Archive for the ‘libertarian nonsense’ category

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.

Because It’s Not Their Fault You Don’t Own Your Own Gulfstream

April 10, 2011

Take a look at the GOP ‘s vision of Galt’s heaven, air travel division:

PASSENGERS fainted when a 5-foot hole opened in the roof of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 flying from Phoenix to Sacramento last week. The most frightening moment may have been when, as one passenger said, “You could look out and see blue sky.”

[But] on [that] very day … the House of Representatives passed a bill likely to make it more difficult to detect and prevent midair ruptures, metal fatigue and other serious flight risks.

The bill would cut $4 billion from the Federal Aviation Administration’s $37 billion budget. Representative John L. Mica, a Florida Republican who is the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, says the bill would streamline F.A.A. programs and promised the bill would “not negatively impact aviation safety.

I’m guessing that would be because the dead don’t care and hell, who needs an FAA anyway?

Or rather, maybe this is all part of the Randian conspiracy to make trains relevant again.  Certainly, everything  William McGee documents in his op-ed in today’s Times makes me regret every trip I’ve scheduled for the rest of the year:

Outsourcing, under which airlines shift repair and maintenance work from union employees to low-wage workers overseas and in the United States, compounds the already existing burden on safety inspectors.

Dozens of F.A.A. inspectors have told me that they no longer have enough money to conduct inspections at repair stations in China, Singapore, El Salvador, the Philippines and Mexico and other distant locations at which major fleets of American-based airlines undergo maintenance.

…The number of foreign repair stations hired to service American planes more than doubled, to 731, from 2004 to 2009. There have been alarming revelations: the Department of Transportation reported the discovery in 2003 of a worker with ties to Al Qaeda at an overseas repair station. In 2005, immigration agents arrested 27 undocumented immigrants working at a North Carolina shop that airlines had contracted for repair work.

Well, maybe McGee’s just a DFH — what’s with this Consumers Union nonsense anyway?  Which would be why the current House is acting in such disregard of reports from the Department of Transportation — under George Bush:

…testifying before Congress in 2007, the inspector general of the Department of Transportation, Calvin Scovel III, described instances in which repair work has been contracted out by subcontractors to uncertified shops and unlicensed mechanics. These phantom shops sometimes consist of a sole mechanic who works from the back of a truck … Though drug and alcohol testing is standard for all mechanics who service planes in the United States, a Senate committee found that some overseas repair shops don’t bother with such testing.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome your modern Republican Party.

A conscious decision to weaken an already fractured governmental capacity to perform basic regulatory functions is not part of a dispute on the best way to operate government.  The only way to explain the choice to cut FAA budgets at present is if you think the government has no role to play in society at all.  When you believe in your heart that the market itself can do no wrong, then the minor matter of airplanes turning into convertibles is insufficiently real to shake your faith in John Galt.

That’s why, while I agree with just about every complaint about the inadequacy of the recent budget deal and much else besides, we have to remember (a) our folks are fighting an assymetrical war against political terrorists — and it’s damned hard to deal with thugs who are fully willing to destroy the village in order to save it…

…and (b):  if we don’t stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood, these same sociopaths will be running the whole damn government next time out.

If you weary of the endless compromise and seeming partial surrenders — as I do — it remains important to remember that we are up against those who, just for this example, see some number of exemplary deaths in the air as just the price you pay for the privilege of living in Galt’s America.  If we rage against Obama or any other Democrat for their (admitted and regretted) inabilty to be the perfect expression of our visions of a just society whilst they wrestle with the madness that used to be the Republican party, we take our eyes off the prize:  avoiding rule by the worst among us.

That may not be a grand and uplifting vision of progressive improvement in the human condition, but the avoidance of wretchedness is better than the alternative — much, much better.

Just ask anyone who’s seen the sky through what used to be the roof of a 737.

Image:  Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Fall of Icarus, before 1569. (Apropos of nothing, a print of this picture was on the wall of the bedroom in which I slept from zero to about 14.  I’m not sure what my parents were trying to tell me, but I still love it.)

When You Hit Bottom, Stop Digging…or McArdle’s Kitchen Chronicles redux.

February 28, 2011

Fair warning:  This is way too long and fundamentally way too trivial to bother with.  Given all the urgent stuff going on in the world, Megan McArdle hardly deserves anyone’s attention.  I’m just posting this to clear my hard drive and brain of a bit of unfinished business. Plus I think I promised several times to post on Megan McArdle’s response to my post on the serial factual errors in her writing on the history of innovation as seen in the American kitchen.

So by all means, walk on by if you’ve had enough McArdle (I have, and won’t be going to that well again for a while) — but if you want some smack talking and the odd bit of fact, jump the jump and join me.

First, just to catch up with the action:   I’ve had prior occasion to think of this list of officers’ fitness reports in the context of the writer in question.  The title of this post refers to the twelfth item on that tally, but many others apply, I think. Pick your favorites in the comment thread.

In her response, McArdle was particularly stung, I believe (because of her link to it), by a Wall Street Journal blog’s summary of the Krugman-Cowen-McArdle-Levenson sequence.

Thus provoked, she was then moved  to produce an 2,300 word justification of her claims, on which mastication I will now comment.  (That noun chosen because being attacked by McArdle always reminds me of Denis Healey’s marvelous description of being attacked in debate by the Tory politician Sir Geoffrey Howe: it is “like being savaged by a dead sheep.”)

I’ve got to say I am a bit resentful here.  I’m the one supposed to stupify my antagonists with posts rivaling War and Peace for length if in no other aesthetic category, and here she comes stealing onto my patch.*

Ah well.

McArdle begins well, at least for the case I’m trying to argue, setting out on her journey of redemption with perhaps the most revealing and humiliating sentence I’ve read on any blog:

“It’s certainly possible that I got something wrong in that post; I am of course not a historian of kitchens.”

There’s a perhaps even more self-diminishing line that follows: “But neither is Mr. Levenson, and I can’t plead guilty to the offenses I am charged of based on his evidence.”

I like to think that I’ve left seventh grade far behind me, and so see no need for comment here — beyond that we are dealing with someone who really needs to think some more about the argument from authority.

Once she gets past that reflex of pique, she answers my criticisms with three basic types of deflection.

__

First, she tries to shift between categories of existence, availability and penetration to suggest that whatever actually occurred, the specific appliances she cites weren’t really part of the 50s landscape. This is nonsense, as I’ll detail a bit below.

Second, she tries a bit of indirection suggesting that some of my examples of her errors aren’t really that significant, because, in essence she knows better.

Third she uses what is perhaps her most powerful (and often used) trick when cornered.  She declares that she was talking about something else that whatever it was she clearly got wrong — and when seen in light of that other issue, everything she said becomes both correct and humiliatingly more insightful than whatever her critics might have argued — or, as she wrote, it surprised her that “someone who teaches science writing at MIT is so unfamiliar with the containerization revolution that he can mistake “container” for “refrigerated.”  It was ever thus:  when cornered, she resorts to the ad hominem, hoping that the insult will distract from the failed argument behind it.

On tactic number one: McArdle had originally claimed that  50s kitchens did not contain, “electric drip coffee brewers, stand mixers, blenders, food processors, or crock pots.” I countered by documenting the history of stand mixers (sold to the public in 1918, widely disseminated in cheaper models through the 20s and 30s); blenders (invented in the twenties, sold in mass quantities in the 30s) and of electric coffee makers, common since the thirties.

__

In response to this impressive record of error, McArdle complains I should have understood that what she meant was not that the 50s kitchen lacked this or that, but that it did not possess versions of these inventions that would have been acceptable to one Megan McArdle:

I thought it was obvious why I was specifying drip coffeemakers:  at least for people from my generation, percolated coffee tastes horrible. I do not think of percolators as drip coffee equivalents, I think of them as something close to crime against humanity.

Note at least three things:  first and least, she’s simply trying to baffle with bullsh*t, replying to a claim unmade.  As it happened, as examples of pre-1950 electric coffee makers, I offered not percolaters, but the vacuum coffee maker, a very different technology that the steampunk caffeinistas among us rate highly.  These were indeed generally available in the thirties and are still prized.

Second, and really all in all, recall that the theme of all this is innovation.  The question she herself raised was whether or not there were in the fifties the means to automate a common kitchen task, brewing up a cup of coffee?

Well, yes, there were, as she in fact admits.  Which is what she hopes to keep you from noticing when she decides to wrangle over whether she would actually drink such brew.

Which leads me to this:  it did give me pleasure to read the sentence above, because in a sense it captures all you ever need to know about McArdle.  She decides the facts worth knowing by a simple criterion: do they meet her exquisite standards.

Percolators? Get me The Hague on line one!

Moving on: for an example of the next of McArdle’s favorite tricks to hide her failings, check out this attempt to persuade the reader that she may have been wrong … but not really:

As for the rest, my understanding is that the stand mixer was not widely dispersed in American households until the early 1960s; the stand mixer invented in 1919 was commercial grade; the home versions appeared in the 1930s and sold well, but were somewhat derailed by the dearth of consumer production during World War II.   Of course, if anyone has data better than I was able to find, I am open to correction.

Again, errors, minor, but still there:  according to the Kitchenaid company the commercial stand mixer was first produced (not invented) in 1915, and the first home models were sold in 1919. Perhaps McArdle may asssert that by “commercial grade” she means “home,” but I think a reasonable person would find that disengenuous at best.

She admits, though that mixers sold well — Sunbeam, makers of cheaper models than Kitchenaid, topped 1 million sold before World War II.  But, argues McArdle, she’s still right, despite all this, writing that “some of this, however, may simply be an argument about what constitutes ‘common.'”

I didn’t think she loved Bill Clinton so much that she’d expropriate his “defintion of ‘is'” defense so readily.

She goes through a similar exercise for the blender, and then concludes that after all, maybe she and I were both right:   “I lean towards requiring some amount of broad diffusion, [of appliances] but I can see the argument for the other side–indeed, that’s what I was getting at in the post, that the definition of a “1950s kitchen” is tricky.

Well, I guess.

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Just to be as blunt as possible:  by “common” or “broad diffusion” she seems to mean whatever number is just a little bit higher than those actually use in the 1950s.  That’s a child’s bob and weave, not an argument from anyone who wishes to be taken seriously.

Oy.  This will never end, will it — which is, of course, McArdle’s true genius.  She throws up such an endless spray of word salad that actually pulling apart each and every one of her distortions, errors, and outright lies takes much longer than anyone wants to either write or read.  So I’ll just give the slightest of glosses on the third attempt McArdle makes to defend herself, in her discussion of the emergence of container shipping.

As noted above, she does so in a way that emphasizes her mock horror that a professor at MIT should mistake refrigeration for containerization– which would indeed have been a simpleton’s error had it been made.

But the problem is that the discussion was, in McArdle’s own framing, about whether or not people in the 50s had access to fresh produce:

I don’t believe that they have gone without fresh produce for six to eight months at a time, as my mother did in her childhood–and was told to be grateful for the frozen vegetables which hadn’t been available when her mother was young….

Is the shift to flash frozen produce greater, or less great, than the shift from flash frozen to the fresh produce made possible by falling trade barriers, rising air travel, and the advent of container shipping?

McArdle’s gaming the question here of course, asserting her assumptions as the answer:  fresh produce in her telling could only arrive on American tables through her triad of trade (which, I guess, could only have happened post 1960, to the great surprise of the United Fruit Company and Dole), air travel (fresh fish was delivered by air to Moscow in 1945!) and containers, a genuinely post 1960 innovation, (one that I actually witnessed transforming my home town; I was a child when San Francisco’s docks died and the upstart Port of Oakland’s container terminal came to dominate freight traffic to the Bay Area).

But if you were to make the mistake of taking McArdle’s question more seriously than she herself does, then what we want to know is what innovations were most important in delivering fresh food to distant markets.  And there, the answer you find again and again in histories of food was rolling refrigeration, which, as I gabbled on at length last time, is a development that has a history in the US dating to before the Civil War.  Last time, I talked of meat — but just in case you were wondering, the first American shipment of fresh produce — strawberries –rode the rails of the Illinois Central in 1867, which is a factoid that makes this quote from McArdle at once pathetic and telling:

When my mother was growing up, it was  theoretically possible to buy fresh strawberries or asparagus in December, shipped in a refrigerated boxcar from a hothouse or maybe California.  But I doubt the grocers in her small town would have stocked them, and if they did, my grandparents, who were solidly middle class but whose memories of the Great Depression died hard, would never have dreamed of buying them…

Yup.  We’re back to that again. This or that is unpossible because I or mine can’t imagine it.

And so on and on.   There’s more, but I’m done.  There isn’t time in the day to fisk out every last bit of nonsense showering forth from McArdle’s keyboard.

So I’ll just leave you with one last thought.

As in my earlier post, let me explicitly call out The Atlantic. For all that there are good people doing good work over there — for one example, have you seen the folks posting at Fallow’s blog lately?  They’re going great guns — the bottom line is this:

A major media operation resembles an old fashioned World War II convoy, at least in one respect:  just as those gaggles of vessels traversing the North Atlantic couldn’t travel faster than the slowest ship, over time, publications can’t be seen as more reliable than their least trustworthy writer.

Just sayin.

*Perhaps it’s because the indictment hit just a little too close to home, and she has opted for one of the traditional tactics of those in peril with the truth: “When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law.  When both are against you, attack the plaintiff.”

Images:  Georg Flegel, Pantry by Candlelight, c. 1630-1635.

Ivana Kobilca, Coffee Drinker 1888.

Willem Frederik van Royen, The Carrot, 1699.

Comforting the Comfortable Part Two, or Sullivan’s Follies Redux

October 20, 2010

In the last post, I followed John Cole in snorting derisively at Andrew Sullivan and James Joyner for demanding that we honor the rich and super rich rather than merely tolerating them.  In that post I concentrated on the pure wrongness of the concept of taxation that the two offending writers presented.  Here I want to undermine their larger claim, that we owe homage to the best off among us because it is only through the energy and talents of those individuals that (a) they gained their wealth and (b) the rest of us receive all the boons of modern living.

The shorter of what follows is simple:  Joyner and Sullivan are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.  They need help.

For the reality is that the rich are not Galtian autonomous superheroes. They exist, as we all do, in a context in which a huge range of circumstances conspire to permit them to do whatever specific acts they did to get stinking rich.

Sullivan and Joyner miss this entirely. The tenor of their posts seem to evoke the hero of industry — they thrill to Kipling’s portrayal of folks like Captain’s Courageous’ railway magnate Harvey Cheyne the elder.  So, just to take a first cut, I thought I’d do something radical…like look at some data.

To get a handle on whether this vision is accurate, I took the path of least resistance, a tour through the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans.

And it turns out you can knock out almost a third of the list from the superhero game right from the start:   They, including six out of the top ten richest Americans inherited either all their wealth or the foundations of their fortune.  They are self-made sons and daughters.

The rest, about 280 out of 400, made their money across a range of activities from New York real estate to Facebook. That might seem to suggest that Sullivan and Joyner might be onto something, that the preponderance of the American super-rich are exceptionally hard working creative types building wealth out of sweat, brains, and a determination that should earn our admiration, and apologies for the temerity to ask for Uncle Sam’s cut.

And they’re even kind of right — but only if you suffer from severe mental presbyopia.  Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Charlie Munger — these are people who did great things after investing enormous amounts of time and energy and who knows what else.  They are admirable, and admired — even by stone lefties like myself, noting as I type the three Apple devices at my fingertips.  These people have been central to developments that make daily lives of millions better, and for that they are, and ought to be celebrated.

But we aren’t talking about kudos here, but rather the notion of being “self-made” — and the degree to which we need to grovel when seeking to move the tax rate on the wealthiest from its historic low to its historic near-low.  And when you dig a little deeper into the list, it gets a little funky to say that even so famously visionary a figure as Jobs, for example, got to the billionaire’s club simply on the strength of his presumptive Galtian worthiness.

For example, what of the 40 gazillionaires whose fortunes derive from technology?  How much of that wealth, and all the tools and systems that they’ve been involved in that make our lives richer, derive from critical government expenditures.  The semiconductor industry was famously nurtured by the American defense establishment — especially in the development of ballistic missiles and space exploration.  How about the internet (and the fortunes of Brin, Page and Zuckerman)?  There was this little thing called ARPANET, another DOD expenditure, that had something to do with it — and if you ever happen to do anything on the World Wide Web (like read this tome) then you have the governments of the European sponsors of CERN and the US taxpayer support for SLAC to thank.

And so on.

Go a little further into the list, and you’ll find that 94 of the 400 derive their wealth from a category called “investments” — a tally which includes stock picker/conglomerateurs like Buffett and Munger along with hedge fund types, bankers, stock jobbers (actually, mutual fund merchants, but I like the old term).

That’s a wide range of actually quite different functions, but for this post there are two points:  one is a that a great deal of this wealth is simply not that impressive in the hero stakes.  A lot of the folks on this list may  have performed an essential feat of capital allocation…or they could have harvested a surplus that could otherwise have gone more efficiently into capital formation.  The evidence of the last decade suggests that plenty of the latter fueled many individual fortunes…

…But even more than the argument that some of the super rich in the financial sector basically ripped off the economy and the average American, the key point here is that our financial system, just as much as our technological economy, depends deeply on a strong governmental infrastructure.  Bank insurance schemes, (FDIC etc.); loan facilities (the Fed); extensive research into every corner of the economy (half of the executive departments); market regulation (SEC, many others — known to be highly imperfect, but essential to the system nonetheless) and so on — modern capitalism requires an enormous infrastructure to create markets in which the participants can participate.  I know that this is a little subtle — but the collapse of the banking system in Sept. 2008 and its rescue over the next weeks and months provide an at-the-extreme example of the central role government, supported by taxation, plays in the system through which one quarter of the 400 richest Americans gained their fortunes.  And that role keeps on going even in more placid times.

Self made, perhaps, many of them, but only within a system made workable by, in essence, the willingness of 300 million Americans to pay their taxes and empower their government to guarantee the system.

This has gone on long enough.  You can go on down the list and look for other examples yourself: the medicine-based fortunes, entangled at every turn in a system of government support from direct health care payments to enormous taxpayer investments in drug discovery and basic research; the sports wealthy, whose wallets have been fattened on many occasions by a wide variety of taxpayer-delivered goodies, from roads built around stadia to bonds sold, with taxpayers on the hook, to subsidize “private” business.  Media?  See internet, taxpayer funded, above.  You get the picture.

At long last, then:  all this is to not to deny  that the rich, many of them, haven’t done impressive things that have in many cases dramatically improved one aspect or another of human experience.

It is to say that they have already been very richly rewarded for their accomplishments, that even the most original of them have reached their happy state within a framework of public goods, owned in common, and paid-for-by-others  — and to note that a substantial proportion of them have less reason than others to claim particular personal credit for their fortunate situation.

And that in that context, being obscenely wealthy ought to be its own reward; taxation the fortunate result of success and the down payment made on future prosperity.  It is the price owed, not confiscated, to support a system, a government and a society that however imperfectly did and does so much to create the opportunities in which many of these folks got so rich.

Pace Sullivan and Joyner, the rest of us need reward them not by giving them wet sloppy kisses just for being the exceptional specimens they are (or aren’t), but simply by buying what they’re selling — when and if we want to — and watching them get richer.

And paying a buttload more tax.  Right now.  Lots.

Image:  “Jesus and the Money Changers” from a parish church in Villach, Austria

Comforting the Comfortable, Or Why Andrew Sullivan Isn’t a Reliable Guide To The Pathologies of the American Uber-Class

October 20, 2010

Over at Balloon Juice, a number of posts culminating here, and a gazillion (technical term alert) comments, have fully roasted Andrew Sullivan (and James Joyner) for their whimpering over the hurt feelings of the deserving rich.

That last link from John Cole decisively rends from limb to limb the pathetic straw men trotted out by Sullivan and Joyner.  It is not the rich that require deference for their contribution to the nation’s well being; rather, it is the working stiff who has forked over what John accurately calls “a direct transfer payment to the most well off in the country.”

I have to confess, I simply don’t understand the possible chain of reasoning that would lead someone to write as Joyner does of taxes on the rich (and remember — we are talking about a very minor increase from historically low levels of taxation), that “to confiscate it from the successful without acknowledgment of the sacrifice… is to court resentment.”

I mean, who knows where to begin:  taxation is not confiscation, nor is it a priori an evil, necessary or otherwise, as  Sullivan also proclaims.

It is the price you pay for living in a civil society.  Reasonable people expect to pay for things like the assurance their airplane will be guided safely to a landing, or that traffic lights will reliable regulate the flow of traffic at 33rd and 3rd, that hurricanes will be tracked and volcanoes monitored…and so on.

Just to hammer this point home, consider this miracle of argument from Joyner:

the meaning of confiscate is not controversial.  Merriam-Webster defines it thusly:

1 : to seize as forfeited to the public treasury
2 : to seize by or as if by authority

Surely, when the government takes my money from me on the threat of civil and/or criminal action for non-compliance, it qualifies a confiscation.   That it thinks it has better use for it than I do doesn’t change that.   Nor, even, does the necessity of the services for which the funds are expropriated.

Uh…well no.  This is as completely wrong and wrong headed as it is possible to be in such a short space.

Just to begin, here’s Joyner’s own source on the definition of the word “tax,” verb first:

1: to assess or determine judicially the amount of (costs in a court action)
2: to levy a tax on

and now the noun:

1: a: a charge usually of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes

b: a sum levied on members of an organization to defray expenses

See where this is going: to confiscate is to seize; to tax is to levy.  In the context of a democracy, taxation is a collective decision; confiscation is a particular decision, which may or may not be legitimate.  In the US, the people, through their representatives decide whether to tax themselves. This is not the same thing as a confiscation, as ought to be obvious to Oxford, Harvard and West Point educated thinkers.  The failure to recognize this distinction is, I believe morally deranged and deranging.  It asserts that all attempts to levy the costs associated with securing the lives and property of 300 million people jostling cheek by jowl are at least potentially illegitimate — that’s the implication of Joyner’s “by or as if” — and of Sullivan’s witless cheerleading assent.

Down that road lies Galt’s hell.

I’m like Cole in one thing:   I keep thinking that Sullivan is smarter, or rather, for he’s clever enough, more self-reflective enough than to fall for this kind of nonsense.

But he’s not; this isn’t a new trope for him — and the ease with which he tosses off nonsense doubling down on Joyner’s use of terms like “confiscate” to describe taxation* confirms that this is just part of the essential toolkit with which he approaches the world, a romanticization of the hero (George Bush, back in the day, the lonely entrepeneur now) for whom any criticism, any constraint is anathema.

But just as it was dangerous as hell to indulge in hagiography of W, so it is to mindlessly celebrate the rich as those who will somehow withdraw all their goodness from society if we don’t make sure we tuck them up nicely, with a warm glass of milk, between their sheets of flawless felted Benjamins.

There.  I feel better.

And now…on to part two, where we can actually look at who the super rich are, and decide for ourselves whether they are owed a tongue-bath from the grateful masses.

Image:  Pieter Brueghel the Younger, “The Tax Collector” 1620-1640.