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Archive for October, 2011

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The Onion recently published this hilarious story about the new Republican education plan to close all schools and instead just give students $3,000 to “start their own business.”

Of course, The Onion‘s humor derives from its closeness with the truth, and Eric Cantor’s (undelivered) remarks on income inequality demonstrate how close the Republican Party has veered beyond parody:

I believe that child needs a hand up to help her climb the ladder of success in our country. She needs the advantages of a solid family around her and a community that encourages her to learn and work hard. She needs some semblance of stability. She also needs some guarantees. She needs to know that the rules are the same for everybody. That although she may have to work harder than many of us, she needs to know that she has a fair shot at making it in this country.

OK, so far so good. Children in poverty need help at an equal opportunity for success. So… better schools? Extensive job training? A minimal health insurance plan? Maybe universal early childhood education?

Uh, no:

There are politicians and others who want to demonize people that have earned success in certain sectors of our society. They claim that these people have now made enough, and haven’t paid their fair share. But, pitting Americans against one another tends to deflate the aspirational spirit of our people and fade the American dream. I believe that the most successful among us are positioned to use their talents to help grow our economy and give everyone a hand up the ladder and the dignity of a job. We should encourage them to extend their creativity and generosity to helping build the community infrastructure that provides a hand up and a fair shot to those less fortunate, like that little 9-year-old girl in the inner city.

So, there you have it. The Republican plan to help all children receive equal opportunity is… to wait for benevolent rich people to “give everyone a hand”!

The rest of the speech is mostly a love-letter to entrepreneurs and small business. We’ll just wait for the 9-year-old to start up her business, I suppose.

The Onion couldn’t have written Cantor’s speech any better.

For what it’s worth, Cantor refused to deliver the speech when it became clear that his entire audience would be Occupy Wall Street protestors.

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This viral video (Not Safe For Life… seriously, fairly disturbing) of a Chinese toddler getting run over by a van has been making the rounds. Most infuriating, the video shows many bystanders passing the toddler and refusing to help. This has led to substantial discussion about how cold-hearted the Chinese are, as well as other cultural stereotypes.

But one thing worth noting here is that many cultural differences stem from the incentives developed in default rules.

Consider this quote from the driver of the van:

According to reports the van driver had just split up from his girlfriend and was talking on his mobile phone when he hit the girl.

“If she is dead, I may pay only about 20,000 yuan ($3,125). But if she is injured, it may cost me hundreds of thousands yuan,” said the driver over the phone to the media, before he gave himself up to the police.

This sounds like absolutely vile cost-benefit analysis bordering on straight-up murder, but the way that costs are distributed in accidents changes our behavior before and during accidents. Vile though it may be, were the costs shifted differently, and the costs of death higher than the costs of injury, perhaps the driver would have behaved differently.

Similarly, much outrage has been directed towards the “cold-hearted” bystanders who watched for seven minutes before a rag collector moved the girl to the curb. Why a rag-collector and not one of the middle-class shopkeepers and shoppers? China does not have a Good Samaritan law that protects bystanders who help in an accident. As a result, there are cases picked up in the media like this one:

In November of 2006, an elderly woman surnamed Xu in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, suffered two fractures after falling at a bus station. She later successfully sued a man named Peng Yu, who claimed to have voluntarily helped her.

Despite a lack of evidence, a local court ruled that Peng was guilty and ordered him to pay compensation of over 40,000 yuan ($6,184) to the woman. The verdict was based on the “logical thinking” that it was highly possible that Peng had knocked the woman down, otherwise he would not have helped her to hospital. The case was eventually settled out of court with mediation from provincial officials.

Since then, the name “Peng Yu” has become a label for such cases, leading many to believe that helping out an old lady might not be the best idea.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. The reason you would get out of your car to help someone injured in the road has nothing to do with your legal liability. Because of the kind of person you are, you would risk your life, financial standing, etc. to help a person in need.

But we live in a society where that background norm is enforced through Good Samaritan laws, and a strong presumption in favor of the person coming to aid. If the background norm were different, you might behave differently. And if the incentives moved in the other direction, one might expect many fewer Good Samaritans.

Consider a final example. The Japanese famously return stolen and found goods to the authorities (most notably after the recent earthquake and tsunami). Many chalk this up to a cultural norm that the Japanese have of honor, duty, and communal strength. Yet, it is also a reflection of a legal regime that strongly encourages finders to return stolen goods and encourages police to return goods to owners. Police boxes dot Japan for people to place found goods, and finders get a small reward for found property. Furthermore, keeping the found goods counts as embezzlement with a substantial fine. Japan also has firmer policies in place regarding police return of stolen goods. (As James May puts it on Top Gear, “I would have obeyed the speed limit, officer, but frankly, the police never found the TV that was stolen from me.”)

Maybe the Japanese return goods because they are naturally honest and communatarian. Maybe the Chinese commit hit-and-runs and ignore injured toddlers because they are naturally cold-hearted.

Or maybe cultural differences have as much to do with legal incentive structures as with innate culture.

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Skip to 0:35 for the good stuff.

LYRICS:

Imagine there’s no pizza
I couldn’t if I tried
Eating only tacos
Or Kentucky Fried
Imagine only burgers
It’s frightening and sad

You’re lucky you have pizza
To feed for kids for you
Only frosting or cookies
And no dishes you must do
Imagine eating pizza
Each and every day

You may say that it’s junk food
But to me it’s so much more
It gives my life its meaning
And it makes a lot of dough

Imagine mozzarella
Anchovies on the side
And maybe, pepperoni
Rounds out your pizza pie
Imagine getting pizza
Delivered to your door

You don’t have to give up now
On my skateboard I will go
I’ll be back in 30 minutes
I just bought Dominoes

All I am saying
Is give pizza a chance
All I am saying
Give pizza a chance!
All I am saying
Is give pizza a chance
All I am saying
You’ve got to, got to give pizza a chance!

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Blind, partisan hatred has become an easy way to describe the entire Republican party. The joke goes that if Obama supports puppies and rainbows, the GOP opposes it. So reflexive is the anti-Obama instinct among them, that for whatever X he proposes, they simply must adopt not-X. It’s a simplistic analysis, but… it’s true almost all the time, isn’t it?

Case in point; the Lord’s Resistance Army now enjoys the support of the figurehead of the GOP: Rush Limbaugh. Of course, I’ve long known that Limbaugh is a fucking prick deserving no attention whatsoever. And so I will not give him a link to his site. But if I were to, you would see that he opposes Obama’s recent decision to send 100 troops into Uganda to combat the LRA. Ok, fine. Reasonable people can disagree about whether it is wise to send troops into yet another country to get involved in yet another local conflict.

But Limbaugh does not stop there. He titles his entry, “Obama invades Uganda, targets Christians.” You see, the LRA describes itself as Christian, and this therefore represents an irresistible opportunity for Limbaugh to cast this as an example of Obama – the secret Muslim – getting involved in Africa to target Christians. Because Obama, after all, represents a threat to the real American way of life. It’s a Holy War, and Obama wants the Christians to lose.

Limbaugh further reads LRA propaganda about their alleged goals of bringing peace and security to Uganda. He ignores the fact that:

They force abducted children to become soldiers and kill their parents.

They slaughter hundreds of civilians, sparing not the men, women, or children.

They force children soldiers to murder other children who try to escape.

Again, reasonable people can disagree over whether the United States should get involved. But for Limbaugh to take the LRA’s side, ignore their depraved mass murders, and cast this as an example of Obama attacking Christians is a new low, even for Limbaugh. Fuck him. But when your reflexive Obama-hatred motivates every political position you take, this is the logical conclusion.

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Some commentators, such as Ceng Ugyur and others (rounded up by On the Media here), have expressed skepticism about the alleged Iranian-planned assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.

They note that a car salesman isn’t a likely choice for Iranian assassin, and that Iranian intelligence generally looks to its own agents rather than independent contractors. Typical reaction:

Are we to believe that this Texas car seller was a Quds sleeper agent for many years resident in the U.S.? Ridiculous. They (the Iranian command system) never ever use such has-beens or loosely connected people for sensitive plots such as this.

Yet, the fact is that most assassination plots are nutty, ill-conceived, and poorly executed.

Let’s not forget that the CIA tried to enlist the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro (not a joke!).

Let’s not forget that the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln was a loose band of Confederate irregulars and sympathizers.

Russian spies are basically just running real estate scams at this point, and national intelligence agencies increasingly use contractors to avoid their own culpability.

My point is, just because this assassination plot sounds wacky doesn’t mean it didn’t actually happen. Outrageous bullshit and national intelligence agencies go hand in hand.

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“It’s called empathy.”

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