Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Unemployment compensation is unconstitutional"

The same article on the Tea Party movement that inspired my previous post also contains:

"The Senate candidates include Joe Miller of Alaska, who has said unemployment compensation is unconstitutional."

This one is wrong too, but in a subtler fashion. What Miller actually claims, as one can check pretty easily by listening to what he says, is that federal unemployment compensation is unconstitutional. That is not the view of the current court, but it is a defensible reading of the Constitution based, as Miller makes clear, on the doctrine of enumerated powers. On that interpretation, the federal government is only entitled to do those things that the Constitution explicitly says it can do, with the Tenth Amendment providing that anything else is reserved to the states and to the people.

Unemployment compensation is administered by the states, funded by both the federal and state governments, and varies from state to state. Eliminating the federal role would be a substantial change but one well short of eliminating unemployment compensation, which is what "unemployment compensation is unconstitutional" seems to imply that Miller is proposing.

It seems I have a new hobby—debunking overstated claims about what Tea Party supported candidates have said.

Ken Buck and "separation of church and state"

A recent news story on the Tea Party movement refers to "Colorado’s Ken Buck, who says he opposes the principle of separation of church and state." That got me curious, in part because I have found other assertions about Tea Party backed candidates to be less than accurate, so I googled around and eventually found a video of Ken Buck speaking on the subject. I am guessing that this is the origin of the claim, but I actually don't know—I was unable to find anyone who made the claim and supported it with an actual quote from Buck.

The video is on a Huffington Post page; to their credit they do not claim that he opposes the principle, only that he "has called for a 'much closer relationship' between church and state." What he actually says in the video, after mentioning the existence of state religions in Europe at the time the Constitution was written, is:
… the freedom of religion in this country in my view was meant to be a freedom from state imposed religion. I can’t tell you what god you are going to pray to, you can’t tell me, and that is, that is one of the great things of, in this country. The idea that church and state should be separated is fine with me. The idea that there should be no interrelationship between the two is not fine with me. I think that the separation of church and state is much different than our founding fathers intended it to be and we would be much better off with a closer relationship between church and state. Not a state sponsored religion and not religion dictating to the state public policy but a much closer relationship.”
He goes on to speak of the fact that Bush had a number of “faith based programs” that “I think are appropriate.”

Perhaps there is some other evidence to support the claim that Buck says he opposes the separation of church and state—commenters are invited to offer some. As it stands now, it looks as though the claim is simply false, one more example of the willingness of journalists to say things without any good reason to believe they are true.

Provided, of course, that the things they say fit their own views.

I should probably add, given the earlier discussion of O'Donnell, that Buck looks, based on what I have found so far, to be a considerably more articulate and intelligent candidate than she is. That is based in part on the Huffington Post video, in part on an interesting piece by a liberal interviewer.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Sceptical Rule of Thumb

I recently came across a webbed review of the movie Agora. The review, and I presume the movie, is an attack on early Christianity, seen as responsible for the destruction of classical civilization. The review includes, along with much else, the claim that "in 391, archbishop of Alexandria, Theophilos, was behind the destruction of the library of Alexandria."

What is interesting about this story is how many people were responsible for destroying the library of Alexandria. The three best known candidates are Julius Caesar, the Caliph Umar, and, of course, Archbishop Theophilos.

Of the three stories the best is Umar's. After Egypt came under Muslim rule, he was supposedly asked what was to be done with the library, and replied that books which disagreed with the Koran were false, books that agreed were superfluous. So they burned it. Like the other two versions—Caesar is supposed to have destroyed it by accident in the course of military operations—there is no good reason to believe the story is true. You can find a detailed account of the different versions of the destruction of the library and the evidence for and against each at Wikipedia.

Why so many stories? The answer, I think, is clear. The destruction of the greatest collection of classical literature ever assembled—much of it now lost forever—is a dramatic event, and one that provides a useful setting for an attack on whatever person or group you regard as particularly barbarous. That is the function the story serves in both the Christian and Muslim versions. The Julius Caesar story may perhaps have survived from pure literary merit—there is something dramatic about so important an event happening by accident in the middle of a battle. Think of it as a post script to the killing of Archimedes at the end of the siege of Syracuse—by a soldier impatient at the unwillingness of the mathematician, absorbed in some theoretical problem, to come when ordered.

All of which brings me to my simple rule of thumb: Distrust any historical anecdote good enough to have survived on its literary merit. It might be true. But it might equally well be a guess or a lie or a mistake by one person, spread by many others—and getting better at each repetition. I got to observe the process at first hand in a long-ago Usenet argument when I discovered that a period reference to a woman who, in the battle of Junain, "had a dagger which she carried about" had morphed to "tied a dagger around her waist abover her pregnant belly and fought in the ranks of Mohammed and his followers" (modern Arabic speaking feminist) to "with an armory of swords and daggars strapped around her pregnant belly fought in the ranks of Mohammed and his followers" (modern English speaking feminist) to "one of the Prophet's wives was renowned for winning a cavalry charge when eight months pregnant, ..." (Usnet poster).

And, for a final example, consider the phrase "rule of thumb." According to a popular story, it originated with the rule that a husband was entitled to beat his wife so long as he used a stick no thicker than his thumb. In fact, no such legal rule ever existed. The origin of the story seems to be a comment attributed to an 18th century judge and ridiculed by his contemporaries.


P.S. A commenter points to a devastating review of the film. Not only is there no evidence that the mob that destroyed the temple of Serapis burned any manuscripts at all, there is no evidence that, by the date of the destruction, there were any manuscripts there to be burned. And the movie has altered the historical facts in a variety of other ways, all designed to serve its message, converting a rather unpleasant political squabble between two civic factions into a grand story of the suppression of knowledge by Christian fanatics.

Read it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Could Woodward's Source be ...?

I haven't read Woodward's new book—indeed, I don't think it is out yet. But from what I have heard about it, I have a possible solution to the puzzle of how Woodward got lots of detailed information about what happened at a variety of supposedly secret meetings.

One theme of the book, as so far described, is that Obama wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan and reluctantly agreed to send more troops instead only due to pressure from his military advisors. If things continue to go badly in Afghanistan, that story could be very useful for the President, since it makes it look as though he was the farsighted one in the administration and the mistake of going in instead of out wasn't really his. If, on the other hand, things go well, Obama can take credit for the decisions he made and not worry about being blamed for the decisions he didn't make but, if Woodward is to be believed, wanted to.

Think of it as a win/win strategy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

What Should Count As Nutty?

Two of my recent posts dealt with the question of whether Christine O'Donnell, currently the republican nominee for senate in Delaware, is a nut. That raises a more general question of some interest: What counts as nutty?

Pretty clearly, it isn't enough to merely hold mistaken beliefs; we don't regard Ptolemy as a nut, although he famously believed that the earth was at the center of the universe, embedded in a nested collection of crystaline spheres. Those of us who are atheists do not conclude that all the religious believers are nuts although, seen from our perspective, the beliefs of many of them do indeed look pretty weird. So what does it take?

In the first of my two posts, I mentioned that O'Donnell, in arguing that masturbation was sinful, was correctly (so far as I could tell) reporting a position expressed in the New Testament (not about masturbation directly but about lust), and that although I disagreed I did not take that as evidence that she was a nut. Several people commenting wanted to know why, or else clearly disagreed.

In that particular case, I think there are two answers. The first is that I don't have any solid basis for my own moral beliefs, any way of proving to a reasonable and open minded skeptic that they are correct. That puts me in a poor position to condemn as obvious nonsense someone else's moral beliefs.

I could have gone on to point out that a number of moral beliefs strongly held by many people in our current society would be seen as distinctly nutty by most people, including most intelligent, educated, and reasonable people, in a fair number of past societies. Consider, as one example, our rejection of slavery, contrasted with the view of the subject held by Aristotle and his contemporaries. For another, consider our view of the minimum age for sexual intercourse, reflected in age of consent and statutory rape laws, contrasted with the views of most past societies. There is good reason to believe that we know more about science than people did in the past, but I have not yet seen any evidence that we know more about moral philosophy. And I know of at least one twentieth century case where a legal change replacing traditional with modern views of the subject—in Jewish law by rabbis in Palestine—was defended by the factual claim that bearing children young was more dangerous now than it had been two thousand years ago, a "scientific" claim that strikes me as distinctly nutty.

But the special problems of moral beliefs don't answer the more general question. There are lots of people who disagree with me on factual questions whom I don't consider nutty either. So where do I, where should I, draw the line.

Consider a second and more troubling piece of evidence against O'Donnell. In a TV interview a few years back, she said:

"American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains."

The story I got the quote from suggested that she was "misremembering this 2005 report on scientists who successfully grew human brain cells within mice."

Misremembering the details of a news story doesn't qualify as nutty—people do that all the time. Getting facts wrong, even badly wrong, doesn't qualify either. As I pointed out in a piece some time back, David Frum, a prominent conservative commentator, got the facts about the beginning of the Great Depression backwards, thought Hoover cut spending when in fact he sharply increased it; that doesn't make him a nut. Biden, in his debate with Palin, described FDR as responding to the stockmarket crash by going on television to reassure the nation. That doesn't make him a nut either.

What is disturbing about the O'Donnell quote is not that she got the facts wrong but that she got them so very wrong, believed something that, on the face of it, no reasonable person would believe. That strikes me as a good first cut at a definition of nutty.

But the application is not as simple as it might seem, even in that case, because it depends on what one can expect a reasonable person to already know. Biden's comment contains two claims that, to anyone moderately familiar with American history, should have been obviously false—that FDR was president in 1929 and that television was widely available at the time. But most Americans are not even moderately familiar with American history, and that probably includes quite a lot of prominent American politicians.

Similarly with the O'Donnell quote. The idea that one could get a fully functional human brain into a mouse's skull is, on the face of it, absurd—to someone with any feel for either the current state of biotech or the relevant biology. But I think there is quite a lot of evidence—most obviously the circulation figures of the wilder tabloids—that a sizable fraction of the American population doesn't have any feel for that sort of thing. Do they all count as nuts?

Let me go back to the question of the Bible, not as a source of moral authority but as a source of truth. My first instinct is to write off anyone who believes that as obviously crazy. And I am at least tempted to broaden that to anyone who believes the central claims of any of the major religions, anyone who, in Orwell's phrase, believes in Heaven the way he believes in Australia.

The reason I don't write them off that way is that I know of too many people, present and past, who quite obviously were intelligent, thoughtful, and reasonable, yet believed in the Bible, some of them in a pretty literal sense, others at least to the extent of believing in its central claims.

In trying to make sense of all this, I fall back on the observation that most of what most of us, perhaps all of us, believe, is based not on evidence directly available to us but on what the people around us tell us. Not only is it so based, it has to be. Nobody has the time and energy to check enough of the facts for himself—to be sure that Australia, and New Zealand, and Antarctica, and Orford, N.H., actually exist by going and looking at them, rather than by believing what he is told or reads.

One reason I am confident it can't be done is that I know someone who tries, a fellow poster to Usenet with whom I have interacted over a period of many years. He is an intelligent and energetic fellow, and he appears to follow a policy of regarding with skepticism anything he can't check for himself. Thus, for example, he takes it for granted that none of the official figures on inflation can be trusted, and tries to make his own estimate from prices he has himself observed. His conclusions, in that case and many others, sharply diverge from what the rest of us believe. One result is that he comes across, to many people and not entirely without reason, as a nut.

Once you accept the practical necessity of relying heavily on second hand information, you have to modify your view of what a reasonable person would believe to take account of what those around him believed. If you have no training in science and your only information on biotech comes from the popular press, it may not be obvious that a story on mice with human brains cannot be right. If you have devoted your time, energy, and intelligence to living your own life, doing your job, dealing with those around you, it isn't all that unreasonable to accept as truth what those around you believe about wider issues less directly observed, such as the existence of God or the weakness of the case for evolution.

That applies not only to people in the past who couldn't have known the evidence for evolution but to people in the present who could have but in all probability don't. I long ago concluded that most people who say they do believe in evolution, like most who say they don't, are going mostly on faith. As I pointed out in a post some years back, many of those who say they believe in evolution, most notably people left of center, have no difficulty rejecting even its most obvious implications when those clash with their ideology.

So what does qualify one as a nut? I think the best answer I can come up with is holding beliefs that no reasonable person with your intellectual background could hold. In practice, since one rarely knows enough about some else's background to apply that criterion, it comes down to observing how someone holds and defends his beliefs. Someone who argues for creationism and against evolution in a coherent, consistent, intelligent fashion isn't a nut, even if there are lots of facts he doesn't know that contradict his argument, even if he bases his attack on a mistaken (but widely believed) account of the contents of the theory he is attacking.

It is at the point when the argument depends on ignoring facts he does know, on defending inconsistent positions, demonstrates that he is committed to the conclusion whatever the evidence and the arguments might be, that the balance begins to tip. The clue is not what he argues for but how he argues for it.

At least, I think that's the closest I can come to answering the question that started this post.

Moynihan on O'Donnell

One of the things that first got me paying attention to the charges against Christine O'Donnell was a piece in the Reason blog by Michael Moynihan attacking her. He has now posted a second one. It provides a little evidence that she is a nut, more that Moynihan is either incompetent or dishonest. He writes:
I mean, we all could make the mistake of thinking that there exists an army of mice with human brains, or that Vince Foster was “murdered,” possibly by those in the White House. (A number of people are offering up the “O’Donnell was just asking questions” defense, though she explicitly refers to “the murder of Vince Foster,” ...
As you can easily check by following the "murdered" link, O'Donnell did not explicitly refer to "the murder of Vince Foster." What she actually said, arguing that Newt Gingrich was being attacked on relatively minor charges while much more serious charges against President Clinton were being ignored, was:
"And then there's also the issue of murder with Vincent Foster. That's a much more serious charge than failing to seek legal advice"
There is a large difference between "the issue of murder with Vincent Foster" described as a "charge," which implies that he might have been murdered, and "explicitly" referring to "the murder of Vince Foster." Moynihan not only attributes the latter to O'Donnell, he does it in quotation marks. Attributing words to someone that she did not say is either incompetent or dishonest journalism.

The "army of mice with human brains," on the other hand, exaggerates what she said but there is something real there to exaggerate. The actual quote is:
"American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains"
The story he links to suggests that she was "misremembering this 2005 report on scientists who successfully grew human brain cells within mice." If so, she was careless with her facts and demonstrated a badly exaggerated idea of the capabilities of current bioscience.

The piece offers two other pieces of evidence against O'Donnell. One is that someone who worked for her 2008 senatorial campaign reported that O'Donnell "told me that she thought Joe Biden tapped her phone line." If Moynihan believes the idea that political campaigns sometimes engage in illegal wiretapping is absurd, he somehow managed to miss the entire Watergate episode along with much else.

The other evidence, from someone who volunteered for the same campaign, is that O'Donnell talked to him about winning a lucrative television contract with CNN or Fox News Channel.

"I informed her that most media organizations prohibit their employees from running for office. She didn't seem to understand and was more interested in getting a contract," he recalled. "She was more concerned about getting a TV deal than winning office."

It does not seem to have occurred to either him or Moynihan that O'Donnell's chances of winning office—while running in an election she ended up losing by about two to one—did not deserve a major role in her career plans.
P.S. I emailed Moynihan pointing out that he was misquoting O'Donnell and he has now put a correction up on his post.

George Bush and the Tea Party Movement

Listening to the radio today while driving, I heard one commenter asserting that the odd events of this election season were all due to the poor state of the economy. There is some truth to that view, but not as much as he thinks. The other reason for what is happening is George Bush.

Bush is responsible for the Republican insurrection and the Tea Party Movement twice over. To begin with, he spent eight years demonstrating that Republicans were at least as willing to increase the size of government, and to do it with borrowed money, as Democrats—indeed, more willing than the most recent Democratic administration. That was a good reason for Republicans who believe in the sorts of things Bush said he believed in to conclude that electing Republicans was no great improvement over electing Democrats, hence that renominating current incumbents would mean the wrong people being elected—whoever won. From there it is a short step to nominating someone else, even at the risk of losing the subsequent election.

Second, and I think equally important, Bush made himself massively unpopular with the electorate, with the result that the Democrats did much better in the 2008 election than they had any business doing, given the distribution of political views in the electorate. Having been handed the White House and large majorities in both houses, along with the excuse of an unusually bad recession and related problems, they proceeded to enact a lengthy wish list of Democratic priorities paid for with borrowed money on an enormous scale. The result, as best I can judge from my very limited political expertise, was that they positioned themselves well to the left of the voters. That set up the current situation.

I will prudently refrain from predictions. It is possible that the Tea Party victories in the primaries will be repeated in the elections. It is also possible, as quite a lot of people have argued, that the Tea Party will turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the Democratic Party, the one thing capable of saving them in the midterm elections.

We will have to wait and see.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Or at least, if she is, she's my kind of nut

Cristine O'Donnell, seven years ago, giving a reasonably good short talk on the women in The Lord of the Rings. Along with her niece, who is the real enthusiast—but has some tendency to confuse the movie with the book.

A much more attractive picture than one gets from news stories on the campaign.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Again Arctic Ice

"Researchers say projections of summer ice disappearing entirely within the next few years increasingly look wrong.

At its smallest extent, on 10 September, 4.76 million sq km (1.84 million sq miles) of Arctic Ocean was covered with ice - more than in 2007 and 2008, but less than in every other year since 1979." (BBC news story)

Long term readers of this blog will remember my posts a while back on the subject of the area of arctic sea ice. A web page produced by NASA/JPL claimed that the latest data showed it continuing to decrease. The actual data, available on the web from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, showed that the decline had reversed, at least temporarily, about two years earlier. Commenters attempting to defend the NASA/JPL claim argued, in effect, that the reversal was only random variation, and the trend was still down.

That was somewhat over a year ago. As the quote above suggests, the evidence so far suggests that they were wrong. The minimum sea ice extent for this year is below last year's but above the figures for the two previous years. It is below the figure for still earlier years, due to the previous decline, but so far there seems no reason to believe that that decline has continued—which was the claim that I challenged.

And, if the BBC story is to be believed, researchers in the field have begun to adjust their predictions accordingly.

Is Christine O'Donnell a Nut?

Reading news stories, including a recent story by Michael Moynihan in Reason, the answer seems to be yes. Following up the detailed claims in those stories, it isn't so clear.

One of Moynihan's claims is that "O’Donnell lied about attending a Master’s degree program at Princeton University." That's a strong claim; the only support is a link to an article critical of O'Donnell by John McCormack in the Weekly Standard. He bases it on her claims in a lawsuit against her previous employer, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative group. To his credit, he provides a link to the claims. I read it, partly out of curiosity about O'Donnell, partly because I had connections with ISI long ago, in its earlier incarnation as a libertarian organization called the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists.

As best I can tell, nowhere in her claims does she say that she attended a Master's degree program at Princeton. By her account, when ISI originally offered her a position in February of 2003, one of her reservations was that she had applied to Princeton's Master's degree program for the following fall. ISI assured her that she would be given enough time, up to one day a week, to attend classes—presumably she was applying to a part-time program—but then reneged on that agreement, with the result that she was forced to withdraw. A careless reader might take that as meaning that she took classes for a while and then had to cancel. But given that her employment started in March and she was planning to start taking classes the following fall, it looks more as though she applied, was accepted, but then withdrew when she discovered that she wasn't being given the necessary free time. She says that she got a full refund of her tuition, which would be a little surprising if she had actually attended classes for a while before withdrawing.

Getting curious, I followed up on some of the other evidence offered that she was a nut. One repeated claim was that she was, in Moynihan's words, "opposed to the sinister habit of masturbation," which makes it sound as though she had been campaigning against it. Another story describes her as the "masturbation hating candidate" and links to another informing us that "One of the most notable things on her political résumé is her well-publicized position against masturbation."

All of this seems, as far as I can tell, to be based on a single comment made in the course of an MTV program on sex in the nineties. O'Donnell asserted that the bible says that lust in your heart is to commit adultery, and that you cannot masturbate without lust—both, I think, correct statements. As best I can tell, that is the sole basis for the claims of "well publicized position" and "masturbation hating candidate."

I don't take the bible as a source of truth, but quite a lot of people do, and the fact that O'Donnell does, or at least did at one time, isn't evidence that she is a nut.

Another charge is that "she suggested that age-appropriate sex education, even for kindergarteners, could convince children that strangers with candy were "not so creepy." Following the link kindly provided by the Huffington Post, one finds a reasonable enough argument—that if small children are accustomed to discussing intimate matters with their teacher, they will be less likely to be frightened by a similar conversation from another adult. I'm not sure she is right, but the appearance of crazy views is coming from the way the view is described by her critic, not from what she actually said.

Reading O'Donnell's charges against ISI, I was struck by a point that none of the stories seems to have noticed. While she objects to quite a lot of things about their treatment of her, the central complaint is that they are, or at least wish to appear to be, Christian fundamentalists who believe that women ought always to be under the authority of men. She got fired, by her account, when she objected to being made the subordinate of a recent (male) hire who had been brought in as her assistant—a change made to make sure that she was under the "cover" of a male during a period when the vice-president she reported to was going to be absent.

Running through much of the criticism of O'Donnell is the implications that she is committed to fundamentalist Christianity. It is surely at least worth mentioning that a large part of the reason she sued her employer was, by her own account, the fact that they were.

Finally, it's worth noting that a good deal of the material used to make O'Donnell look nutty is coming from her activities in the nineties, when she was a twenty-something crusading for sexual purity. It would be interesting to see a similar selection for left of center candidates.

O'Donnell may really be a nut, of course. Sarah Palin was badly misrepresented by her critics during the campaign, but even without the misrepresentation her actual views do seem a bit odd.

Part of what first got me interested in O'Donnell was the dual issue she appears to raise for not only Tea Party supporters but libertarians as well—and, for that matter, for some on the left. The first half of the issue currently appears as the argument that the Tea Party is the best thing that could have happened to the Democratic party, since it is forcing on the Republicans candidates whose views are too far from the center to win—what my wife, remembering an earlier example, refers to as the McGovern effect.

The other half is the nature of the candidates. Tea Party candidates, or LP candidates, or Socialist candidates for that matter, are unlikely to have a background as high level elected officials or much experience in electoral politics. Their willingness to run in what everyone else sees as a hopeless cause may reflect either a wildly unrealistic view of the world—I still remember the people who, back in 1964, thought Goldwater would be elected by the "silent majority"—or blind fanaticism. They are, in other words, quite likely to be nuts. Which might create difficulties for electing them, and further difficulties if they do get elected.

Following up the charges against O'Donnell, I am struck by the other side of that story. Almost anybody can be made to look nutty by a suitable selection of past comments—consider that the current Vice President is a man who apparently believes that FDR was President at the time of the stock market crash and went on national TV to reassure people. Given a press sufficiently hostile to one candidate and friendly to another, it isn't that hard to create the illusion that the outsiders are all nut cases, their opponents all reasonable folk.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Text vs Speech

My wife, after reading my previous post, commented that it would be much harder for a service person to ignore requests to drop the canned and content-free responses and actually deal with the problem if the interaction were face to face rather than through typed text on a computer screen.

I was reminded of another conversation with her yesterday, after an extended World of Warcraft session in which we (and our son and daughter) had all participated. One of the other players, after leaving the group, had complained extensively and (by her account) unreasonably on the relevant chat group. My wife commented that the player in question came across as a much nicer and more reasonable person in voice communication than in text. She suggested that perhaps, to him, typed conversations were not entirely real, or at least much less real than voice communications. If the conversation is not real, the person on the other side of it is also not real, so being rude, even unjustifiably rude, doesn't really count—rather like being rude to a non-player character, a computer generated "person."

All of which may perhaps link back to an old puzzle of mine—why the mass lecture did not disappear after the invention of the printing press. And perhaps also to my experience, some years back, giving public lectures at long distance. I did it once over the telephone, and the experience was, from my end, very unsatisfactory, like talking into a hole. The second time was with video as well as audio—I could see the audience and they could see me—and it felt much more real.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

ELIZA is alive and well and working for Comcast

I've been having problems with my internet connection and, as a result, have spent a good deal of time on chat sessions with Comcast "analysts." I was struck by how large a fraction of their side of the conversation appeared to be automated—standard phrases with no informational content, designed to appease the customer. Examples:

"Let me welcome you with genuine assurance that I will be providing you quality Comcast customer service today. Before anything else, let me extend my apologies for any inconvenience this internet issue has caused you. Still doing fine, I suppose, David?"

The last bit echoed a standard phrase along the lines of "how are you doing today." It was irrelevant to the conversation (as such phrases in ordinary conversation often are) but appeared to be an automatic opening.

Somewhat more bizarrely, when I answered that I was fine but my internet connection was not, the response was:

"I am glad to know that you are doing fine, David"

That exchange was followed, typically, by some version of:

"I understand the importance of your internet service and I do apologize if you are having problems with it right now, David. Don't worry, I'll be glad to assist you with that. Rest assured that I will do my best to remedy the situation."

One variant included an assurance that the problem would be dealt with by the end of our session, which not only was not true but could not have been believed by the analyst, assuming she noticed that this was the third or fourth time I had tried to get the problem solved.

During a break in the conversation made necessary by something the analyst was doing, I was treated to a brief ad for some additional service Comcast offered, put as if it were a further part of the conversation. When I explained that I wasn't interested in access to television, not having or wanting a TV set, the response was:

" Oh I see. That's alright, David."

A little later the same analyst who had already offered apologies and assured me of quality concast service, responded to my description of the problem and my most recent exchange with a previous analyst with:

I apologize for the inconvenience this has caused you, David. I know how important it is to use your service as expected. I am willing to help you the best way I can.

When, in irritation, I told a later analyst that: "It would be better if Comcast analysts didn't spend time asking me how my day was, but instead just dealt with the problem."

The response was:

"I'm sorry to know that, David."

Shortly followed by the exchange:

"As I understand your concern, you are having issues with your internet connection, is that right?"


David> It would also help if analysts read what I wrote and responded to it, instead of following a canned routine.

(analyst) Thank you for confirming.

Shortly followed by:

"David, I understand your need to have your internet connection up and working as expected. I know very well how important it is nowadays to have an internet connection all the time. I can certainly relate to this concern."

I'm not sure that I should have been either surprised or displeased at the nature of the conversations. Automated responses, whether programmed in silicon or carbon, save the responder time and effort and are common enough in ordinary social exchanges. The fact that analysts claimed to have access to the record of my previous sessions but showed no evidence of having absorbed the relevant information was irritating, but again might represent a reasonable compromise on their end between the quality of the service they provided and the cost in time of providing it. And some fraction of what the analysts said was actually relevant to the conversation.

But I was repeatedly reminded of ELIZA, an early computer program that created the illusion of a human being by a fairly simple set of pre-programmed responses inspired by Rogerian psychotherapy.

I suggested to one analyst that she might want to look up ELIZA. The response?

"Thank you for patiently waiting, David."

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Living Dead: Thoughts on Macro and Depressions

Macro is not my field. One of the reasons it is not my field is that, so far as I can tell, it lacks a theoretical structure as solid or as well supported as price theory—popularly but misleadingly called "Micro." One result is that a course on the subject is a tour of either a cemetery or a construction site.

The cemetery is the orthodox Keynesian account according to which a depression is the result of insufficient demand due to the exhaustion of investment opportunities, monetary policy is useless because the economy is in a liquidity trap, and the proper solution is for the government to run a large deficit, converting the excess savings into government expenditure. That was the accepted wisdom fifty years ago. As best I could judge, as observer not participant, it fell out of favor among academic economists in the ensuing decades, due to both theoretical and empirical problems.

The construction site is the attempt to replace the old orthodoxy. Some of it gets labeled "monetarism," some "neo-keynesianism," some other things. None has been sufficiently successful to have achieved the status of a new orthodoxy.

That is one reason why the old orthodoxy maintained its popularity in popular culture, including that of politicians and journalists. A second is that it provides a justification for large scale deficit financing, something politicians, left and right, are fond of doing whenever they have a plausible excuse. The old orthodoxy reappeared a few years ago in full force, complete with its old claim to be what everyone who knows anything about the subject believes, and was used to justify deficit spending on a scale large even compared to the deficit spending of the previous administration.

Think of it as the rise of the living dead.

All of which leaves open the question of why things went wrong, in the Great Depression and the recent Great Recession, and what should be done to fix them. I do not have a confident answer to those questions, but there is one possible answer which I find at least plausible. It is an explanation not of why a depression or recession starts—that, in the two cases of interest, seems to depend on special circumstances—but on why it is so severe and lasts so long.

The Great Depression of the thirties and the current Great Recession have one feature in common that has not, I think, received sufficient attention—the government response to them. Hoover reacted to the 1929 stock market crash by sharply increasing federal expenditure; by 1932 it was fifty percent higher than in 1929 in nominal terms, twice as high in real terms, three times as high measured as a share of national income. FDR went on to enormously expand the role of government in the economy, creating our modern regulatory state. Obama followed a similar policy on a smaller scale, expanding government involvement (already very large) in the health care and financial industries, bailing out failing firms on a scale I think unparalleled in U.S. history, threatening additional large scale interventions to deal with global warming.

The result, in each case, was to greatly increase the uncertainty of the environment within which private actors were making their decisions. If you do not know what the future is going to be like, there is much to be said for postponing any decision that depends on the future, whether an investment in physical capital or human capital. It is risky to hire new employees if you do not know whether, a few years hence, it will be legal to fire them. It is risky to build a new factory, in any industry where energy is a major cost, if you do not know whether next year's legislation will sharply raise the cost of energy—better to wait to choose your design until you have a clearer idea of what your costs are going to be. It is risky to choose a profession, or change professions, when you do not know whether the growth field is going to be health care or bankruptcy law. Multiply such considerations many fold, and you may have an explanation of why the recovery from the initial shock, in both cases, was so slow.

Arguably, the U.S. economy is suffering from a disease in part iatrogenic. Which may explain why the doctor can't understand what went wrong.

Post Script on Labels. They sound clear enough—micro deals with small things, macro with large. But it isn't true. The world wheat market or the world oil market is properly understood with supply curves, demand curves, conventional analysis of choice over time, and similar "micro" tools. Hence, in my view, the proper labels are "price theory" and "disequilibrium theory." Understanding disequilibrium—loosely speaking, the sort of situation that price theory tells us can't exist but that sometimes does—is a hard problem.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Assuming Your Conclusions

A recent Washington Post news story describing a speech by Christina Romer, the outgoing chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, provides a nice example of how to implicitly assume your conclusion. The author writes:
At week's end, Romer will leave the council chairmanship after what surely has been the most dismal tenure anybody in that post has had: a loss of nearly 4 million jobs in a year and a half. That's not Romer's fault; the financial collapse occurred before she, and Obama, took office. But she was the president's top economist during a time when the administration consistently underestimated the depth of the economy's troubles - miscalculations that have caused Americans to lose faith in the president and the Democrats.
The implication, reinforced elsewhere in the piece, is that the Democrats did the right thing, just not enough of it. Their only mistake was not making the stimulus even bigger. If only they had spent even more and taxed even less, the economy wouldn't be in such miserable shape.

That is one possible interpretation of what happened. Another is that Romer is like a medieval physician explaining to the grieving relatives that if only he had bled the patient a few more times, he would have recovered. One way to judge a scientific theory is by comparing what it predicts to what happens. One of Romer's predictions was that unemployment would peak at 8%. It didn't. I do not know whether Romer has considered the possibility that the reason her prediction was wrong was that her theory was wrong, but pretty clearly the author of the piece has not.

He merely takes for granted the Keynesian orthodoxy of fifty years ago, according to which the right way of dealing with a recession is to run a deficit, and the worse the recession the bigger the deficit should be. The administration followed that prescription, things didn't get better, so obviously the deficit was not big enough. The alternative possibility, that the reason things didn't get better might be that they were following the wrong policy, simply didn't occur to him.