Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Main Currents of Political Science and Economics — Over a Cataract

Duke professor Jedediah Purdy highlights a NY Times essay by Molly Worthen, particularly the following passage:
"The left can’t talk openly about ideology, while the right pretends to ignore its own identity politics. The country’s political conversation is boring and unsatisfying precisely because its unspoken rules forbid politicians from acknowledging what is really going on and encourage them to talk past one another. 
"The right has so thoroughly captured the terms of economic debate that American liberals — uniquely in the Western world — champion cultural issues like same-sex marriage equality while avoiding serious confrontation with the structural sources of socio-economic inequality. Their ideological cowardice has left them turning sensible reform proposals like single-payer health insurance into the Frankenstein’s monster of government-subsidized private enterprise that is the Affordable Care Act."

Before the elections, the Times was running a side by side comparison of several models predicting the outcome of the campaigns. I haven't found an account of how those models actually shaped up in the actual outcome.

One way or another, the "conversation is boring and unsatisfying" also captures something about the state of political science exemplified in those models. It's badly missing something. And I don't think it's any accident that it has bought so completely into the methods of the main current of economics that so badly missed critical trends of the past 35 years (not just the past 7 years).

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Entropy, the Business Cycle, and the New Mediocre

Vanessa Frieden, New York Times fashion critic, has an essay in the paper drawing on comments by Christine Lagarde, director of the IMF, on what Lagarde calls the "new mediocre." I think Frieden doesn't quite get the point.

Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, coined the term "paradigm shift." Later, after it became a buzzterm with many meanings and little force, he regretted that, critically brilliant though it was. I wonder whether Christine Lagarde might feel something like that with the "new mediocre."

Lagarde means something specifically economic (as Vanessa Frieden acknowledges). Still, Friedman may be onto more than she realizes. The "meritocracy" that the privileged rave about (think executive pay, elite universities, charter schools, privatization of government functions, etc.) is mostly a myth. The great people of merit have proved to be stunningly mediocre (even incompetent, even criminal) — Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, about 90% of Congress and the executive, even the Supreme Court. Economic theorizing (including about meritocracy) has failed like very few sciences have ever failed. (A whole science — that's impressive.) Meritocracy was a cover story invented after the fact.

But the irony is in what Frieden and Lagarde still buy into: Growth must go on — the old thinking. "No prosperity without growth." People must buy more. Throw out the old — or even the new, useful or not. Buy newer, needed or not. Get a new cell phone each year. New clothing each season. Frieden's real quibble seems to be with the pace, not the irrational cycle.

Here's another law of physics: Entropy increases. Disorder increases. In time, things fall apart. Irrationality will accelerate that.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Secret Service's Sacred Mission — SACRED!

Here's is the opening paragraph of Carol D. Leonnig's October 1 Washington Post report on Julia Pierson's resignation as head of the Secret Service:
The resignation of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson and the launch of a top-to-bottom review of the agency Wednesday are an acknowledgment by President Obama of what he has long denied: that the force charged with protecting him is in deep turmoil and struggling to fulfill its sacred mission.
Let's highlight that last part:
the force charged with protecting him is struggling to fulfill its sacred mission
It's sacred mission.

Who does Carol Leonnig think the President of the United States is? The Second Coming of the Messiah? Is the year 2014? Is this the United States? Did Carol Leonnig study at least a little history at some level past grade school? . . . Perhaps she studied at Harvard or Yale. With Harvey Mansfield or Gordon Wood. That might explain things. Study with one of the idolaters of America's Golden Cows.

But how did any editor at the Post let that by? Even some dimwitted, groveling money-grubbing lowlife wealth supremacist like Katharine Weymouth....

Feudalism with a Constitution
This is an expression Rutgers professor Joseph Blasi introduced. The idea is one heard more and more widely — that wealth and power is increasingly so great and so concentrated in the hands of so few that it really doesn't matter how robust are the formal guarantees of the Constitution. The law is rendered substantively meaningless given the informal power of the 0.001 percent, the three to five thousand people who really control this country. The people who could commit almost any crime and know that they would not even be investigated (as the Wall Street banksters were not even investigated, as the Bush administration war criminals were not even investigated).

If one does something genuinely insane (kill someone and stick a head on a pike in the front yard) then the odds are high that they will be prosecuted. But as the case of Michael Skakel and Martha Moxley demonstrates, even that is not certain.

Religion Must Step in Where Science Fails
When science and reason are unable to justify absurd nonsense — like the billions spent to protect one war criminal, like Barack Obama — then we must come up with a myth to provide justifcation. Hence the job of the Secret Service becomes a "sacred mission." And the presidency becomes an office with divine status. An imperial presidency is no longer just a executive branch in a superpower with imperial ambitions. It is actually the office of a nascent monarch.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Coase Confusion

A tempest in a teapot over seat reclining on airplanes and nifty little (overpriced) gadgets that allow a passenger to prevent the person in front from reclining.

New York Times pseudo-thinker Josh Barro: Don’t Want Me to Recline My Airline Seat? You Can Pay Me

And a response, Damon Darlin: In Defense of the Knee Defender

Barro appeals to an icon of economics: Ronald Coase. "[A]irline seats are an excellent case study for the Coase Theorem. This is an economic theory holding that it doesn’t matter very much who is initially given a property right; so long as you clearly define it and transaction costs are low, people will trade the right so that it ends up in the hands of whoever values it most."

Coase had plenty of time to clarify what he meant by his 'theorem' (which, as others have noted, was not a theorem anyway). A former student of his, the noted Deirdre McCloskey, has argued that the popular understanding of Coase's 'theorem' is mistaken. I'm not aware that Coase ever chimed in on McCloskey's argument one way or another.

The obvious problem with Josh Barro's (pathetic) line of reasoning lies in confused handwaving over property rights (or 'property' 'rights').

My first thought on reading Barro was: How American. Only an American would whine about rights over being able to shove his seat back into another person's face.

My second thought was: Josh should have paid more attention in his daddy's or Greg Mankiw's courses (not that either Robert Barro or Greg Mankiw have a particularly good track record in economics).

But the real issue is twofold. The practical component is: What rights does a passenger acquire when buying a ticket for a flight? The airline could designs seats in any of a number of ways.

The more general component is: How do we adequately describe or specify property rights to make sense of Coase's 'theorem'? The answer is that we can almost always come up with conundrums in any but the most painfully artificial examples of the kind that right-wing nutjobs like Mankiw and Barro like to advance an utterly disproven body of economic theory.

For example, in the case of the airline seats, why not pose the problem in terms of the air rights of the seat occupant behind the recliner? Philosophers (typically ignored by conservative economists who can't bear any inconvenient facts or thought) will point out that rights conflict. So there will be +no+ well-defined specification of property rights in the sense required by Coase. Logically impossible.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Roger Cohen's False Balance

Roger Cohen's July 24th essay in the New York Times is a masterpiece of deceptive construction and lying by omission. "Hamas establishes a stranglehold over 1.8 million Palestinians squeezed into ... the 'open-air prison' of Gaza" — as if it were Hamas that maintains that prison; as if Palestinians had not chosen Hamas because the grossly corrupt and ineffectual Palestinian Authority had not proved itself more loyal to Likud than to Palestinians.

No mention of attacks on civilians sheltered at UN facilities.

No mention of Palestinian-hating Israelis like Rabbi Dov Lior or Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman ... or Benjamin Netanyahu.

No mention of the support of American anti-Palestinian bigots like Michael Bloomberg or Chuck Schumer. ...Or Barack Obama, who will never dare support the kinds of sanctions against Israel that he has brought against Russia, though by _any_ measure Israel's crimes are far worse.

No mention of how the "Middle East's only democracy" is clamping down on free speech and democracy for Palestinians _and_ for Israelis like those at B'Tselem, which has been barred from airing the names of the children Israel has killed.

Israel is firmly convinced it can win because of American support. And many people who claim to support peace refuse to condemn Israeli crimes or American support for those crimes — people like Roger Cohen.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Feinstanding or Merkeling

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has set out to prove just how blatantly, grossly hypocritical the American elite (government figures, corporate executives, pundits, academics) can be. She loudly supported NSA spying programs and, worse, viciously condemned Edward Snowden, charging that he had committed "an act of treason."

Edward Snowden has rightly charged Feinstein with hypocrisy. So, too, has Norman Solomon.

There is a clear, recent precedent for this. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was silent when news broke that the United States had been spying on Germans (and pretty much everybody else). Then it emerged that the Obama-istas had also been monitoring Merkel's own calls . . . for over 10 years. Merkel, previously sanguine about the American Stasi, was upset.

The US, we now know, has been spying on pretty much anything that can utter a sentence. What threat the G8 and G20 summits presented is anybody's guess. But Canadian PM Stephen Harper allowed that, so maybe he knows.

Internet transparency advocate and computer surveillance expert Jacob Appelbaum has detailed, at length, the many ways in which the US spymasters track us. It is very disturbing. And Sen. Ron Wyden has said, effectively, "We ain't seen nuthin' yet." Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and others who really know what is in the complete body of leaked NSA material have echoed Wyden. Jacob Appelbaum also led a Der Spiegel series on the NSA's spy kit.

Political theorist David Runciman argues that hypocrisy is part of what it is to be human, and especially part of what it is to be a politician. Witness, for example, the American and European hysteria over the Russian invasion ("incursion," in the language of American media) of the Crimean Peninsula. This is an act of "aggression," an "outrage," a "violation of international law." Israel, of course, has done far worse in the West Bank and Gaza for nearly 50 years. (To my knowledge the Russians have not killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians or "ethnically cleansed" hundreds of thousands.) And Russia has used Israel's excuse: It's defending its people. The US could hardly claim that (though it did try) in Iraq (twice) or Grenada or Nicaragua or Chile, or in any of a dozen or more other places that have enjoyed American "generosity" over the past 60 years.

Some resources (to be updated):

Jacob Appelbaum on the frightening array of technologies used by the NSA, CIA and others:

Applebaum on NSA hacking unit and, believe it or not, the NSA's catalog of spy gear.

The Intercept. The new online journalism project of Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill, and others.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Wealth Supremacism: The Real Reason the Harvard Study on Mobility is a 'Landmark' in the Eyes of American Media

The amount of hype the Chetty study has gotten is quite astonishing, but not surprising. First, we have to remember the lengths to which Harvard goes to present anything and everything that happens at Harvard as more earth-shattering than anything and everything that happens anywhere else. It is easy to roll ones eyes at this point of mine, but it is part of the politics and economics of academia. We see much the same in the lobbying of universities for Nobel Prizes — one of the reasons why some, like physicist N. David Mermin, have so strongly criticized prizes generally: "[Mermin] maintains that the prize system has run amok, absorbing far too much of scientists' time and effort." (It is also, in my opinion, a reason for the public ownership of all universities.) Check out the ancillary materials Harvard has released in connection with this study. There has clearly been an effort to market the work for popular consumption.

The more important reason this is a 'landmark' study in the eyes of NPR or New York Times or Post pundits and editors is that it fits very nicely into the outcomes that they find tolerable. It fits into the prevailing attitude of wealth supremacism. The Bill Kellers or Robert Samuelsons or Cokie Robertses embrace inequality. That want more inequality. They firmly believe that the privileged are innately superior. They absolutely will not tolerate scientific findings that clearly support a case for redistribution of wealth. This cannot be overemphasized. How many mainstream observers of President Obama's State of the Union address obsessed over any possible redistributive implications of his statements:
  • The Economist; "Obamacare and inequality — A healthy dose of redistribution";
  • Conservative, Clinton-style Democrat William Galston at Brookings;
  • Britain's Telegraph newspaper: "Barack Obama calls for more redistribution of wealth";
Consider this from an op/ed at Forbes: "[I]ncome inequality is unrelentingly beautiful." This is a common view among Americans, who overwhelmingly share the conviction, take as an article of faith, that they will soon win the lottery, that they are just about to become fabulously wealthy. But, crucially, Americans also overwhelmingly adhere to a conviction that the wealthy deserve to be so.

Here is 'noted' Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw: "Smart parents make more money and pass those good genes on to their offspring."

This is the thinking underlying eugenics, and it is a pervasive and growing conviction among American conservatives, moderates, and no small percentage of progressives. (And not just among Americans.) It is reflected in the cultish adoration of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary economics, and the gross misunderstandings of genetics and biology common among people generally, social scientists, and even many biologists. Stephen Jay Gould was an outstanding thinker on these issues. Richard Lewontin and others still write on these matters.

I highly recommend Dean Baker's writing on the Chetty mobility study: