#smackdown Feed

John Cochrane Prostitutes Himself to Republican Politicians Department: Monday Smackdown/Hoisted from 2015

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Noah Smith: John Cochrane Smackdown: "John writes: 'My surprise in reading Noah is that he provided no alternative numbers. If you don't think Free Market Nirvana will have 4% growth, at least for a decade as we remove all the level inefficiencies, how much do you think it will produce, and how solid is that evidence?...' I don't really feel I need to produce an alternative to a number that was made up as a political talking point. Why 4 percent? Why not 5? Why not 8? Why not 782 percent? Where do we get the number for how good we can expect Free Market Nirvana to be? Is it from the sum of point estimates from a bunch of different meta-analyses of research on various free-market policies? No. It was something Jeb Bush tossed out in a conference call because it was 'a nice round number', after James Glassman had suggested '3 or 3.5'. You want me to give you an alternative number, using the same rigorous methodology? Sure, how about 3.1. Wait, no. 3.3. There we go. 3.3 sounds good. Rolls off the tongue..."

I must say, Cochrane here reminds me of one of my most favorite quotes from tank economist Paul M. Sweezy:

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DeLong Smackdown Watch: Yield Curve: Hoisted from the Archives from 2006

Ooh boy. Was I wrong in 2006. I am not betting against the yield curve again:

From 2006: DeLong Smackdown Watch: Yield Curve: Worthwhile Canadian Initiative thinks I'm wrong when I write: Yes, we should be worrying about the US yield curve: This inversion of the yield curve, however, is generated not by domestic investors' thinking that a recession is on the way, but by foreign central banks' desires to keep buying lots of dollar-denominated bonds in order to keep their currencies from appreciating. Thus while an inverted yield curve is usually a sign that a bunch of people are trading bonds on their belief that a recession is likely, that is not what is going on in this case...

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Monday Smackdown/Hoisted from Others' Archives from Six -and-a-HalfYears Ago: Dan Drezner on Chuck Lane

Clowns (ICP)

Every time I try to get out, they drag me back in...

Now I am being told that nobody with any audience ever thought 15/hour in California was a really bad idea. So time to recall this:

Monday Smackdown/Hoisted from Others' Archives: A correspondent asks me for help: Chuck Lane is being used as an authority on the California's 15/hr by 2023 minimum wage proposal. And Chuck Lane says:

A hot concept in wonkdom these days is “evidence-based policymaking.”… Gov. Jerry Brown and the state’s labor leaders have announced legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage… to $15 per hour…. Whatever else might be said about this plan, it does not represent an exercise in evidence-based policymaking. To the contrary: There’s a total lack of evidence that the potential benefits would outweigh potential costs—and ample reason to worry they would not…

Dan Drezner: Why I Don’t Need to Take Charles Lane Seriously: "The Washington Post’s Chuck Lane wrote an op-ed arguing in favor of Jeff Flake’s amendment...

...to cut National Science Foundation funding for political science. In fact, Lane raised the ante, arguing that NSF should stop funding all of the social sciences, full stop. Now, I can respect someone who tries to make the argument that the opportunity costs of funding the social sciences are big enough that this is where a budget cut should take place.  It’s harder, however, to respect someone who: 

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Adrian Wooldridge Is... the Vicar of Bray!: Hoisted from the Archives

Hoisted from the Archives: Adrian Wooldridge Is... the Vicar of Bray!:

"The Illustrious House of Hannover,
And Protestant succession,
To these I lustily will swear,
Whilst they can keep possession:
For in my Faith, and Loyalty,
I never once will faulter,
But George, my lawful king shall be,
Except the Times shou'd alter."

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Betting That Nobody Will Check the References as an Intellectual Style: Monday Smackdown

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Monday Smackdown: Apropos of David Brooks's ill-sourced imaginings that "cultural Marxism... is now the lingua franca in the elite academy..." and his use of Alexander Zubatov and Russell Blackford to back him up...

I am not sure whether Brooks is simply confident that people will not check Zubatov's references or did not check them himself—he does have to write a full 1200 words a week in his job. But I have long thought that betting nobody will check the references is an intellectual style much more common on the right than on the center or the left. For example:

On Niall Ferguson: Why Did Keynes Write "In the Long Run We Are All Dead"?: In [Keynes's] extended discussion of how to use the quantity theory of money, the sentence 'In the long run we are all dead' performs an important rhetorical role. It wakes up the reader. It gets him or her to reset an attention that may well be flagging.

But it has nothing to do with attitudes toward the future, or with rates of time discount, or with a heedless pursuit of present pleasure.

So why do people think it does? Note that we are speaking not just of Ferguson here, but of Mankiw and Hayek and Schumpeter and Himmelfarb and Peter Drucker and McCraw and even Heilbroner—along with many others.

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What Is Going on This Morning Over at "National Review"? Is It Worth Reading? No.

Preview of What Is Going on This Morning Over at National Review Is It Worth Reading No

What is going on this morning over at National Review? Is it worth reading? I read 10 articles, and graded each ops 0-to-10 scale. Total score (out of 100); -45. Beam me up, Scotty. There is no intelligent life there at all:

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Fama's Fallacy: Hoisted from Ten Years Ago

Clowns (ICP)

I was profoundly embarrassed by and ashamed of the Swedish Nobel Committee and of being an economist when they awarded the Nobel Prize to Eugene Fama.

You see, the economists who cheerled for the Trump-McConnell-Ryan tax cut and claimed it would rapidly and permanently boost annual investment in America by 800 billion had arguments—bad arguments. The economists who condemned Benanke's quantitative easing and claimed it would soon lead to high inflation and a debased dollar had arguments—bad arguments. I do not think any of them made those bad arguments in good faith: the failure of those in either group to acknowledge that they got a big one wrong and to engage in Bayeisan updating is interesting: that silence speaks volumes.

But Fama and the others who claimed a decade ago that, while private decision to spend more boosted employment and production, public decisions to spend more—fiscal stimulus—not only would not, but could not possibly ever boost employment and production... they had no argument at all.

What do I mean? This. This is why I am embarrassed and ashamed: Hoisted from Ten Years Ago: Fama's Fallacy, Take I: Eugene Fama Rederives the "Treasury View": A Guestpost from Montagu Norman, former Governor of the Bank of England:

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Monday Smackdown/Hoisted from 2008: Why We Called Donald Luskin "The Stupidest Man Alive"

Cargo-Cult economics. Or perhaps "TV economics". Going through motions sorta-kinda like what economists do without understanding why or what the calculations mean: Hoisted: Donald Luskin: Stupidest Man Alive: I remember a similar mistake from the past: Luskin's attempt to compute the real exchange rate produced this:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands The Semi Daily Journal Economist Brad DeLong

on which Luskin commented:

The chart... shows the real exchange rate of the US dollar for a decade before the 1982 memo, and then through the end of the Reagan presidency. It did drift slightly lower for the first couple of years after the memo. But then it took off to new highs—nothing resembling anything like [Summers's and Krugman's late 1982 prediction of] a "return to approximately their historical levels."

in fact the actual real exchange rate was:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands The Semi Daily Journal Economist Brad DeLong

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Monday Smackdown: Revisiting the Trump-McConnell-Ryan Tax Cut Debate

Gross Private Domestic Investment Nominal Potential Gross Domestic Product FRED St Louis Fed

A year ago, during the Trump-McConnell-Ryan corporate tax cut debate, Greg Mankiw wrote that "a relevant exercise for my readers... [is assuming] the capital stock adjusts so that the after-tax marginal product of capital equals the exogenously given world interest rate r..." That was unprofessional. That is not a relevant model for a large country with a floating exchange rate. If you want an investment boom, cut the deficit—like Clinton-Mitchell-Gephardt did over 1993-1996.

Paul Krugman explains why: Paul Krugman: Why Was Trump’s Tax Cut a Fizzle?: "The blue wave means that Donald Trump will go into the 2020 election with only one major legislative achievement: a big tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. Still, that tax cut was supposed to accomplish big things. Republicans thought it would give them a big electoral boost, and they predicted dramatic economic gains. What they got instead, however, was a big fizzle...

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Monday Smackdown/Hoisted: The "Hastert' and "Hastertland" Paragraphs from Wooldridge and Micklethwaite's "The Right Nation"

These may be the paragraphs written in this millennium that have aged least well: John Micklethwaite and Adrian Woodridge: The "Hastert' and "Hastertland" Paragraphs from Wooldridge and Micklethwaite's "The Right Nation": "Looking at 'Pelosiville' and 'Hastertland', it is not difficult to see why American politics has shifted to the Right. If American politics is a seesaw, it is an unevenly balanced one. Imagine Dennis Hastert at one end of the seesaw and Nancy Pelosi on the other end, and you have some idea about which party is sitting with its legs dangling in the air. In the war between the two Americas, Hastertland has been winning...

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Monday Smackdown/Hoisted: John Cochrane's Claim in Late 2008 That a Recession Would Be a Good Thing Deserves Some Kind of Award...

The fact is that by the end of 2007 the construction sector had rebalanced: there was no excess of people pounding nails in Nevada...


To: @johnmlippert: If I may beg a small slice of your attention...

I am tracking down John Cochrane's claims that (i) in your December 23, 2008 article you were "only... on a hunt for embarrassing quotes", (ii) he had "spent about 10 hours patiently trying to explain some basics" to you, and (iii) you took him out of proper context when you wrote: "'We should have a recession', Cochrane said in November, speaking to students and said in November, speaking to students and investors in a conference room.... 'People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do'."

Do you by chance remember the larger context of Cochrane's "pounding nails" comment, and do you have any idea why he now claims that you took him out of context? Or what he thinks the proper context would have been?

I would be grateful for any light you can shed on this.

Yours,

Brad DeLong brad.delong@gmail.com


John M. Lippert: "Hi Professor DeLong.

Thanks for your note. Professor Cochrane’s complaint is something of which I became aware several months after we published our story in 2008.... The bottom line is that Bloomberg did not respond to Cochrane’s comments. He never sent them to us, despite my request that he do so.

When we became aware of his complaint, we saw no reason to make a correction. Cochrane made the ‘pounding nails’ comment at a Chicago Booth forum at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago in November 2008. It was part of an ongoing lecture series, as I recall. It was kind of a big event, with a couple hundred people. So they may have a recording that you can access.

Good luck with your inquiries.

Tks,

John Lippert


Just FYI, if I were John Cochrane I would not characterize my 2008 CRSP Forum Keynote as something "I did not write...". And I would not characterize accurate quotations from it as:

an attribution, taken out of context, from a http://bloomberg.com article, written by a reporter [John Lippert] with whom I spent about 10 hours patiently trying to explain some basics, and who also turned out only to be on a hunt for embarrassing quotes...

John Cochrane: How Did Paul Krugman Get It So Wrong?: "As one little example, take my quotation about carpenters in Nevada...

...Krugman writes:

And Cochrane declares that high unemployment is actually good: “We should have a recession. People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do.” Personally, I think this is crazy. Why should it take mass unemployment across the whole nation to get carpenters to move out of Nevada?

I did not write this. It is an attribution, taken out of context, from a http://bloomberg.com article, written by a reporter [John Lippert] with whom I spent about 10 hours patiently trying to explain some basics, and who also turned out only to be on a hunt for embarrassing quotes.

Nevertheless, I was trying to explain how sectoral shifts contribute to unemployment. I never asserted that ‘it takes mass unemployment across the whole nation to get carpenters to move out of Nevada’. You cannot even dredge up an out-of-context quote for that monstrously made-up opinion. What is the point in conducting debate this way? I do not think that Krugman disagrees that sectoral shifts result in some unemployment, so the quote actually makes sense as economics. The only point is to make me, personally, seem heartless–a pure, personal, calumnious attack, which has nothing to do with economics...


Paul Krugman (2009): How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?: "Milton Friedman certainly never bought into the idea that mass unemployment represents a voluntary reduction in work effort or the idea that recessions are actually good for the economy. Yet the current generation of freshwater economists has been making both arguments...

...Thus Chicago’s Casey Mulligan suggests that unemployment is so high because many workers are choosing not to take jobs: “Employees face financial incentives that encourage them not to work... decreased employment is explained more by reductions in the supply of labor (the willingness of people to work) and less by the demand for labor (the number of workers that employers need to hire).” Mulligan has suggested, in particular, that workers are choosing to remain unemployed because that improves their odds of receiving mortgage relief.

And Cochrane declares that high unemployment is actually good: “We should have a recession. People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do.” Personally, I think this is crazy. Why should it take mass unemployment across the whole nation to get carpenters to move out of Nevada?

Can anyone seriously claim that we’ve lost 6.7 million jobs because fewer Americans want to work?

But it was inevitable that freshwater economists would find themselves trapped in this cul-de-sac: if you start from the assumption that people are perfectly rational and markets are perfectly efficient, you have to conclude that unemployment is voluntary and recessions are desirable.

Yet if the crisis has pushed freshwater economists into absurdity, it has also created a lot of soul-searching among saltwater economists. Their framework, unlike that of the Chicago School, both allows for the possibility of involuntary unemployment and considers it a bad thing. But the New Keynesian models that have come to dominate teaching and research assume that people are perfectly rational and financial markets are perfectly efficient. To get anything like the current slump into their models, New Keynesians are forced to introduce some kind of fudge factor that for reasons unspecified temporarily depresses private spending. (I’ve done exactly that in some of my own work.) And if the analysis of where we are now rests on this fudge factor, how much confidence can we have in the models’ predictions about where we are going?

The state of macro, in short, is not good. So where does the profession go from here?...


Monday Smackdown/Hoisted: The "Hastert' and "Hastertland" Paragraphs from Wooldridge and Micklethwaite's "The Right Nation"

These may be the paragraphs written in this millennium that have aged least well: John Micklethwaite and Adrian Woodridge: The "Hastert' and "Hastertland" Paragraphs from Wooldridge and Micklethwaite's "The Right Nation": "Looking at 'Pelosiville' and 'Hastertland', it is not difficult to see why American politics has shifted to the Right. If American politics is a seesaw, it is an unevenly balanced one. Imagine Dennis Hastert at one end of the seesaw and Nancy Pelosi on the other end, and you have some idea about which party is sitting with its legs dangling in the air. In the war between the two Americas, Hastertland has been winning...

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Monday Smackdown Watch: The New York Times and Bret Stephens Continue to Beclown Themselves Bigtime

The New York Times beclouds itself with: Bret Stephens: The Midterm Results Are a Warning to the Democrats: "Stop manning imaginary barricades, and start building real bridges to the other America. This week’s elections were, at most, a very modest rebuke of a president reviled by many of his opponents, this columnist included, as an unprecedented danger to the health of liberal democracy at home and abroad. The American people don’t entirely agree. We might consider listening to them a bit more—and to ourselves somewhat less. A 27-seat swing gave Democrats control of the House.... The Republican gain in the Senate... underscores what a non-wave election this was...

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Monday Smackdown: Hoisted: Cliff Asness Department

**Hoisted from the Archives: 7 days before the fifth anniversary of his appearing as lead signatory of the right-wing Republican "Open Letter to Ben Bernanke—Cliff Asness spent 82 minutes talking to Tyler Cowen. The phrase "Federal Reserve" does not appear in the transcript. The phrase "quantitative easing" does not appear in the transcript. The word "monetary" does not appear in the transcript. The word "debasement" does not appear. Tyler Cowen does not ask questions using any of those words. Cliff Asness does not use any of those words in answering questions.

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(Late) Monday Smackdown: Why Does Clive Crook Think the EU Has a Duty to Sacrifice the Interests Rights of Its Constituents in Brexit Negotiations?

I did not punish this a year ago because it seemed... intemperate. Now it seems not extreme enough. Perhaps if Clive Crook and his colleagues had dared to say: "The Brexiters are bad people pursuing bad policies. They need to be stopped." Instead he and his ilk talked about how important it was that the U.K . have "a fundamentally new relationship" with the E.U., and that the E.U. should bend over backward to make the Brexiters look as good as possible. Not a good look:

Brexit_Means_Brexit

Live from the Orange-Haired Baboon Cage: Across my desk this morning comes this. And it makes me ask: Whatever happened to the sharp, thoughtful, and witty Clive Crook of 2000? Brexiteers lied, and said that Brexit would bring £350 million a week to boost Britain's National Health Service, that Britons would still be able to live in Europe at will while kicking undesirable continentals out, and that Briton would have a hard border with the EU while still having a soft border with the Irish Republic. It was always a grift. Clive Crook now seems to want... what? For the EU to work hard to make Brexit as small a catastrophe as possible? For the EU sacrifice the rights and interests of its citizens to promote the careers of a bunch of neo-fascist nativist grifter politicians in Westminster? Crook seems to think that the EU should be negotiating as if this were an "on what terms will Britain remain in the EU?" deal. But Brexit means Brexit: Clive Crook: The Harder Brexit Gets, the More Necessary It Seems: "The U.K. has been an ill-fitting member of the EU all along...

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Monday DeLong Smackdown: Alan Kirman on Self-Fulfilling Financial Crises

Smackdown

Alan Kirman is wise. Listen to him: Monday DeLong Smackdown: Alan Kirman: Self-Fulfilling Financial Crises: For the first time I feel moved to disagree with your assessment here Brad. The behavioral approach proposed by the authors suffers from the same disease as many that have been proposed earlier. It is the idea that one particular "bias" will help to understand and explain the causes and consequences of economic crises. This seems to me to be at odds with what really goes on. Already in 1900 Poincaré criticised Bachelier because he ignored the fact that people tend to behave like sheep. People do not simply receive their information independently and then act on it and in so doing reveal that information. Herd behaviour would suggest that people's beliefs change and are strongly influenced by those with whom they interact...

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Brett Kavanaugh: A Multiple Train Wreck in Many Dimensions: Monday Smackdown

Clowns (ICP)

I confess that I have been procrastinating on various things. Why? Because I have been unable to tear my eyes away from the multiple train crash that is the confirmation process... the career... the life of Brett Kavanaugh. My view of this is a third- or fourth-hand view. It is the view of Georgetown Prep from Sidwell Friends. And it may well be wrong. But I think that it is right. So, with that warning, here goes:

The first... oddity... is Brett Kavanaugh‘s reaction to Christine Blasey Ford. It really ought to have been something like this:

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Monday Smackdown: Things from His Georgetown Prep Yearbook Brett Kavanaugh Should Be Asked About This Week...

stacks and stacks of booksc

  • "Find them, French them, Feel them, Finger them, F-ck them, Forget them...:
  • FFFFFFourth of July
  • Summer of 100 Kegs
  • What Happens at Georgetown Prep, Stays at Georgetown Prep
  • Devil's Triangle
  • Bowling Alley Assault
  • Rehobeth Beach Police Fan Club
  • Boofing
  • Beach Week Ralph Club
  • 100 Keg Club

One does wonder just what the frack the Jesuits running Georgetown Prep thought they were doing...


(Early) Monday Joint Mark Helprin/Ross Douthat/Geoffrey Kabaservice Smackdown!

Clowns (ICP)

I find, on Twitter, the smart Geoff Kabaservice being just weird: Geoff Kabaservice: @RuleandRuin: "POLITICO asked me to expand my tweet previous thread about what liberal historians tend to get wrong about conservatism..." So I go read it, and find a list of 1990s "new voices on the neoconservative/neoliberal front like David Frum, Michael Lind, Andrew Sullivan, Francis Fukuyama, John McWhorter, Richard Brookhiser, Mickey Kaus, Michael Kelly, William Kristol and John Podhoretz..."

And I think: Huh! Wait a minute! Neoliberals aren't conservative! And I think: Mickey Kaus and Michael Kelly were mean and deranged. John Podhoretz and Richard Brookhiser were not smart. Andrew Sullivan and John McWhorter always struck me as more... performance art than anything else. William Kristol was a hack back when he smelled power, but now that he does not is a genuinely quirky, interesting thinker. So are David Frum and Michael Lind. And Francis Fukuyama is a genius—but not a conservative. In general, here—as elsewhere—those who are wise and conservative are not honest, those who are honest and conservative are not wise, and those who are wise and honest and thus worth reading rapidly cease to be conservative. It's like Lasalle's Iron Law of Wages. So I think: Geoff, that's two strikes.

And I read Kabaservice to the end, and find "liberal historians should consider subscribing to the Claremont Review of Books or National Affairs". So I surf on over, and start reading—first Mark Helprin on Charlottesville. And then I stop reading: Mark Helprin: Charlottesville One Year Later: "Enter Antifa, the Communist fascisti as invisible to the mainstream media as were Stalin’s and Mao’s genocides, Castro’s executions, and, with special mention to the New York Times, the Holocaust. They came in ranks: shields, helmets, clubs, etc. But unlike the idiots they came to fight, some of whom had firearms, Antifa had the best weapon of all—well-meaning, overprotected Millennials fed upon virtue signaling..."

I stop readin: when what really gets you mad about Charlottesville is not Nazis and the Klan and "very fine people on both sides", but is rather "Antifa... Communist fascisti... invisible to the mainstream media... well-meaning, overprotected Millennials fed upon virtue signaling..." there is something very wrong with you, mentally and morally—and with the editors who publish you. Denunciations of "virtue signaling" are what people who know they are villains start doing when they think they can no longer pretend to be the good guys.

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Monday Smackdown/Hoisted: William Saletan Claims That the Real Thing Wrong with the Cheney-Bush-Rice-Rumsfeld Iraq War Was That It Prevented the Much Larger Cheney-Bush-Rice-Rumsfeld rIan War

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Duncan Black: The Stupidest People In The World: "I was going to let this go, but I just can't. Will 'Too Stupid to Tie Shoes' Saletan wrote his little 'How a supergenius like me helped cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people' piece for Slate as a list of 'lessons learned'. All relatively innocuous until you get to the last one...

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The Two-Step of Terrific Triviality: Monday Smackdown/Hoisted from the Archives

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John Holbo: When I hear the word culture… aw, hell with it: "Jonah Goldberg is now grumbling that people are calling him stupid. But... the upshot of Goldberg’s indignant response... would seem to be that Henry was actually too charitable to Goldberg...

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Yes, Republicans Are or Are Pretending to Be Easily Grifted Morons: The Theory of Relativity: Is It Time to "Teach the Controversy"?: Hoisted from Seven Years Ago

Preview of Yes Republicans Are or Are Pretending to Be Easily Grifted Morons The Theory of Relativity Is It

It is now 24 years since my default hypothesis became that that the conservative wing of the Republican Party is composed exclusively of people who have completely disabled their bullshit detectors, and were, as a result, easily-grifted morons. That default hypothesis has served me very well. Only now it is broadened: now all Republicans either have or are pretending to have completely disabled their bullshit detectors, and so now all Republicans are easily-grifted morons:

Hoisted from Seven Years Ago: The Theory of Relativity: Is It Time to "Teach the Controversy" in America's High Schools?: Jason Kuznicki pleads for charity for creationists:

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Steering by the Socialist Idols in the Heavens Leads Us to Sail Not Towards but Away from the Shores of Utopia: (Early) Monday Corey Robin Smackdown

Preview of Steering Toward Socialist Idols Leads Us to Sail Not Towards but Away from the Shores of Utopia

I find Corey Robin smart most of the time. I find him annoyingly and profoundly stupid some of the time. Why? Because of occasional but stubborn blindnesses to very important parts of recent history and, indeed, very important parts of the world in which he lives—what seems to me a willful, trollish blindnesses.

For example, his piece in the New York Times last week. It really could have used some proper editorial attention it did not get: The examples presented of what is wrong with "the market" are simply... not examples...

Robin writes of "the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy". But that is not a problem with "the market": that is a problem with bureaucracy. National health systems face the same problems and make the same kinds of decisions with respect to "medical appropriateness" as do private insurers.

Robin writes of freedom from "the need to smile for the sake of a sale". But that is not a problem with "the market": that is a problem with the need we have for a complex division of labor in order to be a rich society, in the context of the very human fact that people will not be eager to deal with you as a cooperative partner if you are a misanthropic grouch.

The market provides a partial way around the unfreedoms generated by institutions of bureaucratic organization and social cooperation. The market—if and only if you have wealth—allows you to be a misanthropic grouch and still get people to cooperate with you. The market—if and only if you have wealth—allows you to avoid having to work to make the gear-wheels of bureaucracy turn and yet still gain access to resources. It is certainly the case that if people are poor then the market does them no good at all. It cannot, then, be a way around bureaucracy or norms of social agreeableness. The market pays attention to the wealthy and only the wealthy. But the problem then is one of poverty—that we have managed to arrange a very wealthy society in such a way that it has a lot of not-wealthy people in it.

Contrary to what Robin claims, utopia is indeed the liberal dream of freedom plus groceries—with "groceries" standing in for enough wealth to route yourself around the unfreedoms created by bureaucracy and by your own misanthropic nature when they bind too tightly. The problem is not "the market" or "capitalism": Corey Robin: The New Socialists: "Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live...

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Monday DeLong Smackdown/Hoisted: Greenspanism Looking Pretty Good...

Oy: This was perhaps the biggest thing I got most wrong in 2008. It's not saved by the weasel-words at the end: "If the tide of financial distress sweeps the Fed and the Treasury away--if we find ourselves in a financial-meltdown world where unemployment or inflation kisses 10%--then I will unhappily concede, and say that Greenspanism was a mistake...: Greenspanism Looking Pretty Good...: Martin Wolf is gloomy:

A year of living dangerously for the world: It is now almost a year since the US subprime crisis went global. Many then hoped that the repricing of risk would be no more than a brief interruption.... Such hopes have been disappointed.... So where is the world economy now? And where might it go? Here are some preliminary answers to these questions.

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Monday Smackdown: George Borjas P-Hacking His Way Along...

How George Borjas p-hacked his way to his conclusion that immigrants have big negative effects on native-worker wages: Jennifer Hunt and Michael Clemens: Refugees have little effect on native worker wages: "Card (1990) found that a large inflow of Cubans to Miami in 1980 did not affect native wages or unemployment...

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(Early) Monday Smackdown: Bard College Has a Quality Control Problem Here: Roger Berkowitz Needs to Learn to Quote Fairly and Accurately

I think that almost every discussion about "cultural appropriation" should be, instead, a discussion about: "don't be a d-ck". Clarifies matters immeasurably.

The brilliant national treasure Roxane Gay is, in my opinion, 100% correct when she writes: "stay in your lane.... The great thing about writing is that you can develop new lanes through research, immersion and effort..." That is not "being a d-ck". But When I read these exchanges (and Jennifer Schuessler's piece), I think Jennifer, Nina, and Burleigh are all being d-cks—especially Roger Berkowitz, who I think is being a major a--hole here, and doing so while claiming to be the heir and channeler of Hannah Arendt:

Jennifer Schuessler: "I wrote about the controversy over @thenation ’s publication of a poem by a white poet using black vernacular, with a little bit on the long debate over what counts as literary 'blackface' (looking at you, Vachel Lindsay & John Berryman)..."

Nina Burleigh: "Probably shouldn't wade into this but, by @rgay 'stay in your lane' logic, every entitled male screenwriter-white or black-should be banned from writing female characters of any race. I'm actually all for that, but piling on to crush the career of a young poet? geez..."

Roxane Gay: "Well, Nina, this is the problem with journalists taking tweets out of context and using them in their articles, instead of asking people for a more fully fleshed out statement. My tweets are my opinions...

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(Early) Monday Smackdown: New York Magazine Has a Huge Quality Control Problem with Andrew Sullivan. It Needs to Fix It...

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Quo usque tandem abutere, Newyorkmagina, patientia nostra? Quam diu etiam furor iste tuus nos1 eludet? Quem ad finem sese effrenata iactabit audacia?Andrew Sullivan (2014-12-22): Excuse Me, Mr Coates: "Dish readers know how comfortable I found myself in that liberal tradition...

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Herbert Hoover: As Bad to Ally with Stalin and Churchill Against Hitler as to Ally with Hitler Against Stalin and Churchill

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I was reading Herbert Hoover (1964): Freedom Betrayed on the plane, and it is really clear to me why nobody wanted Hoover to publish it during his lifetime and why his heirs buried it for half a century:

I will tell you what I think. I think Hoover does not quite dare say:

When Hitler attacked Stalin in June 1941, the U.S. should have told Britain to cool it—embargoed Britain until and offered it security guarantees when it made peace with Germany—and then the U.S. should have supported Hitler in his war on Communism, by far the worst of the three totalitarianism of Communism, Naziism, and New Dealism. Afterwards, Hitler and his successors would have had their hands full ruling their Eurasian empire, and Naziism would have normalized itself, and Communism would be gone. Too bad about Nazi rule over the French, Belgians, Dutch, Danes, and Norwegians, but that would have been a price well worth paying.

He does not quite dare say it, but he is thinking it, and almost gets there...

Herbert Hoover:

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Monday Smackdown: Who Wants Charles Murray to Speak on Their Campus, and Why?

I have a question for Stanford's Michael @McFaul ...

We know that "If the heritability of IQ were 0.5 and the degree of assortation in mating, m, were 0.2 (both reasonable, if only ballpark estimates), and if the genetic inheritance of IQ were the only mechanism accounting for intergenerational income transmission, then the intergenerational correlation of lifetime incomes would be 0.01..." (see Bowles and Giants (2002)). That is only two percent the observed intergenerational correlation—49/50 of the intergenerational transmission of status in America comes from other causes.

Why, then, is it important to invite to your campus to speak someone whose big thing is the intergenerational transmission of intelligence through genes, and racial differences thereof? And if one were going to invite to your campus to speak someone, etc., why would you pick somebody who likes to burn crosses? Wouldn't a healthier approach be to regard such a person—who focuses on the intergenerational transmission of intelligence through genes, harps on genetic roots of differences between "races", and likes to burn crosses—as we regard those who know a little too much about the muzzle velocities of the main cannon of the various models of the Nazi Armored Battlewagon Version 4?: Jonathan Marks: Who wants Charles Murray to speak, and why?: "The Bell Curve cited literature from Mankind Quarterly, which no mainstream scholar cites, because it is an unscholarly racist journal... http://anthropomics2.blogspot.com/2017/04/who-wants-charles-murray-to-speak-and.html

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Monday Smackdown: Epistemic Intellectual Bankruptcy Edition: Paul Krugman/Matt O'Brien/Niall Ferguson

I think Paul Krugman puts his finger on the decline of Niall Ferguson here: Paul Krugman: _"What we have here is an example of a phenomenon I've seen a number of times: the doom loop of hackery...

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Hoisted/Smackdown: Yes, Noam Chomsky Is a Liar. Why Do You Ask?

Hoisted/Smackdown: On the NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia...: May 31, 2006: Having made the mistake of having joked about Noam Chomsky and so provoked a Chomskyite troll eruption that was painful to clean out, I believe that I have to make my position clear:

Noam Chomsky is a liar.

For example, Noam Chomsky says:

On the NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia, Noam Chomsky interviewed by Danilo Mandic: Director of Communications [for Clinton Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott], John Norris.... [T]ake a look on John Norris's book and what he says is that the real purpose of the war had nothing to do with concern for Kosovar Albanians. It was because Serbia was not carrying out the required social and economic reforms, meaning it was the last corner of Europe which had not subordinated itself to the US-run neoliberal programs, so therefore it had to be eliminated. That's from the highest level...

John Norris simply does not say what Chomsky says Norris says. "Reform[ing] their economies, mitigat[ing] ethnic tensions, and broaden[ing] civil society" is simply not the same thing as "subordinat[ing] itself to the US-run neoliberal programs". NATO moved against Milosevic because he had proceeded "from mass murder to mass murder", not because Serbia was evidence that economic prosperity was attainable by doing the opposite of what the U.S. recommended

Here's the passage from John Norris (2005), Collision Course: NATO, Russia, and Kosovo (New York: Praeger), that Chomsky is misciting, p. xxii ff.:

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Hoisted/Smackdown: FLASH: Clive Crook and Jack Shafer Upset Because People Informing People Are Claiming to Be Journalists

Smackdown

I was performing one of my standard rants last week at lunch: about how—with very honorable but notably rare exceptions—you should view everything you see on a video screen or read in any medium from somebody paid to be a "journalist" through a hermeneutics of grave suspicion: Assume, unless and until demonstrated otherwise, that they are working for, in this order: (1) their sources, (2) their editors, (3) their advertisers, and (4) for you not at all—they simply are not interested in being a trustworthy information intermediary informing you about the world.

I got some pushback. So it is time to hoist this again from 2005. In one short week, pieces crossed my desk from both Jack Shafer and Clive Crook. Both made it very clear that, in their minds, informing people about the world is positively unprofessional for a journalist (that is the point of Shafer's attack on Klein and Yglesias) or simply not a relevant consideration (that is the point of Crook's relative exaltation of Cramer and dissing of Stewart):

FLASH: Monday Smackdown Clive Crook and Jack Shafer Upset Because People Informing People Are Claiming to Be Journalists: Hoisted from 2015: http://www.bradford-delong.com/2015/02/flash-clive-crook-and-jack-shafer-upset-because-john-stewart-and-ezra-klein-pretty-sure-earth-is-not-flat.html "Two things that crossed my desk last week that offend the shape of reality itself, and really do deserve to be smacked down.

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On the Negative Information Revealed by Marvin Goodfriend's "I Don't Teach IS-LM": Smackdown/Hoisted

Smackdown

So Rich Clarida's (who should be a good Fed Vice Chair) and Michelle Bowman's Federal Reserve nominations (whom I do not know) made it out of the Senate Banking Committee 20-5 and 18-7. Marvin Goodfriend—who made it out 13-12—is still hanging fire on the Senate calendar. There is no reason I see to think that Fed Governor is a job he should have: there are much more sensible and reality-based conservative and inflation-hawkish monetary economists out there. One of them would dominate Marvin along every dimension. So it is time to highlight this again:

Hoisted from the Archives: I think it is time to move Marvin Goodfriend over to the "unprofessional" and "should not have a role making monetary policy" side of the ledger. There are much better inflation hawks as far as policy judgment is concerned. And someone with a demonstrated desire to pander to the yahoos—which is the only way I can make this coherent—is not a good candidate for the Board of Governors: On the Negative Information Revealed by Marvin Goodfriend's "I Don't Teach IS-LM": The smart and snarky Sam Bell wants to taunt me into rising to his bait by twittering https://twitter.com/sam_a_bell/status/872116967070732288 a quote from likely Fed nominee Marvin Goodfriend: "I don't teach IS-LM". He succeeds. Here is the quote:

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Carbon Blogging: Robert J. Samuelson Is Incompetent/The Washington Post Is a Bad Paper: Monday Smackdown/Hoisted

Preview of Carbon Blogging Robert J Samuelson Is Incompetent The Washington Post Is a Bad Paper Monday Smackdown Hoisted

That the Washington Post still gives Robert J. Samuelson a platform is a shameful thing. That it ever gave Robert J. Samuelson a platform is a bad thing: Monday Smackdown/Hoisted: In That Case... Plant the Trees This Afternoon!: Mark Thoma does an evil deed by telling me that somebody should take note of Robert Samuelson. And he's right: somebody should. But why does it have to be me?

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Trump May Not Be the Least Balanced Person in the Trump Administration: Kevin Hassett Monday Smackdown

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This, from CEA Chair Kevin Hassett in 2010 has always seemed to me at if not over the edge of mental illness.

There are many tells. The reliance on a "brilliant review" by a UND law professor and on an Oxford philosopher with no particle physicists even named is one. The raising of "military action" as a response is a second. The plea for following his preferred course of action even though he does not understand the issues because "how can we know that things we do not understand will not kill us?" is a third.

Grandiosity and unmooring from rational inquiry to an extent that, it seemed and seems to me, might well clear the clinical diagnosis bar...

In its entirety:

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Monday Smackdown: Stupidest Man Alive Donald Luskin Retains His Crown!

I know I promised only one Smackdown a week—or, at least, only one non-DeLong Smackdown a week. But...

I put this in the tickler file three years ago, to see whether OPEC could raise prices and oil would go to $30 a barrel and whether lower oil prices would in fact trigger an oil patch and global superzoom, as "there will be no limits to growth in the global economy in a few years when... oil... becomes, for all practical purposes, free... the lower oil prices go, the more money the frackers can make...". Look today, and what do we see: 75 dollars a barrel. Not: 30. Nor: "for all practical purposes, free":

Crude Oil Prices Brent Europe FRED St Louis Fed

And the promised oil patch superboom—"the lower oil prices go, the more money the frackers can make..."? Employment in Oklahoma City relative to the nation as a whole:

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Monday Smackdown: Finally We Find What Makes Clive Crook Stop Being an Anti-Anti-Trump Poseur!

Smackdown

A correspondent who wishes me ill writes and asks me what I think of Niall Ferguson and Clive Crook these days. I won't rise to the bait for Niall, but I will note that trade issues have made Clive Crook forget that back in November 2016 he decided to swim with what he saw as the tide carrying him to his niche as an anti-anti-Trump poseur. The talk about how we must be measured in our response—must listen carefully and respectfully to those with "the intelligible and legitimate opinions of that large minority" who will, after they have been marinated in Fox News, applaud Trump's actions—is gone, 100% gone:

Clive Crook: Congress Must Blunt Trump’s Assault on Trade: "What Trump did last week matters...

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Three Conservatives on Why Charles Murray's Ideas Are Bankupt in the Academic Intellectual Marketplace

Inferno Dante and Virgil among the evil counsellors and Flickr

I have never understood why "conservatives" like Niall Ferguson think that cross-burner Charles Murray is a good standard bearer for their ideas in a university setting. Is it their explicit and deliberate aim to generate counterdemonstrations and further reinforce the link between conservative ideas and white ethnicism in America today? Do they really think that yoking appeals to racial animosity, immutable "racial" differences in intelligence, and white ethnicism to their cause is a winner?

Niall Ferguson won't claim that the immutable-racial-differences arguments in Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve get it right. He will only claim that: "the sheer scale of the discussion that Murray’s work has generated would seem to argue for its importance, regardless of whether one ends up agreeing with him..." In academic speech ideas are not merely presented but evaluated. Cross-burner Murray's ideas have been evaluated by, among others, the impeccably conservative Thomas Sowell, James Heckman, and Glenn Loury. Wouldn't a proper Cardinal Conversation aimed at elevating the debate have featured one of these non-cross-burning conservatives? They would have said something like:

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Niall Ferguson and the Avoidance of Personal Responsibility: Every Accusation a Confession Department: (Early) Monday Smackdown

Inferno Dante and Virgil among the evil counsellors and Flickr

As Mitt Romney said of Niall Ferguson and company, they are: "people who... are dependent... who believe that they are victims, who believe that... they are entitled.... I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives...":

Niall Ferguson descends far into self-parody with this self-smackdown. Jonathan Healey comments:

Jonathan Healey: "Worth pointing out that it also 'might have been avoided' if you'd thought to yourself 'Hang on, a professor with a massive profile trying to find kompromat on a student is a bit off, isn't it?':

Niall Ferguson: From all of this I draw two conclusions. First, it might have been avoided if conservatives at universities did not feel so beleaguered. There is a debate about whether free speech has been restricted on American campuses in recent years. I have no doubt it has. Middle-of-the-road students live in fear that a casual remark will be deemed "offensive" or "triggering" and that social media will be unleashed to shame them. Conservative students have to keep quiet or fight a culture war in which they are hopelessly outnumbered.

The other lesson I have learn[ is that Uncle Jan was right: I do need to grow up. Student politics is best left to students. So I am putting my tweed jacket back on and retreating to my beloved study. It is time to write another book.

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Will Someone Please Tell Me Why William Saletan Gets Paid to Not Do His Homework?: Monday Smackdown

Smackdown

Ah. Someone who wishes me ill informs me that William Saletan has surfaced, but cannot tell his own story straight: William Saletan (2018): Stop talking about race and IQ. Take it from someone who did: "A person with a taste for puncturing taboos learns about racial gaps in IQ scores and the idea that they might be genetic...

...He writes or speaks about it, credulously or unreflectively. Every part of his argument is attacked: the validity of IQ, the claim that it’s substantially heritable, and the idea that races can be biologically distinguished. The offender is denounced as racist when he thinks he’s just defending science against political correctness. I know what it’s like to be this person because, 11 years ago, I was that person.... Here’s my advice: You can talk about the genetics of race. You can talk about the genetics of intelligence. But stop implying they’re the same thing. Connecting intelligence to race adds nothing useful. It overextends the science you’re defending, and it engulfs the whole debate in moral flames...

What William Saletan does not say is: "Not only did I write credulously and unreflectively about claimed genetic racial gaps in IQ scores, but I did an incompetent and zero-assed job of doing my research. Why? Because I have insufficient work ethic, I am not very good at my job, I wanted to believe, I wanted to 'puncture taboos', and I thought trying to make African-Americans feel smaller was kinda fun."

Am I wrong? Anybody want to push back on whether Saletan does his homework? Anybody have anything from William Saletan worth reading to bring forward?

Let's turn the mike over to the not unintelligent Cosma Shalizi:

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"We Always Thanked Robert Lucas for Giving Us a... Monopoly" Over Valuable Macroeconomics: Smackdown/Hoisted

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Monday Smackdown/Hoisted from the Archives (August 2015): "We Always Thanked Robert Lucas for Giving Us a... Monopoly" Over Valuable Macroeconomics: The extremely sharp Paul Romer gets something, I think, very very wrong...

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Could the Swedish Academy Please Stop Giving Nobel Prizes to Economists—Like Eugene Fama—Who Lack Basic Historical Literacy?

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Someone who wishes me ill reminds me of this from six years ago.

Could the Swedish academy please stop giving nobel prizes to economists—like Eugene Fama—who lack basic historical literacy? This isn't rocket science, after all. I really do not think that this is very much to ask: Paul Krugman (2011): Boom For Whom: "While I’m talking about inequality and the crisis, I realized recently that there’s another channel not usually talked about, via the misperception of success...

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Matthew Yglesias on Marxism: Capitalism is looking pretty shabby: (Late) Monday DeLong Smackdown/Hoisted

Preview of Procrastinating on November 29 2016

This is what I want when I call for a better class of DeLong Smackdowns! How do we think this looks not just nine years after my optimism in 2009 back at the end of the American century but five years after Matt wrote?:

Hoisted from the Archives: Matthew Yglesias (2013): May Day Marxism: Capitalism is looking pretty shabby: "DeLong reposted a very interesting 2009 talk... "Understanding Karl Marx"... that I would have enthusiastically endorsed in 2009 but which look weaker four years later...

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John Taylor is not just wrong, but wrong in a way that it is impossible to be if you are attempting to argue in good faith from any coherent set of economic principles and models: Miles Kimball: Contra John Taylor: "[Taylor] is just wrong...

...The Fed is promising to shift the demand curve for assets in the future and thereby get to a particular equilibrium interest rate. This is not at all like rent control. The right analogy is... getting rents to come down by reducing making it easier to get a building permit, or by subsidizing the building of new apartments.... There is a world of difference between a market intervention in which the government contributes to supply and demand and a price floor or ceiling. By buying assets, and promising to buy them in the future, the Fed is lowering an equilibrium interest rate. The details of the pattern of buying assets and promising to buy them in the future tends to keep the equilibrium interest rate at a certain level. The fact that the Fed acts by changing the equilibrium interest rate matters, because John’s claim that lowering the interest rate will reduce the quantity of investment would hold only if what the Fed is doing really did act like an interest rate ceiling that makes asset demand lower than asset supply...

#shouldread

This Was Extremely Bad Then. This Is Extremely Bad Now. Hoisted from the Archives

Why would it ever occur to John Taylor to claim that open market operations are like price controls? I cannot imagine the circumstances under which anyone would be tempted to do this: Paul Krugman: More Artificial Unintelligence: "David Beckworth pleads with fellow free-marketeers to stop claiming that low interest rates are 'artificial' and comparing them to price controls...

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Daniel Davies (2002): Evopsych Considered Harmful!: Weekend Reading/Hoisted from the Archives

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Weekend Reading: Hoisted from the Archives: Convincing fifteen years ago. Convincing today. Telling just-so stories to reinforce prejudicial hierarchical judgments you won't examine rationally is no way to go through life, son: Daniel Davies (2002): D-squared Digest: "Move over son, the professionals are here... http://blog.danieldavies.com/2002/10/: I've just rediscovered this article by Val Dusek, which is the best thing I've read on the whole debate...

...It also reminded me what a perfect s--- Stephen Pinker looks when you know a little bit of the background to some of the things he says about Margaret Mead. Print out and read on the train home, that's my advice.


UPADATE: God damn that article's good. I'm amazed to discover the extent to which I'd subconsciously plagiarised it. UPDATE AGAIN: Damn me, it's good. I think I'll excerpt a non-representative chunk here, because it sort of buries a point which is, I think, profoundly important:

What Dennett would have to counter is Lewontin and Sober's argument that when selection coefficients of genes are context-dependent and selection acts on gene complexes, the artificially constructed selection coefficients of genes do not play a causal role. (Sober and Lewontin, 1984). It is true that if one claims that what is selected are not genes but replicators as the later Dawkins does, then whole genomes, incorporating all the contextual effects of genes on each other, might be the object of selection. This would preserve the restriction of selection to the genic level, but it would give up the atomization of modular traits with which evolutionary psychologists work.

Massively important, given that now we have the results of the Human Genome Project in, we know that most inherited human behavioural traits will have to have been selected through gene-complexes rather than individual genes. I have not yet seen the EP defence of their core doctrine that traits are modular in the face of this new development; I'd appreciate any pointers to the literature if there are good arguments that the doctrine either can be preserved, or is not actually necessary to the theory.


Tits on a Peacock: Evolutionary Psychology week continues... I'd note in this context that I don't have a complete knock-down argument against evolutionary psychology, mainly because if I did, it would also presumably be a knock-down argument against ethology, which would be damn close to a knock-down argument against evolution. More or less everyone agrees that behaviour can be subject to natural selection, and that's all you need to believe in before you're committed to some sort of belief in some kinds of explanation of psychological phenomena as evolved responses. What I'm most concerned with arguing against is "Neo-Darwinian Sociology", a close cousin of evolutionary psychology, and one which has repeatedly interbred with its less reputable cousin, with predictable results. (Yes I know, I know. That was invective. In actual face, most medical opinion appears to be that the marginal risk of deformed offspring from copulation between first cousins is actually pretty negligible. So go for it if that's what you want, but don't tell the judge I told you to.)

In honest fact, using the phrase "Neo-Darwinian Sociology" is actually an act of extreme politeness on my part, because the more concise phrase would be "Social Darwinism", the age-old and known horrible theory without a shit-eating, disingenuous and self-consciously pious denunciation of which, no pop EP book is complete. (Matt Ridley, I'm looking at you. Daniel Dennet, you can wipe that smile off your face too). It's kind of like the paramilitary wing of evolutionary psychology; the default position of a serious ethologist when confronted with the possibility of earning a quick two hundred quid for 400 words on some current issue in the Sunday papers (Richard Dawkins, I'm looking at you, and pointing at you). Basically, in so far as these pieces have any message which doesn't consist of laughing at people more intelligent than the author for believing in God, the message boils down to:

  • Psychology of individuals is sociology; there is nothing to be understood about social phenomena other than individual behaviour. (The main argument for this proposition is that sociology is carried out by sociologists. The secondary argument is that some sociologists vote for left-wing political parties. Don't ask me, I'm only here for the beer)

  • Genetic explanations are the most important kind of explanations. If something could have come about through sexual selection of a gene, then it is overwhelmingly likely did come about in that way. Any other kind of explanation is very much second-best, and is probably about to be proved false by the discovery of a "proper" explanation. (The argument for this is rarely spelt out; as far as I can tell, it is some degenerate version of Occam's Razor)

  • Although just-so stories about hypothesised past development are no more than indicative initial hypotheses when we're doing proper rigorous ethology, they're strong enough that you can draw massive overarching social policy conclusions from them when you're talking to the plebs. (There is no argument for this at all, but I'm guessing it's part of the organisational pathology which gets these things into print)

Push them on any of these points, however, and they immediately retreat to vastly more defensible ground, only talking about specific results, qualifying all their statements and pretending that their sentences should never be (could never possibly have been) taken to imply things which they quite obviously say. Of course, given that we're dealing with Dawkins, Pinker, and arseholes of similar magnitude here, they tend to carry out this retreat with the full pomp and circumstance of a Roman triumphal parade, insulting people's intelligence, taking every opportunity to revive assertions they've walked away from and if at all possible, trying to imply that their interlocutor is either a sociologist or a believer in God. I see that it will take a separate post on the roots of this behaviour in philosophy of science to drain away all my bitterness.

But anyway, that's "Neo-Darwinian Sociology", and I actually believe that I do have a knock-down argument against that, which I will outline in the next-but-one post in this series. For the time being, just note that I think I can support the claims that

  1. if it wasn't for their occasional forays into N-DS, the EP crowd would be a very obscure bunch of scientists indeed.

  2. NeoDarwinian Sociology is on a much weaker scientific footing than the rest of EP; those parts of EP which have impinged on the public consciousness are in general pieces of research which are distinctly suspect as works of science; and therefore :

  3. The entire existence of evolutionary psychology as a fact of public life rather than an obscure academic discipline depends on the willingness of some scientists to drop all their scientific standards at crucial moments. (In particular, I find it quite scandalous that Richard Dawkins is quite so unconcerned about the distortions of scientific method which are regularly indulged in by people he regards as his allies. Despite what he thinks, he is Oxford University's Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, not the Public Proselytisation of Atheism). I am also prepared to argue for:

  4. The fact that it's the evolutionary psychologists who have achieved such prominence through such means is, as they say, no coincidence; the entire method of inquiry of EP tends to inculcate habits of mind which are too quick to latch onto hypotheses and call them explanations, and which discourage rigorous system thinking in favour of particular anecdotes. In their professional work, practitioners seem to recognise these dangers and guard against them; in their popular work and their policy advocacy, they drop their guard. As you can tell, I'm working toward a theory of how a book as bad as "Blank Slates" by Stephen Pinker came to be written.

It's in support of (4) that I am currently working. As with yesterday's post on symmetry and beauty, I want to provide an example not so much of questions answered wrongly, but of questions never asked in the first place; of theories adopted for a particular case because of the attractive story, but which were not applied to other cases, because they didn't fit the story being told. If I can establish that there are cases when, working near the borders of ethology and sociology but on the scientific side, evolutionary psychologists lost their critical faculties, I think I'll have supported my case that when they move closer to politics, they tend to be even worse. Tomorrow's example is going to be just a freaking doozy (Randy Thornhill's theory of rape), but for the time being, let's take a look at womens' breasts and peacocks' tails.

OK, I didn't get many takers for peacocks' tails. But let's start off with them.

There's a fairly common theory about why peacocks have tails; it's not the only one in the literature, but's it's pretty well supported and it is frequently used by the EP crowd when they want to make an analogy to certain kinds of male behaviour. The theory is basically, that the male peacock's tail is so big not in spite of its inconvenience to the bird, but because of that inconvenience. The idea is that it's a sexual signalling device; the peacock is signalling:

Look at me, I'm so big and strong and genetically ace that I can carry around this huge great fucking ridiculous tail and still live a relatively normal avian life.

So, the selfish genes of the peahen latch onto that signal, because they want to hitch a ride on this unstoppable Range Rover of peacock genetic goodness. It's quite a clever little theory; controversial as hell among bird biologists, but certainly not without supporters.

So anyway, a theory like that is too good to waste on peacocks, so it gets brought into service in explaining otherwise damnably stupid behaviour by human males with "peacock" tendencies. Bungee jumping, driving cars quickly, etc, etc. Jared Diamond (in an uncharacteristic slip; a terrible chapter of an otherwise good book called The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee) claimed that kung fu experts in Indonesia drink paraffin. The idea being presumably, to show off to any females present "HEY, LOOK AT ME! I'M ACTING LIKE AN IDIOT! I MUST HAVE GREAT GENES TO HAVE SURVIVED TO ADULTHOOD, I'M SO FUCKING STUPID! IT'S A MIRACLE I'M NOT EATING THROUGH A STRAW, BUT I'M NOT, SO THERE MUST BE SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT ME! COME ON AND GET ME YOU KNOW YOU WANT IT!".

Obviously, the questions a) "has there ever really been an 'evolutionary adaptive environment' in which purposefully endangering your own life for no reason hasn't been a gene that sensible selfish maximisers would want to avoid like the plague?" and b) "does it not strike people who advance this 'hazard theory' as perhaps surprising that much of the very most stupid and show-offish male behaviour in the world is channelled into initiation rituals of exclusively male secret societies of one kind or another?" are quibbles, and prove that the person asking them is a sociologist, and probably believes in God.

Anyway, I sense that my audience is getting bored at this point, so on to the more popular topic of womens' breasts.

As everyone knows, men like women with big, prominent breasts because they indicate that the woman upon whom they are located will be really good at feeding a child, thus propagating their genes to the next generation. Unfortunately, the bust size of a woman who has never given birth bears more or less no relationship whatever to the size at the end of pregnancy (breasts of nonlactating women are made mostly of fat, and it takes about eight months to properly shape them up to serve drinks), and this has been the case for a very long time in human evolution. This immediately rules out a lot of the "sub-pop" science commentators who use this kind of cargo-cult science theory of female pulchritude when they want to make some sort of point about sexual harassment in the workplace or the appeal of Pamela Anderson or whatever needs half a col. written about it by two-thirty prompt, but that's hardly a body blow to the EP crowd; most of these people are either editorial writers half-remembering the last pop science book they read, or people like Eric Raymond who are so damnably ignorant on every single subject except computers that it can't be blamed purely on "The Selfish Gene".

On the other hand, there are a lot of commentators who know better, who still basically come up with theories of the breast which involve some sort of signalling about fertility (not all; here's a list of theories on this issue, not all of which are vulnerable to the current critique). And here, we come to a conundrum.

If the theory of doing dangerous things in order to show how genetically fit you are is generally applicable, perhaps it could be applied to women as well as men? So, let's think... what would be an extremely physically demanding and dangerous thing that a woman could do, which would work well to demonstrate her fertility? Well... perhaps it's a bit off-the-wall, but here's one suggestion... how about... giving birth to a baby?!

Think about it. Some women are infertile, and can never give birth. Some women are not physically up to the rigours of childbirth, and this must have been even more true "out on the plains of Africa", to use the hackneyed and racially loaded catchphrase. One way, as a woman, of proving that this isn't true of you, is to actually step up to the plate and walk the talk. So, on this reasoning, men should be really turned on by single mothers... is that your experience?

Furthermore, if we extend this theory to go back to our original question about fashions in bust shapes, we can note that the stresses and strains of feeding the first child will certainly, pre the invention of the brassiere, have taken their toll on a maidenly chest. So, one could construct a convincing argument on evolutionary psychology grounds, that a female human equivalent to the display of the peacock's tail would be a large bust which drooped to somewhere south of the navel area. By putting on the Gossard Wonderbra and its competitor products, women appear to be attempting to signal to men that their fertility is a completely unknown property, and so is their vulnerability to death in parturition.

There is something decidedly funny about a grab-bag of intellectual tools which puports to explain the reason why things are the way they are, but which could simultaneously be used (as above) to explain why they were the way they were even if they were some other way. And there is something funny about a group of people who talk nine yards to Sunday week about the "intellectual rigour" they are bringing to a discipline like sociology, but who never seem to bother to generalise propositions, or to explain why mechanisms work in one case but not another. And there is something extremely funny about the way that a bunch of male commentators have been so quick to jump on board with a theory that, if it were not for the fact that it helps to bolster a number of propositions about sexual morality which they wanted to assert anyway, would be recognised as being about as likely and as useful, as tits on a peacock.

Thy Bloody Awful Symmetry: As well as the whole Michael Hardt/ David Hasselhoff thing below, my mind was turned to thoughts of evolutionary psychology by an article in yesterday's New York Times.

Fundamentally, it's exactly the sort of work I was planning on doing; somebody's taking a look at the actual experimental methodology that supports such convenient factoids as "men are more concerned about sexual jealousy, while women worry more about emotional infidelity". It turns out that this "result" is incredibly fragile as to the situation of the experiment; if you sit people down, ask them the question straight out, and give them time to think, then men and women assign themselves correctly to their gender roles, whereas if you catch them off guard in order to get a more "instinctive" response, the differentiation "predicted" by an amazingly tendentious just-so story about cavemen in Africa just doesn't show up. (I'd note in passing that the EP crowd are often in the forefront of moaning about "double-blind trials" when they're on the attack on some other point; the methodology of having an experimenter with an agenda ask a question face to face and then write the answer down himself is about as far from double blind as it gets).

In any case, the main point of the article linked above is to show what total and utter patronising knobheads evolutionary psychologists can be when pulled up on a point of science (read it, honestly, the guy starts comparing himself to Galileo!). But it dovetails quite nicely with a couple of points I'd like to make about some other sacred cows of evolutionary psychology; specifically, some of those claims which the pop science gang like to make about the "genetic" foundations of human beauty.

It's a shame that I'm too mean to cough up for the version of this weblog which would allow me to put up pictures, but there you go... but you don't have to search far on the web to find someone claiming it to be an established "fact" that facial attractiveness is a function of facial symmetry. Coincidentally, you also don't have to go far on the web to find a picture of Elvis Presley (bloody great asymmetric sneer) or Cindy Crawford (bloody great asymmetric mole on face). So what gives?

Apparently people with symmetric bodies have "good genes". Don't ask me, I'm a stranger here myself. But let's assume for the meantime that in some way, a little glitch in the building of the face of a foetus is evidence of a deep-seated horrible lurgey in the genes which is just waiting to show up as sickle-cell anaemia or low resistance to malaria or something. The question I'm interested in is, how did anyone find out that people with symmetrical faces are the most beautiful people of all?

Note at this stage, that I'm not interested in studies which claim to have shown that symmetrical people have more sex than anyone else. Randy Thornhill claims that this is the case, and it might be the case even though the experiments which claim to demonstrate it come from the same guy who brought you a theory of rape which doesn't work at all as a theory of sexual assault not involving penetration. Personally, I think that Thornhill is all over the place, and I'll explain why in future (there's a clue in this sentence for the impatient), but I want to establish that it doesn't effect my current argument if the symmetrical are shagging wild all over the place. The claim that "beauty" is "whatever gets you laid" is one that the EP crowd is committed to, not me. But this is by the by.

Absent the sex life studies, the evidence for "beauty" being this, that, or the other, has to come from what actual people judge to be beautiful. So, the best method for carrying out this experiment would have to be to get a bunch of people, show them a bunch of photographs of people, and get them to pick out the beautiful ones. Then you count the number of points each photograph gets and have a look at which ones are picked the most often, right?

Wrong.

If you ask people to pick out the photographs from a set which strike them as the most beautiful, you're actually asking them to perform cognitive acts, not one. You're asking your experimental subjects to:

  1. notice a picture of a face
  2. judge whether it's beautiful or not.

The first of these is not a trivial act, as anyone who's observed a baby younger than about two months will testify. The extent to which you're going to carry out the act of picking a picture for the beautiful pile depends on the extent to which it catches your attention as well as what you actually think of the face. There will be an error in your results from people "misclassifying" faces because they weren't really paying attention to them. There are all sorts of misjudgements that it's possible to make when looking at a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional object; as the post below demonstrates, I quite seriously misclassified a picture of Michael Hardt's hairstyle as "bouffant" when it wasn't.

So far so good. Now, readers with extremely advanced degrees in econometrics won't be asking... what do we know about this error? Importantly, is it unbiased—can we assume for modelling purposes that it can be ignored as something that will in a large enough sample?

I'm arguing, no. One of the things that, broadly construed, evolutionary psychology has usefully done for us is to dig up some important insights into the neuropsychology of visual perception. Particularly, it's been noted (as in, anatomically observed) that there is a mechanism in the brain which is specifically adapted for distinguishing between symmetrical things and non-symmetrical things. I find the "evolutionary psychology" (in actual fact, ethology, the rather more serious parent discipline which looks at behaviour without making tendentious and unsupported claims) argument quite convincing in this regard. The reason we have a symmetry-detector is that very few things in nature are symmetrical except animals, and animals are only symmetric when they're looking straight at you. Since the fact that something is looking at you is almost always a useful thing to know, we have been provided with a very acute sense of whether a thing is exactly symmetrical or not. Symmetry is a property which "jumps out of the page".

So, given that photographs of symmetrical faces are more likely to be noticed, the errors are not going to be evenly distributed. In any study which is asking you to pick out a "noticeable" characteristic the symmetrical pictures are always going to be over-represented, because symmetry is a noticeable property. Furthermore, this property is highly likely to account for the fact that babies tend to look longer at the same photos which adults pick out of a pile as being most attractive, another factoid often advanced as evidence for the beauty=symmetry hypothesis.

I have no particular investment in believing that there is nothing aesthetically attractive about symmetry; I spend a lot of time with a sneer on my face, but that's mainly because I read a lot of right-wing weblogs. But the fact that nobody saw fit to inquire into this possible source of experimental failure tends to suggest to me that people want to believe in the "evolutionary" arguments for reasons other than those of pure science. And when you get people like Todd Shackelford responding to the Northeastern study by just saying "I guess, to state it plainly, I think the paper is in large part ludicrous.... It's clear to me that they have an agenda they're pushing", I think I'm on to something...