Un-American Things

Barack Obama and Ted Cruz are currently having a bit of a one-sided insult match in response to the president suggesting that rejecting Syrian refugees, or only letting in refugees in who meed certain religious criteria, is un-American.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I think The President is right, of course. Our highest ideals are of opportunity and openness, and I think we all want to live in a country that is the destination for those in need to rebuild lives shattered through forces beyond their control.

But the president is also right in another way that I think is interesting. This country does not have a culture of risk-aversion. Or at least it doesn’t regarding most new things. I mean, let’s grant for the moment that letting in Syrian refugees means we are opening ourselves to some non-zero incremental risk of violence. Why shouldn’t we take that risk? We’re risk takers.

This is not a country that adopts the precautionary principle to food and environmental regulation. We don’t stop Uber and Airbnb before they get started because they might be unsafe. Nobody (federally) says, “sure, you can have a gun, after you show us you can handle it safely.” You want to use some new chemical you just invented in your industrial process? Have at it (generally), until we know it’s dangerous. So it goes. Nuclear power, moon exploration, homesteading the West. In the cases where we do have regulation, I think you’ll find 100% of the time that it came after something bad happened regarding the very thing being regulated.

And I think that’s more or less a fine, and certainly, very American philosophy. We’ve had some very bad outcomes here and there (leaded gas), but on average, the risks have worked out in our favor and we get more benefit than harm. In the case of Syrian refugees its a question of compromising our ideals to gain a little safety. Totally un-American.


What the other guys believe

How well do you understand the beliefs of those at the opposite political spectrum as yourself?

Being a semiprofessional policy nerd, so I thought I had a good handle on this. I know, for example, most of the conservative and liberal arguments for this or that policy proposal, and can (and do) rank them on their credibility all the time, constantly adjusting those  rankings as I learn more about the world. That’s a wonk’s life.

But here’s a different question: which of those arguments do they believe and feel are the most compelling?

Some JMU researchers have devised a little experiment to determine just that. It’s a short questionnaire. You should take it! They ask you a few questions about the best policy arguments from conservative and liberal viewpoints and then they ask you your own political orientation.

I learned something from my results. I was able to correctly identify the favored argument of political conservatives approximately zero percent of the time. 0 for 5!

Paul Krugman thinks liberals understand conservative reasoning better than conservatives do liberal reasoning. Well, he might be true with respect to the logic of the arguments, but at least for this guy, he’s dead wrong regarding the beliefs about the strengths of the arguments.

h/t Baseline Scenario

Leave it in the ground

About a decade ago, Alex Farrell, a professor in the UC Berkeley Energy and Resources Department, Alex Farrell, had a series of papers unpopular with environmentalists. They showed that, essentially, there was no peak oil. In fact, at prevailing prices of the time, one could profitably extract a supply of petroleum to last hundreds of years at current rates. The supply would come not just from traditional sources, but from Canadian bitumen and coal-to-liquids conversion. He also pointed out that this is a bad thing, because those alternative sources of petroleum products have ridiculously high carbon intensities. That is, they’d be much, much dirtier than regular oil.

Sadly, Professor Farrell did not live to see the story of peak oil fade from most environmentalists’ consciousness nor to see the price of oil has drop so dramatically. And, in fact, at today’s prevailing prices, influenced by fracking and cheap natural gas (which is not a short term substitute for oil but could be a long-term one), we just don’t need oil from the Canadian tar sands. There’s not really a strong economic case for it, and the environmental case is, well, awful. I guess there is still a story to be told about “continental oil independence,” but, well, that’s only physical independence. Unless we plan on declaring a state of emergency and militarily controlling oil transfer, oil is still a worldwide commodity,  and if there were some kind of oil crunch, we’d take the economic gut punch all the same.

I think Obama made the correct decision today, to nix the Keystone Pipeline.

Score one for common sense.

Why I’m usually happy when iniatives fail

San Francisco’s anti-Airbnb measure (F) went down last night. So did another ballot measure (I) that would have put a moratorium on the construction of new housing in the Mission. The commentators on KQED this morning were calling it a failure for the progressives and a win for Airbnb, which spent millions to stop F.

Eh, maybe. I like to think of it as perhaps the electorate realizing that in general ballot measures are blunt tools that tend to offer simple (and wrong) answers to complex problems. Sometimes those answers directly benefit the individuals or organizations that sponsored the measure, at the expense of everyone else.

I’m not saying that the housing situation in SF is great and does not need to be addressed. It does, but I don’t think I know how to address it, and those measures certainly were half-cooked. I’m not even opposed to trying out half-cooked ideas when a situation is dire. But I’d like to see those experiments tried out by city councils and state legislatures that can, you know, augment, amplify, or reverse them as results come in.

Of course, legislative bodies often don’t act fast enough or decisively enough for many of us. It’s worth taxonomizing why that might be:

  • the legislators do not care
  • the legislators are bought off by bad guys
  • the legislators think other issues must take precedence
  • the legislators do not understand an issue well enough to craft a solution (note: they have staffs and experts at their disposal. What do you know that they do not?)
  • legislators believe that something you think is a problem is not actually a problem
  • legislators consider factors about which you don’t care
  • none of the proposed solutions could garner a majority

We could go on, but I guess my point is that the initiative process was designed to deal with a legislature that seemed to be at odds with the electorate. Seemed is a strong word. There was good evidence it was so. But more often, I think some of those other explanations are in play, and vote accordingly.

Falling out of love with Silicon Valley

I came to Silicon Valley in the mid 1990’s. Reflecting back on that time directly out of college, I remember that I thought computer chips were exciting and that the best companies designing and manufacturing them were making huge money. Of course, I had been fascinated with computers since I was little, as had many of my coworkers.

Anyway, computer chips seemed really cool back then. They looked cool. They were made in cool manufacturing environments. The tools to design them were cool. And the chips were getting better and faster all the time. Honestly, it just seemed like fun and I wanted in.

In those years, I distinctly remember social events where I would try to express my excitement about semiconductors and folks would just politely back away from me, the crazy nerd.

Today,  Silicon Valley is still cool. In fact, it’s way cooler and more widely cool. People are making even more money, more people are involved, and the products they’re churning out are used by more people and in more numerous ways. And, the only reason you can’t talk about your work at parties today is because everyone is so tired of it.

But, SV today leaves me cold.

What has changed is cool itself. I liked nerd-cool, but this is mainstream capitalist cool. Banker cool. “Kids” in hoodies cool. Ignore the rules cool.

The people being drawn to Silicon Valley today, like me, are also coming because it’s exciting, but what excites them is not the same as what excited me. For awhile I thought this was a software vs. hardware thing. (It is, but not entirely — requires a separate post for sure.)

I see two basic factors for my loss of affection for SV:

  1. Today’s hot companies generally deploy tech rather than make it. The exceptions seem to be when they have to develop something for operational purposes, and when they do they seem to keep their innovations close. Poster child for this might be Google, which had to invent a lot of its infrastructure, though a Google starting fresh today would probably have much less to do. Anyway, not creating things you don’t absolutely have to create is probably smart, but can we admit that it’s also boring?
  2. The business models make me uncomfortable. Making a thing (or software, or a service) and selling it in a two-party, pareto-improving transaction is very passé. In fact, if your plan is to make and sell hardware OR software, your prospects for raising money are limited. Instead, advertising and market-making are hot.


When I was a young man, choosing my major in college, there were large, successful advertising businesses and large, successful market makers. But I would never have spent a femtosecond considering working for either.

Today, advertisers (Google, Facebook, etc) and market-makers (Uber, Airbnb, etc) dominate Silicon Valley. They’re great companies, I guess, but I have to wonder why so many engineers are thrilled to join them. Steve Jobs once famously recruited John Sculley by asking him if he wanted to sell sugar water for the rest of his career, or if he wanted to change the world. Well, it seems that sugar water (or perhaps, sugar water once removed) may have actually won in the end. (Interestingly, Apple continues to mostly avoid this model.)

I still love tech. Maybe the tech nerds will regroup somewhere and stage a comeback. Probably not going to happen in SV, though.

Wedding != Marriage

I don’t know how this study (not paywalled — yay!) about the impact of expensive weddings on the lifespan of marriages missed my attention. This sort of thing is catnip for me.

What they find is that the more you spend on your wedding, the more likely your marriage is to end in divorce. Spending on an engagement ring is even worse. They claim spending $5,000 instead of $500 on a ring increases the risk of divorce 30%. Interestingly, a bigger wedding seems to be good for longevity of the marriage.

This kind of “drive-by” study, which was conducted using Mechanical Turk, a social science fad these days, always feels a bit dicey to me, even if it confirms my priors. The immediate problems that come to mind are that they can’t separate out the kind of person who would want a fancy wedding or to buy/receive an expensive ring, from the act of putting on such a wedding or getting such a ring. (Note: a follow-up study where they give couples randomly, $5000 cash or a $5000 engagement ring is in order.) They do control for income, but I dunno, even that seems half-hearted. People pay for weddings lots of ways: from borrowing, from savings, from mom and dad. I suspect that matters.

Finally, getting a bit normative here, can we just agree that engagement rings themselves are actually a really, really bad idea? It’s a holdover from another time. Are men and women equals? If so, let’s get rid of this tradition in which a man demonstrates his earning power by buying an utterly useless gift. If anything, engagements rings should be exchanged. My spouse let me off the hook on this one, and I’m glad for it, both because we could put the money to better use and because she understood that receiving a fancy ring would be incompatible with her principles. Also, she seems not into diamonds. Love that woman.

BTTF futurism

Futurists take note:

  • improvements in the ability to move matter were overestimated
  • improvements in the ability to process information were underestimated

This is the trap into which the writers of Back to the Future II fell; it’s what most futurists do.

Other rookie mistakes:

  • expected improvements human behavior and ethics
  • expected improvements in human governance
  • expected massive reversion in the above two items


The demand curve for octane

There should not be one.

The New York Times reports that when the price of gas drops people, in addition to buying more gas, also buy more premium gas.

Please, please do not do this.

It’s plain dumb.

A car engine needs a minimum octane rating to run smoothly. If the octane of the gas is too low for the level of compression in the engine, it may pre-detonate, ie, knock. The odds are high that your car was designed to run on 87. Anything higher will do nothing but empty your wallet.

That’s it. Adding premium is not going to make your car run any better, now or ever. (Unless it was designed for premium, in which case you own a sports car and your judgment is probably pretty bad to start.)


Zero Net ${bad_thing}

James Bushnell has a nice little piece on why economists do not get super enthused about “zero net energy” or whatever we’re zeroing today.

I tend to agree with him, but as usual with my interactions with economists, I’m a bit more angled to think of policy in a political context.

Yes, mathematically and logically, if you want to manage carbon or whatever, it is always better (or strictly speaking, never worse) to optimize over a larger system than a smaller system. That is, it is better to have a zero-net-energy neighborhood than a neighborhood of zero-net-energy homes, and it is better to have a zero-net-energy country than a bunch of zero-net-energy states.

But one needs to account of human behavior.

  1. All politics is local. You can affect smaller things and you can see the effect of smaller things. This does not work for climate change, but … that’s what’s so hard about climate change.
  2. Bushnell points out that “zero promotes a fiction of self-sufficiency,” but I think he actually has it exactly backwards. People, Americans in particular, have a love affair with the fiction of self-sufficiency and that can be used to sell anything, including net-zero policies.