Karl Smith explains part of the way his views have changed over the years:

15 years ago I was a hardcore Tabula Rasa supporter. There was no way I could imagined myself waking up, believing anything different.

Today, I frequently say: crime and poverty in the first world are biological diseases and one day they will have a biological cure. Our purpose right now is to ease the pain of all those afflicted. Ironically, I think liberals tend to be less accepting of biological determinism, but it was my acceptance of it that led me to be increasingly in favor of efforts to help the first world poor.

I've never been either a hardcore blank slater or a hardcore biological determinist, but there's no question that I have a pretty healthy belief in the power of genes and biology. As Karl says, this belief tends to be associated with conservatives more than liberals, but that's really very odd. After all, it's pretty easy to fool ourselves into dismissing the benefits of being raised in a rich, stable culture and assuming that everything we've accomplished has actually been the result of hard work and personal rectitude. But what if you believe, say, that (a) IQ has a strong biological component and (b) high IQ is really important for getting ahead in the world? If you believe this and also happen to be blessed with a high IQ, how can you possibly convince yourself that this is anything other than the blind luck of the genetic lottery?

Well, I suppose people can convince themselves of just about anything. And certainly a smart person who works hard is likely to do better than a smart person who sits on the couch all day playing videogames. Still, to the extent that you really do believe that cognitive abilities are (a) important, and (b) strongly biologically determined, shouldn't you also believe that the poor are more unlucky than anything else, and haven't done anything to deserve hunger, lousy housing, poor medical care, or crappy educations? If genetic luck plays a big role in making us who we are, then support for income redistribution from the rich to the poor is almost a logical necessity for anyone with a moral sense more highly developed than a five-year-old's.

Long story short, belief in biological determinism should make you into a liberal. And yet, here in the real world it mostly does just the opposite. Go figure.

Run, Paul, Run!

Writing in the LA Times today, Jonah Goldberg is unhappy that none of the big-name GOP presidential candidates are full-throated defenders of Paul Ryan's budget plan:

So the question many are asking is, should Ryan ride to the rescue? If the election is going to be a referendum on his plan, maybe the one guy who can sell it should get in the race. On Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called for Ryan to get in the race, saying, "Paul's about real leadership."

If Ryan ran, he would probably drive the other candidates further away from his own plan while forcing them to come up with serious alternatives of their own. If he got the nomination, many think he would clean Obama's clock in the debates.

It's a lot to ask. He has three young kids and would have to get organized and funded from a cold start for a long-shot run. But politics is about moments, and this one is calling him. Unless someone suddenly rises to the challenge, the cries of "Help us, Paul Ryan, you're our only hope!" will only get louder.

Let me get this straight. The Ryan plan is wildly unpopular and is ripping the Republican Party apart. In fact, it's so unpopular that even Newt Gingrich won't endorse it. So the answer is for Ryan to run because somehow the great man himself will make gutting Medicare into a national movement. And Ryan's vision of vouchers for all, tax cuts for the rich, and reducing defense and domestic spending to 3% of GDP is so compelling that President Obama will be like putty in his hands when debate time rolls around. Hell, maybe Obama will be so scared he'll simply refuse to debate at all.

Well, I'm all for it. I mean, if Michele Bachmann were to run and lose, there's always the chance that the true believers would just chalk it up to inexperience or bad organization or backstabbing or some kind of campaign meltdown (there's bound to be one). But if Ryan runs and loses, maybe Republicans really would have to face up to reality. Maybe Paul Ryan really is our only hope.

Lead is Bad for You

Crime continues to drop:

The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years, a development that was considered puzzling partly because it ran counter to the prevailing expectation that crime would increase during a recession.

....Criminology experts said they were surprised and impressed by the national numbers, issued on Monday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and based on data from more than 13,000 law-enforcement agencies....“Striking,” said Alfred Blumstein, a professor and a criminologist at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University, because it came “at a time when everyone anticipated it could be going up because of the recession.”

Actually, my recollection of the evidence is that recessions have a mixed effect on crime rates. On the other hand, the cohort effects from lead abatement efforts and the introduction of unleaded gasoline probably continue to make themselves felt, so this might not be as mysterious as it seems. More here and here. And while you're at it, this too.

The Wall Street Journal reports that investors have turned distinctly bearish on the global economy:

The negative news began late Friday, after the outlook on Italy's $1.9 trillion of government debt was lowered to negative by credit-ratings firm Standard & Poor's, which cited weak growth prospects and a slipping economic reform agenda. Then on Sunday, Spain's ruling party suffered a crushing defeat in weekend elections. The heavier-than-expected losses for the Socialist Party of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero raise questions about his government's ability to pursue plans to overhaul the euro zone's fourth-largest economy and thereby ward off an international bailout.

This follows a growing political backlash elsewhere in Europe over the bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal that is seen as making any additional support for those countries even harder to galvanize than in the past.

....By late Sunday in New York, the focus had shifted to the other side of the globe as fresh economic data raised concerns about the pace of economic growth in China, with whom the fortunes of other Asian economies are closely linked.

Once the housing bubble collapsed, a recession was inevitable. But the severity and length of the ensuing slump wasn't inevitable, and a second slump certainly isn't either. And yet, either a second recession or its near equivalent now seems more likely than not thanks to our increasingly 18th century approach to economic management over the past year. It's as if we've deliberately gone back to leeches and bleeding as cures for what ails us, and now we're surprised that the patient is getting worse instead of better.

This didn't have to happen. It still doesn't have to happen. It's a manmade catastrophe born of reactionary stupidity and political cowardice. We might still get out of this with our skins barely intact, but if we do it will be thanks only to dumb luck. Buckle up.

Are hotel housekeepers sexually accosted by guests very often? Jacob Tomsky provides the answer:

Sadly, yes. And more often than you’d think. It’s not an everyday occurrence but it happens enough to make this question all too familiar: “Mr. Tomsky, can you give the new girl Room 3501 until next Tuesday? That man is back, the one who loves to let his robe fall open every time I try to clean.” So, yes, we assign the room to the new girl.

But not before hotel managers roll up to the room, flanked by security guards, to request that the guest vacate during cleaning, or at least promise to remain fully clothed or risk expulsion. Often it need not be discussed in detail: those guests who can’t seem to tie their robe properly usually know exactly what they’re guilty of. Typically, an unsolicited phone call from management inquiring if the service in their room is up-to-standard, and offering to send a manager to supervise the next cleaning, improves their behavior. I remember one exhibitionist guest, in New Orleans, cutting me off before I could get down to business:

“Sir, this is Jacob, the housekeeping manager — ”

“O.K., fine, O.K.!” And he hung up. That was that.

Unfortunately, this doesn't really surprise me. Honestly, though — and I suppose I'm just being naive here — I'm surprised hotels don't have a no-tolerance policy for this kind of stuff: do it once and you're thrown out and blacklisted forever. What's the justification for extending even the slightest forbearance toward this kind of behavior?

UPDATE: Money, of course. Eric Hines tweets the answer: "Because luxury hotels would go out of business if they blacklisted every rich guy unaccustomed to women saying no."

UPDATE 2: Then again, maybe not. Though in the context of a hotel, I suspect it's easier to distinguish real sexual harrassment from the accidental kind than Megan suggests.

A recent paper about which features are most important to travelers shopping for a hotel online concludes that the answer is "proximity to a beach." Unfortunately, says Felix Salmon, a hotel can't do much about that:

What they can do is address the second-most important variable: readability. Just having well-written reviews, it turns out, is much more important than having good reviews: the rating given in the review was much less significant, as were aspects of the review relating to cleanliness, check-in, service, and the like....So Zappo’s, instead of getting people to write good reviews, just got them to fix reviews which already existed — deal with spelling errors, correct grammar, that kind of thing. And anecdotally [], Zappo’s saw a “substantial” improvement as a result of its investment in cleaning up such things.

Zappo's is a shoe company, not a hotel, but they figured that if readability of online reviews made a hotel more desirable, then it might make shoes more desirable too. And apparently they were right.

But take another look at the table of important variables, which I clipped from the paper. The highest positive correlation indeed goes to beaches and the second highest goes to review readability. But there's more to life than positive correlations: the highest correlation of all — by a mile — is review "subjectivity." In other words, people hated it when reviews were just personal stories or vague declarations that a hotel was great. And if there's a negative correlation for subjectivity, that means there should be a positive correlation for the opposite of subjectivity. And indeed there is. From the paper: "The negative sign on subjectivity means that customers are positive influenced by reviews that describe factual characteristics of hotels, and do not want to read personal stories of reviewers."

So if you want to game online reviews, don't worry too much about paying Indian sweatshop workers a few rupees each to write phony positive reviews for your product. Instead, pay them a few rupees each to write lots of simple, factual reviews. If you can hire workers with good English skills, that's a bonus, but the main thing is to remember Joe Friday's advice: "Just the facts, ma'am."

And for the record: Unlike Felix, who isn't sure what he thinks about what Zappo's is doing, I don't think that paying workers to "clean up" other people's reviews even comes within light years of being ethical. You just don't change other people's words without getting their permission, especially when it's for the sole purpose of duping shoppers into thinking that Zappo's customers are a bit tonier than they really are. In fact, I'd say that creating phony but purely factual reviews is probably a step higher on the ethics scale. If Zappo's is under the impression that this is perhaps clever but still entirely kosher, they have a very strange moral compass in their executive suite. If their review "cleanup" ever becomes common knowledge, I'm pretty sure they'll be forced to back down and apologize mighty quickly.

From a review of Blind Allegiance, a confessional memoir by former Sarah Palin aide Frank Bailey:

Bailey also helped smear a neighbor who complained about excessive tourist traffic around the governor’s mansion. After hearing of the gripe, Palin sent her daughter Piper out to sell lemonade and then derided her neighbor for protesting children at play. Soon, the neighbor was portrayed on conservative blogs as “sick,” “unhinged” and “drug-addicted.” “By the time we finished with our politics of destruction, he surely regretted ever mentioning the governor’s name,” Bailey writes. “He learned firsthand why so few people were willing to speak out against Sarah Palin.”

And this from Gabe Sherman's New York piece on Fox News chief Roger Ailes:

“He thinks things are going in a bad direction,” another Republican close to Ailes told me. “Roger is worried about the future of the country. He thinks the election of Obama is a disaster. He thinks Palin is an idiot. He thinks she’s stupid. He helped boost her up. People like Sarah Palin haven’t elevated the conservative movement.”

Well, Sarah Palin is an idiot. I guess this just goes to show that even Roger Ailes has to be right occasionally.

Seth Hanlon says that the home mortgage deduction is more valuable for high earners than for low earners. Here's the data:

This seems to suggest that eliminating the mortgage interest deduction would raise effective marginal rates more on rich people than on middle earners, so it would be a progressive thing to do. But I have a couple of questions about this:

  • Above the $40,000 line, the mortgage interest deduction seems to amount to about 1% of income for everyone. But a tax increase of one percentage point is a bigger deal for a median earner than it is for a high earner. So it's not clear just how progressive it would be to get rid of this deduction.
  • This data is solely for owner-occupied housing. But renters benefit too, since landlords can deduct mortgage interest just like homeowners. This reduces their average costs and therefore (on average) reduces rent levels. You need to account for this to see how much benefit there is for workers who earn less than $40,000.

I'm probably in favor of phasing out the mortgage interest deduction regardless since I think we're well past the time when the federal government has any legitimate interest in spurring homeownership. Still, I'm not sure it would be all that progressive a move.

With Mitch Daniels out of the GOP presidential race, we've pretty much settled on a field, haven't we? Discounting the vanity candidates, we have:

  • Newt Gingrich
  • Tim Pawlenty
  • Mitt Romney
  • Jon Huntsman

I suppose we're also waiting for firm decisions from Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, but assuming they decline to run it's hard to see anyone other than Romney or Pawlenty winning. This is just a remarkably thin field.

You and Your Beliefs

Adam Ozimek on our unwillingness to truly reconsider beliefs that are integral to our self identity:

Think about beliefs that you hold and imagine yourself changing your mind. Literally imagine waking up tomorrow with a changed mind and imagine how you would or wouldn’t discuss changing your mind with people you know. Feelings will be strong for beliefs that are important to our identities or that we value for some signaling purpose, like signaling affiliation with some group. Can you actually imagine yourself with these changed beliefs, or is it unthinkable?

....Conservatives, could you imagine becoming someone believes that higher taxes and unemployment insurance don’t hurt economic growth or employment? Liberals can you imagine becoming someone who believes that that minimum wages decrease employment and fiscal stimulus doesn’t work? If the answer is no, you should think about whether it’s because holding such a belief would conflict with your identity or affiliations.

Maybe these are just bad examples, but neither one of them would cause me much angst if I had to change my mind about them. The minimum wage debate has always been balanced on a knife point, with basic theory suggesting that an increase will hurt employment but more detailed considerations suggesting there are small countervailing effects. It's hard to imagine the evidence pointing to a large effect in either direction, but if it did, I wouldn't have a lot of trouble endorsing some alternate way of helping low-income workers.1 Likewise, I didn't endorse the 2009 stimulus because I wanted to spend all that money, I endorsed it because I thought it was the best short-term way to boost an economy in big trouble. If there were indisputably a better way, I'd probably endorse that instead. (Though, as with all things, there are issues of fairness and equity that come into play too, not just pure economic considerations.)

I suppose a better example might be beliefs about taxes in general. There's an obvious tension between economic efficiency, which suggests that consumption taxes are best, and liberal attitudes toward social justice, which motivate a desire for a fair amount of progressivity. The more evidence there is that high income taxes on the rich are bad for economic growth, the bigger the tension. Luckily for me, that evidence is still fairly slim. But what if it became stronger? It's always possible to dream up progressive consumption taxes, but there are limits to what you can do with those. So there's at least the possibility of a fair amount of cognitive dissonance here.

So.....I dunno. I guess a lot of this depends not just on how liberal or conservative you are, but on how inherently pragmatic you tend to be. I have pretty concrete feelings about social justice, but I also have pretty concrete feelings about wanting policies that work well and produce minimal friction. So far this hasn't driven me to drink, but I guess there's no telling about tomorrow, is there?

1Just generally, I've always been a fan of lots of little initiatives to help the poor rather than a few big ones. This is one of the reasons why. If you put all your eggs in one basket, and that basket turns out to be problematic, you're screwed. If you have lots of little baskets, it's not too wrenching to get rid of one and simply increase the others a little bit.