Sunday, October 26, 2008

McCain's ACORN conspiracy theory

McCain: We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama's relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.
McCain made this serious accusation during the third presidential debate. It has also been propagated by television advertisements, and extensive editorializing by Obama's opponents. However, if we look into the specific accusations against ACORN (let alone the actual evidence), they do not add up into the grand conspiracy theory that McCain is promoting.

Others have addressed the vapidness of trying to link Obama to ACORN's alleged grand conspiracy, and also some of the facts behind the allegations. I'm going to limit myself to a critique of how the grand-conspiracy claim cannot be built up from the specific allegations, and how the alleged voter-registration fraud would not be a reasonable act of someone involved in this grand conspiracy.

Before I get into the details, I want to point out that the ACORN conspiracy theory (or scapegoating, perhaps) is even broader than these baseless accusations of voter fraud. McCain is even trying to blame ACORN for the fact that Wall-Street bankers failed to manage their risk properly (see the TV commercial)--as if this relatively tiny organization could pressure the banking industry into destroying its own foundations at a time that it was raking in hundreds of billions of dollars in profits each year (FWIW, Greenspan places much/most of the blame on investor demand for mortgage backed securities).

Let's look at the traits of this grand conspiracy theory being promoted by McCain and his campaign:
  1. It is national: McCain implies this during his debate tirade, by focusing on a national organization (ACORN) and emphasizing the vast scale of the conspiracy. His TV advertisement explicitly refers to a "nationwide voter fraud".
  2. It relies on ACORN's infrastructure.
  3. It begins with fraudulent voter registration, and will be consummated with actual fraudulent votes being cast in swing states.
Consider how many people must be involved in this. First, there are the people who actually filled out the fraudulent forms, then there are their supervisors (up to the national level), and finally there are the individuals who will actually cast false ballots (with some sort of false identification).

I'm guessing this would involve hundreds of people, and law-enforcement agencies have apparently caught tens of people from that first group (registration fraud)--yet not a single person is alleged to belong to either of the other two groups (national coordination, and vote fraud).

Look at the propaganda I linked to above, and any other source you know of. Please let me know if any person has been charged/accused of participating in national coordination of registration fraud, or any sort of vote fraud.

Aside from the fact that we have no evidence of the most important components of this grand conspiracy, there is also the problem that this conspiracy would be the most asinine, bumbling conspiracy that I've ever heard of. Look at the allegations from the NRO editorial:
  1. First, the foot-soldiers in this conspiracy are "lazy crackheads"--as if such people could be relied on to keep their mouths shut about a conspiracy.
  2. ACORN illegally employed felons on work-release--no allegation that they were involved in any fraud, or that they would be reliable participants in a conspiracy.
  3. They registered "the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys" and Mickey Mouse -- as if using celebrity names wouldn't obviously attract attention to their activities.
  4. "21 separate voter-registration applications were filed for a single voter in Miami"-- again, a pretty obvious red-flag.
  5. "attempted to register untold numbers of dead, underage, imprisoned, imaginary, or otherwise ineligible voters ...apparently pulled out of the phone book at random" -- this might actually be useful for voter fraud, but there'd be a major risk of getting caught when you actually try to impersonate someone who has already voted (or who should be in jail!).
  6. "registrations...filed from nonexistent addresses"--another red flag; and how would the importers get their voter-registration cards?
  7. "forged signatures"-- bad, but no indication of intention to commit registration fraud.
  8. "In July of 2007, five ACORN activists pleaded guilty to fraud in Washington State for submitting nearly 2,000 phony voter applications"--and yet they did not provide any evidence of a conspiracy to commit electoral fraud.
I'm thinking about this from the perspective of how this conspiracy would play out in Pennsylvania. We have pretty lax ID laws, but we are pretty stringent on absentee ballots. If I were to submit a fraudulent registration, I would not know of its success until I received my voter registration card at home. Furthermore, to vote absentee, I would need to have the ballot mailed to my home. This makes it worthless for me to register at other people's addresses, and it would be pretty obvious if a large number of "voters" registered from my house.

Finally, why would an electoral-fraud conspiracy submit it's fraudulent applications in a big package (i.e. the ACORN submissions). Knowing that many of their fraudulent registrations would get caught, they would want to avoid any indication that their registrations were connected to each other. The obvious way for them to submit their application would be as if they were regular individuals just registering to vote as a regular order of business--not part of a transparently fraudulent voter registration drive.

The only reasonable strategy I can think of for voter-side electoral fraud would be to register a large, ineligible population with a strong preference for one party or another -- yet I haven't heard any allegations of the type.

So overall, there is no basis for McCain's claims about a grand conspiracy within ACORN, and it really only takes a little common sense to see through his BS.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Why is our government creating cartels?

In today's commentary on Marketplace, Robert Reich articulated some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head since the government started bailing out financial firms: Maybe 'too big to fail' is just 'too big':

We seem to have forgotten that the original purpose of antitrust law was also to prevent companies from becoming too powerful. Too powerful in that so many other companies depended on them, so many jobs turned on them and so many consumers or investors or depositors needed them, that the economy as a whole would be endangered if they failed. Too powerful in that they could wield inordinate political influence of a sort that might gain them extra favors from Washington.

Maybe the biggest irony today is that Washington policymakers who are funneling taxpayer dollars to these too-big-to-fail companies are simultaneously pushing them to consolidate into even bigger companies.
These companies aren't quite monopolies, but the fact that they are "too big to fail" seems to imply that they are involved in a form of market manipulation, whether intentional or not.

The prospect of corporate mergers leads me to ask "what is a corporation": it is a legally binding agreement among producers to regulate the production, pricing, and marketing of a good. This is the definition of a cartel, except that a corporation is treated as a single legal entity rather than a collection of entities. The fact that the maintenance of the corporation is legally enforced (shareholders cannot withdraw their capital) is important, because cartels are unstable in the absence of legal enforcement.

The very existence of a corporation (a creation of the state) implies the need for rules regulating how large a corporation can be. We've become very lax in this regard, and I think we're getting screwed for it.

Books: The Black Swan; The Impact of the Highly Improbable

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an engaging book about an important topic. However, if a reader who is familiar with the topic(s) will not find any new ideas.

This book is about risk management; specifically, how to deal with the risks arising from unpredictable events. To examine this issue, Taleb crafts a narrative that surveys a number of intellectual fields, including probability theory, complexity theory, epistemology (empiricism and philosophy of science), cognitive psychology, and social psychology. For a systematic summary, see Wikipedia.

The most striking thing about this book was Taleb's prescience with regard to the recent financial crisis. This book was published in April 2007, but Taleb (who made his "f*** you money" during the stock market crash of 1987) asserted that modern financial risk-assessment is total bullshit, and that when some unpredictable disruption occurs, the structure of the financial system will cause cataclysmic failure. Oh boy, was he right!

This book is supposed to be practical, so it's worth mentioning the advice provided. It can basically be summed up with two points:
  1. Know the limits of prediction (specifically, that some very important phenomena are fundamentally unpredictable). Don't fool yourself into thinking that you what the probabilities of events are (as if you were playing a game with well-defined rules)
  2. When you make predictions for unpredictable phenomena, ask yourself what are the consequences of being wrong. Don't estimate probabilities of being wrong--just avoid situations where being wrong will be fatal.
This book also has a few messages for how we think about social issues. One is that many "experts" are frauds, in that they pretend to be able to predict phenomena that are fundamentally unpredictable. The other is the randomness plays a major role in personal success, especially when we are looking at people who are extremely successful.

Taleb also warns us about putting much faith in predictions about what the world will be like in a few decades. He specifically dismissed predictions that the American Social Security system will be bankrupt in 40 years, implying that the funding of SS in 2048 is a concern for the people living in 2048, not for those of us living in 2008. By extension, we may also downplay predictions of radical climate change over the next few decades. However, both types of predictions do have value in that they provide us with a sense of the range of possible scenarios that we should be prepared for. [added after initial publication]

One more merit for this book is that it provides a good description of the life a scientist, including the methodological, psychological, and social aspects. I recommend this book for anyone interested in pursuing a career in science.

The main drawback of this book is that the author comes off as being quite arrogant. He is dismissive of many scientists, claiming that they make unjustifiable assumptions about the probability distribution of events. He even claimed that psychologists were "lucky" that they frequently used binary (Yes/No) measurements for which probability distributions ARE predictable. In fact, this is no accident. A careful scientist will design experiments in a way that the data conforms to certain assumptions, thereby allowing hypotheses to be tested. If you look in a book like Handbook of Parametric and Nonparametric Statistical Procedures, you will find extensive discussions about when it is appropriate to use various probability distributions.

Taleb also engaging in a form of name-dropping, describing how his arguments have gotten under the skin of a number of prominent intellectuals. This is the down-side of his narrative style of writing. However, the narrative of his life is what keeps this book interesting even if you are thinking "I know this already".