Thursday, May 26, 2011

Britain Discovers David Brooks and Vice Versa

At least one Briton doesn't appear to be a fan. Daniel Knowles has what appears to be a very entertaining time ripping up Brooks' babbling paen.

It honestly couldn't be difficult no matter where you are. "Britain is working"? Really, David? The country is living proof that the sort of austerity you've advocated is absolute rubbish (as the Brits would say), and it's been convulsed by protests and, yes, out and out riots.

But Daniel, well, he knows better:

Let’s take a few choice bits, starting with the opening section. Apparently, from 1900 to 1920:

Britain faced an enormous task: To move from an aristocratic political economy to a democratic, industrial one. This transition was made gradually, without convulsion, with both parties playing a role.

Gradually? Without convulsion? I don’t know if you’re aware of this David, but most British historians believe that the First World War was pretty convulsive. And definitely not very gradual. He seems to think that Britain cast off her aristocratic rulers by a process of “constructive competition.” In fact, what happened was that we went to war, conscripted millions of young men and sent them to France to be machine-gunned. Simultaneously, our government was taken over by a clique, led by Lloyd George, which ruled autocratically from a garden shed in No 10 Downing Street. Meanwhile, a whole part of the country – Ireland – descended into civil war. Somehow, I don’t see that as a “gradual” transformation.
I'd noticed that too. What on earth would possess Brooks to opine that British history is "peaceful"?

And then there's this:

But perhaps he has a better grasp of our politics? Well, no. Take this:

Britain is also blessed with a functioning political culture. It is dominated by people who live in London and who have often known each other since prep school. This makes it gossipy and often incestuous.

Prep school? I’m afraid I think Mr Brooks is referring to public school (Eton, I expect) though Boris Johnson does, of course, share a primary school with Ed Miliband. That aside, the statement is still ludicrous – is being ruled by a clique of Oxford PPEist ex-public-school boys really what you would call a functioning political culture? And if so, how does that chime with the claim that we’re “democratic”?

It is obvious why this man is popular in Westminster – he is telling us how perfect we all are. But this self-indulgent ego-boosting nonsense is just what we need to get away from. While our politicos go around slapping themselves on the backs about how utterly indescribably and uniquely brilliant they all are, the British public hates them more than ever. In fact, it’s all a little bit like that place Mr Brooks knows so much better – the United States!
This really is outrageous. So the reason why the British system is supposed to work is because the country is ruled by an incestuous mob of upper-class twits? I can see how that would appeal to Brooks, considering his day job as an apologist for America's own incestuous mob of upper-class twits. But the fact that America's twits aren't all singing from the same hymnbook isn't something to moan about, especially considering how sad and useless those hymns have been.

(How sad and useless? Just ask Paul Ryan.)

Daniel ably points out that it just means that the public hates the lot of them. That's one of the reasons for that temporary Cleggsplosion in the last election, though that's long since dead now that Clegg decided to prop up Cameron for reasons which still escape me. It's the reason why the Scottish Nationalists kicked ass in the last election. Hell, it's not even just an British thing: anti-European parties are getting votes and seats all over Europe thanks to the ECB's obsession with austerity at the expense of all else. They're at the point where the Euro itself may be endangered, and Brooks thinks that this WORKS?

Well, no. He probably doesn't. He did mention those past local elections. He focused on Cameron's numbers and steadfastly ignored the Scottish embarrassment and the way that the Lib Dems were punished for propping up Cameron. He ignores what that suggests: that a majority of Britons think that he's a disaster, barring his True Believers, and that those with another option (like, say, the Scots) are picking it. And he's ignoring the riots that have convulsed Britain, that show that those who don't like Cameron REALLY don't like Cameron, just as people REALLY didn't like Thatcher.

No, it's just Brooks. He is, once again, ignoring anything and anybody that might contradict his banal little stories. He's playing his little game of pretending that if only everybody got along and agreed with David Brooks, things would be so much better. They wouldn't—but don't try telling HIM that.

Edit: And here's Greenwald!
It has long been the supreme fantasy of establishment guardians in general, and David Brooks in particular, that American politics would be dominated by an incestuous, culturally homogeneous, superior elite "who live in [Washington] and who have often known each other since prep school." And while these establishment guardians love to endlessly masquerade as spokespeople for the Ordinary American, what they most loathe is the interference by the dirty rabble in what should be their exclusive, harmonious club of political stewardship, where conflicts are amicably resolved by ladies and gentlemen of the highest breeding without any messy public conflict.
Very elegant way of expressing it. It's funny how many Americans seem to have this really deep envy of Britain's class system. Sure, they lionize the founders and all, and they don't want a King, exactly...but wouldn't it be nice if the oiks just learned their place?

Friday, May 06, 2011

The WSJ's Convenient Whistleblower Protection

Boingboing has a good piece today about the Wall Street Journal's somewhat useless "whistleblower" site, Safehouse. By all accounts, it's not very good. It's actually insecure as hell. Even worse, though, it doesn't really protect you from much. Here's the EULA:

"Except when we have a separately negotiated confidentiality agreement… we reserve the right to disclose any information about you to law enforcement authorities or to a requesting third party, without notice, in order to comply with any applicable laws and/or requests under legal process, to operate our systems properly, to protect the property or rights of Dow Jones or any affiliated companies, and to safeguard the interests of others."
Law enforcement is bad enough; much of this whistleblower stuff is about authority. But the real kick to the teeth is the other part. Releasing information "to a requesting third safeguard the interests of others?" The interests of who, exactly?

Think about it a little, though, and it becomes clear. This is a selective whistleblower protection scheme. If you're whistleblowing against someone that the WSJ and its owners like, then you'll get all the protection you could ever ask for. Say something about how Obama's a jerk, or upload some misleading bilge about how the Demmycrats are sizing you up for the Death Panels, or babble some horseshit about birth certificates, and not only will you get protection and anonymity, you'll get the credibility that comes with being a whistleblower for the Journal.

Say anything mean about the Republicans, the Tea Partiers, or any big corp that the WSJ has any relationship with whatsoever, and they'll hang our ass out to dry so fast it'll make your head spin. They'll probably just sit on it long enough to figure out what kind of nonsense they need to grunt out in order to discredit you. Hell, they'll probably "whistleblow" on you for that time you were addicted to Fresh kitten-kebabs back on '97.

(What's that? You've never enjoyed a nice kitty-bab in your life? Don't worry. By the time their anonymous, newly-credible "whistleblowers" are done with you, your own children will think that you can barely stand to eat anything but.)

So, no, it isn't useful, and you shouldn't trust it. It's another goddamned tool for the goddamned conservative movement. It's just another way for them to use their wealthy backers' big wads of cash to grant them legitimacy they don't deserve, and control they should never, ever have.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Casey Mulligan's Strawman and the Numbers/Words Divide

It's nice to know that being a big-time University of Chicago economist writing in the New York Times doesn't preclude you from acting like a marginal blogger and beating the holy hell out of a strawman.

So we see, today, in Casey Mulligan's piece in the Times' Economix column, where he takes cheap shots at what he calls "New Keynesianism". Trying to take down a school of thought in a few paragraphs was a dubious mission at best to begin with, but I immediately noticed that his only actual source on what New Keynesianism is was the electric goop between his ears.

Professor Paul Krugman, Keynesian extraordinaire, agrees:

I’ve been asked for reactions to Casey Mulligan’s piece about the failure of New Keynesian economics.The short answer is, he should try reading a bit of Keynesian economics — old or new, it doesn’t matter — before “explaining” what’s wrong with it. For the doctrine he’s attacking bears no resemblance to anything Keynesians are saying.

This is fairly typical of freshwater economists. They know that what the other side is saying is obviously stupid, so there’s no need to read it; they picked up enough about it talking to some guy in a bar, or whatever, to criticize it...

...he presents as “the New Keynesian position” something that is just what he imagines, on casual reflection (or, again, maybe after talking to some guy in a bar) to be the New Keynesian position.

OK, so from now on I’ll assert that the Chicago position on unemployment is that we can cure it by sacrificing goats. Hey, I heard that somewhere — no need to actually read anything they say, right?
So, yeah, strawman. Krugman goes into greater detail about why the Mulligan piece is wrong, but you could pretty much assume it was wrong going in, so no worries there.

What surprises me, though, is just how much this differs from other social sciences. Citing is sacrosanct there. You simply don't refer to an idea or a position or a theory without pointing to someone, somewhere, that defines exactly what that theory is. (Something beyond Mulligan's half-assed links to "Investopedia".) It just goes to show what Noah Smith was talking about when he decried his graduate instruction in economics as little more than getting force-fed DSGE modelling with little instruction in real-world economics and even less instruction in competing economic theories. If you think that the only thing that matters is plugging numbers into a model, why on earth would you care about silly things like citing sources? Numbers are objective! Their only source is Divine Providence!

It points to a deep, deep problem that we are starting to have as a civilization. We know numbers. We know how to manipulate numbers. We have fantastic devices of unimaginable power in manipulating numbers. Humans, though, aren't fantastic at manipulating numbers. We're good at it. Some of us are really good at it.

No, what humans are really good at is manipulating words. Even the least of us has a greater faculty with words than all but the best of us do with numbers. We know words. We're familiar with words. We're not just good at it, we're fantastic at it. Best on the planet, maybe even best in the universe. Go, us.

Since we're familiar with words, we know not to trust words. That's why we focus on things like citation. People lie and misrepresent and omit and use rhetoric and all the rest to manipulate words to their advantage. You've seen it. You may have even used it. That makes us skeptical about words. We demand sources, and citations, and literature reviews, and all that other lovely academic folderol. We know better.

So when we delve into the world of numbers, many of us—maybe even most of us—set aside that healthy skepticism. We presume that "numbers can't lie". We presume, in turn, that quantitative, formal modelling can't be a lie. It can be wrong, but even then, we presume that it's the numbers that will prove the model wrong. If the numbers fit, then it must be true, right?

It isn't true. A model is just an opinion. It's the quantitative equivalent of saying "Colonel Mustard, in the Library, with the Pipe" in a game of Clue. It might be true. It might not. Certain choices of numbers might show it to be true. Others might show it to be false. Others might mean nothing at all. It's a theory. Words, numbers, whatever, that's how theories work.

That means you can indeed lie or misinform or misdirect with numbers. Choosing one set of numbers and ignoring another set might "prove" the model you want. The process of turning qualitative factors into quantitative variables ("operationalization") might also "prove" the model you want. And, hell, if the numbers prove multiple sets of models—which happens—picking one model and ignoring the rest can also "prove" the model you want. All of these are lying with numbers. They can happen. They do happen. Constantly.

I don't think that Casey's lying with numbers. I do think that Casey doesn't really realize what he's doing. He (and many others) forget that the same sort of care that we take with theories in words also needs to be taken with theories in numbers. You have to teach and learn and cite these theories, so that you aren't vulnerable to those who attempt to lie with numbers, and you aren't susceptible to making mistakes with your number-theories that amount to unwitting lies.

Most importantly, you have to be very careful to present the theories as they are, instead of how you think they are. If you don't, you end up like Casey Mulligan: beating the holy hell out of a strawman made of numbers.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama's Dead, and Obama Got Him

Yep. It's true. That bastard's toast, and it was the demmycrat that was responsible.

Not even in a figurative sense, either. Go read Chris Bowers' Twitter feed. Obama was given the information back in February, chaired the meetings that set out the operation while they confirmed the location, and gave the go-ahead on Friday.

Bowers quotes officials as saying "Administration officials believe bin Laden's death will put Al-Qaeda on path of decline that will be difficult to reverse." Can't disagree there. They were already on the downslope; this is going to be a body blow that will likely be the end of the organization. We can only hope.

It's instructive, though. Eight years of Republican rule, and nothing happens. After a little over two years, it's the Democrats that get it done. It's just another reminder of how incompetent the Republicans really are. I can only hope that, when 2012 rolls around, the American people will remember that too.

(Edit: fixed tags.)