Sobering Thoughts

Comments on politics, the culture, economics, and sports by Paul Tuns. I am editor-in-chief of "The Interim," Canada's life and family newspaper, and author of "Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal" (2004) and "The Dauphin: The Truth about Justin Trudeau" (2015). I am some combination of conservative/libertarian, standing athwart history yelling "bullshit!" You can follow me on Twitter (@ptuns).

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Monday, March 25, 2019
 
Mueller probably saved the Democrats from themselves
Tyler Cowen has a list of winners and losers of the release of the Mueller report. Among the winners are Nancy Pelosi, Stephen Moore, "intellectuals" Glen Greenwald and Ross Douthat, and Democratic presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris. The losers are Joe Biden, the Never Trump Republicans, and the media. Cowen briefly notes why Congressional Democrats are better off:
Many Democratic Congresspeople are better off too. Had the report levied stronger charges against Trump, they would have faced pressures from their base to impeach, even though impeachment might not have played well with independent and centrist voters. It is now likely those charges have been defused. Policy wonks may come back into fashion again, at least relative to where things stood a month or two ago.
The "biggest winner," Cowen declares, is the United States: " It seems, after all, that we did not have a president, or even presidential staff, who colluded with the Russians."


Friday, March 22, 2019
 
Seth Myers on Joe Biden
I'm not a fan of the webpages of supposedly serious newspapers giving as much attention as they do to late-night hosts, especially their political comedy/commentary. But I thought this observation by Seth Myers, as noted by the New York Times, was bang-on: "Joe Biden is the kid you played hide and seek with who would hide behind a sheer curtain. We see you." And this, also from Myers, is amusing, too: "just announce already. It’s like going to a Lou Bega concert and wondering if he’s going to play ‘Mambo No. 5.’ He’s going to."


 
Cowen on SJWs
Tyler Cowen on social justice warriors:
Many social justice warriors seem more concerned with tearing down, blacklisting, and deplatforming others, or even just whining about them, rather than working hard to actually boost social justice, whatever you might take that to mean. Most of that struggle requires building things in a positive way, I am sorry to say.
Cowen is not against fighting for social justice but, "Many of the people who are called social justice warriors I would not put in charge of a candy shop, much less trust them to lead the next jihad." Or as Dennis Miller used to say, maybe we'd take their ideas about fixing the world a bit more seriously if they made their bed in the mornings.
I'm not as sanguine about SJWs as Cowen.


Thursday, March 21, 2019
 
March Madness predictions
Here are my NCAA men's tournament predictions, but first a little bit about where I'm coming from. I'm a huge UNC fan (have been since the early '80s) and watch a lot of ACC basketball, a little Big 10 hoops, and read a fair bit about the other conferences from November through the conference championship week, when I try to watch the top four seeds in each of the Mid-Major and Power Five conferences. So I'm not jumping on the March Madness bandwagon but my knowledge is uneven. Generally, my college basketball info comes from ESPN, SB Nation, Ken Pomeroy, The Ringer, Washington Post, and, to a lesser extent, CBSSports.com. I don't have time to provide reasons for my picks, but I researched each of the 68 teams so I'm not just picking Duke because their #1 or avoiding Virginia because they were eliminated early the past two tournament. Over the past two weeks, I've spent about 50 hours reading about the teams in the NCAA tournament and yet I still think what I know or think I know is half bullshit, so take these predictions for what they are worth; it is highly unlikely that no seed three or lower doesn't make the Final Four but it is folly to predict against the top two seeds in each region. Also, I make some predictions because they are the "safest" or most logical upsets, not because I really think they will win. For example, I don't really think Yale will beat LSU, but it's probably a closer matchup than most people realize and there are always a few shocker upsets so I'm going to predict the ones that are most likely to happen. Also, casual fans will over-estimate Marquette and Buffalo while professional basketball pundits will under-estimate them. I was tempted to predict chalk in the West until the regional final where #2 "upsets" #1, but have predicted one other upset that proves the point in the previous sentence.
First round:
East: Duke (1) over ND State (16), VCU (8) over UCF (9), Liberty (12) over Mississippi State (5), Virginia Tech (4) over Saint Louis (13), Belmont (11) over Maryland (6), Yale (14) over LSU (3), Louisville (7) over Minnesota (10), Michigan State (2) over Bradley (15).
South: Virginia (1) over Gardiner-Webb (16), Oklahoma (9) over Ole Miss (8), Wisconsin (5) over Oregon (12), UC Irvine (13) over Kansas State (4), Villanova (6) over Saint Mary's (11), Purdue (3) over Old Dominion (14), Cincinnati (7) over Iowa (10), Tennessee (2) over Colgate (15).
West: Gonzaga (1) over Fairleigh Dickinson (16), Syracuse (8) over Baylor (9), Marquette (5) over Murray State (12), Florida State (4) over Vermont (13), Buffalo (6) over Arizona State (11), Texas Tech (3) over Northern Kentucky (14), Nevada (7) over Florida (10), Michigan (2) over Montana (15).
Midwest: UNC (1) over Iona (16), Utah State (8) over Washington (9), New Mexico State (12) over Auburn (5), Kansas (4) over Northeastern (13), Iowa State (6) over Ohio State (11), Houston (3) over Georgia State (14), Wofford (7) over Seton Hall (10), Kentucky (2) over ACU (15).
Round of 32:
East: Duke (1) over VCU (8), Liberty (12) over Virginia Tech (4), Belmont (11) over Michigan State (2).
South: Virginia (1) over Oklahoma (9), UC Irvine (13) over Wisconsin (5), Purdue (3) over Villanova (6), Tennessee (2) over Cincinnati (7).
West: 'Zaga (1) over 'Cuse (8), Marquette (4) over Florida State (4), Texas Tech (4) over Buffalo (6), Michigan State (2) over Nevada (7).
Midwest: North Carolina (1) over Utah State (8), New Mexico State (12) over Kansas (4), Iowa State (6) over Houston (3), Kentucky (2) over Seton Hall (10).
Sweet Sixteen:
East: Duke (1) over Liberty (12), Michigan State (2) over Belmont (11). South: UC Irvine (13) over Virginia (1), Tennessee (2) over Purdue (3). West: Zaga (1) over Marquette (5), Michigan (2) over Texas Tech (3). Midwest: North Carolina (1) over New Mexico State (12) and Iowa State (6) over Kentucky (2).
Elite Eight: Duke (1) over Michigan State (2) in the East, Tennessee (2) over UC Irvine (13) in the South, Michigan (2) over Gonzaga (1) in the West, and North Carolina (1) edges out Kentucky (2) in the Midwest.
Final Four: Duke (1) over Tennessee (2) easily and North Carolina (1) over Michigan (2).
Finals: My heart says North Carolina, my head knows it is Duke so I'll take ... the Blue Devils.


Monday, March 18, 2019
 
Umpires not referees
Cafe Hayek's Donald Boudreaux points to a 2007 George Will column that included this charming tidbit about St. Louis Cardinals great Rogers Hornsby:
Rogers Hornsby, who averaged .400 over five years, was facing a rookie pitcher who threw three pitches that he thought were strikes but that the umpire called balls. The rookie shouted a complaint to the umpire, who replied: “Young man, when you throw a strike, Mr. Hornsby will let you know.”
Boudreaux is loathe to use sports analogies to illustrate how markets work, but says this one is apt:
[B]aseball would be a sport productive of no value if its rules gave to pitchers the right to decide if each particular pitch is a strike or a ball – that is, the right to decide if each particular pitch is acceptable or unacceptable to the batter. Likewise, markets would be economic systems productive of no value if its rules gave to producers the right to decide if each particular product offering is acceptable or unacceptable to consumers.
Many analogies are imperfect and Boudreaux acknowledges the need for a regulator (umpire) in baseball, while dismissing them in markets. I think the umpire is good metaphor, more apt than, for example, referees with whistles in other sports. Umpires should interfere minimally under prescribed circumstances and clear rules (strike zone, who is safe on the base, what is an out). In real life -- that is, markets -- regulators are like referees in basketball, football, or soccer that don't let the players play the game, interrupting the flow of the game with constant stoppages. Too often, state regulators are like overly officious refs than wise umpires.


 
Beto O'Rourke
Ed Rogers in the Washington Post on former congressman and losing senate candidate Beto O'Rourke running for the Democratic presidential nomination:
O’Rourke is moving into the presidential campaign, and he is no longer the candidate favored by the national media to defeat the reviled Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). O’Rourke is trying to sidetrack the ascendancy of the female stars of the Democratic Party, along with a couple of liberal icons.
In all campaigns, but especially in a presidential campaign, there is nothing the media loves more than what Lee Atwater would call the “phenomena candidate” — someone who goes from nowhere to somewhere in a hurry. But O’Rourke is no Barack Obama. Not one national reporter thinks he or she is introducing O’Rourke to the elite operative class who are the only ones following presidential campaigns this early in the election. Sorry, Beto, but the news from your 2020 launch has to be something other than “Beto’s every utterance is golden.” He cannot be the 2020 “phenomena candidate.”
Another name for the "phenomena candidate" is the "insurgent candidate." Beto O'Rourke's insurgency moment was his close contest with Ted Cruz for a Senate seat from Texas. Coming close in a midterm election against a senator reviled by Democrats might earn O'Rourke another 15 minutes, but can't win him a presidential nomination.


Friday, March 15, 2019
 
Lomborg on Thunberg
Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, writes about Kid Climate Greta Thunberg and the student strike for climate change panic, in USA Today:
Today’s political solutions to climate change, which Thunberg wants more money and attention lavished on, are incredibly ineffective and expensive ...
The school strikers should call on decision-makers to make fewer empty promises like Paris, and insist on effective policies like investing far more in research and development to ensure the price of green energy drops below fossil fuels ...
The children correctly point out they will live in the world left behind by today’s adults. That’s why school strikers should call out the grown-ups using silly rhetoric to promote fantastically costly and ineffective solutions and instead insist on smarter ones. And they should double down on their studies to be part of the generation that will find vaccines for malaria, tackle hunger, fight cancer, while also innovating green energy to make it so cheap it eventually undercuts fossil fuels and fixes climate change for good.
Lomborg notes that the solutions that the student strikers are calling for are prohibitively expensive and do little good for the environment. Meanwhile, there are immediate problems that can be addressed, using the resources the students would direct to pointless climate change gestures, that won't damage the economy but would help human beings currently suffering or being held back: "Climate school strikes would make more sense if we had solved every other challenge. But this year will see 5.4 million children die before the age of five; a quarter billion kids out of school; almost a billion people starving, and more than two billion lacking water and sanitation."


 
Decline of the death penalty in America
Pew Research reports that 30 states, the federal government, and the US military all have the death penalty, but 11 states, along with the federal government and military have not executed anyone in more than a decade:
California’s last execution took place in 2006. The other states that have capital punishment but haven’t used it more than a decade are New Hampshire (last execution in 1939); Kansas (1965); Wyoming (1992); Colorado and Oregon (both 1997); Pennsylvania (1999); Montana, Nevada and North Carolina (all 2006); and Kentucky (2008).
The last federal execution happened in 2003. And while the military retains its own authority to carry out executions, it hasn’t done so since 1961.
Six other states -- Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Utah -- have not carried out an execution in at least five years.
Almost three-quarters of California's 737 death row inmates were sentenced before 2000, and with the state eschewing executing those sentenced to die, more of them die of natural causes than at the hands of the state; notes Pew: "executions are the third most common cause of death for those on death row, following natural causes and suicide, according to data from the state’s corrections department. Just 15 of the 135 California death row inmates who have died since 1978 were executed."


Thursday, March 14, 2019
 
Targets: bureaucrat-speak for 'will never attain'
Politico Europe reports:
Defense spending by NATO's European members hit a five-year high last year, as measured by a proportion of GDP, but still only six countries, plus the United States, met a U.S.-driven target of spending 2 percent of economic output on defense, according to the alliance's latest annual report released Thursday.
Overall, European allies spent 1.51 percent of GDP on defense, with only Britain, Poland, Greece and the three "frontline" Baltic nations — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — hitting the 2 percent of GDP goal that is being pushed by U.S. President Donald Trump.
The NATO allies pledged five years ago to spend 2 percent of annual GDP on defense by 2024.
Germany, the wealthiest of the European allies, spent $50.2 billion on defense last year, an increase of more than $4.6 billion on 2017, but still only equal to 1.23 percent of its GDP, unchanged from the previous year.
Every few years there are reports that NATO members are either sliding away from the goal of spending 2% of GDP on defense or making barely decipherable progress toward it. Some countries are making millimeteric progress to spending enough money to defend themselves and their allies.


 
Cult of credentialism? Blame business
Bryan Caplan is in the next Time magazine with an essay on the college admissions bribery case, noting that the cult of credentialism is at the heart of the (pseudo-?) scandal:
Why do employers put up with such a dysfunctional educational system? Part of the answer is that government and donors lavish funding on the status quo with direct subsidies, student loans and alumni donations. As a result, any unsubsidized alternative, starved of resources, must be twice as good to do half as well. The deeper answer, though, is that American higher education tolerably performs one useful service for American business: certification. Most students at places like Yale and Stanford aren’t learning much, but they’re still awesome to behold if you’re looking to fill a position. Ivy Leaguers are more than just smart; when tangible rewards are on the line, they’re hardworking conformists. They hunger for conventional success. From employers’ point of view, it doesn’t matter if college fosters these traits or merely flags them. As long as elite students usually make excellent employees, the mechanism doesn’t matter.
I have long said that some and particular university learning is genuinely useful, but most of it isn't. The problem is not (primarily) parents or students, however, but an entrenched and self-serving post-secondary education blob, on the one hand, and a too-lazy/too-dumb business class that refuses to find a more useful and fairer credentialing system, on the other. When businesses stop outsourcing their job-seeker filter system to universities, the Felicity Huffmans of the world won't have to resort to bribery for their kids to get a look at from future employers. (Honest question: would it not be more efficient to just bribe the companies themselves? Or does that offend some sense of decency and fair play?)


 
Expected time served for serious violent crime
Alex Tabarrok looks at the numbers and finds that on average people who commit violent crime are not likely to face much time behind bars:
In 2017, for example, victims reported 2,000,990 serious violent crimes (rape or sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault). In the same year there were approximately 446,510 arrests for these crimes (crime definitions may not line up exactly). In other words, the chance of being arrested for a serious violent crime was only 22%. Data on convictions are harder to obtain but convictions are far fewer than arrests. In 2006 (most up-to-date data I could find but surely lower today) there were 175,500 convictions for serious violent crimes. Thus, considerably fewer than 10% of violent crimes result in a conviction (175,500/2,000,990=8.7%).
Put differently, the expected time served for a serious violent crime is less than 14 months.
Tabarrok favours putting more police on the streets to catch criminals so that offenders are caught and therefore more likely to serve any time than focus on sentencing to increase the amount of time so those few who are caught serve longer prison terms.
The Tabarrok post has numerous good links.


Wednesday, March 13, 2019
 
Cowen on college admissions scandal
Tyler Cowen's Bloomberg column is a wide-ranging exploration of what the college admissions scandal -- mere allegations at this point, we should remember -- says about the ideal egalitarianism. I recommend the full column, but found this noteworthy:
Yet most top schools tolerate rampant grade inflation and gently shepherd their students toward graduation. That’s because they realize that today’s students (and their parents) are future donors (and potential complainers on social media).
That is, many university administrations care less about academics and scholarship than they do graduating future donors, and avoiding controversy that could imperil donations today. I'd go a step or two further than Cowen takes us. Just as universal primary and secondary schooling is first and foremost about warehousing children so parents can work and adults can get jobs as teachers, post-secondary education should primarily be viewed as a racket to fund administrator and professor salaries. Education is not about education.