Apr 30, 2012

More Failure

This time the job I didn't get was at The New Republic, being a reporter-researcher, which is a kind of small step above intern, but paid a little with some benefits. Rats. The funny—or perhaps unsurprising—thing is that each rejection is a little less of a downer. I feel like I'm learning something from each one, honing my technique, and learning how this business actually works. I didn't think it would really be easy—though I have had some breaks already—but the big realization has been that all the big-time names I have been reading these last few years all got tremendously lucky. It's no coincidence that most of the big-time bloggers—Sullivan, Yglesias, Drum, Klein, Dave Roberts, etc.—all started blogging from about 2000-2003. There was a window there, and that window is now shut.

But I ain't giving up, not by a long shot.

Something Old Man Coates said in the video above really spoke to me (about 45:00), when he was telling his own story of coming up as a journalist:
I knew what I wanted to do. And I really think that nothing else matters besides that... From my perspective, no one should ever go into journalism—or writing of any real form—for money. It probably pays worse now than it paid then. I think there were career tracks then—there are probably less career tracks now... You do it because you can't not do it.
That's exactly how I feel. Now that I've made the initial leap I can't imagine not being a journalist and writer for the rest of my life. I'm just as certain and confident now that I have made the right choice as I have ever been.

And so, today, I had another interview, this time at Mother Jones, for a paid internship. I'll keep you posted how it goes.

Apr 29, 2012

Table Update

My folks finally got some chairs to go with my dad's awesome custom sandstone table. Check em out!

Apparently they're made by honest-to-god Amish craftsmen.

Apr 28, 2012

Occupy the SEC and Public Virtue

I was very interested to read Suzy Khimm's long take on the Occupy the SEC group, who are apparently in large part composed of former Wall Street traders and the like: 
In its heyday, the tea party turned to elections to enact change, rallying supporters to primary incumbents and helping the GOP retake the House. Occupy Wall Street, by contrast, has largely eschewed the traditional political process. Instead, as protesters have moved off the streets, a small minority of Occupiers has waded deep into the weeds of the federal regulations, legal decisions and banking practices that make up the actual architecture of Wall Street. And they’re drawing on the technical expertise of the financial industry’s own refugees, exiles and dissidents to do so. 
Many of the Occupy wonks once worked on Wall Street, and some of them still do. They’re former derivatives traders, risk analysts, compliance officers and hedge fund quants. They hail from Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Bear Stearns, D.E. Shaw, Merrill Lynch and JPMorgan Chase — and at least one is a former Securities and Exchange Commission regulator. They’re more likely to use a flowchart than protest signs to fight big banks. But they identify with the movement’s animating belief that America’s financial heavyweights wield too much power, and that its political leaders are too eager to do their bidding.
This is a prime example of my working thesis that public virtue is extremely important for developing and maintaining the inclusive institutions described in Why Nations Fail. It's important to think of the incentive structure of institutions, maintaining watchful and vigorous oversight to prevent corruption, and so forth, but these people aren't even part of a traditional institution. They're working on their own time to try and restrain the power of the financial sector, by attacking one of its most powerful weapons--the nearly-incomprehensible complexity and tediousness of financial operations.

Again, it's obvious that these people won't succeed in breaking Wall Street's power by themselves. But it's a good example of how unselfish motives can genuinely help to make a more successful society.

Apr 25, 2012

American Decline?

Over at the Why Nations Fail blog Acemoglu and Robinson have two interesting posts, the first providing evidence for American decline. They cite high school graduation rates as flat for people born after 1950 or so, flat college graduation rates for those born after 1970 or so, and levels of incarceration that are hugely racially disproportionate, and stupendously high overall.

The other is arguing for American resilience.
But we have also argued that there are reasons for optimism: we have been here before, and rebounded. The most direct parallel is with the Gilded Age, when despite the huge economic and political power of the elite at the time, US institutions turned out to be more open and resilient than most feared (see here). The major reforms of the Civil Rights era, which ended the disenfranchisement of a large fraction of the population, are also grounds for believing that the US can rebound from the challenges it is facing today.
They go on to talk about congressional corruption around the Civil War in terms of self-enrichment. They make interesting points, but given that their book argues that political institutions are the major determinant of a country's success, it's a bit strange they don't look more closely at politics, especially since that is the one time when the United States very nearly did fail. It's a long story, but I thought Ta-Nehisi Coates summarized it well with the following quote from Robert Byrd.
I am a typical American, a southerner and 27 years of age.... I am loyal to my country and know but reverence to her flag, BUT I shall never submit to fight beneath that banner with a negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory tramped in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throw back to the blackest specimen from the wilds. 
[...] But it must be said that there is stunning amount of hatred in those words. It can't be explained away by politics. This isn't the public "I'll never be outniggered again" race-baiting of Wallace. And it's much more than just hatred of black people; it's hatred of an America in which black people are allowed to fight with whites, voiced by someone who did no fighting himself.

William Yancy, via Wikimedia
Byrd's sentiment isn't original, It really is the same fear that led to secession. But it basically holds that one hates black people so much, that they would see their mother country fall, so long as black people stay fallen.
The Civil War happened because the political elite in the South were so attached to slavery and white supremacy that they would rather destroy the country than see them ended, and tried to do so.

I'm no expert on American history, but I think it's fair to say that a lot of American political institutions have basically never worked. The Senate is and has been a logjam. The electoral college is an indefensible mess. Etc. What has allowed the United States to function this well for this long is a lot of norms, customs, and widely-shared beliefs (which can include things like white supremacy!) that allowed governance to happen with unwieldy tools. One of the most important of these is patriotism. The right has planted their flag deep in patriotism, which has discredited it on the left, but I believe it can serve a useful purpose, and is even sometimes justified. If elites really believe in a country, that it is worth saving and improving, then they are less likely to tear it to bits on some ideological bender, or strip it for parts to line their own pockets.

The debt ceiling crisis last year was, I think, a disturbing echo of the old secessionist story. I've been reading the latest book from Ornstein and Mann, and it's really shocking to go back through the story all in one place. Here we had a group of crazed zealots who held hostage the full faith and credit of the United States in order to achieve their ideological goals, trampling over longstanding norms and customs in the process. Some were openly calling for default. (Worth noting also that the Tea Party is overwhelmingly based in the South.)

[UPDATE: I forgot to mention the new nullification, whereby the Senate minority refuses to confirm the head of an agency (in this case, Richard Cordray to the CFPB) unless changes to the agency are made, which amounts to an unconstitutional refusal to implement a law passed by duly elected representatives.]

If America fails, it will be because our political institutions are unable to handle this kind of selfish, radical, unpatriotic behavior.

Apr 24, 2012

Why Tyler Cowen Is Wrong About Evil

Tyler Cowen posted a link to this little animation, which as an aspiring blogger I very much appreciated:

However, I was troubled by a short section about how Cowen doesn't go in for a lot of traditional blogging:
People have a tendency to approach issues, and they want to apply simple good-versus-evil narratives, heroes versus villains, a certain kind of intolerance. What I do in my writing on the blog is I try to deliberately subvert all of  those expectations and to present points in some other way, with some other emotional framing, almost just to trick people, or force them to think about things in a new way again. That to me is more the mission of the blog.
Again, I think that's a great clip with much wisdom, and I like Tyler quite a bit, though I often vehemently disagree with him. But I don't like the word "trick." I view my duty as a writer to say, for the most part, exactly what I mean as precisely and (I hope) elegantly as I can. While it's good to present things in new and interesting lights, I don't think it's wise to try and convince your audience strategically. Tyler has this very distinctive style characterized by lists of clipped bullet points, subtle (sometimes bordering on obscure) arguments, strange analogies, and extraordinarily effective intellectual pretension (and I mean the last in a neutral or positive way). When it works, it works well, but on occasion Tyler takes this desire to "subvert all of those expectations" too far and comes close to sounding like he's trying to con you.

I think Tyler makes too much of complexity and nuance. I just don't buy the idea that everything is complicated or that a good-versus-evil narrative is in every circumstance the wrong frame. Probably the best example I know right now was told well in The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, by the climatologist Michael Mann. In it Mann talks about how he, a fairly unassuming scientist working on the most important issue of the age, was subjected to a vicious campaign of character assassination largely funded by fossil fuel interests. Among many other things, his email was stolen, cherry-picked, taken out of context, and the misleading edits spread far and wide through hack media and demagogues, who now routinely cite the fake controversy as settled proof that climate change is an elaborate hoax.

Tyler is right to reject simplistic good-versus-evil frames. These people, like Rush Limbaugh and Lord Monckton, are almost certainly engaging in biased reasoning and ends-justify-the-means thinking rather than cackling to themselves about how evil they're being. Nobody is actually Sauron. But the behavior of these committed climate deniers is profoundly evil. These people would literally destroy human civilization if we left it up to them. If that isn't evil, then nothing is.

It's true that we can tell complicated stories about the psychological insecurities of demagogues which would make them uniquely susceptible to this sort of thing, but after a certain point, you leave off empathizing with evil. Instead, you fight it.

Apr 23, 2012

They Write Books

Bruce Schneier, probably the most prominent critic of TSA and America's security theater madness, has written a book, not just on security, but about trust and our crisis of authority. It's surprisingly well-written and timely. I've started it and it's pretty good. You should check it out!

Apr 22, 2012

Somebody Get This Man a Times Column

At my notorious interview for a new job (still no word on that, by the way) one of the questions which I rather flubbed was "Which New York Times columnist would you fire, and who would you hire as a replacement?" Decent question, but I don't read every columnist, rather I get them filtered through Twitter and blogs, so I couldn't really answer for the first part, but for the second I blurted out Karl Smith of Modeled Behavior, though his paragraphs are way too short.

Sort of like how when someone insulted you on the playground back in elementary school, leading you to think up a devastating retort sometime late that night, now I think of the best answer to that question: Steve Randy Waldman. He's got a brilliant update to his post on depressions, and while it's as usual a bit technical, here's a quick answer to my point about breaking the plutocracy:
There is supposed to be a constituency for stimulative policy. The conventional story is that, during a downturn, election-seeking politicians will be recklessly pro-expansion, in conflict with and checked by an independent central bank. But, at least in the United States and Europe, there is surprisingly little appetite among politicians from “mainstream” parties to emphasize either fiscal or monetary expansion. On the contrary, the political conversation revolves around restraining deficits and “being responsible”, which is code for ensuring that the demands of creditors (public and private) are fully satisfied. This may change. In Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain, parties now viewed as “fringe” may gain influence. But despite a years-long downturn of Great Depression severity, so far elected politicians in all these countries have emphasized a narrative of necessary adjustment and responsibility, and have almost never agitated for monetary policy better tailored to Southern Europe or threatened disorderly default.
Can't argue with that. As I said, Obama has clearly been captured by the plutocrats; it would take an insurgent outsider to try powerful stimulus. I also loved this footnote:
In Japan, Germany, and France, more than 50% of the total population is over 40 years old. (56.5%, 57.2%, and 50.2% respectively.) They do have children in these countries, so there are many more retirees and working-age people over 40 than there are younger workers. In the US, “only” 45.5% of the population is over 40, but I think as a polity, the United States behaves as though it is substantially older, because its unusual fecundity (for a developed economy) comes from relatively poor and disenfranchised immigrants. By comparison, China’s over-40 share is 40.3%, Brazil’s is 32.8%, and India’s is 27.1%. In the 1970s, when the US policy was, um, plainly inflationary, the over-40 share of the population was 36.1%.
One wonders what the policy balance would look like if we had mandatory voting, given younger voters' notorious apathy, or when the bulge of baby boomers have died off.

Anyways, I don't know if Steve would even want a Times column--I imagine writing under their constraints might be more obnoxious than it's worth--but he's for my money the most consistently interesting and broad-minded econ writer out there. Check him out.

PS: I should also mention that the man himself (at least online) is extraordinarily generous and kind-spirited. He somehow started reading my stuff and linking to the best of it on occasion, which has been enormously satisfying and helpful. There are far too few established writers actively on the lookout for new voices; most people just interact with those who are already big.

He also makes a consistent effort to find common ground among competing ideological camps, something which, while not to be tried when facing fanatics like Eric Cantor, is still worthwhile in the policy arena. Too often in the blogosphere writers get in ad hominem slugfests with people who are basically on their side. Slugfests are not always bad--people like Jonah Goldberg really are fools--but Steve has a good impulse towards generosity and gentleness.

Apr 20, 2012

Intelligence Is Overrated, ctd

Felix Salmon was flipping through a recent book by David Rothkopf, and found some striking evidence for Chris Hayes' theory of rot in the meritocracy recently:

Later there's a similar interview with Robert Rubin. Both Summers and Rubin are clearly brilliant people, and the products of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world. Summers entered MIT at 16, and was a tenured professor at Harvard by 28, one of the youngest of those in history. Rubin has degrees from Harvard, the London School of Economics, and Yale. Yet they both espouse beliefs that I am quite confident in labeling total horseshit.

Am I so arrogant to think I'm smarter than these two? Nah. I bet either of them would whup me good on the SAT. These men are just being human. To admit that deregulation is a problem would be to say a large part of their lives' work--probably the most important part--was a terrible, catastrophic mistake. It's an extraordinary person indeed that will cop to being a principal architect of the greatest recession in 80 years. This reminded me of something Matt Yglesias wrote awhile back about Hjalmar Schacht, the Nazi economic wizard:
...part of what's so incredible about it are that Schacht's two great achievements—the Weimar-era whipping of hyperinflation and the Nazi-era whipping of deflation—were both so easy. The both involved, in essence, simply deciding that the central bank actually wanted to solve the problem.  
And the answer really just comes down to refusal to admit that a mistake had been made. To halt the inflation, the Reichsbank would have to stop printing money. But once the inflation had gotten too high for Reichsbank President Rudolf Havenstein to stop printing money and stop the inflation would be an implicit admission that the whole thing had been his fault in the first place and he should have done it earlier. It was easier to say that hyperinflation was a necessary consequence of allied demands for reparations payments and that he had no choice but to print currency in the quantity demanded ... So things continued for several years until a new government brought Schacht on as a sort of currency czar. Schacht stopped the private issuance of money, launched a new land-backed currency and simply . . . refused to print too much of it. The problem was solved both very quickly and very easily. His later work helping Hitler rebuild the German war machine was a bit different, but again essentially just involved looking at what the previous failed policy had been (gold standard and deflation) and doing the reverse.

The institutional and psychological problem here turns out to be really severe. If the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee were to take strong action at its next meeting and put the United States on a path to rapid catch-up growth, all that would do is serve to vindicate the position of the Fed's critics that it's been screwing up for years now. Rather than looking like geniuses for solving the problem, they would look like idiots for having let it fester so long.
I wouldn't go so far as to say running the Fed, for example, is easy, but I would say that intelligence is only one of many qualities necessary to run it well, and probably not the most important one. When looking to make a hire of that kind one should also consider humility and wisdom, among other things, and as Matt says, make sure the "reputational incentives ... point in the direction of [running the agency well]."

[UPDATE: Also, leaders should be doubly skeptical with super geniuses so they're not being snookered by dazzling displays of ability. If anything, the very intelligent will be more vulnerable to this kind of biased reasoning on account of being brilliant tends to make a person arrogant and overly certain.]

A solely intelligence-based meritocracy is a lousy way to set up an institution.

Layout update

Made a few minor design and layout updates here. Let me know if you've got any strong opinions.

Apr 19, 2012

Yet More on Helicopters

It could be just me, but I feel like we're seeing a dramatic flowering of high-quality video-blogging. There's Scishow, Smarter Every Day, CGP Grey, and Minute Physics for starters. Offhand I reckon it's due to the crashing cost of high-quality video equipment, and widespread availability of high-speed computers and video editing software. What's your favorite?

Apr 18, 2012

How to Break the Plutocracy

Steve's brilliant post from yesterday rightly called most developed countries "democratic plutocracies." I think he's right to do so, and I think it's quite unlikely that the plutocracy will be broken anytime soon. Nevertheless I think it can be done.

My rough model of our plutocracy is that the wealthy and the privileged use their money not to bribe people, but by making the politicians dependent on them for donations, creating a favorable intellectual environment through think tanks and payouts to favored economists, paying former staffers and friends of politicians huge sums to lobby, and of course through shadowy SuperPACs that flood the airwaves with agitprop. Probably the most important aspect of this is it's all aboveboard. Nobody has to take sacks of money and consciously acknowledge to himself that he is corrupt, and therefore the corruption can spread much further.

I think this edifice is more vulnerable than it appears. Obviously Obama has been eaten by the plutocracy, but here's my model for an insurgent movement. For starters, a candidate (or movement) would need to be able to ignore money. I think, especially now that SuperPACs can flood the airwaves (making voters ever-less-likely to pay attention), and especially for already-established politicians, the marginal value of advertising is quite low. (It would help a lot if the media stopped using money raised as a proxy for success.) Second, the candidate would need an adequate grasp of the policies to hand. Obama, for example, made a remarkably stupid and completely unjustified pivot to deficit reduction in 2010. It's quite easy, I imagine, for people to get sucked into the DC bonehead consensus when they reach high office. We'd need an unusually confident candidate, or some kind of independent advisory body free of the soul-sucking Beltway platitude machine.

But most importantly by far, is you'd need a Lyndon Johnson or FDR candidate. The heart of my scheme is the realization that there is enormous power waiting for anyone who can grasp this situation and break the plutocrats. Johnson was monster in many ways, a morally bereft, cynical, and absolutely fucking ruthless operator, but the man knew how to use power. My biggest problems with Obama are that he seems bizarrely uninterested in flexing the muscle of the federal bureaucracy (dozens of vacancies go un-nominated), and appears to actually believe in compromise for its own sake, and not solely focused on winning policy battles and elections at all costs. What happened when he passed a milquetoast stimulus, renominated Bernanke, and tried to reduce the deficit in 2010? The Democrats got crushed.

Politics is a dirty, terrible business run by awful people, but if you play, you have to play to win. Sometimes I wonder if Hillary Clinton would have done better.

Energy Storage Innovation

Matt Yglesias bemoans the lack of battery innovation:
This is bad news for the world. If you look at the mobile computing space, precisely the area in which you don't see breathtaking innovation is this battery stuff. We're just not getting better at the basic physics of storing electricity in a reasonably compact way. Battery life for things like smartphones and laptops has improved, but that's all coming as improved efficiency of the chipsets. But here, too, the basic physics of translating engine power into forward automobile motion are not amenable to enormous improvements.
It's true that batteries have not kept anything like close pace with the rate of innovation in the rest of the tech world. In fact, when you take recycling into account, it's still hard to beat the old lead-acid batteries from the days of yore.

Capacitors, via Wikimedia
However there has been stupendous innovation in a different area of charge storage: capacitors. I remember my intro physics class with the legendary David Griffiths at Reed, and during one lecture he talked about how his original electrodynamics textbook written back in the 80s made the point that the standard unit of capacitance, the Farad, is quite large, such that when he was writing you would have needed a forklift to carry a one-Farad capacitor. Well lo and behold some joker of a materials chemist sent him a one-Farad capacitor (this was in 2005, mind you) taped to a plastic fork. It was about the size of a silver dollar and weighed maybe a couple grams.

Capacitors are sort of a strange thing to use for long-term storage--normally they're for short burst power, which is where you find them on circuit boards and in custom high-powered stereos. But if you can get the capacitance high enough (into the tens of thousands of Farads), the physics works out. Just last year there was a new method developed:
A new carbon based material for supercapacitor electrodes could allow them to store the same amount of energy as a lead-acid battery but with much faster charge times. The porous material shows power densities an order of magnitude better than current carbon supercapacitors and can be made in a simple method that could be easily scaled to industrial quantities.
There are some additional advantages to capacitors as well. Batteries depend on an actual chemical reaction going back and forth, which is what limits their recharge lifespan. Capacitors are much closer to classic physics (though the boundary is increasingly blurred with super-capacitors), which gives them greater durability. Plus they can be charged and discharged at 10-100 times the speed of conventional batteries.

Their energy density still doesn't quite match up to the best batteries, but given the history of breakthroughs in the field, if I were going to bet on innovation in energy storage, this would be the place.

Apr 17, 2012

Depressing Depressions

Steve Randy Waldman has a bracing post on the massive policy failure that we have witnessed over the last four years. This depression was a choice, he says:
But the preferences of developed, aging polities — first Japan, now the United States and Europe — are obvious to a dispassionate observer. Their overwhelming priority is to protect the purchasing power of incumbent creditors. That’s it. That’s everything. All other considerations are secondary. These preferences are reflected in what the polities do, how they behave. They swoop in with incredible speed and force to bail out the financial sectors in which creditors are invested, trampling over prior norms and laws as necessary. The same preferences are reflected in what the polities omit to do. They do not pursue monetary policy with sufficient force to ensure expenditure growth even at risk of inflation. They do not purse fiscal policy with sufficient force to ensure employment even at risk of inflation. They remain forever vigilant that neither monetary ease nor fiscal profligacy engender inflation. The tepid policy experiments that are occasionally embarked upon they sabotage at the very first hint of inflation. The purchasing power of holders of nominal debt must not be put at risk. That is the overriding preference, in context of which observed behavior is rational.
This preference is not at all difficult to understand. The ailing developed economies are plutocratic democracies. “The people” do have power, but influence is weighted in a manner correlated with wealth. The median influencer in these economies is not a billionaire, but an older citizen of some affluence who has mostly endowed her own future consumption. She would like to be richer, of course. But she is content with her present wealth, and is terrified of becoming poorer. For such a person, the depression status quo is unfortunate but tolerable. The risks associated with expansionary policy, on the other hand, are absolutely terrifying.
I think he is largely right about this. The elite class in this country (and far, far more so in Europe) is maniacally obsessed with inflation, and exercises veto power over policy decisions. However I think there is a glimmer of hope here and there.

First, I think there is significant room for action without actually triggering significant inflation. That is to say I don't think most of the elite class (especially businessmen) actually have much understanding of the macroeconomy and their fears of inflation are largely irrational. A bit of inflation would help somewhat, but I think if the Fed could have significantly more expansionary policy without leading to a wage-price spiral.

Second, just to poach some more from Steve (this is another excellent post, sheesh), there are some tricks we could use to try and buy off some of the poor and middle class, via strictly guarded inflation-protected bank accounts. This might ease up some of the clutching anxiety of the retired class.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, though the plutocratic part of our democracy has effectively stymied action, we still have enough democratic character for long depressions to have serious electoral consequences. The Democrats got hammered in 2010, and probably because the economy was still in the toilet. The flipside of that coin is that there is enormous political power waiting for anyone who manages to break through the plutocratic deadlock and jam through some massive stimulus. Just imagine--if Obama had appointed Scott Sumner as Fed chair and he had engineered a strong recovery, the Democrats surely would have kept power in 2010.

That might sound naive, but I think it can be done. I'll explain why tomorrow.

Apr 16, 2012

Einstein Was Right About Insanity

Jonah Goldberg, noted right-wing intellectual, has a new book out about cliches. He doesn't like them, and today he highlights one he especially doesn't like:
“Einstein defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” 
First of all does anyone know if he really said that? 
Second, this is absurd. You know a better word for “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”? 
I can't find definitive proof of the veracity of the Einstein quote one way or the other, though I think Goldberg is right to be skeptical of it; that sort of thing is common. But this is a tendentious misreading of the cliche. When practicing, you expect the same thing every time, namely to get better at whatever you're practicing. Einstein (or whoever) obviously meant that if you're trying to accomplish some goal, and you do something and it doesn't work, then it's foolish to keep doing that same thing. He would define insane practicing as doing a lot of bowling, say, and expecting to get better at Frisbee. (For a real-life example, see austerity in Europe.)


Collected links

1. Texas Monthly has a big report on GW Bush and the Texas Air National Guard years. Read it quick, they're supposedly going to paywall it soon.

2. Lovely profile of Robert Caro.

3. Will gated communities like Facebook and the Apple app store destroy the free internet? It's from Google's Sergey Brin, but he makes a good case. Apple's dictator mentality towards their customers is the reason I don't own and will not buy any Apple products.

4. Can ibogaine cure addiction? Not proved by any means, but intriguing.

5. Blog of the week. Physics' limitations on economics.

Apr 15, 2012

Why "Rational Self-Interest" Bugs Me

The phrase "rational self-interest" chafes my strap. I don't think it's entirely worthless--I do think an assumption of amoral self-interest, broadly defined, can be a highly useful first approximation, which is why economists are so excited about the concept. Profit-maximizers are a lot easier jam into a mathematical model than irrational actual people. But it is often taken too far. Here are three complaints:

People aren't terribly rational. I'm willing to concede that most people have a strong tendency toward self-interest, especially those in a position of authority, but behavioral economics is full of irrational tendencies people display that have been documented extremely well, even when measured in terms of self-interest. People take shortcuts and procrastinate; our reasoning systems are somewhat ad-hoc and don't always work perfectly.

"Rational" is a normative term, and I don't like how it's attached to "self-interest." This is kind of a quibble, but it's irritating when economists try to sneak normative, valorizing ideas into their ostensibly neutral definitions. It sneakily implies that selfish people are the ones that are really thinking clearly. It's lazy at best, psychotic at worst, and behind a lot of the asshole behavior that economists too often display.

Finally, self-interest can easily be twisted into a question-begging shape that is impossible to disprove. This is by far the most obnoxious way the idea is used. Take, for example, Robert Caro's view of Lyndon Johnson. He is simultaneously deeply impressed with how much Johnson achieved on civil rights, poverty, and the like, but is repelled by the man personally. Johnson was often a monster, who was cruel "for the sake of being cruel," but according to Caro he really tried to alleviate the plight of the poor using his power, and succeeded to a remarkable degree. So did Johnson really care about the poor, or was he just using them to get what he wanted? Or, did he just get a personal pleasure out of helping the poor, and therefore just did it to get a jolt of selfish pleasure and accomplishment?

These hypotheses may be partly or mostly true, but the obnoxious part is that no matter what the action, you can tell a self-interested story that explains it. Mother Teresa was just in it for the thrills and satisfaction. Martin Luther King did it for the accolades. Etc. But an explanation which cannot be disproved is ultimately of little use. It explains everything and therefore nothing.

For my part, I find Caro's human explanation of Johnson more convincing. He came from extreme poverty, and while he often was a terrible, cruel man, he genuinely sympathized with the poor and tried to help them because he thought it was the right thing to do. (In addition, of course, to lots of self-interested political reasons.)

Again, I don't deny that rational self-interest has a lot of explanatory power. But to try and jam all of human experience into that box mangles us beyond recognition. Often the most interesting, redemptive facets of humanity are where people escape from narrow, cynical self-dealing.

Power and Evil

Another problem I have with Why Nations Fail and public choice theory is that it if anything understates the amount of horror one is likely to get out of a public choice dystopia. One can account for a great deal of the cruelty and terror inflicted by extractive dictatorships by a rational agent hypothesis--in Syria right now, for instance, Assad is murdering his own people by the score for fairly obvious self-interested reasons. His position is threatened by an uprising and he intends to bludgeon protesters into submission because that's the the only way to hang on to power. The next question, of course, is whether the repression itself is only fueling the uprising, but these sorts of things take on a life of their own quickly; once you've started, it's easy to get caught in a ratcheting cycle of violence.

Robert Moses, via Wikimedia
But pure, rational self-interestedness doesn't quite capture the full behavior of unaccountable elites. They are also often cruel, for no reason at all. History is full of vicious, murdering lunatics in positions of power, but my favorite example is one from the life of Robert Moses, the great power-mad master planner of New York City. Not because it's especially violent or bloodstained, but because it's so utterly senseless. 

Late in his career Moses was ramming highways through New York with reckless abandon, and probably the worst one was the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The key detail in this story--told of course by Robert Caro--is that one mile of the highway, as planned by Moses, passed just north of an open space in the East Tremont neighborhood, an existing street and park. 
But in 1953 Epstein was standing in Moses’ way, telling Mayor Wagner that there was no rational reason for Moses to shove the Cross-Bronx Expressway through the East Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx on a route that, in just one mile, would require the demolition of fifty-four separate apartment houses when there was another, parallel route, which would require the demolition of exactly six small brownstone tenements, just two blocks away.
There was no engineering or money or even power-based explanation for why Moses paved over the houses instead of avoiding them. In fact it would have been cheaper and easier for everyone, including Moses. Caro considers several reasons for why Moses would do such a thing, and in the end we can't know for sure, but we can know is that it had nothing to do with rationality. Power makes people not just utterly self-interested, but also crazy and mean-spirited.

This is such an oft-repeated theme throughout history that it sounds trite, but societies forget this lesson at their peril. Consider these words:
I know, I have seen, the desperation and disorder of the powerless: how it twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi in much the same way as it does the lives of children on Chicago’s South Side, how narrow the path is for them between humiliation and untrammeled fury, how easily they slip into violence and despair. I know that the response of the powerful to this disorder -- alternating as it does between a dull complacency and, when the disorder spills out of its proscribed confines, a steady, unthinking application of force, of longer prison sentences and more sophisticated military hardware -- is inadequate to the task.
They were written by Barack Obama, a man who is right now steadily applying longer prison sentences and more sophisticated military hardware to America's disorder problems. He believes he can assassinate American citizens at will. You could argue that Obama was simply lying when he wrote that (c. 2004, I believe), but at the risk of sounding naive I really believe he meant it, and the lesson here is no one can be trusted. Instead we must make sure our institutions are functioning properly.

Ours aren't.

Apr 14, 2012

Weekend Jams

I'm taken with this music video:

*Why Nations Fail* and *Twilight of the Elites*

The central problem of society is the problem of power. Any society much beyond subsistence level is too complex to governed without delegation. A leadership of some sort must be given power so that the basic functionality of government can be provided--security, transportation, etc. People ain't got time for that stuff. This means an elite must be developed, a class of people with extra power. The trouble is that power is dangerous. People tend to use it for their own benefit, especially if no one is stopping them. This is the thesis of Why Nations Fail: countries which cannot restrain their elites are robbed blind by them and remain poor. Their institutions are extractive. Successful countries, on the other hand, dole out power while restraining corruption and self-dealing. This well-delegated power allows the construction of complex public services: trains, highways, intercontinental ballistic missiles, spaceships, etc. Their institutions are inclusive.

WNF gives a fairly straightforward public choice theory argument for how elites tend to behave in failed states. Public choice theory, briefly, is just applying economists' "rational agents" method to the political system, meaning a scheme where politicians and bureaucrats tend to act mostly in their own cynical self-interest. It has been developed by libertarian types who are skeptical of government, and often used to attack it. Public choice theory is not a great economic doctrine (though it is surely useful at times), rather it should be taken as a terrifying lesson as what what awaits those countries that can't keep their elites pinned down. WNF provides a vision of what countries look like when public choice theory really obtains, and it's horrifying. Economists' rational agents in positions of power are tyrantsMatt Yglesias, interestingly, previewed this argument months ago:
If you look at a really poorly governed place (Congo, say) the problem isn’t that the people in charge of regulating air pollution aren’t doing their jobs correctly. The problem is either that the men with the guns and dungeons are corrupt, or else that they’re incapable of protecting citizens from other predatory gangs of men with guns, or some combination of the two. When I was in Russia, I was robbed by policemen on several occasions under the pretense of fining me for having my visa out of order, and upon leaving the airport security guards stole all my cash. In the United States, neither of those things has ever happened to me. The existence of the rule of law and secure property rights is, where it exists, a triumph of public integrity against the assumption of cynicism.
Societies which can beat back public choice theory are the successful ones, usually through some combination of wise structuring, oversight, and development of moral norms. And lest you think the latter is not that important, I present the following, from an otherwise forgettable piece by Michael Lewis on Germany:
Jörg Asmussen...is a type familiar in Germany but absolutely freakish in Greece—or for that matter the United States: a keenly intelligent, highly ambitious civil servant who has no other desire but to serve his country. His sparkling curriculum vitae is missing a line that would be found on the résumés of men in his position most anywhere else in the world—the line where he leaves government service for Goldman Sachs to cash out. When I asked another prominent German civil servant why he hadn’t taken time out of public service to make his fortune working for some bank, the way every American civil servant who is anywhere near finance seems to want to do, his expression changed to alarm. “But I could never do this,” he said. “It would be illoyal!”
This moral angle is one of the big weaknesses of WNF--the short shrift it gives to norms and ideology. The obvious truth is that most leaders in the developed world are not sociopaths or tyrants (not yet, anyway), and the explanation they give for that fact—a story of countries randomly developing a balance of power that prevents total tyranny—is not very convincing. Successful nations have a balanced group of elites, where none can permanently crush the others, plus enlightenment ideas which the elites really believe, plus institutional norms that restrain self dealing because "it isn't done," plus a semblance of oversight, like a media which can appeal to those norms and shame the corrupt.

Here's where Twilight of the Elites comes in. The United States has been losing to public choice theory. Our gigantic security apparatus missed 9/11. We invaded a country based on lies. The president and his closest advisers developed a torture regime in flagrant violation of our most fundamental laws, and remain free to this day. We stood by helpless as one of our great cities was devastated. Our financial sector first caused an enormous crisis and then received almost no sanction for it. (They continue to siphon off a tremendous fraction of the economy, with efficiency less than in 1910.) In short, we have developed a galloping case of the extractive institutions.

What is happening?

All elites, given half a chance, will turn extractive. This isn't a novel insight, and Hayes doesn't claim it is, but it's still true. Aside from WNF, Fukuyama's grand work The Origins of Political Order is full to bursting with failed societies who were bled dry by rapacious elites. It's what did for the Mamluks, the Ottomans, ancien régime France, and Imperial Spain, among others. "Elites" should be construed broadly; private interests can be just as voracious as any government. Extractive nobles, not kings, are what destroyed Medieval Hungary.

Traditional norms are being broken by the score. From Bush and Cheney getting away with evil, illegal acts, to the twisted wreckage that is the Senate, to financial corporations getting away with institutional fraud scot-free, to a vicious war on whistleblowers while ignoring the actual criminals revealed, our government is increasingly concerned with maintaining its own power at all costs, and corrosive cynicism about official integrity is more and more common. Rot has set in.

Traditional media oversight has been undermined by failure and conservative propaganda. The run-up to the Iraq war badly discredited the establishment media, and cynical movement conservatives have deliberately undermined it further. Hayes provides a striking vision of an alternate future:
Imagine how the Civil Rights Movement would be received were it to happen today. Fox News would work ceaselessly to convince Northern audiences that the protesters were in fact Marxists and subversives and posed a violent threat to the American way. Sleazy interviews with [Martin Luther] King's various mistresses would appear on segregationist blogs, while right-wing activists would gleefully videotape and disseminate embarrassing interviews with bewildered protesters.
Ability will not save us. This is the big concept of TOTE. Our current system of producing elites is based on the meritocracy, which is mostly measured around intelligence and accomplishment. As he writes, intelligence, especially a lot of it, is dramatically overrated. It is certainly impressive, and can be really intimidating, but absent other qualities brilliant people are just as likely to use their ability to think up convincing rationalizations for whatever they want to believe, or engage in straight-up corruption. As Hayes writes, "wisdom, judgment, empathy and ethical rigor are all as important, even if those traits are far less valued. Indeed, extreme intelligence without these qualities can be extremely destructive." In the end, all the ability-based meritocracy has produced is a generation of elites smugly convinced that they actually deserve to be on top, devoid of any sense of social responsibility, and just as incompetent as any inbred aristocracy.

(Chris Mooney makes a good point about this in The Republican Brain. Ostensibly one would think that the better someone is at reasoning, the more likely they would be to reach correct conclusions. Not so. Polls show that the more educated Republicans are (which I think is a decent proxy for reasoning ability, though obviously not perfectly correlated) the more likely they are to be climate deniers.)

To sum up: Chris Hayes has written a brilliant, deeply-felt testament to watching a great country eat itself from the inside out, and Acemoglu and Robinson show what will happen if we keep on our present course. You should read them both.

[Update history: Clarified sentence about whistleblowers.]

Apr 12, 2012

Books For the 99 Percent

Apparently Paul Krugman is going to be published in a reader called The Occupy Handbook, which made me think of a couple books that are perfect for a rebirth of the Occupy movement.

1. The Great Divergence, by Tim Noah. This isn't too polemical, it's just a good overview of inequality that digs deep into the details of just what is happening and how.

2. Why Nations Fail, by Acemoglu and Robinson. This is nominally a big-picture history book, but it gives a good, hard look a just why some governments suck and others don't. Suffice to say it's not hard to apply their thesis to the US.

3. Twilight of the Elites, by Chris Hayes. This is the best of the lot. It's nominally about how our meritocracy has become just another self-perpetuating elite concerned solely with their own power and money, but really it's a beautiful, fiery testament to what he calls the "fail decade." Nothing else I've read grasps our crumbling institutions half so well. It goes surprisingly well with the previous work.

Webcomic Recommendations?

Here are the webcomics I currently subscribe to, in no particular order:

2. Tom Tomorrow
3. Sci-ence!
4. Penny Arcade
6. Reptilius Rex
7. Garfield minus Garfield.

I have the distinct feeling I'm missing a few. What are your favorites?

Apr 11, 2012

Quote for the day

"I'm not sure how anyone expects 'the housing market' to 'recover' when buying a house now involves handing a bunch of money over to a bank which will then proceed to steal your house from you." --Atrios.

I think this might be slightly too cynical, in that banks for the most part only steal houses that have distressed mortgages and so forth, but only just. This country is developing a galloping case of the extractive institutions.

Apr 10, 2012

Collected links

1. What's eating the NYPD?

2. Being a Pakistani woman is tough.

3. Colleges will probably regret the enormous debt they've inflicted on the young.

4. The Mystery of Marine Noah Pippin Going AWOL

5. Yegads.

The Climate Hawks Are the Economically Rational Ones

New York City, via Wikimedia
Here's a great story from Climate Central on the vulnerability of New York's transport system to climate change: 
This was also supported by Climate Central’s own scientific research published in March, which showed that during the next several decades, the frequency of damaging storm surges in places like New York will rise significantly as sea levels creep up. The research projected a sea level rise of 13 inches in New York by 2050, and found that global warming-related sea level rise more than triples the odds of a 100-year flood or worse by 2030. 
Without global warming, the odds of such a flood would be just 8 percent by 2030, but with global warming the odds rise to 26 percent. [...] 
Even without sea level rise, a 100-year flood would inundate large portions of the subway system, Jacob’s team concluded. But with a 4-foot rise in sea level, storm-related flooding would inundate much of Manhattan’s subways, including almost all of the tunnels crossing into the Bronx beneath the Harlem River and the tunnels under the East River. Five of the city’s subway lines have extremely low points of entry to tunnels, subways, or ventilation shafts: they are less than 8 feet above sea level.
Obviously, given the geographical position of New York seen above, this is no surprise, but read the rest anyway for some extremely troubling analysis.

To step back a bit, though, this is just yet more confirmation of the argument that the climate hawk position (meaning that vigorous action is needed to confront climate change) is the obviously correct position for the soulless, technocratic economist. Climate change is presented by conservatives (when they're not denying it altogether) as a kind of luxury good, something that we can indulge during the good times, but something we "can't afford" now, when we should focus on fixing the economy and creating jobs.

Now, this might be somewhat true when it comes to a few things, like national parks preserved only for their aesthetic merit, but when it comes to climate this is a crock. Properly understood delaying action on climate change is stealing from others and the future. It's happening right now, to a smaller extent. Carbon emitters profit by their activities, but the costs of their pollution are imposed on others. New York is already spending $1.5 billion to upgrade its climate defenses, and likely as not they'll have to spend tens of billions more. That money has been stolen. (Or, to use bloodless economist jargon, it's a "negative externality.") Even Hayek supported government action in this kind of situation. This used to be obvious when we talked about Soviet ecological disasters, like their pillaging of the Aral Sea. It maybe netted them some money in the short term, but eventually destroyed a big fishing industry and badly poisoned the surrounding population.

Delaying climate confrontation because "we can't afford it" is like not fixing a crumbling roof support beam in your house because you don't want to spend the money. You can either fix the beam now, or pay an enormously greater sum later when your house collapses. (Of course, we conservatives say "we can't afford it" they mean "we must have budget headroom to cut taxes on the rich.")

I should clarify that I'm very much in favor of additional arguments for climate hawking (hawkery?), like for example that billions of people will die if we don't do something. Furthermore, I'm not at all convinced that strong action on climate will even cost that much. I'm just pointing out that even on the most hardcore of free-market principles (Friedrich von Hayek, fer chrissakes!) the case for climate hawking is ironclad.

Apr 9, 2012

The Graveyard of the Colorado, part I

Cataract Canyon, via Wikimedia
 [This is another story from my dad, about the flood of 1983 on the Colorado through Cataract Canyon. I'll be posting it in installments.]

They thought it was probably going to start dropping soon. The river was already higher than any flood since the gauges went in back in the 20’s, so the safe bet for forecasters was to say it had just about peaked. “Highest water ever recorded,” would be a fair statement. How much water that was in actual volume would be hard to say. It was off the graph.

Floods like this are suppose to be a spike in the pattern. Once the level started down it was expected to fall off precipitately, which would be good. The Green River wasn’t anything I recognized at this level. The camps were gone, the side hikes under water.  The river was painfully cold and going so fast it was hard to get all the boats landed in one place. I’d had a sketchy time of it just pulling in to the notch in the tamarisk trees where my boat was tied up and the hissing current still had hold of it, bending it downstream against the branches, everything trembling and creaking. I was tied up to a sprinkler head, and by that I mean my boat was tied up there, as I sometimes don’t make a distinction. There was no other solid feature on the manicured lawn along the river bank adjacent our hotel. It was only a few steps to our rooms at the “River Terrace,” Green River, Utah’s (the town) most luxurious accommodations.   

The River Terrace had room decors in three colors, Too Red, Too Green and Too Gold with fuzzy wall paper, guilded fixtures and the feel of a fin de siecle brothel. The good thing was you could make it cool and dark as a cave inside, even while the sun was turning the parking lot into a shimmering pool of asphalt. Most of the floor space was taken up by coolers full of food for the second half of the trip. A ragtag group of boatmen (gender neutral) were draped over everything, pounding 3.2 beer with little effect and waiting for someone to decide what the hell to do.

We’d already had these passengers for six days through Desolation Canyon. It was a charter trip and they were all related. There were a couple of young kids maybe nine and twelve, their parents and their grandmother, somebody’s sister and her whole family. One lady had only been out of the hospital for three weeks after major cancer surgery. Not your ideal adventure team. There must have nineteen or twenty of them in five boats, expecting a mellow family trip. Not so. It was running fifty-five thousand cubic feet per second, twice the highest level I’d ever seen and screamingly fast. We only needed to spend an hour on the water to make a day’s miles but it was an anxious hour. The rapids were fine, homogenized into lengthy sets of huge standing waves, but the eddies, boils and whirlpools tossed the dories around like little pieces of bark.

And the drift was truly frightening. 

You’d be watching a 200 year old cottonwood tree float by, sixty feet long, root ball as big a Lincoln, in full leaf with birds nests full of twittering squab and the sucker would just disappear. Gone. You’re setting there in your gaily painted eggshell thinking, “Where’s it coming up, for God’s sake?” Then, ninety seconds and a hundred feet from where it went down, the whole crown would suddenly explode out of the water like the skeleton of Moby Dick, execute an agonized pirouette, crash down into the river and vanish. Lordy. There were railroad ties, telephone poles, the entirety of a single-lane wooden bridge, a 5000-gallon cylindrical steel tank that chased us for miles, and seven hundred dead cattle, bloated like bagpipes, all on their way to Lake Powell with everything the river could wrench loose. There was some discussion as to whether it would be wise to continue.

The second half of this trip included Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons on the Green River and Cataract Canyon below the confluence with the Colorado. It’s is kind of an odd trip in that there are 120 miles of  serene flat water winding through spectacular scenery, then all hell breaks loose for a few miles, after which you find yourself in the silted wasteland of the upper Powell Reservoir. You can do most if it in an open canoe, but better not take the Grumman through the “Graveyard of the Colorado.” Cataract is a different story.

I’m not sure how the decision was made or who made it. The chain of command was a bit murky, but it might have been me. It was probably me. We already had a two-boat trip that left a couple days ahead of us on predictions of dropping water. The leader of that trip was one Bego Gerhart, our best Cataract hand and no fool. Other trips were proceeding as usual. Cataract Canyon was five days downstream, and the thinking was, it would be manageable by then. The passengers were clueless and game. We all were. We loaded up and left. 

It was easy to make the miles. There’s not much in the way of gradient for the first couple days, but that didn’t matter. We were hauling ass. The problem was stopping. There was four feet of fast water over the root crowns of the tamarisk and the banks were a continuous thicket of palsied branches, talus and cliff. The river was backed up for a mile into Barrier Canyon, but we rowed to the end of it anyway looking for a camp. It finally cliffed out in the brush and most of us slept on the boats. The mosquitoes were the only happy ones. We camped the next day on a thirty degree pitch, scattered in the boulders like bighorn sheep. We camped where no man had camped before. Everyplace we could actually get the whole trip stopped at once, we pondered the water level like an oracle, the waterline brimming with portent. It didn’t look so good. It was still coming up.

We burned five days getting to the confluence but the water was gaining on us the whole way. It was a colorful convergence. Colorado River really is red. The Green is really green. It takes them half a mile to mix. It was like pulling on to an on-ramp with the Pacific Ocean in the next lane. Some of your boatmen types will pride themselves on their finesse with the river, their ability to read water so well as to be able to make the river do most of the work for them. OK, maybe I even am one of those people, but it was not happening here. Every stroke I took was as hard as I could pull and it often didn’t seem to make any difference at all. Suddenly you’d find yourself on some huge hurtling tectonic plate of water that appeared under the boat and have about as much control over where you were going as if you were rowing say, Greenland. And this was the flatwater, of which there are three miles between the Confluence and Spanish Bottom, a short distance above the first rapid in Cataract.

Spanish Bottom, via Wikimedia
We got to Spanish Bottom at the same time as the helicopter from Channel 2 News, a Salt Lake City station. They set down right next to the semi-permanent camp Canyonlands National Park had set up to advise boaters about the high flow. Big motor rigs had been tipping over. People had drowned. No one had been through Cataract in three days and it was still coming up. Somebody on the helicopter handed me a note from Bego, leader of the trip two days downstream. The chopper had touched down at his camp above the Big Drops to make sure he was OK. The note said:
Do not go below Spanish Bottom. We are evacuating our trip. I flipped somewhere in the North Seas. Paul tipped over somewhere below there and had people in the water right to the top of Big Drop One. Do not go below Spanish Bottom
Bego had finally tipped a boat over, that was about the only bright spot. He’d been doing this for eighteen years and was starting to get a big head about it.

I’m still digesting the import of the note when we hear an outboard engine fire up.  There were a lot of people standing around, and the noise got everyone’s attention.  It was a Moki Mac motor trip whose departure marked the first to descend Cataract in three days.  “Pete said he was going to go today,” one of the Rangers said while everyone was hustling to the bank to watch them leave.  Their people were all wearing two life jackets.

[That's it for now, stay tuned for the next installment!]

Apr 7, 2012

*The Republican Brain*

[For a primer, check out Kevin Drum's critique here and Mooney's response here.]

This is the latest from Chris Mooney, the man that brought us the book The Republican War on Science, which was quite good. This time he's trying to figure out why not just science denial but straight-up reality denial (e.g., birtherism) has taken such a firm hold on the right.

I don't think this one is quite as good as TRWOS, but it's an admirable effort. The plain fact is that denialism is not just common on the right but mandatory. Look at what happened to Jon Huntsman. Mitt Romney has given in to it on climate. These are facts that cry out for an explanation, and Mooney offers a pretty convincing one on the merits. The argument is all heavily hedged, which is entirely appropriate given the infant state of the field, but basically it says that because conservatives are more closed, fixed, and certain in their views, they are more prone to the universal human traits of motivated reasoning and close-mindedness.

It was fairly convincing fleshed out, but the argument could have been patched up by poaching from other subjects. Start with political science--Kevin brings up European conservatives as examples of conservatives who don't deny science. This is mostly true (though, as Matt Steinglass notes, there is plenty of denialism from the likes of neofascist Geert Wilders), but raises some interesting thoughts. It's obvious if you look at other countries that there's nothing inherent in reality that mandates a two-party system. Instead, as Julian Sanchez points out, our kind of political institutions tend strongly towards two parties only. This leads to an entirely different kind of motivated reasoning where voters can focus on whatever trait they strongly dislike in the opposing candidate or party, then hold their nose and vote for the other guy. (Witness Razib Kahn, an extremely intelligent scientist, doing a quintessential example of that here.)

[UPDATE: More sources from the Anglosphere. Reading Chris Hayes' new book, I find that a quarter of Britons are climate deniers, and a possibly greater number of Australians, probably fueled by Murdoch's The Australian and that Australia is mostly a two-party state as well.]

This could be an answer to Kevin's objection. Perhaps European conservatives do have an similarly strong baseline tendency toward denialism, but end up shunted into fringe parties, while at the same time, the lack of American-style binary, zero-sum logic deprives deniers of a lot of voters who would have supported them out of instinct or hatred of the liberal side.

I would have also liked a look at history. Mooney clarifies up front that political beliefs are highly contingent on the course of history. From reading Fairness and Freedom I know that New Zealand has had much less violent and extremist rhetoric in their political discourse compared to the United States. Is there a connection between that kind of extremism and denialism? The American South sure seems like a concentration of both.

Finally, I was fascinated by Mooney's conclusive lessons. In essence, he says that liberals need to take a page out of the conservative playbook and become more organized, righteous, and supportive of each other. I think one could read that as trying to shut down people like Glenn Greenwald (who is ferociously critical of President Obama), but I think charitably read he makes the case that whatever liberals decide we want, we need to learn how to play politics to get it, and it's a team sport fought for keeps. He seems to have given up his "framing" hypothesis from years back, and just gone with the rally-the-troops model. Ed Kilgore had some interesting thoughts on this a couple days ago.

Overall, a good read on a critically important topic.

[On a side note, a relative of mine wrote recently to theorize that Mooney and myself might be related. My grandmother's maiden name was Mooney, you see, and she and Chris both come from the Phoenix area. (Interestingly, on a side side note, she was the first woman on the Tempe city council! Go Grandma!) Not sure how I could verify that, though.]

Apr 6, 2012


Via Sullivan, more magic from Pogo (best with some decent bass response):

Apr 5, 2012

Murphy's Law in Action

Like everyone these days, I carry a cell phone everywhere. My number changed when I came back from South Africa, though, and given that I'm not a particularly popular chap in the first place, hardly anyone calls me. I do most of my conversations by email and text SMS, and those are with only a few people. Of the actual phone conversations that I do have, basically all of them are with my family and girlfriend on the nights and weekends. I would honestly estimate (really, not exaggerating) that I receive incoming calls during the day about once every other month.

All of which is just a long excuse for something that's really just a bit of stupidity on my part--I didn't have my phone on silent yesterday. And when do I receive that bimonthly call, but the worst imaginable half-hour out of the roughly 1,600 half hours present in two months' worth of business time: a really important job interview yesterday. The worst part was that it felt like I was doing quite well up to that point, answering questions fluently and well (by my standards, anyway) and I was forced into one of those classic quick series of reactions--astonishment (no one ever calls me!), a violent surge of self-hatred (IDIOT!--see the sheriff's reaction at 4:04 here), quick rearguard action to cancel the call and maintain composure (shit, shit, how do I make it stop??), then a surge of agonizing self-doubt (big fuckup, moron, that might be it for you), and finally a return to concentration.

Of course, I had completely lost my train of thought and was wrong-footed for a good minute or two. I spent most of the rest of the day lambasting myself for it, and lambasting myself further for not remembering that you can make the thing go silent instantly by just pressing one of the volume keys. (I suppose if I got more than 0.5 calls per month, I would have known that offhand.) The cruelest irony of all was that it was just my sweet, blameless grandma calling to congratulate me on the magazine piece I got published.

But in the end, I don't suppose it was a huge deal. Shit happens, and I reckon things like that happen even to big-time magazine writers. Nothing I can do about it now anyways, except not do it in the future.

Apr 4, 2012

Wall Street Arms Race Makes for a Shoddy Infrastructure Plan

Felix Salmon finds an interesting fact:
File under “unexpected societal benefits of high frequency trading”: it’s doing wonders for building IT infrastructure. Sebastian Anthony and Jeff Hecht both have good overviews of the three — count ‘em — fiber-optic cables being laid deep below the arctic sea floor, all in a $1.5 billion attempt to shave 60 milliseconds, or less, off the amount of time it takes to get digital information from London to Tokyo.
Ok, fair enough, that's pretty cool. But one wonders if this is really the best way to go about this. To clarify, if a trader hears a bit of public information about a stock, and executes a quick trade or two before it's widely known, then she can make a quick buck. That's been true since the dawn of stock markets. But now that we have computers, people have been writing programs that do this automatically, and buying big servers to run the programs as fast as possible. The obvious result of this is that Wall Street and its equivalents across the world now involved in a massive IT arms race to win at this "high-frequency trading."

The thing about this is that it's zero-sum. There's only so much information out there, and every bit of increased money derived (groan) from increased trading speed on one side necessarily comes out of the profits of the other firms. It's a market failure, in that everyone would rationally prefer if someone could put a hard limit on this practice because it's pointless, but will never stop absent some kind of outside force coming in.

In addition, there are enormous opportunity costs here. Not only is the financial sector sucking up huge gobs of IT equipment, they're sucking up huge gobs of the smartest engineers and programmers, who are doing the social equivalent of trying to beat each other at Tetris. (Not to mention the fact that these programs, which do most of the trading these days, can create near-instantaneous stock market crashes before the traders can even reach the off switches.) If that gets some cables built between continents, that's a nice benefit, but it seems to me the optimal policy would be to clamp down on this market, like with a financial transactions tax, and use the proceeds to just build the cables ourselves.

Apr 2, 2012

Checking Your Work

Over at Real Climate, they've got an interesting look back at one of James Hanson's old papers, which was predicting the likely course of global warming:

Always a good idea to go back and check one's work. The kicker, though, is that the paper was published in 1981, when heavy-duty climate science was still getting off the ground. Things have gotten a lot more sophisticated and accurate since then, but the basic conclusions have been basically solid for more than 30 years.

Apr 1, 2012

Edward Abbey for Cheap!

Check it out, three bucks for Desert Solitaire or The Monkey Wrench Gang. Good stuff! The first is still probably my favorite book (though, to be fair, most people I hand it to hate it).

How Do Helicopters Work?

Destin from Smarter Every Day is here to show us, in the follow-up from his previous video:

Watch the first one carefully, and the second one will blow your mind. Awesome.