Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ranking the Top 10 GOP Candidates: From Least Awful to Most Horrific


It's not a pretty list. 

1. Marco Rubio

The Good: I think its pretty clear he genuinely wants immigration reform; from his support of the Gang of 8 bill to his tears during the Pope's immigration speech. Reforms would drastically improve the lives of people living in the shadows, and would improve the American economy through increased skilled immigration. He also actually has talked about the need to address poverty.

The Bad: He can't manage his own finances. In other news, his budget would add a trillion dollars to the national debt

The Ugly: He is a foreign policy hawk who seems to have learned very little from global events over the past decade. He thinks abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and wants the gay marriage decision to be overturned.

2. John Kasich

The Good: He actually has significant relevant experience; from his Budget Committee Chairmanship in the House to his leadership over the state of Ohio. He has decried some of the hate coming from the frontrunner's mouths.

The Bad: He has shown no interest in improving his state's infrastructure. He thinks Planned Parenthood should be defunded.

The Ugly: He supports a balanced budget amendment. Even conservative think tanks have warned this is a stupid idea.

3. Jeb Bush

The Good: He has stuck to his guns (mostly) on immigration reform, whereas Rubio has largely folded. Despite his last name, he seems like the least likely to embarrass American internationally.

The Bad: He possesses his brother's command of the English language, but lacks W's.......charm.

The Ugly: He has chosen the same foreign policy advisers as his brother.  Because that went well the firs time.

4. Rand Paul:

The Good: He has smart things to say about criminal justice issues, and he understands that war is not always the answer.

The Bad: He grandstands on national security issues to secure campaign donations.

The Ugly: He completely betrays his supposed libertarianism when it comes to immigration. Freedom of movement is...not a freedom.

5. Chris Christie

The Good: Governor Yells at People sometimes yells at the right people. He has actually talked about economic issues with some sense, and seems to be socially moderate by GOP standards.

The Bad:  He had the audacity to tell someone else to lose weight.

The Ugly: Seems to be trying to get to the right of the field on national security issues, which is sort of like trying to win a hot dog eating against Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut.

6. Carly Fiorina

The Good: She isn't Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.

The Bad: That Compaq Merger.

The Ugly: The Carly curse.

7. Ben Carson

The Good: I have a rebuttal when my med school friends tell me doctors are smarter than lawyers.

The Bad: I prefer my presidents to know more about foreign policy than Herman Cain and/or my sister's cat.

The Ugly: During his brief surge to the front of the pack, he made Donald Trump briefly seem intelligent and reasonable.

8. Mike Huckabee:

The Good: He seems like a nice guy if you are a straight white Christian.

The Bad: Many Americans would not fall under that category.

The Ugly: The whole Kim Davis saga.

9. Ted Cruz

The Good: He is a genius.

The Bad: He is an evil genius.

The Ugly: I thought long and hard about whether he deserved the No. 10 Spot.

10. Donald Trump.

The Good: System error. System error. System error. System error.

The Bad: He is tanking my resume. U PENN is a good school, I swear.

The Ugly: He is an incendiary bigot, a disgusting sexist, an uncompromising racist, a shameful hypocrite, knows nothing about foreign policy, knows nothing about economic policy, knows nothing about anything, and could potentially be the worst thing to happen to the United States in my lifetime.




Sunday, January 10, 2016

Friedrichs and Conservative Hypocrisy on Judicial Activism

On Monday, the Supreme Court is set to hear Friedrichs v. California Teacher Association. The fate of public sector unions possibly hangs in the balance; if the Supreme Court sides with the majority government unions will no longer be able to collect fees from non-members that benefit from the union's collective bargaining. The plaintiffs in this case argue that there First Amendment's rights are being violated because they are forced to financially contribute to the unions;  they claim this results in compelled political speech.

I don't think the plaintiff's case is prima facie absurd. Unions certainly engage in political activities, though they will surely point out that Ms. Friedrichs got a rebate check for activities they partook in which they considered political. The plaintiffs will counter that all union activity is inherently political; in an age when budgets are stretched at the local level across the country, teacher's wages are inherently political. I think this is a stretch, but I can see where the plaintiffs are coming from.

Which brings me to the conservative National Review.


Every day on National Review's Bench Memos page, Ed Whelan writes a blog post titled "this day in liberal judicial activism." He bemoans things like the appointment of liberal judges, the expansion of gay rights, and cases striking down restrictions on birth control. To his credit, Ed Whelan entitles this series "Liberal Judicial Activism." This is good, because his co-authors at the National Review actually love judicial activism, so long as its the conservative kind.

Over the last two weeks, the conservative magazine has posted a number of pieces arguing that Friedrics should win her case. George Will 
vents "never in its 225 years has the First Amendment been under so varied and sustained attacks." Never mind the fact that there were very few free speech cases at all for the first 130 years, the Alien & Sedition ActsWorld War I propaganda committees, or the Espionage Act of 1917. Definitely those were smaller incursions than the campus activists of today. 

Robert Alt has also done a series of posts advocating for the plaintiffs. Notably, in his post arguing that the Court should not follow precedent, he relies heavily onCitizens United. Alt claims "the howls of “politicization” by the Left if the Roberts Court fails to adhere to stare decisis are disingenuous—and, some might say, political—at best.  The Left cares little for adherence to precedent or tradition, unless it is their precedent."


Alt isn't totally wrong here; liberals surely use starre decisis [upholding prior cases] in politically convenient ways. But so do conservatives. Alt is literally accusing the left of misusing starre decisisin an article where he is saying "yes, starre decisis is great, but um not here." It cuts both ways.

But even worse for Alt is the laughable conservative hypocrisy on judicial activism. For decades, it has been common conservative rhetoric to rail against judicial activism, to decry liberal judges who used the equal protection or due process clause to expand rights to minority groups. Certainly liberals have bemoaned conservative judicial activism, but it has never been a rallying cry of the left. There is no "this day in conservative judicial activism" daily segment, even though there easily could be.

Friedrichs is judicial activism at its finest. The plaintiffs have been chosen by a public interest law firm, they did not file suit organically. The lawyers are seeking to use the courts to bring about social change rather than the democratic process. Forget federalism, the plaintiffs here wants to impose the same rule on all the states. Friedrichs would overturn a precedent of nearly four decades, throwingstarre decisis aside. It would use vague language to greatly expand rights in a way that could dramatically transform our country. The case may also be textually debatable. Remember the First Amendment, according to the Constitution, only applies to Congress. Where are all the conservative strict constructions wailing against atextual First Amendment incorporation? Nowhere to be found of course.

Friedrichs is supposed to be everything conservatives hate. But alas, the judicial activism line was always a front. It's time for conservatives to stop playing coy and admit they have always loved (conservative) judicial activism.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Revenant and Inarritu's Genius (No Spoilers I promise)



Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is making a strong case for being the most impressive director of the 21st century. Certainly he has plenty of competition; Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese continue to amaze, Christopher Nolan continues do his thing while reaping in enormous profits, and there are certainly valid arguments to be made for David Fincher, Richard Linklater, the Coen Brothers, Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, and others. But AGI may have separated himself with The Revenant.

For a while, Inarritu was known as a one trick pony. Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel were all deadly serious and somber films that weaved multiple stories into a breathtaking tapestry. That said, following Babel, some wondered whether Inarritu had any other cards. I would have been perfectly content if he didn't; Amores Perros is nothing short of the best Mexican film I've ever seen, and Babel was an astonishing blend of beautiful shots, moving music, and heartfelt acting that visually explained many of the cultural misunderstandings that still plague us today.

In 2009, Inarritu made Biutiful. It's by far his most underrated movie, one of the few which critics en masse got wrong (its a 58 on metacritic). It's as solemn as Inarritu's original trilogy, but this time the relentless focus of Inarritu's camera is on poor Javier Bardem rather than multiple protagonists. Then came Birdman in 2014, a true departure in tone for the Mexican. I think it's less of a film than Biutiful yet still was one of the best films of last year. Certainly others agreed, as Inarritu won Best Director and Birdman won Best Picture at last year's Oscar's.

Now he's back with The Revenant. It's a stunning film, simultaneously inspiring and depressing. Leonardo DiCaprio turns in his best performance in a long time; DiCaprio is often exciting and moving as an actor, but since 2006 I can't seem to forget that I'm watching DiCaprio instead of the character. That's not the case here. It's an amazing, gritty performance, and I think it will deservedly bring DiCaprio the Oscar he has been waiting for. Tom Hardy also deserves immense credit for his tenacious performance; I don't understand why he always gets snubbed at awards season.

People can disagree over who has been the best director this century, its much harder to argue Emmanuel Lubezki has not been the top cinematographer. He has won the Oscar the past two years Gravity and Birdman and I would be shocked if he does not become the first cinematographer to win the award three years in a row. Lubezki and Inarritu insisted on using only natural light and settings, meaning the actors and crew nearly froze to death. But the rewards were worth the suffering: The Revenant is one of the beautiful, visually stunning films I've ever seen. The action scenes have a verisimilitude I have never experienced and the landscapes are nothing short of gorgeous.

The Revenant is a masterpiece, short and simple. Go see it.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Are Sports Fans Rational?



In an excellent presentation on decision making today, Wharton Professor Joseph Simmons mentioned a study he conducted showing how sports fans participated in motivated reasoning. Specifically, Simmons displayed a graph from his paper co-written by Cade Massey and David Armor , showing that participants in the study were much more likely to pick their favorite team to win. They did this even though they had financial incentive to pick accurately. (If you want to look at the paper, its the 2011 'Hope Over Experience' paper on Simmons' page).

The paper immediately struck me as correct but incomplete. Yes, fans were participating in motivated reasoning, but that wasn't the only thing going on in the data. Their are reasons sports fans would pick their team to win even if they expected them to lose.

Take fantasy football for instance. For my fantasy teams, I almost always end up with a disproportionate number of Ravens (my home team). I have no doubt the same is true for millions of others. It's fun to route for players I like, and even more so when I am lucky enough to be at the stadium to watch the game. Moreover, its awkward when you are partially routing for the other team.

Let's say Ben Roethlisberger (of the Pittsburgh Steelers) was my quarterback this year and I made the championship game of my league (neither are true). This year in Week 16, typically championship week in fantasy football, Roethlisberger was playing the Ravens in Baltimore. I was fortunate enough to go to the game. As it turned out, Big Ben has a horrible game and the Ravens pulled off the surprising sweep of the Steelers. It even made it seem as if the Steelers would miss the playoffs until the Jets got Fitzpatricked. I was jumping, screaming, and celebrating like all the other fans. It was definitely the highlight of the season for the Ravens. But if I had had Roethlisberger on my team, I would not have been nearly as happy.

This same reasoning also applies to betting on games. If I had picked the Steelers to win, I would have felt more neutral about the victory. People don't watch sports to be ambivalent; they watch them to be excited, to scream at the television, to curse the refs, and to high-five their friends. A lot of people bet on sports as much to make the games more exciting as they do to win money. Games with teams you don't care about become a lot more exciting when you have a routing interest.

In other words, for the majority of sports fans, the utility they get from watching games is from supporting a team. Their increase in welfare comes from the experience of cheering for a team, be it out of life long allegiance or a recent $20 bet. As such is the case, I believe most fans betting on their favorite team in the Massey et al paper were behaving rationally. They got more utility out of unequivocally routing for their team (and now they had money on them!) then they got out of their expected financial gains from picking the more likely victor.

I think this logic also explains another interesting finding of Massey et al: that supporters of teams with very very low odds are more rational than teams with about a 50/50 shot at winning. Fans of teams in a close matchup expect to experience the excitement of a game that is likely to be back and forth. Fans of bottom-feeding teams have different expectations though: they expect to be bored by their team getting destroyed. The utility they derive from watching the game is lower than the expected gain from accurately predicting the correct result.

To be clear, I'm not arguing against anything in the paper. The authors say in their conclusion that its an open question about whether these optimistic fans are being rational. I am merely arguing that screaming fans might be pretty smart after all.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

No, Grover You are Not the Rebel Alliance and You Could Not Defeat the U.S. Army

We'd all be speaking English if this guy hadn't intervened.

Grover Norquist, best known as the guy who make Republicans sign a pledge ensuring the world they will never raise taxes, has recently taken to twitter in defense of gun rights. Clearly, he was inspired by the The Force Awakens. By "inspired", I mean encouraged to make really dumb analogies.


Let's list the problems with this analogy.

1. First off, the stormtroopers in this example would presumably be the U.S. military. You know, stormtroopers who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. I think this guy, whatever you else want to say about him, might disagree with Grover's analogy about the competence and accuracy of the fighters in question.

2. Stormtroopers, Finn aside, aren't heroes. Many Americans soldiers are quite heroic.

3. Stormtroopers are led by these guys. American soldiers are led by these ones.

4. American foreign policy certain has its solid share of faults. But it's fair to say we are normally trying to kick evil dudes out of power, instead of preserving their rule.

5. The notion that we need guns as a check on the federal government is ridiculous. Armed civilians are not going to stop our army, which also has things like drones and nuclear weapons. And no our advanced weapons (or as Norquist sees them, "death stars") aren't built with logistical weaknesses allowing themselves to be destroyed the same way over and over again.

Grover could potentially respond that we should give everyone weapons of mass destruction, to make it a fair fight. At which point even the NRA would say hold it there Ol' Grover.

Grover applied this same logic to another set of facts in a subsequent tweet.
 God forbid, not English. Oh wait.

There are some reasonable arguments against gun control. These aren't them.