The Closet Moderate: October 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

They call it peace

In the past few years, the Nobel Prize folks gave out a number of peace prizes that were justly held up to ridicule: Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Barack Obama -- WE GET IT, YOU HATE GEORGE BUSH. But in 2010, Bush is gone and the Scandinavians can get down to business again. This year's Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, is someone whom ordinary folks can look to as a role model. As an advocate for democracy and transparency, Liu has suffered at the hands of his Red Chinese jailors, yet remains committed to his calling. This year, the Peace Prize recipient is no lightweight.

But, as I do every year, I asked myself: is this person someone who, as Alfred Nobel directed, "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses"? Has Liu worked to increase the peace?

The ChiComs say no. As their foreign ministry put it: "The Nobel Peace Prize is meant to award individuals who promote international harmony and friendship, peace and disarmament. Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law. Awarding the peace to Liu runs completely counter to the principle of the award and is also a desecration of the Peace Prize."

On the face of it, the Maoists have a point. Even getting beyond the narrow bounds of Nobel's will and looking at peace more generally, one could argue that Liu has done more to cause conflict than to cause peace. The peaceable man, from the Red Chinese government's point of view, would passively accept the state's boot upon his neck, never causing dissension, protest, or rebellion. Indeed, if all the world submitted to the Marxist state, there would be no conflict, no war, no strife. Is this not peace?

If you recognize a straw man argument, you will know that the answer is no. As another Nobel laureate once wrote, "True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice." The socialist state, while it may prevent revolution and call it peace, is a system based on force, not consent; it is devoid of justice. Their power comes from the barrel of a gun, not the consent of the governed; their agreements are sealed with the jackboot, not the handshake. Liu Xiaobo may not have stopped a war or convened a peace congress, but he has dedicated his life to the destruction of a state made of war -- war of class against class, of a government against its own people. To the oppressed peoples of the world, this Nobel Prize must be a beacon of justice, and thus one of peace.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Movement in No Direction

Over at Slate, Timothy Noah makes a case to avoid the upcoming Stewart/Colbert yak-a-thon in DC. Noah seems to think the March/Rally is part of a political movement aimed at countering the Tea Party and/or Glenn Beck... or at least a political movement of over-educated elitists. It's an odd point though, as I think the rallies are better viewed as an indictment of "movements". These are satirists, after all, and the target here is any political march, rally, or protest that eschews nuance and pragmatism for narrow-minded, self-interest, of which there are plenty of targets across the political spectrum and well documented by these comedian's shows. It's true that Colbert/Stewart attract a lot of liberal viewers, and Democrats will likely be overrepresented at the event. But Stewart specifically called out liberal pols in his announcement. So while the audience of the shows is left of center, the March/Rally is being sold to people who have dem, gop, and libertarian friends, gay and straight friends, Christian and Buddhist (Aqua too) friends and are tired of movements that purport to have the answers to all political questions. It's a critique of the banality of political speech in the U.S., not a movement with proposals on deficit reduction, or national security, or immigration, or health care. No one economic class, religion, or political party has a monopoly on pragmatism or reasoned discourse. So if it's a movement, it's a movement in no direction (or all directions).


Saturday, October 16, 2010

It's electric!

In Europe, the Chevy Volt is called the Ampera. If I knew more about electrical engineering, I'd make a joke about what that says about the Old World versus the New.

Any takers?


It's His Job

How sad is it that it's considered newsworthy when the nation's chief law enforcement officer says that he'll enforce and defend the law? Of course the Attorney General says that the Feds will enforce federal statutes regardless of what the hippies in California decide on Prop 19. And of course DOJ will appeal the decision overturning DADT. It's his job. Its immaterial whether or not he agrees with pot smoking or hot sex. He has to defend the government's position just like your defense attorney has to defend your guilty ass.

Now, he can make decisions about how DOJ uses its limited resources. I'm willing to bet that DEA agents are not amassing around all California dispensaries waiting to pounce. And I'd also bet that DOJ's attorneys are putting together a very limited defense of DADT. But that's not what the 5 year olds we have in media are reporting about to our 4 year old public. Probably because it's too hard to understand since it lacks a distinct dichotomy between good and evil.

So remember Mr. Holder, you're either with us or against us. Good luck with that.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Selection bias is FUNdamental!

As usual, I have been stirred from my usual state of slothful non-bloggitude by the statistical illiteracy of someone at Slate. Only this time, its worse, because its a write-up of a study by some legitimate economists, and they're really the ones to blame.
The study is a randomized control trial of management consulting. The authors went to a bunch (66) of midsize textile companies around Mumbai and offered them free consulting provided by Accenture. Then, of those that accepted (17), half got the consulting right away (the "treatment" group), and half got the consulting six months later (the "control" group). By comparing improvements in the treatment group to improvements in the control group, we can get an estimate of the impact of the consulting itself. In this case, the authors found that profitability in the companies increased by 16.8% on average. Wow, that's awesome, time to whip that into a little counter-intuitive parable of the importance of management, send it in to your editor, and cash that fat business reporter paycheck, right? Right, except that the real headline here should be: "75% of Indian firms turn down free consulting (market value: $500,000) from internationally renowned firm". In fancy pants economics terms, what the authors have estimated is the treatment on treated (ToT); that is to say, the effect of the treatment on those who complied with the treatment process. But Mr. Fisman is implicitly interpreting this as being the average treatment effect (ATE); that is, what the effect would be of forcing compliance on everyone. Thus he writes:

And what of the cubicle dweller lamenting the injustices of the modern office? When the 38 principles of good management meet the realities of running an organization with tens or hundreds of thousands of employees, what results is a rigid set of rules, regulations, and constraints that can seem designed to make office life a pointless misery. But it's also what allows the modern corporation to avoid the chaos of the unmanaged cotton weavers of Mumbai.

But you can't look at the effect of consulting on those who accepted it and say "wow, this consulting really works." Presumably, the minority of companies that said yes were the companies with the poorest management among the original 66. If we really believe in the intelligence of the other 49 company owners, the fact that they rejected the help means that it would've had a small or even negative impact on their business.
This paper shows us that, yes, management matters for some, but it strongly implies that it only matters up to a certain point. You have to go to the worst 25% of companies in a country with bad management practices in order to get big gains from improvements in management. If you made some bold assumptions about the relationship between baseline management quality and the effect of consulting, you could even conclude that management consulting is counterproductive for all but the very worst companies in America, and that, just as the cubicle dweller suspects, "best management practices" are a total crock of shit.
To be fair: the paper itself does not claim to be estimating an ATE, and they apparently didn't start out intending to find an ATE; however, given that the paper doesn't appear to be geared towards a statistically-sophisticated audience (i.e. Slate columnists), they should do more to emphasize that fact. And on the whole the paper is worth reading; there is a lot of interesting material in it beyond the headline result.