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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Justice Roberts and Obamacare

A while back I wrote ("The Question Before the Court: Constitutionality not Morality") that when considering a case, the U.S. Supreme Court task is not supposed to decide the morality of a particular law, just whether it is constitutional or not. And while a lot of people seem to assume that the two (i.e., morality and constitutionality) go hand in hand, in reality they do not ("Morality vs. Constitutionality").

Chief Justice Roberts seems to be reflecting this view when we wrote in his recent opinion to uphold most of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), commonly referred to as Obamacare:
We (i.e., the Supreme Court) do not consider whether the act embodied sound policies. That judgment is entrusted to the Nation’s elected leaders. We ask only whether Congress has the power under the Constitution to enact the challenged provisions... In this case we must again determine whether the Constitution grants Congress powers it now asserts, but which many States and individuals believe it does not possess. Resolving this controversy requires us to examine both the limits of the Government's power, and our own limited role in policing those boundaries.
No doubt Roberts's reasoning will be (and has been) greeted with glee by liberals and consternation by conservatives, but in most cases probably for the wrong reasons. I'm fairly certain that Roberts didn't vote to uphold the PPACA because he thinks its a good idea. In fact, he probably doesn't. Rather he voted to uphold it because he thinks its constitutional. Whether we like it or not, there is a difference.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Family vs. Sports

Here's a nice story. Webb Simpson, who won the U.S. Open Golf Championship last week, has announced that he won't play in the British Open. Why? Because his wife's expecting. She's supposed to give birth to their second child in late July. And because the Open runs from July 19-22, he doesn't want to take the chance that he'll miss his baby's birth. And given that his first child arrived early, that's a real possibility.

It sure is refreshing when athletes puts their family ahead of their career. Others have, but it's always nice when you hear about someone else doing it. And the Open isn't just another tournament. It's been around since 1860 and is one of golf's four "majors." So passing on it is a big deal. A very big deal. But it isn't as big of deal as missing the birth of a child. At least it shouldn't be.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Consumer Demand and Drug Cartels

In my previous post ("Is Going Local Good for the Environment?"), I noted that one of the best ways we can reduce our carbon footprint is to eat less red meat and fewer dairy products. Why? Because cows are some of the worst polluters on the planet:
Their exhalation and flatulence and belching and manure emit methane, which by one common measure is about twenty-five times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide released by cars (and, by the way, humans). The world’s ruminants are responsible for about 50 percent more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation sector (Super Freakonomics, p. 167).
 Indeed, this is even more effective than buying produce grown locally:
More than 80 percent of the emissions associated with food are in the production phase, and big farms are far more efficient than small farms. Transportation represents only 11 percent of food emissions, with delivery from producer to retailer representing only 4 percent. The best way to help, Weber and Matthews suggest, is to subtly change your diet. “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse-gas reduction than buying all locally sourced food,” they write (Super Freakonomics, p. 167).
As I was writing this, I couldn't help think about how this relates to the work that I do: teaching methods for the tracking and disruption of dark networks, such as terrorist groups, criminal gangs, and drug cartels. In terms of the latter (drug cartels, that is), most of these (e.g., the FARC, Los Zetas, Sinaloa) make their money selling cocaine to American consumers. And just as reducing our consumption of red meat and dairy products can put a dent into our combined carbon footprints, reducing American consumption of cocaine would put a serious dent into the revenues of these cartels.

Unfortunately, we live in a highly individualistic society where we seldom consider the consequences beyond our immediate family and friends (and sometimes not even that far). Many of those who use cocaine (or other drugs) think that as long as they're not hurting themselves or their close friends, then it's OK. But it isn't that simple. The recreational use of cocaine has causal effects that extend far beyond our immediate social circles. Indeed, they extend all the way to the bank accounts of some extremely violent individuals and groups, whose absence would make the world a better place.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Is Going Local Good for the Environment?

Santa Barbara County is one of the largest agricultural regions in the world. It grows approximately $1.2 billion worth of produce a year, putting it in the top one percent of U.S. counties. Paradoxically, most of this produce is consumed outside of the county rather than within it. As David Cleveland, environmental studies professor at UC Santa Barbara, discovered, 95% of the produce consumed within the community is imported ("You Eat What You Are, Part II"):
This is what really shocked us: we found that when you added up all these different ways in which locally grown produce got to people in Santa Barbara County, that less than five percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Santa Barbara County were actually grown in Santa Barbara County, and the other ninety-five percent were imported.
This paradox came to a head in 2005 when a mudslide blocked the shipping (i.e., road and rail) lines between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles for about a week. Because fruits and vegetables couldn’t be imported into the county, the produce sections of many grocery stores lay empty. An obvious solution was for the stores to buy produce from local farmers, but they couldn’t because they were under contract with suppliers from outside of the county. So, their produce sections remained empty and the fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers rotted in the fields.

Stories like this illustrate how there’s something wrong with the market for produce. A common theme is that agribusiness is the guilty party, but as the economist Tyler Cowen points out, while there are serious problems with the current state of agribusiness, there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Without it, even more of the world would go hungry than already does ("You Eat What You Are, Part I"):
I think agribusiness and consumerism are seen as the great villains. I think both are essential; we can’t do without them. They feed the seven billion people in the world. We do need to improve them, but I would work on them through innovation. The biggest food problem in the world today is that agricultural productivity is slowing down and for a lot of the world food prices are going up. And for that we need more business, technology and innovation, not locavorism.
Localvorism? By this Cowen is referring to a belief held by many that the solution is to eat more food grown locally.  Why should food be shipped around the world when it can be grown and consumed locally? Not only does it taste better, but it's often more nutritious (because it can be harvested later), and it's better for the environment. This theme appears in numerous books, such as Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food," it is reflected in the philosophy of certain restaurants, such as Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, and in the increasing popularity of farmer’s markets at which local farmers sell their goods to urban consumers.

But is "going local" better for the environment? David Cleveland, the environmental professor from UC Santa Barbara mentioned earlier, found that it didn't benefit the environment as much as he'd hoped or expected ("You Eat What You Are, Part II"):
We wanted to look at what effect 100 percent localization of the Santa Barbara County system — which is a physically and biologically a very feasible thing to do — what effect would that have on greenhouse gas emissions? And we found that it wouldn’t make a lot of difference. Our savings in greenhouse gas emissions, per household, as a proportion of the total food system greenhouse gas emissions, was less than one percent (emphasis added).
Cleveland’s research built on the research of Chris Weber and H. Scott Matthews (“Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States”), who found that most of the energy associated with food production is in the production phase rather than the transportation phase. There is something we can do to reduce the carbon footprint of food production. Eat less red meat and dairy products. Why? Because cows are some of the worst polluters on the planet:
It is generally believed that cars and trucks and airplanes contribute an ungodly share of greenhouse gases. This has recently led many right-minded people to buy a Prius or other hybrid car. But every time a Prius owner drives to the grocery store, she may be canceling out its emission-reducing benefit, at least if she shops in the meat section. 
How so? Because cows — as well as sheep and other cud-chewing animals called ruminants — are wicked polluters. Their exhalation and flatulence and belching and manure emit methane, which by one common measure is about twenty-five times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide released by cars (and, by the way, humans). The world’s ruminants are responsible for about 50 percent more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation sector. 
Even the "localvore" movement, which encourages people to eat locally-grown food, doesn't help in this regard. A recent study by two Carnegie Mellon researchers, Christopher Weber and H. Scot Matthews, found that buying locally produced food actually increases greenhouse gas-emissions. Why?
More than 80 percent of the emissions associated with food are in the production phase, and big farms are far more efficient than small farms. Transportation represents only 11 percent of food emissions, with delivery from producer to retailer representing only 4 percent. The best way to help, Weber and Matthews suggest, is to subtly change your diet. “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse-gas reduction than buying all locally sourced food,” they write (Super Freakonomics, p. 167).
All of what appears in this post (and more) is covered in more detail in a recent two-part Freakonomics podcast – You Eat What You Are, Part I and Part II. The first part explores what has gone wrong with the production of food in the United States and talks with food philosopher Michael Pollan, the economist Tyler Cowen, and the founder and owner of Chez Panisse restaurant Alice Waters. The second part examines whether going local is the answer, and as you have probably already guessed (if you’ve made it this far in this post), many of the answers are surprising (e.g., it's better for the environment for people living in England to buy tomatoes grown in Spain than to grow it themselves, and the per capita carbon footprint of high rise apartments is lower than it is in rural communities).

As always, the Freakonomics podcasts can be listened to on-line or downloaded from iTunes. The accompanying blogposts (from which I pulled most of the quotes) are informative as well.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Libertarianism on Steroids

I've been attending a social media and counterterrorism workshop/conference over the past couple of days, and one of the participants presented a paper on the sovereign citizen movement, which is a loose collection of hyperindividualistic, anti-government citizens who contend that they're only subject to common law and not to federal, state, or municipal laws. Members of this movement also don’t recognize the U.S. currency, contend that they’re "free of any legal constraints," and reject most forms of taxation. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), there are about 100,000 core believers and another 200,000 who resist "everything from speeding tickets to drug charges."
The strange subculture of the sovereign citizens movement, whose adherents hold truly bizarre, complex antigovernment beliefs, has been growing at a fast pace since the late 2000s. Sovereigns believe that they — not judges, juries, law enforcement or elected officials — get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and they don't think they should have to pay taxes. Sovereigns are clogging up the courts with indecipherable filings and when cornered, many of them lash out in rage, frustration and, in the most extreme cases, acts of deadly violence, usually directed against government officials.
Although it has roots in the white supremacy movement, it longer is (or at least elements are not). Many members are African-Americans, and several have voice their opposition to anti-Semiticism. Instead, the movement is rabidly anti-government and as such has attracted computer hackers, former hippies, and survivalists. The presenter ("Jarret Brachman") remarked that its a volatile mix of the Tea Party and Occupy movements. To me it seems like libertarianism on steroids (Ron Paul is the candidate of choice for many, but I doubt he shares too much in common with most sovereign citizens).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Missionaries and Democracy

Christian missions have often been criticized for a tool used by nation states to subdue and colonize less powerful countries. Although this has sometimes been true, a recently published study by Robert D. Woodberry ("The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy") demonstrates that the conventional wisdom isn't the whole story. In fact, drawing on in-depth historical case studies and rigorous statistical analyses of 142 non-European countries, Woodberry found that the presence of Protestant missionaries is a strong predictor of democracy.

Why? In short, it is because Protestantism has historically believed the Bible is the Word of God and that it is important for people, including women and other minorities, to be able to read the Bible in their own language. This concern led Protestant missionaries to be catalysts for literacy, education, printing, newspapers, and so on, which in turn were mechanisms for the development of democratic rule. As he writes in the abstract
This article demonstrates historically and statistically that conversionary Protestants (CPs) heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world. It argues that CPs were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely. Statistically, the historic prevalence of Protestant missionaries explains about half the variation in democracy in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania and removes the impact of most variables that dominate current statistical research about democracy. The association between Protestant missions and democracy is consistent in different continents and subsamples, and it is robust to more than 50 controls and to instrumental variable analyses.
Woodberry's findings have been greeted with such skepticism that it has taken him several years to get his article published (I heard him present his results several years ago at a conference). Skeptical reviewers have asked him to estimate various statistical models that include a wide array of variables, certain that the inclusion of additional variables or estimating the models in different ways would cause the religious effect to go away. Woodberry even had to provide the assistant editor of the journal in which the article was published (American Political Science Review) with his dataset, the code he used to estimate his statistical models, printouts of all the models included in the article, tables from unpublished articles cited in the text, as well as five custom-made case studies that don't even appear in the article (these were necessary in order to allay the reviewers' doubts -- luckily, Woodberry will be able to publish them later in a separate article). Woodberry even plans to make the entire dataset available later this year so that others can replicate and test his analysis. In addition to the five sets of statistical models included in the paper, in an unpublished appendix Woodberry provides the results from 24 (count em') additional statistical models, all of which are additional tests of whether the religious effect is genuine or spurious.)

In spite of the best efforts of the skeptics, the religious effect never went away. In fact, Woodberry's results suggest that the presence of Protestant missionaries may have been the most important factor in the development of liberal democracy.

Why so many have greeted Woodberry's results with such skepticism probably reflects the state of affairs within much of the social sciences. For years, social scientists have been taught that religion doesn't matter, that any apparent effects it might display can be explained away by other factors (e.g., economic, social class). This belief was probably reinforced by the high level of irreligiosity among social scientists (in fact it is higher among them than it is among physical scientists); that is, because religion didn't matter to them, it made sense that it didn't matter for the rest of the world.

Because it just appeared in the May 2012 issue of the journal, the published version of the article is currently unavailable to nonsubscribers. However, an earlier version is ("The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy"). Better yet, you can listen to Woodberry being interviewed on Anthony Gill's Research on Religion podcast ("Robert Woodberry on Missionaries and Democracy"). Here's a brief description of the podcast:
Did Protestant missionaries help plant the seeds of democracy throughout the world? Prof. Robert Woodberry takes us on a historical tour-de-force around the globe showing how “conversionary Protestants” helped to promote literacy, spread printing technology, facilitate civic organization, defend religious and civil liberties, and protest the abuses of slavery and colonialism. We discuss how this happened and why Protestants were uniquely situated to do this, although we look at similar Catholic efforts in recent decades. We conclude with speculative thoughts about the Arab Spring.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Election Update

Back in the Fall I wrote that if the economy didn't improve, come January 2013 Mitt Romney would be sitting in the White House and Republicans would control the House and Senate ("Will President Obama Be Reelected?"). Then in March I noted that the economy had picked up, substantially improving President Obama's prospects for reelection ("Election (Not Weekend) Update"). In fact, I argued that as long as the European debt crisis or rising oil prices didn't cause the U.S. economy to go into a tail-spin, President Obama should be reelected in November.

Since that time, things have gotten a bit dicier for the President. The economy doesn't appear to be as strong as a number of people thought it was, and the European economy keeps lurching from one debt crisis (Spain) to another (Greece, Italy). Both have taken their toll on the US stock market and President Obama's chances. Nevertheless, at this point it still appears that President Obama holds the upper hand but just barely. Prediction markets currently have him as a favorite to win (around a 54%-56% chance of winning as compared to Romney's 44%-46% chance).

If you recall, prediction markets are not popularity polls. They are speculative markets created for the purpose of making predictions, and current market prices are generally interpreted as the probability of the outcome occurring. They tend to be quite accurate (see the chart from Scientific American to the right). People make money in the markets by buying low and selling high. For example, currently the price of a share of President Obama sells for around $0.55, which means that if he wins, the holder of that share will receive $1.00. Needless to say, people who invest are in such markets are interested in making a profit, so they attempt to take into account a variety of factors (e.g., the economy) in making their decisions. The one thing they don't try to do is bet on  a candidate just because they want him or her to win.

The following graphs from the University of Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM) illustrate the rise, fall, and stabilization of Obama's prospects. The first one indicates the probability of either the Democrat candidate (blue line) or Republican candidate (red line) winning the election. As you can see, back in the Fall, the red line was actually above the blue line for a short while, but then once 2012 arrived and the prospects of a healthier economy became real, the market shifted in favor back to the Democrat candidate. Until the middle of May, that is. Then you can see a big drop in the blue line and a concomitant jump in the red line, both indicating a rise in Romney's prospects and a decline in Obama's. The market began to stabilize in late May, early June, with Obama sitting around 55% (i.e., you can buy a share of Obama for $0.55).


The next chart indicates how close the election appears to be shaping up. It attempts to predict the vote share of the final vote.


This is telling us that right now it appears that Obama will get around 52%-53% of the votes. That's close enough for Obama to win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote. We will have to wait and see.

On other fronts, the Democrats are still likely to lose control of the Senate although it is possible (around 19%) that neither the Republicans or Democrats will control it when all is said and one. That would make for an interesting couple of years.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Not to Beat a Dead Horse, But...

Many news watchers are undoubtedly aware that an article in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine ("Prep School Predators") by a former student of Horace Mann School (Amos Kamil) alleges that from the 1970s to the 1990s multiple instances of sexual abuse of students occurred and were perpetrated by teachers at the school. Moreover, it appears that school administrators (or at least some of them) ignored or condoned what was going on.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I think it's worth noting that none of the abusers were Roman Catholic priests. As I noted in a previous post ("Celibacy and the Pastoral Abuse of Minors"), contrary to much popular opinion Roman Catholic priests do not sexually abuse minors at greater rates than do males in the larger population. It is nice to see that the secular media are finally catching on.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why It's Easy to Believe in God

In three recent posts ("A Case for Religious Freedom," "Religion's Surprising Persistence," "Religion, Fast and Slow") I referred to the work of cognitive scientists of religion, who argue that human beings are naturally religious, not in the sense that religious belief is biologically determined, that everyone is religious, or that what people come to believe about the divine is necessarily true. Nor do they argue that their findings prove the existence of god, the gods, or some supernatural force (These are scientists after all, and some, such as Jesse Berring, are actually quite hostile to religion). Rather, all they argue is that it's cognitively easy to be religious because it belongs to those set of cognitive capacities that are a part of the natural maturing process. This probably help explains why, in spite of the wishful thinking of many, religion hasn't and won't go away as well as why some religious traditions fair better than others.

If you are interested in learning more, here's a interview with Justin Barrett on Anthony Gill's Research on Religion podcast ("Justin Barrett on the Naturalness of Religion"). You can either listen to it on your computer or download and import it into iTunes. There is also this following video presentation by Justin Barrett at UC Davis to the Veritas organization (a Christian organization) back in February of 2012. It's good, but I personally prefer the interview over the presentation.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Nazis, Polish Nuns, and the Gospel of John

During WWII a Polish underground network that went by the code name ┼╗egota (see picture at right) saved thousands of Jewish lives in Warsaw and other Polish cities. It was comprised of a number of different divisions: (1) housing (e.g., safe houses), (2) legalization (e.g., fake identities), (3) child welfare, (4) convents/orphanages, (5) liaison (couriers) (6) Jewish cells, and (7) funding.

Roman Catholic convents played a central role is the safe-guarding and hiding of Jewish children because it was standard policy for nuns to accept orphans without regard to their background. Nevertheless, Sister Wanda Garczynska, Superior of the Order of the Immaculate Conception in Warsaw, felt that she had to have unanimous agreement among all the nuns before they would start taking in Jewish children smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto. She began the meeting by reading from the 15th Chapter of John, verses 13-17:
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. These things I command you, that ye love one another.
After the reading, no one spoke or exchanged glances. The sisters simply left the room, knowing what they had to do if they were to call themselves Christians. Of course, if they had been New Testament scholars, they would have been taught that John's Gospel was historically unreliable and that Jesus probably never uttered these words. Aren't you glad they weren't?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Should College Football Be Banned?

Here's an entertaining (and informative) Intelligence Squared US debate ("Ban College Football") that you can watch or listen to (I know, I know, a dangling preposition, but as Winston Churchill once remarked, "That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put").

The motion being debated is "Ban college football." Arguing on behalf of the motion (i.e., college football should be banned) are Buzz Bissinger, author of what some consider to be one of the best books ever written about football, Friday Night Lights, and Canadian-born Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. Arguing against it are Tim Green, who is a former professional football player for the Atlanta Falcons, a lawyer, and the author of 26 books (I'm not kidding), and Jason Whitlock, who played college football at Ball State, is a columnist for FoxSports.com, and who won a National  Journalism Award from the Scripps Howard Foundation in 2008, the first sport writer to win such an award.

As with all Intelligence Squared debates, those attending vote before and after the debate, and the winning team is decided by how many minds were changed and in what direction. Not only can you listen to or watch the debate at the Intelligence Squared website ("Ban College Football"), but you can access transcripts of the debate as well. The debate can also be downloaded from iTunes.