Posted tagged ‘economists’

The Science Primary is…

May 4, 2008

….now over.

The blogosphere has been all over Hilary Clinton’s bizarre, preposterous, and just plain awful defense of the gas tax holiday nonsense to which she has, seemingly, attatched the last shred of her hopes of winning the nomination. See John Cole for his customary clarity and — how to say this…– precision guided rhetoric. The Carpetbagger (Steve Benen) is on the case; so is Matthew Yglesias … and best of all, Brad Delong channels Robert Reich to drive a stake through the heart of Clinton’s latest.

But neither the politicos nor the science blogging world have picked up on what seems to me one of the central implications of Clinton’ s statement that

I’m not going to put my lot in with economists, because I know if we get it right, if we actually did it right, if we had a president who used all the tools of the presidency, we would design it in such a way that it would be implemented effectively….You know, it’s really odd to me that arguing to give relief to the vast majority of Americans creates this incredible pushback…..

We’ve got to get out of this mindset where somehow elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantage the vast majority of Americans.

(You can check out the whole transcript here.)

There are two things that jump out of the quote. First, it is incredibly muddled or rather, actually more than a muddle. Clinton here depends on an obvious contradiction: she doesn’t trust elite opinion, but she will need elite-level policy design and implementation to give the idea even a remote chance of working.

Sorry — it’s one or the other; expertise or failed policy…but not both.

That’s one. The other, broader implication is that we actually just held the long hoped for science debate — and the winner is clear.

I’m going to blog this week on what John McCain’s publicly announced budget plans mean for science (nothing good, and actually worse than that) — and I’ve already taken whacks at a few of his more obvious gaps and loopiness on more or less scientific topics. There is nothing in his record or in the statements McCain has made on the campaign trail that suggests that he has made the connection between scientific research or the critical thinking scientific training inculcates and the economic health and national security of the United States. He lost the science debate long ago.

But what of Hilary? Up until recently, she hadn’t been doing too badly. She, like McCain and Obama, have wavered on some things – all three have fallen into the peculiar trap of waffling on the autism/vaccine issue, for example — and all the criticism I and many others showered on McCain on this one falls to the other two as well.

But broadly speaking, judging by the issues papers on her website, Clinton has maintained a fairly sophisticated approach to global warming and applied research, with the implication that the policies near and dear to scientists’ hearts — more money, and even more important, respect for the real knowledge developed within by scientific process, would flow under a Clinton presidency. What Clinton provided for public consumption may be boilerplate, but it has been good boilerplate.

But now, what she said at the Indiana interview this morning changes the game. She said, in effect, if the smart boys and girls don’t agree with her, then to hell with them.

That is, of course, precisely the anti-rational madness that has dominated the George Bush years. It is inimical to science or a scientific world view. If we are to pick and choose the facts we like, it is a very short step, quickly taken, to making them up. And that way lies an ever more rapid collapse of the American republic.

Science won’t care. Nature doesn’t care. People will still do the work, because it is interesting; it is useful; it satisfies personal needs and passions and responds to a seemingly universal human eagerness for knowledge.

It’s just that there is no natural law that requires that the leading edge work be done here. Even if it does, if we can coast on the accumulated intellectual capital we still possess, there is no guarantee that it will be allowed to inform the way we live here. We can lose the extraordinary benefits of generations of world scientific leadership surprisingly quickly — and announcing that you will ignore the advice of experts when it pleases you is a pretty good way to grease the skids for such a decline.

Barack Obama is no perfect paragon — the vaccine stuff is a relatively minor demonstration that he can pander too, soothing a passionate pressure group despite overwhelming expert advice. He is, after all, a politician, a very good, a very compelling one. I’m willing to bet that he’ll find times when the inherent uncertainty in science gives him useful cover for the lesser but more popular choice.

But on the gas tax holiday he has been exemplary. He recognized the flaws in the idea — from the fact that it won’t work, to the realization that even if it did work precisely as designed it’s still the wrong policy to pursue if you take the issues of energy independence and global warming seriously.

He’s said so in a range of ways and places, and he has taken the trouble to explain the subtleties of his position.

That’s the way a president who can hear advice talks. And that capacity is what American science needs more than any particular policy stance.

We may not have had our science debate in any formal sense — but on the gas tax issue, our candidates have managed to perform a reasonable simulation of one. And as I said at the beginning, there is one clear winner.

Image: Nar Singh, “Jesuits at Akbar’s Court” illustration for the Akbarnama, c. 1605. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Why Can’t Republicans (and Harvard Economists) Count? Housing edition

March 8, 2008

I’ve focused a lot on the importance in thinking in numbers in a variety of blog posts.  (This one is my personal favorite). As I’ve done so, I’ve emphasized that this kind of thinking is one of two real pillars of scientific thinking. (The other one is empiricism — actually going out and in ways you can check getting information about the real world.)

The larger point I keep sniffing around is the notion that this is what a real definition of science literacy means: it’s not what facts you know (or think you know — see this post for a gory view of truthiness in science). Rather — its how you approach facts as you learn them, what sense you or I make of our experience that counts.

Counts — there’s the word again. Apparently uber-economist Martin Feldman, late of Ronald Reagan’s administration and now professing to unsuspecting Harvard undergraduates, doesn’t do that so good. He’s got a nifty proposal to address the mortgage crisis in America — a massively complex scheme of government intervention and subsidy (waittaminute — ain’t that for Atrios’s DFHs?) that will, in the end, in the real world, add up to…

Bupkis. Tanta over at Calculated Risk has run the numbers. Putting the absolute best possible framework around Feldman’s idea (he wants the feds offer a 15-year second mortgage loan at a highly subsidized rate, with a number of restrictions, to cover 20% of existing mortgages), Tanta works out what all the details actually mean.

You can mess about a bit with the assumptions in the examples worked out there, but the bottom line remains the same. The sucker don’t work. Plausibly, it will increase monthly payments for many borrowers (total interest will go down; but the real-world economic crisis derives from the fact that folks can’t pay what they owe now, not fifteen years down the road). One case study ends up with a home owner forced to buy 12 fewer lattes per year … which, as Tanta notes, hardly advances the cause of economic stimulus.

Not to spill two many bytes on this — after all, this is a proposal so dumb it has nowhere to go, despite the bar being set pretty low on stupid over the last several years — but why is this so hard to figure out?  Feldman can in fact do his sums — I’m sure.  Why not actually run a few tests against his hypothesis (subsidizing a fraction of mortgage interest costs will make a difference to the economy — yes or no?) and quietly trashcan the idea himself, without wasting time the rest of us could use …say … meeting the book deadline whose breath I feel hot against my neck.

Count, man! Count.  (You’ll still respect yourself in the morning.)

(h/t Atrios)