Saturday, March 19, 2011

Markets Aren't Efficient

According to Paul Krugman and others the Efficient Market Hypothesis is the bunk.  According to Matthew Yglesias Economics is a science, except when it isn't. Yglesias on taxis but, really, on everything:
there’s no reason to think a central planner is going to get this done better than the market.
In other words, even though, scientifically speaking, markets aren't efficient they are. Also if by "central planner" he means Soviet-era, perpetually-drunk, afraid-of-being-purged apparatchik, then my dog could do a better job; if, on the other hand, he means professionally trained double doctor in civil engineering and traffic flow concerned about the public good and not profits then I can think of all manner of reasons why the "central planner" would be the better option. I mean a "market" is the chaotic process in which those with the most money create a world that bests suits those with the most money, no?

Yglesias likes capitalism, which isn't a thing but rather a system in which the more money you have the more the "markets" reflect your wishes and, besides, profits matter most, when it comes to urban planning because the people and their representatives shouldn't try and construct their social spaces when those with money can construct them for us.

Friday, March 18, 2011

War Mongering

The decision to enforce a no fly zone and to intervene in Libya's civil war makes absolutely no sense and will end badly. At least when Groucho went to war over upstart there were gags and laugh riots all the way round. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Changing Attitudes: Triangulation

As we sit staring at the spectacle of Scott Walker and Co destroying unions and handing out pay cuts to workers in a vain attempt, as one sign around the corner has it, to send us back to 1890 with fewer trains, it might be helpful to revisit a seminal moment in the history of the crappiness of capitalism when unmoored from humanism. On the 25th of this month we "celebrate" the one hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory's fire. You can read an account of the fire here and here is another very nice collection of narratives and documents. One aspect of the mess stands out.

Here is an account of the trial and here is some additional information. The factory's owners were moral monsters. In the immediate aftermath of the fire
Fire Chief Edward Croker told the press that doors leading into the factory workplace appeared to be locked and that his men had to chop their way through doors to get at the fire.
During the trial 
Bostwick produced 103 witnesses, many of them young Triangle employees dressed in their Sunday best. Through his witnesses Bostwick tried to establish that the fire quickly cut off escape through the Greene Street door, causing the panicked workers to turn to the Washington Place door--a door the prosecution contended was locked.  More than a dozen prosecution witnesses testified that they tried the door and were unable to open it.  Katie Weiner told jurors, "I pushed it toward myself and I couldn't open it and then I pushed it outward and it wouldn't go.  I was crying, 'Girls, help me!'  Other witnesses testified that Blanck and Harris kept the door locked to prevent employees from pilfering shirtwaists.  (On the stand, Harris admitted to an almost obsessive concern with employee theft even though he conceded that the total value of goods taken over the years was under $25).
Despite all that
On December 27, Judge Crain read to the jury the text of Article 6, Section 80, of New York's Labor Law: "All doors leading in or to any such factory shall be so constructed as to open outwardly where practicable, and shall not be locked, bolted, or fastened during working hours."  Crain told the jury that in order to return a verdict of guilty they must first find that door was locked during the fire--and that the defendants knew or should have known it was locked.  The judge also told the jury that they must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the locked door caused the death of Margaret Schwartz.
After deliberating for just under two hours, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.  After the verdict, one juror, Victor Steinman declared, "I believed that the door was locked at the time of the fire, but we couldn't find them guilty unless we believed they knew the door was locked." 
Despite a second attempt the factory owners were never found guilty of anything; however
[t]hree years after the fire, on March 11, 1914, twenty-three individual civil suits against the owner of the Asch Building were settled.  The average recovery was $75 per life lost.
By all accounts the fire and its aftermath energized reformers, strengthened unions and generally led to a passing laws, rules, and regulations that diminished the anti-human and anti-democratic tendencies of early 20th century America. 

It's important to keep this kind of thing in mind when you read anybody claiming that we ought to wait for market failures to intervene in this or that market. Left to their own devices, "markets" privilege profits over people. For those who think unions are anachronisms, consider the meat packers.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Changing Attitudes 1

The other day Larry Kudlow claimed that
“[t]he human toll [in Japan] looks to be much worse than the economic toll, and we can be grateful for that.”
He later claimed he had mangled the line he intended to give, although it's difficult to imagine whatall he meant to say. The underlying principle, however, seems clear: our central concern must always be on the economic impact of any act of god or humanity. This really not a new set of ideas and it is one we have been trying to overcome for most of the 20th century. 

In Bellamy's Looking Backwards the key to the transformation from the wretchedness of the 19th century to the wonderfulness of the 20th was exactly to stop thinking that way and to start thinking about putting human needs first.

No doubt, Bellamy's prescription for what ails us is overly optimistic; however, in this post by Ed over to GinandTacos, he shows what can happen
[i]f government takes its responsibilities seriously (which requires the preliminary step of recognizing that responding to an unthinkably large natural disaster is a government responsibility) it is possible to see that the animal-level needs of its people are met. Japan does have the advantage of being a small, dense country, but nonetheless its public sector has managed to shelter, feed, and rescue itself admirably. Why? Because its government is not devoted to the idea that government should be abolished.

Beyond that, Japan hasn't build its entire society on the principle of every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Their idea of disaster preparedness is not hoarding enough bullets to shoot their neighbors who run out of food. When America has a natural disaster, the private sector immediately focuses on profiteering and jacking up prices. In Japan the prices are lowered and in some cases basic necessities are even given away gratis. Japanese are more willing to look out for and help one another because unlike the U.S., their social dynamics focus on group harmony (critics say "conformity") rather than constant reminders that You are responsible for yourself and no one else. If your neighbor needs help, the American response is to lecture him about failing to better prepare himself for the crisis.

 Americans' attitudes, or some very loud and annoying Americans' attitudes, toward the state and their fellows do drive policies that make life less sweet and, it follows, if we change our attitudes we might find ourselves living in a kind of margaritaville.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Here in Wisconsin

This mornings Wisconsin State Journal reported that a mayor in one of the districts in which the Republicans, led by out-of-state rabble rousers I might add, are trying to recall the Democratic Senators who fled is denying them access to City Hall.  He's wrong to do so.

Speaking of wrong, I was concerning the hint that the Republicans would not restore the Democratic Senators voting rights, they did and rescinded the fines they levied.

The Problem With Liberals

A man of many names over to Balloon Juice laments the spinelessness of NPR in the most recent edited videogate
Why does every liberal in establishment media except Paul Krugman have to be such a mealy-mouthed fink? Part of it, I know, is that not many are actually any kind of liberal, but I am sure there are plenty of tv types who vote the same way I do and feel the same way I do about most issues.
See what he did there? Rather than sticking to the obvious point many of the professional Liberals aren't Liberal or the deeper point that American Liberalism is really Neoliberalism, he mealymouthedly lets them off the hook.

Tax Policies Aren't Necessarily Tax Policies

After noting that changes in tax policies might explain the growth of income inequality in these United States, long may humor be her best medicine, Megan McArdle concludes
Explanations involving very US-specific factors, like "culture", our tax policy, or some sort of capture whereby the wealthy have somehow rigged the system in their favor, become much less compelling.  Rising inequality (and slower income growth) have been a rising trend across most of the developed world for three decades.  We need a better explanation than greedier rich people, or stupider politicians.
So it wasn't that greedier rich people supported stupid politicians who changed the tax code in a way that allowed the rich to be open about their richerness it was, as her source put it
However, let's instead assume the post-1986 U.S. trend is an artifact of the 1986 tax reform. 
The "let's assume" bit is, I believe, the way economist think and it is, I think, unfortunate that they think that way. Even if you disagree with the assumption the cause of the spike was a change in tax policies and the there isn't an argument that there is no rising income inequality in the source just that the US isn't especially worse then elsewhere.

Here in Wisconsin: Family Values

From ThinkProgress
The wife of Wisconsin state Sen. Randy Hopper (R) has signed a recall petition against him after Hopper left his wife and home to live with his 25-year-old mistress outside his legislative district. His maid had already joined the recall effort and Hopper may be in violation of state law by living in another district.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Here in Wisconsin: Democracy Dies Edition

Via we learn that Fitzgerald stripped the Democratic senators of their right to vote in committee:
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald wrote this afternoon in an email to his caucus that Senate Dems remain in contempt of the Senate and will not be allowed to vote in committees despite returning from their out-of-state boycott of the budget repair bill vote.

"They are free to attend hearings, listen to testimony, debate legislation, introduce amendments, and cast votes to signal their support/opposition, but those votes will not count, and will not be recorded," wrote Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
This will end well, I'm sure.

Here in Wisconsin: Small Town Radicals

Walker went to some little burg upstate for a fund raiser, perhaps under the mistaken impression that only big city elites find his policies and practices repugnant. Over 2,000 people showed up to protest against his anti-human policies and anti-democratic practices. It really does seem as if Walker and Co have made a variety of strategic and tactical errors.

Wrongly Wrong

I think we can all agree that the events in Japan are a tragedy of unimaginable scope and, were it not for the fact that 30 years of following Neoliberal claptrap has hollowed out the American economy, we would be able to provide more of the needed to help. But what with one war or another and endless rounds of tax cuts. One way to help get us moving in the right direction is to stop getting things wrongly wrong.
One of these news events that seems to demand note, but about which a humble political blogger can say little. Does the fact that an earthquake can serious damage a nuclear power plant without necessarily causing a radiation leak make us more or less sanguine about the idea of building additional nuclear facilities? I’m not sure whether this counts as “see, it’s risky!’ or “see, even in an earthquake it’s not that bad.”
No radiation leaks? How about we put this one in the jumping the gun to make an inapt point department.

If we imagine a hundred years into the future of fossil fuels and a hundred of nuclear power, at the end of a century, how much damage do we imagine each will have caused? I suspect that if it's really an either/or, the nuclear route is likely much safer.

Again, I'm not wanting to say anything definitive. But even at these moments when we see the most frightening side of nuclear power, I think we should still draw back and look at the global -- meant both literally and figuratively -- costs of different fuels and consider the possibility that nuclear power is actually safer for our own health and that of the planet.
While were imagining things, we could imagine a world that uses less energy and relies on sustainable energy sources to supply it that would be yet even better and safer, which we should have done lo these many years ago. If we sketch our options as being bad or worse we are like Jason without the dove. The reason to use a neither nor as opposed to an either or is that neither fossil nor nuclear is ever going to be safe enough.

Historically Speaking: Evidence and Argument

The Errol Morris Ashtray Episode is kind of interesting. Oral history is a kind of historical evidence, but it is a notoriously slippery kind. The main reason being that all narrators are unreliable.  Today Morris describes how he ended up at Princeton thusly:
Princeton was sort of a consolation prize. I had not been accepted in Harvard’s history of science program, and Erwin Hiebert, a professor at Harvard, had written a letter of recommendation to Kuhn for me.
In a New Yorker profile from 1989, he described it this way
Next came the University of Wisconsin, where he excelled academically ("the first time I did really well at anything, except elementary school") and, in 1969, received a degree in history. For a couple of years, he drifted about, earning money as a cable-television salesman in Wisconsin and as a term-paper writer in Massachusetts and "trying to get accepted at different graduate schools just by showing up on their doorstep."
The two story are incompatible unless, of course, it was his showing up at Harvard's doorstep that led to the letter of recommendation.

In the events leading up to the ashtray throwing, currently Morris writes
[Kuhn] had written at the very end of his comments, “You have long since passed the end of the road on which you began.” 
 In 1989 Morris explained that
I was wrong [about getting a doctorate]. I had big fights with my adviser. I was supposed to be concentrating on the history of physics. And, naturally, my adviser expected me to take all these courses in physics. But the classes were always full of fourteen-year-old Chinese prodigies, with their hands in the air - 'Call on me! Call on me!' I couldn't do it. I reneged on some of my commitments.
It appears that by reneged he means dropped out of or didn't complete a series of courses that were "naturally" necessary to his selected course of study, and it is clear that he saw his relationship with Kuhn as adversarial.  There no mention of Kripke in the 1989 essay; there is, however, this description
At the end, my adviser actually assaulted me. He was on sabbatical and had an office at the Institute for Advanced Study. I remember thinking, This is the Institute for Advanced Study, and he's assaulting me. I'd written a thirty-page double-spaced paper, and he produced thirty single-spaced pages of his own criticizing it. The bile just flowed out of him. I accused him of not even finishing reading what I'd written. It turns out I was a problem, but at least I wasn't a drudge, and that school was filled with drudges. I remember saying to my adviser, 'You won't even look through my telescope.' And his response was 'Errol, it's not a telescope, it's a kaleidoscope.'"
 There is no mention of an ashtray, which today Morris describes in detail.

Currently, he describes the event like this:
We began arguing. Kuhn had attacked my Whiggish use of the term “displacement current” [in the paper]. [6] I had failed, in his view, to put myself in the mindset of Maxwell’s first attempts at creating a theory of electricity and magnetism. I felt that Kuhn had misinterpreted my paper, and that he — not me — had provided a Whiggish interpretation of Maxwell. I said, “You refuse to look through my telescope.” And he said, “It’s not a telescope, Errol. It’s a kaleidoscope.” (In this respect, he was probably right.) [7]

The conversation took a turn for the ugly. Were my problems with him, or were they with his philosophy?
I asked him, “If paradigms are really incommensurable, how is history of science possible? Wouldn’t we be merely interpreting the past in the light of the present? Wouldn’t the past be inaccessible to us? Wouldn’t it be ‘incommensurable?’ ” [8]

He started moaning. He put his head in his hands and was muttering, “He’s trying to kill me. He’s trying to kill me.”

And then I added, “…except for someone who imagines himself to be God.”
It was at this point that Kuhn threw the ashtray at me.

And missed.
In the first version, Morris seems to present himself round peg in a square hole who really didn't like Princeton, he doesn't seem to have like Berkeley much better, and who was involved in an adversarial relationship with his advisor because Morris wasn't doing his work. In the second he seems much more the innocent victim whose keen insight into a fundamental flaw in Kuhn's argument led to an ashtray flinging.

While I am willing to believe the worst about nearly everyone and so wouldn't say that the ashtray couldn't have been flung, it does seem like the narrative has evolved, as is their wont. More, in a note to the current version, aknowledges this when he writes that
A version of this story appears in “Predilections,” Mark Singer’s profile of me in The New Yorker, Feb. 6, 1989.
It's always helpful when dealing with facts, evidence, and argument to weigh a source's value. As I mentioned, oral histories are slippery bits of evidence because of the problem of their truth across all possible versions.

Things People Say

In a book review in Sunday's NYT, noted Conservative political scientist Harvey Mansfield was doing a fine job of proving that if you want to think about the US's Constitution Madison is a better guide than noted Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt. He than argued that
[w]ith regard to welfare, Democrats are for it, Republicans against it; with regard to national security, the situation is reversed.
He cannot possible think that that sentence has any resemblance to reality. If he does, he needs to be kept away from sharp objects. Maybe he's trying to be funny, I don't see it. I stopped reading here because he's using a shop-worn trope so lazily that it undermines his attempt to engage in a serious intellectual endeavor.

The other day Jack Cassidy wrote about bike lanes in New York City, it set off a bunch of other folks who treated Cassidy as if he was interested in a debate. He isn't. In his first paragraph he writes that
[a]t the risk of incurring the wrath of the bicycle lobby, a constituency that pursues its agenda with about as much modesty and humor as the Jacobins pursued theirs[.]
 This isn't an attempt to engage with the other side of the discussion; it's an attempt to be an obnoxious fool. Think about all the folks who have been called humorless and dictatorial: feminists, ecological activists, lesbians, gay rights activists, Liberals, egg heads, suffragettes, civil rights activists, anti-war activists, Wobblies, etc, etc.  It's a trope rolled out by folks who realize that they are wrong but find the truth inconvenient or, in this case, causing them inconvenience so Cassidy, in this case, engages in an ad hominem
that frees everyone from listening to what he has to say and all the responses should have been: this kind of lazy nonsense isn't worth taking seriously.

In other discursive fields, the usual suspects made clear that they aren't actually interested in what what they say means.

On Friday, David Brooks wrote an op ed bit about how folks are overly confident and how bad that this. This is a man who makes his living talking about things he knows very little about and writing books that are equally filled with nonsense and gobbledygook. He ought to become the change he wants to see and resign to live a life of quiet contemplation in Tibet.

Last week, Michele Bachmann mangled American history and, when called on it, accused everyone in Massachusetts of hating freedom and blamed Obama's teleprompter for her ignorance. She ought to go with Brooks.

Finally,  according to yesterday's Wisconsin State Journal, Sarah Palin, who left her job after a half-term because she worried about lawsuits, said of the Wisconsin senators who skedaddled, that
[i]f your cause is worthy and just, and if it's -- it's worthwhile then should have  the ability to defend it. You shouldn't just retreat and duck and cover[.]
She has now made clear that she will not run for President and that she too is off to Tibet.

The think that ties all this together is that nearly none of the people involved particularly cares that they incoherent or implicated themselves as hopeless unreflective ninnies, it's that their unreflective ninnihood is what earns them a check or a place in the political firmament.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I am, I hope, going to have more to say about public "intellectuals" saying profoundly stupid things tomorrow; however for today, Matthew Yglesias some time ago argued:
Somewhat punitive post-arrest pre-trial measures are kind of a necessary evil, but the prolonged confinement of Manning under cruel conditions go well beyond the necessary into the straightforward evil.
Matthew Yglesias recently:
Bradley Manning, of course, hasn’t had a trial. But it’s obvious that many of the people who think they favor what’s being done to him don’t actually realize this. They take it for granted that in the United States of America punishment is for people who’ve been put on trial and convicted of crimes.
You may want to argue that the positions aren't contradictory but you'd be wrong. He thought that punishment prior to conviction was okay until he thought that punishment prior to conviction wasn't. It's like he's incapable of thinking through the implications of his asininity.