I keep seeing stories about the ignorance of the general public. You usually see this sort of story around election time. The stories typically involve statistics about, for example, what percentage of voters can name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. (It's John Roberts.) The point of the stories is that the average person is clueless.
While I agree with that point, how does it help the average person to know the name of the Chief Justice?
Another statistic I have been seeing lately is that ten percent of American voters think Obama is a muslim. Your first thought might be that this misunderstanding could influence who becomes the next president of the United States. But ask yourself if any of the people who think Obama is a muslim are likely to vote for a black Democrat under any circumstance. I'm guessing that the ignorance of those voters on that particular point will have no impact on anything.
Realistically, it doesn't matter if you think the sun revolves around the earth as long as you wear sunscreen. Most ignorance is benign. That's lucky because any individual knows a vanishingly small percentage of the things that other people collectively think is important.
If you step it up a level, and consider how many voters understand the complexities of international trade policies, or economics, or national defense, the stakes are higher. If the country gets any one of those things wrong, it's a disaster. But experts always disagree on the complex issues. When knowledgable people can't agree on the best course of action, there's no reason to think ignorance will get you to a worse place than knowledge. The only thing you can know for sure is that the ignorant people wasted less time reading about things that didn't help.
Amazingly, the government still functions, albeit inefficiently, in spite of all this ignorance. It does this simply by observing what didn't work last time and occasionally trying something new next time. Apparently that is enough to limp along. It works for ants and it works for us. Or at least I think it works for ants. I'm actually quite ignorant about ant behavior, but notice how it doesn't matter?
When it comes to picking our next president, I can't decide if I prefer the smooth-talking, inspirational candidate who promises to give my money to people who don't work as hard as I do, or the old, short, ugly, angry guy with one good arm who graduated at the bottom of his class and somehow managed to shag a hot heiress and become a contender for president. It seems dangerous to underestimate that guy.
The inflation rate in Zimbabwe just hit 4 million percent. Some people say it is only 165,000 percent, but they are just being stupid.
The tragic situation in Zimbabwe is no laughing matter. That's true for most of the world. So I try to avoid reading any news that would educate me. Nothing good can come from it. But for some reason I broke my rule and allowed myself to read a story about Zimbabwe's 4 million percent inflation rate. Now all I can imagine is a villager with a zebra cart full of cash trying to buy a turnip, and the vendor says, "That was yesterday's price. Today it is two zebra carts full of cash." And I try not to laugh because zebras are funny, yet this is no laughing matter. It's all making me tense.
I don't know how well the school system in Zimbabwe is preparing its citizens, but it takes a lot of math to plan a trip to the market. "Let's see, that's four million percent inflation annually, convert to a daily figure, calculate the time it takes to get to the market, and QUICK, LOAD THE ZEBRA CART!" If you paused for an unscheduled stop at the unspeakably horrible poop hole, you'd have to start all over.
Yeah, I think I've said enough.
This idea targets The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I don't have any relevant education in those fields, and I haven't done any research, so I know I need to come up with something big to get the judges past their bias for competence. My idea needs to cure a whole lot of problems. Anything less would be begging for the award committee to snub me once again.
My idea is this: A web site that collects extremely detailed lifestyle habits from volunteers all over the world, including the type of food they eat, how they exercise, exposure to sunlight, and lots of other things. These volunteers will also enter data on any health problems they encounter, from a sniffle to a broken hip. The data would be available to the general public, without association to the identities of the people, so amateur researchers can mine for patterns. For example, we might find that people who have a diet rich in a particular vitamin or mineral don't get cataracts, or tinnitus, or shin splints, or whatever.
This idea is cobbled together from several other ideas floating around in the ether. Most recently, I was wondering why my allergies inexplicably went away in the past year. The only thing I changed, as far as I know, is taking magnesium supplements, and there is some scientific evidence to believe that could help. But it might be something else, such as drinking more Diet Coke than usual. If the database I described already existed, doctors could check to see if people who take magnesium supplements, or drink lots of Diet Coke, have fewer allergies.
I read a book called The China Study that is a lot like this concept, but with less detail than I am proposing, and limited to China. The data from China showed that people who ate a plant-based diet hardly ever got the most common killer diseases such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. This past month you might have seen a number of media reports about other research that supports that same point. Wouldn't you like to know if most of the health benefit shown in The China Study came from particular plants? Personally, I don't want to eat any more kelp than I need to.
The other source of inspiration for my idea is the stories about amateur astronomers who have been given access to the vast unviewed archive of pictures of space, so they can help find any anomalies. You'd think that would be boring work that no one would volunteer to do, but apparently so many people are volunteering that the servers initially couldn't hold the load. I think that in a world of 6 billion people, it wouldn't be hard to find a few million who are willing to record their lives in great detail, knowing it would have so much benefit to humanity. And volunteers might end up finding solutions to their own health problems along the way.
The database would do more than discover what prevents health problems. It would also tell you what lifestyle elements promote good moods, or lead to high performance at work, in school, or in sports. It might tell you what elevates testosterone, what improves sex lives, and what keeps you looking younger. The potential is vast.
I'm hoping the idea is so good that someone will build the web site. If you decide to do it, I promise to thank you by name when I am in Stockholm accepting my award.
One day we went to something called a "water park." I had never been to such a thing and was excited about the prospect of standing in line for 45 minutes in the sweltering heat for an opportunity to spend 12 seconds sliding down a watery tube while clutching my prescription sunglasses and wondering how many cartoonists had died doing exactly this sort of thing. It takes me a few days of vacation just to get into the proper attitude, which I gather is something along the lines of not caring if you live or die. I have a bad habit of stubbornly clinging to my preference for life over death, and I am told this interferes with my ability to have fun.
Take the roller coaster, for example. At one theme park we visited, the roller coaster tracks were supported by old pieces of wood nailed together by, I am guessing, inebriated hillbillies. When I ask myself what sort of engineered structure would make me feel safe, I generally think of materials created for NASA, or perhaps some sort of steel beams forged in the furnaces of Mordor. But wood? To me, wood is in the same structural category as playing cards and toast. I decided we "didn't have time" to ride the roller coaster.
What I liked best about Branson was the relaxed atmosphere. Tee shirts and sneakers were the dress code everywhere. I stood in line behind a man who had a shirt listing the five reasons "Beer is better than women." If you are familiar with this line of thinking, you know that several of the reasons are obscene. But in Branson, home of fried pies and stuffed critters, everyone took it in stride, including his wife and daughter who were with him, and who are apparently not better than beer.
You might have seen on the news that it has been raining a bit in the Midwest. I thought I knew what rain was all about until I experienced it Missouri style. From our hotel room we had a good view of a lake, or maybe it was a river. It might have been a side street. It's hard to say. Anyway, we could see a number of boats tied up to a dock. The only wrinkle is that the entire dock and all the boats were floating down the river, or lake, or side street, until they plowed into another dock. In California it hardly ever rains so hard it ruins our boats. I was impressed.
My family stayed for another week to visit in-laws in Arkansas. I had to come home and write blogs and make comics. On the way to the Springfield airport, at about 4:30 am, I tried navigating my rented Ford Taurus through sheets of rain and a Midwest lightning storm of Moses-like proportions. I was the only idiot on the road, and there were few reflective markings to tell me where the winding road ended and the beginning of my three weeks stay the bottom of a ravine began. Luckily the lightning was so frequent it illuminated the road just often enough that I could scream and yank the steering wheel in the nick of time.
One bolt of lightning actually struck fairly close to my car. Let me tell you, if you have never been in the immediate vicinity of a lightning strike, it is a real pick-me-up. I won't need caffeine again until sometime around 2030. And I wouldn't want to be the next poor bastard who rents that Ford Taurus.
Over the past two days, with my posts and your comments, we concluded that voters can't tell which candidate for president of the United States would be the better choice for growing the economy. I actually learned quite a bit through the comments.
My favorite comment was from Tigerfan who said, "When McCain says he doesn't understand economics, people seem to infer he must be an idiot. In fact economics (real economics, not the nonsense you get on talk shows and business hours) is very, very difficult and involves a great deal of complex math. They don't hand out Nobel Prizes for knitting after all."
That summed it up nicely. Our real choice is between two candidates who don't understand economics. And they both want to govern a country full of people who also don't understand economics while thinking they do. That makes the old, senile guy the only person in this scenario that isn't deluded or lying. He tells you up front that he doesn't understand economics.
This made me question my assumptions about the cost of the war in Iraq. Common wisdom is that Obama would pull American forces out of Iraq quicker than McCain prefers, thereby saving a few trillion dollars. But is that how you estimate the cost difference between the two candidate's positions on Iraq?
I think you have to do an "expected value" calculation. In other words, you would value a 50% chance of spending a hundred dollars as if it were fifty dollars. With so many unknowns, that is the only rational approach.
So if, for example, you think the realities in Iraq are that Obama is only 20% likely to draw down troops faster than McCain, you have to value the potential savings as only 20% as large as they could be. That's still a lot, but 200 billion isn't a trillion.
Second, you have to add an "insurance" value to McCain's approach of keeping relatively more forces in the area for a relatively longer time. There is a non-zero chance that having a robust base in the area, and a war hawk as president, would prevent future terrorist threats to the homeland. That has to be worth something. For example, if you think McCain's approach has a 1% chance of better protecting against an attack that would seriously damage the economy of the United States you would calculate the value of staying in Iraq at 1% of that potential destruction. That's a lot.
But you have to balance that theoretical benefit against the "making things worse" aspect of keeping military force in Iraq. Would a major long-term military presence just give the terrorists more reasons to attack the homeland? That depends if you think terrorists could hate the United States less as long as the U.S. supports Israel, which both Obama and McCain do. And of course the U.S. will probably never leave Afghanistan. So I think you have to assume the terrorists' incentive to attack America is permanently pinned at the maximum level no matter what happens with bases in Iraq. From an economics basis, the "might hate us more" element probably has zero value.
In addition, you have to consider the non-zero chance that a long-term American base in Iraq would support the fledgling wannabe democracy long enough (say fifty years) for a true democracy to emerge and become a model for other countries in the region. What is it worth to the United States to slowly "infect" nearby Iran and Syria with democracy? It seems like a lot.
You also have to factor in the economic stimulus of all the war spending. As much as you might not like boosting the fortunes of defense-related companies, that's a big part of the American economy. Cutting a dollar from the defense budget doesn't mean you have an extra dollar to reduce the deficit. When you take that dollar out of the economy, it can't get passed around to generate income taxes and sales taxes. Maybe you ultimately net ten cents in government savings by cutting defense by a dollar. I don't know the real number, but it is far less than a dollar.
The budget impact of the near term clearly favors Obama and his get-out-faster approach. The economics of the long term are unclear. McCain's approach is more of an insurance model; pay now so maybe you don't get in bigger trouble later.
I wonder if McCain's supporters have more insurance than Obama supporters. That would be an interesting poll. And I'll bet McCain's supporters own more stock in defense companies, which is in itself a form of insurance.
After yesterday's post I assumed someone would come up with a link showing which candidate has the most support from independent economists. Unless I missed it, no one came up with such a link.
But I am fascinated by the comments to yesterday's post that got the most up votes. The authors of those comments came up with what appear to be the best and simplest common sense answers to who would be the better president for growing the economy.
The most popular answer was that Obama would reduce the national debt by raising taxes while McCain would increase the debt by lowering them. No one wants debt, therefore Obama is better for the economy. Common sense, right?
First, if it were that easy, all the independent economists would be supporting Obama. It really would be that simple. But there is no evidence that independent economists are lining up with Obama. What do those experts know that the people with common sense don't?
For starters, the economy has grown for decades without a clear link to debt levels. The deficit went down during Clinton's term largely because the economy was hot by coincidence, thanks to the dot-com era.
Second, debt isn't bad per se. The best indicator of a healthy economy is that everyone who can repay a loan gets one. The whole point of debt, either personal or government, is that it stimulates the economy more than it puts a drag on it. Obviously there is a point where debt can be too much, but would McCain reach that point where Obama would not? I don't see the experts lining up behind that prediction.
And how much do you think the deficit will be reduced under Obama's plan of increasing taxes on the rich while reducing taxes on the poor? Isn't that largely shuffling things from one pocket to another? I don't know the answer to my own question, and the bigger point is that you don't either. But we both know Obama plans to increase spending in a number of social areas whereas McCain might be stingier. Or would McCain just spend more on the military so both candidates spend about the same in the end? I don't know. Neither do you.
Can Obama convince a bunch of rich law makers to increase taxes on themselves and their major donors? I doubt it. Can McCain convince a bunch of law makers who depend on pork to cut the pork out of the budget? I doubt it. So assume both candidates haven't made the math work and are over-promising on the debt. Common sense tells me I can't tell the difference between the candidates.
A comment from Real Live Girl was interesting. She noted that the economy is fueled by optimism, and Obama brings more of that. Those are two true statements. But is all optimism the same? Wall Street veterans believe the market would go up if McCain gets elected. Lower taxes make the titans of business the most optimistic. Raising their taxes and transferring the money to worthy social services might make lots of people feel optimistic, but that isn't the optimism that fuels economies. An unemployed guy can't get too optimistic until a rich guy gets optimistic first and builds a factory he can work in. McCain makes rich guys optimistic. Obama makes students optimistic. Which approach stimulates the economy more? Beats me. You don't know either.
Another comment noted that McCain's support of the gas tax holiday was criticized by almost all economists. Therefore McCain is both clueless about economics and likely to ignore expert advice on the subject. That seems like a common sense way to look at it, until you consider that politicians do things in campaigns that are intended to be symbolic. McCain was sending a message that he's a tax cutter. The gas tax holiday was always intended to be temporary. Message received.
McCain's actual economic ideas - the ones that would matter - involve free trade, taxes, and keeping the homeland safe. Those are either good for the economy or bad, and overwhelm the importance of something like a campaign promise involving gas taxes for a few months. So if you make a decision based on the gas tax holiday, you are basing your decision on trivia.
So which candidate would be better for the economy? I don't know. But I do know that common sense doesn't tell me anything useful, and neither do the experts.
Now here's the interesting part about that particular piece of ignorance: I follow the news more than most people. So why don't I know the answer to the most important question in this election?
I know all about lapel pins and fist pumps and gaffes and ministers. I have a pretty good idea where the candidates are on most irrelevant issues. But I don't know if independent economists have a consensus on who would be the best president, economy-wise.
The best I could find on the Internet in a quick search was a list of (presumably) Democrat economists supporting Obama and a list of (presumably) Republican economists supporting McCain. Does that really tell me anything?
Do you know whose side most independent economists are on, or do you pretend you have that sort of expertise yourself?
I expect some people will leave comments to this post along the lines of "It is obvious that (one of the candidates) has the best economic policy because he will do (whatever) and the other guy won't!" Unfortunately, economics is not common sense. It's a mix of science, calculus, chaos, expectations, and voodoo. In other words, if you think you understand economics, that's proof that you don't.
Here's the question of the day: Who do you think would be the best president for improving the economy, and what makes you an expert on economics?
There are a lot of potential scalable sources for renewable energy, but nothing got me more excited than these bacteria. I think it is the cartoonist in me that wants all the problems of the world to be solved by critters that eat garbage and poop oil.
I fantasize that someday the United States will hold a national lottery to see who gets to tell the president of Venezuela that we no longer need his oil. I think I would approach that conversation this way:
Me: "You know that oil you sell us?"
Chavez: "Si. What about it, Yankee devil?"
Me: "It's the life blood of your economy, isn't it?"
Chavez: "Si. What is your point, demon crud?"
Me: "Oil is the most valuable thing in your entire country, isn't it?"
Chavez: "Si. Where is this conversation going?"
Me: "We invented bugs that eat garbage and poop oil."
Chavez: "It will never work!"
Me: "You better hope so because I put some in your drink."
So I figure these bacteria will create all the oil we need for automobiles and jets, while the new mirror-based solar energy plants going up in the deserts will handle all of our future household and industrial energy needs. Maybe you toss in a few nuclear sites, and problem solved. Someday we'll look back and realize that oil at $140 was the best thing that ever happened.
Obama's tax plan involves taking money from the presumed puppet masters (rich people and corporations) and divvying it up among the people he hopes will vote for him (the masses). The only way that approach could fail with voters is if there really are puppet masters and they really are determining who gets to be president.
Fasten your seatbelt.