Aug 13, 2009

You said the T-word! Tee-hee-hee-hee!

On any normal day, Brendan Nyhan is worth reading. But this was silly. Yes, Pearlstein's word choice was sloppy, for reasons explained by Yglesias, but Nyhan is making a mountain out of a molehill. He is actually counter-productive, as he accuses a bunch of people of joining in the smear based on their endorsement of Pearlstein's article. But Pearlstein's article is indeed very good, with the exception of those two words. One shouldn't get so stuck on those two words to discard the rest of the article. And I wonder what Nyhan would have said if Pearlstein had characterized the Republicans correctly.

Aug 12, 2009

Preview of future Investors' Business Daily editorials

Stephen Hawking is a tough act to follow, but they may try some of the following:

Mikhail Gorbachev wouldn't have had a chance in the USSR; if he had tried his reforms there, he would have been sent to the Gulag.

If LBJ had ever been elected President in his own right, maybe he would have had some credibility for the policies he pushed.

The Beatles would never had become famous if they had tried to compose their own songs; they probably had no creative talent at all.

If New Yorkers ever experienced a terrorist attack, they wouldn't be such unpatriotic latte-sipping liberals.

If Mark Twain had ever traveled to the Mississippi river, he wouldn't have written such unrealistic nonsense about it and the people living around it.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. had grown up in the South, he'd never had gotten the education to become a minister.

If Charles Darwin had seen the Galapagos islands, he would have realized that only the Almighty God could have designed the beaks of all those finches.

(P.S. IBD has now "corrected" the editorial. That's futile; such idiocy is incorrigible and eternal.)

Why is the press like a sheep behind a wheel?

When a traffic lane is closed, there is always some asshole who doesn't merge in an orderly way, but keeps driving in the emptied lane until it really ends, and then butts in. When that happens, I am not mad at the asshole, but at the sheep that lets him in. Looks like Dean Baker shares my sentiment, with a slight modification: the assholes are politicians and the sheep are the journalists.

Aug 11, 2009

PolitiFact is full of shit (Krugman-bashing edition)

It looks like in this country you can't tell the truth without being called a liar by the so-called fact-checkers. Here PolitiFact blasts Paul Krugman. The quote they put in the title is
During the 2005 fight over Social Security, "there were noisy demonstrations — but they were outside the events,” and opponents were “not disruptive — crowds booed lines they didn’t like, but that was about it."

Paul Krugman on Wednesday, August 5th, 2009 in a blog posting.
This is already a bit of a straw man. It would appear, from that quote alone, that Krugman denied that Social Security reform protesters ever behaved in a disorderly manner. When they expand the quote in the main text of the article, it becomes considerably more nuanced:
In an Aug. 5 blog posting, liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote:

“Indeed, activists made trouble in 2005 by asking congressmen tough questions about policy. Activists are making trouble now by shouting congressmen down so they can’t be heard. It’s exactly the same thing, right?”

He continued, “Seriously, I’ve been searching through news reports on the Social Security town halls, and I can’t find any examples of the kind of behavior we’re seeing now. Yes, there were noisy demonstrations — but they were outside the events. That was even true during the first month or two, when Republicans actually tried having open town halls. Congressmen were very upset by the reception they received, but not, at least according to any of the reports I can find, because opponents were disruptive — crowds booed lines they didn’t like, but that was about it.

“After that, the events were open only to demonstrated loyalists; you may recall the people arrested at a Bush Social Security event in Denver for the crime of … not being Bush supporters.

“So please, no false equivalences. The campaign against Social Security privatization was energetic and no doubt rude, but did not involve intimidation and disruption.
(Emphasis mine.) So Krugman readily acknowledges that the 2005 campaign was "rude". His main point, though, is comparison between the 2005 and 2009 protests, and he claims they are not similar. He says he couldn't find, in 2005, "any examples of the kind of behavior we’re seeing now." And what kind of behavior is that? "Intimidation and disruption", Krugman says. For the examples of such behavior now, see here and here and here and here and here. (All of those are events that happened, and were reported, before Krugman wrote his blog post.)

Well, PolitiFact's verdict is that Krugman's statements are FALSE:
We conclude that while some of the recent conservative protests — such as ones at town halls in Tampa, Little Rock, Ark., Houston, Philadelphia, and Green Bay, Wis.— may have been angrier and more widespread than the ones in 2005, it would be incorrect to suggest, as Krugman does, that the noisy demonstrations against Bush's policies were only taking place outside the events or that disruptions were limited to the occasional boo.
Is this even arguably grounds for the "False" verdict? PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" has a total of six readings: True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False, and Pants On Fire. The last one is reserved for stuff like this, but even some quite nutty claims are merely deemed False. So "False" is supposed to mean really, you know, false.

For Krugman's post to be False by those same standards, it would seem necessary to find that the protesters' behavior in 2005 was indeed similar to what we see now - that the Social Security protesters also intimidated speakers and disrupted meetings. But look what PolitiFact says:
It is true that there’s nothing in the clips from 2005 about burning members of Congress in effigy or the use of devils’ horns. But Woodhouse’s group employed 28-foot gorillas, duck suits, plates of hot waffles and sheet cakes as props, according to an Aug. 13, 2005, report in the Albuquerque Tribune.
They "forgot" to mention Nazi symbols, but they appear to agree with Krugman about intimidation - unless duck suits are considered equivalent to imagery of lynching and Nazis.

And let's see what evidence PolitiFact cites in support of the verdict. Among their examples, I could find only one journalistic report that amounts to out-of-control unruly behavior and disruption of a meeting, and it is not clear that it was solely the protesters' responsibility:
— A session sponsored by Rep. Chris Chocola, R-Ind., in South Bend, at the downtown branch of the St. Joseph County Public Library “was a raucous affair, with many of the 100 or so people who attended shouting questions and insults, talking over each other and still bubbling with questions when it was all over.

“One gentleman was so angry when Chocola indicated the hour-long session was coming to an end and wouldn't be extended that he walked out.”

(South Bend Tribune , Feb. 27, 2005)
But even here, the disruption was far from complete. People were "bubbling with questions" and the gentleman was angry because he didn't get his turn to ask a question. That indicates that, while the meeting was raucous, there was active conversation to the end. It's quite a stretch to compare that report with current demonstrations.

Other examples border on ridiculous. Someone was being smartalecky to Rick Santorum:
“Santorum asked the audience what would happen in 2008. The response he wanted was that the oldest baby boomers would turn 62 and be eligible for early retirement.

“What he got instead, shouted out by an unfriendly voice, was: ‘George Bush will leave office!’
Well, that surely made Baby Jesus cry. In other examples, John Shadegg "encountered scattered heckling, boos and hisses" (emphasis mine; I assume the folks at PolitiFact know the meaning of "scattered"), some guy wrote a letter to Enterprise-Record of Chico, Calif., complaining that he witnessed "rude, disrespectful behavior" (Wait! Isn't that what Krugman acknowledged anyway?), and, in PolitiFact's words, "some stories noted the meetings were civil." Wow. After reading all that, I'll have nightmares of people in duck suits chasing me down and killing me with waffles.

But, of course, in case you aren't convinced that Krugman is a liar,
in all likelihood, there were many, many events that did not result in news coverage we could find. So we can't say whether there were protests or shouting matches.
And, since we can't say, Krugman should shut up, too. Even if what he says is true, how dare he hurt the feelings of those frail little Republican politicians?
Still, the protests inside and outside town halls, even if they were not universal, clearly rattled Republican leaders. On March 17, 2005, USA Today reported:

“Shaken by raucous protests at open ‘town hall’-style meetings last month, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio and other GOP leaders are urging lawmakers to hold lower-profile events this time.
Poor, unfortunate souls. And bad, bad Paul Krugman!

Aug 10, 2009

Double-dog-dare you to define my -ism

Arnold Kling wrote a silly little post about progressivism, or rather an idiot's misconception of progressivism. It makes no sense at all: What are "unfettered free markets"? Who are the "technocrats"? What is "optimal"? Such lazy indulgence in empty words deserves no attention.

But then Tyler Cowen took it a step further. He claims he tried to "cast progressivism in the best possible light". He probably did honestly try; he seems like an honest and often lucid thinker. Certainly one of the most lucid thinker of the "right" blogosphere these days. But is he lucid enough for this task? His points seem lame and inaccurate. For example:
1. There exists a better way and that is shown by the very successful polities of northwestern Europe and near-Europe. We know that way can work, even if it is sometimes hard to implement.

You've got to be kidding me. This is the first point of an ideology you are "trying to cast in the best possible light"? A better way for what? "There's a better way" is not basis for an ideology; depending on how you are disposed to interpret those generic words, it is either a truism (of course there is a better way for everything - we humans are imperfect) or mere nagging. And the rest of the two sentences suggests that progressivism is all about imitating "northwestern Europe" (a geographically-challenged characterization?), so why is it then not called "northwesterneuropeism"? Or how about:
4. The needs of the neediest ought to be our top priority, as variations in the well-being of other individuals are usually small by comparison, at least in the United States.

Um, "the needs of the neediest ought to be our top priority" is utilitarianism, which is compatible with progressivism, but by no means synonymous with it. That's something Tyler ought to know (and does know, but he is either too lazy or unable to come up with more precise wording). Or how about:
9. State and local governments are fundamentally to be mistrusted (recall segregation) and thus we should transfer more power to the federal government, which tends to be bluntly and grossly egalitarian, when it manages to be egalitarian at all. That is OK.

Oh, so progressivism is anti-federalism! ("Anti-federalism" is what the "founding fathers" called "federalism", but never mind.) Except it isn't - it's just that, for as long as the US has existed, anti-progressives have touted their fictional concept of "states' rights" whenever it has suited them, which is whenever the federal government happened to be more progressive than the states, which is probably roughly half the time. Whenever it doesn't suit them, those same people conveniently forget "states' rights". By the fallacy that there have to be two equal sides to each issue, progressives, who have no analogous fictional concept, are perceived as "anti-states' rights", whatever the hell that would mean.

Tristero says this is complete bullshit. That may be a bit too harsh, but, obviously, I agree it is not an intellectual exercise Cowen should be proud of. Tristero is also miffed that Yglesias took the bait, and it does seem that Yglesias bent over backwards to "cast libertarianism in the best possible light":
I think libertarianism is best understood as a kind of esoteric doctrine. There’s strong evidence to believe that people who overestimate their own efficacy in life wind up doing better than those with more accurate perceptions. It follows that it’s strongly desirable for society to be organized so as to bolster myths of meritocracy.

I understand that Yglesias is not necessarily endorsing any of this, but merely ascribing it to libertarianism, but the second sentence is written as a statement of fact, so either Matt agrees that it is true, or he is saying that the foundation of libertarianism is simply false. Now I hope he means the latter, but then, if that is the best possible light in which to cast libertarianism, why even bother? He could have said it more concisely as "garbage in, garbage out". Maybe libertarianism should be called GIGOism? But in case Matt actually believes the factual claim to be true, he may be demonstrating poor deductive reasoning.

As far as I know, there is evidence that the most successful people are more likely than average people to be prone to overestimating their own efficacy. However, that does not mean that the converse holds. People who overestimate their abilities may, in effect, be gambling in life, ending up disproportionately at both ends of the outcomes distribution. They will then tend to be overrepresented among the winners as well as among the losers. By observing that most winners are cocky, we learn nothing about the average effect of cockiness. Concluding that cockiness is useful on average is the same fallacy that critics of Larry Summers use to falsely accuse him of stating that men are smarter than women.

But there is an advantage of Yglesias' writing on any topic: he has smart readers, and some of them contribute sensible comments. Thus Keith M Ellis:
A more accurate version of libertarian theory is that it is based upon an idiosyncratic view of inherent (and arguably metaphysical) individual human rights that is strongly oriented to property rights and is extremely American in historical origin and flavor. Sitting atop this view of individual rights—which itself is sufficient and requires no utilitarian elaboration—is a whole bunch of utilitarian justification for a libertarian sociopolitical organization built around the notions that said organization results in the greatest overall material and psychological benefit.

This theoretical basis has three great weaknesses: first, the notion of inherent individual rights is eminently contestable. Second, the almost exclusive emphasis on individual property rights is idiosyncratic and myopic. Third, the utilitarian arguments for the benefits of the resulting sociopolitical organization are extraordinarily simplistic and are as often as not disproved by empirical fact.

In practice, libertarianism is a political philosophy which emphasizes the notion of virtue in selfishness and has as its historical genesis the exceptional American experience. As such, it appeals mostly to white American males who are moderately above-average in intelligence, economically secure, independently-minded, and prefer simplistic theoretical constructs for making political and moral decisions. It validates their own affluence/privilege not by group affiliation, but by inherent individual merit; and it likewise superficially validates the poverty and lack of privilege of others not on the basis of group affiliation, but inherent fault. In this it mimics a meritocratic view, which allows the libertarian to congratulate himself on his lack of bigotry; but, in fact, it is a facade behind which his true bigotry hides.

Or Duncan Kinder:
The problem with libertarianism is that they tend to conflate liberty with possession of property.

This made sense 200 years ago, when owning a small farm or business meant that you were secure in the means of your livelihood. (...) However, due to economic shifts since then, owning property does not mean you therefore are secure in the means to your livelihood. Indeed, large property holders such as medical insurers are very much in the business of interfering with others’ means to their livelihood.

This means that libertarianism now is, in practice, a misguided and often cranky ideal.

Keith M Ellis also says something that especially resonates with me:
I write as someone who thought of himself as a libertarian in my late teens (a self-identification which quickly ended once I met actual, active libertarians)

I'll give Keith the final word:
American libertarianism could have foregone all its academic intellectuals and it would still be largely what it has become with them. Libertarianism is not an intellectual movement, it is a cultural movement. Libertarianism is essentially: individualism, good; property, good; commerce, good; government, bad. It’s a historically/sociologically related set of sentiments.

Aug 6, 2009

Paul Campos is a big fat idiot

Actually, that's not true. Unlike the title character of Al Franken's book, he doesn't seem to be particularly corpulent. But his "obesity myth" crusade is not just dumb, it is drugged-up-radio-talk-show-host dumb.

The prevalence of obesity among US adults has more than doubled in 25 years. Among US adolescents, it has more than tripled. If a change like that had been observed in prevalence of homosexuality, the scientific consensus would be very different regarding its origins (innate vs. acquired) and probably also regarding whether it is a normal variation or a health problem. But, as an empirical matter, there is no evidence that the prevalence of homosexuality has changed over time. Therefore, reality-based people, who value empirical evidence, do not pretend that obesity is analogous to homosexuality.