Recently Forbes.com columnist Joel Delman asked, Are Amazon, Netflix, Google Making Too Many Decisions For Us? He complained that “Are Amazon, Netflix, Google Making Too Many Decisions For Us? Mr. Delman observes that Amazon suggests what we products want to buy, Netflix suggests what movies we might like, and Google is developing a car that will drive itself. He suggests that assisting technologies ought to have an “off” switch, or that maybe the default should be “off” until we turn them on. I’m here to suggest the opposite, that we should embrace these technologies and push them hard. We are all at war with the complexity of the modern world, and computers are our ally. We need more help, not less.
Some of the Tea Partiers would like to abolish the Departments of Energy, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture. They don’t have anywhere near the power to do that, but if they were close, the conventional meaning of “compromise” might be to only abolish two of the four. The compromise is getting part of what is desired rather than all of it. Under the conventional definition, if Democrats want to add legislation and Republicans want to repeal legislation, then leaving it all alone is a compromise. Liberals do adhere to the conventional definitions because they believe the purpose of government is to always expand it. Compromise is restricted to what government power is expanded and by how much.
What makes a good president? I contend it is honesty, sound principles, and executive competence. Critics of Sarah Palin claim that religious beliefs tell all, and they claim that she would like have something akin to a theocracy. I question Palin’s lack of specific policy positions, but the potential interference of religious doctrine with governing has been tested by history. It tells something, but not as much as many suppose. Historical experience with Roosevelt (who believed he was an agent of God), Nixon (a Quaker), Kennedy (Roman Catholic), Carter (Evangelical Baptist), and Obama (Black liberation theology) shows that whatever one thinks of the relative merits of these Presidents, religious doctrine has not been a dominant factor in their governing.
One of the Democrats campaign themes is to assert that Republicans will return us to the failed policies of the past. The talking heads on television repeat the theme every day. It’s not unusual for a Party to have a broad generic slogan. What’s odd is that no one seems to ask, “Exactly what failed policies are you talking about?” Not even conservative commentators often ask the question, and Democrats rarely volunteer. It turns out that most of the failed policies were instigated and sustained by Democrats, and others were by the Federal Reserve Board, beyond Bush Administration control. Aside from policies, the mentality of an economic bubble was a product of human nature, not government. The Bush Administration can be faulted for some of it’s weak efforts to clean up the policies they inherited, but they made strong attempts to reform Fannie and Freddie.
A recent poll showed that about 18% of Americans think that President Obama follows the Muslim faith, and only one in three identifies him as a Christian. During the campaign, his attendance at Reverend Wright’s church, a Christian church, was a significant issue. that might have driven home the point that he was Christian. In his books and interviews Obama declares he is a Christian. If that isn’t enough, Obama drinks alcohol, which Muslims do not. I suppose no one knows with absolute certainty what is in President Obama’s heart-of-hearts, but there is no objective evidence to claim he is a Muslim. So where do people get the idea?
Zoning laws place enormous power in the hands of local authorities. Suppose I’d like to convert the garage on my house in a residential neighborhood into a convenience store. Surely I have a fundamental right to operate a business and to make a living. My convenience store would sell milk that parents would buy for their children. Surely children have a right to be provided with milk. Yet zoning laws prohibit my converting my garage to a convenience store. The local government’s right to regulate the location of stores trumps my right to make a living and the rights of neighborhood children to conveniently get milk.
There was a micro-story in the news this week about a new tax imposed on tanning salons. The 10% tax is supposed to generate $2.7 billion over ten years to help pay for the Obama health care legislation. Why tax tanning salons? Because tanning is related to skin cancer, so it ought to be discouraged by taxation. Everyone knows that whatever is taxed is discouraged, right? But when the revenues from the tax are calculated, the assumption is that there will be no effect, so revenues will be reaped as if no one is deterred. That’s the way tax revenues are usually calculated, which explains why there are usually shortfalls. These days, having computers and such, revenues ought to projected taking tax avoidance into account.
President Clinton started off with a hard left agenda, but after the resounding Congressional losses in 1994, he moved to a much more centrist position, working with Dole and Gingrich on free trade and welfare reform. With a similar prospect facing Democrats this November, will Obama also move towards the center? While it is possible, —one never knows for sure— it is unlikely. Unlike Clinton, Obama has no basis for governing other than ideological dogma. It’s the only game he knows. Moreover, the executive branch has been given so much power to make its own laws there is no compelling need for Congress to act to advance his agenda.
Political campaigns generate sound bites as the preferred mode of communication. Few people are motivated to listen to long-winded speeches, so the goal is to simplify messages in the extreme. Politicians have been way ahead of Twitter. Television news is complicit in favoring one-line easily-digestible capsules of semi-information. The news people suppose that viewers have the attention span of gerbils, and so they must continually get on with something else. The news people are probably right, but there are stories that simply cannot be reduced to sound bites. The oil spill disaster is a case in point. The scope and complexity of the problem defies the sound bite treatment either by politicians or the news media.
People are fond of the notion that “you can prove anything with statistics.” That’s not true, but it often takes deep understanding to find errors in statistical reasoning. Even simple problems can be difficult to solve correctly, and when it comes to complex problems the opportunities for error multiply. The simple problem I have in mind is called “The Monty Hall Problem” and the complex problem is unraveling the errors in the derivation of the global warming Hockey Stick. The first is discussed in The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives, a superb introduction to statistical theory by physicist Leonard Mlodinow. The second is the subject of The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science, a careful exposition by A.W. Montford of the errors made by climate scientists. Together they explain a great deal of what is bogus in modern science.
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