Posted tagged ‘Andrew Sullivan’

Yes, I do know that Sully is a waste of time, but…

December 23, 2011

…it’s almost wreck-on-the-highway fascinating to watch his Ron Paul fixation play out.*

[Blogger’s note: I’m posting in even greater haste than usual, as the holidays impose (enable) family time…(yippee, actually).  So apologies in advance for typos, grotesquely elongated sentences, convoluted language, and flabbiness or outright outrages of thought.  In other words, as always, what follows is worth precisely what you’re paying for it.  Chappy Cholidays, all.]

Here’s the latest from today’s blogorrhea:

You need to take all of this into consideration, when assessing a candidate. It seems clear to me that Paul has associated with people with some vile views, and profited from it. At best, that is reckless negligence. At worst, it is a blind eye to real ugliness. Neither interpretation flatters Paul.

So, according to Sullivan, “at worst” Paul is guilty of a “blind eye to real ugliness.”  Uh, no. At worst, he advocates the oppression of millions of Americans, and the absolute priority of the right of the dominant group to continue to do so in the name of “liberty.”

Against that, you have to weigh his character as it has revealed itself over three presidential campaigns, his opponents (whose extremism and bigotry do not need to be ferreted out),

No.  You have to weigh his character over the course of his entire career.  I understand why Andrew wants to narrow our focus here, given his determination to defend his political crush on such a catastrophic object, but to most of us it comes as no shock that one might behave and speak differently when addressing a national audience, especially one composed of those touching naifs, boys and men who never made it past their Heinlein phases, than one does when the cameras are off and the crowd is much more in the “nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat” inner circle.

…and his argument: that domestic liberty requires a drastic re-callibration of our military-industrial complex and an end to the drug war.

And yes, what a lovely thought, and one with which I am in some sympathy.  But when weighing candidates, may I make the gentle suggestion that one pay attention not just to the grand music of their message, but the likely outcomes of what they might do when they get into power.  And hence bigotry, and an economic outlook we have plenty of hard evidence to suggest will beggar the nation and the world probably should weigh in your thinking too.  Sullivan may be too innumerate to grasp the hideous dangers of goldbuggery (though a moment’s pause to recall his hero, Winston Churchill’s entanglement with the gold standard ought to give him some pause).

Or he may simply, again, be so deeply in the hole on his Paul bet that he feels no choice but to double down.  In either case, this is a rigged argument, and I’d wager that Sullivan is a dishonest enough writer to know it.  The measure of Paul’s candidacy is not whether or not we get to blow dope on his watch; it is whether we will survive the damage and division a Paul administration would leave behind it.

Voting is not some kind of purist abstraction. Every candidate is flawed. The moment and the argument matter. Viewing it all together, I would not have a problem supporting Paul if I were caucusing in Iowa. And I think a victory will help enormously in reorienting the GOP away from its dangerous foreign policy belligerence.

Charitably, you can read this as a tactical argument. Sully would support Paul in Iowa, but (perhaps) not elsewhere, to shock the GOP into its senses.  If so, it seems to me that this is surpassingly obtuse, even for a writer who continually argues that actual political actors who call themselves conservatives  aren’t really “conservative” because their actions do not conform to Sullivan’s immaculate conceptions.  Paul could, and may very well win Iowa.  Does anyone with the cognitive abilities of a radish** really think that such a victory will cause the Romney or the not-Romney juggernaut to swerve an iota?  And if you read this without thumbing the scale, then you have to ask yourself if “supporting” Paul means assenting to the whole package.  And if it does, see above.

As a broader thought:  grandiloquent phrases like “the moment and the argument matter” are the shoddy coin of a bad argument.  If Paul’s virtues do not outlast the moment, then their value inside it is, to put it most kindly, suspect.

One final thing: libertarianism, because it is about allowing people to do things, is easily conflated with the things it allows people to do. In that sense, it is always vulnerable to being regarded as indifferent to injustice – not because it is inherently indifferent to injustice (although it may often, in practice, be), but because it puts freedom first.

This is the point at which I felt the Harvard Government Department started to investigate the procedure for calling in its degrees.  If libertarianism as Sullivan understands it (and here, apparently, subscribes to) regards the right to discriminate against African-Americans as an element of “freedom” that cannot be compromised by any consideration of, say, the freedom of African-Americans to do as they would, then, yes, it will and properly should be conflated with that which it allows people to do.  In fact, classical liberalism recognizes the fact of society, which means that there are constraints on an individuals rights that pinch at the point where the exercise of those rights impinges on those of others with whom one rubs shoulders.  The parody of liberalism that modern libertarianism enacts fails at exactly this point.  Sullivan here enters that parody, by asserting that there are these perfectly isolated and opposed concepts of Freedom and Justice.

Much of the left and a great deal of the right has no interest in putting liberty before justice. But I do not believe that that philosophical position renders one a bigot.

And, Mr. Sullivan, you are, in the particular case you are arguing, wrong.  You cannot have liberty without justice.  There.  I said it.

Bluntly, if you do not have, say, equal treatment before the law, then those sacrificed for others’ liberty invalidate the concept for all involved.  I’m going to blog about one of the most eloquent statements I’ve ever heard of this view in a day or two, but I think the basic principle is obvious — and it is grasped by anyone who gets the idea that the exercise of my property rights to dump sewage into my stretch of river does injustice, and is illiberal, by the time it reaches your run of the water.  This really isn’t hard.

Enough.  Sullivan is not, or has ceased to be, anything like a thinker.  This is just reflex, and a child’s approach to argument.  Liberty good! Justice inconvenient!  It would be merely sad, if this author weren’t so widely read.  Over time, however, this kind of nonsense may remedy that unfortunate circumstance.

*Or rather his quite Cheney-esque commitment to never, ever, admitting he might be wrong here.

**With a holiday tip of the hat to that great man, Peter Medawar.

Image:  El Greco, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, 1570-1576

Advertisements

A Fish is to a Bicycle

January 3, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice.

Just to jump onto the false equivalence bandwagon, here’s another reason why, unlike John Cole, I don’t love Andrew Sullivan’s work.

John’s comment, y’all remember, came in the context of his righteous snort of derision at the thought of one of Sully’s annual awards for bad behavior going to TBogg for a post in which the Bassett Man righteously excoriated the loathesome Bill Kristol. (Which, having campaigned for the honor, TBogg won, hurray!)

So why don’t I don’t love Sully?

Because for all that I respect his craft accomplishments — the Dish really is a hugely innovative take on journalism and opinion making in our brave new digital era — and acknowledge his non-craziness (most of the time) and his willingness to tackle crucial subjects like torture, he still seems to me to be a deeply sloppy thinker.

Case in point, this post, titled “The Borking of Kagan,” in which he shows off truly impressive intellectual incoherence, combined with a genuinely nasty attempt to carry the water of the worst on the right if the opportunity affords to bash a hippie or two.  (Why target this post, now seven months gone?  Because Sullivan himself touted it as one of his posts of the year, directing his readers to take another look just last Wednesday.)

Sullivan writes of his attempt to ascertain Elena Kagan’s sexual identity (or self-identification) that,

Will Saletan pens the most penetrating and persuasive critique of my question as to the emotional orientation of Elena Kagan. He puts it better than I, but his argument is essentially that the personal facts of a supreme court nominee can lead to unending and cruel and prejudiced exposure, in a manner that distorts the process and wounds the person. He reminds me of the religious inquisition of the agnostic Robert Bork. It is indeed vile. What was done to Clarence Thomas was, in my view, viler – although I remain convinced that Anita Hill was telling the truth.

There’s a lot more that one can dispute in Sullivan’s post, but focus here on just this one bit of wretched rhetorical posturing.

Diagram out what Sullivan does:  he acknowledges the criticism that exposing Kagan’s presumed same-sex preference would lead to the presumptively* inappropriate tactics that allegedly marred the nomination process through which Robert Bork was denied a Supreme Court slot.

Then, for no apparent reason he throws in Thomas, who did, sadly, navigate the Senate’s narrows to achieve Supreme status.

So look what he is trying to claim here:  Bork suffered, in Sullivan’s view, because he was denied his goal for illegitimate reasons, as some evil folk slandered him as immoral for failing to acknowledge a living god.  And then, Thomas suffered more in achieving his goal after perjuring himself –as Sullivan says he believes — about the sexual harassment of a subordinate.

I mean, what?

It seems that Sullivan still, after all these years, finds the unseemliness of asking someone about pubic hairs and Coke cans “viler” (an unlovely construction) than lying about criminal acts perpetrated on the folks you boss around.

What on earth prompted Sullivan to go there?  It’s not part of his argument.  It sure doesn’t line up with what he’s trying to claim from Kagan. (He wants to know about Kagan’s qualities, her self or identity.  At the Thomas hearing, the question was one of incidents and acts:  what had Thomas done to whom?)  And, of course, it captures the same strange blindness to nonequivalence  at the Dish that John pointed out over the Moore award.

I frankly don’t get it.  A fish =/ a bicycle; sexual harassment =/ asking questions about credible charges that you’ve engaged in sexual harassment.  I don’t think that’s a surprising, or even a minority view.

And if I were to generalize one level up, I’d say that this is a kind of rhetorical trick that needs stomping on every time we catch it.

Why do people attempt to draw false connections?  It is to persuade their audiences of things that are not true.  In current circumstances, too many of these falsehoods fall under the umbrella of asserting that the sins of the right are forgivable, because they are the same as, or responding to equivalent misdeeds on the left. That in turn gets to the real aim of such rhetorical shenanigans:  to defang criticisms of the behavior of the right, so as to render the wholesale return to power of the worst elements in our body politic that much more likely.

I imagine Sullivan would argue that he’s been a loud and important voice objecting to exactly that. I think that’s true, actually — really there’s no doubt of it.  But he’s sloppy, and has habits of mind, and perhaps he simply writes to fast to interrogate his own reflexes …and this kind of tripe is the result.  Which is why, though I find Sullivan’s work interesting, I don’t love it.

*The question here is whether Bork was Borked via a relentless personal scapegoating, or by pressing the case as strongly as possible that Bork’s views were the wrong ones to guide a life-long appointee to the court of no appeal.

The answer here isn’t that hard.  You look at the record of Bork’s hearings, from Ted Kennedy’s famous speech forward to Joe Biden’s handling of the Judiciary Committee proceedings, and you find that opposition from Democrats was framed in exactly the terms it should have been:  that Bork’s views and approach to judging were unacceptable in a Supreme Court nominee.

You can dissent from those arguments, certainly, and Bork himself did with passion.  But Bork failed because he and the Reagan administration failed to counter the argument that Bork would reverse a woman’s right to choose and come to other results many opposed by using a philosophy that would consistently skew the results of court decisions in ways that a majority of the senate opposed.  How is that not part of a legitimate review process?  If you can’t stand the heat…

It is true that Bork’s agnosticism came up in the hearings, as Saletan discusses in the piece Sullivan references.  But one should never underestimate Saletan’s gift for omitting key details.  He cites two southern senators who explained their votes against Bork on the basis of their distaste for his religious views, or lack thereof (a condition now remedied, presumably, by Bork’s conversion to Catholicism).

But he and Sullivan both, in tying Bork’s failure to survive senate confirmation to this admittedly ugly sideshow, ignore almost all of what went on in the hearings and the surrounding political debate to defeat Bork’s nomination.

Robert Bork is not a Supreme today (for which we all may be grateful, given what Mr. Bork has told us of his views since those days) because he failed to persuade 50 senators and the American people that his approach to judging  matters of privacy, of the balance of state vs. individual power and many other such was acceptable in this democracy.  Saletan’s and Sullivan’s invocation of Bork’s troubles with the religious litmus-testers is thus a red herring, a too-useful editing of history.

Images:  Lucas Cranach, Gerechtigkeit als nackte Frau mit Schwert und Waage. (Justice, as a naked woman with sword and scales), 1537.

Edgar Degas, The Interior, between 1868 and 1869

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.

Cosmology does note equal Cosmogony — or why Andrew Sullivan has got to stop invoking his cartoon of science when he seeks to defend his faith.

June 1, 2010

Another post resurrected from the month (or so) of my discontent:

From Sullivan, an essaylet on the nature of God and the foundations of faith, which contains this argument:

For me, the core argument for some force behind the universe, revealed metaphorically in Scripture, is affirmed by science as we currently have it. Our universe came from nothing and is still expanding. What conceivable force made this possible?

I know Sundays are slow days in the blogging trade, but this is just awful.  Not as private faith, mind you — Sullivan has repeatedly affirmed his particular form of belief; it clearly is meaningful to him, rich in both emotional weight and in sufficient intellectual plausibility (to him) not to offend his personal experience.  But as an attempt to assert a less particularist claim, awful just begins to describe the rhetorical catastrophe above.

Unsurprisingly, what gets this blog’s goat is the invocation of science in defense of a cosmological Godhead.  Which means I’ll pass over in sort-of silence the bit of sleight of  hand in the first clause of the quoted passage, the notion that a metaphor of God (“some force behind the universe”) is the essence of what the text of scripture reveals of the deity.*

That said, the real sin of thought and word in the passage I quote comes when Sullivan writes the argument for a force behind the universe (whatever that actually means) “is affirmed by science as we currently have it.”

This is a nonsense. What does he mean by a force?  Is it anything like the meaning of the concept as it emerged in the specific science — physics — whose subdiscipline, cosmology, he is about to invoke?

Well, no, obviously.  And to give a little flesh to that blanket dismissal, consider Nobel laureate and my MIT colleague Frank Wilczek’s meditation on the notion of force as Isaac Newton first cobbled it together.

Some years ago, he wrote a three part essay, “Whence the Force of F=MA” in which he described force as a culture, or perhaps better, as a language. [Links here to all three sections] Sullivan would, I think, find some of what Wilczek writes quite comforting:

…the law of physics F=ma comes to appear a little softer than is commonly considered. It really does bear a family resemblance to other kinds of laws, like the laws of jurisprudence or of morality, wherein the meaning of the terms takes shape through their use. In those domains, claims of ultimate truth are wisely viewed with great suspicion; yet nonetheless we should actively aspire to the highest achievable level of coherence and explicitness. Our physics culture of force, properly understood, has this profoundly modest but practically ambitious character. (Essay III in the series)

If laws of morality and laws of physics are kissing cousins, as Wilczek seems to imply, perhaps there could be something to Sullivan’s claim (hope? — ed.) that the force of which physicists speak might have something to do with the Sullivan’s metaphor of God.

I’m putting thoughts in Sullivan’s mind here, of course, but the point I’m making is that analogies are tricky, and the use of implied ones even more so.

But the problem for Sullivan’s case is that Wilczek did not say that the content of  moral or civil laws mirror, even imperfectly, that of physical ones.  Rather, he simply stated that physics, more than usually understood, makes use of one of the most valuable habits of thought in the humanities:  some of what physicists “know” they learn through using an idea, rather than explicitly grappling with its inner tensions.

That’s fine, and true, and it is surely a trick used across lots of different intellectual approaches.  But for all of Wilczek’s kind bob in the direction of another division of the academy, when he gets down to the actual issue of  why such a “soft” concept of force has persisted in the famously “hard” discipline of physics, his answer embraces the nitty gritty of life as physicists actually lead it:

By comparison to modern foundational physics, the culture of force is vaguely defined, limited in scope, and approximate.  Nevertheless it survives the competition, and continues to flourish, for one overwhelmingly good reason: It is much easier to work with. We really do not want to be picking our way through a vast Hilbert space, regularizing and renormalizing ultraviolet divergences as we go, then analytically continuing Euclidean Green’s functions defined by a limiting procedure, . . . working to discover nuclei that clothe themselves with electrons to make atoms that bind together to make solids, . . . all to describe the collision of two billiard balls. That would be lunacy similar in spirit to, but worse than, trying to do computer graphics from scratch, in machine code, without the benefit of an operating system. The analogy seems apt: Force is a flexible construct in a high−level language, which, by shielding us from irrelevant details, allows us to do elaborate applications relatively painlessly. (Essay I)

I don’t want to put Wilczek in the position, even seemingly, of arguing with an essay written years after his.  But the point he makes here makes a mockery of all sorts of woo that follow from the fact that physicists are willing to accept a certain level of imprecision in order to do real work.  (Think Deepak Chopra, et al.)

For Sullivan, there are all the usual sins of woo-mongers here.  There is sloppiness of language.  He writes of a “force behind the universe” — which means … what?  Is it the quality that has powered the expansion of our observable patch of the universe since the Big Bang?  If so, it ain’t “behind” anything.

There is the mixing of categories.  Is he talking about a question of origins, of what triggered the current expansion?  More likely, I think, though Sullivan is, as is usual for writing that attempts to draw this kind of false connection between a specific problem in science and much broader question in some other domain.  If so, then Sullivan is mistaking a partial lack of knowledge for affirmative evidence of an immanent purposefulness to weight the scales our way, towards a universe in which we could emerge.

But this form of the old God of the Gaps argument misses the real action in modern cosmology.  For the point is that however much some questions may be incompletely understood  — the nature of the inflaton field, perhaps, or the implications of the certain concepts in Brane Theory and related studies for the question of the uniqueness of the Big Bang —  Big Bang cosmology is driven by a combination of theory and observation that works to describe the phenomenon(up to a point…which is why there are still jobs for cosmologists).

All of which is to say that just  because Sullivan cannot actually grasp the structure of contemporary physics, that does not mean he is free to ascribe any interpretation that makes him feel happy to what he thinks physics is talking about these days.  (By “free” I mean plausible, even remotely correct.  Obviously he, like me and any of us, is free to spout whatever nonsense we choose).

Even so, Sullivan is at least on familiar, if very shaky ground, when he asserts that a metaphoric interpretation of modern physics offers comfort, at least, if not outright confirmation, to a metaphoric vision of some concept of wholeness which we may conveniently call God.  That could fall, I guess, within my “whatever gets you through the day” category, as long as I am not asked to assent to any specific claim about the human condition based on the latest work on extra dimensions or the arrow of time.  (Hi, Lisa!Hi, Sean!)

But then there is this :

The second question is the nature of that force. The core revelation of Jesus – and the Buddha, for that matter, in some respects – is that the force is good, not evil. There is hope. Death is not what it seems. Love prevails. In this tragic, fallen, cruel world, this is not an easy doctrine. It cannot be inferred from the evidence. Which is why it is the gift of faith, from some source so deep, so great and so benign it defies any human description. Even metaphor fails.

[lease note that I have not cut anything from this passage — the two quotes above follow immediately one to the other.]

Most of this is just embarrassingly bad writing. (See, e.g. the phrase “some source so deep, so great and so benign it defies any human description.”  To me, at least, this reads like the religious version of Regency Romance prose — lots of heaving and heavy breathing around but not on the point at hand. But maybe I’m just in a bad mood…)

Still, whatever you think of the prose here, the claim that because Sullivan cannot imagine a purely physical account of the origins and evolution of the universe, therefore his prior assumption must be the correct interpretation is an appalling lapse of logic, an argument so bad it makes me wonder if all the stuff we hear about the Oxford Union as Parris Island for debaters is pure nonsense.

Here’s Sullivan’s syllogism:  Science tells us that there is a mysterious force within the universe.  (Assumption not in evidence — at least in the spiritual sense.) That force is good (ditto) — which I know, because Jesus told me so.  (But that’s what you wanted to confirm, I thought, independent of scriptural assertion).  Therefore, I’m not going to really die, and the world, despite all the evidence we have, is one in which love triumphs.  (Errr, no.  Not on the evidence as presented here.)

I mean, I get it.  I do.  Andrew Sullivan believes in the traditional promise of Christianity.  In that promise, Jesus was more than a man; his death was transformative of the reality of death for all humanity.  That transformation establishes the fundamental predominance of love over evil in the universe, for no matter what grotesqueries may overtake us on this earth, redemption will be found in the next.

But that has nothing to do with science, with physics, with that branch of physics and allied disciplines that studies the history of the cosmos.  It has nothing to do with the concept of force as it is used within that inquiry.  There is nothing to support this fervid hope within the anisotropy map produced by the WMAP satellite.  No measurement, no mathematics can tell you that Jesus left his tomb before three days passed and walked among his disciples, bearing his good news about the ephemeral nature of mortality.  (I’m not even going to go into the bizarre reading of Buddhism that Sullivan compresses in so few words; it ain’t worth it.)

Sullivan might respond that this is what he means when he talks of the “gift of faith.”  But if that were truly what he meant, then why the claim that science “affirms” this view of the spiritual nature of the forces that have shaped the physical universe?

Because, I think, he knows that what he’s really saying is that this is something he feels very deeply, and that it therefore must be true — and he wishes he had something more to convince his readers (and perhaps himself) that it is so.

But it doesn’t, which is or ought to be fine:  if faith has any meaning it is that it is an individual commitment.

I’ve belabored this enough, I think.  Sorry to natter on so long.  I just hate these attempts to claim the authority of science in support of what I think of as the Dorothy mode of thought:  click your heels hard enough and any magic can come true.

*All I’ll say is that Sullivan is correct when he asserts that metaphoric interpretations are the only contemporary readings of scripture that are compatible both with modern scien and what is often termed the “problem of evil.” But despite what seems to me that obvious truth, the countervailing fact is that a very large number of religious people, including the hierarchy of Sullivan’s own church, not to mention many in the rabbinate that leads the tradition in which I grew up, do not see the Bible as exclusively, or even centrally metaphorical.  In those settings, God did tell Abraham to kill Isaac;* Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Certainly, there is no shortage of metaphor even within a plain reading of much of the Bible, and plenty of sophisticated and subtle religious thinkers have recognized the central importance of using metaphor to interpret scripture.  (Read the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s reeadings of Talmud if you want to see this kind of exegesis performed at the highest level.)

But I still think it is not so much disengenous as it is internal evidence of Sullivan’s own religious difficulties that he leaps to the metaphor whilst ignoring more direct readings of the scriptures and the teachings of his faith as he seeks to avoid the implications of purely materialistic accounts of the fate of mortal humans in this universe.

All that’s a fancy way to say what I and others have said before: ascribing to particular religious beliefs the qualities you wish they had doesn’t actually change the nature of such religious claims as they actually make their way into the world.  And if you haven’t noticed that for an awful lot of people these days the term “God” is a simple literal descriptor, then you aren’t (or are choosing not to) pay attention.

Images:  Michaelangelo, “The Last Judgment” 1537-1541.

John McLure Hamilton, “The Billiards Match,” before 1936.

WMAP data mapped onto an ecliptic projection, five years of data, 2008.

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics: Andrew Sullivan, Brit Election edition

May 6, 2010

Update:  The original of this post mischaracterized the Treasury figures for government spending as a percentage of GDP; I repeatedly referred to them as the percentage of GDP due to the deficit year over year.  It’s been corrected below, and thus, in fact, tracks the figures Sullivan was citing.  The argument remains the same, though in a post piously demanding attention to what numbers tell you, I can’t say I’m not embarassed.  Do not blog after too effusive a dinner party the night before; that’s my motto.

Thanks to friend-of-the-blog Lovable Liberal for the catch.

Andrew Sullivan has been blogging the Brit election extensively, and his reflexive loathing for Labour has come through on a number of occasions.

He has some considered loathing too, I’ll grant you, but he admits that “in my native land, unlike America, I have residual partisan loyalty…” to the party of his youth.

That means its just a bit hard to assign a root cause for his rote repetition of a favorite anti-Labour meme, that the party is a bunch of big government spendthrifts.

It could be Sullivan’s difficulty in dealing with facts presented in the form of quantified data (see for example, this old chestnut). Or it could be a leap to unexamined conclusions propelled by his self- acknowledged Tory partisanship. Or, perhaps most likely, both.

In any event, he parrots the charge that the 13 years of Labour government produced a spending regime that has dramatically changed the size and cost of British government.  He writes:

Britain’s debt piles higher – because 13 years of Labour’s reckless spending has neither solved the country’s social problems nor stabilized the country’s economy….

…And then he attempts to put meat on the bones of that “reckless spending” cliche by borrowing from The Wall St. Journal vie The Corner:

Since 2000, public spending in Britain has grown faster as a share of GDP than any other country in the 28-member OECD — up 17 percentage points to 53% of GDP, compared to 15 points for Ireland and 10 points for Iceland

Sullivan might have wanted to consider his sources.  Doesn’t he know that any statistic with political consequence that emerges from The Wall St. Journal has to be considered guilty until proven innocent — that is, checked for oneself?  And by all that the FSM considers holy (semolina, for one), he of all people has had enough experience of The Corner to realize that they are what Ronald Reagan should have been talking about when he said “don’t trust and verify.” (What — RR didn’t say that? Sorry — ed.)

Shoulda, coulda, woulda … but here, he takes on face value a number that should have provoked more scrutiny.

That would be the date for the start of the time line, 2000.  Why 2000?  First because that marked the lowest deficit figure for all thirteen years of Labour governance — and thus choosing that date, rather than the start of Labour rule in 1997, would make any increase since that time loom larger in percentage terms.  This is called gaming your data.

And then there is the question of context and trend.  What should we make of that one number for a deficit in 2000?  Was it much different from other years’ and other governments’ budget work?  Did what come after trace a steady trend, or were there distinct outliers that need particular explanation?

I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I am an expert, or even knowledgeable about British state finances.  But even from a state  of near total lack of information, it just isn’t that hard to find the broad outlines of the history of UK government deficit spending.  A moment with Teh Google, leads one, for example, to this.

So what happened?

Well, from 1997 to 2007-8, the Labour government spent at levels that ranged between a low of 36.6.% to a high of 41.1% of GDP

From 1990-1997, a Tory government led by John Major, ran budgets that ranged from a low of 39.4% of GDP in the year he took over from Maggie Thatcher, to a high of 43.7% in 1993, from which it declined slowly to the number he handed off to Tony Blair.

Go back to the Thatcher years, and you see the same story.  She inherited a budget that accounted for 45.1% of GDP in Fy 1978-9.  She brought in a slightly reduced percentage the next year, her government’s budget spending coming in equal for 44.7% of GDP in FY 1979-80, but that figure rose for the next several years, and only dropped to the level she inherited in 1985-6.  Her high was 48.1 percent of GDP, and her best year was still above that best number achieved by Blair, with Brown as his Chancellorof the Exchequer — right around 39% for the Tories, compared with the Labour best figure of roughly 36 1/2 percent.

In other words:  for most of its time in office, Labour budgets included deficits well within the historical range established over the previous 18 years of Tory rule.  Just not much change in it — and often below that of their Tory predecessors.

Repeat:  for most of Labour rule, budget deficits were in a very familiar range.  You can debate whether Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown were all drunken sailors ashore, but that’s a different question than whether or not Blair/Brown/Labour have a distinctively different record on spending than their friends on the right.  You can argue who will best deal with the situation going forward, Cameron, Brown or Clegg — and that’s a different question.  Nothing I’m writing here bears very much on that question (except, perhaps, to call into question the presumption that Cameron will be more fiscally responsible than his peers — but others have much more directly made that same point).

But hold on to the key point:  Most of the recent Labour record is one of ordinary, familiar approaches to the broad outlines of what British governments have approached spending levels for more than three decades.

Still, there is no doubt that the budget deficit is huge now, and the leap in government spending over Labour’s starting point quite noticeable.   From spending 41.1 percent of GDP of 2006-7, Labour governments produced a budgets amounting to 43 percent of GDP in 2008-9, with spending levels that are projected to rise as high as 48.1% in 2009-10 and 2010-11 — the same level as Thatcher’s high.

So, yes, a leap in government spending under Labour in 2008-10 period, just as there has been a leap in spending and deficits under Obama’s adminstration around the same time.

Now, refresh my memory:  what happened in September of 2008?

Oh yeah. The global financial system went into cardiac arrest, the American real estate bubble burst, and economies around the world shuddered under the impact.  US and UK governments responded in classic Keynesian fashion, perhaps not expansively enough, and spent much more than they had to pump capital into the banking system and cash into the daily economy.

Sullivan, of course, has lauded this on the American side, in grand tones and  little posts.  He does not do so for poor Gordon Brown.

Why he didn’t isn’t really that important.

The fact that he didn’t is, as it is a specimen of a dangerously common failure of modern political reporting.

Here’s my credo:  Numbers matter.  Understanding what they do and don’t tell you in any encounter with them is the crucial task for any would-be serious political journalist — hell of anyone who wants to take him or herself seriously as an observer of contemporary life.

Failure to do so means that you will get lots of your writing wrong — and you won’t know it, you can’t know it — until rude and wordy bastards like myself point it out (and one deigns to notice such gnats gnawing on the body politic).  But it matters, to audiences and to any writer who takes their craft seriously.

And in this story, here’s the bottom line:  it is certainly true that government deficit spending in 2010 in Britain (and the US) is much higher as percentage of GDP than it was in 2000.  But it is so for a reason, and that reason is not the one either Brown’s or Obama’s critics say it is.  Stating that out loud, as often as needed, ought to be the job of someone who aspires to be “of no party or clique.”

That is all.

Image:  Martina Schettina, “Fibonacci’s Traum (Dream)” 2008.

Andrew Sullivan and the Anatomy of False Equivalence

April 24, 2010

Here’s one more attempt to learn how to blog short, made glorious summer by that son of Surrey (not quite the same ring, is it?), Andrew Sullivan.

Instead of doing the full John Foster Dulles at every opportunity, I want to try picking on the one moment that illustrates the larger problem.

Here it is Sullivan’s inability to escape both the tropes of a failed journalistic conceit he himself often condemns…and the fact that he simply cannot free himself from the fetters of both identity politics and the claim of faith over experience.

Here’s the relevant passage in his post from yesterday (April 23, 2010) on yet one more bit of David Brooks’ maundering:

I can see how easy it was for the FNC-RNC to wheel out their exhausted tropes of anti-government rhetoric and for Paul Krugman, say, to wheel out his own pro-government radicalism.

Of course, to any unbiased observer — hell to just about any biased one, it must be obvious that a major propaganda network and the national committee of one of two American political parties are institutionally equivalent to one biweekly newspaper columnist.

Or not.

And of course, there is the question of the empirical issue:  who was right.  The weird thing here is that Sullivan actually knows the answer, for a little further down in his post, he writes,

“I happen to think that Krugman has much more of a case right now, because the circumstances almost require the drastic measures he favors.”

Which is to say, of course, that Krugman is not radical, and his work is not “pro-government,” whatever the hell that cliche masquerading as a thought might actually mean.  Rather, he proposed a series of extraordinarily conventional, mainstream economist’s responses to a classic financial crisis, and both his proposals and his criticisms of the actions actually undertaken have turned out to be well matched to the actual events and clearly derived from a long-standing and often-tested body of economic thought.

And, not to belabor what I think is obvious, this is where, for all of Sullivan’s obvious accomplishments, he still allows the habits born of his roots in polemic, not to mention his tortured identity politics, to limit his grasp of his circumstances.

Fox News and the modern Republican party are radical, by any reasonable definition of the term.  They are committed to creating a false reality to replace the actual body of knowledge and experience that describes the world most of us actually inhabit (and yes, I’m getting ready to ridicule you too, Rod Dreher, you pietistic and scientifically illiterate purveyor of false intellectual modesty).  And most important, they lie a lot.  All the time.  About big stuff and small.

And there is nothing in that record that is equivalent to anything in Krugman’s.  Again:  Krugman was right and Krugman was wholly conventional, neither seeking an expansion of government for its own sake nor any radical transformation of the relationship of government to the economy.  The pairing simply makes no sense as an actual statement about the world — and it only does in the context of Sullivan’s angst about the fact that the person he believes himself to be is one that his world now clearly says he’s not.

That is:  he wants to continue calling himself a conservative, despite the fact that most of the people in this country who claim that label, at least in the public arena, disdain his views, a favor he readily returns.  At the same time, he wants to appropriate any act he approves of as “genuine” conservativism — notably the many accomplishments he and I both admire to President Obama’s credit.  It’s an endlessly fluid concept, Sullivan’s political theory:  what is truly conservative is that which satisfies his sense of self-image and or necessity at any moment.

And that, of course, is the danger one faces when reading him:  you need to continuously filter out his reflex to utter and perhaps even in some deep way believe “conservative” tropes that should have been mugged out of him by the history of the last two decades.  That he still cannot do so on a regular basis (and there is a lot more of this kind of nonsense in just this one post…really I’m trying to restrain myself here) is a measure of how hard it is to abandon epistemic closure (to coin a phrase…or not) even when you warn against it.

Image: Ambroise Paré “Portrait of a Chameleon” 1585.