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Marx still (mostly) wrong, but not for the reason everyone thinks: Capitalism, Marxism, and Distributed Error

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One of the greatest problems with Marxist theory is the failure of central planners to correctly organize an economy. When the supplies at every grocery store are determined not by the owners or managers of each grocery story, but by the central planners, the result was a seemingly random mix of absurd oversupply of some items and crippling scarcity of other items.

One typical justification for this–and one that has become a pillar of one U.S. political party’s thinking–is that the government is simply bad at economic intervention (and, by extension, the private sector is remarkably good at it). This is wrong. I would suggest that both are equally skilled.

Instead, what I believe is happening is simply a statistical issue. If there is only one decision making authority, the errors of that authority are amplified and show up in every store. However, if every store is its own decision maker, then the errors of one store will tend to be cancelled out by another store. If one store incorrectly orders too many boots and not enough flour, its likely that another store will have extra flour, and still another will not have enough boots. With decentralized control, each individual private enterprise need be no better than the central planner for the net effect to be far more positive.

So government is not necessarily worse or better than any other group at such planning (and likely at most everything else). It’s just that, as when rolling dice, more rolls will tend to yield an overall result closer to the statistical average than will fewer rolls.

So Marxism still doesn’t work, but let’s not learn the wrong lessons from this.

Written by Steve

March 21, 2015 at 8:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Statistical Nonsense: No, Democrats Did Not Lose Support Among Hispanics or Women (probably)

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Just a quick comment to point out that all the analysis of how Democrats or Republicans gained or lost among populations in the last election is largely bunk.

In general, it is extremely difficult to accurately compare different elections because you are not looking at the same sample group. So, right off the bat, if you see any comparisons between the party support among demographic groups in 2012 and 2014, ignore them. Apples to oranges. Comparing 2010 to 2014 is better, but still problematic. Consider: Republican support among Latinos went up from 2010 to 2014. So, did some Latinos who supported Democrats in 2010 switch to Republicans in 2014, or did those who supported Democrats in 2010 simply not vote in 2014? Both cases would show up as rising support among this population.

Now consider that turnout for 2014 was the lowest since World War 2. This suggests the second of the possibilities—Democratic voters staying home—is more likely: Republican voters were simply more committed, and so those Republicans in all groups were a larger percentage of the total electorate. So what really happened was not that Republicans gained among Latinos, but that Democrats weren’t motivated enough to vote. In fact, this is largely what happened (in reverse) in 2006, when Republicans stayed home. Regardless, this is a somewhat different issue, and should not be confused with fundamental changes in support. It’s a fundamental change in turnout, likely stemming from a fundamental change in motivation, and while that deserves study, we have to be certain we’re studying the right thing.

(And by the way, I would suggest that motivation comes from having a well-defined enemy more than a well-defined hero, so the out-party will always have an advantage there.)

UPDATE: fivethirtyeight.com weighs in, making a similar point. When turnout is high only in Republican states, overall turnout will look very Republican. A turnout problem, then, not a change in support among key demographics.


Written by Steve

November 10, 2014 at 10:44 am

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Do Policies Matter to Voters? Not post-partisan: post policy.

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The recent midterms have led to much talk of how even mid-term local elections have become nationalized, leading to a partisan sorting, where there are few red elected officials in blue states, or blue officials in red states. No politics is local now, it seems.

Setting aside the very legitimate question of how much can be drawn from a single midterm election, and one that looks to have the lowest turnout since WW2, I would suggest that a kin to this nationalization is that policies are not foundational elements of voting patterns. (The question of how much they ever were key elements of voting patterns has to be left for someone with more historical knowledge than me.) That is, I argue that politician’s support for or opposition to actual policies has very little effect on voter support. This, of course, raises the issue of why we do vote for anyone in particular.

The most obvious example is that, while voters even in very red states strongly backed raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana, they also strongly backed Republican candidates who were opponents of both these policies. However, one can also look at polling on issues, and find that Democratic policies consistently poll very well and have widespread support even in conservative areas (often more than Republican policies, in fact). So the most obvious conclusion is that policies aren’t the primary basis by which voters select candidates. But let’s be a bit my systematic about the whole thing, and review some possible explanations for these results.

  1.  This election was an anomaly, and the low turnout skewed the electorate. But, for this to explain the whole thing, one would also have to explain why Democrats stayed home. And perhaps the particular policies in question simply didn’t motivate them enough. But there’s surely more here.
  2. Voter ignorance. There is likely something to this. Poll after poll shows voters know far less about candidates, policies, and even current events, than the fanatical followers of politics would imagine. For instance, few people recognize that employment is up and the deficit is down under Obama. (poll about what people thought unemployment rate is)
  3. Candidate “spin.” Candidates are often masters of saying what the audience wants to hear, or at least not saying what it doesn’t want to hear. One clever way to do this is to speak in terms of values rather than policies. The classic example here is the right’s focus on “small government.” Indeed, when asked, most people will say they favor a smaller government. However, when asked which government agencies or functions should be cut, the only one that is consistently on the chopping block is foreign aid (less than 1% of the budget). So voters can like the value, but hate policy that would flow from the value.
  4. Good enemies. I personally suspect politics is not primarily about who you support, but who you oppose. The President is always the face of the party, and being a single person can be easily attacked. Thus attacking Obama is easier than attacking some unknown Republican, and furthermore, in doing so, it feels like one is attacking the whole of the Democratic Party. There is no comparable out-party attack that can be structured. The out-party folks just aren’t sufficiently well known.
  5. Pavlov rings the bell and then gives the dogs food. After a while, the bell alone is enough to make the dogs salivate because they have been conditioned to associate the bell with dinner. It may be that the parties have been sufficiently associated with particular issues that the issues themselves have dropped away. Candidates no longer need to mention the issues very often, and can in fact propose policies that run contrary to the issues and not receive blame or praise. So Obama cuts a trillion dollars from the deficit and presides over the first reduction in the size of the federal workforce since the end of WW2, and Republicans (and many Democrats) still believe he’s increased the deficit and expanded the government. We’ve been trained to think tax & spend <–> Democrat. No need for dinner; we still salivate.

Like any complex situation, there may be a variety of causal factors, and it may likewise be that policies work better with some groups than with others (perhaps Democrats are still receptive to policies, but simply didn’t show up to vote because they didn’t have anyone to vote against, for example). Anyway, enough musing for now.

Written by Steve

November 10, 2014 at 10:22 am

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Tax Increases are Better than Spending Cuts: The True Cost of European Austerity (WSJ article linking to paper)

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Written by Steve

October 23, 2013 at 9:42 am

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Narrative Forms and the Political Left: The DailyKos Survey

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A paper on a survey attempting to identify formal preferences of the political left, and to evaluate the use of survey methodology in an area typically restricted to traditional rhetorical analysis. Click the link below for the .pdf of the paper.

Morrison Project _ Final

Written by Steve

August 27, 2013 at 8:58 am

Blog #last: left is left and right is right after all (my findings in a [big] nutshell)

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In this last blog post I’d like to telegraph the conclusions of my paper. (And by the way, don’t we need a more up-to-date linguistic metaphor than “telegraph”? I’m going to text my conclusions? Doesn’t sound right. Oh well.)


My paper is centered on two key questions:

  1. How might we theoretically understand highly partisan and/or ideological media, both in relation to their audiences, and in their operation within the public sphere?
  2. How can this theoretical understanding (developed in answer to question 1) help us to determine the structural breakdown between and within such media? That is, political affiliation is traditionally seen as a simple left/right, or possibly left/right/center. However, in addition to the disagreement between groups, there is often disagreement within groups. So are the media of the far left and right truly distinct, and does disagreement within a group indicate the group is really composed of several distinct but allied groups?


I’ll spend a bit of time in the presentation going over my answer to #1. But in this post I’ll get to the juicer bits. My approach involved studying partisan/ideological media reactions the NSA spying as these reactions didn’t fall neatly along party lines. In particular, I want to know if those on the right and left who opposed the spying exhibit some underlying similarities, or if there are underlying differences between those on the right who support the spying and who oppose the spying. (This last question is particularly timely, as there’s a strong libertarian-seeming component to the right, lately, and there is a real question of how much or little this group aligns with the more traditional right.)


The key approach was, per Rei and Cintron, to look not so much at what the groups opposed, but how they construct that opposition. (All of the articles were opposed to something; in fact opposition was so key that I think both left and right, no matter how much power they actually have, function as counterpublics.) So here is a “quick” summary of the findings:



The Right: Both groups (pro and anti-spying) build from existing partisan/ideological schema, drawing in particular on the recent news of local IRS offices targeting conservative groups (though the targeting of liberal groups is ignored, as is the lack of connection to any federal official). Those opposed to spying build their argument from the basis of virtue, arguing government is innately wicked and thus cannot be trusted. This view also defines “private” as “unknown to the government,” and suggests essentially everything should be private. As a result, it functionally eliminates the public sphere as a means of influencing government, as virtue is seen as innate rather than a response to social pressure. No social pressure can make a bad person (or institution) good, so the only acceptable approach is to disempower or eliminate the non-virtuous. Supporters of spying rely on specific definitions of government and private, seeking to differentiate between good/bad branches of government, and private vs. public. However, these authors still operate from a largely virtue-driven perspective, which tends to minimize the role of a public sphere. Thus there are some differences between the groups, but also a core similarity that undermines the public sphere for both groups. Thus I would argue that despite their differences, they function as a single public insofar as the way in which they construct their relationship to government, both in support (military, etc) and opposition (IRS, everything else), is essentially the same.


The Left: There are no pro-spying positions evident in the left-wing articles, and a great deal of time is spent attacking Democrats who supported the spying (and some time attacking Republicans who supported it as well). The key problem identified by the left is not even the spying itself, but the secret nature of the spying. This suggests a fundamental belief in the public sphere—a belief that public discourse is a key means of keeping government in check. Related to this position are several attacks on the notion of a good/evil dichotomy, which might be seen as attacks on the virtue-based view of government supported by the right.



Preliminary Conclusions: Despite the strong internal policy disputes on the right and the talk of the Tea Party as something new, I don’t believe this is the case. The Tea Party and the “traditional” right both construct opposition in the same way, and with the result that they see the public sphere as powerless. There is a certain irony here, of course, insofar as the right-wing media are participating in the public sphere, and, I would argue, are having a profound effect. In any case, such a view may explain why the goals of the right tend to be to eliminate government or its power rather, and perhaps even the right’s opposition to regulation (if personal virtue cannot be impacted by rules, as they suggest, then why regulate? Just trust the “good” people, and eliminate the “bad” people).


The left, on the other hand, operates from a very traditional Habermas-ian perspective, and sees public debate as a reasonably powerful and absolutely essential influence on the state. Again, this explains the left’s focus on regulation, and even on government itself. If people’s actions are not mere binary reflections of some innate morality, then rules really matter, and it’s vital that we discuss those rules.


Finally, I think this all offers a rather hopeless picture for those interested in “bipartisan cooperation.” Basically, I’m not sure such a thing is possible because the publics’ disagreements about policy and even ideology (small government, etc) are likely just symptoms of a far more fundamental disagreement about the nature of human morality and the effectiveness of public discourse that operates as sort of partisan schema through which we filter information and which leads us to fundamentally different policy views.

Written by Steve

August 2, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Blog 7: NSA Bill Makes Strange Bedfellows (and reveals basic distinctions?)

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The big news this week on the NSA spying is a House bill that was just defeated, albeit narrowly, and would have limited surveillance to targets of specific investigations.


I would note that this is still an awfully low bar as it does not require any actually evidence, but merely that the person be party to an ongoing investigation. However, it’s essential to recall that the NSA is not actually listening to the content of calls (purportedly), but is rather amassing “metadata,” recording call times and locations in an attempt to establish patterns which in turn would reveal potentially significant deviations from the pattern. As such, limiting the program to those included in an active investigation would functionally destroy the program.


For my purposes, though, the really fascinating thing about this bill was the way it broke down traditional partisan voting blocs. As Weisman writes, “The amendment to the annual Defense Department spending bill, written by Representatives Justin Amash, a libertarian Republican from Western Michigan, and John Conyers Jr., a veteran liberal Democrat from Detroit, turned Democrat against Democrat and Republican against Republican.” An NPR report on the bill had a clip from Representative Raúl R. Labrador, Republican of Idaho, saying the bill was nicknamed the “wingnut bill” because it was supported by the far left and right wings of the parties (also cited in the NYT article). NPR went on to quote someone who cited the old aphorism that the political extremes converge (the spectrum as circular rather than linear). However, I think this is silly in this case. First, that saying was intended to suggest fascism and Stalinist communism had profound similarities that more centrist philosophies lacked. To use congressional Republicans and Democrats as examples of similar “extremes” is rather ridiculous in this context. More importantly, though, I think some of the agreement on the bill was not founded in ideological alignment, but was a simple product of this being one of those moments when an issue provokes a challenge to the traditionally aligned partisan and ideological identities of the left and right. As I’ve discussed earlier (I think), similar revelation during the last Bush administration weren’t disruptive to partisan/ideological identity at all; the left was opposed to Bush’s spying, and the right supported it, and no one thought much about it. With Obama in office, though, the right cannot easily support the spying but still oppose everything the president does, and the left cannot easily support the president while opposing the spying. So the split in congress is, in part at least, a coalition between liberals who place ideology over partisanship, and conservatives who place partisanship over ideology. In other words, they may agree on this issue, but I would suggest they are actually in essential disagreement about the nature of their political public. The NYT article suggests something similar, saying “conservative Republicans leery of what they see as Obama administration abuses of power teamed up with liberal Democrats long opposed to intrusive intelligence programs.” Is this the NYT simply being lefty? Maybe. Of course, the left has long been views as less orderly and obedient to party authority than the right (though that’s changed a bit recently), so there is some tradition behind this perception. In any case, the bill was defeated so the surveillance continues, at least until 2014 when the Patriot Act is up for reauthorization.

Written by Steve

July 25, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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