THERE ARE NO LIBERTARIANS IN AIRPLANES

Posted in Rants on August 31st, 2008 by Ed

After an evening in lovely Logan Airport (the blueprints for which, I believe, were the product of a class project at a school spatially-disoriented and profoundly retarded children ages 9 through 12) it is 10:59 PM and I am shoehorned into the end result of whatever Boeing bean-counter looked at the MD-95 and decided that it could seat five across. The image of 6’4” worth of exhausted academic typing into a laptop which, like his knees, is essentially a foot from his face must be priceless.

Many institutions of higher learning have cast wary eyes upon me. The 90-second “My dissertation is about….” speech has been delivered ad nauseum. Hours were spent in a waiting room reeking of desperation and dry cleaning. A presentation of my academic output generated a positive response. And many a conversation about political science, and occasionally even politics, was had.

It never fails to amaze me how even among the most educated members of this society – people who are capable of producing game-changing insights into political phenomena – “liberal” (or, interchangeably, “leftist”) is still openly and without reservation used in polite conversation as a pejorative. I suppose this is what I get for thinking that it would be funny to attend the APSA receptions of the AEI and Institute for Humane Studies.

Amid the pie-in-sky libertarianism, free-market circle jerks, and talk of regulation as a criminal enterprise, I suddenly want to be surrounded with libertarians on this plane. I want them as brave volunteers for my experiment in the majesty of the unfettered free market at 35,000 feet. Like there are allegedly no atheists in foxholes, I intend to prove that there are no libertarians in airplanes.

It’s rare that I actually use this space to say what I think. Nearly all of the commentary is negative – here is this thing, and here is Ed making fun of it. While this will no doubt be used against me at some point in the future, here goes. I am thrilled that the government regulates the living shit out of every aspect of my present endeavor, from mandating certified training for the mechanics to capping the number of hours pilots can fly in a day to putting the aircraft through regular safety inspections to regulating the process of air traffic control to resisting calls to privatize airport security. None of this is “free market.” It is the result of government meddling.

The good libertarian relies on the free market to solve problems on its own. Take a couple of hamburger chains, for instance. The one that makes bad food will go out of business. Customers won’t eat there! Thus the market, left alone, will punish those who fail to provide what people want. How cute. Let’s leave the airline industry alone – bust the unions, abandon all regulation, let the market set whatever wage it will, let the pilots be on for 36 hours at a crack – and let the same process go to work. Markets will force airlines to keep their planes safe, otherwise no one will pay to fly with them!

In order for the market to punish the backsliders, consumers must be made aware that Airline X is unsafe. Since we don’t have regulations and inspections, how will we know? Well, look up. We will know which airlines shirk on maintenance and safety when we see their planes plunging out of the sky. Here’s where my Mises Institute friends come in.

As market acolytes, I believe that they should volunteer to be on the plane(s) that serve the purpose of communicating this essential information to all of us. In the airline industry, the market’s way of telling us who is inferior involves a lot of people dying. The system works really well – let airlines be, see who fails, and punish them with one’s wallet – for everyone except the people on the plane.

Inasmuch as I do not think that uncontrolled flight into terrain at 500 mph is a worthy sacrifice for the glories and benefits of unchained race-to-the-bottom capitalism, I am a liberal. Inasmuch as I don’t want to eat the BSE- and e.coli-laced hamburger that tells us which meat processor is shirking, I’m a liberal. Inasmuch as I don’t want to be the person working in a garment factory for 75 cents per hour when wages devolve to “what the market will bear,” I’m liberal. Inasmuch as I don't want my dad to be the guy in the coal mine that the defunded Mine Safety & Health Administration hasn't inspected in 6 years, I'm a liberal. Inasmuch as I care more about you not getting injured at work than about the effect of workplace safety on your boss's bottom line, I'm a liberal. Inasmuch as I don't want a terrorist bomb to explode underneath my seat right now because Milton Friedman says the TSA's should be auctioned off to some politically-connected mall security guard outfit, I'm a liberal.

In short, to the extent that I care more about what happens to people – real people, here in the real world – than I care about patting myself on the back for being 100% true to pure free market principles, I’m liberal. Regarding the term’s use as an insult – when you are ready to volunteer for a flight on Market Self-Correction Airways or have your kid to eat the Mad Cow meat and die on a ventilator with blood hemorrhaging out of his eyes, then we’ll talk. Until then, politely lean forward and blow it directly out your ass. There is no insult I can take seriously from people who are so fanatically devoted to free-market idolatry that they would rather see lives lost and ruined than controvert its sacred principles. People who care more about free market ideology than human life prove themselves remarkably undeserving of either.

That, I suppose, is the simplest statement of my political philosophy.

I FEEL SUFFICIENTLY REASSURED

Posted in Quick Hits on August 29th, 2008 by Ed

I have been a little leery about voting for a 71 year-old man who has had 4 cancer surgeries for President. I needed something to reassure me, and I have found that something in the form of a woman who has been governor (of Alaska) for 17 months. By the traditional criteria applied to Obama (remember how he "doesn't have any experience?") Sarah Palin is, by an enormous margin, the most unqualified person to be nominated to the vice-presidency with the possible exception of Nicholas Butler and Frank Knox (that's the kind of added value you get at ginandtacos). Ferraro had more experience. Quayle had more experience. So did Sargent Shriver, Charles Curtis, Garrett Hobart, and every other half-assed choice of the last 220 years.

Shameless, shameless identity politics. McCain has met her once. I love how the right-wing blogs have exploded into a frenzy of confident reassurances that this move has now officially "locked up the Hillary vote." As openly as I question the sanity/smarts of HRC dead-enders, I sincerely doubt any of them are that stupid. Politically, McCain just chose Ralph Reed with tits. But one thing's certain – that VP debate is going to be priceless.

NPF: MEATING

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 29th, 2008 by Ed

As you read this (although not as I write it – I had to pre-blog this date) I am getting inspected. I am being placed under a microscope, drilled for core samples, and made to turn my head and cough. In short, I am at APSA* and this year I am officially On the Job Markettm for assistant professorships. As you read this on Friday I am in the midst of 10 interviews in 8 hours, followed by a panel presentation and four more interviews on Saturday. I am repeating the same things and answering the same questions to an audience of people who are asking the same questions and hearing (largely) identical answers from everyone. Although I really, really wanted to wear a seersucker suit (I asked, "How would Mark Twain approach this interview?") I allowed myself to be talked into Business Bland.

The academic job market is odd. It happens once annually, beginning today and ending around Halloween. Everyone who has an opening advertises it while everyone who needs a job contributes to the 4-to-6 week deluge of applications. The annual APSA conference kicks things off in Political Science, and the conference interviewing process is insane. We are herded into a giant waiting room (roughly analogous to the "waiting room" outside slaughterhouses) to be summoned one-by-one to meet with our betters. We have about 30 minutes to make an impression, which is advantageous for me because unlike 98% of the people in this field I have a personality. It is a shitty one, but I have it.

As far as where we end up…well, it's a bit like being drafted into the military minus all the beatings and sodomy. We have literally no control over the process and we know only that the odds at any single job are low. So we apply in bulk. I will be applying for nearly 75 jobs. History has shown that the likely ratios will be something like 75 apps = getting shortlisted at 10 schools = getting an official on-campus interview and presentation at 4 schools = getting one job offer. It is sort of like one of those Jack LaLanne infomercials in which 20 pieces of fruit are dumped into the machine to produce a Dixie cup full of juice. It is a very bad idea to get one's heart set on a particular job, since he or she has no earthly way of knowing which of the 75 jobs will respond favorably.

In short, I am sitting in a room full of socially inept 5th-year graduate students either waiting to hear my name called or in the midst of answering "So what is your dissertation about?" and "Can you teach quantitative methods?" for the tenth time. I am also the only one in this writhing mass of desperate, underpaid humanity who is listening to Locust Abortion Technician at molar-rattling volume as I wait patiently for the academic captive bolt stunner. It is a meat market. A highbrow meat market, but a meat market nonetheless.

*(As an aside, I am also in the most ludicrously opulent hotel room - nay, any room – I have ever seen in my life. God bless you, Hotwire.)

MIRAGES

Posted in Quick Hits on August 28th, 2008 by Ed

Yeah, pretty much. To quote a great man, "What'll happen to the economy if we stop making nuclear weapons? You know, the economy that's fake."

CECI N'EST PAS UNE POLLING RANT

Posted in Rants on August 28th, 2008 by Ed

Unlike Magritte, I'm not lying. It really isn't a polling rant. This is about how polling can be useful and how it can be used by partisan hacks to generate misleading "data" to the liking of a paying client.

Think of a poll question like a piece of surgical equipment – it has to be kept perfectly clean. If it gets infected, the outcome is bound to be infected. To generate a good poll question which will give you an honest, unbiased outcome, the key is to avoid giving any information in the question. I can't stress that enough. Any information available in the question will seriously bias the responses.

Let's say, for example, that you are Ford. You want to know what people think about Ford compared to Toyota. If you really want to know the truth, your question look be something like this:

Q. When I say the name "Ford", what word(s) come to mind given whatever you know about their products?

Open-ended questions can admittedly be a pain, and I understand why pollsters don't like to ask them. So the next best question (flawed, but not terribly so) would be:

Q. Given what you know about their products, when I say "Toyota", do you consider their products more reliable than other manufacturers, less reliable, or about the same?

A terrible poll question would start with a piece of information, which by default becomes the basis for how the respondent is likely to consider his answer:

Q. A recent study by Consumer Reports ranked Ford trucks #1 overall in quality. Do you consider their products to be of higher quality, lower quality, or about the same compared to other manufacturers?

And then we get to the absolute worst possible question, one which violates every single criterion separating a scientific poll from pseudoscientific grabass – the question beginning with an unattributed, unsubstantiated piece of conjecture:

Q. Some people think Ford's products are unreliable. Do you consider their products to be of higher quality, lower quality, or about the same compared to other manufacturers?

If you really want to know what consumers think about Ford, you will ask the first question. On the other hand, if Ford calls up your polling agency with its deep pockets and makes it very clear that they need some data to support their new commercials about quality, a disreputable polling agency knows which question to ask (companies like Gallup have too much brand equity to do this, but they aren't immune to asking bad questions anyway).

These issues are no different in politics than with cars. Hack agencies like Zogby and Opinion Dynamics (which barely existed before Fox started paying them) are adept at telling their conservative customers what they want to hear. Consider this actual question from a Zogby poll in 2007:

304. Some people believe that the Bill Clinton administration was corrupt. Whether or not you believe the Clinton administration was corrupt, how concerned are you that there will be high levels of corruption in the White House if Hillary Clinton is elected President in 2008?

An agency called "RT Strategies" asked one of the great hack questions of all time prior to the 2005 State of the Union Address, when Republicans needed to pay to generate favorable data:

Thinking about the war in Iraq, when Democratic Senators criticize the President's policy on the war in Iraq, do you believe it HELPS the morale of our troops in Iraq or HURTS the morale of our troops in Iraq?

OK, note how many different things are being manipulated. First, the respondent might not have had any idea that Senators are critical of the President. Second, they might not know that the critics are Democrats, which guarantees the response of everyone who dislikes Democrats. Third, the only two options are "helps" and "hurts" – neglecting "it makes no difference" – and obviously there's no way to conceive of it helping. Lo and behold, they got 70% of respondents to say it hurts morale. This is approximately like if I asked "Would you consider Ed Burmila to be an awesome blogger or the worst blogger in the history of blogging?" Obviously it's possible that you think I'm mediocre, or good, or kinda crappy, but since you're unlikely to think I am the worst blogger you have ever seen (a pretty extreme statement of dislike) and the only other choice is "awesome"…..

Polls aren't necessarily bad. But they can be manipulated and the way they are used is incredibly irresponsible. Note CNN's hissy fit about how Biden has damaged Obama ("Post-Biden Poll Shows Dead Heat") when this result is no different than the earlier polls showing Obama ahead – IF and only if the margin of error is taken into account. Which it never is. Obama 46%, McCain 43% is in no way different than McCain 45%, Obama 45% if the MoE is +/- 3%. I know that's hard to wrap the brain around, but those two results are exactly the same. The numbers are different but they tell you the same thing: namely nothing.

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THE FALL OF SAIGON

Posted in Quick Hits on August 27th, 2008 by Ed

I made the tragic error of having to be on campus today, on dorm move-in day. It always reminds me of the fall of Saigon or that amazing scene from The Killing Fields in which the American embassy in Phnom Penh is evacuated by helicopter. The only difference is that this involves a lot more 128-packs of Easy Mac.

2008 SENATE RACES: INTRODUCTION

Posted in Election 2008 on August 27th, 2008 by Ed

Yes, it's that time again. I tried getting this started last fall but it was just too early to get into it. But now I'm really getting into it. If the American public's baffling insistence on taking a McCain/Romney ticket seriously has you down, this should cheer you up.

This Senate election could not be less favorable for the Republicans. It is as if Howard Dean was given permission to design the rules and pick which seats would be up. Remember when the GOP talked about their "firewall" (which failed) to protect the Senate majority in 2006? I can't even imagine what the NRSC strategy for 2008 looks like. The most logical one might be to expect total failure and be pleasantly surprised when something slightly less terrible materializes.

Am I being objective? Yes. Consider the variables:

  • 1. Of the 35* seats in play this year, 23 are Republicans. It's harder to play defense than offense when one's party is on the outs (I'll take 2006 and the popularity of Our Leader as sufficient evidence that the Republican brand is troubled).
  • 2. The twelve currently-Democratic seats include eleven absolute slam dunks. It reads like a Who's Who of the safest people in the Senate – Kerry, Biden, Reed, Rockefeller, Durbin, Levin, Baucus, and more. The only Democratic seat in play is in Louisiana, which lost a significant portion of its base in New Orleans when the city was practically destroyed.
  • 3. Three of five open seats, all due to retiring Republicans, are in states trending Democratic: Colorado, Virginia, and New Mexico. It will take a minor miracle for the GOP to hold any of those. CO could be favorable GOP ground, but they are so desperate for quality candidates that they tried to talk John fuckin' Elway into running before settling on Bob Schaffer, a guy who lost his own party's primary for a Senate seat in 2004. Good luck with that.
  • 4. One of the incumbent Republicans defending his seat is under a seven-count felony indictment and will avoid Federal prison only due to his advanced age. The RNC has to be beside itself over Stevens' refusal to withdraw.
  • 5. Mitch McConnell, who is supposed to be masterminding a national strategy to raise funds and put other Republicans in office, is fighting for his life against a nobody and can't crack 50% in in-state approval polls.

    No, it isn't a pretty year to be a Republican running for the Senate. Maybe this is why Ron Paul and his lunatic army want to repeal the 17th Amendment. Between the 5 GOP retirements and the unfavorable geography of the incumbent Democrats up for re-election, the absolute best-case scenario is still grim. I mean if everything goes the Republicans' way – Iraq turns into a garden paradise in the next 6 weeks, the economy executes a miracle recovery, Obama beheads Michael Phelps during his convention speech – they will only lose 3 or 4 seats. A more likely scenario is a loss of 5 or 6, with a worst-case scenario of 9 to 11.

    Good luck with your nominations, President McCain.

    *35 seats are open instead of the usual 33 because of two seats which became open in the middle of a term. John Barrasso (R-WY) is running to remain in the seat vacated by the death of Craig Thomas while Roger Wicker (R-MS) was appointed upon Trent Lott's resignation.

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    WICKED MAD SKILLZ

    Posted in Quick Hits on August 26th, 2008 by Ed

    What the fuck. Someone hurry up and copyright the name "Unkle Tom" if it isn't already taken.

    MLK totally would have been a Republican! We can all imagine how readily he would have taken to the party of Trent Lott. As the father of JC Watts once told a reporter, "Black people voting Republican is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders."

    ABBA AND THE NEW 9-11

    Posted in Election 2008 on August 26th, 2008 by Ed

    Joe Biden once said, In the finest political zinger this side of Lloyd Bentsen (coincidentally also a Democratic VP nominee), that there are three components to every sentence Rudy Giuliani delivers: a noun, a verb, and 9-11. John McCain never caught the highly-infectious 9-11 Tourette's Syndrome, but I think it has been replaced with something even more pathetic: POW Tourette's. I think that by the end of this campaign we will be seeing exchanges like this:

    Waiter: Would you prefer the dressing on the side, Senator?

    McCain: Well, I don't know. I was a POW after the plane I was flying got shot down during the Vietnam War, which I served in. So the five years I was a POW mean that I missed a lot of the big trends in salad dressings – the Vietcong didn't give us dressing, and I know that because I flew a plane that got shot down and I was a POW.

    Lieberman: He'll have ranch.

    Hyperbole? You decide. After all, he responded to a question about his favorite band with his POW tale.

    “If there is anything I am lacking in, I’ve got to tell you, it is taste in music and art and other great things in life,” McCain joked. “I’ve got to say that a lot of my taste in music stopped about the time I impacted a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane and never caught up again.”

    Read that several times and explain to me how "I like ABBA because they're bitchin'" is not an acceptable, complete answer. Of what possible relevance are those five years he spent in Vietnam, now nearly four decades ago? Did he not have a favorite band before that? Has he been denied the opportunity to listen to music since 1974? I think a few albums have come out since then. Let me check.

    Yep. At least four.

    ABBA (or Waylon Jennings or old Prussian marching music or whatever McCain actually listens to when he isn't trying to court suburban female voters) is a perfectly acceptable answer for a 71 year old man who was an adult in 1976. It is an acceptable whether he was a POW or a free man. In a coma or wide awake. It just isn't relevant. But I'm going to assume that we're in for quite a bit more of this in the next 8-10 weeks.

    CONCEPTUALLY AWKWARD

    Posted in Quick Hits on August 25th, 2008 by Ed

    This site, like every blog on the planet, is beseiged with 50-100 pieces of spam disguised as fake comments every day. There are trends – one week it's online poker, the next week it's ass porn, and so on. They all contain a fair amount of strategic engrish intended to defeat spam filters with strings of nonsense words. Today my filter caught a post by "Gay Granny Panty Facials".

    The mechanics of what that is promising just escape me.