Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Peanut Brains

Megan McArdle wants you to know that you are much too protective of your children. It seems that early exposure to foods helps prevent allergies, not cause them, and that means your children should be allowed to roam your city at will.
It's yet another example of what I talk about in my book: how apparent safety is often more dangerous than well-managed risk. Our instincts to protect ourselves and our children are laudable. But they are also often wrong. It's time for a serious rethink of how we manage this threat -- and many other, formerly normal risks from which we are shielding children, to their detriment.

Considering McArdle also wants you to teach your children to rush a gunman rather than regulate guns, it might not be wise to take her advice regarding your children. She's just a little bit cavalier with their lives. Although I doubt she would be as careless with her own child's life. That hypothetical child would have probably had an underpaid au pair taking her to the park and The Little Preschool Of Galt's Gulch.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Two Peas In A Pod

Once again the Koch-fed veal "journalist" is supporting the Koch candidate. No doubt there will be many more posts of this ilk. Scott Walker's lack of university degree is under discussion and Megan McArdle rushes to bolster his authority.

To do this, McArdle compares Walker to herself. She was a lazy student and now just look at how hard she works, and how successful and skilled she has become! No doubt Walker has improved every bit as much as Megan McArdle over the past decade or so!

However, Walker wants to be president, not Megan McArdle's coworker. We compare him to Obama  (Columbia, Harvard Law), Bush (Yale, Harvard),  Clinton (Georgetown, Oxford, Yale). even Jimmy Carter (US Naval Academy).

Like Ross Douthat, McArdle sees the purpose of an education as a stepping-stone to bigger things. If you are already moving up, who needs an education?

There's a lot of debate among economists over what education really does for us. I mean, we know what it does for us -- helps us get better jobs -- but economists are split over why this is the case. Some think it is mostly a signal that you're conformist, intelligent and responsible enough to sit through four years of classes without flunking. Others think it mostly functions by imparting valuable skills that make people better workers.
But in either case, that's irrelevant to Walker's candidacy. College genuinely may give you important skills -- but that doesn't mean it's the only way to acquire those skills. I mean, Abraham Lincoln did manage to struggle along somehow. 
Or college completion may be a signal of your character. But we have other, better signals about Scott Walker's abilities -- namely, his time as governor. 
The fact that we seem so fixated on events decades past is its own dire signal -- of the way that America's Mandarin class is starting to think about college education not merely as the basic credential required for many of the best-paying jobs, but also the basic credential required for being a worthy, capable person. This is not merely untrue, but also a giant middle finger raised to the majority of upstanding American citizens who also didn't graduate from college. 
Of course, if Scott Walker does become president, it would be nice if he spoke better French. But on the scale of things that will matter for his presidency, that probably ranks only slightly above his bowling score.
Yes, discussing Walker's decision to not finish college is like discussing Obama's bowling score-- utterly trivial and meaningless. It's insulting to every good red-blooded American who was never able to finish college to even bring it up. Look at Abraham Lincoln--Walker is just like him!

Like Megan McArdle, the proof of his excellence is in the quality of his work, and Walker's work in Wisconsin is every bit as good as Megan McArdle's.

At Least She's Consistent

Megan McArdle to gentrifiers who want to preserve her quiet Victorian neighborhood of row houses from condo converters:  You don't own a neighborhood. You had it for four years and did nothing with it!

McArdle is for the conversions although she figures she'll win either way. She didn't buy the house for its history, architecture, neighborhood ambiance, or sense of community. Like everything else in life its purpose is to make her richer.

I hope P. Suderman, boy wingnut-welfare recipient,  never loses his job.


At Down With Tyranny, a post on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Civil rights are important but poor people can't even use the rights they have. Money is power.

(at Hullaballoo as well.)

Corporations Are Your Friends

Megan McArdle asks why can't corporations and labor units just get along?
We don't get a lot of feel-good stories around these parts. So here's your daily smile: In the St. Louis area, a group of folks started an urban farm on land owned by someone else. It was a win-win for the nearby airport, which owned the land at the time: It didn't have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year mowing, and the farmers got some exercise and affordable healthy food. Then the new owner decided it was going to use that land to expand its office park.

[yip yip yip]

This is civil society at its best. Cooperative, instead of adversarial. Respectful of property rights, while also respectful of people who have come together to build something great with their own labor. Win-win, instead of zero-sum.

Of course, that's not always possible.... But we can also make it worse than it needs to be. The company could have stood on its legal rights and said it didn't owe the gardeners a damn thing. The gardeners could have declared they were needier than the company and tried to claim squatter's rights.

Instead, everyone respected each other and did the right thing. You can't mandate that -- indeed, mandates would destroy that respect and create more conflict. When you try to reduce everything to a matter of law, you create hard borders that must be fought over. It is in the space between the laws, where people have the freedom to do what is best rather than what is legal, that we have the opportunity to come to amicable agreements.

Now the community has more office space and a better community garden. If we started more conversations with that kind of mutual respect, I wonder if we wouldn't have more of these kinds of mutual wins.
McArdle wants to know we can't all just hold hands with Monsanto or Georgia-Pacific and sing kum-by-yah?

This is why.
About 40,000 residents in the towns of Igualada and Odena [Spain] were ordered to stay indoors and keep their windows shut after an explosion at a nearby chemical company sent a massive orange cloud of potentially toxic fumes into the sky.
We do not yet know if this particular incident was an accident that could not have been prevented or if it occurred due to lax regulation. Both situations occur. But when the consequences are potentially so severe the last thing we need is a "journalist" who vacuously chirps that those silly rules set up to regulate corporations aren't even necessary.

Someone donated a community garden so we don't really need to hold corporations to the laws that regulate them, do we? Of course not! So glad you agree with me. Now off I go to eat lunch in an open-air café. Just not in Spain, tee-hee!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Education of the Douthat

Please join me as I read Ross Douthat's 2005 account of the failure of Harvard University to turn him into an elite.
The Truth About Harvard
Dirt (Of Dubious Merit) on Harvard That Will Create Controversy So People Will Talk About Me
It may be hard to get into Harvard, but it's easy to get out without learning much of enduring value at all. A recent graduate's report
How I managed to get away with not learning much of enduring value at Harvard despite the fact that my parents spent enough to buy a vacation house on my education.
By Ross Douthat
By Crusader Rabbit
At the beginning of every term Harvard students enjoy a one-week "shopping period," during which they can sample as many courses as they like and thus—or so the theory goes—concoct the most appropriate schedule for their semesters. There is a boisterous quality to this stretch, a sense of intellectual possibility, as people pop in and out of lecture halls, grabbing syllabi and listening for twenty minutes or so before darting away to other classes.
At first Harvard was exciting. We rushed around and didn't have to work or stay in lectures and we talked a lost about devising the schedule most appropriate for our needs.
The enthusiasm evaporates quickly once the shopping period ends. Empty seats in the various halls and auditoriums multiply as the semester rattles along, until rooms that were full for the opening lecture resemble the stadium of a losing baseball team during a meaningless late-August game. There are pockets of diehards in the front rows, avidly taking notes, and scattered observers elsewhere—students who overcame the urge to hit the snooze button and hauled themselves to class, only to realize that they've missed so many lectures and fallen so far behind that taking notes is a futile exercise. Better to wait for the semester's end, when they can take exhaustive notes at the review sessions that are always helpfully provided—or simply go to the course's Web site, where the professor has uploaded his lecture notes, understanding all too well the character and study habits of his seldom-glimpsed students.
Soon, however, I grew bored. Like every other college campus in our fair land, fewer people went to class as the term wore on. Some people worked hard. I was not one of those people. When I didn't sleep drunkenly through the alarm and actually went to class, I found that I was too far behind. So I took the lazy way out, which was totally the fault of my professor for not forcing me, a young adult smart enough to get into Harvard and paying through the nose for the privilege, to work.
But during the shopping period the campus bubbles with academic energy. And so Harvard Hall 101 was packed on the February day in 2001, midway through my junior year, when Harvey Mansfield gave the semester's first lecture in "The History of Modern Political Philosophy." Every seat was filled; the overflow jammed the aisles and windowsills and spilled out the door. It was a good setting for an act of political theater.
After two years of this I finally got to see a famous conservative. He was sooooo popular unlike all those other liberal professors who couldn't even force kids to go to class.
Mansfield cuts a distinctive figure on campus, both physically and intellectually. Short and trim, tanned and handsome, with an angular face, bright eyes, and a wide, sharklike grin, he is dapper in an age of professorial slovenliness, favoring fedoras, pastel shirts, and unusual ties. He is famously conservative, well known for his opposition to affirmative action and gay rights and for his (sometimes cryptic) critiques of feminism and political correctness.
He was a well-dressed dick, just like I wanted to be.
"Before I begin the lecture, I have a brief announcement concerning the class's grading policy," he said that day. "As many of you know, I have often been, ah, outspoken concerning the upward creep of Harvard grades over the last few decades. Some say that this climb—in which what were once Cs have become Bs, and those Bs are now fast becoming As—is a result of meritocracy, which has ensured that Harvard students today are, ah, smarter than their forebears. This may be true, but I must tell you that I see little evidence of it."
He insulted us a little and then complained that we young whippersnappers had it too easy.
He paused, flashed his grin, and went on. "Nevertheless, I have recently decided that hewing to the older standard is fruitless when no one else does, because all I succeed in doing is punishing students for taking classes with me. Therefore I have decided that this semester I will issue two grades to each of you. The first will be the grade that you actually deserve—a C for mediocre work, a B for good work, and an A for excellence. This one will be issued to you alone, for every paper and exam that you complete. The second grade, computed only at semester's end, will be your, ah, ironic grade—'ironic' in this case being a word used to mean lying—and it will be computed on a scale that takes as its mean the average Harvard grade, the B-plus. This higher grade will be sent to the registrar's office, and will appear on your transcript. It will be your public grade, you might say, and it will ensure, as I have said, that you will not be penalized for taking a class with me." Another shark's grin. "And of course, only you will know whether you actually deserve it."
He told us that he was going to grade like all the other professors but he would make sure we knew what he really thought of us.
Mansfield had been fighting this battle for years, long enough to have earned the sobriquet "C-minus" from his students, and long enough that his frequent complaints about waning academic standards were routinely dismissed by Harvard's higher-ups as the out-of-touch crankiness of a conservative fogey. But the ironic-grade announcement changed all that. Soon afterward his photo appeared on the front page of The Boston Globe, alongside a story about the decline of academic standards. Suddenly Harvard found itself mocked as the academic equivalent of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.
Mansfield's grandstanding did the trick. Everyone in the elite milieu loves talking about Harvard so his little lecture spread far and wide, well, around the elite circle. Meanwhile all of us conservatives studiously avoided talking about past generations of national leaders and their Gentlemen's Cs, including George W. Bush.
This was somewhat unfair—if only because, as the article made clear, Harvard was hardly alone. Still, its numbers were particularly staggering. More than 90 percent of the class of 2001 had earned grade-point averages of B-minus or higher. Half of all the grades given the year before were As or A-minuses; only six percent were C-pluses or lower. By way of comparison, in 1940 C-minus was the most common GPA at Harvard, and in 1955 just 15 percent of undergraduates had a GPA of B-plus or higher.
I knew I had finally learned something at Harvard when I quickly realized that insulting my Alma Mater would get me a lot of attention, just like Mansfield. Harvard paid him to work there, other people paid him in part because of the prestige of being a professor at Harvard, and now he was increasing him potential income by increasing his visibility in the media. I, too, could make money by leveraging Harvard's prestige into a job at The Atlantic and then turn around and denigrate and undermine Harvard for the attention it would give me and the increase in earning potential that the fame might get me.
What lay behind this trend? Writing in the college newspaper, the Crimson, Mansfield posited some historical factors. "Grade inflation got started … when professors raised the grades of students protesting the war in Vietnam," he argued. "At that time, too, white professors, imbibing the spirit of the new policies of affirmative action, stopped giving low grades to black students, and to justify or conceal this, also stopped giving low grades to white students." (As you might imagine, this theory was hotly contested.) But the main culprit now was simply this: "The prevalence in American education of the notion of self-esteem." Mansfield wrote, "According to that therapeutic notion, the purpose of education is to make students feel capable and 'empowered,' and professors should hesitate to pass judgment on what students have learned."
Mansfield showed me that I didn't need to be clever or wise, I just needed to round up the usual suspects and blame them. What could be easier than giving the people what they want and expect? Professor McDreamy blamed affirmative action, which got him the kind of attention I did not want, but he also blamed self-esteem, which I knew I could work with. Conservatives hate self-esteem because you are never supposed to feel good about yourself and I am a very, very good conservative.

And there is something about Harvard that I really hated. I though Harvard would transform me from an awkward, chunky nerd into William F. Buckley.  Conservatives belong to a group, a tradition, a way of life. You don't have to figure any of those things out for yourself. You just dress like Harvey Mansfield and Buckley and everyone else since they all dress alike. You quote the same philosophers and authors, you tell the same jokes, you figure out what everyone else believes, thinks and wants and you limit your own life accordingly. You fit in. You belong. Liberals say they abhor people who hurt others but conservatives abhor people who are Other.  Harvard would transform me from an Other into a Someone Who Belonged.

But I never felt I belonged, no matter how conservative I was. I did everything I was supposed to do--well, almost everything. And yet I still didn't feel good about myself. I felt different and that upset me tremendously.  I wasn't supposed to have self-esteem: to see my value as a unique individual, accept myself with all my flaws, accept responsibility for living up to my claims of being a good person by doing good things.  My self-esteem came from being born into a high position on the conservative hierarchy. I was a superior creature, a Leader Among Men, an intellectual, an elite. Yet I felt like none of those things.  Harvard was supposed me make me cool.
This may be partly true, but I think that the roots of grade inflation—and, by extension, the overall ease and lack of seriousness in Harvard's undergraduate academic culture—run deeper. Understanding grade inflation requires understanding the nature of modern Harvard and of elite education in general—particularly the ambitions of its students and professors. The students' ambitions are those of a well-trained meritocratic elite. In the semi-aristocracy that Harvard once was, students could accept Cs, because they knew their prospects in life had more to do with family fortunes and connections than with GPAs. In today's meritocracy this situation no longer obtains. Even if you could live off your parents' wealth, the ethos of the meritocracy holds that you shouldn't, because your worth as a person is determined not by clan or class but by what you do and whether you succeed at it. What you do, in turn, hinges in no small part on what is on your résumé, including your GPA. Thus the professor is not just a disinterested pedagogue. As a dispenser of grades he is a gatekeeper to worldly success. And in that capacity professors face upward pressure from students ("I can't afford a B if I want to get into law school"); horizontal pressure from their colleagues, to which even Mansfield gave way; downward pressure from the administration ("If you want to fail someone, you have to be prepared for a very long, painful battle with the higher echelons," one professor told the Crimson); and perhaps pressure from within, from the part of them that sympathizes with students' careerism. (Academics, after all, have ambitions of their own, and are well aware of the vicissitudes of the marketplace.)
It is true that I just said Harvard was lowering standards but there is no reason why I cannot also say that I achieved all my goals due to my superiority. After all, my position is superior and I am in this position so I am superior. If I am superior then I know I didn't get to Harvard because my father was a successful lawyer in Connecticut and sent me to an exclusive prep school although not exclusive enough to suit me--Choate was just down the road, people!--and paid for my Harvard misadventure. Therefore it is the fault of the school that I do not feel like I belong. They failed in their job. Why? Because I know everyone else had to be just like me at Harvard. They all just wanted to leverage their current advantages into bigger advantages.
It doesn't help that Harvard students are creatively lazy, gifted at working smarter rather than harder. Most of my classmates were studious primarily in our avoidance of academic work, and brilliant largely in our maneuverings to achieve a maximal GPA in return for minimal effort. It was easy to see the classroom as just another résumé-padding opportunity, a place to collect the grade (and recommendation) necessary to get to the next station in life. If that grade could be obtained while reading a tenth of the books on the syllabus, so much the better.
 Sure, I was lazy at Harvard. Wasn't everyone except a few swots?
Sometimes you didn't have to do even that much. One of the last papers I wrote in college was assigned in "The American West, 1780—1930." The professor handed out two journal articles on the theory and practice of "material history"—essentially, historical research based on the careful analysis of objects. We were told to go to the Peabody, Harvard's museum of archaeology and ethnology, where the professor had set out three pairs of objects from the frontier era. One object in each pair had been made by Indians, one by Europeans, and we were to write a ten-page paper that compared the objects in a given pair. Aside from the articles on material history and a general text, North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment, we were to use no sources.  
I picked a Sioux war club and an American revolver with its carrying case. As I stood in the museum taking notes, the assignment seemed impossible. How could I eke out ten pages when I knew nothing about the provenance of the weapons or the significance of their markings? Sitting at my desk two weeks later, I realized I had been wrong. The paper was pathetically easy to write—not despite the dearth of information but because of it. Knowing nothing meant I could write anything. I didn't need to do any reading, absorb any history, or learn anything at all.
How could I do my assignment without knowing what to think? Usually I pull some philosopher or historian out of my books and repeat what he said only with more God and Country. Or regurgitate what the professor said or what I think he wants to hear. This professor expected me to look at the objects and come up with my own opinion based on what I had learned so far in the course. What a maroon!
Some excerpts give the flavor of what I came up with. Chief Running Antelope's war club is less a weapon than a talisman of supernatural power … The club's red paint and eagle feather link the weapon and its holder to sacred, invisible worlds; the "H. A. Brigham" inscription, a 19th century version of the modern logo, reinforces the revolver's connection to a capitalist order in which weapons are mass-produced, rather than individually crafted … The case is clearly an impractical method of carrying the gun … it is, rather, an eminently practical method of displaying a gun, with the paradoxical corollary that the gun is displayed by not being displayed … The book-like case, with its gold leaf and intricate images, transforms the gun by containing its potential for violence …  
By the time I had finished, I almost believed it. My professor must have too: the paper got an A.
I looked at the club and remember that Indians believed in a lot of heathen gods and all their stuff had meanings, that important objects had spiritual meaning. I looked and saw a feather, an eagle feather, and red paint, war paint. The club looked hand-made, by someone who imbued it with personal and tribal meaning. I looked at the pistol. It was mass-produced, commercialized death in a box, for a people who massacred a nation. Industrialized death, made pretty to hide its ugliness. I was forced to look beyond the surface to imagine the lives and motivations of people in the past, people whose actions affected my life today.

What baloney! The purpose of an education is to make you feel educated. Universities are supposed to teach you stuff, not how to think about stuff. They tell you what you are supposed to know to fit into the world you expected to enter. You had to know lots of stuff to be elite and if you didn't the elite would laugh at you and refuse to invite you into their clubs and parties. Sure, I chose the easiest classes, concentrating in English and History the better to be well-read and not do math, and tended to skip class and skate on assignments, but whose fault was that? Right. The liberal professors.
Not every class was so easy. Those that were tended to be in history and English, classics and foreign languages, art and philosophy—in other words, in those departments that provide what used to be considered the meat of a liberal arts education. Humanities students generally did the least work, got the highest grades, and cruised academically, letting their studies slide in favor of time-sucking extracurriculars, while their science- and math-minded classmates sometimes had to struggle to reach the B-plus plateau. The theory is often advanced that grade inflation is worst in the humanities because grading English essays and history papers is more subjective than marking problem sets and lab reports, and thus more vulnerable to student pressure and professorial weakness. There is a teaspoon of truth to that claim, I suppose. But I think the problem in the humanities, as with grade inflation in general, can be traced to the roots of elite America—and specifically to the influence of the free market.
When you attack an institution it's often best to attack its lest-powerful members so I attacked the professors. Everyone knows that those who can, do, and those who can't, teach. Everyone knows that people are wicked and envy the rich and powerful. Our dear Lord and Savior knows I do. Everyone knows that the poor are so envious of the rich that they want to tear down the rich. Some professors don't envy the rich because they are in the maths and sciences, which are conservative, and can become rich themselves. But the people who work in my chosen fields can only ape their betters by while abandoning their real job: forcing me to study the right facts and figures that will advance me to the next level.
Attempting to explain the left-wing biases of his Harvard colleagues, the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick once hypothesized that most professors oppose capitalism because they consider themselves far smarter than boobish businessmen, and therefore resent the economic system that rewards practical intelligence over their own gifts. I'm inclined to think that such resentment—at least in money-drunk America—increasingly coexists with a deep inferiority complex regarding modern capitalism, and a need, however unconscious, to justify academic life in the face of the fantastic accumulation of wealth that takes place outside the ivory tower. If I am right, some areas of academic life aren't vulnerable to this crisis of confidence in the importance of one's work. Scientists can rest secure in the knowledge that their labors will help shove along the modern project of advancing health—and wealth. Abstruse genomic work could one day yield in utero engineering; mucking around with chemicals could produce a cure for AIDS, or the next Viagra.  
Then there is economics, the new queen of the sciences—a discipline perfectly tailored to the modern market-driven university, and not coincidentally the most popular concentration during my four years of college. It's also no coincidence that economics was the only department at Harvard in which the faculty tilted to the right, at least on issues of regulation and taxation. (Martin Feldstein, who taught Economics 10, Harvard's most popular class, was an economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan.) To tilt to the right is in some sense to assert a belief in absolute truth; and the only absolute truth that the upper class accepts these days is the truth of the market. The humanities have no such reservoirs of confidence. And attempts by humanities professors to ape the rigor of their scientific colleagues have led to a decades-long wade in the marshes of postmodern academic theory, where canons are scorned, books exist only as texts to be deconstructed, and willfully obscure writing is championed over accessible prose. All this has merely reinforced capitalism's insistence that the sciences are the only important academic pursuits, because only they provide tangible, quantifiable (and potentially profitable) results. Far from making the humanities scientific, postmodernism has made them irrelevant.
My need for order, an outward source of self-esteem, a sense of belonging, a guidebook to life, all made me turn to conservatism. The same needs made me turn to God. When I turned to Harvard it failed me and unlike attacks on God or Mom or conservatism, attacking Harvard sells books.
The retreat into irrelevance is visible all across the humanities curriculum. Philosophy departments have largely purged themselves of metaphysicians and moralists; history departments emphasize exhaustive primary research and micro-history. In the field of English there is little pretense that literature is valuable in itself and should be part of every educated person's life, rather than serving as grist for endless academic debates in which every mention of truth is placed in sneering quotation marks. Sure, historians believe in their primary sources, English scholars in their textual debates, philosophers in their logic games. But many of them seem to believe that they have nothing to offer students who don't plan to be historians, or literary theorists, or philosophers. They make no effort to apply their work to what should be the most pressing task of undergraduate education: to provide a general education, a liberal arts education, to future doctors and bankers and lawyers and diplomats.
It's not the professors' jobs to be scholars, if you want to glorify what they do with that name. Their job is to tell me what to know. They didn't. Therefore they failed me, I did not fail them. They failed me to prepare to fit into an upper class of professionals and other important people. Sure, I said class had nothing to do with anything but I lied. Because it's not really their fault, they don't belong in the right group and they don't know how to prepare a gentleman like me to fit in to the right group.
In this environment who can blame professors if, when it comes time to grade their students, they sometimes take the path of least resistance—the path of the gentleman's B-plus?  
One might expect Harvard's Core Curriculum to step into the breach. But the Core is a late-1970s version of a traditional liberal arts curriculum, and it's even worse than that description makes it sound. It has long been an object of derision among students (during my junior year the Crimson called it a "stifling and stagnant attempt" at a liberal arts education), and a curricular-review committee recently joined the chorus, observing dryly that the Core "may serve to constrain intellectual development" and recommending that it be replaced with "a new system of general education." (Harvard's faculty will begin voting on the committee's recommendations this spring.) At its inception, in 1978, the Core was seen as a less elitist alternative to the Great Books programs offered at Columbia and other universities. It has no universally required courses, mandating instead that students take, at some point before graduation, at least one class in seven of eleven areas—areas whose titles and subject matter sound suitably comprehensive. They include Literature and Arts, Historical Study, Science, Foreign Cultures, Quantitative Reasoning, Moral Reasoning, and Social Analysis.  
But although these subject areas are theoretically general, the dozen or so classes offered annually in each of them (nearly all Core courses are designed for the Core) tend to be maddeningly specific and often defiantly obscure. The Core makes no attempt to distinguish between "Understanding Islam and Contemporary Muslim Societies" and "Tel Aviv: Urban Culture in Another Zion" in terms of importance; either will satisfy the Foreign Cultures requirement. For Science a student might choose "Human Evolution"—or he might choose "The Biology of Trees and Forests" or "Dinosaurs and Their Relatives." For his Social Analysis requirement he might decide to study basic economic principles in Martin Feldstein's Ec 10—or he might take "Food and Culture" or "Psychological Trauma" or "Urban Revolutions: Archaeology and the Investigation of Early States." And for Literature and Arts he might decide to take Helen Vendler's wide-ranging course "Poems, Poets, Poetry"—but then again, he might be drawn to "Women Writers in Imperial China: How to Escape From the Feminine Voice."  
This is not to denigrate the more whimsical and esoteric choices that fill out a course catalogue. A computer-science major, his head spinning with lines of code, might be well served by dipping into "The Cuban Revolution: 1956—71: A Self-Debate." But under Harvard's system that might easily turn out to be the only history class he takes. It seems deeply disingenuous, at best, to suggest that in the development of a broadly educated student body the study of Castro's regime carries the same weight as, say, knowledge of the two world wars, or the French Revolution, or the founding of America. (During my four years at Harvard the history department didn't offer a single course focusing on the American Revolution.)  
As if in reply to this complaint, the Core's mission statement asserts, with a touch of smugness, that "the Core differs from other programs of general education. It does not define intellectual breadth as the mastery of a set of Great Books, or the digestion of a specific quantum of information … rather, the Core seeks to introduce students to the major approaches to knowledge in areas that the faculty considers indispensable to undergraduate education."  
These words, which appear in the course catalogue each year, are the closest that Harvard comes to articulating an undergraduate educational philosophy. They suggest that the difference in importance between, say, "Democracy, Development, and Equality in Mexico" and "Reason and Faith in the West" (both offerings in Historical Study) does not matter. As the introduction to the history courses puts it, both courses offer a "historical" approach to knowledge that is presumably more valuable than mere "facts" about the past. Comprehending history "as a form of inquiry and understanding" trumps learning about actual events. The catalogue contains similarly pat introductions to the other disciplines. In each case the emphasis is squarely on methodology, not material.
Sure, I chose to go to Harvard knowing the way they were structured but that is irrelevant. Harvard was a necessary stepping-stone to The New York Times.  Nonetheless, the purpose of history (and English and Philosophy and Arts) is to teach you what you need to know to be an elite, a winner. You do not understand history. You do not use history to understand the present. You do not study history to image the future. You memorize a bunch of facts. You use it to attack your enemies, justify your support for wars of aggression, give you authority in discussions and arguments, confuse and intimidate the enemy, win the cocktail party, ace the job interview. Everyone would agree with me.

My experience of the Core was probably typical. I set out with the intention of picking a comprehensive roster of classes that would lead me in directions at once interesting and essential, providing perspectives that were unavailable in my concentration: American history and literature. The first Core course I wandered into—"Concepts of the Hero in Greek Civilization"—proved to be spectacular, notwithstanding its nickname, "Heroes for Zeroes." It was a survey course with a twist, in which an enthusiastic professor took an initially reluctant crowd of students on a whirlwind tour of the classics, with assists from contemporary films such as Blade Runner and When We Were Kings.

The first thing I did while studying in the humanities department was to try to avoid the perspective of the humanities department. I was able to find one professor who worked very hard at entertaining me and forcing me to learn about Greek heroes. Sure, I had already studied mythology at my prep school but this was the sort of thing I was looking for; easy, quick, fun, and lots of men in gladiator outfits, just like Russell Crowe in the Gladiator poster on my dorm wall.
During the next three years I sought other courses that offered what this one had: Great Books and great teaching. What I found were unengaged professors and overburdened teaching assistants who seemed to be marking time until they could return to the parochial safety of their departmental classes. Indeed, parochialism often overtook even the broadest-sounding Core classes. "Understanding Islam" involved only cursory analysis of the Koran, the history of Islamic civilization, and the rise of radical Islam, but devoted weeks to Muslim diaspora communities in London and Muslim-animistic syncretism in Africa. I chose another class, "The Portrait," because it seemed likely to offer something of a crash course in art history. And for the first few weeks it did, focusing on E. H. Gombrich's comprehensive The Story of Art. The rest of the time, however, was devoted to police photography in nineteenth-century France, sexual fetishism in Victorian daguerreotypes, aboriginal head-shrinking … The list goes on, but I didn't: by the middle of the semester I had stopped going to the lectures.
I took a course in understanding Islam but instead of teaching me of its evil it made me look at all its facets. I took a quickie course--one of those fluff courses that Harvard offers to lazy students instead of a comprehensive survey of the Old Masters, they should be ashamed--but instead of being given good taste and the ability to spot a Cezanne on the walls of Wm. F. Buckley's study I had to listen to everyone else's idea of art, as if they mattered.
The few Core classes that are well taught are swamped each year, no matter how obscure the subject matter. The closest thing to a Harvard education—that is, to an intellectual corpus that most Harvard graduates have in common—is probably obtained in such oversubscribed courses as "The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice," "First Nights: Five Performance Premieres," and "Fairy Tales, Children's Literature, and the Construction of Childhood." A Harvard graduate may have read no Shakespeare or Proust; he may be unable to distinguish Justinian the Great from Julian the Apostate, or to tell you the first ten elements in the periodic table (God knows I can't). But one need only mention "Mass Culture in Nazi Germany" or "Constructing the Samurai" and his eyes will light up with fond memories. As in a great library ravaged by a hurricane, the essential elements of a liberal arts education lie scattered everywhere at Harvard, waiting to be picked up. But little guidance is given on how to proceed with that task.
Harvard gave me too much freedom and not enough structure. I need structure. My home life was weird. School was a relief. It had rules and laws and mores. I could deal with that. I couldn't deal with making my own rules or purpose or mores. I didn't want to find new things and go down accidental pathways that opened new doors, to learn how to think or to learn how other people thought. I wanted to be elite.
I remember vividly the moment late in my high school senior year when Harvard's course catalogue arrived in the mail. It was a doorstop of a book, filled with descriptions of hundreds, maybe thousands, of classes. I pored over it, asking myself how I could choose just thirty-two classes, four years' worth, from the sea of fascinating choices. Harvard never attempted to answer that question—perhaps the most important question facing any incoming freshman. I chose my classes as much by accident as by design. There were times when some of them mattered to me, and even moments when I was intoxicated. But achieving those moments required pulling myself away from Harvard's other demands, whether social, extracurricular, or pre-professional, which took far more discipline than I was usually able to exert.
I was too lazy and undisciplined to take full advantage of my education at Harvard, which is the school's fault for not making it easier on me.
Mostly I logged the necessary hours in the library and exam rooms, earned my solid (if inflated) GPA and my diploma, and used the rest of the time to keep up with my classmates in our ongoing race to the top of America (and the world). It was only afterward, when the perpetual motion of undergraduate life was behind me, that I looked back and felt cheated.
Harvard cheated me out of my golden opportunity to feel special.
Afterward, too, I began chuckling inwardly when some older person, upon discovering my Harvard affiliation, would nod gravely and ask, But wasn't it such hard work? It was—but not in the way the questioner meant. It was hard work to get into Harvard, and then it was hard work competing for offices and honors and extracurriculars with thousands of brilliant and driven young people; hard work keeping our heads in the swirling social world; hard work fighting for law-school slots and investment-banking jobs as college wound to a close … yes, all of that was heavy sledding. But the academics—the academics were another story.
Using Harvard as a stepping-stone to better things rather than a chance to learn and grow was very difficult. Coasting through their curriculum, something I learned long ago, was easy.
Whatever nostalgists think, there was never a golden age when students did all their work and attended every lecture. When Aquinas held forth in Paris, and Heidegger in Freiburg, lazy undergraduates were doubtless squirreled away in their rooms, frantically skimming other people's notes to prep for the final exam. What makes our age different is the moment that happened over and over again at Harvard, when we said This is going to be hard and then realized No, this is easy. Maybe it came when we boiled down a three-page syllabus to a hundred pages of exam-time reading, or saw that a paper could be turned in late without the frazzled teaching fellow's docking us, or handed in C-quality work and got a gleaming B-plus. Whenever the moment came, we learned that it wasn't our sloth alone, or our constant pushing for higher grades, that made Harvard easy. No, Harvard was easy because almost no one was pushing back.
Not only did I get away with doing the minimum, I get to get paid to brag about my laziness. Conservatism is the greatest thing ever.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Way Of The Douthat

Ross Douthat takes up his teensy-tiny little battle sword and wee little intellectual shield to protect Christianity from the big, bad, Muslim Named Obama. Douthat is in warrior mode because Obama said Christianity had its share of bloodthirsty killers as well as Islam. Douthat doesn't like to hear that his beloved group, the only group that can't reject him, has flaws. However Douthat's tiny "sword" is not exactly the best defense in the world and won't defend him from those nasty, uncivil liberals who dare to criticize him. So Douthat suggests that you and him get in a fight instead.
These comments were not well received by the president’s critics — as, indeed, his Niebuhrian forays rarely are. In the past, it’s been neoconservatives taking exception when Obama goes abroad and talks about our Cold War-era sins. This time, it was conservative Christians complaining that the president was reaching back 500 or 1,000 years to play at moral equivalence with people butchering their way across the Middle East.
Douthat ignores Obama's reference to Jim Crow because it would damage his argument. Douthat cannot have an honest discussion because he would lose. During the relatively recent days of Jim Crow "good" Christians did horrific things, such as torturing, mutilating, crucifying and immolating thousands of African-Americans.  Despite his Catholic belief that we are Fallen, Douthat doesn't like to hear about our sins. It's petty and ahistorical to ignore reality so one can continue to feel superior and Ross Douthat is that petty, ahistorical man.

But Douthat is also a Harvard Man and  can come up with an intellectual-sounding argument to hide behind.
PRESIDENT OBAMA, like many well-read inhabitants of public life, is a professed admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous mid-20th-century Protestant theologian. And more than most presidents, he has tried to incorporate one of Niebuhr’s insights into his public rhetoric: the idea that no society is innocent, and that Americans in particular need to put aside illusions about our own alleged perfection.
Douthat, who has no theological training, first criticized Obama for discussing religion because Obama has no theological training and obviously has no right to discuss the history of Christianity. 

Douthat's next criticism of his country's leader is that foreigners don't want to hear Americans criticize their country's leaders anyway.

The second problem is that self-criticism doesn’t necessarily serve the cause of foreign policy outreach quite as well as Obama once seemed to believe it would. Early in his administration, especially around his 2009 speech in Cairo, there was a sense that showing Muslims that an American president understood their grievances would help expand our country’s options in the Middle East. But no obvious foreign policy benefit emerged, and since then Obama’s displays of public angst over, say, drone strikes have mostly seemed like an exercise in self-justification, intended for an audience of one. (Meanwhile, our actual enemies can pocket his rhetorical concessions: The alleged relevance of the Crusades to modern politics, for instance, has long been one of Al Qaeda’s favorite tropes.)
Since Obama did not solve the entire Mid-East Problem we should never criticize ourselves. Obama only pleased himself by saying mean things about Christianity.

Douthat's next reason for criticizing his own country's leader for partisan personal benefit is to say that people who criticize their own country are just doing it for partisan personal benefit. Which is wrong.

A third problem is that Obama is not just a Niebuhrian; he’s also a partisan and a progressive, which means that he too invests causes with sanctity, talks about history having “sides,” and (like any politician) regards his opponents as much more imperfect and fallen than his own ideological camp. This can leave the impression that his public wrestling with history’s tragic side is somewhat cynical, mostly highlighting crimes that he doesn’t feel particularly implicated in (how much theological guilt does our liberal Protestant president really feel about the Inquisition?) and the sins of groups he disagrees with anyway (Republican Cold Warriors, the religious right, white conservative Southerners).

And naturally Douthat criticizes Obama for leaving out his side's sins while leaving out all of the Church's sins for the last 600 years.

Ah, Ross. Your chunkiness never disappoints, as you provide proof positive that you were right: those Harvard students who spent all their time doing as little as possible got almost nothing out of their Ivy League education.

The Quotable Megan McArdle

Megan McArdle in a FIRE speech:
Of course I get the people who write into me and say how dare you say this.  Do you understand how hurtful this was to me?  And some of them are really funny.  Do you understand how hurtful it was to me to say that the minimum wage should not be raised?  It is like well I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings, but I cannot really plan around that.  You seem to have very delicate feelings – next week why croissants are bad.

McArdle hysterically defending herself from people who pointed out her lack of intellectual or moral capacity:

 Judging from the behaviour of most of the doves in public discourse... the most important thing for them seems to be exacting revenge on the hawks and declaring that the doves are now forever their moral and intellectual superiors, even though their nasty public invective ensures that the next time around, the hawks will be exactly as unwilling to listen to them as they were last time. Julian's commenters are certainly doing their best to put me in this camp.

But since I really do believe that better future decisions are more important than my umbrage at petty interpersonal exchanges, I am fighting to supress that urge. Among other strategies for analysing my decisionmaking, I look to the ways in which the dovish decisionmaking process worked better than mine, so that I can emulate those ways. And to me, I'm sorry if this hurts your tender little feelings, but as far as I can tell, it wasn't that much better. What many, or even most, of the doves had was an instinctive antipathy to American military action that is so closely bundled with a zillion other ideological predispositions, some of which to me seem practically self-evidently wrong, that I can't find a decisionmaking process to even analyse; the grounds for opposing the war shifted even as the opposition didn't. Let me make it thoroughly clear: the same shitty decisionmaking was evident on the side of the hawks. But trading one set of questionable propositions for another is not an improvement in decisionmaking; it's playing some sort of metaphysical Monty Hall game. And playing it badly. [my bold]

McArdle explaining how fighting economic inequality is just envy, and raising taxes is like throwing acid on a beautiful woman's face.

While I am much more sanguine than most libertarians about redistributing material wealth from the richer to the poorer (though by the standards of the rest of America, I am still a hard-hearted materialist lout), I cannot believe in this sort of redistribution--"cutting down the tall poppies", as I believe the Australians call it. Perhaps a little thought experiment will explain why. 
Beauty, like wealth, is relative--it benefits its possessor only insofar as they are lovelier than the women, or handsomer than the men, around them. Presumably, if we disfigured all the good looking actors in Hollywood, and the models in New York, and . . . well, heck, let's slash the faces of everyone who's better looking than I am. I am younger and slimmer than the average American, and have good teeth, long thick hair, and all the other accoutrements of an upper-middle-class upbringing. So we know that this would bring happiness to far more Americans than it would distress. We dont have to turn them into quasimodo--just make them no more good looking than I am. Just think how happy America could be made if Cindy Crawford had saddlebags and a squint.

But wait! Americans could be made even happier if Cindy Crawford and her ilk had acid poured on their faces to turn them into a twisted mass of scars, and were inflated a hundred pounds or so apiece through gavage. Physical pain could be alleviated by judicious application of modern painkilling technology, providing a huge psychic boost to everyone else at only a mild psychic cost (at least according to Daniel Gilbert) to the pulchritudinous elites.

Of course, to judge from our mass-market journalism, Americans actively enjoy watching young, pretty people suffer. Why else to we spend so much time talking about celebrity divorces, Kirstie Alley's weight gain, and grisly murders of attractive young white girls? So perhaps we should let them suffer--in fact, we should probably film it, so that Americans could download every tear, moan, and horrified scream at their new appearance.

The nice thing about the last strategy is that it doesn't require government intervention--free lance beauty socialists could give the rest of America a big boost in net happiness with every jar of acid they toss.

All right, so we're not going to do this.

But why is this so much more horrifying than the idea of taking the fruits of people's labours--most of which were gotten fairly honesty, by dint of hard work and delayed gratification (even if those efforts got a big boost from education etc.) Is it that beauty is somehow more worthy than wealth? The pursuit of wealth has allowed the masses to escape, as Robert Fogel noted, "From hunger and premature death". The pursuit of beauty has brought us jogging . . . and Slim-fast and six-inch-heels and toupees and expensively educated surgeons who spend their days sucking fat out of their clients' thighs.

Or is it that the body is more sacred than the wallet? Do not most of today's wealthy make their money by presenting their body at work for many hours a day, and labouring with their minds, which are far more sacred to any rational person than their limbs or cheeks?

No, I think the reason that we recoil is that it is repulsive to make people suffer just because others enjoy it. And it is horifying to give free reign to our worst impulses through the power of the state. The quest for autonomy, the thirst for knowlege, the desire to live a cleaner, healthier, richer life, free of hunger and want . . . these are the sorts of values we want our government to express and empower. Envy is not.

McArdle scolding people who make up data:

I think one of the biggest problems facing economists, and to some degree other social scientists, is the feeling that if you're just a little bit willing to fudge facts, you could do a great deal of good. If you'd torture the numbers just a little--not even torture, really, just waterboarding and a few stress positions--you could convince people to do what you know, deep in your heart, is the right thing. If you produce numbers showing that tax cuts increase tax revenue, or the minimum wage increases jobs, or GDP doubles for every 10% increase in the salaries of economists--why, you ccould do a whole world of good.

The subtler version of this is confirmation bias: to a libertarian analyst, papers showing that taxation causes people to stop working make perfect intuitive sense, while papers suggesting that stiff environmental legislation saves lives and money set off a pulse-racing, heart-pounding determination to discover just where the author went wrong. That liberal blogger to whom I referred earlier is a person of integrity and charm, and I have no doubt that they are trying to evaluate the data honestly--but I also have no doubt that they were heavily predisposed to believe the studies showing gay adoptions are good. I pause again to reiterate that this is not a vice more distributed on one side of the political spectrum or the other; it is a human vice, and no one struggles with it more mightily than I.
My humble suggestion is that it would do the blogosphere, and our blood pressure, a world of good if we didn't try so hard. I happen to think that extremely heavy progressive taxation has economic costs to those on the bottom of the income distribution that far outweigh its benefits. (Just to be clear, I do not think that taxation in the US currently fits this description; the problem with our tax code is that it's ludicrously complex, not that it's progressive.) It's nice that this is so. But I would be against very heavy taxation even if it made GDP grow, because I have a fundamental moral problem with compelling anyone to spend more of their time earning income for the state than they do for themselves. A willingness to state that firmly should give me some freedom to approach the study of tax policy without a burning need to make the numbers support my opinions.

There are many questions in economics which yield absolute answers (at least, they could): how interest rates work, whether asset markets are efficient, whether you should buy a lottery ticket*. There are some policies, such as hyperinflation and rent control, that pretty much all economists agree are a bad idea. But most of the questions that people want economics to answer cannot be resolved by building a better dataset, or improving our formula. Economics can give us tools to assess the effects of all sorts of policies, from legalising abortion to distributing free lunches. But it cannot tell us whether the costs outweigh the benefits. Nor can psychology, sociology, or what have you. It's riskier to argue the values than the numbers . . . but safer for all of us in the long run.

McArdle and Stuart Buck, in an article in the DC Examiner, on innumerate journalists:

When we wrote this up on our blogs, many conservative readers attributed the misleading figures to liberal media bias. But it is more likely ignorance than malice. Every year, scores of fledgling journalists pour out of liberal arts programs. Though many will need to pick through mountains of statistics in search of the truth, few have been taught the skills to do it.
They quickly become victims of advocacy groups pushing skewed statistics. Through ignorance, they may also start manufacturing their own flawed numbers. Since number-crunching beats (such as business and finance) are generally viewed as a tedious waystation en route to more interesting beats, few are enthusiastic about developing these skills. And their editors may not be in any position to help them.

The problem is compounded by the fact that journalists who do know how to read a balance sheet, run a regression, or analyze economic data, can generally get a job that pays a lot more than journalism. Some stay in the field out of love for their work (journalism is a really great job), but in our experience some of the best flee to greener pastures.

Even worse, as mathematician John Allen Paulos is fond of pointing out, Americans are often too innumerate to analyze statistics printed in the newspaper. America’s schools haven’t given its citizens any more ability than its journalists to analyze the information that floods our lives. We would call it a case of the blind leading the blind, but the comparison is inappropriate. Blind people know they can’t see.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Klinging To The Money

Hip middle-aged libertarians do not support racism. They merely support people who support ideas that support racism. Arnold Kling:
I think that President Obama set the bar ridiculously low when he said that 75 percent of the stimulus should kick in within by the end of 2010, but the House bill did not even get over that bar. Why is the stimulus bill so filled with non-stimulus while it omits real stimulus measures, such as cutting payroll taxes? 
I think the answer is that it is a reparations bill, not a stimulus bill. People who pay income taxes tend to vote Republican. People who live off taxes tend to vote Democratic. To the Democrats, the Bush tax cuts were a heinous evil, comparable to Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality in World War I. Now, they are demanding reparations, with hundreds of billions of dollars to be paid into teachers unions and other members of the coalition that won the election. 
Most of the bill makes no sense from a stimulus perspective. But all of it makes sense from a reparations perspective. 
[UPDATE: comments have been turned off. Apparently, some other blogger decided that my reference to "reparations" was a reference to reparations from slavery and hence a reference to the color of President Obama's skin. That had not occurred to me. I really was thinking about the Treaty of Versailles. But the comments were getting ugly.]
Kling thought he was being clever by using Germany's violation of Belgian rights as an example of reparations. Sure, he was using a loaded word but he was not loading the word with meaning, right? His meaning was perfectly clear: Obama was trying to pass an economic stimulus bill because he wanted to give money to Democratic voters to punish Republicans who gave tax cuts to themselves.  This is, of course, nonsensical, but if you believe that the economy did not need stimulus after the crash it makes perfect sense. And Kling has a basic philosophical dislike of government spending, not a racist dislike, right?
Kling begins somberly: “I think about what’s going on as an economist but I feel it as a father. My wife and I have three daughters between the ages of 19 and 25. And when I see what’s being done to their future I’m really angry. Back in September when they were talking about taking $700 billion dollars to unclog the financial system I wanted to yank Henry Paulson out of the TV screen and say to him: “Keep your hands off my daughter’s future.” But he got away with it. For me it felt like sitting there watching my home being ransacked by a gang of thugs. And now we’ve got a new gang of thugs and they are doing the same thing. So that’s how I feel, now back to how I think.” 
Kling says this is a big bill, but not a big stimulus. There is nothing timely, targeted, or temporary about it. It is a simple transfer of money from one set of people to favored interest groups of the Democratic Party.
Actually, Kling was a lot more nuanced at the time. He said some banks should be bailed out and some (maybe as few as 5) should be allowed to go under and worried that his view would not give enough support to foreign banks. He did not clutch his daughters and threaten Henry Paulson. Why pretend he did? Why did he feel the need to exaggerate his dislike of the stimulus when it was very clear that he disliked any government spending? Why did he discuss the bank bailouts rationally (for him) but use highly racially charged words for Obama's stimulus?--unless he thought playing on the racism of others would help him win his losing argument.

When Kling thought of favored interest groups of the Democratic Party, surely he was not just thinking of  African-American members of the Democratic Party. No doubt he was just as upset at the thought of stimulus going to women or gays or immigrants, who are all too poor to pay taxes and all vote Democrat.  It did not even occur to him that Obama was African-American, America was discussing reparations for slavery, and some Democratic voters are African-American, right?

We have three issues here: (1)Kling says he is not racist while using racially charged words. (2)All of Kling's proposals will hurt the poor and African-Americans are disproportionately poor. (3)We have not yet proven that Kling wants African-Americans to suffer merely because they are a different race.

What we are seeing is a contempt for the poor and powerless that is so profound it almost transcends race. It's possible that Kling is racist-he gives no proof otherwise-but any racism is almost secondary. It's the poor whom Kling despises. It is not true that "People who pay income taxes tend to vote Republican. People who live off taxes tend to vote Democratic."

Soylent writes:
"That point is very powerful rhetorically. But is it true?"
Not only no, but hell no!
With few exceptions the states that recieve more federal spending than they pay in federal taxes are red states; Colorado and Nevada being the only notable exceptions that I can see. 

Kling is attempting to manipulate his readers using their greed as well as racism to win. Kling might or might not be racist but it is his overt dismissal of the 99% is 100% clear.
Rob:  So in this new adaptive economy, will we see like we've seen over the past two years with the recent recession, that some attribute to lax regulation and maybe some reckless business practices, in this new adaptive economy will there be the standards to keep that from happening?  
Arnold:  Ah, no!  Failure is going to happen in an adaptive economy.  Joseph Schumpeter used the term creative construction.  What we say in our book is that there's been an economic 1.0 level, there's this conflict of, you know, people say, well markets work, let's use markets and other people say, no, markets fail, we need government and what we say is that markets fail and that's why we need markets.  That is, yes, markets fail a lot, there's individual failure, sometimes there's a collective failure as we saw with the financial crisis but the best way for the economy to adapt to the market failures is for markets to sort of pick themselves up and start over.  So new innovators are really what, people are wondering where the next jobs are going to come from, well they'll come from innovations.  Maybe the iPad will create an ecology of innovation around it.  People developing applications for it or more likely it will be something else; some innovation that we haven't thought of.  People still hope for great innovations in biotechnology or innovations in energy and so on.  
Rob:  How do we resist what we've done in recent times of privatizing profits then socializing the losses like we've seen in the past years.  What I'm speaking of is the financial bailout.    
Arnold:  My concern there is that what we have in Wall Street and in Washington is sort of the equivalent of the country club.  Where the country club members are very supportive of one another and don't recognize people on the outside.  Because the people who say the financial crisis coming were real outsiders.  These were people who didn't have the right ability to get along at places like Goldman-Sacs and so on.  It's interesting as you read the books that are coming out about the hedge fund managers who bet against the bad mortgages, these were people who just were not part of the this country club.  And some how we've got to break this country club control over finance and government so that we really benefit from points of view that are outside this sort of this insider country club point of view.  
So far so good, right? Mr. Kling is such a reasonable person, isn't he? Who doesn't want corporate/political control to decrease?
Rob:  I'd like to hear what you think about a recent comment by former presidential candidate, Ron Paul, when he said that there's really not a dimes worth of difference between Republications and Democrats and he lumped them all into a group called, corporatists.  
Arnold:  Well that phrase, corporatists, is, I think it's the biggest concern that I have right now about where the economy is headed and where Washington is headed.  That is a real focus on just the few large financial firms and central control from government and I think that term is an apt term.  I hope that there will turn out to be differences between Democrats and Republicans but one of the new books that I have, sort of assumes that that will be a problem that neither party really has, ultimately, a solution.  That what we really need is to think about ways to decentralize government and create, and this is kind of a far out idea, it may almost sound like science fiction, but forms of competitive government.  And ideas I have along those lines would be letting people allocate their own tax money to the charitable causes of their choice as opposed to having it allocated by Congress for them.  So these are kind of far out ideas to sort of make government a more competitive process.  Make it easier for people to opt into different governments, different regulatory structures and to sort of make use of what Detokville called the American tendency to form private associations.  We're a great country for forming private associations to solve problems.  We don't necessarily need a central government trying to solve every problem.  In fact, the, I see the central government as being very clumsy in it's attempt to solve problems.
Most unfortunately it appears the respectable Mr. Kling is an idiot. That is utterly illogical. Kling has a PhD in economics from MIT. He is not stupid but as we very well know, libertarians are often forced to look stupid in the service of their masters.  As we can see with Kling's race problem, it doesn't matter if he actually believes what he says. What matters is how much economic damage he can create for his employers, the Koch-created Cato Institute.
  Rob:  While politically unpopular, and certainly immeasurable tragedy on a personal level, have there been too many home foreclosures or maybe not enough home foreclosures?  
Arnold:  My view is that we need more.  That's actually what I said at the hearing is that by trying to mitigate the crisis, they're actually keeping the crisis in front of us when we really need it to be behind us.  You know, obviously, foreclosure is a painful process for individuals, but people can move on and there are so many people who stand to benefit from having the crisis behind us.  I mean, above all there are people who could buy homes and here the government is trying to do it's best to sort of keep home prices up so that home buyers in some sense are being cheated.  It's as if the only people that the government cares about are people who, right now, want to sell.  But for everyone who wants to sell right now, there are people who want to buy and you're not making them better off by trying to keep home prices up.  And I think people in general will be in better shape when there's a natural balance of supply and demand and people don't have to think about well how many houses in this neighborhood have people who are just on the borderline between foreclosure and not.  And one of the things that these loan modifications do is they keep them right on the borderline.  A lot of these people are going to default again and they're just being set up to fail.  That's not a productive situation.  
The homeowners who were victimized or unlucky or foolish or greedy are utterly unimportant. We need to move on and focus on the people with money who want to buy houses. Everyone will be better off if the poorer homeowners lost their homes in forclosure and got out of the way of the rich's profits.

Rob:  Like many states, Oklahoma is facing a fairly significant budget gap and as severe as it is, it would almost be three times as large if it wasn't for the stimulus dollars that are coming in to all the states and here in Oklahoma.  While the stimulus package has been criticized for not creating jobs has it in fact saved a lot of jobs certainly in the public sector?  
Arnold: Well, my concern with that is that there's another way to save jobs in the public sector and of course this never gets me any popularity when I say it, but you could cut salaries in the public sector, right.  If you have to cut your budget by ten percent, cut salaries by ten percent.  You're not going to lose workers and people will be unhappy and I'm not saying that public sector workers have done something to deserve it, but this is the economy we're in.  If you're in the private sector, you know, people haven't been earning as much.  People are losing jobs.  So if you're company is losing money, as a worker, you're going to hurt sooner or later and if your state government is losing money, as a worker, you know, you probably ought to expect to be hurting sooner or later.   
Rob: Thank you for your insights.

If the private sector is suffering, make sure that the public sector is suffering as well. That'll solve the problem of dramatically curtailed spending in a consumer-spending-based economy. Again, Kling is not stupid. He is merely an employee doing his job. Kling's personal racism or lack of it is very secondary to his role as a servant of the elite, doing his best to create economic hardships for the poor no matter what their identity is. He makes many reasonable arguments against the collusion of the powerful but his libertarian policies would benefit only the very wealthy. Someone who wanted to end the collusion between finance and government does not advise the dissolution of government for the betterment of the people. It takes a Koch employee to do that.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The (Possible!) Racism Of Megan McArdle

Since Megan McArdle saw fit to lionize racist asshole Andrew Sullivan, let's take a little look at her opinion of African-Americans.

First, the praise for Sully.

Long ago, when blogging was a fresh new form that attracted a lot of chin-stroking journalism, Glenn Reynolds said something that stuck with me: Journalism is a lecture; blogging is a conversation. That's not as true as it used to be, and it gets less true every day, as old bloggers leave and are not replaced. Ezra Klein attributes much of this to social media, which is certainly part of the answer; Facebook does not reward Part Seven of a back-and-forth about affirmative action. It wants neat, self-contained, authoritative statements about The Way the World Is, preferably ones that bolster your ideological commitments by eschewing caveats, ambiguity or serious engagement with the other side. As I frequently joke with my writer friends, the ideal blog post for the social media world would be headlined: "Everything You Already Believe Is Completely Correct, and Here's Some Math You Won't Understand That Proves It."

I imagine that a number of bloggers breathed a sigh of relief when the form became less conversational -- no need to respond to all those uncomfortable questions the other side is raising! The great thing about Andrew was that he kept up the conversation. He is passionate in argument, and he and I have had some fierce disagreements over the years. But right up to the end, he kept asking uncomfortable questions and offering answers from both sides. That's pretty rare, and pretty admirable, and I'm deeply sad that one last vestige of the old days is soon to be no more.
Those liberals were not even willing to discuss the genetic inferiority of African-Americans! But perhaps McArdle was not referring to Sullivan's racist beliefs? Well, she has discussed the matter in the past as well.
Lunch hour questions
One more post before I go back to work.

I'm reading the excellent Left Hooks, Right Crosses, a collection of political writing from left and right edited by the inimitable Christopher Hitchens and Christopher Caldwell. There are a number of essays on The Bell Curve, which I have read. I am the only person I know who has done so, and also, the only person I know without an opinion on its veracity. I keep meaning to re-read it, and see if I form an opinion, but I haven't the time.

What struck me is this: the arguments against the Bell Curve seem, overall, to be very poor. I recall reading Stephen Jay Gould's piece on it in the New Yorker, which literally flabbergasted me; it seemed such an obvious fabrication of selective quotation, half-truths, and statistical mumbo-jumbo that any reader who had read the Bell Curve would indignantly reject it. But of course, no one did reject it. No one read the book. They took Stephen Jay Gould's word for it, because he was Stephen Jay Gould. (I want to state here that this was a long time ago, and without access to Lexis-Nexis, I'm going on memory; it's possible that the piece is better than I remember it. But while it's possible I got the statistics wrong, I recall several instances of really egregious selective quotation that couldn't have been accidental. If SJG needed to resort to such tactics to refute the work, how right could he really have been?)

The strongest item I've seen is questioning the separated-twin studies from which Herrenstein and Murray draw their conclusions; several pieces argued that twins who were allegedly raised in different environments were in fact being kept by close family members. This is very important, and would be even stronger if the writers had mentioned how many children out of the study were being kept near each other.

All the pieces against them were marred by gratuitous name calling and vitriolic denunciations of anyone who would even consider the possibility that such a thing were true. I don't recall enough detail about the book to have an opinion one way or another. But as Charles Murtaugh often says, the world is not here to please you. It is possible that there are vast, heritable differences in IQ. It's also possible that there aren't. The problem that no one seems to have addressed is what we're supposed to do if, as Murray argues, IQ is important, even if none of it is hereditary.

The problem with environment is that, from what I know, it seems to be most important in the years before seven, in terms of actually shaping aptitude. And the overwhelmingly important environment is home.

[yip yip yip]

So while people who attacked the idea that IQ is strongly heritable seem to think that this makes the problem less intractable, I'd say it makes it rather more. We're going to have genetic engineering to overcome the former within the next hundred years, I'd bet. But I think we'd all be frightened of the kind of social engineering that would overcome the latter.

 The Gould response destroying The Bell Curve was a thing of beauty and McArdle's criticism of it is wrong and inane. But the more important point is McArdle's bland assertion that it's possible that African-Americans are genetically inferior to White Americans, she's not sure yet because she hasn't formed an opinion, which she might do if she studies it matter further. And the people who said that the book was wrong were biased or didn't read it.

Normal people would dismiss any claims of white genetic superiority out of hand. Not only is the belief in African-American genetic inferiority scientific nonsense, but it's obviously untrue as well. From an article by Sam Pritchard, in regard to Jonathan Chait's whining about criticism on Twitter:

  Let me explain what it means to believe that an average IQ of 85 accurately represents the inborn intelligence of the black population of America. It means that 16% of black people—one in seven—are intellectually disabled, or what used to be called “mentally retarded.” It means that one in four African Americans are borderline intellectually disabled. It means that nearly half of Sub-Saharan Africans are intellectually disabled. And it means that this is all the unavoidable genetic destiny of black people. Suddenly, Saletan’s position doesn’t seem so reasonable after all, and one can see how black thinkers like Brittney Cooper or Ta-Nehisi Coates find it impossible and unreasonable.  
As Coates eloquently put it, it becomes apparent that entertaining this notion as reasonable requires living “in the world of myth” that privilege allows people like Saletan to inhabit. Actually knowing a substantial number of black people on an intimate level (as Coates and Cooper do) would have surely shown Saletan, prior to writing his ill-advised and vile column, that such arguments were flatly nonsensical. One can also see why black thinkers like Coates and Cooper are unwilling to engage such ideas respectfully; that someone could treat such ideas as plausible suggests an irreconcilable gap in fundamental knowledge, values, worldview, and experiences. 
            So Chait, by arguing that all ideas merit the respect of good-faith Enlightenment discourse, exhibits dishonesty. He, like all human beings, excludes many positions from his notion of what is reasonable, and dismisses them summarily. He even does it within the very piece where he pleads for a democratic ideal of reasoned discourse in which his ideas are never dismissed—and, incredibly, some of the ideas he rejects flippantly are indeed reasonable. Chait shrugs off these ideas perhaps more subtly and in a more tonally-restrained style than the PC discourse he criticizes, but it is no less galling to those being dismissed, and it is no less a tactic of ideological policing. Again, we find that Chait is primarily uncomfortable with being subject to the dismissal that he, as a centrist, assumed he was entitled to dole out and immune from receiving. That assumption is so ingrained that he doesn’t even recognize his own language as the dismissive policing of ideology that it is.

McArdle also decided that Those People  (you know who) were poor because they didn't marry and they didn't marry because Those Male People were too, shall we say, hypersexualized which no doubt just appears to be a racist trope.

I've been doing a lot of research on poverty and inequality recently, and one of the major factors behind both turns out to be having kids out of wedlock.
There's clearly a subculture in our society for which the marriage ethos -- the social pressure on women, and particularly on men, to get married, or be in a long term relationship that looks in all important respects very like marriage -- has been destroyed. 
My own time in the inner city leaves me with some sympathy for what the Bush plan is trying to achieve. Inner-city kids want and need dads, and while marriage is no panacea (Ken's parents were married), stable marriages are the surest way to provide them. Expanding economic opportunity is clearly a big part of the solution, but probably not the answer in whole, given the hurdles to fatherhood and marriage posed by community norms. Wanting to marry only when you can do it on a tropical beach is like wanting to work only when you can start at $100,000 a year -- that is, not to want it in any meaningful sense. Even as teenagers, Jewell's and Angie's kids talk of wanting kids someday, but dismiss marriage out of hand. ''That'd be too plain -- like you'd have to see the same woman every day,'' Jewell's son Tremmell said. Angie's son DeVon, who is 16, said, ''I need some little me's''- children. But, he added, ''I just can't see myself being with one woman.'' One lesson of the 90's -- from the declines in smoking and teenage pregnancy to the plunging welfare rolls -- is that cultural signals matter, so even public-education campaigns aren't to be dismissed out of hand.

Poor women want to get married just as much as middle class women do, but the social environment they live in just doesn't seem to enable it. Marriage seems to be better for everyone, but can the institution regenerate itself? And if not, what can? Predictibly, I don't expect any government campaign to amount to much -- the government is best at writing checks, not changing people, and besides, my skin gets all crawly when the government starts telling people how to live. But what then?
 Megan McArdle would never call an African-American a bad name or attempt to lynch one. She would just do her very best to ensure that they suffer for their "choices." Incentives matter, you know.

How does Megan McArdle form these opinion? Fortunately she let us know recently.

But the problem with the old model of blogging is not just social media; it's that blogging is exhausting. Two or three items a day doesn't sound like a lot, but it takes a long time just to find something you want to write about. And the slowly dying ecosystem of other blogs makes it harder, because there's no longer a conversation you can just easily hook into. Instead of plopping yourself down at a table where people are already talking, you have to wander through a room filled with people who are speaking to an audience through a megaphone and decide which of these oratorial topics might interest your own audience and a few thousand of their Facebook friends. It's much lonelier, and consumes more energy, than it was in days of yore. This is why I spend so much time on my comments section; it is the one remainder of the old back-and-forth that made me love blogging in the first place. 
Most of us, one way or another, stopped doing what we used to do. I write fewer, longer items; others stopped blogging entirely. Andrew kept up the volume, even increased it, but by the end, it took a staff of 10 to do it. It's no wonder he burned out; the wonder is that it took so long.
Once upon a time McArdle could depend on Andrew Sullivan and Charles Murray to find out just how inferior African-Americans actually are. Instead of echoing whatever other conservatives blog about,  McArdle is now forced to find her own topics and boy, is it tedious! Not that she would ever give up the money. It beats working for a living.

This is the method by which McArdle decided that we could never impede the drug corporations' search for ever-higher profits. She just knew it had to be true even if she really didn't know. Her authorities said so.

Why I am desperately, desperately afraid of Kerry's health care plan

Alex Tabarrok tells us what sort of effect price controls are likely to have on pharmaceutical development:
Acemoglu and Linn's paper is formally about a different issue; the effect of market size on innovation. What they find is that a 1 percent increase in the potential market size for a drug leads to an approximately 4 percent increase in the growth rate of new drugs in that category. In other words, if you are sick it is better to be sick with a common disease because the larger the potential market the more pharmaceutical firms will be willing to invest in research and development. Misery loves company. 
Although they don't mention it, this finding has implications for price controls. In the pharmaceutical market the major costs are all fixed costs (they don't vary much with market size) so profit =P*Q-F. Acemoglu and Linn look at changes in Q but a 1% change in P has exactly the same effects on profits, and thus presumably on R&D, as a 1% change in Q.
We can expect, therefore, that a 1% reduction in price will reduce the growth rate of new drug entries by 4% and a 10% reduction in price will reduce new drug entries by 40%. That is a huge effect. I suspect that the authors have overestimated the effect but even if it were one-half the size would you be willing to trade a 10% reduction in price for a 20% reduction in the growth rate of new drugs? No one who understands what these numbers mean would think that is a good deal.

As someone who is hoping to extend her lifespan, and quality of life, through the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals, this is frankly terrifying. I am currently enjoying unparalleled lung health through a new drug, Singulair, that might well not have been developed if even modest price controls were in place; family members and friends are similarly excited about Advair, the combination bronchiodilator/steroid which is also a new development.

I probably will not vote for either Kerry or Bush. But as I consider whether one might be the lesser of two evils, I am struck by the fact that my disagreements with Bush are basically short term ones, which are unlikely to substantially outlast his administration, the conduct of the war on Iraq being chief among them. (Or they are things on which there is basically no daylight between him and John Kerry).  

Oh, his foriegn policy decisions will certainly have lasting repercussions, but I don't think that they will be as long-lasting as the repercussions if John Kerry succeeds in further nationalising health care, or as John Kerry's supreme court appointments are likely to be. Is it worth it to give up future drug advancements in order to punish Bush for screwing up in Iraq? I'm surprised at how few people seem to be seriously considering this question.
Megan McArdle worked her butt off to destroy Obamacare because she thought she might suffer if others were helped. The political is personal. Her views on the (possible!) inferiority of African-Americans is based on the conservative drivel she read, which she assumed was correct because it told her wanted she wanted to hear.

Contractually Obligatory Friday Filler Post

Shorter Megan McArdle: Paying someone to cook your steak is a waste of money. You are much better off spending hundreds of dollars on equipment to cook it yourself, using the most complicated method possible.


The problem with ordering steak out is that the chef doesn't do much to it. It's expensive, but it's expensive because the raw ingredient -- which is to say, steak -- is expensive. At most places, all the chef does is season a pre-cut hunk of meat, expose it to heat for a little while, and maybe plop some butter on top to make it taste extra-succulent. You can do all these things at home. It takes little skill, and it creates almost no mess. In other words, you aren't getting much added benefit from going to the restaurant. So don't pay someone else premium prices for minimal work; make them spend hours prepping and cooking you that wild boar ragu. 
If you want a dry-aged steak, you can do it at home with a mini-fridge in the basement or garage. Dying for a fancy bearnaise sauce? You can make it in the blender. If you're having trouble getting the meat cooked exactly to a turn, buy a sous vide setup, which is so foolproof that you literally cannot screw up the cooking; no matter the thickness of the steak, it will turn out absolutely perfect, every time. All in, the entire kit -- sous vide, mini fridge, blender, vacuum sealer, and a hibachi or cast-iron frying pan to put a sear on -- will set you back less than $500 new, which is to say, less than a couple of steak dinners for four. And you can probably slash that by at least half by shopping garage sales. Then get some good steaks -- by mail order if your local grocery store is truly abysmal -- and have yourself that celebratory steak feast. Total active time spent cooking should be well under half an hour. And if you don't want to do the dishes, you can use fancy paper plates. 
Yes, investing in such a setup will cost you more than a single steak at a restaurant. But then it will keep generating delicious dry-aged steaks for years. Those are years that you will be able to spend eating restaurant food that actually would be difficult, or annoying, to replicate at home, while also enjoying a great steak from time to time. Or if your idea of a great meal is always and forever "steak," you can skip the restaurant entirely and save thousands. I can do a top-notch steak dinner for eight at home for less than it would cost to take the two of us out for a mediocre piece of beef, and without much greater effort.

Remember, she's a "vegetarian" even if she eats meat.