfielder develops a reputation for strong, accurate throws runners are much less likely to try to advance an extra base. Recent attempts to improve on these statistics are clearly unreliable, since the same player’s rating can fluctuate wildly from year to year.

**The adherents to the Gertrude Stein view of value often claim that the alternate view means that only players from first-place teams can be the “most valuable”. This is complete nonsense. A player’s contribution to team value is the product of his individual performance in terms of additional wins and the value of additional wins to his team. Clearly, a player on a 70-win team won’t have the highest value unless his performance vastly exceeds anyone else’s, but it’s logically possible for that to happen. The Gertrude Stein types who commit this error, and consequently dismiss those they disagree with as dolts, are a particularly annoying subspecies.

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Filed under Social Justice, Sports

The Freedom to Say “I Do” and the Freedom to Say “I Won’t”

The recent decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court forcing photographer Elaine Huguenin to sell her services to Vanessa Willock wanting her to take pics of her wedding to another woman strikes me as an appalling intrusion on her liberty. The right to marry ought not include the right to force people to participate in your festivities. Whether Elaine wins or loses her appeal, the legal proceedings will cost a lot of expensive lawyer time and plenty of emotional distress.

It appears that a likely cornerstone of her case may be a claim to first-amendment protection of artistic expression. This is the sort of convoluted cleverness that delights lawyers and nauseates the rest of us, but obviously “any port in a storm” is a persuasive argument for an embattled defendant. Nevertheless, I’m not sure that anyone who’s ever been subjected to someone else’s wedding photos is going to buy into the argument that they represent artistic expression. The same doubtful artistic status applies to the providers of typical wedding-reception music. And if you’re a caterer, don’t even bother claiming first-amendment protection for your hideous cakes.

Fortunately for any provider of wedding-related services there is a simple and effective solution to the problem of being forced to offer  those services for ceremonies you disapprove of. That solution is to set a price that is high enough either to induce unwanted clients to find another provider or to induce you to put your objections aside for the extra cash. This is eminently fair to all parties. Of course, it may be viewed by some judge with limited cognitive skills as an illegal form of price discrimination. Which is a damn shame, because it would immediately solve the problem by allowing gay couples to find all the gay-friendly photographers, musicians, and caterers through the simple expedient of checking prices.

Whether or not it is legal, this solution ought to be legal because it’s far better for all concerned than the possible consequences of forcing people to provide their services in situations that offend them. After all, while the government can force Elaine Huguenin to take the pics at Vanessa Willock’s wedding, it can’t enforce the level of quality she provides. Suppose Elaine actually shows up and is so distressed by the proceedings that her usual artistic eye and steady hand abandon her. The happy couple’s photographic record of their special day might turn out to be full of unintentional photo bombs by servers, pics of people sitting amidst piles of soiled napkins and dirty champagne flutes, and slightly out-of-focus portraits of the newlyweds. Or maybe the saxophonist in the band will find the scene before him so off-putting that he simply loses his usual tone. And let’s not even consider the horror of a dropped wedding cake.

An old saying that Nana Silicon taught me when I was a tot was, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” That also holds for wedding photographers, which is something Vanessa Willock really ought to think about before asking the state to compel a resistant Elaine Huguenin to photograph what I am sure will be a lovely ceremony. Because that ceremony would be far lovelier if it were recorded by someone who was there voluntarily.

Freedom is a beautiful thing all on its own, after all.

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Filed under Freedom, Simple Solutions to Difficult Problems, Social Justice

Hail to the DC NFL Franchise!

The name of Washington’s NFL team is once again an object of criticism in the media. ESPN is appalled. Slate has announced it will no longer refer to the team by its official, racially insensitive name.

The team’s fight song is one of only two in the NFL that anyone’s ever heard of (the other being “Bear Down, Chicago Bears”). DC fans love to sing their team’s rousing song at every opportunity, and are undoubtedly reluctant to surrender that pleasing pastime for the sake of mere political correctness. On the other hand, this is the 21st Century, and the team name does seem a little bit, er, dated.

I’d like to help solve this problem.

I’ve got a proposed team name in mind that not only keeps the fight song in (almost) all its glory, but also represents far better Washington, DC as we know it today. So, in the spirit of progress and fairness for all, I offer–at no charge whatsoever, I might add–team owner Dan Snyder the perfect new name for his football team: The Washington Reds’ Kin.

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Filed under Social Justice, Sports

On Libertarianism

The big news for libertarians lately has been that their news profile is finally high enough to provide a target. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz in particular are catching flak, particularly from fellow Republicans.  Sen. John McCain did his crazy old guy routine by calling them “wacko birds“, while NJ Governor and Number One Springsteen Fatboy Fanboy Chris Christie stooped so low as to play the 9/11 Widows and Orphans Card on them (and you know how hard it is for that guy to stoop at all). These National Security Statists–who’ve never seen a government intrusion on personal liberty that isn’t justifiable as long as somewhere on this planet there are people who hate the US and have access to telephony–have staked out a political position that is as fear-based and fact-free as an Obama speech. Try to debate them and they’ll tell you that the republic cannot survive if you keep asking questions about the scope of the activities of the National Security Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office or the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. And, by the way, stop bitching about the TSA, too, you wacky widowmaker.

That seems to be the main battle right now, but waiting in the wings is the social-justice critique of libertarianism. It’s already come up in the context of Rand Paul’s misgivings about public-accommodations laws for their restriction on the rights of property and voluntary association. It is a potentially devastating line of attack–more so, I think, than national security issues, because in this case libertarians appear to be siding with out-and-out racists.

A distinct, but closely related, critique of libertarianism comes from reasonable moralists like blogger Theo Boehm, who recoils from the freewheeling libertinism and strong egoism that he associates with the “pure drop of libertarianism“. This is the critique I’d like to address in what follows.

The basic problem, as I see it, is the term “libertarianism”, which seems to define an ideology in much the same way as “socialism”. This is a mistake. Libertarianism is not a program for remaking society; it is a predisposition to skepticism toward the expansion of the authority of the state. While it has its obvious appeal to those whose tastes run toward promiscuity of all types, it does not advocate promiscuity. In the moral sphere, what libertarianism calls for is simply personal responsibility.

I’m not a moral philosopher, so I hesitate to argue too strenuously in this domain. But a well-known argument is that humans cannot truly be moral unless they are able to choose to be moral. This, I believe, is the true foundation of libertarianism.

Impatience with mankind’s imperfection is perhaps the defining feature of contemporary liberalism. Do you think it’s wrong to judge people by their race or sex? Well then, it’s not enough that you yourself don’t do that; there oughta be a law. Don’t like the n-word? Don’t just rebuke people for using it; prosecute them for hate speech. Think that too many people are eating too much junk food? Don’t just eat sensibly yourself; put a tax on junk food. Libertarianism stands in opposition to this impulse. But that doesn’t mean that libertarianism requires that people use the n-word or eat pork rinds. 

The completely unsubtle message of contemporary liberalism is, “the state will tell you what’s right to do.” Resistance to this message may arise from totally disparate motives: religious conviction, self-indulgence, or simple stubborn independence. That’s why the coalition that opposes the liberal agenda is so fractious compared to liberalism itself. 

As the government’s domain over our personal choices grows, the need for enforcement mechanisms grows with it. Without penalties, there can be no Obamacare. And when we’ve socialized healthcare costs, we’ve justified the regulation of diet and lifestyle. A national-surveillance state isn’t just a handy way to thwart terrorists or to catch pederasts online; it’s also an essential tool for monitoring “hate” speech. And, really, what’s more hateful than speech directed against policies necessary for achieving “social justice”?


Both the NSA and the DEA justify shocking violations of privacy and liberty (what is liberty without privacy?) as necessary tools in the pursuit of their missions. At the everyday level, we see this same mentality on display whenever we observe the seemingly endless parade of ridiculous “zero-tolerance” policies in the public schools. While conservatives bash the “educrats”, and lefties bash the national intelligence apparatus, they seem to miss the common core of their complaints–the threats to freedom posed by an overarching state.

The common issue in national security, in health care, in education, in energy policy, and pretty much any policy you can think of is this: how much autonomy are you willing to cede to the government in the pursuit of safety or equality or any other Good Thing? How much moral responsibility do you want to relocate from the citizen to the state? How free do you want to be?

Libertarianism is simply the inclination to answer that last question like this: Freer than I am right now.


Filed under Freedom, Politics, Social Justice

Jasmine Rand, Social Engineer

During an interview with Greta van Susteren, one of the Trayvon Martin family’s lawyers described herself like this:  “I have a greater duty beyond being an attorney, and that’s to be a social engineer.”

There, in one brief, clear sentence, is both a description of why the US has drifted so far from being a constitutional republic and who’s fundamentally responsible. No, not the near-nullity who is Jasmine Rand, but the legal profession in general and elite law schools in particular, which seem to have the same view of themselves as Ms. Rand. So let’s use her as a case in point.

Jasmine Rand received her undergraduate education at the University of Georgia, where she majored in African American Studies and Political Science. She then attended Florida State, where she got her law degree. Now, I have no doubt that these are both fine programs, but I do not believe that they can possibly provide the educational training necessary to “engineer” a society as complex as the US. In fact, about all that one could really hope to learn about social engineering in the course of four years of college is that it’s impossible at best and fatal to millions at worst.

Consider all the things a minimally competent social engineer must know reasonably well. First of all, she’d have to know lots of actual engineering, just to figure out how to build and maintain roads, bridges, harbors, tunnels, airport control towers, and all the other parts of our infrastructure. She’d also have to figure out how to pay for all that stuff, and so would need to know a lot about the economic effects of taxes–which are much more complicated than the laws written to put them into place. Then, of course, she’d have to know a lot about statistical inference, so that she could read and evaluate all those studies of the impact of guns on crime. Mere scanning of the news, where she’d notice that lots of people get killed by guns, would be grossly insufficient for a social engineer.

And there’s lots more our social engineer has to know. Nutrition (gotta figure out what every kid in America should be eating), physiology (how much should we exercise?), medicine (how many more lives could be saved by getting more people to become doctors?), and on and on. Ethics, too: whose life is worth saving?

This should all be daunting enough to dissuade any reasonable person from even aspiring to be a social engineer, let alone proclaiming to be one. But Jasmine, and I daresay too many other lawyers, are not dissuaded. How did it happen that so many have confused the ability to impose laws with the ability to dictate outcomes? How did they come to acquire this pretense of knowledge about a set of problems that have humbled great scholars who’ve devoted their lives to their study? I don’t claim to know, but I’d like to. I’m guessing it has something to do with a particular interpretation of John Rawls, but I don’t really know.

What I think I do know is that the temptation to engineer a society makes one far too willing to harness the darker forces of human nature in order to achieve the goals the engineer sees as proper. Fear, envy, and hatred seem to have worked pretty well at getting people to do what El Jefé wants them to do. Of course, outright lies are also an important part of the mix. In the Zimmerman case, they’ve been essential to the persecution. On the other hand, the rules of evidence and the presumption of innocence have always been annoyances to angry mobs in possession of the “truth”. So it’s truly frightening to see the forces of the state–from Seminole County to the State of Florida to the US Department of Justice–encouraging an angry and ignorant mob. But it’s probably not frightening at all to those who fancy themselves social engineers.

So in a way that she does not intend, Jasmine Rand is right. She embraces the tactics of a social engineer. Maybe that’s what she learned in school.


Filed under People Who Lack Self-Awareness, Social Justice