Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Climate change" 3 - a solution?

In the first post in this series, I talked about the radical uncertainty, as well as the futility, involved in any serious effort, over the course of many decades, through any and all economic upheavals, and even as most of the world's people are still industrializing, to suppress global carbon emissions to some early 20th century level. In the second post, I talked about how the irrationality of current political moves in this direction might be better understood as the result, not of science, but of a kind of pseudo-science used to cover a quasi-religious belief system. You can see this manifested in the moralistic, even messianic terms so often used to talk about everything from "wasteful lifestyles" (SUVs being a particularly despised symbol) to "saving the planet".  Now, the adherents of such a belief system, particularly given its pseudo-scientific cover, will of course disagree that there's anything irrational about their fervent backing of carbon emission reduction schemes and will insist that they're really just concerned with the potentially disastrous, or at least very costly, effects of AGW. But the test of this is their reaction to alternative possibilities for atmospheric CO2 reduction, an obvious one being direct carbon extraction, as in the Scientific American article cited previously ("Washing Carbon out of the Air", June/10). Such projects typically involve some sort of sequestration of the carbon extracted. But another, and much better possibility, if economically feasible, would be to use the carbon to produce transportation fuel again -- no longer "fossil" fuel now, but re-cycled fuel. And that, as I understand it, is just what a new carbon extraction technology called "STEP" claims to offer -- see "Solar-powered process could decrease carbon dioxide to pre-industrial levels in 10 years":
By showing how to take advantage of both the sun’s heat and light for capturing and splitting carbon dioxide, the STEP process is fundamentally capable of converting more solar energy than either photovoltaic or solar thermal processes alone. The experiments in this study showed that the technique could capture carbon dioxide and convert it into carbon with a solar efficiency from 34% to 50%, depending on the thermal component. While carbon could be stored, the production of carbon monoxide could later be used to synthesize jet, kerosene, and diesel fuels, with the help of hydrogen generated by STEP water splitting.
“We are exploring the STEP generation of synthetic jet fuel and synthetic diesel,” Licht said, “and in addition to carbon capture, we are developing STEP processes to generate the staples predicted in our original theory, such as a variety of metals and bleach."
No doubt there are a lot of problems to be solved yet, and a serious decrease in atmospheric CO2 would in any case be a costly project even if and when they're solved.  But for eco-True Believers, a process like this isn't even a potential solution but a threat, since it seems like it would take away the biggest opportunity they've yet seen to have a serious impact on "wasteful lifestyles", "the consumer society", etc. -- why, SUVs might proliferate like rabbits! So there's the test: if you think there's a rational basis to be concerned about carbon emissions -- and I do, for example -- then a process such as this and/or other extraction possibilities both known or yet to be developed should give you serious hope. If, on the other hand, your real concern is this quasi-religious moralizing about waste, and the concomitant desire to impose a personal ethos on everyone (everyone else, as a rule, as we can see from Al Gore's mansion), then you'll want to give serious effort to finding ways to debunk and otherwise undermine such a hope.

Friday, July 30, 2010

"Climate change" 2 - fad and dogma

Before The Wisdom of Crowds, of course, there was Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Delusions of which the recent, but now hopefully fading, AGW excitement is but one example. The point here, as the previous post tried to make clear, isn't that AGW isn't happening -- it probably is. The point is simply that the certainties of costs and the uncertainties of benefits from proposed carbon emission reduction schemes make the drive to implement them inexplicable on a rational basis.

If, on the other hand, this drive has more the character of a cultural fad, driven by irrational forces, , then it becomes more understandable, and the clues that this is the case with the AGW issue are everywhere. Note, for example, how its adherents tend to elevate it above the level of scientific theory to that of dogmatic doctrine, to the point where some have suggested criminalizing "heretics" who question it. Note too the way in which its adherents will  refuse to countenance the possibility of any benefits to warming at all, as though the present climate is in such a Goldilocks condition of perfection that any deviation will lead to apocalypse. Or the way in which they refuse even to think about any other means of dealing with the potential problems of climate change -- e.g., carbon capture, geo-engineering -- than through huge forced reductions in global carbon emissions, regardless of the economic costs and questionable viability of such an approach. Or the way in which, at the first hint of rational skepticism, they lapse into irrelevant, moralistic rants about wasteful lifestyles, consumer societies, capitalist depradation, limits to growth, industrial civilization, technology, plastic, war, and humankind as a cancer on the planet, etc., etc.

So it's impossible to avoid the observation that, once we get beyond the immediate level of some degree of climatic warming resulting to some degree from human activity, we're in the realm of a quasi-religious belief system, defended with the sort of righteous intensity that we see in True Believers of all sorts. It's perhaps not surprising, however ironic, that we see this kind of phenomenon turning up in an age of supposed unbelief, particularly among those who tend to pride themselves on their freedom from religious superstition. We all need some source of meaning and value, after all, and in the absence of the old Gods, "going Green", "saving the planet", etc. can serve as well as any other New Age substitute. What's pernicious here, though, is the attempt to use science as cover -- that is, to try to make science serve one's religious and political ends. In attempting this, the Greens at one end of the political spectrum, including the AGW believers, make the same mistake as the creationists at the other end.

UPDATE: See the next post in the series for a test of whether AGW concern is rational or quasi-religious at base.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Climate change" 1 - it's the uncertainty, stupid

In an earlier post, I'd expressed the hope that we were starting to see the winding down of "climate change", at least as a political hot button, and I see others are still of that opinion, in particular Shika Dalmia of Forbes ("The Death of the Global Warming Movement") and Paul Krugman of the NY Times (in a hilariously titled column, "Who Cooked the Planet?"). But then you get Tyler Cowan, of all people, endorsing a carbon tax because, oh, who knows, it might do something, and we need to tax something anyway, and.... Sigh.   

Having gotten into a couple of online debates in comments recently, though, (see this post, and this) it seemed to me worthwhile to summarize my general position here, and say why attempts at major policy decisions aimed at curbing carbon emissions are not a good idea -- not now, and probably not ever.

First, this has nothing to do with any skepticism regarding AGW -- though I should perhaps say it has almost  nothing to do with such skepticism, since a critical approach to any such claim is both rational and in the best traditions of science, and since any new evidence that AGW is not occurring would of course undermine attempts to mitigate it. But, on the whole, and despite the despicable behaviors of some climatologists revealed by Climategate, I think it's likely that AGW is a reality.

Second, this has nothing to do with how hard or complex it might be to get concerted global action to make the huge cuts in carbon emissions necessary to have any significant impact on AGW, given the above likelihood. It's not the difficulty, it's the uncertainty. When making policy decisions that are a) known to have serious immediate costs in themselves, but b) not known how successful or effective they might be, over an extended time period of 1 or 2 centuries, and c) not known how they might compare with even present policy alternatives not to mention others that might show up in the years before any significant effects of policy could be felt -- then "Just do something" is not a good motto. "First do no harm" is a better one.

The point here is that it's not just one source or level of uncertainty, but rather a concatenation of uncertainties, which when joined together reveal just how deeply irrational the "just do something" frenzy has been":
  • First, of course, there's the lingering uncertainty regarding the warming trend itself. As I've said, despite Climategate and the "hide the decline" embarrassments, it still seems this is likely. The only point here is that there are numerous instances in the history of science where something that seemed highly likely, even obvious, at one point, turned out to be wrong -- and it's important to stay open to the possibility that this too may be wrong.
  • Second, given the likelihood that there is a warming trend, there's also some remaining uncertainty around whether or not it's caused, or caused primarily, by human activity. Again, it looks as though this is also quite likely at this point, though there are certainly additional sources of uncertainty introduced here -- we're starting to see the problem when levels of uncertainty are stacked on top of one another.
Here's where the serious layers of guess-work begin:
  • Third, given the above two likelihoods, there is considerable uncertainty surrounding the costs of this warming -- or even whether, balancing gains against costs, including the costs of adaptation, the result of a warmer world would not be a net positive (fewer deaths from cold, vast new areas of arable land, etc.) One reason the whole issue so often looks like fabricated alarmism is just the fact that you almost never hear even the possibility of any gains from warming, as though somehow the world is only now at some magical Goldilocks level of perfect temperature.
  • Fourth, even if we knew the costs of warming, or even just knew that it would be a net negative -- i.e., that anything warmer must be worse -- there is a huge uncertainty around the costs and likelihood of success of any particular strategy of mitigation, costs and probabilities that would need to be added to the balance sheet before we could assess the cost/benefit of the strategy. This too has been largely ignored, as warmist believers have focused on only the most immediate, short-term objectives of carbon emission reduction, as in Kyoto. Those alone have significant economic impact, but everyone understands, even if they rarely speak it, that such objectives in themselves will have only a negligible impact on climate change a century or two from now -- the only thing that has the remotest chance of an impact would be massive emission reductions, even as most of the world is still trying to industrialize. Such reductions could only be realized by the most wrenching economic interventions, which would in turn have a serious impact on the chances of such policies ever being sustainable in the long time frames necessary.  And likelihood of success is particularly important here because if the strategy fails it simply adds -- perhaps greatly -- to the overall costs of the warming itself.
And the greatest source of uncertainty of all...
  • Fifth, even if we could convince ourselves that we've got some sort of even approximate handle on the overall cost-benefit of both the warming and the chosen mitigation strategy, the very time frames involved here introduce insuperable uncertainties. To see why, consider just a range of 40 years -- enough to take us just to mid-century going forward, or to 1970 looking backward. That's not long in this case, where the anthropogenic warming is typically considered over a range of from one to two centuries, but, looking back, it's enough to take us into another world so far as environmental issues are concerned. In 1970, if climate was considered at all, it was as a source of worry about an approaching Ice Age; there was going to be a "Great Die-Off" in the 1980's that would kill 4 billion people; metal and mineral resources, not to mention oil, would be used up by the year 2000; survivors would be wearing gas masks in cities; etc. Needless to say, things look different now. Not only that, but in 1970 there were no cell phones, no digital cameras, no Internet, no personal computers, and little hint that any of that might be coming and might change the world and our sense of what's possible -- just 40 years ago. If, just 40 years from now, we find our sense of the world and its possibilities changed to a similar degree, then global economic/climatic engineering projects now will almost certainly look as antiquated and silly as those apocalyptic predictions of 40 years ago. In particular, possibilities of carbon capture and sequestration that are even now being looked at seriously -- see, e.g., "Washing Carbon out of the Air", Scientific American, June/10 -- may make it possible to reduce atmospheric carbon to below industrial levels much more quickly, cheaply, efficiently, and effectively, than any such politically and diplomatically fragile global emission-reduction schemes. 
So, in the context of such a stack of uncertainties, the recent media and political push to "Just do something!" seems much more a kind of over-excited fad, or one of those "end times" apoclyptic hysterias that occasionally sweep through whole populations, like a cultural contagion, rather than anything based on the actual science of climate change itself. In the next post, I'll look at these more irrational influences. But in the meantime, I'll end this one by noting again, as I said at the start, that it seems as though more and more people are already shaking themselves awake from this fixation, and many are starting to feel that maybe they've been had. Or so we can only hope.

UPDATE: next post in this series.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Israel's image: paradigm or frame(-up)?

A friend sent me a link to a longish essay entitled "Israel Through European Eyes". Not surprisingly, the view through those eyes is apparently not good:
... whatever the ostensible subject, and regardless of whether Israel’s political leaders and soldiers and spokesmen do their work as they should, we know for certain that the consequence of [some] future incident, a few months from now, will be another campaign of vilification in the media and on the campuses and in the corridors of power—a smear campaign of a kind that no other nation on earth is subjected to on a regular basis.
His first question is, why:
My friends on the political left always seem to think that a change of Israeli policy could prevent these campaigns of vilification, or at least lessen their reach. My friends on the political right always seem to say that what we need is “better PR”.
No doubt, Israel could always stand to have better policies and better public relations. But my own view is that neither of these otherwise sensible reactions can help improve things, because neither really gets to the heart of what’s been happening to Israel’s legitimacy. Israel’s policies have fluctuated radically over the past 30 or 40 years, being sometimes better, sometimes worse. And the adroitness with which Israel presents its case in the media and through diplomatic channels has, likewise, been sometimes better, sometimes worse. Yet the international efforts to smear Israel, to corner Israel, to delegitimize Israel and drive it from the family of nations, have proceeded and advanced and grown ever more potent despite the many upturns and downturns in Israeli policy and Israeli PR.
His answer is to draw from Thomas Kuhn the concept of the "paradigm" as something that stands over and above particular evidence and/or reasons -- his explanation for Israel's bad image in Europe, then, is the apparent rise of a "post-national" paradigm that underlies the European Union:
Both in Europe and in North America, we are watching the growth of a generation of young people that, for the first time in 350 years, does not recognize the nation-state as the foundation of our freedoms. Indeed, there is a powerful new paradigm abroad, which sees us doing without such states. And it has unleashed a tidal wave of consequences, for those who embrace it and for those who do not.
It's an interesting point, but I'm skeptical:

  • First, I question how seriously the end of the nation state is taken by anyone, young or old, apart from a few elite "eurocrats" who obviously have a personal interest in the matter. 
  • Second, even if European loyalties were shifting to the EU itself, that only seems to be another order of nation state -- one encompassing diverse ethnicities, it's true, but one that has serious difficulties with certain ethnicities, as the Turkey issue makes clear.
  • Third, in any case, it doesn't seem to explain why Israel alone is singled out as the target to be smeared and, as the author himself says, driven out "from the family of nations", while the rest of that family is left alone.
  • And fourth, perhaps most importantly, I think this systematic rhetorical attack on Israel alone should not be dignified or elevated with a term like "paradigm", especially in a scientific context -- that term describes systems that are relatively impervious to evidence or reason, it's true, but what's going on here has a much uglier, nastier, and sneering feel to it than that. What's going on here looks more like the return of a very old kind of bigotry -- of the sort that Helen Thomas and Oliver Stone, for example, have  inadvertantly blurted out recently (and then both made quick but mealy-mouthed apologies for) -- and it doesn't take a "paradigm" to foster that sort of thing. "Mainstreaming hate" calls it what it is.

No, a better word than "paradigm" to describe what's happening with respect to Israel is "frame", in the sense of a deliberate use of a kind of rhetorical box to present an issue in a constrained way, so as to foster certain conclusions, and prevent others from even being seen. Thus, for example, you speak of Israel as an "apartheid state", or the Palestinians as "conquered people", or -- with breathtaking depravity -- of Israeli Jews as Nazis. The last may be too revolting to qualify even as a framing device, but the two previous are good examples of how this sort of thing can work to the advantage of the framer, setting the terms of the subsequent debate and putting even those who disagree with the frame on the defensive immediately.

Now, rhetorical frames are used all the time, and while it's important to be aware of them, you certainly can't expect to avoid them. But when you see examples as blatantly distorted and biased as even the first two examples above, you have good reason to suspect that you're dealing with mere dishonesty and bad faith -- something other than a frame, in other words: a frame-up.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ending racialism as a step toward ending racism

"Racialism" being, in the most neutral sense, "an emphasis on race or racial considerations", but in practice meaning the use of the abstract concept of "race" as a political tool, and as a source of both power and income. Racialism and racism are not the same, but they're symbiotic: racialism needs racism, or the specter of racism in order to survive, and in turn it feeds racism, consciously or unconsciously. One of the most lamentable aspects of the Obama presidency has been a sharp increase in the reliance on racialism as a kind of blunt instrument with which to attack political opponents, regardless of the ostensible issue, and we see the latest manifestation of this in the sleazy NAACP resolution calling on the Tea Party movement to repudiate "racist elements" in its ranks -- just like the old lawyer's trick of calling on a witness to repudiate beating his wife. The sorry Breitbart-Sherrod-Obama-admin kerfuffle that followed only demonstrated how this sort of tar sticks to everyone.

By contrast, here's a clip of Morgan Freeman being interviewed by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes a few years ago that's surfaced recently -- it's just under a minute, and it's devastating:

Thanks to Kate at Small Dead Animals

Monday, July 26, 2010

"This is the story of a procedural."

I can't find a political angle to this, but then politics isn't everything, right? Right? Anyway, here's a link to a post entitled "Sledgehammer and whore" (on a blog called "I find your lack of faith disturbing"). As Megan McArdle says, you need to read it. Comments are also good, mostly.

Thanks, of course, to Megan.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"Moral licencing" and the attractions of orthodoxy

An article in the Washington Post a few days ago goes a fair way toward explaining how "going Green" has become such a fad, particularly among what we might as well call the "liberal elite", or those who see themselves as such, or who would like to be seen as such, or who, at the very least, wouldn't like not to be seen as such: "Why going green won't make you better or save you money".
We drink Diet Coke -- with Quarter Pounders and fries at McDonald's. We go to the gym -- and ride the elevator to the second floor. We install tankless water heaters -- then take longer showers. We drive SUVs to see Al Gore's speeches on global warming.
These behavioral riddles beg explanation, and social psychologists are offering one in new studies. The academic name for such quizzical behavior is moral licensing. It seems that we have a good/bad balance sheet in our heads that we're probably not even aware of. For many people, doing good makes it easier -- and often more likely -- to do bad. It works in reverse, too: Do bad, then do good.
It's not mere illogic nor garden-variety hypocrisy at work here, in other words -- there are deeper moral problems:
University of Toronto behavioral marketing professor Nina Mazar showed in a recent study that people who bought green products were more likely to cheat and steal than those who bought conventional products. One of Mazar's experiments invited participants to shop either at online stores that carry mainly green products or mainly conventional products. Then they played a game that allowed them to cheat to make more money. The shoppers from the green store were more dishonest than those at the conventional store, which brought them higher earnings in the game.
"People do not make decisions in a vacuum; their decisions are embedded in a history of behaviors," Mazar wrote, with co-author Chen-Bo Zhong. "Purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviors."
Thus, "going Green" performs much the same moral/psychological function that buying an indulgence had for many in the Middle Ages. And though the author doesn't get into more complex or nastier examples of the same phenomenon, it's easily observed in other areas as well. For example, as long as I'm a liberal -- and liberals are, by the accepted definition within liberal circles, Good -- I can't be an anti-Semitic bigot, despite a distaste for Jews that I express by joining in the routine, if over-the-top, denunciations of the Jewish homeland. In fact, being an overt liberal can give me licence to indulge in a wide variety of quite acceptable stereotypes, bigotries, and hatreds -- e.g., against Christians, country-music fans, or Sarah Palin. And even to slip into the occasional expression of unacceptable prejudices -- e.g., regarding blacks, women, or gays, say -- as long as it's just between us libs, or it's used incidentally to heap abuse on the acceptable targets.

Now, first of all, this goes beyond the more trivial examples of moral inconsistency that the author of the Post article sticks with -- understandably, since he doesn't want to make his readers too uncomfortable. We're talking now about people with political opinions, after all, as opposed to, e.g., dietary ones. But, second of all, though this kind of licencing works for anyone with a powerful sense of their own righteousness, it also works in the opposite direction, as the article suggests -- that is, it provides a powerful source of rectitude, in the absence of traditionally religious sources, for those who are anxious or uncertain as to their own moral status. So, third of all, then, political opinions of this sort are going to be quite immune to any sort of rational correction, and so will always have a special attraction to those inclined, for reasons of safety and ease,  toward orthodoxy, i.e., the bien pensant -- because you don't have to think about them. There's no point! Just sign on to the general doctrine, display the right opinions in public, and you're good to go -- to cocktail parties, book signings, gallery openings, etc. (Might need a little caution at NASCAR races, is all. But then you wouldn't be caught there anyway, would you?)

Friday, July 23, 2010

"The Gift", again: social and market "norms"

This starts with a very intriguing little post in MIT's Technology Review blog, "Social vs. Market Norms at Reddit". The key is a comment from a user who responded well to a pledge drive from the site, but not so well to a proposal to begin charging an explicit amount for access to certain site features: "I gladly donated to reddit but I won't pay for it". The explanation for this at first sight odd behavior is that a market exchange, i.e., a price, is different from a social interaction -- or, as the post title puts it, "market norms" differ from "social norms". Behavioral economist Dan Ariely illustrates the difference in another context, with...
... the example of an Israeli day care center that started charging parents who picked up their kids late in an attempt to drive down tardiness. In fact, the problem became worse. Parent's adopted a marketplace mindset that saw them reason--at some level or other--that the price was worth paying. Before the fee structure, when there was only the social price to pay--guilt--, they felt beholden to the community.
This brings up a few points. First, note that market transactions as such constitute only one of the many kinds of human interaction possible, and even only one of the many possible economic interactions -- i.e., those involving an exchange of goods and services. The alternative to the market, therefore, isn't necessarily the state, as assumed so often by the liberal-left, and other forms of voluntary interaction are not only entirely in keeping with a classically liberal (very small-l libertarian) perspective, but may be preferred, as the cases above illustrate.

But, second, note that market interactions have some distinct advantages over other forms of exchange, primarily in the way in which they simplify cost/benefit calculations, and thus can be more easily extended over a wider range of social contexts. The situations above may appear to be counter-examples of this, but I think in fact they illustrate the general principle even if it's misapplied in their particular cases -- in general, donation and obligation are both, by comparison, vague, difficult to predict, and prone to the stress of free-riding, for both sides of the exchange.

Here is where Mauss' anthropological study of "the gift" is instructive. His short, famous book makes it quite clear that the exchange of "gifts" in what he calls "archaic societies" is not the simple altruistic gesture we often take it for, but is rather a complex process, fraught with interpersonal significance and tension, and forming the basis for social hierarchy and political power. Market exchange, by contrast, is a much more delimited and transparent interaction. But its comparative surface simplicity is complemented by a much deeper social/political sophistication, that provides the necessary legal and cultural framework to support an extensive, even global network of trust underlying such exchanges. Simpler or more primitive cultures have usually relied on a combination of looting and sharing, supplemented by "gifting" -- the appearance of market trade provided the foundation for that rich process of development that Matt Ridley celebrates in this talk.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Reporters as opinion-guides, before and after

Again from that Cabal of Unreconstructed Commies (CUC) Club of Latter-day Anti-capitalists (CLA) that goes under the name of Crooked Timber, comes some schadenfreudish delight, this time to do with the latest embarrassments emerging from that bottomless pit of "heh", the Journolist archives. Before the latest revelations by the reporters at Daily Caller, here's what John Holbo had to say about reporters as opinion-guides:
Lots of people have made the correct point that it’s silly to think reporters ... should have no opinions. But beyond that, it’s silly to think reporters should not have opinions about the dynamics of opinion-formation – opinions about how prominent crazy people and spin doctors in the public sphere affect public discourse. And it’s silly to think reporters do not have a positive duty to act on these opinions, changing up their stance to counteract the influence of perceived craziness, the better to help their readers form sensible opinions.
 After those exposures, here's what one of the exposed, Henry, had to say:
If you believe that there is a Vast Left Wing Conspiracy ranged against conservatism, it must be very exciting to finally get your hands on the Top Sekrit archives of the shadowy network that you think Controls It All.
 What's with all the upper-case and misspelling, do you think? You don't suppose he's at all chagrined, do you? Maybe a little upset, even? But, I mean, wouldn't you think he'd agree with Holbo that the reporters at Daily Caller had "a positive duty to act" on their opinions, especially about the "dynamics of opinion formation"?  Especially about "how prominent crazy people and spin doctors in the public sphere affect public discourse"? And now that they've helped Henry to form "sensible opinions", wouldn't you think gratitude would be more appropriate than snark?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mars IS the answer!

Now, okay, maybe the sing-song sounds a little funny at first, and the refrain gets a bit repetitive toward the end, but I still think this is inspiring:

(Notice the blue sunset at the 22 second mark? We're not in Kansas.)

A quick point: eco-people have been predicting dire events -- global catastrophe, apocalypse, etc. -- since at least Malthus (an early Greenie?), and have been proven wrong time after time after time. Hasn't stopped them from continuing to generate their "scary scenarios", and of course there's always a market for that sort of "End is Nigh!" sandwich-board advertising anyway. But it has at least helped many people see their proselytizing for what it is.

They do, though, have one ultimate point that rests on logic, not events: you cannot grow indefinitely given a finite resource. Mars -- and space generally -- is the logical answer to that logical point.

(The emphasis in the post's title, by the way, is just a result of a bumper sticker I remember seeing a while back, that had some allusion to the "limits to growth" and the line "Mars is not the answer". )

Tip to Speculist

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Nudging" and sneaky authoritarianism

This probably got started withWill Wilkerson again, and a post called "A nudge is just a nudge" -- he links to and quotes from an Eric Voeten post that essentially just points out that old-fashioned price signals work better than new-fashioned "nudges" of so-called "libertarian paternalism". That last little oxymoron seems to be the brain-child of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, as can be found in their book, Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness, as well as in their blog, The Nudge Blog. The idea, as I understand it, and as the subtitle sort of gives away, is that people can be helped or "nudged" toward making better decisions by various sorts of design and structural strategies and tactics, as opposed to simple legislative compulsion -- the "libertarian" aspect being the "nudging" as opposed to compulsion, the "paternalism" part being the "improved" decisions thereby encouraged.

Now, as is so often the case with these kinds of contentious theses, there's no doubt a weak version, which is more or less unexceptionable but banal, and a strong version, which is interesting but more or less dubious. The weak version in this case would simply say that these sorts of "nudges" are what designers of systems and objects deal with all the time -- they're directly related to the designed purpose and function of the system or object itself, and as such have always been a big part of what constitutes good design. The strong version, however, relates to much larger and more ambitious objectives for "improving" people's decisions in areas that may be far removed from the particular object or system used to provide the nudge. In this version, it seems clear, we're talking much more about manipulation of decisions than we are about good design.

Kenneth Anderson's post on "Leviathan" at Volokh is again pertinent to this version of a kind of sneaky authoritarianism:
... the liberal authoritarianism that started to take hold in the first days of the Clinton administration, but then went into retreat, and has now reasserted itself with nudginess — the return of the repressed — is not Hobbesian in another, utterly fundamental way. Today’s progressive authoritarianism is not about an institutional settlement to the war of all against all, every man for himself and God against all, but instead an assertion of therapeutic authoritarianism. It will not just provide you with security against your neighbor — it is for your own interior, psychological well being, to help you be simultaneously a better person and a therapeutically more happy one. Contemporary liberal authoritarian impulses unite the prosecutor and the therapist, so as to produce a prosecutor who is as much a member of the “helping professions” as the psychologist (or, more exactly, the behavioral economist nudging us along), on the one hand, and a therapist who is armed as much as the prosecutor with the powers to compel, on the other. It is not Hobbesian, but something frankly far more ambitious.
So ambitious, in fact, that it feels the need to disguise itself. But the disguise doesn't let it escape from the problems inherent in any form of authoritarianism, the first being the simple one that in a society of free adults no one or no group of self-styled elites has the moral/political right to tell the rest what's good for them, whether that "telling" is done via overt command-and-control modes, or more indirect taxation and price manipulation means, or via the behavioral economic "nudge". The second problem, related to the first but independent of it, is the Hayekian "knowledge problem" -- aside from moral right, no one has the information needed to make life decisions for others, and this lack includes any group of "scientific" technocrats who are embedded in their own lives, and their own values, beliefs, and biases. Merely tacking "libertarian" onto "paternalism" won't get around these old and familiar faults.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Living in the midst of history

Two views of this circulating lately on the right -- Charles Krauthammer's sobering if not pessimistic one:
Act One is over. The stimulus, Obamacare, and financial reform have exhausted his first-term mandate. It will bear no more heavy lifting. And the Democrats will pay the price for ideological overreaching by losing one or both houses, whether de facto or de jure. The rest of the first term will be spent consolidating these gains (writing the regulations, for example) and preparing for Act Two.
The next burst of ideological energy — massive regulation of the energy economy, federalizing higher education, and “comprehensive” immigration reform (i.e., amnesty) — will require a second mandate, meaning reelection in 2012.
That’s why there’s so much tension between Obama and the congressional Democrats. For Obama, 2010 matters little. If the Democrats lose control of one or both houses, Obama will likely have an easier time in 2012, just as Bill Clinton used Newt Gingrich and the Republicans as his foil for his 1996 reelection campaign.
Obama is down, but it’s very early in the play. Like Reagan, he came here to do things. And he’s done much in his first 500 days. What he has left to do, he knows, must await his next 500 days — those that come after reelection.
So 2012 is the real prize. Obama sees far, farther than even his own partisans. Republicans underestimate him at their peril.
Versus Jonah Goldberg's optimistic one:
I'm beginning to wonder if the political moment is much, much, more significant than most of us realize. The rules may have changed in ways no one would have predicted two years ago. And perhaps 10 years from now we'll look back on this moment and it will all seem so obvious. ...
For nearly a century now, the rules have said that tough economic times make big government more popular. For more than 40 years it has been a rule that environmental disasters -- and scares over alleged ones -- help environmentalists push tighter regulations. According to the rules, Americans never want to let go of an entitlement once they have it. According to the rules, populism is a force for getting the government to do more, not less. According to the rules, Americans don't care about the deficit during a recession.
And yet none of these rules seem to be applying; at least not too strongly. Big government seems more unpopular today than ever. The Gulf oil spill should be a Gaiasend for environmentalists, and yet three quarters of the American people oppose Obama's drilling ban. Sixty percent of likely voters want their newly minted right to health care repealed. Unlike Europe, where protestors take to the streets to save their cushy perks and protect a large welfare state, the Tea Party protestors have been taking to the streets to trim back government.
But even on the continent the rules are changing. European governments have turned into deficit hawks to the point where the American president feels the need to lecture them on their stinginess. ...
As a conservative, I'm very reluctant to believe that the rules change easily or often. And there's no end of explanations for the political climate that would leave the rules intact. But it's just becoming harder and harder to shake the feeling that something bigger than politics as usual is at work.
 Which one's right? That's the trouble -- when you look back, even just 10 years, a lot does seem obvious. But history is happening and being made now, and we never have a perspective on now. As Goldberg implies, it probably didn't feel like Rome was falling when it was. Or did anyone say, sometime in the 15th or 16th century, thank God we're done with the Middle Ages? (Are we?)

Well, as Woody said: "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

  But change does happen, at all scales.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Light vs. dark: the future then and now

To brighten things up a little, here's another TED talk, this one by Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist:

Two points in particular that I want to emphasize here:

  • First, notice the opening few minutes especially, in which he mocks and demolishes various versions of apocalypse that were popular 30 or 40 years ago -- and then, with a single chart and a few simple facts, demonstrates quite vividly why modern global society, and the historical moment we're still occupying, is unlike anything ever seen. (To indulge in self-reference again, see "The Theme".)
  • And second, note how the notion of trade or exchange is at once simple, concrete, and powerful -- and also how it demystifies the more abstract notion of "the Market", which tends to be reified on both right and left as some kind of entity or force in its own right, whether for good or bad.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

More on those liberal chickens coming home

A few posts back I linked to and quoted from a column by Neil Reynolds entitled "The disintegration of the welfare state", in which he talked about the modern welfare state as being the product of a kind of democratic bribe of the entire population, creating a momentum that can't be maintained, and therefore threatens to undermine itself. "It’s apparently easier to give wealth away than it is to take it back," he wrote. "Democracy assembled the welfare state peaceably enough. Can democracy dismantle it as peaceably? No, it can’t. The mobs are not finished."

Along a very similar theme of chickens coming home to roost is a post on Volokh by Kenneth Anderson. It's actually just a part of a post, the bulk of which consists of reflections on Hobbes' Leviathan, but this part has to do with signs of loss of confidence among liberals and "progressives" in democratic processes -- as in, e.g., complaints about the country being "ungovernable" -- which he says in turn arises from forces that such political actors have themselves set in motion:
[T]he problem that progressives today have with democratic process ... arises ... from a sense that social and political processes have lost their ability to cohere and make policy — too many people in a democratic system that has been de-natured into mere interest group politics with no greater sense of common cohesion have been granted a veto.
The irony, to be sure, is that this loss of governing coherence is in large part a creation of progressivism itself — the effects of multiculturalism, particularly, in reducing the extra-rational, extra-interest sense of communal ideals, a demos creating a polis, rather than hoping that pure Hobbesian rationality will create a polis of rationality, without any shared sense of community, alone. The progressive political factions that, in power, bemoan their inability to govern — and leaving aside that perhaps a large part of the inability to govern lies in having handed so much of the task over to professors and academics; I at least have a clear sense of what I would lack as an executive — in large part created these conditions. They did so by de-mythologizing, which is to say de-legitimating, the communal political community, the part that allowed the interest groups to flourish by serving as an extra-rational, extra-interest guarantor of the political community.
In this world, we are all just interest groups now, thanks; that is the sum total of democracy. But also by mythologizing communal, identity politics constituencies within the political community and moreover in its place. Progressive elites then profess surprise when, at least on the progressive end of the spectrum, the notion of political community has no meaning because it has no boundaries to define it. There are still spoils to be divided, but no political community actually to govern. This creates a problem, however, for the many things for which the current rulers actually do want to govern a political community and set the terms for the demos, having, so to speak, sawn off the branch on which it was sitting.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Equality and its discontents

Recently there's been a flurry of postings on a book that caused no little excitement a short while ago, called The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Not having read it myself, I can only refer to reports and reviews, but it appears to have a fairly simple thesis, contained in the subtitle of one of its editions: "Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger". That alone, naturally, would be enough to send hordes of commentators, pundits, and of course the liberal-left as a whole into raptures of delight, and it looks as though the early reviews mostly reflected that. Lately, however, reviews and comments have been a lot more critical, skeptical, and even, in some cases, scathing.

Will Wilkinson links to a milder example of this in a review by Claude S. Fisher in the July/August Boston Review. First, here's how Fisher summarizes their argument regarding the bad effects of inequality:
Inequality, they explain, makes people focus on status and their relative positions on the prestige ladder. Such obsessions, in turn, create anxiety, distrust, and social isolation, which raise people’s level of physiological stress. Finally, stress, as we all now know, exacts high costs. It weakens the immune system, for example, and drives people to poor coping behavior such as overeating and lashing out at others.
This is apparently supported by lots of graphs and stats comparing countries, regardless of cultural or historical context, and, for the US, comparing states. But here's how Fisher gently mocks what looks like an inherent absurdity of this sort of envy-thy-neighbor explanation of social ills:
Instead [of the massive health-care bill], the president would make us all happier, healthier, and longer-lived, their logic suggests, if he could get the richest, say, 5 percent of Americans to leave the country.
Or, as he says later, we could just censor the media -- in a good cause! -- to prevent the conspicuous displays of  wealth that apparently generate all these harmful feelings.

Natalie Evans, of the Guardian, also has a column on the issue, that links to a lengthy report put out by Peter Saunders, called "Beware False Prophets" (PDF), with a much more detailed critique, including lots of graphs and stats as well. Its last section is entitled "Propaganda masquerading as science" (a familiar-enough theme these days in so-called social science generally). (To be fair, here's the authors' rebuttal to Saunders, and here's a rebuttal of the rebuttal. The last is interesting as coming from a "Kurdish-Swedish" perspective, on the Super-Economy blog of Tino Sanandaji.)

And then Ed West, in the Telegraph, piles on, linking to a whole book devoted to shredding the The Spirit Level -- Christopher Snowdon's The Spirit Level Delusion, subtitled "Fact Checking the Left's New Theory of Everything". For a demonstration of how easy it is to reverse correlations by just picking a different, in fact more complete, selection of populations and variables, see the "Graphs and sources" post on his supporting blog.

So. It certainly looks as though The Spirit Level is just another sad entry in the list of political abuses of science. Never mind the correlation/causation distinction, it doesn't even seem to get very far establishing correlation without cherry-picking data, and of course ignoring culture and history, not to mention an enormous number of other factors like race, ethnic make-up, income, institutions, social mobility, etc., etc.

But, before throwing it away altogether, it's worth asking: what if, despite everything, it were true? Would it make the case that the state should intervene in order to establish more equality? (Note that its case is that more equality is always better.) What of other, more important values, aside from the ones being measured -- values like aspiration, enterprise, justice, or freedom? Since we're dealing in hypotheticals now anyway, suppose that a similar study had been made regarding freedom itself, and found that societies with less freedom had better "social outcomes" on a variety of measures than those with more. Would it follow that the state should decrease freedom in order to make us happier?  Would we, should we, in such a case aim for a kind of totalitarianism, say, on the grounds that slaves generally live longer? I don't think so myself, and I can only hope that others would agree.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Democracy, the welfare state, and chickens coming home ...

... to roost. There's also the "reaping the whirlwind" thing, "you made your bed", etc. etc. -- all inspired by a column by Neil Reynolds in The Globe and Mail, "The disintegration of the welfare state":
Mobs have already taken to the venerable, iconic streets of European states, notably among them Greece, birthplace of Athenian democracy. It’s apparently easier to give wealth away than it is to take it back. Democracy assembled the welfare state peaceably enough. Can democracy dismantle it as peaceably? No, it can’t. The mobs are not finished....
Democracies have made people more dependent on the state than any humanitarian necessity required. For Italy, and for other democracies, the worst is surely yet to come. Already, hundreds of thousands of middle-class people have thronged the streets of Paris and Rome, of Milan and Sarajevo, of Reykjavik and Bucharest (where demonstrators stormed the presidential palace, an insurgent act that evokes the spectre of revolution). The World Socialists’ website proclaims an age of rage ahead – and chillingly quotes British historian Simon Schama: “You can smell the sulphur in the air.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Liberals as pragmatists? Or unaware/unadmitted ideologues?

(Modified from a comment on Volokh:)

Ezra Klein has a brief post on "Government size as philosophy", which seems to argue that government size is only a philosophical concern for (some) conservatives, not for liberals, or at least not for liberals like him:
... like a lot of people, I actually don't have an abstract preference for either bigger government or smaller government. If we made the Defense Department a lot smaller, or reformed the health-care system so that we were getting a deal more akin to European countries, or got the federal government out of farm subsidies, that would be fine with me, even as the government would shrink. A lot of conservatives believe, I think, that their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s philosophical preference for big government. But that’s not true: Their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s practical preference for larger government in certain areas where it seems to make sense.
I think he’s right that liberals, at least (as opposed, say, to whatever socialists are calling themselves these days — “progressives”? “anti-capitalists”?) don't generally think in terms of enlarging the government for its own sake -- whereas conservatives, of the more libertarian variety, often do  think in terms of finding ways to shrink it. But is this really because liberals are more "practical" than conservatives, or is it simply because they're either not willing or not able to think deeply enough about their preferences and the consequences thereof? I think the answer is contained in the last clause of the quote above: their preference for larger government "where it seems to make sense". This sort of political impressionism gives away the game -- larger government pretty much always "seems to make sense" for liberals, except mainly for the one department of government thay can be counted on, for ideological reasons, to want to shrink, namely the Defense Department. (Klein mentions health-care and farm subsidies as two other candidates for liberal shrinkage too, but, given that the latter is a common political football for both parties and the former has been the focus of the most massive liberal-fostered government program launched in generations, these look like just head fakes.) So, despite the fact that liberals no doubt like to think of themselves as merely practical, it looks as though their pragmatism is routinely biased, whether they're aware of it or not. And I suspect that Klein at least is aware of it -- which may make his concern to disavow so clear a bias a kind of good news. It's perhaps an indication that, despite the Obama victory and the Democratic control of Congress, he knows Big Government is still a losing proposition for American voters.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Labels: conservatives, libertarians, and liberals

Reason magazine is featuring a three-part debate between Brink Lindsey, Jonah Goldberg, and Matte Kibbe on the proper political strategy for "libertarians". Now, I'm okay with the label "libertarian" for want of a better one. I'm also an atheist, pro-drug liberalization, pro-choice on abortion and many other things, pro-Darwin and evolution, anti-capital punishment, etc., etc. I even drink lattes. You'd think I'd be a prime candidate for Brink Lindsey's dump-the-conservatives-move-to-the-center appeal to libertarians, wouldn't you? But I'm not. Here's why: 

First, because the sneering tone of the attack on the popularity of the Tea Party movement is, to put it at its mildest, a nasty expression of the worst sort of pseudo-elitist snobbery current these days. It's pseudo-elitist because it exudes a sweaty yearning to be included in what the author so obviously thinks is a liberal bien pensant Club where you can stand around at gallery openings looking down at imaginary hordes of racist, bible-thumping soccer moms. And it's pseudo-elitist because its explicit notion of an elite -- ironically, its division of society into a nice, clean us vs. an unwashed them -- is not just blatantly self-congratulatory, it's antiquated (see research on education levels). The irony here runs deeper than the inability to see that the simplistic division into good guys and bad guys that he criticizes in the conservative right has more pertinence to his own rhetoric than to his targets'. It also applies to the attempt at intellectual substance that he borrows from Julian Sanchez, in invoking terms like "ressentiment" and "epistemic closure" to describe an actually quite vibrant, varied, and positive conservative movement -- this just misfires when aimed at the contemporary American right wing, but is not inaccurate as a description of an increasingly frustrated, angry, and confused American left.

Second, then, is because, despite my latte-sipping ways, and like steadily increasing numbers of people quite content to be non-elites, I'm finding that my reaction to precisely those features of the contemporary left -- of closed-mindedness and resentment as a character trait -- makes me want to give traditionally conservative themes another look. I'm an atheist, as I've said, but I've long since grown out of that adolescent need to display my superior rationality by disparaging other people's belief systems, and in fact I recognize that we all have and need such systems, whether they're traditionally religious or not. I think the notion of character, for example, is important. I don't look upon "family" or even "family values" as code, or merely as code, but rather as the names for something else of importance. Even, dare I say it, patriotism seems to me to be a good and indispensable thing in a world in which the nation is the only means by which a person's rights, freedoms, and most general values can be sustained. It's become customary, of course, for the left to sneer at all such virtues and themes in one context but then, when criticized, hurry to claim them back again, and take offense at the critics. It's what I mean by the frustration, anger, and confusion of the contemporary left, and it seems to me that Lindsey, in his demonization of the Tea Party right, either shares in that or is at least insufficiently aware of it.

So the third reason I'm not impressed with his recommendation that libertarians occupy a political "center" is because I think he's confused about the nature and possibilities of political space. Whatever we might think about the true dimensionality of that space, practical politics forces you into the linear range of alternatives that we've come to call left and right. Now, Lindsay, in his centrist recommendation, obviously doesn't dispute that. But he seems to think you can occupy the center just by somehow mixing together opposites like statist and anti-statist, Big Government and small government. You can't, of course, and the attempt just makes you look not just unserious, but silly, in a way that confirms all the geekish air-head stereotypes of the libertarian. Little wonder not just that "liberaltarian" went nowhere, but that parties named "Libertarian" everywhere tend to be relegated to the perpetual fringe of the political heap. No, if you take politics at all seriously, you often have to choose, who to ally with and, unfortunately, who to ally against. Here and now, the simple fact is that Big Government is a central element in the liberal-left agenda, as it's just not in the conservative-right. There are elements in either camp that anyone will find distasteful, to put it mildly (not the same elements for all, of course), but that's only the more reason why smaller government should be preferable to larger -- so that those elements have less ability to inflict their values on us all through state power.

Lindsey thinks, as he says, that libertarians are "tainted" by their association with conservatives -- I think, on the contrary, that the people who favor smaller government, regardless of the label they choose to pin on themselves, form a natural political alliance against those who wish, from a smorgasbord of agendas, to advance the intrusive power of the state. Such an alliance is good, not tainted -- and more than that, it actually carries with it some real hope.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Ilya Somin not only linked to this debate, but added an extensive and valuable comment of his own. Here's my comment on his, from the Volokh Conspiracy:
I largely agree with Ilya’s post on this, but also think a) it goes far too easy on the sneering Brink Lindsey (I like the comment from Serious above), and b) it relies too much on labels or pigeon-holes for very complex sets of political and personal values, beliefs, objectives, etc. — far easier to make needed alliances if we don’t worry so much about the label we paste on our foreheads.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Development: systems as distinct from aid

From Cafe Hayek comes a link to an interesting post on an even more interesting blog, called Aid Watch, with the tag line, "Just asking that aid benefit the poor". The post makes a distinction between "direct solutions to problems" and "problem-solving systems", and goes on to say why that's important:
Here’s why direct solutions to problems cannot foster development. Each direct solution depends on lots of other complementary factors, so the solutions can seldom be generalized across different settings; Solutions must fit each local context....
Development happens thanks to problem-solving systems. To vastly oversimplify for illustrative purposes, the market is a decentralized (private) problem solving system with rich feedback and accountability. Democracy, civil liberties, free speech, protection of rights of dissidents and activists is a decentralized (public) problem solving system with (imperfect) feedback and accountability. Individual liberty in general fosters systems that allow many different individuals to use their particular local knowledge and expertise to attempt many different independent trials at solutions. When you have a large number of independent trials, the probability of solutions goes way up.
Easterley, the author, provides a kind of qualification of his post near its end:
Direct solutions to problems (say, using aid programs) still may be worthwhile as benefiting a lot of people. But a long list of many such solutions is not development; development is the gradual emergence of a problem-solving system.
But that first sentence needs at least some elaboration or it undercuts his thesis -- e.g., direct solutions may be worthwhile only in the case where they don't depend of lots of other complementary factors.

Using aid, however, in an indirect manner, in order to foster problem-solving systems seems a much more promising strategy than we've generally been following to this point. Does that just get us back into a version of the "nation building" quagmire? Or could it mean that "nation building", when looked at in other than military terms, isn't so hopeless after all? Were/are the neocons right regarding long-term foreign policy objectives?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What's the alternative to "nation building"?

Pretty much everyone, left and right, agrees that so-called "nation building" is a foolish and impossible aim of any armed conflict, with the possible exception of a global convulsion like the Second World War. There's no need to list any such critics on the left -- they're against armed conflict anyway, unless it be conflict directed against the West. But on the right, it's not just Ron Paul -- Bush himself campaigned against "nation building" in the 2000 election, after all, and in the past few months George Will and the National Post's George Jonas have urged a quick exit from Afghanistan on the grounds of the hopelessness of "nation building" in that forlorn land. Says Will:
Taliban forces can evaporate and then return, confident that U.S. forces will forever be too few to hold gains. Hence nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try: The Brookings Institution ranks Somalia as the only nation with a weaker state.
 And says Jonas:
Surely, it’s better to help people build friendly, democratic nations, than letting them congregate in hostile tyrannies and engage them in periodic warfare.
Yes. Sure. If it could be done, it would be better. But if it can’t be done, it isn’t. It’s worse.
These two pieces are especially well-reasoned and -stated -- they should be read in full. What makes them all the more substantial and sobering, particularly compared to the usual leftist anti-war rhetoric, is that they proceed from no general hostility toward the US and the West in the first place, and they're not simply trying to score partisan political points, as the left so often did during the Bush years (recent comments by RNC chair Michael Steele notwithstanding).

But it raises the question posed in the title -- if "nation building" doesn't work, what does? For Jonas, apparently, nothing does, in the sense of avoiding a humiliating defeat: "Not having quit while we were ahead, we’ll now have to quit while we’re behind. Not having gone while the going was good, we’ll now have to go when the going is bad." For Will, it's the old magic of counter-terrorism that worked so well pre 9/11: "America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters." There is, as Jonas himself points out, the empire-like (empire-lite?) alternative of long-term occupation and administration, but that seems no longer really feasible either politically or financially.

So these are depressing assessments, no doubt. But then what is to be done in the face of what still remains a global threat of asymmetric warfare waged by a dispersed but fanatically motivated enemy in the name of a theocratic totalitarian ideology, and in the face of the world's multitude of failed states, semi-feudal despotisms, and porous borders? I've always been quite convinced that, in this type of warfare, military moves alone won't suffice. But is it impossible to find more vigorous means of carrying the ideological and cultural war to the enemy?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Why did they hide the decline?

Much good clean fun has been had over one phrase in particular out of that sad email dump known as "Climategate" (someday we'll all get over Watergate, but not yet) -- "... Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline." But Taranto continues to derive some well-deserved amusement from the clumsy and tortuous efforts to explain away an obvious attempt to make data fit conclusions:
Climate Skeptics With Leaves 
Ho hum, a panel hired by Britain's University of East Anglia has cleared scientists at the University of East Anglia of wrongdoing in their global-warming "research," the New York Times reports. We especially got a kick out of this description of their work:
The issue involved an effort to reconstruct the climate history of the past several thousand years using indirect indicators like the size of tree rings and the growth rate of corals. The C.R.U. researchers, leaders in that type of work, were trying in 1999 to produce a long-term temperature chart that could be used in a United Nations publication.
But they were dogged by a problem: Since around 1960, for mysterious reasons, trees have stopped responding to temperature increases in the same way they apparently did in previous centuries. If plotted on a chart, tree rings from 1960 forward appear to show declining temperatures, something that scientists know from thermometer readings is not accurate.
Most scientific papers have dealt with this problem by ending their charts in 1960 or by grafting modern thermometer measurements onto the historical reconstructions.
It seems to us there are two possibilities here: (1) In 1960, the trees suddenly changed the way they respond to temperature increases, or (2) There is a methodological problem with the thermometer readings. It looks to us as though the people who claim to love trees are actually making them scapegoats to hide their own error or deception. What a stab in the bark.
They hid the decline, in other words, first and most obviously because it didn't fit the established narrative on climate change, but second because it threatened to expose the shoddiness of the data they were relying on to claim that the recent temperature rise was unprecedented.

The apologists for the "people who claim to love trees", of course, have twisted themselves into pretzels in their various efforts to "explain" the errors and deceptions, but, as we've seen, serious damage has been done and comments like the ones above in a report that sets out to repair it don't do much to help. This is the problem with trying to enlist science in the political wars -- the temporary advantage you gain comes at the cost of eroding the long-term credibility of the scientists themselves.

UPDATE: Now a British labour MP and member of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology wants new hearings on Climategate, because (as reported by Lawrence Solomon):
... the Russell report failed to answer fundamental questions. Among these, Stringer told The Register: “Why did they delete emails? The key question was what reason they had for doing this, but this was never addressed; not getting to the central motivation was a major failing both of our report and Muir Russell.”
Although the Select Committee had stressed to East Anglia the importance of having open and independent inquiries, the hearings failed to oblige. The Russell inquiry, the last straw for Stringer, was held behind closed doors and heard only one side of the story. It failed to interview any scientist critical of the Climategate scientists; it failed to call witnesses who were the subjects of the emails, it failed to publish all the depositions, and its panellists could hardly be viewed as independent. One panellist, Geoffrey Boulton, was a climate change advisor to the UK and the EU; another, Richard Horton, had deemed global warming “the biggest threat to our future health.”

Friday, July 9, 2010

TED talks - life, the universe, and everything

I love these things -- they're short, crisp, visual, always stimulating, occasionally stunning.

For example, here's a quick tour of the cosmos as it's known circa 2010:

Go back to the opening, and imagine what a cosmic tour might have looked like five centuries back, say, at the time of the "voyages of discovery"....

Or, for a little future shock, Oryx and Crake style, here's some research into living architecture:

Notice that at least they tittered nervously when he mentioned sphincters for doors.

And here's an oldie but goodie -- Hans Rosling's demolition of the myths of global development, using "the best stats you've ever seen" (or maybe never seen):

How is America "exceptional"?

The video below (thanks to Neo-neocon) is the stuff of nightmares for liberals and everybody to their left -- not just a prominent right-wing talk radio figure in full cry, but Sarah Palin, of all people, by his side, nodding in agreement. That last touch may be needlessly cruel, I'll admit, but I wanted to put the video here for three reasons: first, because it's such a good example of the sort of powerful political rhetoric that conservatives in the US are able to mount that even those who disagree with it should hear it; second, because it's exactly right about the contrast between two putative sources of  good in the world, the US and the UN, with the latter coming across, finally, as a very naked emperor; and third, because it makes an important mistake about so-called American exceptionalism, which I'll get to after the video (you won't have to view it to understand the mistake):

Prager brings up a somewhat questionable Obama quote about that notion of exceptionalism (quoted recently by Krauthammer too): "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." But, Prager says, the Greeks don't believe in Greek exceptionalism, and by implication neither do any other citizens regarding their own nations. Which I think is wrong, in a significant way. I'm sure many Greeks, at least, as well as Brits, etc., do indeed think that there's something exceptional, at least in the sense of distinctive, not just about their country but about their ethnicity. The point, however, about the idea of American exceptionalism is that it's not some simple, crass expression of patriotism, but rather a serious historical observation -- that America is a nation not founded upon ethnicity but rather upon a political vision, a vision that has famously been labelled "the last, best hope of earth".

Thursday, July 8, 2010

As the nation declines, so goes Obama

First, the independents are continuing to drain away -- now below 40% for the first time.

But what's worse is that the well-heeled are starting to feel that maybe this isn't fun anymore -- here they are gathered at the Aspen Ideas Festival, listening to the likes of Harvard historian Niall Ferguson say things like:
“The critical point is if your policy says you’re going run a trillion-dollar deficit for the rest of time, you’re riding for a fall…Then it really is goodbye.” A dashing Brit, Ferguson added: “Can I say that, having grown up in a declining empire, I do not recommend it. It’s just not a lot of fun actually—decline.”
And the final, terrible omen must be the interview with Barbra Streisand & consort who were listening to all this: '“Depressing, but fantastic,” Streisand told me afterward, rendering her verdict on the session. “So exciting. Wonderful!”'

I mean, you can lose the independents, you can lose the academics -- but once you've lost the airheads of the entertainment industry, really,  it's pretty much over, isn't it?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Hayek, Keynes and the Depression, then and now

First, a rap video -- the now famous one of course, that put what is still the fundamental political-economic debate of our times to rhyme :)

Then in that context, via a Johnathan Adler post on Volokh, a fascinating pair of Letters to the Editor of the Times, circa 1932, directly juxtaposing the two iconic economic figures (along with some famous names on backup too) debating in the early days of the Depression.

Speaking of which (the Depression), and that fateful year 1932, here's a Telegraph article from a few days ago: "With the US trapped in depression, this really is starting to feel like 1932".

Scary, no? Well, for Megan McArdle at least, Keynes -- in the sense of more spending -- is just a moot issue now anyway: "what if Lord Keynes was right . . . but only in 1932?".

And, in the context of all that, interest is rising in the fate of, of all places, Ireland, for its experiment with anti-Keynesian austerity:
We can only hope, as we wait to see history's outcome, that the suspense won't kill us.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The abuse of science

Ann Althouse has a post linking to a Saletan article in Slate, about a little political editing job performed by the current Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, on a document emanating from a medical association. It's creating a flurry, though I think it will likely blow over as far as Kagan herself is concerned. But it raises more general issues, as both Saletan and Althouse point out. Here's Saletan:
Judges have put too much faith in statements from scientific organizations. This credulity must stop.
Which Althouse generalizes:
We all need to be heighten our skepticism about the way politicians and lawyers use our embrace of the authority of science to scam us.
And I'll generalize again, with the whole global warming fad and eco-politics in mind particularly (taken from my comment to her post):
"We all need to be heighten our skepticism about ... our embrace of the authority of science", period. Scientists have become a kind of modern priesthood for too many, despite the fact that they too are human and are as susceptible to the temptations not just of money or career, but also of quasi-religious fads and cults.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Catastrophe losing its appeal?

So says Lawrence Solomon, looking over a number of recent developments re: that old favorite of the global doomsters, "climate change". Actually, in the wake of the recent G20 summit in Toronto, they'd be better described as non-developments:
The global-warming commitments of the G20 — which now carries more clout than the G8 — went from nebulous to non-existent: The G20’s draft promise going into the meetings of investing in green technologies faded into a mere commitment to “a green economy and to sustainable global growth.”
There were, though, some fairly dramatic political events that related quite directly to the whole AGW fad:
Kevin Rudd, Australia’s gung-ho global-warming prime minister, lost his job the day before he was set to fly to the G20 meetings; just months earlier Australia’s conservative opposition leader, also gung-go on global warming, lost his job in an anti-global-warming backbencher revolt. The U.K.’s gung-ho global-warming leader during last year’s G8 and G20 meetings, Gordon Brown, likewise lost his job.
Now, I don't mean to be too flippant about this -- AGW is pretty clearly a fad, but it's still likely to be a reality too. How much of a reality, though, what its real costs and benefits might be, what the economic costs of immediate mitigation through carbon reduction would amount to, and what future technologies might develop to allow us to manage things much more cheaply -- these are all such huge uncertainties that the current hubbub around carbon reduction seems explicable only as another example of the madness of crowds, and even of the strange attraction of apocalypse. Good, then, to see some political pushback, finally, as push really does come to shove.