Archive for the ‘libertarian nonsense’ category

While Weasels Gnaw Our Flesh

June 18, 2017

Just a quick hit to remind everyone that while the criminal investigation of Trump and co. widens, they’re still pissing on us at every opportunity, and calling it rain.

So how’s this: it’s going to be legal again/stay OK for profit-making higher ed to rip off their students/protect the banksters:

The U.S. Department of Education is hitting pause on two of the Obama administration’s primary rules aimed at reining in for-profit colleges.

Department officials said they will block a rule, set to take effect next month, that clarifies how student borrowers can have their loans forgiven if they were defrauded or misled by their college. The plan was first reported by Inside Higher Ed Wednesday.

The Trump administration will pursue a do-over of the rule-making process that produced that regulation, known as borrower defense to repayment, as well as the gainful-employment rule. The latter holds vocational programs at all institutions and all programs at for-profits accountable when they produce graduates with burdensome student loan debt.

Given that college debt is one of the most iron-clad ways to crush upward mobility, this is another move by Trump and the grotesque DeVos to ensure that the current class structure in the United States remains intact.

Putting this in the long view:  the GI Bill, followed by the prioritization of public higher education in the 60s by leaders like Governor Pat Brown of California and Governor George Romney of Michigan, put first class advanced education and training within reach of an unprecedented amount of Americans.  The retreat from that ideal led by (mostly but not exclusively) Republican state governments, beginning with Reagan in California and then in the White House, have incrementally narrowed that opportunity.  Now, the combinatio of cost and constraints on access meant that the debt involved makes higher education as much or more a burden as it is the engine of a better life.

Today’s Republican party is just fine with that.  DeVos is not an outlier; this isn’t on Trump, or only on him.  The idea that higher ed (or education in general) is a business in which students are the product on whom to make a profit is utterly destructive of either a democratic ideal or any plausible concept of social justice.  And it is the core tenet of today’s radical conservatives calling themselves members of the Party of Lincoln.

One last thought:  I had dinner last week with a Democratic Party senior statesman.  He told me that in his view we’ve made the mistake of thinking better policies are argument enough for elections.  They’re not; we surely know that now, right?

Instead we have to convey something more, the framework in which specific good policies can work.  DeVos’ current obscenity gives us a hint as to what that might be. Republicans throw obstacles in the way of Americans making better lives.  Democrats are — and we should say so as loud as we can — the party of opportunity.

At least that’s my take.  I know it’s hardly original.  But whatever the particular frame you may favor, I think one of our biggest needs right now is to find a way to both describe and be (ever more) the party that can lay claim to affirmative allegiance, and not just the true fact that we are better than the other side.  Your feeling?

(Oh — and happy Father’s Day, all.  This thread should be open enough to tell us your plans, completed or still in prospect, for the day.  Mine? Pick up one of the rib-eyes on sale at Whole Paycheck today, and smoke it in the Weber egg.)

Image: Winslow Homer, The Country School 1871

Peter Thiel Makes The Case For Confiscatory Taxation On Billionaires

May 25, 2016

This broke over at Forbes and is bouncing around the ‘nets today:

Peter Thiel, a PayPal cofounder and one of the earliest backers of Facebook FB +0.49%, has been secretly covering the expenses for Hulk Hogan’s lawsuits against online news organization Gawker Media. According to people familiar with the situation who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, Thiel, a cofounder and partner at Founders Fund, has played a lead role in bankrolling the cases Terry Bollea, a.k.a. Hogan, brought against New York-based Gawker. Hogan is being represented by Charles Harder, a prominent Los Angeles-based lawyer.

Whatever you think of Gawker, Hulk Hogan, or Thiel himself, this is yet one more way in which extreme income inequality destroys civic life. It’s actually worse than many, given the clandestine way it deepens the corruption of the system that could (in theory) provide a check on the damage that purchased legislative and executive branches can do.

Lazarus_in_Heaven_and_the_Rich_Man_in_Hell_LACMA_M.88.91.91

Here’s a take on the poison here revealed from Caterina Fake:

Champerty, as third-party litigation funding used to be called (and should probably be called again!) was formerly a crime, but the commercial litigation finance industry has been growing in recent years.

Fake notes that much of such litigation is actually a form of speculation, in which rich folks gamble on the possibility of significant payout.  One can imagine the “free market” argument that such funding levels the playing field, allows those who’ve suffered real harm to recoup, and thus makes the legal system a more efficient and effective dispute-settling and behavior-changing engine. But Thiel’s pursuit of Gawker illuminates what this leads to in the real world:

Generally, people avoid frivolous lawsuits because it often exposes them to as much scrutiny as those they sue, so what is significant about this case is that by funding Hogan behind the scenes, Thiel could get his revenge, escape exposure, and influence the outcome of the case.

For the very rich, this is a win however it goes, and damn the collateral damage.

Hogan’s lawyers made decisions against Hogan’s best interests, withdrawing a claim that would have required Gawker’s insurance company to pay damages rather than the company itself–a move that made Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s founder and CEO, suspect that a Silicon Valley millionaire was behind the suit.

I leave it to the actual lawyers to weigh in on the ethics (and consequences, if any) for such a litigation approach. For myself, I’ll note that what you have here is an insanely rich guy gaming the legal system to destroy a media outfit that pissed him off.

And with that, one more thought:  Franklin Roosevelt created the social welfare state in the US as an alternative to revolution.  Today’s plutocrats might want to think about that.  In plainer terms: to remain democracies, modern democractic states need to tax polity-buying wealth out of individual hands; income taxes and a levy on inheritances.  A 90% rate that kicks in well below an estate value of a billion bucks seems a good place to start.

A blogger can dream…

Image: Cornelius Bos, Lazarus in Heaven and the Rich Man in Hell, 1547.

Y’all Qaeda Pissing You Off? Fire A Phone Call, Not A Glock

January 6, 2016

I’m enraged by the news in Zander’s post over at Balloon Juice.  Happy to let any of seditionists out of the Malheur HQ — but only into the welcoming arms of federal custody.

That’s a legitimate political view — and you know what sane and patriotic people do with such views?  They call their representatives in Washington to let them know how they feel.

'Telephone_Operator'_by_Gerrit_A._Beneker (1)

I just left a message at Senator Warren’s office and spoke to a nice young (I’m guessing) staffer in Rep. Joe Kennedy’s.  Markey is next on my list.  I told them how disgusted I was at the action of the Malheur thugs — stealing our property, yours, mine, and the whole damn American people’s while, many of them, stealing from the public till for years and years.

The key though is that I also made a request:  I want my Congressional representatives to put the question to federal law enforcement as to why they are not enforcing the law, either by denying the radical right wing intimidators their freedom of movement as long as they remain on the people’s property, or by arresting them when they do choose to wander.

It’s not much, but it’s not nothing either.  These folks only succeed because their supporters are vocal and active, while the hundreds of millions whom they rip off, disrespect and aim to intimidate and coerce just want to go about their business.  A little volume on our side of the playground is actually significant.

So call your official peeps!  Takes a minute or two, and it’s worth the effort.  This is also one where the partisan identification of your representatives matters a little less than on some of the calls to action this blog has made.  Armed take-overs of public buildings strikes a little close to home for a lot of Congressfolk.

So call! Be polite; know the message you want to send; thank the kids on the other end of the line for their help; and lets start making the country marginally more sane, one firmly worded dispatch at a time.

The phone numbers:

House and Senate switchboard: 202-224-3121.  Individual senator phone numbers.  Individual representative phone numbers. (Both lists by state.  You can sort by last name as well.)

Have at it, friends.

Image: Gerrit A. Beneker, Telephone Operator (A Weaver of Public Thought) 1921.

Too Dumb To Live: Meet The Pre-Darwin Award Contenders

July 7, 2014

I actually caught this phenomenon a couple of days ago (and was twitted on Twitter for being so late to the party), but the phenomenon of “Coal Rolling” is now an object of wonder and bemusement at a number of the usual suspects.

For those of you who have managed to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to this point without suffering the knowledge of this particular stupidity, here’s David Weigel to explain it to you:

Forty-five second YouTube clips don’t come any more American than “Prius Repellent.” It starts with a camera angled from the passenger side window of a truck, pointed at the namesake Japanese hybrid car. After 12 establishing seconds, the cameraman moves and points out the back window, where viewers can read the ominous decals:

←PRIUS REPELLENT→

At 23 seconds, the engine revs and the viewer finally learns what the arrows were pointing at. Smoke pours out of dual stacks, right in the path of the Prius, which retreats into the rear view. The truck’s passengers share a well-earned chortle.

That’s right.  These Real Americans™ pay good money to modify their vehicles so that they can run less efficiently and pollute more, because, you know, that’s how Hydrocarbon Jesus wants it.

I know, I know.  The good Lord must have loved assholes because he made so many of them.  But these folks are double-secret-probation cute that way:

There are videos of “hot babes” getting rolled on, and a mega-popular video (more than 3 million views) of an annoying Prius driver complaining about diesel. “She makes me want to do a John Force style burn out right in front of her,” observed one critic on DieselBurners.com.

The derp is deep here.  Let’s say you want to roll some of your own coal.  There are sites to help you do that.  Here’s one — complete with a bit of pure weasel DNA up front:

 

Disclaimer: This article has been published for entertainment/educational purposes only. We do not recommend you modify your truck in any manner for the sole purpose of soot/smoke production. Not only may excessively high EGTs cause engine damage, but these acts are having detrimental repercussions on our industry. Consider reading the article “Smoke Responsibly” for further information, including how you can help. There is a time and a place to roll some coal – don’t give the tree huggers any ammunition to support further emissions restrictions.

I’m trying to imagine the time and place…and too late re the tree huggers.  TPM reports today that this is (obviously) illegal as hell anyway.  But never mind, it turns out that there’s a way to roll coal the “right way”:

The best way to blow some serious black smoke is to go all out. Larger injectors combined with aggressive custom tuning will let you lay down some massive clouds of black smoke – the ultimate coal roll. Injectors increase the amount of fuel that can be dumped into your engine per injection cycle, while the tuning keeps the engine thinking it needs more diesel. Throw in a larger injection pump to keep fuel pressures high and add a water-methanol injection system to keep EGTs down and you have the perfect combination. With the flip of a switch, leave your challengers in a stream of thick black soot and then clean up the exhaust stream to keep the authorities happy.

I don’t know what’s most pathetic.  The idea of some strangers just trying to get from here to there as “competitors” — think of the terror hidden in that statement, the sheer gut-churning fear of the unknown — or the urge to spend the most possible money to spend more money doing nothing but half-burn all that $4-and-up diesel.

A lot of us liberals pointing and laughing at these assholes have noted that the whole idea is a way for the carbon-industrial-complex to screw more cash out of the credulous, but a lot of folks seem to have missed the other point.

Black_Country_–_Borinage

Partially combusted diesel is…no way to put this gently…not good for you.  Not at all:

Exposures have been linked with acute short-term symptoms such as headache, dizziness, light-headedness, nausea, coughing, difficult or labored breathing, tightness of chest, and irritation of the eyes and nose and throat[citation needed]. Long-term exposures could lead to chronic, more serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease, cardiopulmonary disease, and lung cancer.[11][7][8] The NERC-HPA funded ‘Traffic Pollution and Health in London‘ project at King’s College London is currently seeking to refine our understanding of the health effects of traffic pollution. Ambient traffic-related air pollution was associated with decreased cognitive function in older men.[10]

Mortality from diesel soot exposure in 2001 was at least 14,400 out of the German population of 82 million, according to the official report 2352 of the Umweltbundesamt Berlin (Federal Environmental Agency of Germany).

Since the study of the detrimental health effects of nanoparticles (nanotoxicology) is still in its infancy, and the nature and extent of negative health impacts from diesel exhaust continues to be discovered.

Obviously, the goal of the hardcore coal roller is to give angst and maybe a whiff of the nasties to the fearsome folks who presume to traverse America’s roads in a Prius.  But as videos like this one show — the most likely consumers of soot and other particulates produced by the deep need to f**k up one’s own nest are the folks who want to show the world how much smoke they can blow.

The wheels of Darwin grind slow…but very sure.

By the way — all of this can be considered a distant early preview of my conversation on Wednesday.  In this month’s edition of my rotating gig as host of  Virtually Speaking Science, I’ll be speaking (again!) with Naomi Oreskes, now a professor of the history of science at Harvard.  Naomi was my first guest on the show, back in 2011.

That’s when we talked about the lessons of her book (written with Erik M. Conway) Merchants of Doubt, on the ways a handful of Cold War anti-Communist scientists figured out how to sell lies wholesale, leading to the implausible success of a tiny handful of people in casting enormous doubt on the reality of climate change.

Now she and Larsen have followed that work up with a novella, The Collapse of Western CivilizationThis little work — it’s just fifty pages, not counting notes and such — imagines a future historian analyzing how 21st societies allowed them to fall victim to climate catastrophes that they/we knew/know are in prospect.

It’s a depressing work, and speculative, and the more important for all of that.  If we do go down the road of catastrophe as Oreskes and Conway lay it out, folks like our coal rollers will be a (small but exemplary) part of the reason why.

Tune in.  It should be a useful downer — and funny too.  Naomi is a hoot, the more so given the pathologies she studies

Image:  Constantin Meunier, Black Country–Borinage, before 1905.

Hit ‘Em Again Senator! Harder!

July 16, 2013

via TPM, this glorious evisceration of CNBC hacks by none other than my senior senator,* the Hon. Elizabeth Warren, (Fighting Democrat-MA)

Moah of this, please.

*True fact that may amuse no one but me.  John Kerry served in the US Senate from 1985 to 2013. Until August 25, 2009 — more than 24 years — he was the junior senator to Teddy Kennedy.  Elizabeth Warren began her term as Massachusetts’ junior US Senator on January 3, 2013.  On February 1, she became senior senator.

Somalia On The Rio Grande

May 10, 2013

If it were just a matter of Texans killing Texans — with the victims embracing their fates — then I might be willing to let it all go with an “everyone to hell in their own handbasket”  reaction.  But, of course, the generalized Gresham’s Law tells us what follows from this kind of thinking:

Five days after an explosion at a fertilizer plant leveled a wide swath of this town, Gov. Rick Perry tried to woo Illinois business officials by trumpeting his state’s low taxes and limited regulations. Asked about the disaster, Mr. Perry responded that more government intervention and increased spending on safety inspections would not have prevented what has become one of the nation’s worst industrial accidents in decades…
Alfred_Rethel_001

This antipathy toward regulations is shared by many residents here. Politicians and economists credit the stance with helping attract jobs and investment to Texas, which has one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, and with winning the state a year-after-year ranking as the nation’s most business friendly.

Even in West, last month’s devastating blast did little to shake local skepticism of government regulations. Tommy Muska, the mayor, echoed Governor Perry in the view that tougher zoning or fire safety rules would not have saved his town. “Monday morning quarterbacking,” he said.

Raymond J. Snokhous, a retired lawyer in West who lost two cousins — brothers who were volunteer firefighters — in the explosion, said, “There has been nobody saying anything about more regulations.”

I’d be surprised, except for the fact that there’s nothing out of the ordinary here, if you look at matters like a (certain kind of) Texan:

Texas …is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers’ compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country, Houston, with no zoning laws. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.

Hold on a moment there, buckaroo!  No fire codes? That’s a reason to locate in Texas?

I guess the goal here is to reduce the incovenience of contracting with Bangladesh.

Seriously — if you think it an act of social responsibility to demand clothing retailers to demonstrate proper work place safety for their imports, shouldn’t we demand the same of, say every oil and gas company, refiners and all, that deliver products from Texas to the rest of these United States?

Anyway — guess the inevitable consequence of such “pro-business” concern. No prize for correct answers:

But Texas has also had the nation’s highest number of workplace fatalities — more than 400 annually — for much of the past decade. Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation’s second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs.

As I said at the top…if this were a problem for Texans alone then there is a part of me that says that they voted for this government (and regulatory regime), and they should enjoy what they’ve gotten — good and hard.  But (a) this ignores the fact that those most at risk are those with the least access to the levers of power, and even in a deep red state like this one, there are lots of folks who don’t want to be blown up in their back yards.  Some solidarity seems in order.

More broadly there’s (b):  Texas’s drive to hold harmless private businesses for any consequences of their decisions puts pressure on every other state.  There are alternatives, and lots of non-feral players recognize that there’s more to a positive business climate than crap schools, an immiserating approach to health care, a failure to provide worker and public safety, and an incentive structure that rewards environmental malice.  But to the extent that Texas is successful in attracting enterprises to its let-any-harm-happen frontier, the downward pressure on other states exists.  Bad laws, bad regulatory frameworks drive out good, just like Gresham could have said.

National Republicans are, of course, complicit in this drive to put ever more Americans at risk.  In the context of weak state protection for its citizenry, the onus falls on the federal government, through agencies like but not limited to OSHA and EPA.  But they aren’t meeting that task, and won’t.  There are lots of reasons why not, including some an Obama administration could address (and that we should push for), but a big part of the reason lies with the long-running effort by the GOP to hollow out government from within.

So, yeah, Texas remains too small for a country and too big as an asylum.  I know it’s a near impossible task to imagine dragging it, kicking and screaming, into the Century of the Anchovy.  But for our own sake, if not for theirs, we gotta try.

The first step is to remember:  Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Image:  Alfred Rethel, The factory Mechanische Werkstätten Harkort & Co, c. 1834

While the Cat’s Away…

April 10, 2012

She who is always wrong™ may want to check on what her September April call-ups are doing.  Here’s Adam Ozimek in McArdle’s space pointing out four things just about all economists agree upon, and among them he lists the virtues of the stimulus:

Economists may differ on whether the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was worth the cost overall, but they are in solid agreement that as of the end of 2010 it lowered the unemployment rate. Very few disagreed with or were uncertain about this. In contrast, a significant number questioned whether the recovery act was worth the cost. Importantly, in the space for comments, Stanford’s Pete Klenow emphasized what Scott Sumner and others would say is the central issue: “how much was it offset by less aggressive (than otherwise) unconventional monetary policy?” But even stimulus skeptics should keep their criticisms in perspective: economists strongly reject the idea that stimulus is to blame for our economic woes.

In addition, economists strongly agree that the bank bailouts also lowered the unemployment rate. Of course as Austen Goolsbee commented: “the fact it was necessary doesn’t mean we should be happy about it.”

McArdle, canny as she is, has been careful not to go too far into the weeds on this one.

She doesn’t seem to have said that stimulus as a concept could only fail — as some notables (cough-cough, Mitt) on her side of the aisle have done and continue to do.  But she has consistently said that only a Platonic ideal of a stimulus had a hope, and that any real world attempt is a waste of time.  (Bonus question for those who follow that link.  Spot and name the dire distortion of the history that lies behind her carefully tweezered quote from Paul Krugman.)

BTW: here’s what Krugman actually had to say about the stimulus in 2010:

The good news from the new GDP report is that the fiscal stimulus seems to be working just about the way a sensible Keynesian approach says it should. The bad news from the new GDP report is that the fiscal stimulus seems to be working just about the way a sensible Keynesian approach says it should.

Josh Bivens at EPI has a good overview of the evidence that the stimulus is working. As he says,

“A serious look at the evidence argues that this debate should be closed: ARRA has played a starring role in pushing the        economy into positive growth.”

And here’s Krugman this spring:

On the policy side, major new stimulus may not be in the cards — but there is a real divide in the US between modest stimulus proposals that have some chance of getting implemented and major austerity moves that also have some chance of being implemented. The difference between those two policy variants could be the difference between unemployment below 7 percent two years from now and unemployment back above 9 percent. So this argument has real short-term policy relevance.

So much for McArdle’s bravura, data-less claim that

…we have had two major cases that massively favored Keynesian economics [the New Deal and the Obama stimulus] but Keynesian politics failed both times.

And as for her conclusion that

…at some level, there’s no point in spending a lot of time designing policies which can’t be enacted in any conceivable democratic polity.

…well, if by “any conceivable democratic polity” you mean one in which one of two major political parties had decided to transform itself into an authoritarian cult, then yes — the GOP, using the procedural rules of the US Senate, certainly limited what was possible.  It requires a heroic act of willed blindness to the elephant in the room, though, to see that outcome as an inescable, sadly necessary cost of democracy.

But just on the merits of this one guest post, I’d say that McArdle runs a serious risk if her audience gets used to even occasional economically literate commentary.  Perhaps even that Amen Chorus might notice a lack of couture bedecking the empress.

Image:  Henri Rousseau, The Equatorial Jungle, 1909

Guest Post: Koch vs. Cato? Not a problem for a True Libertarian

March 11, 2012

Jim Bales here, and my thanks to Tom for the loan of his soap box.

So, I’ve been following the back and forth between Brad DeLong and Jonathan Adler over effort by the Koch brothers to exert control over the Cato Institute, which they believe to be (or to soon be) a property they have majority interest in.

Adler argues that the direction the Koch’s would likely take the organization would be bad for Libertarianism. DeLong is amused that Adler’s position is “not the most full-throated libertarian defense of private property as the essential foundation of ordered liberty that I can imagine…”. Adler’s claim is that he is defends the Koch’s “right to do something [with their property] even as I criticize or lament [their] choice to do it.”

I think that Adler is, in fact, taking a non-Libertarian stance here, but DeLong is wrong to focus on property rights. While Adler defense of the Koch’s right to make the presumed changes is far from full-throated, Adler has never (to my knowledge) denied that the Koch’s have that right should they prevail in court.

And yet, Adler’s hand wringing over the fate of Cato is decidedly non-Libertarian. To Libertarians, what happens to Cato really doesn’t matter. Their indifference is not driven by their belief in the moral sanctity of property rights. What happens to Cato doesn’t matter to Libertarians because of their dogmatic belief in the well-nigh omnipotence of markets.

For all true Libertarians understand that, just as the free market created Cato when there was a need for a high-profile Libertarian think tank, the market will most assuredly deliver a new, improved, Libertarian think-tank should the Koch brothers trash this one.

One might wonder why Adler has lost his Libertarian faith in the power of the free market — particularly the oh-so-free market for high-profile Libertarian think-tanks. That, I cannot answer.

Best,

Jim Bales

Image:  Titian,The Tribute Money, 1516.

For rage and sorrow…

September 16, 2011

…You might want to check out Susan from 29’s diary over at GOS, in which she writes on the moral horror that was a Republican Presidential debate in which the audience cheered the death of an uninsured man — Susan’s brother, Steve Patience.

I won’t say that the moment — or that audience — defines America.

But America is a place where poor — and not so badly off, in fact — suffer and die with what a medical student I once knew termed “financial arrest” within a badly broken medical system.

It’s a place where we know we can do better, and are in fact beginning to do so — not enough, but it’s a start — as long as the health care bill survives.

At the same time, America is indeed the place in which the “I’ve got mine, Jack” crowd that gets loud at the news of Steve Patience’s death could define who we all are for decades to come.

So when you think of all the ways Obama has betrayed you  this week, or how the Democratic congressman or senator representing you or the next door district or state just hasn’t gotten on top of what this country needs, or really, how both major parties are tied in way too tightly with the monied interests — there’s reality to be found there.

As a practical matter, for the next thirteen months, whatever truth there is to any of our grievances with our Democratic leaders doesn’t matter.  Not one damn bit.  (I.e. — what Tim F. says.)

Bonus video:  Susan of 29 in her own words, courtesy of Move On:

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Why, Knock Me Down With a Feather: Megan McArdle is Still Always Wrong, Climate Science Edition

September 5, 2011

Warning:  This post is way too long.  I mean, really.  You have been warned.

I’ve been off the McArdle beat for a while.  I find I need to take breaks if I’m to have any hope of (a) retaining sanity in the face of unanswerable questions implicit in our current media ecosystem, and (b) getting work that actually matters to me done that would otherwise be derailed by overloaded outrage circuits tripped by reading McArdle’s…musings are, I guess, the kindest way to describe them.

But a BJ commenter (name now lost to a hyperactive “delete” finger on my email…sorry) pointed me to this bit on climate science from a week or two ago, and it’s been sticking in my craw ever since.  In it, she quotes at length from a post at the Volokh Conspiracy by Jonathan Adler, an environmental law specialist with a libertarian and wingnut-thinktank background.

The post McArdle endorses is Adler’s defense of Chris Christie against charges of being soft on global warming.  Adler denounces the GOP fundamentalism that damns to the 9th circle those Republicans with the temerity to hold such views. His fear, he writes, is that such orthodoxy will lock that party into “anti-science know-nothingism” (his phrase).  To which I would reply, “ya think?” — or rather, “that train long since left the station, pilgrim.”

There’s plenty to argue with in Adler’s formulation of Christie’s alleged connection to the reality based community — but this post is about McArdle’s follies, not any intellectual sins Adler may have committed.

And follies there are in plenty when McArdle decides to amplify Adler’s plaint about pre-Copernicans in the GOP.  Why don’t we take a look?

McArdle begins her gloss in classic form:

I don’t think that science denialism is the exclusive province of the GOP, but it’s extremely disappointing whenever either side does it.

Both sides do it!  Who could have predicted such a claim?  And who could have anticipated that McArdle would offer no examples of denialism by any mainstream Democrat?

Did I miss the part where President Obama asserted that the Apollo missions were faked, Tranquility Base rather existing only on a Hollywood backlot?  While I was off the grid for a couple of weeks in August, did Chuck Schumer suddenly announce that Democrats must all sign a pledge asserting that π = 3?

Come on, oh Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic:  inquiring minds want to know what Democrats’ sins you think compare to a near-unanimous denial of the reality of climate change and the theory of evolution by natural selection by the current slate of candidates for the GOP nomination to serve as President of the United States?  Anything?

Onwards!

As longtime readers known, I have been extremely critical of the attitude that some climate scientists seem to have developed towards dissent, and what you might call the PR aspect of their work.

I beg  your pardon. It is not the climate science crowd that has been out using state power  in an attempt to crush all opposition.  Rather, climate scientists have faced real and consequential assaults, from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s witch hunting to the real damage done by all those who piled on to the Breitbart/O’Keefe-style selective quoting from stolen emails in what was called the “Climategate” non-scandal.  Did anyone notice that every inquiry into this false controversy has come up with…nothing?

All of which is to say that there are indeed views that are being shouted down by a contemptuous opposition incapable of accepting anything that contradicts their cherished worldview — and those authoritarian assaults on reasoned debate come from the so called “skeptic” crowd.

The still deeper problem, of course, is that those ideologically committed to the view that global warming is a hoax have themselves mastered modern PR, so that, with the connivance of an incompetent or malicious media (to which faction does McArdle belong…or could this this a case of a nonexcluded middle?–ed.), junk routinely reaches the public as fact.* [much more detail at the footnote]

But to the matter at hand, McArdle’s engaged in classic misdirection.  The researcher’s job is to do the best science that he or she can.  A real journalist would then attempt to understand and explain to a broad audience what the results from such work now suggest.  Here’s McArdle’s attempt:

Nonetheless, I am quite convinced that the planet is warming,

Why thank you, Ms. McArdle.  Your judgment is just what’s been needed to set all this to rest.

and fairly convinced that human beings play a role in this.

Well, that settles it, doesn’t it?

In fact, this one sentence captures much of why McArdle is (or ought to be) such an embarrassment to her employer.  Bluntly, McArdle lacks the capacity to have an opinion on this matter.

That’s the core issue, really, at least for me, in my guise as a science writer and teacher of the skill.  The study of climate and climate change involves a large number of disciplines and sub-disciplines: physics, chemistry, oceanograpy, atmospheric studies, statistics, computer science and much, much more.  It turns on detailed and complex investigations of the interaction between domains each of which are demanding enough to reward a life’s study:  just think about what needs to be worked out about the connections between the biosphere, the atmosphere, the liquid ocean and that part of the global water supply trapped in ice, and so on through most of the modern science curriculum.

Every single specialty involved takes the better part of a decade of specialized training to master to the point where you can run your own lab.  Working the interdisciplinary trick takes groups of people working for quite a while just to be sure they understand each other.  Climate science in its modern form dates really only back to the late seventies or early eighties, when the scientific community began to recognize the vital importance of making sense of what people were finding out across what had been quite distinct fields — or perhaps it is more accurate to say that this turning point came when both the knowledge and the instruments needed to make key observations reached a critical point.

That is:  you can say with a lot of truth that modern climate science dates from the moment when sufficiently powerful computers emerged to run the first plausible three-d models, and when satellites that could do fine-grained remote sensing first started delivering data.  That would be, as it happens, somewhere around the late seventies to the mid 1980s. (You can read a bit more about this in my first book Ice Time [terrible title!], now long out of print, but available for sums reaching as low as … one cent, and glossed very nicely here by Eric Roston, who examines that now 20+ year old book from a perspective informed by what we’ve learned since.)

So it’s a young science, and a difficult one, demanding  a lot of time and training and strong collaborations to produce useful work.  That means there really are some opinions that are much better than others, and even within science, some opinions that are genuinely worthless, as they are come from folks who literally don’t know what they are talking about.  These folks are dangerous for reporters, because naive (or bad-faith) journalists will see a real scientific qualification attached to some name, and hear lots of cool sounding difficult words that sound very much like technical stuff, and can then conclude whatever he or she wants to, believing him or herself to be informed by Science!

So what’s a responsible journalist to do?  Well — take the time.  Go to meetings.  Talk to lots of scientists.  Read constantly.  Check what you write with people who are actually doing the kind of work that bears on the question. Pay attention to those who make a lot of what look like mistakes; if the same kinds of errors get repeated after correction, then you have found someone not playing straight.  (The argument from negative authority is much more robust than its reciprocal.)

Then take more time.

There is a reason that the really good journalists covering this story are people like Andy Revkin, who published his first book on climate change months before my mine came out in 1989.  Or folks like Mike Lemonick, who has covered this area for Time magazine and others for almost as long.  Or Elizabeth Kolbert, who spent years turning herself into a competent — and better! — interrogator of this field after an earlier career spent on other beats; or Eric Roston, mentioned above, who spent three years working through a biography of carbon to present a from-the-ground-up account of (among much else) why virtually everyone capable of holding an informed view recognizes the reality of anthropogenic global warming; or any of the many honorable others who actually have devoted themselves to mastering this beat.  This kind of science coverage takes sustained effort, which is why you could have counted me among this group twenty years ago, but not now:  I’ve shifted my focus several times since those years in the ’80s when I was consumed by the real excitement of what this new science could do.

All that to say that Megan McArdle literally doesn’t know how much she doesn’t know.  She lacks any of the apparatus to make a meaningful statement on this subject.  A good journalist recognizes when they’re out of their depth, and they shut up, or get help.  McArdle does neither — or rather, when she seeks validation for her pre-digested thoughts (“I’m…fairly convinced!” — by all that the FSM deems holy!) — she does so from precisely the kind of folks who reveal just what McArdle herself is really on about:

(When you’ve got Reason’s Ron Bailey, Cato’s Patrick Michaels, and Jonathan Adler, you’ve convinced me).

Umm, no.

These are pundits who — to be fair — have spent a fair bit effort on this issue.  They are thus not as uninformed as McArdle herself — but they are advocates for a particular view of human agency and autonomy, and not actual experts on the detailed progress of climate science.  They may get as far as the IPCC reports, and plenty of the toilet paper produced by the skeptic propaganda machine, (see, as always, Oreskes and Conway’s vital Merchants of Doubt for the gory details).  But even the environmental law expertise that Adler may bring to bear is not the same thing as engagement with the beat, nor any substitute for actual technical competence.

Even were one to grant to these three the standing that McArdle does, she still fails of her basic responsibility as a journalist.  It’s not just that spinners aren’t even secondary sources.  McArdle is utterly unqualified to have an opinion of her own because, by her own admission she has outsourced her brain on this issue and that she hasn’t and won’t do the actual work needed to have even a beginner’s grasp of this story.  Caveat lector

And still — by Blackbeard’s ghost! — there’s more:

I reserve the right to be skeptical about particular claims about effect…

McArdle can, of course, be skeptical about anything at all.  The question is whether anyone with intelligence to outrank a ficus should give any credence to such concerns.  Remember: she’s already told you that she has no personal competence in this field

…(particularly when those claims come via people who implausibly insist that every major effect will be negative)

Ah yes.  Al Gore is fat.  Except, of course, climate science as a field does not so insist.

Take, for example, the extensive discussion of climate feedbacks in what amounts to a manifesto for what real climate researchers should do (and are now doing), the 2003 National Academy of Sciences report Understanding Climate Change FeedbacksThere the nation’s top scientific institution lays out a meticulous account of the major feedbacks and the necessary research program needed to understand what impact, positive or negative, each such process may have.  Or you could look to the most recent IPCC analysis, the nearest thing that exists to a consensus document reviewing the current state of knowledge about climate change — exactly the people whose willingness to entertain contrary results McArdle here disdains.  In the FAQ [largish PDF] that accompanies the main report, you will find, among much else, this statement:

Additional important feedback mechanisms involve clouds. Clouds are effective at absorbing infrared radiation and therefore exert a large greenhouse effect, thus warming the Earth. Clouds are also effective at reflecting away incoming solar radiation, thus cooling the Earth. A change in almost any aspect of clouds, such as their type, location, water content, cloud altitude, particle size and shape, or lifetimes, affects the degree to which clouds warm or cool the Earth. Some changes amplify warming while others diminish it. [Italics added] Much research is in progress to better understand how clouds change in response to climate warming, and how these changes affect climate through various feedback mechanisms.

Of course, McArdle is not trying to engage in principled argument here.  She may not know or perhaps she simply does not care about the actual practice of climate scientists.  But the truth is there to be found, easily recovered with minimal effort, that the global climate change research community has a record extending back decades of trying to figure out the interlocking positive and negative feedback mechanisms that shape climate change.

Ah — but I’m missing McArdle’s point here.  Really, we should read this as a tell, the reveal of the con she’s been running all this long while.  She’s already shown her intellectual generosity by grandly conceding that anthropogenic climate change is real.  Now, she gets to go all “even-the-liberal-New Republic” on us and tell us why that concession doesn’t matter.  See, e.g., her very next line:

and, of course, of ludicrous worries that global warming will cause aliens to destroy us.

Nothing to see here, move along.

Nothing, that is except for an almost textbook example of dishonest writing.  These ludicrous worries that do not exist serve nicely to suggest that those concerned about the actual consequences of global warming are keeping company with folks whose fillings serve as antennae tuned to Alpha Centauri.  This is one way to fight a political action when the facts are against you:  ridicule your opponents for stuff they never said.

But generally, I think global warming is happening, and even that we should probably do something about that, though I’m flexible on “something.”

I.e. we should do nothing.

See above — once you’ve said that those who worry about severe consequences of global warming are delusional, you’ve kind of undercut any call to action. And, just to add a stray thought:  given my corollary to DeLong’s law, that McArdle is always wrong, and when you think she’s right, refer to statement one, I might start to question the reality of global warming myself, were it not for the fact that the rest of this piece so clearly demonstrates that she does not accept the actual meaning of that view.

However. Even if you disagree, it is reprehensible to have a litmus test around empirical matters of fact. (I’m not a fan of litmus tests in general, but I suppose it’s fair enough to say “If you want marginal tax rates of 70% on the wealthy, you don’t belong in today’s GOP”).

Gotta move on sometime, so I won’t whale on this, except to note the implied litmus test to which McArdle submitted herself above:  climate change only becomes real to her when ideological soul-mates say it is so.  Heaven forfend she take the word of someone who actually knows something about the subject.  Nope.  It had to wait for some pundit with whom she already agreed before she could make the concession.

What these Republicans are doing to people like Chris Christie is no better than what Harvard did to Larry Summers when he suggested that it was possible that women had a different IQ distribution than men.

Oh, this zombie lie.

Not to beat a truly dead horse, but for those of us who actually have some proximity to Harvard, and, as it happens, who know some of the women on its faculty, it’s important to note that Summers survived that flap by about a year, during which a number of other incidents occurred that cast doubt on his competence.

For example, his disastrous management of Harvard’s finances would only become obvious in 2008-9, but in the year between his statements about women and IQ and his resignation, he lost significant support among the actual decision makers at Harvard (i.e., not its Arts and Sciences faculty)  over the handling of the Andrei Shleifer case.  Shleifer, an economist on Harvard’s faculty and was found to have committed insider trading while working on a Harvard-led project aiding the privatization of Russia’s post-Soviet economy.  The settlement of the Shleifer case cost the university $26.5 million — and while Summers had recused himself from anything to do with the case, its outcome represented a major blow to his standing at Harvard.

There were in fact a number of other contributing factors that led the only folks with a vote (again, not the faculty) to ease Summers out.  Just a hint — if you look at how Harvard is actually run, it becomes notable that the deans of Harvard’s various schools did not leap to Summers’ defense in his time of need.  All of which is to say that the assertion that Harvard tossed out its president just because he said something ill-informed about women fails on even the most cursory inquiry.  But even such minimal curiosity is what McArdle, as I’ve come to expect, will not pursue, if there’s a risk she might find out something that contradicts a cherished fable.

And still there’s more!

Facts are not good or bad; they are correct or incorrect.

Snicker. (And not in a PoMo way.)

And a policy based on hysterical refusal to consider all possible facts is neither good, nor correct.

In that case, someone with the initials MM has a lot of ‘splainin to do about just about every claim current GOP candidates are making about the role lower taxes on the wealthy have on economic growth.  Just sayin’.

If someone is wrong about the facts, you should explain to them, calmly and concisely, why they are wrong. If it’s really that obvious, it shouldn’t be hard to convince them.

Uh.  I just can’t.  The snark writes itself — and I’ll let everyone here enjoy their individual takes on what one should say here.  That’s why the good FSM created comment threads.

When people start trying to expel heretics because of disagreements over facts, it suggests that they suspect–even know–that the facts are not on their side. Which is, frankly, what I tend to think is happening here. If open argument is going to force your ideology to confront uncomfortable facts, you create a closed circle that the facts can’t penetrate.

Still can’t stop giggling.  Have at it.

If the circle is big enough, the geocentric universe gets a few hundred more years before the defensive perimeter cracks.

What?

Message to McArdle:  the Catholic Church has indeed survived that anti-science episode.**  But the geocentric universe lasted exactly…well I guess not zero years, but pretty nearly so after the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632.  Geocentrism and the broader disassembling of classical astronomy had, of course, already largely been undone by the early 1600s, at least among the community of the learned.  The conventional sequence — from Copernicus, with his still artificially circular orbits, to Kepler’s fitting of the correct elliptical shapes to the paths traced by the planets (and the mathematical advances captured in his three descriptive laws, to Galileo’s observations of the Jovian system, with its moons orbiting a central body in a strikingly clear model of a the kind of heavenly motion Copernicus advanced, published in 1610 — created a broad basr on which to support the fundamental claim of heliocentrism.  By the 1630s, the Inquisition could condemn, but minds living in those expanding parts of Europe no longer subject to Rome’s authority could and did ignore any assertion of pontifical judgment about scientific fact — a development that did precisely the kind of damage to the cause of religion that Galileo himself had anticipated in his letter to the Medici Grand Duchess Christina in 1615.

Or to put all this another way:  the current closed GOP circle is as unlikely as the Vatican’s was ever to be big enough. The U.S. may suffer — greatly — if we ignore basic facts.  We may, likely will, do great harm to others. But those nations and cultures that don’t listen to the McArdles of the world, and all their kin?  Well, like Isaac Newton’s England, I expect they’ll do fine, even if we languish under President Perry in predicaments of our own making.

Why so long on what was obviously a rhetorical grace(less) note?  Because it is a microcosm of the McArdle approach to her life’s work.  This invocation of Galileo’s trial is ignorant of basic facts, false in its implication, historically obtuse and hell, just plain stupid (not to mention kind of meaningless).  I guess it sounded kind of clever to McArdle, which meant, on the evidence, that she didn’t pause to ask if the example made sense.  It didn’t, and it doesn’t, and should be taken as the warning it is:  you can’t take any claim McArdle makes as valid until thrice checked.

Of course, that also means a few hundred years invested in building an institution that cannot survive in a heliocentric solar system.

Uh.  Last I looked Pope Benedict still held sway within Vatican City, honored by Catholics the world round.  Even the ramifications of a transnational conspiracy to cover up acts of sexual violence against children seems set to do more than temporary damage to the institution.  That fact may or may not fill you with pleasure/relief/loathing…but the notion that somehow the contemporary Catholic Church is paying the price for Galileo’s fate is simply phaffing on McArdle’s part — beneath notice except as a further instance of a seemingly incurable lack of rigor in her work.

Maybe the skeptics are right and AGW is minor, or not happening at all. But on the off chance that they’re wrong,

Uh…”off chance…” Not going to rehearse all that’s gone before, but just to say, one more time:  virtually every scientist with actual knowledge of the data, the underlying methods, and the theory of climate science have been saying for some time that AGW is real and consequential.  McArdle may not like that conclusion; she nonetheless has no standing to dismiss it.

the GOP needs to be the sort of pluralistic body that can survive and thrive on a steady diet of accurate data–no matter what those data say.

I agree.  I also think that this is where the whole post reveals itself as a smoke screen to confuse others in the media into the view that a fictional GOP that could thrive on data actually exists.

If enough GOP-identified pundits say a few nice things about positions they simultaneously dismiss (a standard trick within David Brooks’ playbook, of course, and much of McArdle’s raison d’etre) then the useful idiots they count as colleagues can write that once in power a Republican president and congress might not be entirely batshit crazy.  That we have plenty of evidence that this view is false (2001-2009; GOP governors/legislators/the Boehner-Cantor led house since 2010) can be ignored, as long as the Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic reassures her friends that there really are some Republicans with whom you could have a chat and a drink.

That, as I read it, is really the point of a post like this…

…Enough.  Almost five thousand words on a tossed off bit of nonsense by someone whose work is, frankly, trivial, no matter how much influence it may have within a couple of corners of the Village.

I guess I explode into these periodic rants not so much because anything McArdle actually writes is so much more egregious than hundreds of effusions spurting daily from those carbuncles on the body politic that make up the right-blogosphere.  Rather, it’s that she does so under the cloak of, and at an institution venerable within a craft I hold dear, that of serious, reasoned, public journalism.  This post really is bizarrely too long, so I’m not going to expand on a point I’ve made before.  But the particular form of intellectual dishonesty with which McArdle plies her trade does damage to the country — and less consequentially, but probably more severely to all those directly associated with her work at The Atlantic.

*Case in point:  over the couple of weeks I’ve been picking away at this post, this story has bubbled up.  I believe John linked to it — but the gist is that a journal editor resigned when it became clear that some climate denialist “scientists” snuck a junk paper past the peer review process of  the journal Remote Sensing.  That paper repeated previously debunked claims that satellite data contradict model results, fail to account for the impact of clouds on the radiative balance of the earth, and thus overstate the risk of warming.  The editor resigned because it became very clear on reflection that this paper should have been flagged by what was clearly a flawed peer review.  On the level of basic craft, the paper failed to meet the most elementary requirements of a scientific claim:  “no statistical significance of results, error bars or uncertainties are given either in the figures or discussed in the text. As to the content — the core claims of the paper are simply wrong, and they are so in elementary ways, rendered meaningless by errors of both method and an actual grasp of the range of observational data:

Overall, the argument made in all of these papers to support the conjecture that clouds are forcing the climate (rather than a feedback) is extremely weak. What they do is show some data, then they show a very simple model with some free parameters that they tweak until they fit the data. They then conclude that their model is right. However, if the underlying model is wrong, then the agreement between the model and data proves nothing.

I am working on a paper that will show that, if you look carefully at the magnitudes of the individual terms of their model, the model is obviously wrong. In fact, if [University of Alabama at Huntsville’s Roy] Spencer were right, then clouds would be a major cause of El Niño cycles—which we know is not correct. Talk to any ENSO expert and tell them that clouds cause ENSO and they’ll laugh, at you.

Why would someone nominally a science commit such serial and serious errors?   Spencer himself tells us.  He is the author of a number of interesting works — including one flawed study withdrawn for plagiarism, among other sins, and this latest fiasco — but the actual content of his stuff doesn’t matter.  Rather, it is crucial only that Spencer can call himself a scientist, and can be termed as such by the echo chamber right-wing media that takes fatally flawed “research” and retails it to a public as the real deal.  Which is exactly what Spencer says he wants to achieve:

“I would wager that my job has helped save our economy from the economic ravages of out-of-control environmental extremism. I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.”

Well, fine, if you are lobbyist, an advocate, or a Know-Nothing GOP candidate for president.  But if you call yourself a scientist and purport to take part in the common enterprise that is the advance of human knowledge…with that statement you’ve just declared yourself an enemy of whole endeavor.  You can’t serve two masters, both your ideological commitment and nature.  You have to choose — and Spencer clearly has, opting to put out propaganda contradicted by the testimony of nature in order to defend views that comfort the comfortable.

This is just one example — but it’s why climate scientists don’t have a lot of sympathy for “dissenters” who are in fact propaganda hacks –self admitted in this case.  Rather, they have to work overtime in never-really-successful attempts to counter the real damage done by pieces like this both to science and to any kind of real deliberation on the proper policy to adopt in the face of AGW.  We surely need a better media.

**Yes, I’m aware that McArdle would probably claim that she was merely saying the Catholic Church itself retained its geocentric views for centuries– but that’s both not exactly true (plenty of folks within the church understood and accepted the advance of knowledge on this question, whatever dogma decreed) and not on point to the suggestion she then tries to make, that such myopia produced an institution that is having trouble surviving now.

Images:   William Blake, The Ancient of Days (God the Geometer),1794

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Alchemist, 1558 (Engraved by Philipp Galle)

John Barnard Whittaker, Comedy and Tragedy, c. 1883.

Pieter de Bloot, Tavern Interior1630s.