Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Well Said

Digby’s got it right:

Because we have hit the wall, folks. The Nader vote should have been a clue — not that we need to move left, but that we’d gone as far to the right as we could. Any further and we lose the base, either to a third party or apathy. In a closely divided electorate this is suicide.

Clinton’s genius was to combine prototypical liberal issues like the right to choose, civil rights, progressive taxes, education, and expanded health care with a new Democratic orthodoxy on economic growth and defense issues: a strong military (notwithstanding Bush’s rhetoric, well up to the tasks in Afghanistan and Iraq), balanced budgets, welfare reform, and generally promoting business and growth, with appropriate safeguards against malfeasance, are all integral parts of Clinton’s policies–successful policies with which I agree (in fact, I call this position “slightly left of center”). These policies demonstrate exactly where Democratic success on these issues rests, not the left-most edge of the Democratic Platform.


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Tort Reform and Tradeoffs [warning: long post]

As I was reading Dwight Meredith’s latest interesting discussion of tort reform, lead poisoning and lead-based paint came to mind. I was trying to picture the reaction that courts in the 1960s would have had to hypothetical plaintiffs alleging that, “the paint in our house is causing our childrens’ learning disabilities and seizures.” That certainly sounds frivolous, but of course the allegation is true. The point is that frivolity is a lot easier to discern with hindsight. Proscribing, ex-ante, seemingly silly claims puts a lot of potentially valid claims at risk.

There are two categories of errors in scientific hypothesis testing: a false negative (rejecting a true hypothesis), and a false positive (failing to reject a false hypothesis). These are called, respectively, Type I and Type II errors (there’s a third, more widely committed error, the “Type III error”, which is forgetting which error is Type I and which is Type II).

Limiting the scope of pursuable lawsuits will undoubtedly decrease the number of false positives (less unmeritorious lawsuits will be won), but it will come at the expense of more false negatives (lawsuits that should be filed and won because the claims are valid will not be filed and won). As statisticians well know, there’s generally a tradeoff: as the odds of a false negative decrease (the “significance level” of the test increases), the odds of a false positive (the “β” of the test; 1-β is the “power” of a test) increase, and vice-versa. Assuming sound statistical techniques are being employed, the only way to simultaneously decrease the probability of both types of errors is to add more observations.

Here’s an extreme example that illustrates the tradeoff in the context of lawsuits: if we want the rate of successful frivolous lawsuits to be zero (which would presumably dramatically reduce the filing of such lawsuits), we could adopt this simple rule: “reject all lawsuits”. Voila! Zero probability of a false positive. However, this entails a very high risk of false negatives–the probability of a false negative will equal the proportion of lawsuits that are deserving (because they will all be rejected). Conversely, a rule like “accept all lawsuits” will eliminate the risk of a false negative but lead to a high rate of false positives. As you move away from one type of error, you move toward the other.

Continuing with my statistics/lawsuits analogy, the analog of improving statistical techniques is to improve the judicial system. Replacing stupid judges with smart ones, or bad rules of evidence with better ones, will decrease the chances of both types of errors. But beyond that the only way to improve on both dimensions is to gather more data. All other reforms involve a tradeoff, which brings me to my point.

The debate about eliminating frivolous lawsuits is rarely discussed in a meaningful way. The costs of the two types of errors need to be reckoned. So an honest statement by a tort reform adherent would be something along these lines:

I believe that the benefits to society of reducing the number of successful-yet-invalid lawsuits would outweigh the costs of the necessarily concomitant increase in the number of unsuccessful-yet-valid lawsuits. Therefore we should raise the bar and make it more difficult to file lawsuits.

Then we could have an honest discussion about the relative costs and appropriate rate of tradeoff between the two types of errors.(*) But outside of academic journals, meaning in the press and in politics, I don’t hear the debate formulated in this fashion. Instead, it’s always

Frivolous lawsuits are costly. Let’s make it harder to file lawsuits, thereby reducing the number of frivolous lawsuits, and we’ll all be better off.

Note that mention of the hidden cost, more false negatives, is omitted. Some might recommend that we only make it harder to file frivolous lawsuits while not making it harder to file meritorious ones–and where possible that’s a good idea–but generally, it cannot be known ex-ante which are which.

Because across the board caps on damages lower the returns to all lawsuits, not just the returns to bad ones, the administration’s various proposed tort reform measures to cap damages on awards are a perfect example of a policy proposal that considers only the beneficial effects of less false positives while ignoring completely the social costs of more false negatives.


(*) You’ve probably heard a phrase like “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This 10:1 ratio is called Blackstone’s Ratio, after its author, 19th century English legal scholar William Blackstone. In this calculus, false positives (convicting the innocent) are no less than ten times worse than false negatives (freeing the guilty). We could make jury instructions such that juries are more likely to convict, reducing false negatives, but that would necessarily increase the false positives. So much of the debate over legal reform is really a debate over the right “n:1” ratio, or the correct rate of tradeoff between false positives and false negatives. It’s a subjective issue, and the answer may well vary according to context (e.g., death penalty cases have a higher “n” than shoplifting cases). But remember that most judicial reforms involve altering the ratio in one direction or another, not keeping one type of error constant while reducing the odds of the other–even though proposals are all too often cast in terms of the latter.

Alexander Volokh (brother of Volokh Conspirator Eugene), has an interesting essay on the web, “n Guilty Men”, that gives a detailed discussion of the history of thought about the right “n”. To wit, he leads with a recounting of Abraham’s efforts on behalf of Sodom (Genesis 18:23-32):

And Abraham drew near and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous [of Sodom] with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? … And the Lord said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.

…And he [Abraham] said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten’s sake.

I was unable to find an estimate of the population of Sodom at that time, but let’s conservatively hypothesize that it was 1000 (in Sodom and surrounding towns). Based on this, God’s “n” would be 99, at least in the context of imposing death. That is, 10 false positives (the righteous being destroyed) was too high a price for avoiding 990 false negatives (the wicked going unpunished). But it would be worth enduring 9 or less false positives in order to avoid 990 false negatives. On the other hand, in the Biblical telling the 3.5 righteous people of Sodom (it’s unclear whether Lot’s wife counts as righteous or not, given her pillar of salt ending) were spared (though they lost their home and posessions).

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Twenty Greatest

John Hawkins is making lists again, this time of “The Greatest Figures Of The 20th Century”. Unlike the last list, this one is not limited to Americans. Once again, there will be a Liberal list and a Conservative list. I didn’t have time to put much thought into this, but off the top of my head, this seems like a set of pretty impressive people:

Winston Churchill Franklin D. Roosevelt
Martin Luther King Dwight D. Eisenhower
Nelson Mandela Desmond Tutu
Mohandas Gandhi John F. Kennedy
Susan Anthony Albert Einstein
Niels Bohr George S. Patton
Lech Walesa George C. Marshall
Woodrow Wilson Ken Arrow
James Watson Francis Crick
Marie Curie Simon Wiesenthal

I’ll post a link to the lists when the votes are tabulated.


UPDATE: See modification described here.

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Today, I’m going to a friend’s wedding. Weddings are always special, but this one is unusual because until Thursday, I didn’t know it would be happening today. In fact, because he’s been serving in Iraq and Kuwait for most of the last eight months, even he didn’t know until recently when his wedding would happen. My soon to be wed friend is one of three old friends I have who are seeing active duty in Iraq, and I’m proud of each one of them. And I support each one of them. In the case of today’s groom, that support first took the form of not wanting him to go to war on the basis of half-truths and falsehoods. Since that didn’t work out, I reverted to Plan B: buying him all the drinks I could and wishing him the very best in his new life with his new wife. Salud!


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How Many Angels Can Dance on A Pinhead?

Who knows? Not me. But roughly 600 bloggers can be fair and balanced on the same day. That’s at least 599 more blogs than cable news networks that can do that. Nice job with the list, Blah 3.


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More Flashback Fun with Fox’s Star Commentator

From CNN:

But it’s apparently not the first time O’Reilly has used the term to describe illegal immigrants from Mexico. According to a report in the Jan. 5, 2003 edition of The Morning Call of Allentown, Penn., O’Reilly criticized the Immigration and Naturalization Service for not keeping “the wetbacks” out of the U.S.

And from the Washington Post,

Members of the “Best Men,” as the sixth-to-eighth-grade boys in the program are called, were delayed getting onstage to perform a lip-synced rendition of the Four Tops standard “Reach Out (I’ll Be There).” O’Reilly ad-libbed: “Does anyone know where the Best Men are? I hope they’re not in the parking lot stealing our hubcaps.”



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Rounding Out the List

16. Justice Henry Billings Brown: For authoring the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which not only lead directly to the “separate but equal” doctrine, but played a major role in enshrining Jim Crow.p>17. John Adams: For signing the Alien Act of 1798 and the Sedition Act of 1798. Partly, it was directed at the French and French sympathizers (war with France was looming), but mostly it was a purely political play against the Jeffersonians. Adams should have known better-he signed the Declaration of Independence (but not the Constitution)

18. George W. Bush-For convincingly demonstrating that his father and Ronald Reagan do not belong on this list.

a. Erosion of civil liberties-detention without council or charges, for citizens!

b. Massive deficits

c. Unilateral war under false pretenses. Seriously, I’m guessing that a good chunk of conservatives might read this: what harm could Hussein have done to the United States of America? Clearly, I know he could and did do substantial harm to his own people, but my question concerns an imminent threat to the life and liberty of citizens of the USA.

19. Helen Kendrick Johnson, author of the influential anti-suffrage book, Woman and the Republic, which did a lot to delay women’s’ suffrage. From Johnson’s conclusion:

Woman is to implant the faith, man is to cause the Nation’s faith to show itself in works… Woman Suffrage aims to sweep away this natural distinction, and make humanity a mass of individuals with an indiscriminate sphere. The attack is now bold and now subtle, now malicious and now mistaken; but it is at all times an attack. The greatest danger with which this land isa threatened comes from the ignorant and persistent zeal of some of its women. They abuse the freedom under which they live, and to gain an impossible power would fain destroy the Government that alone can protect them. The majority of women have no sympathy with this movement; and in their enlightenment, and in the consistent wisdom of our men, lies hope of defeating this unpatriotic, unintelligent, and unjustifiable assault upon the integrity of the American Republic.

20. Nice thing about America–it’s tough to find 20 who were both influential enough and sufficiently misguided or malevolent to be on a “worst in history” list.

I could rattle off many other figures from American History that I dislike or find annoying, but they really don’t deserve the “Worst” appellation. G. Gordon Liddy didn’t affect history enough to make the list. Ollie North probably believed he was doing the right thing.

Many other names crossed my mind: Orville Faubus; Henry Kissinger; Billy Graham; Pat Robertson; Tom DeLay; Jerry Falwell; Geraldo Rivera (ok; Geraldo almost made #20); Dick Armey; Cap Weinberger; Ken Starr; Ed Meese; Trent Lott; Rick Santorum; John Poindexter; virtually the entire NeoCon crew from Perle to Wolfowitz; Cheney; Rumsfeld; Reagan; Schlafly; Coulter; Limbaugh; Clan founders Captain John C. Lester, Major James R. Crowe, John D. Kennedy, Calvin Jones, Richard R. Reed, Frank O. McCord (all veterans from the losing side of the Civil War); Birth of a Nation Writer/Director D. W. Griffith; and surely many more. My apologies if I left you off the list.

All of these “dishonorable mentions” annoy me and virtually everything they say or do is wrong, but I found them to be too historically trivial or not sufficiently malevolent to be list-worthy. Faubus, as well as the Clan founders, are almost list-worthy, but by expressing their views in such ridiculous fashion they actual aid the forces that oppose them. The opportunistic Faubus standing on the doorsteps of Little Rock’s Central High School was a great boon to the Civil Rights movement. The Clan? Just a bunch of evil sore losers-I couldn’t waste six spots on those clowns.

As for the political hacks in the dishonorable mention list, half of them are just expressing views I disagree with–deeply, deeply, misguided views. But political views nonetheless, so they don’t really belong on a “worst in history” list. The other half are just saying whatever they think will bring in another buck, and that’s the nature of Capitalism-an institution I happen to like. Basically, they’re misguided, annoying, or opportunistic, but not really “worst”.

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