Wednesday, February 15, 2012


As you can tell by my icon, I follow the Clemson Tigers.  (Woo! Big wins over Wake and UVa this week!)  I am emotionally invested in their performance (for better or for worse...) for a couple of reasons: I attended the institution, so their performance academically and athletically reflect on me, whether that's fair or not, and my performance reflects on them as well; awareness and support is good for the school; it is fun.  I get something out of it, and when I give/spend money on their stuff, so does Clemson.  It also lets us talk about stuff other than work at work.

That relationship gets further away when you look at professional sports, because I didn't attend anything to do with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; I was simply born near where they play.  A lot of people at work have brand loyalties to their cars like sports teams, and that's kind of fun, too, because cars are so oddly personal while the corporations themselves are still quite distant.  If you dislike a design decision with Ford or a racing team hire they make, it is not easy to voice that opinion to someone who cares.  So the give and take is a little further removed from university teams (which is one of the reasons I prefer college to professional, and why I think it's ok to use "we" in reference to college but less so for professional teams).

One brand loyalty that makes even less sense to me is the political party.  I understand why candidates and elected officials show loyalty: the parties give them money.  But why should I, as a voter, give money to a party rather than a candidate?  What about either the Republican or Democratic Party is constant enough to foster such a relationship?  Aside from getting their people in power, what vision do they serve?

I think they are obsolete, and the evidence to support this really started in 2004 when Howard Dean revolutionized the way that political candidates raised money.  Ron Paul and Barack Obama pursued that tack as well, and other movements, notably the Tea Party, has also shown that a group of people can focus their political interests without the structure of existing political parties.  There will be future ad hoc coalitions like the Tea Party, and I think they are a more appropriate representation of popular will than something entrenched, precisely because they are not entrenched.  If they lose the pulse of the interested participants, it fades away.  There is clearly a large minority (or possibly plurality) of disaffected voters for whom the mainline Republican and Democratic platform is not adequate.  Part of the problem is the arbitrary restriction of the growth of the size of the House of Representatives to an insufficient 435 members.  Making the seats more accessible (which was the Constitutional intent) would allow for those coalitions to be able to participate.

Even still, there are those people who will refuse to vote for another party because they are in the other party, much like people who refuse to buy Ford because Dale Earnhardt drove a Chevy, even when the candidate of the other party could (conceivably) represent his or her (let's be honest, probably his) values better.  Ever heard of a yellow dog Democrat?  Why should that concept even exist?

So stop.  Forget them.  Pick the guy you like best.  Start locally, because they aren't partisan.  Defy the arbitrary strictures of platforms.  Why are pro-labor, secularism and pro-abortion lumped together?  Why are free trade, conservative social values and strong defense?  Any of those could be separated from any other, but they are not because the political parties and their platforms require them to be, due to the binary nature of partisan politics.  That's silliness.

I need to go change into my orange shirt and make fun of a Tarheel.  It's a big game this Saturday.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

I know I shouldn't use the R word

I was reading a couple of NY Times articles online recently (this and this) and, while the content was troubling, the fact that these are online added a new wrinkle to bring all kinds of other trouble: comments.  This could very easily be a self-defeating topic since this blog has a label "comment-whoring" since like all narcissists who write these things, comments are like money, crack and Reese's cups all rolled into one.  (I love Reese's cups, by the way.)

The comments in the two stories kind of remind me of the reaction to the Halftime in America ad, which I'm pretty sure you've seen already.  People saw what they wanted to see in it, regardless of response.  I know I myself am not above bias, so I do that too.  But, being an engineer, I also know that data is important.  I want to point you towards this link of of Confirmation Bias and Hostile Media Effect, both are cognitive biases that I think are relevant.  (There are probably more, but who are we kidding?  You're not clicking those links.)  For example, the Depression and Post WWII eras are cited by both Keynesians and anti-Keynesians as justification for their positions.  The same data yields wildly different conclusions.  How?  Those biases.

Another example: last week, the latest unemployment numbers came out, and they declined and currently sit at 8.3%.  To quote from Businessweek, "While the unemployment rate has declined 1.4 percentage points over the past 24 months... the population-to-employment ration hasn't budged, holding at 58.5%..."  Both supporters of the president and his opponents have cited the unemployment decline as a vindication, as an improvement of the statistics on the one hand on the one hand, and a demonstration of the ineffectiveness of his policies on the other. 

In each case, they both can't be true at the same time.  Yet, the folks who leave comments on those articles assert each position with such verve that the other side must be stupid or deceptive to disagree.  I'm not sure that deception is entirely out of the question in some cases, but really, a lot of this is driven by confirmation bias and seeking out data that supports your established position, rather than looking for real data.  Data is, after all, boring.

Sometimes, though, finding legitimate data is a challenge.  For example, who is a credible source on climate change?  (Honestly, I don't believe either side.  I don't think anybody understands the science to nearly the degree they say they do.)  Or, if you saw Meet the Press on Sunday, Mitch Daniels asserted that a lot of the stifled business climate is a result of excessive government regulation, to which Michael Bloomberg later agreed.  However, neither really said which regulations.  It's just a mantra that people say.  Then again, there are plenty of people think that the business climate is the way it is due to insufficient regulation.  They can't both be right at the same time.

Many comments in the first NY Times link talk about how the Constitution is both obsolete and hard to change and, just like Daniels, don't really talk about why.  There is also a sense that the stagnation caused by the Republicans as an opposition party is somehow contrary to the intent of the document is a rather sever misunderstanding of its purpose.  An active government was not considered a positive by the authors of the Constitution.  Additionally, it being hard to change is by design.  That is a problem, though, for people who think that government should be more active regardless of how they feel.  On the other hand, it is venerated as a sacred document by those who think it is from the hand of God, and any desecration is blasphemy.  They both can't be right at the same time.

I frequently call these discussions, especially on public pages like that as arguments between retards on the internet, so I don't know how seriously I should take them.  I feel bad about calling them retards, though, because it's not a nice word.  It carries a weight, though, that I think is hard to convey otherwise.  How can I imply that same weight without being offensive?