Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Supreme Court Does The Democrats No Favor

Only time will tell what the practical upshot will be of SCOTUS's rubber stamp of Obamacare, but there may come a time when Democrats will say "with 'victories' like this who needs defeats?"

The trouble comes from the Court correctly labeling Obamacare as what it is; the single largest tax increase in the history of the United States. A tax increase, it must be stated, the brunt of which will be borne by the middle-class; precisely the group Obama promised he wouldn't raise taxes on. Of course Obama's tax promises were hollow from the get-go, but voters may be less likely to view things so strategically. This will be especially true given we are going into a campaigning season where nearly unlimited PAC money will be spent like it was going out of style. The advertizing theme resulting from this spending spree is easy to predict: "Obama is a liar who saddled the middle-class with the largest permanent tax increase in history."

And who said this was the case? Why, every liberal member of the Supreme Court. That's who.

The attempts of spin will be interesting. For the moment, press coverage is focusing upon the "victory" aspect. The political ramifications are a different animal all together. Obama and the Democrats have deliberately kicked the hornets nest. That has consequences, no matter how desperately they wish it didn't.

Let the fun begin. And, yes, for a political junkie this is where the fun kicks in. If you find yourself wishing it would all go away because you want to "win" once and for all, well, you're not a political junkie at all. You're a tyrant. Ain't democracy great?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Problem Of Being Psuedo-Educated

From the "You've got to be kidding" department: Why Smart People Are Stupid

Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

For more than five decades, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, has been asking questions like this and analyzing our answers. His disarmingly simple experiments have profoundly changed the way we think about thinking. While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents—reason was our Promethean gift—Kahneman, the late Amos Tversky, and others, including Shane Frederick (who developed the bat-and-ball question), demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.
Talk about a bad premise.

For starters, when economists and social scientists assume "rational actors" they are usually doing so in the context of a model, and not using it as a description of the real world. The real world is far too complex for any social scientist to incorporate every potential variable that could affect their model. As a result, things get abstracted; things like the decision making processes of people. Economists and social scientists know "rational actor" models are unrealistic, but they work well enough for what they are trying to do.

As for philosophy... anyone who would claim that for centuries philosophers, as a group, have assumed people are rational doesn't know what the hell they are talking about. Socrates and Plato certainly make no such assumption. Even a cursory reading of The Apology or Crito make it clear that while rational thinking is a human possibility it is not a universally realized one. When Criton visits Socrates under house arrest awaiting execution and urges him to flee from Athens, Socrates responds by telling Criton to not worry about what "the many" think or do. The many do not use reason, argues Socrates, therefore they do not act from knowledge but instead act randomly so worrying about it won't help. So, for Plato at least, rational thought is not the default position for human beings.

And Plato is not alone. Thinkers as diverse as Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, and, especially, pragmatists like Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, make no assumptions regarding the rationality of man. The philosophy of Peirce would be especially relevant to understanding why subjects respond to these questions from Kahneman the way they do.

For Peirce the way human beings think is made up of a few mental methods, one of which is indeed the classic rational method of syllogism and deduction. However, it is much more common for us to use the process which Peirce called "abduction" in order to make educated guesses about the world. We do it all the time, Peirce argues, without even realizing it. Have you ever had a conversation with someone about another person, except you thought you were talking about Person X while your conversation partner thought you were talking about Person Y? We can go on for a little wile talking at cross purposes, even when the information doesn't exactly conform to what we knew of Person X, until something way out of whack causes us to ask "Wait. Who are we talking about?" and the problem is revealed. Now, not only do we do this all of the time, we are actually pretty good at it. Most of the time when we make these sorts of guesses we do so correctly. Only when we screw it up do we realize we have even been guessing in the first place.

Movie makers realize this fact as well. Actually, our guessing is the only thing which allows shocker surprise endings in the first place. Take the movie The Sixth Sense. The filmmakers know we will make a guess, or fill in the blanks, in a particular fashion even though we have not been given the information to make our guesses accurate. The movie only works if we continually make such guesses over the course of the film which, luckily for filmmakers, is exactly what we are prone to do.

Which brings us back to the magic questions which prove how dumb we all are. The reason they work in tripping up people is similar to the way The Sixth Sense works. They are not "simple arithmetic questions," they are riddles.

OK, lets look at these more closely:

Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
If we were going to represent this problem mathematically it would be:

x + (x+1) = 1.10 

Which could be simplified to:

2x +1 = 1.10

And resolved as:

2x + 1 - 1 = 1.10 - 1

2x = .10

2x / 2 = .10 / 2

x = .05

So, while there is no difficult math going on here, it isn't as simple as the question sounds.

The article offers another example. Read it as a riddle.

In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

The answer is obviously 47 days. I'm willing to bet most people reading it after being told to treat it as a riddle would get it right. (Just as I'm willing to bet most people caught on to The Sixth Sense if they were first warned about a surprise ending.)

My point here is not to dog Prof. Kahneman's research, which sounds like a useful compendium of the variety of bad guesses human being make, as much as it is to dog the idea that rationality is a baseline assumption in philosophy. It isn't. And if journalists, among others, knew the first thing about it they would not make such dumb errors themselves.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Life At Ground Zero

For one day at least Wisconsin has become the political centerpiece for the country.

Oh goody.

You may have noticed I've had precious little to say about the electoral doings in my adopted home state. The thing is I'm essentially a contrarian at heart. Stuff that people generally don't care about (philosophy, power pop music, good whole grain mustard) I invest a lot into. Now politics is usually something I could add to that list. Most of the time most people keep only a casual watch upon the political scene. Oh, they will have their opinions on the questions of the day, but most of their energy is directed towards their own business (work, family, etc.).

Up in Wisconsin these days this isn't the case. Far too many people are far too emotionally involved in this election for my liking. I have an instinctual dislike for passion in politics. As a result the more emotional energy people put into a political campaign the more likely I am to tune it all out. And, if there was ever a contest that deserved to be tuned out it is this one. It was simple petulance which generated the abusive recall efforts in the first place. (I'm sorry folks, but this is an abuse of the recall mechanism. There is no way to spin it otherwise.) Losing an election has consequences, including ceding legislative initiative to the winning side. They might even (the horror) enact legislation you really dislike! The thing is there is a sure fire way to undo these sorts of things; win the next damn election which is only two years off anyway.

That being said I've found Walker's "all or nothing" governance to be almost entirely short-sighted. Walker's approach has made it almost inevitable that as soon as the pendulum swings back to the Democrats at the state level everything Walker did will be undone. Indeed the "all or nothing" attitude Walker exudes smacks of zealotry and not measured conservatism, and as such he appeals to my sensibilities very little.

So where does that leave me? Mostly as a spectator. I'm watching what is going on, but I am in no way invested in it. For today at least, I'm happier this way.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Is John Cole The Dumbest Person On The Internets?

Granted, there is a lot of competition out there, but when you read pig ignorant crapola like this you have to think we've got the new king of stoopid:

Democrats tell us that photo ID requirements disenfranchise minority voters, who, inexplicably, have limited access to photo IDs. Yet, at their own convention, they insist that all delegates provide a photo ID to even have access to the convention floor.

I guess they don’t understand the concept of the basic right to vote and how that differs from being one of a very few delegates to a party convention.
Uh, sorry to break it to you John but there is no "basic right to vote." Never has been. Its not a recognized "right" in the English common law tradition; its not a recognized "right" in the Natural Law tradition; its not a "right" in the liberal democratic tradition.

In order for something to be a "basic right" it has to be inalienable (or unalienable if one wishes to echo Jefferson.) Thus, if John Cole were to become a convicted felon, and we can only hope one day he manages to do so, he could lose his ability to vote. In other words, his vote is alienable and therefore not a right.

On the other hand, John Cole's right to liberty and free speech means he has the inalienable right to go on the Internet and make an ass of himself.

And aren't we all lucky?