31 August 2012

Charismatic Leaders Set Tone For Movements

How do you tell the difference between a movement on the verge of violence, a potentially violent movement still far from taking decisive action, and one that will instead choose non-violent direct action? A recent U.S. Department of Defense sponsored study argues that the emotional character of major public speeches from its leader. In other words, charismatic leaders can play their followers like violins and attentive observers can hear the implicit emotional directions that the leaders are offering.

The researchers analyzed the pattern of emotions conveyed when leaders spoke about their rival group and examined speeches given at three points in time before a specific act of aggression. They compared the results with the content of speeches delivered by leaders whose groups engaged in nonviolent acts of resistance such as rallies and protests.

Among leaders of groups that committed aggressive acts, there was a significant increase in expressions of anger, contempt and disgust from 3 to 6 months prior to the group committing an act of violence. For nonviolent groups, expressions of anger, contempt and disgust decreased from 3 to 6 months prior to the group staging an act of peaceful resistance.

Matsumoto says the findings suggest a leader's emotional tone may cause the rest of the group to share those emotions, which then motivates the group to take part in violent actions.

"For groups that committed acts of violence, there seemed to be this saturation of anger, contempt and disgust. That combination seems to be a recipe for hatred that leads to violence," Matsumoto said.

Anger, contempt and disgust may be particularly important drivers of violent behavior because they are often expressed in response to moral violations, says Matsumoto, and when an individual feels these emotions about a person or group, they often feel that their opponent is unchangeable and inherently bad.

From here.

Of course, domestically, in a society with strong legal protections for the freedom of speech, there is little that authorities can do with this kind of information. The leader who is driving the movement, quite possibly intentionally, doesn't actually rely on overt direct threats to achieve his objective, so it may be impossible to take direct legal action against a potentially violent group's leader. Violence seems to be driven more by the emotional subtext and framing in the speeches than by the particular calls to action themselves.

On the other hand, this analysis could be useful in formulating counterpropoganda initiatives designed to defuse the violent frenzy (or call for non-violent resistance) that a movement's charismatic leader is trying to whip up. Anti-terrorism rhetoric, presumably, ought to focus on defusing anger, destabilizing the sense of superiority that makes contempt possible, and densensitizing movements members to whatever it is that has incited their disgust. More succinctly, counterterrorist rhetoric ought to focus on a message of forgiveness, humility, and tolerance.

Afghan War Takes Horrific Turn

KABUL, Aug. 31, 2012 (Reuters) . . . A 12-year-old boy was kidnapped and killed in southern Kandahar province on Wednesday, his severed head placed near his body to send a warning to police, said provincial governor spokesman Jawid Faisal.

The brother of the boy, neither of whom were named by officials, was a member of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a U.S.-trained militia charged with making Afghans in Taliban strongholds, like Kandahar, feel more secure, Faisal said.

"It's a Taliban warning to the ALP and to others who support the government," Faisal said of the killing, which happened in Kandahar's Panjwai district.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf denied the group was involved.

Separately, a 6-year-old girl was beheaded in eastern Kapisa province on Thursday, said provincial police chief Abdul Hamed.

"We are not sure if she was beheaded by her family or the Taliban, but we know the Taliban control the area," Hamed said of the killing in Jalukhil village. He added that he could not send investigators to the area out of fears for their safety.

The murders follow the shooting or beheading of 17 young revelers attending a party in southern Helmand province this week, which officials said was the work of the Taliban, a charge the group also denied. . . .

In Kandahar's Zhari district, officials also said on Friday that a 16-year-old boy accused by the Taliban of spying for the government was beheaded and skinned in late July.

Such incidents highlight the difficulty that Taliban leaders have in enforcing discipline across an estimated 20,000 fighters spread from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

The central Taliban leadership is trying to improve the group's image in case it wants to push forward tentative reconciliation steps and perhaps even enter mainstream politics. But some militant units are hard to control, roaming the countryside and attacking those deemed immoral.

From here.

The only other places in the world that I can recall with recent cases where this level of brutality has been used as a political tactic are Mexico, as a part of their drug war, and a number of places in Africa, where interethnic conflicts seem to be at the root of the wars in question.

History and Context

The U.S. involvement in Afghanistan's civil war started shortly after 9/11 in 2001 and after more than a decade of U.S. military involvement is the longest U.S. military conflict in history other than the "Indian Wars", although certainly not the largest in terms of the number of troops involved or the number of U.S. casualties inflicted. But, Afghanistan has endured civil wars more or less continuously, with only brief respites, for more than three decades. Afghanistan is the most wretched non-African country in the world as measured by a wide variety of public health and economic measures. Yet, in the 1970s, before everything fell apart, it has seemed as if it was on track to become a fairly Westernized, modern, central Asian nation.

During the Reagan administration, the U.S. secretly supported Afghan insurgents against Soviet power brokers who eventually abandoned Afghanistan. The Taliban was a Saudi Arabian funded initiative that had almost achieved the goal of impose an orderly strict fundamentalist Islamic theocracy on Afghanistan and controlling almost the entire territory of Afghanistan against which a handful of warlords had been holding out when the U.S. took their side when the Taliban failed to hand over Osma bin Laden and shut down his terrorist organization's demands.

At first, the U.S. involvement (mostly consisting of CIA agents and U.S. Special Forces) and a newly created civilian democratic government put in place with a light U.S. diplomatic touch had seemed to have definitively vanquished the Taliban. But, this turned out to be an illusion. The organization had relocated to Northwestern Pakistan's frontier provinces where an entirely different insurgency against the Pakistani government was underway, and in a few years, insurgent activity in Afghanistan had surged and so had U.S. troop levels together with a few coalition partners such as the United Kingdom. The violent conflict is mostly concentrated in a handful of the country's provinces, while most of its provinces remain almost violence free, a pattern that to some extent reflects the ethnic coalition that has backed the Taliban in this multilingual and multiethnic patchwork of an "in between" country whose boundaries are to some extent arbitrary colonial era relics that are part of the large narrative of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire that culminated in its total collapse after World War I.

President Obama has pledged to leave the country (which the U.S. also uses to hold detainees in an wide ranging covert international war on terrorism) by the end of 2014. So far, there has been little organized and well articulated opposition to this time frame for U.S. withdrawal.

U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq has led to major advances in tactics, military personnel skill sets, military equipment, and weapons systems relevant to fighting asymmetric counterinsurgency operations more effectively and efficiently, notwithstanding Defense Department distaste for devoting resources to and developing capabilities pertinent to these kinds of conflicts. Senior military officials have long perferred to focus on large scale conventional military conflicts with "near peers" like Russia and China with its most powerful weapons system - warships, nuclear attack submarines, fighter jets and heavy tanks. But, recent Defense Department cuts that reduce Army and Marine active duty force levels more deeply than the expensive weapon system oriented Air Force and Navy, threaten to deprive the U.S. military of the "soft" counterinsurgency skills that have recently been developed by veterans of U.S. involvements in conflicts including Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. military involvement in the region has produced regime change and eliminated a capacity to engage in international warfare in both Iraq and Afghanistan, two of Iran's most threatening neighbors. The region has also recently seen regime change in Tunisian, Libya (a transition in which the U.S. military played a role), Egypt, South Sudan, Kosovo (with U.S. military involvement), Bosnia (with U.S. military involvement) and Yemen. The U.S. is also playing a low key military and/or CIA role in the current insurgency in Syria. Israeli agents are widely believed to have been involved in recent instances of apparent sabatogue of Iran's nuclear program.

30 August 2012

Republicans Still Racist

A black camerawoman who works for CNN says she was "not surprised" to have two people at the Republican National Convention throw peanuts at her and say "this is what we feed animals."
From here. It is worth recalling that the people acting this way aren't just any ignorant, uninformed Republicans whose decision to affiliate with the party is a unilateral one made on a voter registration card. They are party leaders who worked their way up through a long and convoluted process one must weather to be selected as a delegate to the national convention by their Republican party official peers. They are "party insiders" who have an outsized say in running partisan politics in their home states. They are the embodiment of the party's values.

And, the comments aren't notable only because it shows that there are some bad apples in an event with a cast of thousands. Far more telling is the fact that someone could possibly think that this was socially acceptable behavior in the Republican political community in front of a member of the mass media. It is one thing to be unsuccessful at screening out every last racist from your political organization, and it is another to have an organization where racists feel comfortable revealing themselves.

Silver Lining: RNC Delegates Are Irrelevant

The only silver lining is that the delegates in this year's Republican National Convention have essentially no say in any issue of real public policy. The nomination was decided months ago in primary elections and caucuses. Romney's victory was conceded then by all candidates except Ron Paul, who never came close to having enough delegates to defeat Romney. By virtue of powerful traditions in American politics, a Presidential nominee always has more or less unfettered discretion to appoint his own running mate without consulting the delegates to the national convention. Party platforms are interesting historical documents but have almost no influence on the behavior of the party's elected officials.

Delegates in certain committees at the convention can tweak the formula for nominating a Presidential candidate a bit. But, the national party leadership's influence on how funds donated to the party are raised and managed is minimal in an era where most campaign contributions are raised by candidates and political action committees. The conventions of the national political parties are about networking and providing party leaders with bully pulpits, not about making decisions (except in the very rare cases where the primary and caucus results are inconclusive and there is a "brokered convention").

The United States made a decision more than a century ago to gut the power of rank and file parts of political parties relative to candidates, and by and large, its political institutions have adhered to that policy consistently ever since then. Modern American political parties are primarily a brand and a tool for organized networking of politically like-minded individuals. They are not directly an important source of funds for candidates, they don't have strict control over who their nominees are in elections, they engage in only modest amounts of candidate recruitment, and rather than imposing policy coordination or generating new policy ideas they merely articulate ideas that have independently been introduced and become popular among its members already. There is virtually no policy coordination between partisans at the local level and those at the state and federal level, there is only minimal interstate and state-federal policy coordination in either of the two major political parties, and political parties are only minimally involved in the process of making law by citizen initiative. The heavy lifting of partisan politics in America has been delegated to other institutions. The residual political party institutions merely provide a framework within which prospective candidates for elected office can be vetted in a somewhat organizated manner and act collectively in the process of litigating election law issues. (Of course, the situation in state legislatures and Congress where political parties are viable and powerful institutions is quite another thing.)

Texas Voter ID Law Struck Down

In a nutshell:
[T]he [unanimous] court bases its analysis [striking down a Texas voter ID law] on three basically uncontested facts:

(1) Minority voters are at least proportionately as likely as white voters in Texas to lack the documents needed for Texas’s new id law (which the Court calls perhaps the most “stringent” in the nation);

(2) the new i.d. law will put high burdens on poor people who lack id (many of whom would have to travel up to 200 or 250 miles at their own expense to get the i.d. as well as pay at least $22 for the documents needed to get the i.d.); and

(3) minority voters in Texas are more likely to be poor.

Using this simple structure, the court concludes that Texas, which bears the burden of proof in a section 5 case, cannot prove its law won’t make the position of protected minorities worse off. And the court suggests this was a problem of its own making: Texas could have made the i.d. law less onerous (as in Georgia, which the court suggests DOJ was probably right to preclear) and Texas could have done more to produce evidence supporting its side at trial, but it engaged in bad trial tactics.

A Texas claim that the Voting Rights Act provision striking down its voter ID law is unconstitutional is unlikely to prevail. An emergency order from the U.S. Supreme court staying the Court's ruling until the election is over is also unlikely.

Earlier this week, the 2012 Congressional redistricting plan for part of Texas by the Republican controlled legislature was also recently found to be invalid and that its drafted intentionally discriminated against minority voters. This ruling keeps the Court redrawn interim maps in place for the November election.

The decision . . . appears unlikely to affect the November elections because those electoral maps were drawn as interim replacements by a federal court in San Antonio. The interim maps were not at issue before the judges in Washington.

Gov. Rick Perry signed the Legislature’s maps into law last summer. But the federal court in Washington refused to grant preclearance, prompting the San Antonio judicial panel to create the interim maps to allow this year’s elections to proceed. The federal judges in Washington presided over a trial in January and issued their decision on Tuesday.
The finding that the redistricting process was conducted by sitting Texas Republicans in the state legislature in an intentionally discriminatory way also undermines an appeal by Texas of ruling invalidating the Texas voter ID law, enacted by the same Republican controlled state legislature, because there is recent judicially found evidence of intentional discrimination in Texas politics that shows that Section 5 preclearance of voting changes for Texas is necessary.

Time is not on the side of Texas in its efforts to appeal the redistricting ruling or the voter ID ruling. The closer a court making a ruling is to election day, the less inclined it will be to use its discretion in a close case to wreck havoc on the complicated electoral process by changing the status quo at the last minute.

Generally speaking, both rulings help Democrats in the state. The rulings are unlikely to impact the Presidential election, however, since Texas is generally viewed as an easy win for Romney anyway and electoral votes in the Presidential race are an all or nothing affair. Polling strongly favors Republican Ted Cruz in the open U.S. Senate race in Texas (which is not affected by Congressional redistricting since it is a statewide race), so that race won't likely be influenced much by these decisions either. But, Texas could have some close Congressional races and the redistricting ruling makes it more likely that the voter ID law ruling will matter in the Congressional races.

In the long run, this ruling once again cements the image of the Republican party as the anti-minority, anti-Hispanic party, which doesn't help them with the nation's long run demographic trends.

29 August 2012

Prenatal Risk Factors For Autism?

A New York Times opinion piece from last week by a research who argues for prenatal effects in the womb as a cause of some share of autism cases in a trade non-fiction book. Some of the key observations and evidentiary points from the scientific literature that the author is advocating for regarding the pressing health issue are as follows:

At least a subset of autism — perhaps one-third, and very likely more — looks like a type of inflammatory disease. And it begins in the womb. . . . In autistic individuals . . . [i]nflammatory signals dominate. Anti-inflammatory ones are inadequate. A state of chronic activation prevails. And the more skewed toward inflammation, the more acute the autistic symptoms.

Nowhere are the consequences of this dysregulation more evident than in the autistic brain. Spidery cells that help maintain neurons — called astroglia and microglia — are enlarged from chronic activation. Pro-inflammatory signaling molecules abound. Genes involved in inflammation are switched on. . . .

A population-wide study from Denmark spanning two decades of births indicates that infection during pregnancy increases the risk of autism in the child. Hospitalization for a viral infection, like the flu, during the first trimester of pregnancy triples the odds. Bacterial infection, including of the urinary tract, during the second trimester increases chances by 40 percent.

The . . . mother’s attempt to repel invaders — her inflammatory response — seems at fault. . . .Inflaming pregnant mice artificially — without a living infective agent — prompts behavioral problems in the young. In this model, autism results from collateral damage. It’s an unintended consequence of self-defense during pregnancy.

Yet to blame infections for the autism epidemic is folly. . . . the epidemiology doesn’t jibe. . . . Better clues to the causes of the autism phenomenon come from parallel “epidemics.” The prevalence of inflammatory diseases in general has increased significantly in the past 60 years. As a group, they include asthma, now estimated to affect 1 in 10 children — at least double the prevalence of 1980 — and autoimmune disorders, which afflict 1 in 20. Both are linked to autism, especially in the mother. One large Danish study, which included nearly 700,000 births over a decade, found that a mother’s rheumatoid arthritis, a degenerative disease of the joints, elevated a child’s risk of autism by 80 percent. Her celiac disease, an inflammatory disease prompted by proteins in wheat and other grains, increased it 350 percent. Genetic studies tell a similar tale. Gene variants associated with autoimmune disease — genes of the immune system — also increase the risk of autism, especially when they occur in the mother. . . .

Mothers of autistic children often have unique antibodies that bind to fetal brain proteins. A few years back, scientists . . . injected these antibodies into pregnant macaques. (Control animals got antibodies from mothers of typical children.) Animals whose mothers received “autistic” antibodies displayed repetitive behavior. They had trouble socializing with others in the troop. In this model, autism results from an attack on the developing fetus. . . .

A mother’s diagnosis of asthma or allergies during the second trimester of pregnancy increases her child’s risk of autism. . . . Amniotic fluid collected from Danish newborns who later developed autism looked mildly inflamed. . . .

Why are we so prone to inflammatory disorders? . . .

[P]eople living in environments that resemble our evolutionary past, full of microbes and parasites, don’t suffer from inflammatory diseases as frequently. . . . Generally speaking, autism also follows this pattern. It seems to be less prevalent in the developing world. Usually, epidemiologists fault lack of diagnosis for the apparent absence. A dearth of expertise in the disorder, the argument goes, gives a false impression of scarcity. Yet at least one Western doctor who specializes in autism has explicitly noted that, in a Cambodian population rife with parasites and acute infections, autism was nearly nonexistent.

For autoimmune and allergic diseases linked to autism, meanwhile, the evidence is compelling. . . . asthma and autism follow similar epidemiological patterns. They’re both more common in urban areas than rural; firstborns seem to be at greater risk; they disproportionately afflict young boys. In the context of allergic disease, the hygiene hypothesis — that we suffer from microbial deprivation — has long been invoked to explain these patterns. . . . it should apply to autism as well. (Why the male bias? Male fetuses, it turns out, are more sensitive to Mom’s inflammation than females.)

A few points of context and emphasis are in order here:

* A variety of past data has already established a very strong genetic component to autism associated with rare rather than common genetic variants (sometimes in the form of deletions and copy number variants, rather than specific SNPs), in a particular complex of genes with particular functions. A majority of all autism cases probably have a genetic basis, although the particular mutations that are involved in any particular case vary widely. Non-genetic pre-natal causes are, at most, an important cause of only a minority of autism case.

* The autoimmune hypothesis offered above is not exclusive of genetic causes. In a significant share of the up to one third of pre-natal inflamation associated cases cited, the inflamation has a genetic component. In those cases where there is not a genetic component, the mechanism described sounds like an epigenetic effect in many cases. Epigenetic effects can be hereditary, although unlike true genetic effects, they usually persist for only a few generations and can be induced during someone's lifetype by means other than mutations.

* Childhood vaccination does not cause autism. Few cases of non-causation are better established.

* Even in cases where the environmental effects described above are at work, autism is still congenital, i.e. present at birth. Indeed, all of the evidence of maternal inflamation during pregnancy increasing autism risk involved the first two-thirds of the pregnancy, with a significant share of that risk attributable to early parts of the pregnancy when the mother may not even know that she is pregnant. Autism has not been convincingly linked in published scientific studies to the child's diet or parenting styles, for example.

* Controlling inflamation during pregnancy poses its own risk, and can't be limited to the period when people know that they are pregnant alone since the high risk period is front loaded. Many, if not all, anti-inflammatory drugs may present their own risks to a fetus during pregnancy. The author of the article quoted above argues for a comprehensive rethinking of our public health measures to address the problems associated with an overly hygenic environment, without definitively proposing a single solution. But, this calls for a balancing analysis. Lack of hygene causes deadly and unpleasant diseases. Excessive hygene can promote succeptibility ot excessive autoimmune responses. Even though Cambodia has lower rates of autoimmune disorders and autism, very few people would trade that benefit for the overall public health harms associated with its relative lack of hygene. Some level of excessive autoimmune disfunction may be a price worth paying for a reduced incidence of infectious disease agents.

* Autism is the fever of mental health conditions. It is a common symptom of a disorder with a non-specific cause. Indeed, this is more than just an analogy. Autism symptoms, like fevers, appear to be associated with inflamation.

* Regardless of the epidemiology of autism, if a large subset of autism cases involve an autoimmune inflamation mechanism, then early diagnosis and treatment designed to reach that mechanism, particularly during period key to brain development, such as anti-inflammatory drugs, in theory, might be effective. Treatments designed to selectively reverse epigenetic methylation of a child's genome related to autoimmune function also look like a promising avenue to investigate. But, please don't rely on me in turning to a totally unproven theory as a medical treatment without advice from a doctor. I'm a lawyer with a solid background in mathematics who stays abreast of the literature, not a doctor.

* Universal health care has collective public health benefits. One reason that really good population genetic and epidemiological studies often come from Scandinavia is that countries like Denmark have comprehensive national medical records in a well indexed form that is linked to other data about the patients that can be used for medical research. Strict American medical privacy and human subjects research laws make these kinds of studies almost impossible to conduct in the United States with the same level of rigor and statistical power. Nothing has more statistical power than a complete data set for an entire national population.

20 August 2012

What If Someone Else Wrote Lord of The Rings?

Explorations about how the fantasy epic might have been written in the hands of the likes of Ayn Rand, Ernest Hemingway, and Oscar Wilde are linked here.

17 August 2012

About 40% of U.S. Suicides Linked To Parasite

About 10-20 percent of people in the United States have Toxoplasma gondii, or T. gondii, in their bodies, but in most it was thought to lie dormant. . . . In fact, it appears the parasite can cause inflammation over time, which produces harmful metabolites that can damage brain cells. "Previous research has found signs of inflammation in the brains of suicide victims and people battling depression, and there also are previous reports linking Toxoplasma gondii to suicide attempts. . . . In our study we found that if you are positive for the parasite, you are seven times more likely to attempt suicide."
From here (emphasis added).

If these numbers are right, infected people make up about 15% of Americans, but about 55% of all Americans who attempt suicide. (The study itself was conducted in Sweden with 54 probands and 30 controls.)

This is huge. To be clear, the study itself looked only at non-fatal suicide attempts and not completed suicides. But, the linked article notes that there were 36,909 suicides in 2009 in the United States. Thus, if the percentage of suicide attempts resulting in death is similar for both infected and non-infected individuals, this parasite may be the statistical proximate cause of more than 14,000 suicides a year in the United States; 40% of the total number of U.S. suicides.

The only other infectious agent with a comparable mortality impact in the United States is influenza. But influenza deaths, which are predominantly among infants, people with compromised immune systems, and the elderly, while suicide is found in appreciable frequencies at all ages from adolescence onward.

Also, "90 percent of people who attempt suicide have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder. If we could identify those people infected with this parasite, it could help us predict who is at a higher risk."

The mere fact that one has a parasite that infects 45,000,000 people in the U.S. of whom 20,300 a year commit suicide, does not itself create an overwhelming individualized risk, and some of those people who were infected with the parasite (statistically) would have committed suicide anyway.

But, the presence of this infection is a much more powerful screening tool when combined with the stastically powerful screen of a previously diagnosed psychiatric disorder (and, in fact, only some diagnosed psychiatric disorders, not all of them, are associated with elevated suicide risk), which is probably mostly independent of the incidence of infection with this common parasite. There are tens of millions of Americans who have diagnosed psychiatric disorders as well, but the intersection of the two categories is probably small enough to justify increased vigilance for the individuals of the appropriate ages (i.e. not young children) who have both risk factors.

Also, knowing that this parasite has a profound mortality impact, at least in certain populations, may make finding a way to treat this infection, previously viewed as mostly harmless, a major new public health priority. An effective diagnosis and treatment for this parasitic infection, if affordable, could be the biggest advance for public health since the invention of vaccines again common viral diseases and antibiotics against bacterial diseases.

The underlying study is:

Yuanfen Zhang, Lil Träskman-Bendz, Shorena Janelidze, Patricia Langenberg, Ahmed Saleh, Niel Constantine, Olaoluwa Okusaga, Cecilie Bay-Richter, Lena Brundin, Teodor T. Postolache. Toxoplasma gondiiImmunoglobulin G Antibodies and Nonfatal Suicidal Self-Directed Violence. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2012; DOI: 10.4088/JCP.11m07532

GDP Doesn't Measure Economic Well Being

Gross national product aka GNP (or the slight variant on it, gross domestic product aka GDP) are measures of aggregate national production in the monetary economy.  Two calendar quarters of GDP decline is the standard definition of a recession.  GDP growth is the standard measure of a healthy economy that has the virtue of being readily comparable internationally and between units within federal states. 

GDP per capita is a reasonable useful first order approximation of economic standard of living, and of value creation, but is flawed in both respects, and one does not need to resort to something far more subjective and hard to compare like Bhutan's National Happiness Index to address these flaws.

Intra-Household Production

One of the big flaws of GDP is that it fails to adequately measure intra-household production.  Paying for child care or a maid service or eating out increases GDP.  Caring for your own children, or cleaning your own home, or adding value by cooking, serving and cleaning up after your own meals as part of a family, even if it provides an identicial or superior value to paying for these services, does not increase GDP.  Selling agricultural products in a marketplace increases GDP, while growing food for personal consumption as a gardener or subsistance farmer does not.

As long as the proportionate share of intra-household production over time, or between compared regions stays more or less constant, this isn't all that serious a problem.  The trendlines and comparisons remain valid, even though the absolute numbers are wrong.  But, it is problematic if there is a material shift from market production to intra-household production (or visa versa), or if two compared regions have very different levels of intra-household production.

This is serious problem in development economics, because GDP is a very poor measure of economic production in less developed countries where a very large share of economic activity, for example, involves subsistance farming.

Notably, GDP already includes one important category of intra-household value creation: imputed rental value of homes occupied by homeowners.  Extending GDP measures to impute value to intra-household personal services and other forms of intra-household production would not be a revolutionary reform of the measure.

Leisure and Other Non-Monetary Goods

Another big issue, which isn't so much a flaw in the metric as it is a flaw in how to use the metric, is that it doesn't capture tradeoffs between work and leisure.  It is possible to look at GDP per hour worked, or per average number of working days per year, which measure productivity and which also implicitly place an economic value on leisure.  People in a nation where the average worker voluntarily goes on vacation for one month a year are both more productive and more affluent than people in another nation where the per capita GDP is the same, but the average worker voluntarily goes on vacation for just two weeks a year.

A similar problem arises with positive and negative externalities that the monetary economy fails to capture.  GDP does not take into account air quality, for example, or if it does, may actually treat air pollution as something that increases GDP because it increases health care spending.  A cost-benefit analysis valid air regulation that reduces health care spending by more than it costs to implement the pollution control measures could very easily reduce GDP even though it improves quality of life and makes people more economically prosperous.  But, because the benefit from the non-market good (clean air) doesn't get traded monetarily, it doesn't go into the GDP computation.


A third big issue, which was a huge problem in non-market Soviet economies that were trying to boost GDP, and is also a big problem in making intertemporal comparisons, is measuring changes in quality over time.  If you can buy a better TV than could have ten years ago for the same price, a nation is better off even if the amount of money spent producing TVs in the same now as it was ten years ago, but GDP does not capture this reality.

Similarly, if two countries spend the same amount per capita on health care, but one country uses modern medical methods and gets good outcomes from that spending, while the other uses leeches and snake oil and gets bad outcomes from that spending, nothing in the GDP measure distinguishes between the two cases.

In general, quality issues tend to overvalue past economic production relative to current economic production, and also tend to be particularly problematic for comparing GDP between regions when a good or service is not easily traded. 

In  theory, market mechanisms in international trade will tend to resolve cases where the same dishwasher sells for $100 in one country and $1,000 in another, for the same good.  But, prescription drugs and medical equipment, for example, present just that conundrum.  An MRI machine sold in the United States contributed much more to the U.S. economy than the same MRI machine sold in Japan where identical medical equipment is much cheaper. 

Many services like health care and education, are not easily traded or commoditized, so it is particular hard to compare them, even though at some level it may be clear that better outcomes are being provided for similar expenditures in different places.

Zero Value Or Inefficient Production

Perhaps the most difficult correction to GDP, conceptually anyway, is the notion that some activity in the monetary economy may have zero or negative value.  More generally, GDP doesn't measure the efficiency with which inputs and converted into outputs.  This raises many of the same issues as the quality issue.

Health care is one place where this can be well illustrated.  Suppose that one country spends $2,000 per capita to receive a particular set of healthcare outcomes, and another country spends $5,000 per capita to receive the same healthcare outcomes.  By this measure, the country with the more efficient health care system looks more prosperous by GDP measures than the one with the less efficient health care system, all other things being equal, when in fact, their prosperity would be identical.  The marginal $3,000 per capita that the second country is spending to receive the same product is adding no value to its economy.

In the Soviet economies, again, this was a huge issue, because the Soviet economies often produced too much of goods that no one needed, and too little of goods that people did need.  But, GDP isn't designed to measure the use to which good are produced are put.  If the economy churns out too many televisions and people start to use them as dinner plates, GDP doesn't care, even though the actual value the excess televisions are adding to the economy has plummeted.

In a well functioning market economy, the private sector is supposed to produce goods at efficient prices and in efficient amounts, so neither of these distortions are material.  But, all economies are mixed economies to some extent, and the private sector may have systemic distortions.

Another place this comes into play is in the guns v. butter issue.  GDP, in general, assumes that production purchased by government is worth what government adds value to the economy proportionate to what government pays for it.

Many economists aren't too worried about the zero value production issue in the private sector because they assume that goods produced for consumption in the private sector are appropriately valued for aggregate economic purposes based on actual production at market prices because the mechanism of a reasonable functional market economy place natural checks on the production of useless goods or overpriced goods.  In a reasonably functional market economy, this isn't a grossly unreasonable assumption and has immense practical administrative value in calculating GDP.

But, few economists are equally comfortable in saying that a decision of the elected officials who make spending decisions for government is as an effective a means of preventing the production of useless or overpriced goods as a private market mechanism.  A bridge to nowhere that costs $100 million to build adds the same amount to GDP as a bridge that is used constantly.  A $1 billion dollar warship adds $1 billion to GDP whether it greatly enhances the nation's military might or is actually worthless.  Likewise, if the government spends $1 billion on a military cargo plane when an identical one could be purchased in the private sector for $100 million, because the Defense Department is bad at getting good prices on defense contracts, GDP goes up by $1 billion rather than $100 million.  Certainly, military spending, in general, does not directly impact consumer stadnard of living.  Prison spending on a wrongfully convicted inmate adds the same amount to GDP as prison spending on someone who committed a serious crime and would reoffend if not incarcerated.

Valuing all spending at actual transaction prices makes GDP computation much less subjective.  But, if ignores the capacity of the economy to add value by increasing efficiency or quality rather than merely increasing production in the narrow sense.  The problems related to zero marginal value production in GDP computation are essentially a more subtle variation on the problems with using Marx's labor theory of value, which economists have long derided.

Progressive Insurance Not

I care more about what companies do than what they say.  Call you company what you will.  Spend millions on advertising.  But, what matters from a casualty insurance company is that it won't screw you over when the chips are down. 

Progressive Insurance failed that test in a recent highly publicized case, not only denying benefits to its insured in a fairly run of the mill accident, but intervening in the litigation brought by their insured against the other driver against their insured.  Bad viral Internet PR launched by Matt Fischer, the brother of the insured, Katie, who was killed in the accident, persuaded the insurance company to ultimately back down.  But, the damage was done.  I would not recommend that anyone I know buy casualty insurance from them.

03 August 2012

Scalia's Absurd Take On Gun Control (Again)

In light of the July 20 massacre in which a gunman killed 12 moviegoers in Colorado, Scalia was asked whether legislatures could ban the sale of semiautomatic weapons. He said the 2008 [Heller] ruling stated that future cases will determine "what limitations upon the right to bear arms are permissible. Some undoubtedly are."

Scalia -- a proponent of the idea that the Constitution must be interpreted using the meaning of its text at the time it was written -- cited "a tort called affrighting" that existed when the Second Amendment was drafted in the 18th century making it a misdemeanor to carry "a really horrible weapon just to scare people like a head ax."
"So yes, there are some limitations that can be imposed," he said. "I mean, obviously, the amendment does not apply to arms that cannot be hand-carried. It's to 'keep and bear' (arms). So, it doesn't apply to cannons. But I suppose there are handheld rocket launchers that can bring down airplanes that will have to be ... decided."
From here.

What did the United States ever do to deserve a Supreme Court justice who thinks that it might be constitutional to ban carrying a head ax, but thinks banning a handheld rocket launcher that can bring down an airplane might be a hard question?  And, why would a Supreme Court justice reach the linguistically inaccurate assumption that "bearing arms" in this context means literally carrying them by hand?

To restate my own view on the matter, I think that any coherent modern individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment cannot properly to be viewed as a political right incident to the collective right of the People to replace their governments by revolution as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, in scenarios like the one currently unfolding in Syria.  The constitution is not a suicide pact.  It also simultaneously declares that taking up arms against the United States or a State constitutes the crime of treason punishable (then at least) by death (although no longer working a "corruption of blood").

Instead, the most sensible theory of an incorporated individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment is that it is the flip side of the absence of an affirmative duty in American law on the part of the state to protect an individual from private violence. 

In other words, it is an imperfect alternative to governmental indifference or delay in the face of rapists, murders, robbers, homoe invasion burglars, lynch mobs and the like, without regard to whether the cause of law enforcement inaction in inability, negligence, or deliberate indifference to a person's safety.  By its own reference to a well regulated militia, it implies that reasonable regulation of the right to bear arms is permissible, and the courts should analyze reasonableness in the context of backstopping the ability of individuals to protect themselves from private violence in the face of potential law enforcement inaction.  The reference to a militia in this context also dovetails with the notion that in the 18th century volunteer citizen's patrols, sometimes called militias, rather than professional police departments that would not be invented for another half a century at least, were a central institution for the enforcement of criminal laws.

This theory of the Second Amendment still leaves many hard cases related to the issue of what regulation is reasonable.  But, it at least provides an intelligible way of weighing the relevant considerations in the modern era, that does not rely on esoteric accounts of the detailed state of the common law and statutory law in 18th century colonial America, and respects the values that makes sense in the large individual human rights oriented interpretation that we have given to the Bill of Rights as a whole over two centuries (well mostly the last century, before which the Bill of Rights was mostly ignored as a means to declare laws unconstitutional) of interpretation.  The Constitution was kept short, in part, in order to retain flexibility that wouldn't keep our political system hidebound by the kind of accidental and long forgotten precedents that Scalia puts so much stock in under his crabbed version of originalism.

Yes, the intent of the Founders is relevant to the analysis of the meaning of the constitution, but a drafters intent analysis ought to be conducted at a much higher level of generality.  Judges should be trying to discern from the Founders statements and the overall context, the core principles behind a constitutional provision, rather than minutae of how cases that could never have come up then would have been decided by those particular people at that particular time.  Originalism also needs to recognize that not every law and common law decision in force in 1791 was necessarily constitutional even then under the newly adopted Bill of Rights, which marked a revolutionary step in law making and not simply a rubber stamping of the status quo.  It was adopted because the Founders were concerned that the 1789 status quo might be flawed.  The Bill of Rights was adopted because the Founders felt that some of the rights it protected could be in the near future, or already were being, violated by the new federal government of the independent and united States who had adopted the new constitution in 1789 that replaced the Articles of the Confederacy (not to be confused with the Confederate States of American in 1861) that had preceded it. 

The nation was just a quarter century old at the time, and no one was thinking about how the exact language its provisions might apply in a science fiction future where a man could fly, or another man could hold in his hands a weapon that might shoot hundreds of people out of the sky, two centuries later.  Even mass produced semi-automatic or revolving pistols were far in the future at that point.

This isn't to say that the Second Amendment should exclude any weapon that didn't exist at the time of the Founding, but the opposite assumption makes no more sense.  The issue is why the Founders thought it made sense have the Second Amendment, and why the drafter of the 14th Amendment under the authority of which the Second Amendment is applied to the states felt it was necessary to expand the scope of federal power over state law in the 1860s, not what its specific scope the Second Amendment was believed to have in 1791.

01 August 2012

The Governor's Marriage and Mine

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (a Democrat) and his wife Helen Thorpe, separated yesterday. They lived in a nice urban residential neighborhood in Denver (Park Hill) with their ten year old son. John is moving out, to the Governor's Mansion in somewhat less tranquil Capital Hill. They are doing their best to cooperate and be civil, for each other and for sake of their child. It is still sad.

My wife of eighteen years and I also separated yesterday. We lived in a nice urban residential neighborhood in Denver (Wash Park) with our two middle schoolers, who are just a little older than John and Helen's son. I am moving out, although not to any place as nice as the Governor's mansion (my new home is in Bible Park). We are doing the best to cooperate and be civil, for each other and for the sake of our children. It is still sad.

I'm probably less surprised about the Hickenlooper and Thorpe announcement than most. I have heard credible rumors that this would happen sometime after the 2010 election for about two years now. I don't know if those rumors were correct or if they were simply stopped clocks that are right twice a day anyway.  I don't really care.  And, of course, I'm hardly the best connected person in Denver, so I'm sure that many other people had heard these rumors as well.

It is a testament to the respect that members of the political world and the press have for Governor Hickenlooper that these rumors were not made public or reported on by anyone until he and his wife issued a press release to that effect yesterday.  A large number of people must have known. The media has a strong tendency to consider the private lives of all celebrities to be newsworthy. Needless to say, I personally refrained from blogging about even the fact that those rumors existed until today after it had been announced, and I didn't talk to any of the reporters I count among my friends about these rumors either (although surely some reporters must have known).

In truth, I didn't personally foresee that I'd be splitting up myself until much more recently than I heard these rumors (and certainly had no idea that John and Helen's announcement would come yesterday).

Even though I was born in Georgia and lived there the first seven years of my life, I am fundamentally cut from Yankee, not Dixie cloth. The Governor, Colorado's Governor Bill Owens (a Republican) who also separated while recently serving as Colorado's Governor, and I all agree that when a marriage ends that the right thing to do is to be civilized about it. It is not the time to air dirty laundry, or to seek some sort of legal or extralegal form of fault assignment and redress for wrongs within the marriage. "No Fault" divorce has caused or follows a cultural change our sensibilities as well as our laws. It is a time to look forward and see what is possible now, and not to look back and tally up rights and wrongs.  I'm sure that all of the husbands and wives involved have ranted privately a little to intimate friends and family.  But, private rants and public statements are two different things even in the age of the Internet and cell phone camera.

This isn't to say that that state of our society and our laws when it comes to divorce is the best of all possible worlds. The fact of the matter is that Governor Hickenlooper's marriage, the marriage of Governor Owens, and my own marriage, which is to say marriages of reasonable, together people who are still capable of interacting, at least as co-parents, with each other in a civil, good faith manner, would have continued to stay married and continued to live together in a single household, a couple of generations ago. Then, the people who are capable of having a "good divorce" today would have stayed married.  But, that debate is one for another day.  The situation now is what it is.  We aren't living two generations ago, we're living now. 

Today, John, Helen, their son, my wife, my two children and I start muddling through the complicated world of separated life after long discussions leading up to yesterday on everyone's part.  I wish them luck and hope we'll manage to find some of our own.

Still Hot And Dry In Denver

Denver's average daily temperature in July 2012 was 78.9 degreees, a new record high average daily temperature (there were seven days over 100 degrees).  The runner up was 77.8 degrees in July 1934, followed by 77.7 degrees in July 2005, followed by 77.6 degrees in July 2008, followed by 77.3 degrees in July 1936. 

On July 2, 2012 there was a record high for that day for Denver of 101 degrees.  But, the hottest day this month in Denver (102 degrees on July 21) did not exceed the record high for any July day in Denver (105 degrees set on July 20, 2005).

Denver has also been dry this month, receiving just 0.48 inches of precipitation compared to an average 2.16 inches in July, more than 77% below average (there were just 0.13 inches of precipitation in June 2012).  For the year to date after seven months, Denver has had 5.29 inches of moisture, compared to an average of 9.67 inches, a shortfall of about 45% that is part of a broad national drought of which Colorado has been among the hardest hit.

This follows record heat and record wildfires in June 2012.  See June fires, June fires and heat records, and more June heat records.