Kevin Drum

Maybe Cheaters Prosper After All

| Mon Feb. 8, 2016 12:26 PM EST

The world seems to be awash in teensy little pieces of social science research that are (1) possibly fascinating but (2) also possibly meaningless. Roberto Ferdman points us to one today that suggests winning makes you more likely to cheat in the future. The participants, as usual, are a small number of university students.

Our eager young test monkeys were broken into pairs and then competed in a task. The winners were determined randomly, though the participants didn't know that. Then they went on to round 2, where they threw a pair of dice. The details are unimportant except for these: (1) the higher the throw the better, and (2) it was pretty easy to cheat since no one could see the dice except the thrower. The chart on the right shows the basic result. The average throw should be 7, and in the control group that's what it was. In the test group, winners obviously cheated since their average throw was much higher than 7. Losers either didn't cheat or, possibly, actually underreported their throws a bit.

Why? Who knows. The authors suggest that winning creates a sense of psychological entitlement, but: "We do not claim that a sense of entitlement is the only factor that accounts for dishonest behavior following a competition. Given the complexity of the situation under study and the variety of mechanisms that drive dishonest behavior, it is likely that other mechanisms also come into play."

So...maybe this is interesting. Maybe it's meaningless. Maybe the authors should have run this experiment a dozen times to see if the results hold up. I'm not sure. However, it seems perfectly suited for drawing sweeping conclusions about the American psyche1—maybe David Brooks can do something with this?—and that alone makes it worth writing about.

1Shhh. Don't tell anyone the study was done at an Israeli university.

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Marcobot Seems Unfazed by Saturday Unmasking

| Mon Feb. 8, 2016 11:29 AM EST

There's not really any way of telling whether the Marcobot meme is hurting Marco Rubio. There was a little bit of polling yesterday, but not enough to show anything serious. Still, for what it's worth, here's the penultimate Pollster aggregate before tomorrow's primary. Really, there hasn't been a whole lot of movement at all over the past month or so. Rubio got a bit of a bump from his Iowa performance, but that's about it. Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion, after which we can all go back to forgetting New Hampshire exists.

Just How Cozy Is Hillary Clinton With Wall Street?

| Mon Feb. 8, 2016 6:00 AM EST

Hillary Clinton has received a lot of campaign money from the financial industry over the years, and after she left the State Department she gave several lucrative speeches to Goldman Sachs and other big banks. As Michael Hirsh puts it, this has given her a reputation for being "more than a little cozy" with Wall Street.

But is she? The truth is that I haven't paid much attention to this question. In terms of the presidential campaign, it's pretty obvious that Bernie Sanders is a lot tougher on the financial industry than she is. The details of their plans don't really matter. Sanders has practically made a career out of attacking Wall Street. As president, he'd make financial regulation a top priority; he'd appoint tougher watchdogs; and he'd use the bully pulpit relentlessly to call out Wall Street's sins.

Still, what about Clinton? How cozy with the financial industry is she? I asked about this on Twitter over the weekend, figuring that all the Bernie supporters would give me an earful. But no such luck. Mostly they just told me that she had taken Wall Street money and given Wall Street speeches. The only concrete criticism was one that Elizabeth Warren made in 2004: that Clinton had changed her view on the bankruptcy bill after she accepted lots of Wall Street money to get elected to the Senate.

But that didn't really hold water. She opposed the bill in 1999 because she wanted alimony and child-support payments to take precedence over credit card companies during bankruptcy proceeding. The bill passed anyway, but Bill Clinton vetoed it. In 2001, she brokered a compromise that gave priority to alimony and child support, and then voted for the bill. It didn't pass at the time, and in 2005 her compromise was removed from the bill. She said then that she opposed it.

This is classic Hillary. Once George Bush was president, she had no way of stopping the bill—so she worked hard behind the scenes to get what she could in return for her vote. Love it or hate it, this is the kind of pragmatic politics she practices. But there's no hypocrisy here; no change of heart thanks to Wall Street money (she supported the bill when it protected women and children and opposed it when it didn't); and no real support for the financial industry.

What else? Clinton says she gave several speeches in 2007 warning about the dangers of derivatives and subprime loans, and introduced proposals for stronger financial oversight. Apparently that's true. I'm not aware if she took a stand on the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999, but I don't think this was responsible for the financial crisis and wouldn't hold it against her either way. (And it was supported by nearly the entire Democratic Party at the time.) The CFMA did make the financial crisis worse, but Bernie Sanders himself supported it. Clinton voted for Sarbanes-Oxley, but everyone else did too.

Clinton has consistently supported increasing the minimum wage—though not to $15. She supported the Lilly Ledbetter Act. She supports higher taxes on the wealthy. She supported repeal of the carried interest loophole in 2007. The Boston Globe, after an extensive review of her voting record in the Senate, summed up her attitude with this quote from a lobbyist: "The financial sector viewed her as neutral. Not helpful, but also not harmful." Citizens for Tax Justice gives her a generally favorable grade on financial issues.

The word "cozy" does a whole lot of heavy lifting in stories about Hillary Clinton and Wall Street. But what does it mean? Does she have an actual record of supporting Wall Street interests? By ordinary standards, is her current campaign proposal for financial regulation a strong one? (I've been impressed by her rhetorical emphasis on shadow banking, but it's not clear just how far her proposals go in real life.) Has she protected financial interests against the Bernie Sanders of the world?

I think it's safe to say that Clinton has hardly been a scourge of the banking industry. Until recently, her main interests were elsewhere. But if there's a strong case to be made for "coziness," I've failed to find it. Anyone care to point me in the right direction?

Sunday French Fry Blogging

| Sun Feb. 7, 2016 1:45 PM EST

A few weeks ago I had lunch at my favorite diner and I asked what kind of oil they cooked their fries in. Corn oil, it turns out. But the owner of the place happened to be standing right there, and with no prompting he immediately grokked why I was asking:

Nobody makes fries the old way anymore. They used to be so good. These days—phhht. There's no taste at all. But everybody got afraid of the health stuff, so it's all vegetable oil now.

The fries at this place range from good to spectacular depending on the whims of the deep fryer, so it's not impossible to get tasty fries from corn oil. Still, fries made in beef tallow—or a mixed oil that includes animal fat of some kind—are unquestionably better. So why hasn't anyone picked up on this? There's plenty of evidence suggesting that fries cooked in animal fat might be no worse for you than fries cooked in vegetable oil, and even if this is wrong there should still be a market for an "artisanal fries" menu item or some such. Upscale burger places are forever looking for ways to differentiate themselves for the foodie crowd, so why not this? I'd buy them.

It's a mystery. Nobody should be afraid of some occasional fries cooked in animal fat. And if you are, nobody is going to take away your bland canola oil fries anyway. Someone needs to get on this bandwagon. Who will do it first?

Is Academic Science Hopelessly Corrupt?

| Sun Feb. 7, 2016 11:56 AM EST

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech scientist who uncovered the lead poisoning in Flint, is absolutely brutal about the way funding priorities have corrupted academic science:

We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost. This is something that I’m upset about deeply. I’ve kind of dedicated my career to try to raise awareness about this. I’m losing a lot of friends.

....Q. Do you have any sense that perverse incentive structures prevented scientists from exposing the problem in Flint sooner?

A. Yes, I do. In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem....I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it.

....Q. Now that your hypothesis has been vindicated, and the government has its tail between its legs, a lot of researchers are interested.

A. And I hope that they’re interested for the right reasons. But there’s now money — a lot of money — on the table....The expectation is that there’s tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars that are going to be made available by these agencies....I hate to sound cynical about it. I know these folks have good intentions. But it doesn’t change the fact that, Where were we as academics for all this time before it became financially in our interest to help? Where were we?

....Q. When is it appropriate for academics to be skeptical of an official narrative when that narrative is coming from scientific authorities? Surely the answer can’t be "all of the time."

I grew up worshiping at the altar of science, and in my wildest dreams I never thought scientists would behave this way....Science should be about pursuing the truth and helping people. If you’re doing it for any other reason, you really ought to question your motives.

Unfortunately, in general, academic research and scientists in this country are no longer deserving of the public trust. We’re not.

In academia these day—and especially in the hard sciences, which are expensive to support—funding is everything. To a large extent, at big research universities faculty members basically work on commission: they have to bring in enough money to pay their own salaries and bankroll their own labs. And when was the last time a salesman on commission badmouthed his own product?

Maybe Twitter Isn't Planning to Ruin Your Life After All

| Sun Feb. 7, 2016 11:13 AM EST

On Twitter, the big outrage over the past few days has been the news that the corporate suits are planning to change the way your Twitter feed works. Instead of simply listing every tweet from your followers in real time, they'll be rolling out an algorithm that reorders tweets "based on what Twitter’s algorithm thinks people most want to see." This is something Facebook has been doing for years.

Power users are apoplectic, despite the fact that it's not clear what's really going on. A developer at Twitter hit back with this: "Seriously people. We aren't idiots. Quit speculating about how we're going to 'ruin Twitter.'" Nor is it clear when this is really going to roll out. And the rumors suggest that it will be an opt-in feature anyway. Chronological timelines will still be around for everyone who wants them.

In any case, I'd suggest everyone give this a chance. Computer users, ironically, are notoriously change averse, which might be blinding a lot of us to the fact that chronological timelines aren't exactly the greatest invention since the yellow first down line. Maybe we really do need something better. More generally, here are a few arguments in favor of waiting to see how this all plays out:

  • I'm a semi-power user. I don't write a lot on Twitter,1 but I read it a lot. Still, I have a job and a life, and I don't check it obsessively. And even though I follow a mere 200 people, all it takes is 15 minutes to make it nearly impossible to catch up with what's going on. Being on the West Coast makes this an especial problem in the morning. A smart robot that helped solve this problem could be pretty handy, even for those of us who are experts and generally prefer a real-time feed.
  • One of my most common frustrations is coming back to the computer after a break and seeing lots of cryptic references to some new outrage or other. What I'd really like is a "WTF is this all about?" button. An algorithmic feed could be a useful version of this.
  • As plenty of people have noted, Twitter is a sexist, racist, misogynistic cesspool. There are things Twitter could do about this, but I suspect they're limited as long as we rely on an unfiltered chronological timeline. Once an algorithm is introduced, it might well be possible to personalize your timeline in ways that clean up Twitter immensely. (Or that allow Twitter to clean it up centrally—though this obviously needs to be done with a lot of care.)
  • One of the most persuasive complaints about the algorithm is that it's likely to favor the interests of advertisers more than users. Maybe so. Unfortunately, Twitter famously doesn't seem able to find a profitable business model. But if we like Twitter, the first order of business is for it to stay in existence—and that means it needs to make money. This is almost certain to be annoying no matter how Twitter manages to do it. A good algorithm might actually be the least annoying way of accomplishing this.
  • Needless to say, all of this depends on how good the algorithm is. It better be pretty good, and it better improve over time.

So....stay cool, everyone. Maybe this will be an epic, New Coke style disaster that will end up as a case study in business texts for years. It wouldn't be the first time. Then again, maybe the algorithm will be subtle, useful, and optional. I'll be curious to try it out, myself.

1Arguments on Twitter are possibly the stupidest waste of time ever invented. Everything that's bad about arguments in the first place is magnified tenfold by the 140-character limit. It's hard to imagine that anyone other than a psychopath has ever emerged from a Twitter war thinking "That was great! I really learned something today."

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Last Night's "Marcobot Moment" May Have Ruined a Political Career

| Sun Feb. 7, 2016 9:26 AM EST

I was out to dinner last night—the duck at Il Fornaio was great!—so I missed the Republican debate. That was too bad, because apparently the highlight of the night was Chris Christie's brutal beatdown of Marco Rubio over precisely the point I made a few days ago. Here's my version:

To me he seems like a robot: he's memorized a whole bunch of virtual index cards, and whenever you ask a question he performs a database search and recites whatever comes up. The index cards aren't bad, mind you, and I suppose they allow him to emulate a dumb person's notion what a smart person sounds like. This is despite the fact that he normally talks with the same kind of hurried clip employed by nervous eighth graders reading off actual index cards.

This has always been my basic take on Rubio, and it makes me a little puzzled by his appeal among the conservative intelligentsia. But maybe they don't really care? Maybe they agree with Grover Norquist's take on the presidency from four years ago:

We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go....We just need a president to sign this stuff....Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.

Well, Rubio has the requisite number of working digits, and he's reliably conservative even if he's not one of the great thinkers of our age. So maybe it doesn't matter if he's a callow empty suit. As long as he signs the stuff that Ryan and McConnell send him, and can give a good speech now and then defending it, he's aces. At a minimum, though, this requires Rubio to effectively hide his inability to think outside of sound bites. Christie shattered that illusion for good last night when he bluntly pointed out Rubio's robotic repetition of the exact same puerile talking point within the space of a couple of minutes. Here's conservative Rubio fan David French:

Marco Rubio’s already-famous exchange with Chris Christie was indeed a brutal moment. I still can’t believe that Rubio went back to the same talking point right after Christie called him on it. Watching it real-time, I honestly wondered if Rubio forgot what he just said. When he started to do the same thing a third time, I couldn’t believe my ears. Christie wasn’t masterful — not by any means — Rubio just served him the worst kind of hanging curve.

French compared this to Rick Perry's famous "Oops" gaffe from 2012. James Fallows called it the "most self-destructive debate performance since Quayle ’88." Social media immediately branded it the "Marcobot" moment, and mashups of the Rubio/Christie exchange showed up everywhere. Here's the edited transcript:

RUBIO: And let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world....

RUBIO: But I would add this. Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. He is trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world....

CHRISTIE: That's what Washington, D.C. Does. The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him. See Marco, the thing is this. When you're president of the United States, when you're a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn't solve one problem for one person.

RUBIO: Here's the bottom line. This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he's doing.

CHRISTIE: There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody....It gets very unruly when he gets off his talking points....

RUBIO [an hour later]: I think anyone who believes that Barack Obama isn't doing what he's doing on purpose doesn't understand what we're dealing with here, OK? This is a president who is trying to change this country.

So there you have it: the exact same canned line three times in a row. And then, even after being called on it in humiliating fashion, he repeats it yet again for a fourth time an hour later.

Will this hurt Rubio? If he's smart, he'll own it. He'll make it the centerpiece of his campaign going forward, sort of like "Make America great again." Unfortunately, now that Christie has pointed out Rubio's index-card habit, everyone is going to be looking for it on every other subject too. Reporters will be combing through his debates and stump speeches looking for canned talking points, and then doing side-by-side comparisons as if he's an author being accused of plagiarism.

We'll see how this plays out. But it sure can't be good news for ol' Marcobot. He might need to think about getting an upgrade to his programming.

Here Is Today's French Fiscal Horsepower History Lesson

| Sat Feb. 6, 2016 8:35 PM EST

No one is going to care about this post. Too bad. I feel like writing, and on a weekend you take what you can get.

Anyway, I was musing the other day about the fact that I've always owned foreign cars. Partly this is just chance, partly the fact that I live in California, and, I suppose, partly because my parents always owned foreign cars. The first one was purchased around the time of my birth, and we kids called it the bye-bye, for reasons I presumably don't have to explain. It was, as it happens, a Renault. But which Renault?

I did a bit of lazy googling last night, but nothing looked quite right. Then this morning, I noticed one of those Fiat 500s that J-Lo hawks on TV, and thought that it looked a little like the old Renault. Except I was sure the Renault had vents in the rear.

But wait. Rear vents means a rear engine. So I googled that, and instantly got a million hits for the 4CV, which was clearly the old bye-bye. My mother confirmed this telephonically a bit later. And that got me curious. Citroën, of course, produced the iconic 2CV, which first came off the assembly line at about the same time. What's with that? What's the appeal of __CV to postwar French auto manufacturers?

The answer turned out to be pretty funky. CV stands for chevaux vapeur, or horsepower. But the 4CV is not a 4-horsepower car. CV, it turns out, is used to mean tax horsepower. After World War II, France (along with other European countries) wanted to encourage people to buy low-power cars, so they put a tax on horsepower. But just taxing horsepower would have been too simple. Instead, they used a formula that took into account the number of cylinders, the piston bore, and the stroke. Here's the formula for the 4CV:

These numbers were undoubtedly carefully engineered to produce the highest result that would round down to 4. In fact, the 4CV had a whopping 17 horsepower, and could get to 60 mph in just under 40 seconds. Ours had a few wee problems chugging along at 6,000 feet in Flagstaff on the way to Denver in 1960, but what can you expect for 17 horsepower?

So that's your history lesson for the day. Apparently the French tax the horsepower of cars to this day, though the formula has changed over time. According to Wikipedia, "Since 1998 the taxable power is calculated from the sum of a CO2 emission figure (over 45), and the maximum power output of the engine in kilowatts (over 40) to the power of 1.6." The power of 1.6? I guess they still love a little pointless complexity in France.

A Nice Paragraph About Why Humans Are So Damn Paranoid

| Sat Feb. 6, 2016 12:39 PM EST

I'm reading Sapiens right now, a history of early mankind published last year by historian Yuval Noah Harari. I haven't gotten very far into it, so I don't know if his idiosyncratic theories will end up being persuasive. Still, it's the kind of learned but big-think book I tend to like regardless of how well it holds up. I wish more deeply accomplished people were willing to write stuff like this.

That said, here's a nice excerpt about the dangers of moving to the top of the food chain too fast:

[It was] only in the last 100,000 years—with the rise of Homo sapiens—that man jumped to the top of the food chain....Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into the position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc.

....In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

This is just another way of saying that human intelligence evolved too fast for human emotions and morals to keep up. Either way, though, it sure rings true. Just take a look at the current presidential race. If any country should feel self-confident and safe, it's the United States. But boy howdy, we sure don't, do we?

Yep, the "Top Secret" Emails Were All About Drones

| Sat Feb. 6, 2016 11:01 AM EST

So just what was in those "top secret" emails that Hillary Clinton received on her personal email server while she was Secretary of State? The New York Times reports what everyone has already figured out: they were about drones. What's more, the question of whether they contain anything that's actually sensitive is mostly just a spat between CIA and State:

Some of the nation’s intelligence agencies raised alarms last spring as the State Department began releasing emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server, saying that a number of the messages contained information that should be classified “top secret.”

The diplomats saw things differently and pushed back at the spies. In the months since, a battle has played out between the State Department and the intelligence agencies.

....Several officials said that at least one of the emails contained oblique references to C.I.A. operatives. One of the messages has been given a designation of “HCS-O” — indicating that the information was derived from human intelligence sources...The government officials said that discussions in an email thread about a New York Times article — the officials did not say which article — contained sensitive information about the intelligence surrounding the C.I.A.’s drone activities, particularly in Pakistan.

The whole piece is worth reading for the details, but the bottom line is pretty simple: there's no there there. At most, there's a minuscule amount of slightly questionable reporting that was sent via email—a common practice since pretty much forever. Mostly, though, it seems to be a case of the CIA trying to bully State and win some kind of obscure pissing contest over whether they're sufficiently careful with the nation's secrets.

Release them all. Redact a few sentences here and there if you absolutely have to. It's simply ridiculous to have nebulous but serious charges like these hanging like a cloud over the presidential race with Hillary Clinton unable to defend herself in any way. Release them and let the chips fall where they may.