Wednesday, November 21, 2012

I take it back

I previously commended Dean Chambers of Unskewed Polls for appearing on some news program and admitting both that he was wrong and what he did wrong. But now it seems he thinks he was wrong because of voter fraud instead of, well, just being wrong. He should re-read Nate Silver's book.

In other news, with all of NY and CA counted, it seems that Mittens might end up with... 47% of the nationwide popular vote.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The war on Christmas

Black Friday: Buy Nothing Day. I might buy gas and food, I'm traveling. Those don't count.

The first battle in the real war on Christmas is Black Friday. Or, in some stores, it even spills onto Thanksgiving Day now. Never mind that economists have shown that the deals on the whole are not necessarily any better than other times of the year, by the way. I am going to try not to turn this into another tired, anti-consumerist rant. But I am going to float the idea of ceasing to give gifts (or at least radically curtailing the practice). You can take it or leave it, it doesn't really matter to me, but it is worth considering.

I am sure you have heard dozens of people arguing about the consumerism of Christmas, how it detracts from the reason for the season, and what-have-you, so I am not going to rehash those arguments. I'm not even sure who is in the audience here, so I don't know if it is relevant to anybody.

But I think it is relatively uncontroversial to say that "consumerism" is an attack on "Christmas". It is a far more insidious attack than removing a Nativity scene from your community Winter Celebration Display because it is a fundamental attack on how you perceive Christmas, while the latter is just some absurd excision from some crappy art display. Nor is saying "Happy Holidays" a real assault on Christmas: Christmas is the only holiday people actually celebrate at this time of year.

If you are Orthodox or Catholic, you need to be in church on Christmas because that is what the holiday is [1]. Christmas is not about staying in early with your family and opening presents. The perhaps more controversial thing I am going to suggest is that, even if you have children, you do away with presents. We all "know" that Christmas is not about consumerism and that consumerism is part of the war on Christmas. Children often sap our resolve, unfortunately. Why should they, though? You don't need to buy "stuff" to show them you love them, especially not if the cost is teaching them the wrong thing about Christmas. There are millions of non-Christian children in America whose parents don't buy them any gifts in December and they do just fine. Stop participating. They'll be better for it.

Okay, I don't mind a couple small gifts, nor would I ever tell somebody not to give some token out of love that they know will be sincerely appreciated and want to use the opportunity of Christmas to express that love. Nor am I going to say that, if your family needs something specific and you found a good deal on it, you should not purchase it "for Christmas". If people want to talk about what gifts they gave and received on Christmas, I have usually talked about those small tokens which I have often ended up purchasing rather than discussed how Christmas is a religious holiday so we don't usually give gifts, but I might change that.

If everybody followed my advice, it might have "devastating effects" on the American economy. Tough nuts. The status quo is devastating to American consumers and possibly their eternal souls. If you poke around discussions of people in financial trouble on reddit (see /r/personalfinance and /r/frugal), you see dozens of people in rather dire financial positions who think they need to go into $1000 of debt for Christmas just... because. Not so much around this time of year, but at other times of the year, you see people discussing their Christmas debt or planning for their Christmas debt (and it's debt, not expenditure).

One thing I do recommend: Christmas is traditionally a time for almsgiving. Give money toward feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, providing medical care for the indigent, and, yes, giving gifts to needy children.

[1] Many types of American Protestant are excused from this responsibility because they, historically, do not believe in Christmas, Easter, or any other feast. The only re-acquired them because the pull of paganism is so strong. Not having any way to actually celebrate the holiday (esp. since they were completely non-liturgical), they will not actually celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday and, if Christmas falls on a Sunday, may cancel their Sunday services. However, these are typically the loudest voices in the matter of the "War on Christmas", which is perceived as taking a creche out of the Winter Festival and saying "Happy Holidays".

A few thoughts on getting into a couple arguments with denialists

First, I would note that, despite having some small education in physics and reading a pile of literature - popular and peer-reviewed (fewer of these and mostly numerical ones) - I am in the end a statistician and not any sort of geophysicist, atmospheric sciences wallah, or even physical scientist of any sort. I'm just a numbers guy at the end of the day, and not even a terribly good one yet. So getting into any sort of discussion with denialists of any sort is slightly dangerous. This is a tremendously complicated process with several interweaving parts and even experts in their particular component of the picture are wary of getting too far into the weeds on other parts. It's like evolution, you know.

I should note that the science on climate change does not dictate a particular course of action. Following the science does not dictate a certain political stance. It does dictate an end: if we like agriculture, coastal settlements, interior settlements, most other aspects of human life that depend on the environment, we need to take some political action to curb carbon emissions now. If you disagree with that end, great. Science does not dictate what ends we should pursue. It only gives us suggestions about causes and effects. I prefer a world where we do not have 4C of warming, and the way to do this is curbing CO2 emissions - see science for answers on how much and how quickly (and how much quicker than current plans). I am not necessarily a "statist" or "interventionist" or "liberalist" about this - I'm open to hearing any argument about what political means can produce those ends. If tax cuts and deregulation can do it, great, let's go for it. Unfortunately, few people on that side of the aisle are arguing that will do it. Instead, they say climate change isn't happening, or it's natural and it isn't us so we can't do anything about it. Environmental externalities are generally regarded as an example of a place where markets fail, so, anyway, I'm not holding my breath for good ideas from that side of the aisle. But, seriously, I'm interested in hearing solutions from that side. What it probably comes down to is that, at some point, the State will have to dictate limits on carbon production and encourage (with its visible hand) Alternative Energy. And not by crummy measures like dictating fuel efficiency standards, but, rather, perhaps by measures such as Germany's relatively successful program to encourage alternative energy investment.

Anyway, back to discussing the science. All the above is somewhat of an aside to perhaps show that I'm not just some guy with an agenda to line my pockets or get prestige in whatever. Nor am I particularly interested in the "PC" line.

As mentioned above, this is a complicated question with several converging lines of argument and sophisticated math involved. The answer is not and cannot ever be a slam dunk, but, even so, we can be fairly sure of a good answer. Just because the answer is complicated and has a lot of moving parts does not mean that there has to be something wrong. It's a complex dynamical system. Of course, popular expositions will have to cut some corners. It's impossible to get everything covered in a short message board conversation even if you are an expert in one small part of the question.

But what we see are lots of people getting stuck on common misconceptions. Like in the vaccine "debate", people latch onto one fact, think the whole thing is overcomplicated or the explanation they've received too simple to correspond to the mucky reality, and therefore, by their one little bit of evidence, can reject the whole. For some people, they hang their hat on solar activity. That must be it! Others, the fact that it went up and down in the past so it must be hubris to presume that we are causing it (the world is not about us!). Others question the temperature record. Some question the idea of computer models and simulations. Others note the personal "failings" of some of the people involved.

It's one thing to be a scientist deeply in the research with some idea and therefore be skeptical of the consensus. An ever-shrinking minority of climate scientists are in this bucket and they at least recognize they are in the minority of climate scientists and are fighting the consensus. But it's another to be completely outside, not read any of the peer-reviewed research, and just lob bombs. Everything has small holes you can worry if you have time, from the science of the smallpox vaccine to evolution to general relativity. Unfortunately, addressing them all is counterproductive: few have the expertise the plug dozens of holes in disparate parts of the narrative (and the ones that do don't have the time or will to operate at that level), and extensive research has shown that this sort of argumentative activity is counterproductive to changing somebody's mind. Meanwhile, you get accused of "confirmation bias". It's terribly rewarding.

By the way, if you're wondering what I think should be done, some combination of the following, including some completely intractable ones which will probably cause economic harm:

  • Outlaw coal exports immediately and announce a timetable for completely shutting down domestic coal production and consumption entirely while simultaneously not allowing increases in coal production. This is impossible for many reasons.
  • Greenlight more nuclear power plants.
  • Incentivize wind and solar power plant development and domestic solar (requires research into how to stabilize the grid).
  • By the way, free markets are a liberal myth. All markets are defined and regulated in some way, usually to the benefit of the wealthy, so a "free market" solution - such as a "carbon tax" - doesn't hold intrinsic promise to me. Esp. as it's going to be regressive and won't guarantee reductions in consumption.
  • Heavy investment into electric cars, LED lights, solar PV research.
  • Propaganda campaigns.
  • Invest in improving home energy efficiency - perhaps with tax credits for all, grants for low-income people.
  • Hang coal executives, institute socialist revolution.
  • Find ways to make public transit, walkable cities not suck.
Intentionally missing from the list: ethanol, cutting taxes, deregulation, waiting until there is more popular support and "more evidence", waiting for the economic recovery.