All posts by bpcoxkr

Utility Maximization in Voting and the 2016 Primaries

Emotional voters and the Democratic Primary

Voters presumably vote for the person they find to be most qualified, right!?

Well, maybe not.

Clare Malone, a journalist at fivethirtyeight suggested after Sanders stunned Clinton in Michigan that one of the many factors at play may have been that people who would have voted for Clinton instead voted for Sanders, as they were sure because of polling Clinton would win. I have no idea what kind of scale this occurred on, but it makes sense. Unfortunately for her, she was mercilessly attacked on twitter by the Sanders faithful. But I think this happened on some scale.

Anecdotally, I was inclined to vote for Ron Paul in the Republican primary in 2012 simply because the “Romney as Republican Nominee” Romney wasn’t very compelling. And while I’d never vote for Ron Paul if I knew he would win, for a wide variety of reasons it would have felt pretty good to stick it to Romney and vote for a real nice genuine guy with strong principles. I don’t doubt that Bernie Sanders is a real nice genuine authentic individual, and he’s nothing if not consistent. I also think his call for revolution lets those who support him feel as they are part of something bigger. As a friend put it “why not protest in Berkeley, it’s kinda fun.” Similarly, Clinton was just attacked for noting that many of the Sanders supporters may support him for reasons along these lines.

I think it’s pretty possible that there are crossover voters, voting with their heads for Clinton (boring, pragmatic, likely solid candidate) when she seems in danger, and for Sanders (exciting, calling for revolution, consistent, personable) when a Clinton win seems certain. Sure, this may not be a lot of voters, but I’m sure there are a some that identify along these lines.

Also, as alluded to in the Freakonomics link, some of the reason for voting is peer pressure. And in college, with all the Sanders voters around, I do feel pressure that way. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to talk about how I’d vote for Clinton, if I was going to.

Stop Trump? aka Game Theory with imperfect information

On the Republican side we see a different game at play. Many are voting for Trump out of feeling, not thought, but those trying to stop him are trying to coordinate to be able to stop him. Cruz seems to be the annointed one for this task, but Cruz has issues among moderates come the general election. In the Norcal district where I’m registered, I’m not sure whether a Kasich or Cruz vote would be better to stop Trump, but whatever it is, any Republican voters in my district could have real impact. There aren’t many of them, and California could be decisive.

What the Heck is with Business Formal in San Diego?

This has been bugging me for a while. My day to day dress is pretty casual, but I have absolutely no qualms with wearing a suit if the situation calls for it. Or wearing khakis and a button down, or anything in between. Yesterday I went to the Experimental Biology Conference at the San Diego Convention Center to help with a Wikipedia event, sponsored by the Simons Foundation and the ASBMB. I’ll blog about this event later, but after the conference I was speaking with a fellow from the Simons Foundation about what one wears to science conferences. We really didn’t have much of a conclusion. We saw people in dress ranging from suits, to sportcoats, to khakis and polos, all the way to shorts and a tank top. While the first and the last were pretty uncommon, it does show the kind of breadth of what is allowable. That being said, this didn’t bother me too much. There wasn’t much of a dress code, and people wore what they thought would work.

I’ve been to a couple events in San Diego that said Business Formal Required. Then you go and it’s the casual end of business casual. Khakis, dark jeans, and casual leather shoes. I’ve felt terribly overdressed, but I’d rather be overdressed than underdressed. I’m not sure what leads to this in San Diego. Perhaps it’s just the sense of casualness that pervades the city. Regardless, I’d much prefer honesty. Just say Business Casual if it’s what you want. Not this weird Business-formal-but-in-San-Diego-so-actually-business-casual. I do wonder if this is a thing in other places. (I know for a sure it isn’t in both DC and NYC)

JS Mill, Drug Laws, & Free Speech

Yesterday on mass transit I spoke to a fellow who was 80 days out of county jail. He’d been arrested for selling drugs on Craigslist, and he sold to an undercover cop. He was a pretty friendly, reasonable, and well spoken (if not discheveled) guy. He observed that whilst selling drugs marijuana went to all classes of people. Rich and poor, white and black, educated and uneducated. Ecstacy went to lots of younger college students. On and on. But at the end of the day, very few of these people are charged and convicted of felonies. This fellow graduated from a pretty respected state university with a degree in political science. He had a hard time finding a job in the area he wanted, and made the pretty dumb mistake of falling in with a poor crowd and ultimately sold drugs. Should he have? Heck no. But this guy really wanted to make right his transgression. He fairly articulated why victimless crimes shouldn’t be illegal (those buying his drugs were doing so because they wanted to, not under diress). He’s in pretty deep shit for selling, but if he wasn’t selling other people would be. There’s pretty substantial demand for the drugs from a wide swathe of people. Our drug laws are pretty overly strict. They’re oftentimes unduly applied to those at the bottom of society. To those who make a living selling rather than those who spend their living on the consumption. And if drug usage is illegal, why is selling them more illegal than using them? Isn’t the consumption itself more dangerous than the selling. If consumption is illegal and people followed the law, those selling would have nobody to sell it to.

In any case, his argument reolved around the JS Mill, On Liberty based case that the government shouldn’t intrude into peoples actions that dont negatively effect others. Sure, selling drugs does, but a huge part of why it does is those who consume drugs are targeted by the law. Nations which have legalized drugs such as portugal seem to experience fewer of these externalities. I do acknowledge that ther eare other issues at play. It’s hard to test for ‘high driving’ using a chemical test. Such behavior would seemingly be more common if marijuana was legal. That being said, the drinking age rising doesn’t seem to be causative to the lower drunk driving rates we see today. Rather the tremendous PR campaign discouraging and stimatizing it did.

Most of those I know are strongly against such drug laws, arguing along these lines (or along other pragmatic lines) that more drugs should be legalized. Yet many of these same people would argue in favor of laws compelling speech. Laws which, if we argue along the lines of JS Mill, that those actions which do not harm others should not be illegal, pretty clearly should not exist. This is probably because the concept inciting speech (yelling fire in a crowded theater etc) did not exist when Mill was around. Regardless, those who wish to restrict free speech argue along the same lines as those who wish to reject drug use. Both are ‘bad’ and can certainly cause harm, but both are subjective judgments. Both those who argue for restricting speech and restricting drugs don’t do it out of malice, but both are making value judgments.

The curse of the jack of all trades pt 1

No time more than the present have I felt like my broad interest in most fields has been a curse rather than a blessing. There are a lot of things, as I previously explored on which I am woefully ignorant. And lots of what I do know is pretty damn irrelevant in day to day life. The life of Goethe being a good example. Yet this curse isn’t that I know about and am interested in such things, it’s that it leads in some respect to uncertainty. When applying for college I was pretty damn sure I didn’t want to do medicine. Now looking at it and talking to med students and related persons I’m actually not sure I can rule that out. Or pharmacy. Or product management. Or law. I can have a reasonably coherent conversation with a law student, a med student, or a software developer. And therein lies the problem. To make a decision one is committing to do something, but even moreso they are committing to do something over an alternative. And it’s this commitment which I find so difficult. But in not making a decision, one is cutting off options in all of the life paths that I would so vigorously enjoy. This isn’t to say I ought not or will not pursue one, but whereas I know many people that struggle with “I just don’t find anything interesting” and then figure out what they want to do by finding something they enjoy, I enjoy a broad enough field of things that it’s not so simple to define a path forward.

Indian Politics & Knowing More

I think it’s safe to say that all of us have pretty severe limitations on what we know. In thinking about choosing a major and its formative effects (in part the fact we ultimately find out little of the majors we didn’t choose, but a lot about the one we did.), it occurred to me that it’s possible I’m missing out on something I’d really enjoy.

This really came to mind when I read this BBC article talking about a regional election in India. I know that Narendra Modi is the head of the Hindu-nationalist BJP. I believe it’s generally thought he’s generally moderate but his party may be less so. He defeated the INC (and a coalition they led) and ousted the government led by Manmohan Singh. That’s probably a fair bit to know for somebody only tangentially interested in Indian politics.

Ultimately, in the BBC article I wasn’t aware that regional parties were such a large part of Indian politics. I wasn’t aware that Indian elections were regional and held at different times. I didn’t know it badly lost in Delhi or Bihar. (or that Bihar was an Indian state!)

Further looking revealed the Assam based All India United Democratic Front (otherwise, and very verbosely known as the সৰ্ব ভাৰতীয় সংযুক্ত গণতান্ত্ৰীক মৰ্চা अखिल भारतीय संयुक्त लोकतांत्रिक मोर्चा) I also learned that that language was Bengali. Also revealed to me was the fact there is both an upper and lower house in the Indian congress.

Essentially, though I know enough about Indian politics to be considered ‘current’ there is a whole other level of depth and complexity beyond what I’m aware of, and I’m sure another one beyond that. It certainly makes me wonder how much I know about the things I’d like to think I’m well versed in. Every country out there has its own internal politics, and although I may be familiar with the transition in Burma/Myanmar, the longstanding lack of stability in Nigeria, or the BJP’s landslide win in the Indian elections, ultimately I’m totally unsure what is going on in Lithuania, let alone Comoros or Kenya. The news just doesn’t cover these things, so we don’t think of them. But ultimately these events effect millions of people: we just aren’t made to think of it. It’s worth considering how the media effects what we believe to be important, and the false confidence it can give us when considering world affairs.

Computer Science vs Coding vs Software Engineering

Brief thoughts on this distinction:

Also I’m defining these things myself. We can see things like codeacademy aim to teach skills such as development as code, but I’m going to assert that all three of these things are defined by their most common definitions/what I’ve been made to understand over the last few years.

To be fair, I’m not strictly sure if there are formal definitions of the above, but when I talk to people involved in the Computer Science major, the vast majority want to be developers. (I can only assume for monetary reasons).

When you read about code education you see “everyone should be able to code.”

And when people speak of hiring people who code, oftentimes they look for Software Engineers. Sometimes developers. And some people take issue in the distinction (I do see that engineer carries higher status than development, and in some sense one could distinguish development from engineering, but I don’t think in modern layman’s terms there is much of a distinction between the two, for better or worse.

In any case, I think these three terms (Computer Science, coding, and software development/engineering) being confused causes problems at times.

Not everyone should be a computer scientist. (Just as not everyone should be an attorney.) Computer scientists solve all sorts of complicated problems like machine learning.  Notably, there are some real problems we haven’t addressed in the machine learning sphere. For those familiar, examples would be the contours formed by dimensionality reduction. We see they can form portrayable shapes, but what the shapes actually mean we still struggle to understand.

Coding is a skill which can be applied to many things. Coding doesn’t mean developing some sort of fancy website or tool. When it’s said that everyone should be able to code, generally it’s that people should be familiar with concepts like looping, forking, etc. People should be able to understand this, and perhaps apply it for simple purposes like reading the first and fourth line of a file, and then taking their difference.

Then there is development. Though development can be used to solve complicated problems, in general it’s not going to publish academic papers. An employee at Amazon implementing a new shopping cart, or an employee at UPS writing an online login or personnel system is likely a software engineer/developer.

I’d contend the three are pretty distinct. When people switch the definitions of these three separate fields around, it creates confusion and poor messages. A lot of Computer Science in school imparts few of the skills (besides some programming skills) required for software development. Coding is definitely imparted. But everyone being able to code doesn’t mean everyone should be capable of writing complex systems of code or performing cutting edge research in P vs NP or machine learning or algorithms.

One of my frustrations is the statement “everyone should be able to code” when they mean “everyone should be able to do software development”  Most of the ‘learn coding’ initiatives for the youth are centered around learning basic programming/coding skills, not development. In a similar sense, everyone should be able to write, but not everyone should be an author or technical writer.

Three vignettes on Trump

Meme Less

Trump is a pretty scummy guy, all things considered. Insults, misogyny. He feels much more like a contestant on Big Brother (what a scummy show) than a presidential candidate. Gordon Ramsay is comparatively a paragon of civility and rational discussion. It can be fun to meme about the guy. But faking support, wearing Trump hats on flights to be “cool” or “edgy”(as happened to me on my SAN->OAK flight). It gives credit to Trump in a real election with real consequences. No point in doing that. Meme less, talk to your neighbors about voting for not Trump more. We’ve had eight months of memeing and look where we are.

Better than Expected

Trump has done way better than I anticipated. While talking with a friend in July 2015 I argued Trump would stick around. I thought what seemed to be his message at the time(keep welfare strong, maybe universal healthcare, while being strong abroad) might begin to hurt political parties. It might bring about a seismic shift in politics without him winning. But he’s escalated beyond an outlet for discontent and he is now potentially the nominee. I was wrong.

As time has gone on and I’ve read more David Frum, I think that the Republican establishment is somewhat rotting out. In a similar way to Nietzsche saying that God is dead.Quoting Wikipedia “To Nietzsche, the concept of God only exists in the minds of his followers; therefore, the believers would ultimately be accountable for his life and death.” As the tea party and other disaffected no longer believed in the Republican institutions, the institutions somewhat ceased to exist. The party in The Party Decides ceases to exist. The question is, what, if anything, will Republican voters believe in as a whole after this election. In essence, “Will there be Republican voters?” 

Sanders Voters shouldn’t Vote Trump

I know you’re mad. You think the system has failed us. You push for European style democratic socialism. Clinton is a shill. I understand your frustration. But Trump won’t bring the change you’re looking for. Whether we draw comparisons between Trump and outsiders running for office in South America (and either failing or seizing control of countries with weak checks and balances) or Trump and the far right in Europe, things don’t end well by electing Trump. Heck, if your criticism of Clinton is that she’s corporate, Trump is the definition of a profiteering scumbag (see: Trump University).

Clothespin vote Clinton. Worst case you get an uninspired center left career politician. If you vote for Trump, the best you get is a man with no policy positions who thinks little of women and, as I said earlier, makes Gordon Ramsay look like a decorous gentleman.

As Harrison Ford said on the Trump run “Oh… not so much… no, I don’t think so”


Protectionism is back in vogue

Its costs are easy to see, and its benefits aren’t. Policymakers should explain the benefits, and craft policies to mitigate the costs.

I was reading about the repeal of the corn laws and the effect the repeal had, and it brought me back to the current election. (Also of interest, this 2013 Economist article, explaining their pedigree of free-trade support, stemming from the movement to repeal the corn laws.) While protectionism has always been somewhat popular, it’s seen a resurgence lately. With Trump advocating punitive tariffs, and Sanders stating he is not comfortable with “a single trade agreement this country’s negotiated,” popularist protectionism is back in vogue.

The instinct of several students in the first lecture I had on the economy of Mexico was to blame NAFTA for the difficulty Mexico has had allocating resources into research and providing adequate liquidity. The professor (who has done significant research in the field), noted that NAFTA saw a marked increase in both on a percentage basis, but relatively little on an absolute basis. NAFTA has certainly tied Mexico and the United States closer together. This hurts Mexico when the US is doing poorly, vise verse. But it’s certainly not an altogether bad thing, as the intuition of some (economics students!) would suggest.

It seems that even among some economics majors there is pretty widespread and wholesale skepticism of free trade. I know that the vast majority of economists support free trade, so I looked to see what others attributed the gap between the public and economists to. William Poole, the former head of the St. Louis fed, posited that it’s largely due to a lack of understanding by the public of what free trade actually does. Furthermore, he claims, those who oppose free trade are in a general sense doing it altruistically. This makes sense. Free trade does hurt those whose jobs are outsourced, but though over 50% of Americans are skeptical of fair trade, nowhere near that many have lost jobs to trade. The typical example for an outsourced job hurt by free trade is manufacturing. But a pretty substantial body of evidence would suggest that those jobs are pretty much gone, even if manufacturing output has increased. The US has comparative advantage in high-tech, low labor manufacturing, and jobs are increasingly moving into the service industry. This post-industrial economy  where almost everyone is employed in service poses a whole new set of questions which I hope to write on, but these are questions like “what can we do to improve low-moderate skilled service industry jobs?” or “how can we improve the quality of our labor force?” not “how can we take jobs back from China?” NAFTA has cost us manufacturing jobs, but has made goods cheaper. It has benefited those with higher levels of skill and education. Now it’s a question of how to reallocate said lower skill lost jobs, and retrain those adversely affected. Policies such as improved education and healthcare, or even more radical proposals such as taking corporate gains from outsourcing and funneling those into programs to help those affected by free trade have something to be said for them.    This is the 3 million dollar question, one which economists have struggled to agree on. How can we get the efficient allocation of free trade whilst supporting those adversely affected? However, clinging to quotas and tariffs is not risk-free for US workers, though it is effective rhetorically.

The costs of free trade are pretty obvious. Joe builds toy cars. Joe’s job goes to China, and Joe’s job in the toy-car industry is lost. He no longer has a relevant skill (toy car building) and he’s in a bad place. The benefits, as are pointed out in the above William Poole article, are much more nuanced. Toy car prices are lower, which helps everyone on aggregate. Other gains, such as increased foreign demand for US goods or services are much more hidden and small, and must be taken in aggregate. Essentially, Joe bears an individually high cost for small gains applied over a large number of people. And the government, perhaps, should be in the business of looking how to rectify that. Sanders (who has unfortunately pushed Clinton on this issue) is very anti-trade, largely viewing it as only a mechanism through which jobs are lost, and ignoring entirely gains from trade. This is pretty darn effective rhetorically, as has been seen both in his Michigan win among those who dislike free trade, and in those students in my econ courses who support Sanders and jump to free trade as an evil at the earliest possible opportunity. Ted Cruz opposes TPP, but says he’s generally free trade. The Republican argument on this just doesn’t sell. On one hand, they’ll say, free trade is good, for nebulous reasons. But it’s not very rhetorically effective to preach about the gains from trade and the cost of tariffs. They are preaching smaller government which includes not helping those impacted, and I agree with David Frum that the Republicans are short of good ideas these days. They won’t support those adversely affected by free-trade policies, helping them form part of a new, stronger american workforce. Saying “well it’s good for the country but you’ll get hurt by it, but we won’t do anything about that because small government.” doesn’t sell, and shouldn’t sell. This does let Trump blame bad trade outcomes on incompetence though. “If only the government was good at trade, it’d be better. I would negotiate better.” This is entirely hot air, but it does promise to solve issues free trade has caused for those whose jobs have been lost. I’d prefer a candidate who was willing to acknowledge the costs of free trade, and help workers adversely affected retrain, increase their human capital, and work in more competitive and efficient fields. As such, I in some ways agree with the Progressive Policy Institute’s newest policy advisory for trade.

I cede that wellbeing GDP does not make, but there is a very strong correlation between the two, and taking a short-term hit to a small segment of the workforcemay be worthwhile. Admittedly, some economic studies have indicated tariffs in the short run may have positive effect under certain circumstances. But this is far from the Sanders claim that he supports no US free trade deals.

In terms of trade advantages, just look here.

But ultimately, none of us are shaping trade policy. What does this mean for us? Those who are feeling the Bern should see there is actually relatively little difference. Sanders views trade in terms of winners (multinationals) and losers (employees.) Trump sees it in terms of winners (foreign nations) and losers (the USA). Sanders has pushed Clinton to the left, but the one thing which bothers me the most about these policy shifts is the shift away from free trade, to protectionism. While it’s unlikely Sanders would go as far as Trump, he’s opposed the same trade deals (NAFTA, South Korean Trade Agreement, upcoming TPP) that Trump has. While Trump’s ridiculous tariffs would be more harmful than simply repealing these agreement, at this point the repeal of any of these makes us less competitive on a global market, increases the cost of our goods, and causes inefficient allocation into things like high labor manufacturing which we already have high-tech growth in! Trade agreements sure aren’t panacea, but they do lead to lower prices and more efficient allocation. They hurt individuals, but taking gains from trade and parlaying them into helping those affected via training, etc is the way to go. The “we lose in free trade” argument is demonstrably false. Even moreso, it’s somewhat pessimistic. “We can’t compete with foreign markets” is essentially those calling for the end of these trade agreements are saying.