Archive for April 2011

It’s A Tear Down

April 24, 2011

That would be any culture that could produce a video/mobile game like this. Before you click that link, be aware that it takes you to the beta site of an Android game called Dog Wars.  From that link (all typography in the original):

Raise your Dog to Beat the Best!

A GAME THAT WILL NEVER BE IN THE iPHONE APP STORE!!!

Feed, water, train and FIGHT your virtual dog against other player’s… action games, chatroom, many characters and dogs to choose from, virtual store, etc.

If this already has been blogged widely, my apologies.  Hell, my apologies for belonging to the same species as the presumptively sentient types who wrote the necessary code.

I know that there are all kinds of real arguments folks have over whether or not games or porn or violent kids shows or Kill Bill evoke or displace the behaviors they depict.

What’s more, I’ll concede that point, FWIW:  if I were a betting man, I’d lay cash down on the proposition that no one is going to be seduced into dog fighting by playing with digital pit bulls on a three inch screen.  But that’s not my point.

It is that our culture — all the ways we experience, interpret and express feelings and ideas about the business of living in the world — dies just a bit every time something like this slips by.  If we think that cruelty isn’t be fun, then representations of the joy of sadism can’t be passed by in silence.

Perhaps I’m just too much of an alter-kocker in saying so, but there it is.  To be clear:  I do not argue that games like these should be banned.  I think it, its makers, and anyone playing it  should be shamed.

It should be no more acceptable to play this than it is scream “kike” in Fenway’s bleachers (happened to me once; called the guy on it; did not get my head removed, to my rather surprised relief).

I would not let my son play with any kid who showed him that game, and I tell the parents so and why.  I would respond to anyone who talked of it with gusto to me (pretty unlikely, I’d say, given my DFH-ish daily round) that this kind of thing is a moral and an aesthetic cancer.  I’d write this.

It just isn’t acceptable to celebrate others’ pain.  Dogs, people, whoever.  I’m sickened, saddened and most troubled by the comments at that link that tell me to chill, because after all, it’s only a game.

Well yes it is…but if the old writer’s adage — you are what you read — has any truth to it, we need to be damn careful about what we play.  And if we care about our collective capacity to care about what happens to one another, then it seems to me both right and necessary to name and shame those who wallow in this particular swamp.

Please forgive the rant.  I’m just gobsmacked by this one — perhaps over reacting to what is, after all, just one more in a long line of stupid human tricks.  But still…

Image:  William Blake, The Stygian Lake, with the Ireful Sinners Fighting, (illustration for Dante’s Inferno, Canto VII), 1824-1827.

Savaged By A Dead Sheep

April 22, 2011

That would be James Fallows, suffering the blistering assault of one Megan McArdle over this piece, the one John lauded here.

The reference to the deceased quadraped is one I’ve had occasion to return to more than once — it comes from the ferocious Labour Party debater and then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey, describing the experience of oratorical combat with the his successor in that post, the Tory Sir Geoffrey Howe.  It may well be too kind when applied to the Business and Economic Editor of the Atlantic.

Seriously:  Fallows is a seasoned and deeply knowledgeable reporter, one who actually does what folks used to do with more frequency — study, seek real sources, talk to lots of folks, master a literature, stay with a story over decades and all the rest of the things real journalists of the first rank actually do.

McArdle…

…is McArdle.

A contest of wit, literary skill, and especially knowledge and or wisdom is no fair fight…except for this:

Fallows is not one for ‘tube wars.  I’ve read his stuff for a long, long time, and he says his piece and then almost always moves on to the next issue.  If you check out his blog since he wrote on the piece that has offended McArdle you’ll see a great piece putting GOP Sen. Inhofe’s disastrously dangerous flying and “safety-is-for-little-people” attitude in proper context; an analysis of the non-event of the Michelle Obama waved-off landing, memories of Tim Hethering and the like.  I can’t imagine that it pleases him when McArdle calls him colleague before attempting to dress him down, but life is short, and people with actual talent have better things to do with their time.

Which leaves it to me to take note of a post that once again demonstrates the axiom:  Megan McArdle Is Always Wrong™.

In this case, I rather think she knows she’s wrong — or rather she has to argue an obviously false case.  I say has to, because for all her grand title, her function at The Atlantic seems to be to come up with some argument-like word string that provides cover for known failures of policy, argument, and ideas.

The give away starts with her first substantive paragraph.  She writes:

…they [Standard and Poor's] do spend a great deal of time analyzing government finances, much more than James or I do.

Ahhh…the argument from authority again, one of McArdle’s favorites.

The question, as Fallows pointed out, is not whether S & P analyzes government or private financial instruments.  Here’s Fallows:

S&P knows nothing more about U.S. budget prospects than you or I do. [Italics his.  Bold mine.]

I’m sure you can catch the trick McArdle hopes to play here.  Fallows said nothing about anything technical to do with US government bond market operations.  He’s arguing that S & P is making a judgment that they are ill-prepared to make, on the politics of the budget.

McArdle’s assertion that the rating agencies are expert at the task of rating debt is itself a stretch — she could, perhaps, take a look at a real financial journalist’s account of the rating agencies incompetence and intellectual weakness, say, in Chapter 6 of Gillian Test’s excellent Fool’s Gold. Michael Lewis in The Big Shorthas some choice stuff on the agencies’ sheer bland ignorance of the instruments they were supposed to rate of, among others, S & P — see, e.g. the material in Chapter 7.  She could also take a look at the comments by Warren Buffett in his 2008 letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, among other venues.

But the deeper issue is that McArdle is trying to slip in an assertion that all S & P was doing was expressing its ordinary business judgment.  They are not; as Fallows points out — along with plenty of others, including S & P itself:

“we see the path to agreement as challenging because the gap between the parties remains wide.”

No financial judgment there — just one more political prognostication.

No wonder, then, that McArdle speeds hastily by her ham-fisted opening gambit.  Full tilt, she heads to a marvelous bit of disengenousness:

You make think that their opinion is crap, in which case you should say so–[Gee -- thanks MM! -- ed.] but I cannot understand why we’d quibble with the format in which that opinion is issued.  S&P has been issuing these sorts of things for a long time, and I don’t think it would make much difference if they started doing so in blog form.

This is a display of verbal dexterity along the lines of the old joke — it was used in Calvin and Hobbes, but waaaay predates that cultural icon — about the little boy on the first day of kindergarten who spends the whole day in hope after his new teacher says, “Sit here for the present.”

“What?  No gift, after I sat there the whole *&%!# day!”

Recall what Fallows wrote:

To repeat Clive Crook’s point, S&P knows nothing more about U.S. budget prospects than you or I do. They’re saying they have an opinion on the state of Congressional-White house dealings on the budget. Fine. Go on a talk show or start a blog.

Let me channel my inner McArdle here:

“Oh.  You’re not complaining that S & P musn’t  publish their reports in an easily updated, web-published format?

This is sarcasm?

Oh.  I see.  My bad….”

Really.  I don’t have a lot of respect for McArdle’s capacity for argument at the best of times, but this is pathetic, even for her.

Next up, a tasty dish of word salad:

Moreover, their opinion does actually matter, since previous rounds of financial regulation have embedded financial agency ratings deep in the structure of our financial markets.

This is a usual bit of McArdle sleight of hand.  Fallows says the S & P opinion is worthless, and wonders why the news media got so hot and bothered.

Oh no! says McArdle:  that damn fact that the financial markets deal in risk means that ratings decisions do matter (not to mention, as she doesn’t, that the quality of those decisions matters even more.)  But to continue:

If James or I scream that the US debt picture is unsustainable, we will not move markets.  If S&P downgrades US debt, this will trigger a sell-off, even if the people selling disagree with their assessment.

Well, this  is (a) bait and switch and (b) subject to a little empirical investigation:  did this statement of opinion have that result?

To (a):  A downgrade of US debt would indeed have a notable effect.  But that’s not what the S&P did, of course.  US government debt is still rated AAA.  Were that to change…big news.  But a warning that some folks in the S&P offices don’t like the way Eric Cantor is eying Tim Geithner?…not so much.

To (b):  How much not so much?

Not at all, in fact.

In the wake of the announcement by the ratings agency, the market for long term (ten year) US government debt actually went up — as revealed in this chart, posted at the site of someone who actually knows a little bit of economics.

But what about that terrifying drop in the equity markets on Monday?  The NYSE closed 140 points down from Friday’s close (though up roughly 60 from a trough met in the immediate aftermath of what Fallows correctly termed hysteria at the S&P release.  It went Back up another 65 yesterday; up just a whisker under 6% for since Jan. 1; up more than 10% over the last twelve months.  Oh, and as of Thursday afternoon, the market had a third day in a row of gains, to the point that stock market indexes are up to peaks not seen since June, 2008 — well above the point where it was before S&P opened its big yap.

In other words: McArdle simply gets this one wrong.

(BTW:  If she were to say that well, the S&P didn’t downgrade US debt, so technically, she’s not in error, see point (a) above. This would be McArdle wanting it both ways:  S&P opinions are meaningful, unless they are not.  Taking her at the implication she wants us to draw:  the S&P opinion in this instance is more important than anything Fallows might say — well, the markets disagree, and by that judgment, McArdle’s assertion fails the test of reality.  Q.E.D.)

Just about all the rest of McArdle’s post engages with Jame Galbraith, an economist whom Fallows quotes.  Galbraith makes the point that unless the Republicans misjudge the speed of the oncoming train, the US simply won’t default — because “It controls the “means of production” for the dollars to pay off those bonds.” Galbraith adds:

If you’re worried about inflation, fine. But that’s a different matter, with a lot of other variables that count for more than S&P’s feelings.

McArdle, predictably, regards this thought with horror.  First she indulges in a little history.

Inflation was a good way to ease the burden of our World War II borrowing–once the war was over.

It’s true that there were three years of significant inflation from 1946-48.  But McArdle, no economist, is no historian either.  Competent approaches to historical argument include looking for more than the convenient monocausal explanation that makes the point you don’t want anyone to examine too closely.

What else may have had an impact on the total debt, and on the debt-to-GDP ratio?

Well, two obvious factors are a dramatic drop in government spending made possible by the end of the Second World War (down 40% in 1946) , and a sustained record of economic growth.*  Tax rates (much, much higher then) also had something to do with a key fact:  after the war, the US ran a budget surplus debt declined as proportion of GDP [Thanks to a kind reader for the correction) in 36 of the next 47 years.

All of which is to say that the actual history of US government obligations is intimately bound up with stories of national expenditure and  budgeting, but above all, with the power of economic growth (plus a reasonably progressive tax code) to rein in any momentary expansion of the standing debt.  Not that McArdle can stop to think about these or all the more finer-grained analyses of what happened back then, as that would limit the possibility of this kind of snark:

But it is not a good way to ease the burden of an increasingly expensive entitlement program that shows no signs of winding down.

This is code for Medicare and Medicaid and/or Obama’s health care reform.   We’ve discussed elsewhere McArdle’s unwillingness to countenance even the stray thought that any cost cutting measure will actually work, so chalk this up to her “I’m not listening….” debate tactic.

Moving on:

Especially since these days, the debt markets are much more efficient than they were in 1948; information about the money supply is transmitted very quickly to potential buyers of our bonds.  You can pull all sorts of tricks to force bondholders to eat some losses on the money they lent you–but you can’t pull them over and over.  America was able to wriggle its way out of a substantial portion of its WWII debts in large part because it was otherwise pretty fiscally sound.

Wriggle out of?…See above. This is pure word salad, to be sure, but at its core, such as it is, it’s making the same claim as above:  markets will price US bonds to the level of risk that these incredibly modern, efficient institutions can now readily perceive — which is why  (recall) the S & P announcement was so momentous, and Fallows was wrong to scoff.

Well then, (a) if the bond market is that efficient what produced the catastrophic collapse of the commercial bond market, oh, all of two years ago or so?  As, among others, Michael Lewis has pointed out over and over again, transparency has never been a feature of especially the more arcane corners of the market in debt….

and (b) more precisely  on point to the topic at hand, if the bond markets are so efficient these days, why is the interest of US government debt historically low and has been for some time ?

And as long as we are talking history, it’s worth remembering that government bonds have traded in a very stable fashion for a long time; the creation of a reasonably clear and calm government debt market was one of the great achievements of British finance in the 18th century — see among much else in the significant literature on this point, Fernand Braudel’s brief essay in the second volume of Civilization and Capitalism on his view that this was the foundation of British imperial wealth and power. The US inherited both that financial technology and ultimately the power that the British were able to finance through such fiscal innovation.  Not everything important has happened in Megan McArdle’s life time.  Just sayin.

No matter, like honey badger, McArdle don’t care:

You can argue that a small amount of inflation is preferable to the alternatives, distributing the pain very broadly in order to avoid the intense dislocations of a sudden shock.  I might even agree with someone who argued this. But small amounts of inflation are not going to rid us of $10 trillion in debt.

Perhaps not, though I don’t believe anyone has argued that it would.

In any event,  (a) we don’t need to get rid of $10 trillion in debt.  Historically, we’ve prospered just fine at debt levels that hang at 40% of GDP.

To put that into current numbers:  the CIA estimates 2010 US GDP at $14.72 trillion.  40% would be about $5.9 trillion.  That leaves $4 trillion for McArdle to get rid of; or rather, less or zero if we assume that the US economy will actually continue to grow over time.

This is actually kind of important, so please forgive a digression into a wholly artificial, but illustrative bit of arithmetic:

If we assume a balanced budget (i.e. no net surplus or deficit over a period of years, whatever the ups and downs of individual cycles — which was the US norm for decades after WW II, and the last few of the Clinton years — a time so recent that even young McArdle may recall it), an annual growth rate of 3% would double the size of the US economy in 24 years.**

A small amount of inflation would accelerate that quite nicely (or capture additions to the debt produced by a budget net out of balance over time), as would a rise in tax rates from historical troughs — but I’m not arguing here that this trivial calculation is the reason to dismiss McArdle from any grown-up conversation about policy and the economy.

Rather, what this little exercise tells us is that one should pay no attention to McArdle because she isn’t honest.  No discussion of debt trends that fails at least to nod at the implications of long term economic growth is even remotely useful.  To put it another way:  by her choice of what to ignore, McArdle ensures that she is talking nonsense throughout this passage.

But really — she has only our best interests at heart.  By concentrating only on the debt, she gets to tell us why we have to take our medicine:

And the pain of large amounts of inflation is extremely painful–arguably, more so, not less so, than technical default…

Again, this is misdirection.  You get the equivalent of default through inflation when the rate is so high as to make debt instruments effectively worthless; such events are termed hyperinflations.

The disastrous economic and political implications of hyperinflaton are indeed well known.  So, while it’s true that high conventional inflation can be deeply unpleasant (I’m old enough to remember the seventies), at least in the American experience, such inflation neither amounted to a debt default, nor did its effects resemble those suffered by  Weimar Germany, for example in 1922 and 1923.

If McArdle wants to argue that the US is currently on a path towards such hyperinflation — or the worse such event that took place in Hungary, or recent experience in Zimbabwe, and so on — then she needs to come up with some evidence that current US fiscal and monetary policy is meaningfully akin to the circumstances that attended such bursts of extraordinary declines in the value of national currencies.

She has not — and once more, as lots of folks point out to her at regular intervals, there are no signals from those with the most skin in the game that such an event is in the offing.

Enough.  I admit.  There is something in McArdle’s smug disengenousness that gets my goat on a deep level, and the consequence, as you’ve seen above, just ain’t pretty.

So I’ll shut up now, but for two parting shots.

First:  Jim Fallows is the real deal, a journalist and analyst of great out-there-in-the-world experience. He’s someone who is always worth reading:  you learn something when you do.  He has to suffer the indignity of being called — and being — Megan McArdle’s colleague at The Atlantic. But the fact that their paychecks come from the same bank account does not make them equivalent.  Fallows has earned what he knows through years of effort and accomplishment; McArdle knows what she knows with great certainty and gusto — but she’s the poster child for Mark Twain’s famous jibe.  There is no comparison — as I hope the above has sufficiently demonstrated.

Second:  When confronted by yet another example of error and flat out bad argument by Megan McArdle the question always arises:  is she dumb or deceitful?

Now I concede that she might be both a dessert topping and a floor wax.  But really, while McArdle may be many things, stupid ain’t one of them.

If you called her lazy, incurious, insecure or what have you, I’d probably agree — but I think she knows exactly what she is doing in her writing.  She is a court singer, writing lays in praise of those who toss her scraps.  I’m not really sure how much damage she can do at this point.  I’d like to think that the schtick is growing old, and that her audience, large as it is, is now made up almost entirely of the choir to whom she preaches.

But maybe not.  Hence posts like these.

(Also, too — writing this has kept me from going medieval on her truly delightful cooking video.  I’m saving that for a special treat….;)

(And another thing:  if you’ve read this far, you might want to check out a much shorter and quite lovely take down of another McArdle folly by James Bales, directly below this white whale.

*Economic output in constant dollars dropped from 1945-1946, edged down a little more in 1947, and then embarked on a steady path of growth for decades.

**I’m using here the rule of thumb known as the rule of 72.  It has the canonical virtue of having many divisors — which is what dictated my arbitrary choice of a 3% annual GDP growth rate.  Makes the sums come out more easily, even though it may be a shade high.  But the answer is the same if you use a 2.5% growth rate and calculate assuming continuous compounding, in which case you could employ the rule of 70, which slightly understates the rate at which such compounding occurs.

Images:  Hans Memling, The Last Judgment Tryptich (open), 1467-71

Albert Anker, The Crèche, 1890

Mizerák István, Sweeping the pengő inflation banknotes after the introduction of the forint in August 1946

Francisco de Goya, Riña a garrotazos, 1819-23

The McArdle Chronicles redux: How to Argue in Bad Faith: An Example

April 21, 2011

Again, I’m the messenger.  My MIT colleague Jim Bales has taken up my slack in covering the gift that keeps on giving, Megan McArdle.

Enjoy — it’s a good one

TL

Jim Bales here – my thanks to Tom for letting me borrow his soap box. The words that follow are mine, and not his.

So, Megan McArdle has a post in which she asserts that:

“[T]he federal income tax is now very progressive; it collects most of its revenue from people at the top.”

Commenter mmh53b noted:

“When I was a lad … progressivity was not based on the percentage of tax revenue collected from the top, but rather the marginal tax rate.”

The lesson on arguing in bad faith can be found in Ms McArdle’s reply:

‘In this context, the question is: how dependent are tax revenues on high incomes? Because the more dependent they are on high incomes, the more they swing from peak to trough. This has, contra your belief, always been a definition that characterizes a system as “progressive” rather than “regressive”.’

Wow – sucks to be commenter mmh53b, doesn’t it? After all, what mmh53b had always considered to be the definition of a progressive tax is now simply their belief, a belief contra-ed by Ms McArdle with a definition. In fact, Ms McArdle insists that her definition has always been a definition, and thus it is the only definition she will allow for the term “progressive” tax.

Does anyone support poor mmh53b? No one of any importance. Just:

Wikipedia: A progressive tax is a tax by which the tax rate increases as the taxable base amount increases

The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary: Progressive, increasing in rate as the base increases, with the example, “a progressive tax” (definition 4b)

The Encyclopaedia Britannica: [P]rogressive tax, tax that imposes a larger burden (relative to resources) on those who are richer

The Oxford English Dictionary: The only definition to use the word “tax” (2d), reads: Of a tax or taxation: increasing gradually according to ability to pay; increasing as a proportion of the sum taxed as that sum increases. (As to Ms McArdle’s “always”, the first usage cited was in 1792 by Tom Paine.)

Well, it appears that the “a definition” that Ms McArdle prefers is sufficiently rare so as to have been overlooked by the both Britannica and the OED. It certainly seems that “progressive tax” has always meant what commenter mmh53b has thought it meant. Perhaps Ms McArdle, in her capacity as Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic is using in it a narrow, technical sense? Perhaps economists never use “progressive tax” in its common (and well-nigh eternal) meaning of higher tax rates on higher incomes?

Thanks to Google Books we can quickly check a few Economics textbooks.

The Shrill One (Dr. Robin Wells) and her spouse (some fellow named Krugman) write in their tome Macroeconomics (p. 192) An individual in a higher income bracket pays a higher income tax rate in a progressive tax system like ours. Then again, they are shrill. What do they know?

Now, Robert Samuelson, he was an economist! He’ll get this one right! In his Economics he wrote (page 390, caption to Figure 16-4) Taxes are progressive if they take a larger fraction of income as income rises. Well, maybe Samuelson wasn’t such a good economist, since he didn’t know the “a definition” that Ms McArdle insists was “always” in place.

I know — Professor (and chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors) Greg Mankiw will get it right! In his Principle of Economics Mankiw defines a Progressive Tax (p. 255) as a tax for which high-income taxpayers pay a larger fraction of their income than do low-income taxpayers. Oops.

And so we are left with three simple choices.

1)     All of these people, from Tom Paine through Robert Samuelson all the way to Greg Mankiw, are wrong and Ms McArdle is right.

2)     Ms McArdle, the Business and Economics Editor for The Atlantic, is utterly ignorant of the meaning of an economic concept as basic as a progressive tax.

3)     Ms McArdle will make shit up rather than acknowledge that one of her critics was right.

My money is on 3), hence the title of this post. Why? Because her evasiveness was utterly unnecessary. She need only have said, “Why yes, mmh35b, you are correct. A progressive tax system has higher tax rates on higher incomes. As a result, the tax revenues come disproportionately from the wealthy, whose income is more volatile than the less wealthy. Furthermore, that volatility causes tax revenues to go down when the economy tanks, which is when governments have increased need for that revenue.” Of course, had she done so she would have acknowledged that she was sloppy in her choice of words in her original post, and that her critic had caught her out. So, rather than admit the small error and turn it into a chance to advance her cause, she chose to try to shut down mmh35b instead. And that is arguing in bad faith.

PS – A Counter Example

In contrast to Ms McArdle, consider the actions of Mr. Louis Martinelli (ht Abi Southerland at Making Light). After working for many years with the National Organization for Marriage to deny same-sex couples the right to civil unions (much less full marriage), Mr. Martinelli has come out in support of full marriage equality and issued an retraction of his past words and deeds that he now considers to be wrong. In particular, notice in the latter link how Mr. Martinelli holds fast to those elements of his prior statements that he still considers true, yet acknowledges and retracts those elements that were false, irrelevant, or simply hurtful.

One need not agree with Mr. Martinelli completely to recognize that he is striving to argue in good faith. One need not disagree with Ms McArdle completely to recognize that arguing in good faith is not important to her.

Image: Jan Massys, At the Tax Collector, 1539

“That’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here…” Benjamin Franklin edition

April 20, 2011

I’m working on another volume in my Pequod-like pursuit of Megan McArdle* (see, after what went on here earlier today, I’ve got a Melville mindworm going), but just to show that I’m not dead yet, I thought I’d toss in a little lagniappe to a discussion begun here in John’s post of a day or so ago.

There, I learned that some idiot I’ve never before had the dystopic experience of encountering had this to say about the notion of an intellectual commons:

But Barton says that the Bible, Ben Franklin and the Pilgrims all opposed Net Neutrality because it violates the rights of huge corporations to charge higher rates and discriminate on content, calling it a “wicked” policyand “socialism on the Internet.”

Here’s David Barton’s own words on the subject, just to show that the snark version is, in fact, deadly accurate:

But we talk about it today because it is a principle of free market. That’s a Biblical principle, that’s a historical principle, we have all these quotes from Ben Franklin, and Jefferson and Washington and others on free market and how important that is to maintain.

Well, as it happens, I’m reading a really excellent book:  Common as Air by Lewis Hyde, which is, among much else, a detailed and beautifully written archaeology of what the founders — and Franklin primus inter pares — thought about ideas, ownership, and the commons.

One thing Hyde reminds us of is that Franklin himself did not claim ownership of ideas that he himself saw as the product of many, the inheritance of all, and the property of none.  He did not patent the lightening rod — instead communicating with David Hume, among others, to make sure that the world — at least those with access to learned journals — could make free use of both the research implications and the practical value of his investigations into the behavior of electricity. He didn’t try to hang on to the rights to the Franklin stove.

If he did choose to keep some trade secrets that advantaged the work that made him prosperous — the techniques he used to render early American paper money more secure against counterfeits — that was one exception against a life time of free public dissemination of discoveries and inventions that he understood to have been built on the work of predecessor and collaborators, to be improved upon still further by the efforts of strangers to come.  [FWIW — I wrote about Franklin’s role as a currency innovator in last October’s American History. Sadly, the piece itself is not online, though I think a draft may show up in MIT’s DSpace archive eventually.

You should all go get Hyde’s book for yourselves, but just to shove Barton’s ignorant lies back down his slimy, authoritarian-slime-filled cake-hole, consider this quote from the chapter Hyde titled “Benjamin Franklin, Founding Pirate”:

Franklin believed that property should not command society, society should command property:  “Private Property..is a Creature of Society and is subject to the Cals of that Society whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing.”  The contributions that private property makes to public needs are not, therefore, “to be considered as conferring a Benefit to the Public…but as the Return of an Obligation previously received or the Payment of a Just Debt.”   (Common as Air, pp. 132-133.  The Franklin quote is from “Queries and Remarks on a Paper entitled ‘Hints for the Members of [the Constitutional] Convention No II in teh Federal Gazette of Tuesday Nov 3d 1789.]

The shorter:  Franklin was down for net neutrality.

You can disagree with his argument, of course.  It’s a wingnut folly to accord the status of revolution to texts that they rarely, if ever read.  Mine are different pathologies, no doubt.

But while the fact that Ben Franklin said something does not make it inerrant truth, still, if I may, can I suggest to the Mr. Barton that before he yaps about what the founders thought about something, it might be a good idea to, you know, actually read what they had to say on the subject?

Just sayin….

*Absolutely no good can come of this metaphor.

Image:  David Martin, Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, 1767.  I’ve always loved this portrait for the fact that Franklin commissioned it while directing that he be painted with the bust of Newton watching over him.

Mr. President! We Must Not Allow a Gemeinschaft Gap!* (David Brooks Agonistes.)

April 18, 2011

Plenty of ink has been spilled on David Brooks channeling of poor little Paulie Ryan’s bruises. All of the scorn and ridicule is fair.  David Brooks is an innumerate hack propelled by some actual skill, but lots more good luck and well timed sychophancy into a position of influence in which he can do real damage.

But I don’t want Brooks’ jaw-dropping:”let’s do lunch” inanity to obscure the fact that the column as a whole is almost a type specimen of the kind of fundamental intellectual dishonesty that characterizes his work pretty much across the board.

My usual response to something like this would be roughly 4,000 words of high dudgeon.**  Real life intervenes however, to everyone’s benefit, so I’ll just hit a few of the high spots in a column so full of wrong it could power Sarah Palin’s teleprompter for a year.

The first, and in some ways the most significant failing in this piece actually does emerge in that “why won’t mean Obama coddle some guy who’s trying to kill everything his administration has done.”  The high Broderism is obvious — did anyone ever doubt that Brooks was going to grab for Broder’s mitre with all the ravenous zeal of a hyena in an abbatoir?

But the deeper problem lies with what Brooks reveals here of how he views his relationships with sources.

For many reasons I share with our own Aimai a reverence for I. F. Stone.  As she and I have discussed him off-line, one of Stone’s most significant attributes was his view of sources.  They were tools, in the neutral sense of the word…not friends, never people whose regard for you mattered.

Here’s Stone himself on how he did his job of conveying a world-view through facts:

My idea was to make the Weekly radical in viewpoint but conservative in format. I picked a beautiful type face, Garamond, for my main body type, and eschewed sensational headlines. I made no claim to inside stuff—obviously a radical reporter in those days had few pipelines into the government.  I tried to give information which could be documented so the reader could check it for himself. I tried to dig the truth out of hearings, official transcripts and government documents, and to be as accurate as possible. I also sought to give the Weekly a personal flavor to add humor wit and good writing to the Weekly report. I felt that if one were able enough and had sufficient vision one could distill meaning, truth and even beauty from the swiftly flowing debris of the week’s news.

For Brooks — not so much.

The implication running through his work, and certainly the offending column — at least as I read it — is that we, his readers, should accept Brooks’ authority because of his personal connection of Paul Ryan, that emotional understanding that enables Brooks to grasp Ryan’s (notional) interior life, his beliefs and motivations.

That’s not how its done. In fact, a desire to be welcomed and valued by the players condemns one to being played.  It’s a death sentence if your goal is to do journalism, to be someone who can recognize and reveal uncomfortable truths.  Once you care what the people whom you cover think of you, you’re finished.

In Brooks’ case, it seems to me that he consciously conspires in his own capture.  But even so, there are costs that he can’t avoid.   Much of what is stupid and wrong in his work (and there’s a lot of it) derives from the way he’s convinced himself that what he believes and feels is true, before or without ever delving into the facts behind the feelings.  His “friends” assure him of his wisdom, which seems to be good enough for him, and the result is that odd feeling of weightlessness and divorce-from-reality that threads through his increasingly forgettable work.

For some examples, just from this one column, let’s look at Brooks description of the five things that Paul Ryan believes.

First, he believes that aging populations, expensive new health care technologies and the extravagant political promises have made the current welfare state model unsustainable. Fundamental reform is necessary or the whole thing will collapse, here and in Europe.

Second, he believes that seniors and the middle class cannot be excused from the benefit cuts that will have to be imposed to rebalance these systems. Third, he believes that health care costs will not be brought under control until consumers take responsibility for their decisions and providers have market-based incentives to reduce prices.

Fourth, he believes that tax increases should not be part of these reforms because the economic costs outweigh the gains. Fifth, he does not believe government can nurture growth and reduce wage stagnation with targeted investments.

There is the overt problem that these “beliefs” are brought to us not from Ryan — no quotes, no links to speeches, no nothing — but rather from Brooks himself, playing the ventriloquist.  This is a conventional hack novelist’s trick:  you put all the best speeches — the ones that convey what you really think — into the mouth of the character you like best (see Galt, John, e.g.).

But beyond that, there is another conspicuous failure of writing and reasoning here.  It too turns on the word “believes.”

When Brooks uses that strategic term, he is saying that what matters is what Ryan accepts as true, not what is.

The moment one lets the spell of his easy-listening prose break, though, it becomes obvious that Brooks wants us to then draw real world conclusions based on these “beliefs.”  Once that shoe drops, it becomes clear that one can — and thus must — put Brooks’/Ryan’s claims to the harsh test of  empirical tests.

Which, because of reality’s well known liberal bias, is not pretty.

For example: until Ryan, and Brooks, can explain why the Scandinavian countries are able to deliver first class health care and outcomes at lower cost to all their population, the first of the Ryan articles of faith must be judged false.

You could say that the American system as currently organized cannot do so — that’s obviously true.  But that just shifts (or should) the question from deciding, as Ryan does, to whom to deny care (who to allow to die before their time) to the real issue:  how to advance the health care reform in this country begun last year to the point where we can approach the outcomes of our competitors.***

Note here one more bit of Brooks’ rhetorical trickery.  For four out of the five avowals in Ryan’s canon, Brooks stops with the one-line statement of faith.  Here, though, he adds a second sentence, presented as a declarative statement: “Fundamental reform is necessary or the whole thing will collapse, here and in Europe.”

Brooks might argue that it is clear from context that this not something he’s claiming himself — it’s still what Ryan believes.  But the effect of slipping a bald line like this into the midst of a list of contingent claims is to give that one statement more authority, and Brooks is too skilled a writer not to know this.  The point, of course, is to advance a claim not in evidence in the hopes that no one will ask him for its bona fides.

I’m asking…or rather I’m telling him that the collapse he predicts is far from being a law of nature.  “The math” tells us no such thing.

I’ll try to speed this all up from here.  Onto number 2 in Brooks’ version of the Ryan catechism, that the middle class and the old must sacrifice benefits (die early) to close the health care cost gap.  Really?  Actually, this is wrong in at least two ways.  First, as lots of folks have noted, there are a number of different paths to control deficits.  The choice is one of values, not, again, of “the math.”

Second, it once again conflates a fiscal issue with one of substantive policy:  there are approaches to containing cost that examine, for example, the incentive problems that arise from paying by the procedure and not the patient.  Here Brooks, using Ryan as his ventriloquist’s dummy, takes as given that the only path to cost control is a broad benefit cut.  Again, on the face of it, a lie.  (Note, I’m not saying that health policy alone can reduce the rate of medical inflation; just that the assertion that there is only viable approach to doing so — radical rationing (old poor people must die) — is based on nothing but ideology contradicted by experience.

And so on.  You can hit the same highlights with the other three:  all of them rely on assumptions not in evidence and are either contradicted or compromised by readily available data.  I won’t go through the exercise here, leaving that to you readers, and I’ll similarly skimp on the fictions on Brooks’ version of  Obama’s thinking, noting just one  deceit/howler.  He writes:

Obama does not believe in relying on market mechanisms to reduce health care costs. Instead, he would rely mostly on a board of technical experts, who would be given power to force their recommendations upon Congress.

Two things: note the asymmetry between “does not believe” and “would rely…on.”  It would be correct to say that Obama recognizes that market mechanisms are one tool to control health care costs — this is why, for example, he viewed health care exchanges as a critical element in the health care reform.  It would also be correct to say that Obama’s administration, like most Americans, understands that  the “market” in health care is so far from that economist’s spherical cow, the “free market,” as to require real regulation and oversight — in which that independent board would play an important role.  It is wrong to say that Obama’s administration sees that board as its primary tool for cost containment.

This cod-on-a-slab flopping around in an effort to paint an utterly economically conventional President as some socialist dupe highlights Brooks’ problem:   modern conservative economic, policy and social ideas are based on a religious commitment to a few revealed ideas.  To defend them is difficult-to-impossible if one actually does the work to see what, say, actually happens to revenues at different tax rates (number 4 in the theses that Ryan/Brooks nails to the door above).  So, if you are Paul Ryan you simply ignore the data of the last thirty years, and if you are David Brooks, you happily serve as an amplifier for such fictions in the service of the false narrative.

This is what makes Brooks such a disastrous member of our power-elite.  He is, he says, one of the vital “Hamiltonians, who believe, with Ryan, in market mechanisms to allocate resources and control costs and also, with Obama, in government’s ability to selectively nurture prosperity.”

In itself that sentence is an insult to poor Alexander Hamilton, whose grasp of English prose was sufficient to avoid contradicting himself in the space of a score of words or so.  But it’s real purpose is not to make sense, nor to make a meaningful historical connection.  Rather, it is, again, to put the willfully know-nothing Brooks in a position that the reader will accept as above the fray.

But facts do matter.  And that is why friends do not let friends get misled by David Brooks.

*See this:

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**So it’s roughly 2K.  Sue me.

***I’m not going to go medieval on the other sin Brooks commits here: conflating medical care for the aged and the disabled with “welfare” as it’s been popularly maligned.  Welfare has already been framed as theft by the (undeserving) poor (with all the overtones of race and crab-barrelling that form such a large part of the Koch-ist propaganda machine). Social insurance, available and availed on by all is something that the American people by a wide margin (unsurprisingly) tend to value.  The hope of the right is that such support could be undermined by the guilt-by-association burden that would come if somehow we could all be persuaded that the provision universal health care to the aged  is somehow going to lead to more moochers eating my steak or something.  Brooks is trading in such class/race war code words here, and should be ashamed of himself.  Which statement, of course, also contains an assumption not in evidence:  that Brooks possesses the capacity to experience that emotion.

Images:  Lovis Corinth, In the Slaughterhouse, 1893.

Caravaggio Saint Jerome, c. 1605-1606.

Albert Einstein was a Friend of Mine, and I Can Tell You, Representative: You Are No Albert Einstein*

April 15, 2011

From Think Progress (h/t Daily Kos) we learn that in the midst of yet another creationist eructation, a Tennessee state representative invokes the ghost of the good Dr. Einstein to defend the teaching of woo to the unwary:

Rep. FRANK NICELEY (R-Strawberry Fields): I think that if there’s one thing that everyone in this room could agree on, that would be that Albert Einstein was a critical thinker. He was a scientist. I think that we probably could agree that Albert Enstein was smarter than any of our science teachers in our high schools or colleges. And Albert Einstein said that a little knowledge would turn your head toward atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head toward Christianity.

I don’t have much truck with the argument from authority, but just this once, let me let it rip.

Dude:  I wrote the book here.**  Well, not the book, but one more in the seemingly limitless pile of Einsteiniana that has chased the poor man through the years.

So, a couple of things.  First:  Einstein himself was high school and college science teacher.  He taught secondary school briefly during the years between his graduation from Zurich’s ETH (1900) and the start of his job at the Swiss Patent Office (1902), tutoring a private student or two as well.  He became a university professor in 1908, and taught at that level until his move to Berlin in 1914.  He’s part of the set that the Representative — perhaps stunned by a too-prolonged exposure to tangerine skies — would seek to diss.

But the real howler, the grotesque lie, comes with the claim that Albert Einstein, famously Jewish and equally so an atheist by most senses of the word, would suggest that deep learning and understanding would make a person a Christian.

This is, of course, nonsense, and worse that that — a willful deception and one more example of the urge to invent a comforting falsehood when reality bites too hard.  Which sums up the whole modern GOP world view, sadly. (Cue the Rogers (kfMonkey) post in 3…2…1)

But for the record:  Albert Einstein disdained the notion of a personal god.  He was dismissive of god-talk in public affairs.  He saw nothing in the acquisition of knowledge that would tend one towards organized faith; quite the reverse.  He located the source of knowledge to be material experience, whose signals were to be processed by the 1200cc or so of very intricately organized meat we (most of us) keep in a round-ish vessel above our necks.

And just so we all get our fill of Einsteiniana, here are some supporting quotations:

In an autobiographical essay published in 1949, Einstein told of his loss of faith as a child:

“…through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.  The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.” (in Paul Schilpp, ed. Albert Einstein,  Philosopher-Scientist, Open Court, 1949, p. 5)

Of the demand for a personal god, Einstein wrote in a letter to a banker in Colorado that

“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals….” [taken from Alice Calaprice's collection The Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 1996 p. 146]

Of the presence of a god intervening in history, he wrote, famously and bluntly to a correspondent calling down divine wrath on the British during World War I:

“I see with great dismay that God punishes so many of His children for their ample folly, for which obviously only He himself can be held responsible…only His nonexistence can excuse him.” [AE to E. Mayer 2 January 1915 Collected Papers of AE vol VIII doc. 44]

Of the independence from divine fetters of human knowledge, he wrote,

“No idea is conceived in our mind independent of our five senses.” [From Quotable Einstein p. 154]

And on the claims to authority of religion in general and his own Jewish heritage in particular, the year before his death  he wrote this:

… The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.

Enough.  As you all know, no doubt, I’m of the John Foster Dulles school of blogging, but I think the point is clear. Rep. Niceley (R-Delusional) is an ignorant and/or deceitful man defending the indefensible by stealing the mantle of someone way too dead to respond for his own part.  Niceley does so to support exactly what Einstein would have both loathed and ridiculed.  The desire to live in the world one wishes for is human enough — pretty childish, I’d say, following my man Al here.  But the indulgence we give children does not extend to granting them power over anything that matters…

…which is why the current Republican Party must be not merely defeated, but destroyed and replaced.

Factio Grandaeva delenda est.

*Here I butcher what is still my favorite political debate moment of all time:

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**I kinda made the movie too — writing and jointly producing  this two hour NOVA biography.  Just sayin:  I bin around the Einstein block once or twice, you know.

Image:

Professor Einstein’s Visit to the United States“, The Scientific Monthly 12:5 (1921), 482-485, on p. 483.

Give The Man One White Chip*

April 15, 2011

Via the NYT we learn what constitutes “big” to a Republican congressman.  (No, children…don’t go there.)

(Hell.  This is the internet.  Go there if the spirit moves you.)

By now, just about everyone with a pulse and an interest in politics knows that the budget debate produced much more kabuki than actual cuts.  Rather the reverse in fact:

According to a Congressional Budget Office comparison, the bill would produce only $350 million in tangible savings this year, in part because cuts in domestic programs were offset by an increase of about $5 billion for Pentagon programs.

__

When projected emergency contingency spending overseas is figured in by the budget office, estimated outlays for this year will actually increase by more than $3 billion.

There are longer term effects that restrain spending.  Albert Einstein is said to have said that the only true miracle in the universe is compound  interest.  That’s apocryphal, of course, but it is true that cuts in baseline expenditures in discretionary spending will propagate through the years to come:

The agreement does put the brakes on what had been a steady growth in spending by federal agencies. Future savings would be greater as the cuts took hold — a point Republican aides emphasized by noting that the plan is estimated to cut spending by $312 billion over the next decade.

Sounds like a lot of money.  At least, so says those members of the GOP, who quail before the wrath of the pitchfork brigade that they’ve turned into their base.  Hence nonsense like this:

“Big stuff,” said Representative Tom Price, a Georgia Republican and leading conservative.

Yeah, I know.  A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Except that $312 billion, for all that it could buy is …

__

…a rounding error — or an example of the kind of numerical trick that confidence men use to gull the unwary, the inattentive, the numerically illiterate.

I’ve beaten the drum elsewhere for the importance of getting minimal quantitative reasoning into the electorate.  I’m not talking much math here.  I’d be happy if we got folks using arithmetic on a daily basis  to test claims like Price’s above.  If the country could do that, then there are lots of cons that would become brutally obvious, even to folks as frightened of numbers as tools of reason as our Village press corps.**

Hell, Price isn’t even trying to hide the tell:   that really big, scary number $312 billion. Sitting there, all by itself like a fresh cow patty steaming on a patch of meadow grass.   Everyone here knows what’s wrong with this:  it ain’t the numerator that matters.  It’s the denominator, dawgs.

And this is where both Obama and the Democrats, and the in-the-bag-for-big-money GOPers (most of the Congressional caucus) made marks of the Tea Party.  Even though we don’t know what the 2012 budget will be, much less spending levels of a decade hence, we can still construct a pretty good picture of the whole load of nothing going on:

Just work through a wholly unrealistically low set of assumptions on spending over the next decade.  Take level budgets from the FY 09 request — George Bush’s last budget — of $3.1 trillion.  That’s below expenditures by about a trillion, by the way, for a variety of reasons, and it is substantially under today’s numbers, which are, of course, the baseline for future cuts.  But hey — let’s make the GOP look as good as it can.

So multiply $3.1T by 10, and you get -the implausibly low figure of $31 trillion.

Price’s “big stuff” — $312 billion — is 1% of that fictitious total. One [more] minor war over the next decade and it’s gone.   A few disasters.  An economic downturn, with its upward pressure on social welfare expenditure.  And so on…

Big stuff.

Oh — by the way, I sent a draft of this post to an economist friend of mine  as a check against slips of my calculator or my logic (not an American, btw, so someone who can look at this with at least some a- or be- mused distance).  He reminds me that it is always useful to contextualize public finance numbers by a per-capita measure.  Given that the most recent population figures show the US as home to just a skosh over 310 million people, the projected budget reductions of $312 billion work out to no more than $100/person.  In my friend’s words:

I think most people can see that is not a gnat’s fart but it’s not going to solve anything. Put another way it’s of the order of 1/500 of GDP in round terms.

Consider this another episode in Percentages:  How Do They Work?…

Or else, see it as a reminder of what the GOP is really all about.  Hint:  it ain’t the deficit.

*This title comes from story I heard once, no vouching for its accuracy, about the time some industrialist — a metals guy — came to Detroit to announce his company’s entry into the car business.  He told the assembled automobile journalists about his plans, and his willingness to spend what it would take to compete.

He was, he said, prepared to invest $25 million in the venture.

From the back of the room, an old car hack piped up:

“Give the man one white chip.”

**Numbers as fashion accessory — as above — that’s fine.  But actually thinking with them…

Images:  Victor Dubreuil, Barrels of Money, c. 1897

Gerard van Honthorst, The Cardsharps, before 1656.


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