Archive for November 2011

The Apostasy of Jennifer Rubin

November 9, 2011

Jennifer Rubin is one of those people one simply doesn’t need to read.  Not, or not simply because she’s never right; but rather because, almost always, she is boringly, predictably wrong —  in prose that saps one’s will to live, strung together into simulations of argument that one could lay out in advance  like squares for hopscotch.

But every now and then she rouses herself from her mission — the ongoing erosion of what remains of The Washington Post’s reasons to exist — to achieve true grotesquerie.

So it goes in the affair TBogg has already chronicled, in which Rubin retweeted this message of sweetness and light; the link there leads to a blog post that Der Stürmer would have been pleased to publish (Proper names changed, of course, though the message would have stayed the same.)

Nothing to see here, really — Rubin is simply one of many shills for the peculiar notion that to love Israel obligates one to revere every last folly and viciousness of its worst elements. That she would endorse/direct readers to a steaming heap of murderous racism seems merely to be part of her brief as she sees it.

TBogg focuses on the Post’s blithe defense of the whole affair, with its ombudsman trotting the old “it’s just an opinion” fig leaf.  (Does the Post require its ombudspeople to undergo chemical sterilization, or do they just recommend it?)  For me, I’m going to trot a bit of stuff I don’t usually draw upon, science writer that I am.

That is — atheist though I  also am, I’m one of the commitedly Jewish variety, and I’m not going to let Rubin’s “opinion” pass as anything like an acceptable statement from within the tradition.  I recall what my rabbi and friend pointed out to me one time when we were discussing the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.  He opened the Tanakh, found Isiah, chapter 19, and he read out these verses:

19:24 In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land: 19:25 Whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance.

In the context of our conversation, the exegisis is, I think, pretty damn obvious.  That Rabbi — Ben-Zion Gold, for those of you who may have encountered him — survived the Holocaust, the only member of his family to do so.  He knows from hatred, and the way verbal violence — the rhetoric that describes the subhuman, vicious other — leads to physical destruction, murder in the land.

Rubin’s Ombudsman, and her editors at the Post, may give her a pass. They shouldn’t.  This stuff kills, or at least makes such disasters that much more likely.

But whatever (lack of) consequences Rubin may face in her professional setting, it seems to me that if she is going to purport to speak for anything remotely resembling Jews or Judaism, she has a lot of ‘splainin, or rather learning to do that I strongly doubt will ever take place.  And as for the Post …  I channel my inner Brad Delong:  Why, oh why can’t we have a better press corps.

Image:  Leonardo da Vinci, Study of five grotesque heads, c. 1494

I’m Shocked! Shocked To Find That There Are Neutrinos Going On Here

November 4, 2011

[Disclaimer — sort of: I’ve been feeling the increasing need to think past the seeping pustule that is our media/politics fail lately, so I’ve been getting my head back to the stuff of my day job, science writing.  Of course, it’s impossible to think about science in the US today without drifting onto political territory, so we get there in the end.  But most of what follows looks at what one of the truly hot stories in the physical sciences tells us about the way we figure things out about the world.  This post, by the way, here slightly edited, was  originally published at Scientific American.  It was wicked long there too.]

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I’ve been doing a little poking around the matter of the Italian Grand Prix (neutrino division).  Plenty has been written about this already, of course, but what strikes me a few weeks into the story is how effectively the response to the announcement of a possible detection of faster-than-light neutrinos illustrates what actually goes into the making of a piece of science.  That, of course, also sheds light on,what it looks like when the intention is not to create understanding, but to obscure it.

First, to the neutrinos themselves.  For many of the actually knowledgeable folks I talk to (i.e., not me) the question about infamous Faster Than Light gang of neutrinos is not if they’ll be found out, but when.

That is:  while the experimental technique reported in the OPERA measurement is good enough to be taken seriously, many physicists note that challenges to special relativity have a very poor track record.  A number of other observations would have to be radically reinterpreted for the measurement of the travel time of neutrinos from CERN to Gran Sasso to stand up as an authentic discovery of faster than light travel.  See my earlier post on this subject for a bit of background and some useful links.

An example:  the OPERA result, if it holds up, would complicate (to say the least) the interpretation of the hugely wonderful detection of neutrinos emitted in the stellar collapse that produced  Supernova 1987a.  As the parent star of the supernova collapsed, the catastrophe produced 1058 neutrinos, give or take a couple.  In what was dubbed the  first triumph of neutrino astronomy, three detectors at widely separated locations detected a grand total of 24 of those (anti)neutrinos, all arriving within 13 seconds of each other.

Those neutrinos did reach planet earth before light from the supernova blast arrived. But that quirk of timing has nothing to do with faster than light travel.  Rather, it turns on the details of supernova physics.  Neutrinos are produced in the initial stellar collapse, and because neutrinos interact with basically nothing — they are untouched by either the strong nuclear force or electromagnetism  — the supernova-neutrinos sped out from the dying star more or less at the moment of the blast.  Light, by contrast is electromagnetic radiation – and readily interacts with charged particles.

That property caused the light of the supernova to crash around the interior of the evolving supernova explosion as photons interacted with all the extremely electromagnetically energetic matter at hand – a dance that held them up for a time.  After a few hours, that light escaped from the interior of the supernova blast and could begin an uninterrupted journey our way. But by that time, it lagged behind the neutrino signal, which is what produced the gap between the neutrino and optical detections of the event.

Think of it as gridlock in the midst of a stellar rush hour — an obstruction 1987a’s neutrinos, riding on (highly metaphoric) rails, were able to avoid.  The fact that the two signals arrived only hours apart simply means that the neutrinos travelled at or very close to the speed of light — not faster than.  If the neutrinos traveled faster than light – even at the rather small excess suggested by the OPERA experiment — they should have arrived much earlier than they did – four years or so before the light from the explosion.

Now there is a way out of this seeming contradiction, because the supernova neutrinos were significantly less energetic than the ones measured in the OPERA experiment — so it’s not accurate to say that both results can’t be true.  But even so, were superluminal neutrinos to prove to be real, then whatever new physics that might be invented to explain the result would have to do so in a way that still allowed Supernova 1987a’s neutrinos to behave as observed.

That’s the problem for any challenge to a fundamental pillar of knowledge:  if the new observation is correct, it must be understood in a way that accommodates all the prior work consistent with the older view that is under scrutiny.  As physics popularizers always note:  Einstein’s account of gravity — the General Theory of Relativity — delivers results that collapse into those of Newton’s earlier theory through the range of scales for which Newtonian physics works just fine.  If it didn’t, then that would be a signal that there was something wrong with the newer theory.

Hence the stakes here.  Given that special relativity — the concept at risk if superluminal neutrinos turn out to  exist — has been described to me by a physicist friend as more a property of the universe than a “mere” law of nature, it becomes clear, I think why this result is so fascinating.  If neutrinos really do go faster than light, then there’s a huge challenge to come up with a theoretical account of what’s going on that allows OPERA’s neutrinos the ability to race whilst Supernova 1987a’s crew dawdled along at mere light speed — to name just one issue that would need resolution.

That is:  facts on their own are orphans. They require a conscious act of decision on the part of their interrogator to gain meaning.  In an essay published the same year Einstein proposed special relativity, the great mathematician and physicist Henri Poincareasked “who shall choose the facts which…are worthy of freedom of the city in science.”  For Poincare, the answer was obvious:  that choice “is the free activity of the scientist” — which is to say that it falls to a theorist to think through how one fact, placed next to another, fits into a coherent framework that can survive the test of yet more facts, those already known and those to be discovered.

All of which is to say that even before the Italian observations stand or fall on attempts to replicate the finding, theoretical analyses — thinking hard — can go a some distance in determining whether superluminal neutrinos prove “worthy” of a place in science’s city.

And that’s the long way round to commend a really excellent piece by Matt Strassler, an old friend whose day job as a theoretical particle physicist at Rutgers informs his recently acquired mantle as a physics blogger.  Check him out — not just this post — because, IMHO, he’s very rapidly proving himself to be in the first rank of popular translators of some really deep stuff.

In the linked piece, Matt writes about an argument put forward by Andrew Cohen and Nobel Laureate Sheldon Glashow, both theoreticians at Boston University.  To gloss Matt’s explication: Cohen and Glashow have developed some earlier thinking that originally focused on the phenomenon called Cerenkov radiation.  Matt discusses Cerenkov radiation here — basically it’s electromagnetic radiation emitted by  energetic particles going faster than the speed of light in a medium (water, or air, for example, rather than a vacuum) — which, as Matt explains, does not violate special relativity.

Neutrinos do emit such radiation, very weakly, but that’s not the key to the argument; the effect is too small to matter for the OPERA result.  Rather, Cohen and Glashow point out that superluminal neutrinos should have produced a different kind of emission that is roughly analogous to the Cerenkov effect — and that each time one of OPERA’s neutrinos did so, it would have lost a lot of energy — enough to register on OPERA instruments.  Which means, as Matt puts it, that

… the claim of Cohen and Glashow is that OPERA is inconsistent with itself — that it could not have seen a speed excess without an energy distortion, the latter being easier to measure than the former, but not observed. The upshot, then, is that OPERA’s finding that its neutrinos arrived earlier than expected cannot be due to their traveling faster than the speed of light in vacuum. Something is probably wrong with OPERA’s expectation, not the neutrinos.

Now this is a theoretical argument and it could be wrong in a variety of ways.  In the comment thread to Matt’s post, the very clever physicist Lee Smolin​ points to one possible physical case in which Cohen and Glashow’s proposition would not hold.  Theory, interpretation, decides what facts are worthy of being known — but theories are subject to revision, of course, and never more so on those occasions when one fact or another stubbornly refuses to submit to judgment.

But what I find so pleasing about this whole sequence of thought is the way it illustrates what actually happens in science, as opposed to the parody of scientific process you see in a lot of public accounts — especially when politically contentious research is involved.

The OPERA team made the best measurement they could; when it refused to succumb to their search for some alternative explanation, they published the result, no doubt reasonably certain that it would be subject to relentless examination — under which there was (and remains) a very good chance this work will be shown to be wrong.  Cohen and Glashow have now offered a formal structure that suggests that what we know of the way the universe actually works presents a major logical challenge to the validity of the OPERA claim of discovery.  The ultimate resolution will turn both on continuing experimental work and on the kind of effort Glashow and Cohen offer:  the hard work of figuring out what it would mean if the result were true — or perhaps better: what understanding do we possess now that suggests the OPERA result is either real or an error.

Contrast that process with the critique of climate science that comes from the Right, as I discussed briefly in my post on Eric Stieg’s rather blistering review of the recent announcement of a study affirming (yet again) mainstream climate research.  Stieg wrote, in effect, that the attacks on climate science turn on a refusal to engage one blunt fact:   there is an underlying physical understanding of the basic theory of the system under study:  climate change driven by changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere.  That theoretical framework determines the course of empirical research, the search for facts worthy of being known:

…the reason for concern about increasing CO2 comes from the basic physics and chemistry, which was elucidated long before the warming trend was actually observable…The warming trend is something that climate physicists saw coming many decades before it was observed. [Italics in the original.] The reason for interest in the details of the observed trend is to get a better idea of the things we don’t know the magnitude of (e.g. cloud feedbacks), not as a test of the basic theory. If we didn’t know about the CO2-climate connection from physics, then no observation of a warming trend, however accurate, would by itself tell us that anthropogenic global warming is “real,” or (more importantly) that it is going to persist and probably increase.

Which is another way of saying that most of the noise from those who both deny  the reality of climate change and would impugn the honor of climate researchers misses the point.  Not because there isn’t reason to test the reliability of any measurement — of a fast neutrino or a tree ring sequence, either one — but because the issue in either case is understanding what we do know, and then engaging the challenge of a new result in that context.

Hence the (perhaps meta-) value of the faster-than-light neutrino story.  This experiment will have to overcome the hurdles thrown up by special relativity’s ubiquitous influence, by the physics of high energy phenomena and so on.  That’s how the process of discovery moves from tantalizing initial impressions to settled knowledge.  Understanding that process illuminates the hurdles facing climate science denialists:  to advance their case, they must reconcile their criticisms of mainstream climate research with the exceptionally well understood basic physics of radiative transfer and the thermal properties of different gases — as well as streams of evidence flowing from direct observations and from the ongoing inquiry into the correlation between evolving climate models and what we can see of the climate itself.

By contrast: cherry-picking dishonestly-excerpted emails is not science.

Oh — and as long as we’ve come this far, let me add a note about another challenge to the faster-than-light neutrino claim that’s come up over the time I’ve been working on this post.

In one of dozens, at least, of efforts to pry apart the actual workings of the OPERA experiment, University of Groningen Ronald van Elburg, has offered his candidate for the (by-many) expected systematic error that could have tricked the OPERA researchers into believing they had observed an effect that is not there.

Elburg has zeroed in on one of the obviously critical elements of the measurement, the calibration of the clocks that timed the neutrinos on their journey.  To make that observation, the team relied on the atomic clocks used to synchronize the signals from Global Positioning Satellites — GPS.  The tricky part is that the satellites that house the clocks are in motion — pretty fast too — relative to the labs on the ground and the neutrinos traveling between the source and the detector.

When one object is in motion, travelling in a different reference frame than that of some measuring apparatus, then special relativity comes into play.  As the TechReview’s Physics ArXiv blog describes the issue, this means

[that] from the point of view of a clock on board a GPS satellite, the positions of the neutrino source and detector are changing. “From the perspective of the clock, the detector is moving towards the source and consequently the distance travelled by the particles as observed from the clock is shorter,” says van Elburg.

The correction needed to account for this relativistic shrinking of the path as seen from the point of view of the measuring device in space is almost exactly the same size as the seeming excess speed of the neutrinos the OPERA team believes they’ve detected.  And that would mean that…

far from breaking Einstein’s theory of relatively, the faster-than-light measurement will turn out to be another confirmation of it.

It’s not as open and shut as all that.  Elburg’s argument makes the assumption that the OPERA team failed to account for the quite well-known special relativistic effects on GPS signals — and while they may have, we don’t know that yet.  At the same time the original OPERA paper reports some checks on the timekeeping essential to the experiment.  I understand that the group is working through the long list of necessary responses to specific suggestions like this one — while at the same time preparing for a yet higher precision measurement of the effect they think they have seen.

But the broader point remains:  experimental physics is (and has always been) very, very hard to do, involving an effort to push the limits of precision beyond any current standard.  Because the effects sought are at the limits of our capacity to detect them (necessarily; if it were easy, we’d have seen whatever it was already) there is an enormous amount of subtle knowledge that goes into constructing the framework of each experiment.  The machines don’t just have to work; you have to understand in detail how quantum mechanics and relativity and all the increasingly subtle applications of the broad ideas play out at the speeds and energies and distances involved. Understanding what’s actually happening at the subtle edges of experiments — even seemingly simply ones — turns out to be very difficult to do.

How difficult? So much so that Albert Einstein himself made an error that is quite similar in some ways to the mistake Elburg suggests could have happend here.  In 1930, in one his famous arguments with Niels Bohr,  Einstein devised a thought experiment to show that it would be possible to measure a quantity to a finer level of accuracy than Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle permits.  Einstein’s argument seemed airtight, and according to an observer at the scene,

It was a real shock for Bohr…who, at first, could not think of a solution. For the entire evening he was extremely agitated, and he continued passing from one scientist to another, seeking to persuade them that it could not be the case, that it would have been the end of physics if Einstein were right; but he couldn’t come up with any way to resolve the paradox. I will never forget the image of the two antagonists as they left the club: Einstein, with his tall and commanding figure, who walked tranquilly, with a mildly ironic smile, and Bohr who trotted along beside him, full of excitement…The morning after saw the triumph of Bohr.

It turned out that Einstein had left one crucial physical idea out of his analysis;  he did not account for the effects of his own discovery, the general theory of relativity, on the behavior of the experimental procedure.  Once gravity was factored into the argument, the violation of quantum indeterminancy vanished.

That is simply to say that the neutrino experimentalists may well have made what seems from the sidelines like an obvious mistake.  But if Albert Einstein could fall prey to a similar kind of error, that should tell us all we need to know about how hard it is for any one person, or even one group, to think through the full subtlety of experience. Which is why science works the way it does, by continuous criticism and self-criticism.  As the neutrino story plays out, we’re watching how science ought to work.

Which, and finally we complete the long road home, is why science honestly done and described is vastly different as both a practical and a moral matter than the masked-as-science attacks on this mode of discovery that now dominate the thinking of one of the two major American political parties.

Images:  William Blake, When the Morning Stars Sang Together, 1820.

Jan Vermeer, The Astronomer, c. 1668

Creeping Soshalism Watch, or Another Blow to the “Let Them Die” Approach to Health Care

November 3, 2011

First, the good news:

President Obama will issue [has issued] an executive order on Monday that the administration hopes will help resolve a growing number of critical shortages of vital medicines used to treat life-threatening illnesses, among them several forms of cancer and bacterial infections.

The order offers drug manufacturers and wholesalers both a helping hand and a gloved fist in efforts to prevent or resolve shortages that have worsened greatly in recent years, endangering thousands of lives.

It instructs the F.D.A. to do three things: broaden reporting of potential shortages of certain prescription drugs; speed reviews of applications to begin or alter production of these drugs; and provide more information to the Justice Department about possible instances of collusion or price gouging.

That would be the shortages of at least 180 drugs, with consequences that include at least 15 deaths over the last year and a bit, including these nine:

In the worst known case linked to the shortages, Alabama’s public health department this spring reported nine deaths and 10 patients harmed due to bacterial contamination of a hand-mixed batch of liquid nutrition given via feeding tubes because the sterile pre-mixed liquid wasn’t available.

The President’s response to this crisis is hardly perfect, as the administration admits:

The president’s order is a modest effort that, while possibly helpful, is unlikely to resolve the problem soon or entirely. Administration officials characterized it as one step in a long and complicated effort. Indeed, Mr. Obama eschewed more ambitious proposals — like government drug stockpiling or manufacturing — that would have injected the government more directly into the nation’s drug market and cost more but that might have been more effective.

Why might the administration have foregone such more potent responses to the crisis?

Guess:

Such efforts [as those in the executive order] are included in proposed legislation that has been pending in Congress since February despite bipartisan support for its provisions.

That is:  we can’t even get through Congress a bill that requires only an improved warning system for drug shortages.  Not even one with bipartisan sponsorhsip in both houses.  Why not?  Nothin’ personal — nothing to do with this legislation, cause all this is just business.  By which I mean, given that the Republican leadership in Congress had decided that they will succeed if the President fails, (see also this chart on filibusters), even the most obvious and necessary of ideas can’t get through.  More money to place the government in the drug business — notgonnahappen, and President Obama cares enough about actually improving policy outcomes sufficiently to grab what he can.

So let me go all Michael Moore on you here:  on the evidence, your contemporary Republican party would rather Americans die for want of drugs and/or the distribution of dangerously improperly prepared pharmaceuticals than allow even the most modest positive move to be chalked up on Obama’s watch.

And, of course, when Obama demurs, it’s the jackboot coming down  [warning:  Fox News link] on the necks of the defenseless (sick) American people.

Oh — and the reason for the shortages? As summarized by the Times, report from the FDA and more information from HHS suggest the primary cause would be

…a dysfunctional marketplace for drug shortages, directly contradicting assertions by some commentators that government rules are to blame. The analyses found that 74 percent of the medicines in short supply in 2010 were sterile injectibles, the kind of drugs delivered in hospitals or clinics to treat cancer or anesthetize patients before surgery.


The economic and technical hurdles to participating in this market have made it exceedingly inflexible, the analyses found. Just five large hospital buying groups purchase nearly 90 percent of the needed medicines, and only seven companies manufacture the vast majority of supply. In most cases, one company produces at least 90 percent of a drug’s supply, and crucial ingredients — many of them made in mammoth plants in India and China — are often difficult to find, verify and approve, so years are needed to create new capacity. While demand has grown steadily in recent years, supply capacity has remained largely unchanged.

With so much supply dependent on so few companies and facilities, safety problems that arise anywhere in the system can result in enormous disruptions. Nearly half of the shortages followed inspections that found serious quality problems, including injectibles that had glass shards, metal filings and bacterial and fungal contamination, the reports found.

How bad is it?  Bad enough that the market players understand what’s at stake.  The Times again:

Even the generic drug industry is calling for more regulation. The industry recently agreed to provide the F.D.A. with nearly $300 million annually to bolster inspections and speed drug applications. That amounts to about 1 percent of the industry’s revenues and about 5 percent of its profits in the United States, an extraordinary vote of confidence in the government’s ability to improve the situation.

So there you have it.  Wingnuts want the market to be free to kill us.  The drug companies want the government to do what most sane people thinks is its appropriate role:  addressing market failures that threaten grievous harm.

And there, ladies and gentlemen, is the 2012 election in a nutshell.

Image:  James Gillray, The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!  the Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society, 1802.

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong™: Occupy Wall St./Income Inequality division

November 2, 2011

I have neither the patience nor the time to wade through the divine Ms. MM’s effusion on the class snobbery at the heart of the Occupy Wall St. movement. (Via Edoroso)

It’s the usual McArdle — self regarding (I was a crappy student who went into the punditing racket because I loved it! And I’m better than you because of that!*); chock full of unsourced or supported claims that, as ever with this writer, are too-good-to-check;** and, frankly too wearisome a barge-load of flabby writing to want to wallow in long enough to do the full fisking that it probably deserves.

So to keep it short (as long as you ignore the footnotes)…let’s just look at one exemplary bit of McArdle drawing on her deep knowledge of the data making sh*t up:

Similarly, in the 1990s, when I worked with a lot of mostly blue-collar and first-generation college grads (with a fair sprinkling of Ivy Leaguers, to be sure), I didn’t hear nearly so much about the rich and how greedy they were–even though in the late 1990s, income inequality was almost certainly worse than it is right now.
That would be this income inequality.  Here is a handy chart:
My 53 year old eyes may not be all that acute, but from where I squint at the screen, it sure looks like the share of US income going to the top one percent is higher now than it was in the late nineties.  If you want to see the data in tabular form, mouse on over here.
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In other words — income inequality was piss poor in the 1990s, but it is in fact worse now.
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Which means, as ever, recall the Levenson corollary to DeLong’s law:
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1.  Megan McArdle is always wrong.
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2.  If your analysis leads you to conclude Megan McArdle is right, refer to rule 1.
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*Really.  In her own words:
“here’s the difference between me and the outraged lower-upper-middle-class: I chose it.  I decided to have terrible grades and major in English, and then job hop in New York before settling down as an IT consultant. “

**Here’s McCardle on the profile of the archetypal OWS supporter, and the thought process that led him/her to camp out in a manner calculated to offend his/her betters:

Probably they should not have sunk tens of thousands of dollars into acquiring a BFA.¹  But these mistakes didn’t usually used to be crippling.  They were a drag, as you paid off those huge student loans with your tiny little income…²
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Unfortunately their choices became utterly, horrifyingly disastrous just at the moment when we had a terrible financial crisis that spiked our unemployment rate up to 10%.  We can argue about exactly who is at fault and to what extent, and how much longer our public sector spending would have been sustainable without the financial crisis.   But whether or not you think their reaction is empirically correct, it certainly isn’t surprising.  To them it looks like a bunch of greedy, stupid bankers stole the jobs that they were entitled to. [Italics added.]
Well, isn’t that special.
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Actually, it’s the usual McArdle switcheroo, a bit of clumsy rhetorical sleight of hand she hopes you won’t notice.  It’s not that the bankers — who are demonstrably greedy and stupid (as in, catastrophic failures at the core jobs of managing risk and allocating capital) — hold jobs that might go to others.  It is that their greed and incapacity destroyed the financial underpinnings of the rest of the economy, so that jobs the US used to create at fairly robust levels no longer appear.  IOW, the OWS critique of the finance crowd is that what they did screwed the rest of us — and that critique is correct, however much Mean Girl in Chief McArdle wants to distract us with the idea that the greedy old Social Security and Medicare receipients and the stimulus in response to the bankster-led crisis is actually the problem.  We’ll argue later about who to blame, she says, but for now let’s not fall prey to childish insults to the poor banking sectors.
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Working this out is really not that hard — unless one is trying to make sure that no one actually pays attention to what happens and who is to blame when a handful of the most richly compensated members of a society f*ck up their one job, whilst looting the till.  But reality is a stubborn thing, and the greed and incompetence of the bankers is by now well documented, including,  for just one example, this pretty blunt piece from the archives of McArdle’s own employer.
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         ¹Number of bachelors degrees awarded in the US in 2008-9: 1,601,368.  Number of such degrees in the fine arts: 89,140 (classified in these statistics as visual and performing arts, but matching the profile of the BFA degree).  Whatever else they are, (talented and monomaniacal, sez one married to a holder of an MFA), fine-arts graduates are unlikely to dominate the revolution, just on the numbers.
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McArdle’s sneer at the arts is even sillier, in fact, when you actually look at the difference between a BFA and a BA.  The BFA curriculum, which typically demands studio and/or practice courses as well as more traditional classroom inquiry is classified as a professional rather than a liberal arts curriculum.  The folks who sign up for a painting BFA know they want to paint, and have some idea (usually a pretty good one) as to what that means — and they have an understanding of the working life they will enter.
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McArdle might have been rhetorically better off dissing her own chosen undergraduate field of English literature — except that there are plenty of people who actually understand what a literature degree is supposed to do, which is not to guarantee an income, but to give you intellectual resources you can apply in the professional setting of your choice.  But imagining that people she disdains might actually have an autonomous inner life is beyond her vapid inability to grasp the fact that the world is not simply what she thinks it ought to be.
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          ²The data here are a bit more complicated than they might at first appear — but a simplified picture is still a pretty good indicator of what’s going on.  And that would be that it’s not that students a generation ago made the same mistakes but were bailed out by the Bush casino economy.
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In this study that looked at the period from 1993 to 2006, you see both an increase in the amount of debt and a shift in the mix of students graduating with high debt loads, with the debt burden in constant dollars rising sharply over those years for every quartile in the study.  All of which is to say that it isn’t that recent grads somehow made the same mistake their elders did and got burned; actual changes in the way the US invests in and builds human capital left them more vulnerable than their predecessors.
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Image: Anonymous,  Kitchen Interior with the Parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus, c. 1610