Monday, April 11, 2011

Wrong Yet Again

Matthew Yglesias is wrong yet again. He argues that
Karl Marx’s account of economics hews in many ways more closely to the classical economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo than does the modern mainstream.
Except, of course, Marx insisted that Smith and Ricardo were wrong, excepting Smith's argument about the brutalization of workers under industrial capitalism.

Is It The Water

IKEA comes to America and become Simon Legree. Is it the water? Or MBAs?

A Nation of Immigrants Or: Which Side Are You On

I've mentioned before a German 1848er who played a hugely important role in America's political development during the Civil War and how his decision to participate reflected his German Liberalism, a kettle of fish different from contemporary American Liberalism in ways both good and bad. I believe that some day soon is the anniversary of the South's decision to wage war in the defense of slavery.

Oddly enough, other German and other nations' 48ers played equally important and less well known roles in the war for human freedom. These folks came to America in pursuit of a political dream: the right of self governance. And, when push came to shove, they did the correct and right thing by intervening to protect the rights of the least amongst us against the Pharaohs, as it were.

Conservatives and others on the Right, to say nothing of Neoliberals, like to argue that America is all about economic opportunity. But there really are two or three Americas.

Puritans left England and elsewhere to found states in which they could oppress others' for reasons religious and other wise. Lots of folks from England and elsewhere left, temporarily, for the Caribbean or whereever to found sugar or other plantations worked by slaves to get enough wealth to live without have ever working.

But the best of us came because they thought that liberty, understood as the ability to speak and do as you pleased so long as no one got hurt, and equality, understood as the inability of the very wealthy to manipulate a political system so that it protected their own narrow economic interests. Today, alas, alack and etc, those who are motivated by the desires of those who came to oppress and enslave seem to carry the day.

Alan Simpson

He is, in my mind, a near perfect example of the insanity Reagan unleashed on America and yet there is this:
SIMPSON: Who the hell is for abortion? I don’t know anybody running around with a sign that says, “Have an abortion! They’re wonderful!” They’re hideous, but they’re a deeply intimate and personal decision, and I don’t think men legislators should even vote on the issue.
Then you’ve got homosexuality, you’ve got Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We have homophobes on our party. That’s disgusting to me. We’re all human beings. We’re all God’s children. Now if they’re going to get off on that stuff—Santorum has said some cruel things—cruel, cruel things—about homosexuals. Ask him about it; see if he attributes the cruelness of his remarks years ago. Foul.
Now if that’s the kind of guys that are going to be on my ticket, you know, it makes you sort out hard what Reagan said, you know, “Stick with your folks.” But, I’m not sticking with people who are homophobic, anti-women, moral values—while you’re diddling your secretary while you’re giving a speech on moral values? Come on, get off of it.
Who knew? Being wrong about nearly everything isn't the same as being wrong about everything

Comment No Longer Free

I was just over to Krugman's blog and, it seems, that in addition to the NYT 20 free limit, he no longer has comments
I had No Script set wrong

Always Be Closing

Most sensible people recognize this scene as an indictment of the winner takes it all economics of Neoliberalism:

However is a recent post, Matthew Yglesias assured his young readers that if they want to become writers they needed to write and engage in endless self-promotion while at university rather than learn. Indeed, he suggested that doing well among professional writers, who don't necessarily know what they are writing about, was more important than understanding the issues, events, and facts of the matter:
If you want to be a writer, then writing stuff that’s interesting and getting professional writers to read it is important. I got the worst grade of my whole college career in Theda Skocpol’s class on American social policy, and that’s never stopped me from writing about American social policy—nobody’s ever asked or cared whether professors liked my essays. 
It is a modified Baldwin in which creating a name for being "interesting" takes the place of selling old people time shares they can neither afford nor use. He was taken mildly to task for under emphasizing the importance of grades for future professional or academic success. Yglesias responded that while practicing writing was more important than practicing writing or, as he put it,
My point, however, is that people make decisions about how to use their time at the margin and if what you’re interested in doing is becoming a writer then you’re better off spending your time on writing and publicizing things than on giving your term paper another round of edits.
Writing is more important than writing, he seems to say, if the writing is relentlessly self-promotional. What does he mean by at the margin?[1] He does, however, sort of defend learning
None of that, however, is to denigrates Jonathan Bernstein’s point that actually learning things is extremely valuable. Knowing more is good, but (again, at the margin) it has a somewhat attenuated relationship to grades.
My question, at this point, is how does he know if what he has learned has any validity if he doesn't think that grades reflect mastery of a body of knowledge, the ability to analysis that body of knowledge and the skill to write a compelling text based on the body of knowledge that proves the analysis's persuasiveness? He got a link from Andrew Sullivan?

Why not just turn all of our educational systems into boiler rooms and have done with it. 

[1] It's an economic term design to simplify the analysis of complex decision making processes and, much like efficient markets, self-regulation, and related etc, it's nonsense designed to simplify the analysis of complex decisions by creating a fictional "reality" in which people act the way you want them to rather than the way the do.

A Fundamental Lack of Seriousness

Many who have looked at the Ryan plan think that it is insane gobbledygook with the sole purpose of ruining workers and enriching the rich. As Balloon Juice has documented, Andrew Sullivan isn't one of these folks largely because he isn't particularly bright. Recently, Sullivan argued concerning health care and the "inability" of giving it to all is
  where my Christian-informed conscience rears its benign head. As a human being, I find it extremely hard to deny another human being the ability and means to cure their sickness, if it is available.
Leaving aside the fact that to be human is not the same as being Christian, Sullivan ignores the Christian solution to the problem of scarcity and unequal distribution. John the Baptist told
 the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
 10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
 11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
 14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
   He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
The argument here is pretty straight forward. You want to be saved? Take care of your fellow men and women and stop engaging in greedy behavior.

Christ was as explicit:
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
41Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: 42For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: 43I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. 44Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? 45Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. 46And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
So if his "christian-informed conscience" really is rearing "its benign head" his concern ought not to be the political or economic difficulties associated with the equitable distribution of the things of this world but rather the vital necessity of the equitable distribution of the things of this world. To argue that worldly matters make it impossible to be a Christian is to admit that he isn't a Christian. Christianity isn't a noun; it's a verb. See also.

Monkeys and Rice

 Years ago somebody told me how to trap a monkey. The story was put some rice in a jar with an opening big enough for the monkey's open hand to fit in but small enough that when the monkey grabbed the rice it could not get its hand out. Monkeys, the story went, had one track minds and as the monkey hunter approached they would panic and try to run away only to realize that they had a hand full of rice they could extract from the jar. They would then focus on extracting the rice and forget about the hunter only to end up caught. Relatedly Kierkegaard argued that anxiety over choosing one thing over another was proof of free will. If you had no choice, he reasoned, you would have no anxiety. As people had anxiety choice existed.  His preferred solution was to accept Christianity and live by its precepts. In short, short circuit the anxiety of choice by letting go of the ability to choose by letting others choose for you. I would argue that these equally unsatisfactory solutions to the problem of choice structure Matthew Yglesias' thoughts on nearly everything with an added dose of misunderstanding and misdirection.

Like a monkey with a handful of rice, Yglesias continues to  argue that educational reform is an economic category. He suggests that
One of the most important things about the health care and education segments of the economy is that part of what customers want is attention. Parents like the idea of small class sizes, and patients like the reassuring face-to-face presence of a doctor with a good bedside manner. But personal attention has the pretty special characteristic of being immune to productivity enhancements.
Students and patients, he wants us to believe, are identical in being "customers." This is simply wrong. Students and patients are students and patients.  Medical care costs more because it is a for-profit enterprise, education costs more not because of profits but because of population increases that demand more teachers or larger class rooms. And important point is that an economically efficiency has nothing to do with effectiveness, safety, or what have you.

Despite his attempt to dismiss face-to-face teaching as an irrational desire for "attention" the fact of the matter is that smaller classrooms are more effective. Ask any teacher, as opposed to loud-mouthed, hard-charging pundits and other assholes, about classroom size. Smaller is better.

It is also clear here the he has shifted the terms of the debate from effective teaching to efficient teaching. One reason for this might be that all the market-based Neoliberal reforms, choice, testing, teacher bashing, etc, have been shown not to work and the only way to argue for continued Neoliberal reforms is to shift from doing something well to doing it cheaply.

 He claims that the current efficiency crisis
 creates the following trilemma as economy-wide productivity rises:
— One: The wages of teachers and doctors can fall relative to average wages, because teachers and doctors aren’t increasing their productivity as rapidly as the average worker.
— Two: Paying the salaries of teachers and doctors can account for an ever-growing share of national output, because the rest of our output is getting more efficient and teaching and treating isn’t.
— Three: The amount of attention provided by teachers and doctors to students and patients can decline.
Conflating doctors and teachers fundamentally distorts teachers' wages. There is also four: move funds from, say, defense to education. It is not the case that the world of state expenditure cannot be reallocated if the reallocation will create a world better suited to human beings happiness and well being even if profitability and economic efficiency have to take a hit.

Just as importantly, Ygelsias continues to misunderstand his source material. Specifically Baumol:
And if you think we need to increase the relative wages of teachers while further shrinking class sizes and sustain that policy over time, it’ll mean steadily increasing taxes, no one-off increase will undue the Baumol Effect. That’s one possible answer—America is lightly taxed compared to other rich countries—but you owe it to yourself at least to face up to that.
As I've mentioned before, the Baumol Effect, or Disease, isn't a law its an economist's intervention into a policy debate about urban decay and how to stop it. Baumol argued for unions and paying more for teachers. Treating Baumol's argument this way makes policy preference into laws, which isn't true. If you push something hard enough it will fall over, is a law testable both in theory and in fact. Arguing that tax revenue will never increase enough to cover the costs of hiring teachers and paying them a decent wage isn't a law, it's an assertion.

We can, to repeat myself, rejigger state expenditure, less on defense and prisons and more on education, infrastructure, and communication, which wouldn't require tax increases. We can increase taxes or decrease subsidies or close loopholes or we can more create jobs that pay decent wages by strengthening unions which would increase tax revenues without a tax increase.

In other words, Yglesias needs to face up to the fact that his single-minded focus on market-based solutions to non-market problems leads him into all manner of absurdity and he has to face up to the fact that his decision to accept ideologically based solutions to real world problems while ridding him of the anxiety of choice has limited his ability to think creatively.

Stop Telling Lies About My Bicycle

P.J. O'Rourke in a particularly silly and lazy anti-bicycle rant inadvertently, I suspect, revealed why Conservatives and fools more generally hate bicycling. And, in so doing, once again revealed that if your ideas are sound lying ought to be unnecessary.  His "argument," in part is that
maybe there's a darker side to bike-lane advocacy. Political activists of a certain ideological stripe want citizens to have a child-like dependence on government. And it's impossible to feel like a grown-up when you're on a bicycle if you aren't in the Tour de France.
How, one wonders, is a mode of transportation that hinges on individual effort like the bicycle able to create a sense of dependence? Remember the day when you first learned to ride a bike without training wheels? Or the time you helped a kid learn to ride a bike without training wheels? Remember the pure exhilaration and sense of freedom? How often, when you ride the bike to work or the store, does the feeling come back? For me it's often.

Think about the absolute independence of anyone on a bike, able to whiz here and there unconcerned with the fuel or oil levels; moving freely from the paved to the unpaved and back again.  Finding parking with no trouble; no need for pipelines, gas stations, or tow trucks. Think about the misery of car ownership, with its constant and continuous need for gas, oil, new tires, brakes, trained mechanics, costly electronic parts, road repair, highway construction, parking garages, limited parking spaces, and the equal misery of a car-centric universe in which all the stores are over there and "good" parking is hard to find and the traffic to work is terrible and etc. 

Which would you rather? The child-like joy and independence of moving yourself from point A to point B or the childish dependence of pasty-faced, self-limiting and expensive following of routes laid out by face-less bureacrats [1]?

One last point, in the course of being wrong about everything having to do with the independence of cyclist and the dependency of motorists, O'Rouke calls the bike, derisively, a donkey car without a donkey. Unknowingly, I assume, he's right. The basic idea behind the creation of a bicycle or, really, all the early human powered vehicles was to replace the expensive, filthy, and unreliable horse, donkey, and oxen with a clean and reliable machine that translated human power into motion. The bike is, in fact, one of the pinnacles of industrial design and techniques.

[1] I kid, road systems are great, although the constant pandering to motorists isn't, because of expert commitment to getting things right.