Jonah Goldberg isn't happy about all the attention some of us pay to so-called experts:

The cult of experts has acolytes in all ideological camps, but its most institutionalized following is on the left. The left needs to believe in the authority of experts because without that authority, almost no economic intervention can be justified. If you concede that you have no idea whether your remedy will work, it's going to be hard to sell it to the patient. Market-based ideologies don't have that problem because markets expect events in ways experts never can.

No president since Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt has been more enamored with the cult of expertise than Obama. That none of his economic predictions have panned out is not surprising. What is surprising is that so many people are surprised.

What's remarkable about this column is that Goldberg isn't disparaging a particular kind of expertise or a particular kind of bias he finds endemic. His specific shots are limited to economists and climate scientists, but the column is basically a takedown of all expertise. (Which he conflates with prediction, but never mind.) In the conservative world Goldberg prefers, it's apparently much better to ignore the experts and just let events unfold.

Next week's column will undoubtedly be an attack on liberals for claiming that Republicans are anti-science — with no sense of irony at all. I can't wait.

Science and Human Life

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry on the great abortion question of our time:

The biological, moral and legal status of the unborn child isn't a question of metaphysics.

Whether life begins at conception isn't a matter of religious faith, it's a scientific question, and the answer isn't very hard. Of course, you can choose to disbelieve it, just like you can choose to not to believe that CO2 molecules redirect infrared variations.

Now, science isn't a moral guide. The fact that a fetus is a living human being doesn't necessarily entail that it should receive legal protection. But again, resolving this issue requires no recourse to metaphysics.

It requires asking what are the criteria for qualifying as a person endowed with rights.

I'm afraid there's some semantic hairsplitting going on here. Of course a fetus is life; so is a human egg, and so is a human sperm. That's never been at issue. But in the context of abortion, life is just shorthand for human life, and whether a blastocyst or a fetus qualifies as human is very much a religious and metaphysical question. It's certainly not a scientific one.

The list of criteria for being a person endowed with rights starts with being a human being. Those of us in the pro-choice camp don't believe that the mere presence of cellular machinery and a human genome makes one a human being. Those in the pro-life camp do — though I'd note that for many of them, their actions don't back up this professed belief.1 But whichever camp you're in, this isn't a question that science can answer. Pretending otherwise is little more than a tawdry rhetorical trick designed to give your arguments an authority they haven't earned.

1If you really, truly believe that a fertilized egg is a human life, your opposition to abortion will be absolute with the sole exception of abortion that's necessary to save a mother's life. You won't support exceptions for rape and incest any more than you'd allow the killing of a child who was the product of rape or incest. You'll also oppose fertility treatments, which routinely create and destroy more fertilized eggs than they use.

Some pro-lifers do indeed feel this way. But many don't. At a visceral level, these semi-opposers obviously have an aversion to abortion that stems from some source other than a belief that human life begins at conception.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, healthcare reform is getting steadily more popular among Republicans and steadily less popular among Democrats. Weird, huh? But as the chart below shows, the popularity of ACA peaked among Dems in January and then started declining, while it bottomed out among Republicans in March and then started rising. Using advanced mathematical techniques, I can forecast that ACA will be equally popular among both Democrats and Republicans in March 2012:

Just kidding, of course. But I think this goes to show what happens when something falls out of public view. Roughly speaking, I think that ACA has been replaced on the cable shoutfest circuit with other topics, which means it's becoming less of a tribal totem. So you no longer say you hate it just because you're a Republican and Fox News says you're supposed to hate it. You only say you hate it if you really do. Ditto in reverse for Democrats. It's becoming less of a culture war issue and more a simple question of whether it provides you any benefits that you care about. And on that score, it's always been better for conservatives than they think (they get their doughnut hole removed just like everyone else) and worse for liberals than they think (most of them won't really see much difference in their healthcare).

This immediate trend won't keep up (the 2012 campaign is likely to put ACA back on the partisan front burner), but this kind of convergence is still pretty likely over the long term. After all, is there much of a partisan split these days about whether you like Medicare or not?

From Rick Perry, doubling down on the mountain of crazy in his book, Fed Up!:

I haven’t backed off anything in my book. Read the book again, get it right. Next question.

Hoo boy. There's some stuff in that book that any sane presidential candidate would be deftly trying to "clarify" at every opportunity. I guess Perry is choosing another path. Should be fun.

Tyler Cowen points us today to a set of predictions from Michael Pettis that he thinks are "mostly correct." Most relate to China, which Pettis thinks is going to enounter some heavy economic weather in the near future, and I don't disagree. But he also has some things to say about Europe. Here's his forecast for Germany:

Germany will stubbornly (and foolishly) refuse to bear its share of the burden of the European adjustment, and the subsequent retaliation by the deficit countries will cause German growth to drop to zero or negative for many years.

....If Germany does not take radical steps to push its current account surplus into deficit, the brunt of the European adjustment will fall on the deficit countries with a sharp decrease in domestic demand....For one or two years the deficit countries will try to bear the full brunt of the adjustment while Germany scolds and cajoles from the side. Eventually they will be unable politically to accept the necessary high unemployment and they will intervene in trade – almost certainly by abandoning the euro and devaluing. In that case they automatically push the brunt of the adjustment onto the surplus countries, i.e. Germany, and German unemployment will rise. I don’t know how soon this will happen, but remember that in global demand contractions it is the surplus countries who always suffer the most. I don’t see why this time will be any different.

Pettis has been bearish on the euro for a long time, and he's even more bearish now. Here's a bit more detail on his prediction that the eurozone is going to crack up:

Spain will leave the euro and will be forced to restructure its debt within three or four years. So will Greece, Portugal, Ireland and possibly even Italy and Belgium.

...The only strategies by which Spain can regain competitiveness are either to deflate and force down wages, which will hurt workers and small businesses, or to leave the euro and devalue. Given the large share of vote workers have, the former strategy will not last long. But of course once Spain leaves the euro and devalues, its external debt will soar. Debt restructuring and forgiveness is almost inevitable.

I don't know if Pettis is right, but this sounds all too plausible to me. Leaving the euro seems impossible for a number of reasons, but the fiscal integration necessary to save the euro seems impossible too. That's also Wolfgang Münchau's take: "While I cannot see how Greece or Italy can remain in the eurozone indefinitely without a eurobond, I find it equally hard to see Germany, Finland and the Netherlands agreeing to it." So I guess it's a question of which one turns out to be more impossible. Or, perhaps, a question of which faction caves first.

If you held a gun to my head and forced me to guess, I actually think I'd guess that a eurobond and a massive bailout of the PIIGS is more likely than a breakup of the eurozone. At the same time, it's easy to be too complacent about the integration of Europe states over the past 65 years. They're not likely to go to war against each other anytime soon, but that doesn't mean that all the old animosities are gone. They're just lurking below the surface, and a prolonged crisis could create a climate of public opinion that simply doesn't allow for a sensible solution. When the eventual crisis comes, and it's not possible to shove it any further into the future, the euro may not survive

Benjamin Ginsberg writes in the Washington Monthly about one reason that the cost of attending university has skyrocketed over the past few decades:

Forty years ago, America’s colleges employed more professors than administrators. The efforts of 446,830 professors were supported by 268,952 administrators and staffers.

....In 2005, colleges and universities employed more than 675,000 fulltime faculty members or full-time equivalents. In the same year, America’s colleges and universities employed more than 190,000 individuals classified by the federal government as “executive, administrative and managerial employees.” Another 566,405 college and university employees were classified as “other professional.”

Faculty growth has been roughly in line with growth in enrollment, which Ginsberg pegs at 50% over the past four decades. By contrast, support staff of various kinds has increased by nearly 500,000, a growth rate of 182%.

There's more at the link, including Ginsberg's take on why this is a bad trend even aside from all the money it costs. Maybe we need fewer adjunct professors and more adjunct administrators?

Who You Gonna Believe?

Soon-to-be colleague Adam Serwer writes today about a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling about the reliability of eyewitness testimony. In a word, it sucks:

It may seem shocking just how unreliable your eyes can be. The ruling cites studies that showed eyewitnesses picking the wrong person out of a lineup as often as they picked the right one, along with another study showing that even when witnesses are told the person might not be in the lineup, they'll choose an innocent person about a third of the time. The reason is that our memories may seem vivid, they're often not as accurate as we think they are. While lineups are constructed of similar looking individuals precisely to force the witness to think strongly about what they remember, this may result in witnesses unconsciously conforming their memory to the available choices.

The most complex part of eyewitness misidentification, though, is the fact that people who wrongly identify someone are often really confident they've made the right choice — and that confidence is persuasive in court.

This evidence has been around for decades, and it's common knowledge throughout the legal profession. Everyone knows about it, including prosecutors, though they'll generally refuse to acknowledge it for obvious reasons. The fact is that even under ideal conditions most of us are lousy at IDing people, and under the conditions of most crime scenes we're a whole lot worse. There are several things that are known to make eyewitness identification less reliable, and all or most of them are usually in play when you're watching a crime unfold:

  • The action is often far away.
  • It's often dark and the light is bad.
  • There's lots of tension and your adrenaline is pumping.
  • Everything happens quickly.
  • The culprits often belong to a different ethnic group than the eyewitness, and we're all much worse at distinguishing between people of a different race.

There's more, but you get the idea. As Adam says, though, this makes little difference to the witnesses themselves. Just as everyone thinks they're a great driver, just about everyone thinks they're great at remembering faces, too, even if they did get only a brief look in dim light from 50 feet away.

This isn't a topic I've spent a ton of time on, but knowing the basics, and knowing just how widely appreciated this stuff is in the criminal justice profession, I've always been a little surprised that the Supreme Court hasn't weighed in with some new guidelines on the use of eyewitness identification. I'm not talking about the usual stuff, like insisting that police conduct lineups properly, but something deeper: guidelines about how eyewitness testimony can be used in court, how the circumstances have to be disclosed, what kind of instructions the jury should get, and so forth. This is about as fundamental a part of getting a fair trial as there is. Perhaps this New Jersey decision is the first step in making this happen.

President Obama plans to nominate Alan Krueger to be chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors today, taking over from Christina Romer, who held the position for the first two years of his presidency, and Austan Goolsbee, who held it until last month. Krueger is most famous for his research suggesting that it's possible to raise the minimum wage modestly without hurting employment levels, research that makes conservatives literally apoplectic if you mention it. Think I'm exaggerating? Krueger did the research with UC Berkeley's David Card, and Card shortly decided to abandon the subject because of the furious response it provoked. Here's his explanation for never wanting to do research on the minimum wage again:

It cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole.

Now, who knows? Maybe Card is just unusually thin-skinned. But I don't think so. This is the kind of thing that happens when you suggest that there's more to life than simple Econ 101 models. The right hasn't had time to respond to Krueger's appointment yet, and maybe they'll decide to give this a pass since (a) CEA chair isn't exactly a high profile appointment among their tea party base, and (b) they already had their shots at him back when he worked at Treasury. But I imagine we'll start hearing about it soon. Probably ferocious denunciations of Krueger as an ivory tower professor who denies the common sense operation of supply and demand, has no ground level experience in the business world (where he would have learned first-hand the crippling effects of raising the minimum wage), and is intent on, um — debasing the dollar. Yeah. Debasing the dollar.

Or something. Anyway, it should start soon. Should be fun in a B-list kind of way.

David Leonhardt on why the Fed is so hawkish on inflation even though the economy is sluggish and inflationary pressures seem remote:

Why does the Fed skew more hawkish than the economics profession as a whole? Part of the answer lies in the way the 12 voting members of the policy-setting committee are chosen. They are a mix of presidential nominees subject to Senate approval, with 14-year terms, and regional Fed presidents, who are chosen by outside boards that are made up partly of private-sector finance executives.

David Levey, a former managing director at Moody’s and another critic of Fed inaction, points out that banks often have more to lose from inflation than from unemployment. Inflation reduces the future value of the money that their debtors — homeowners, car buyers, small businesses and the like — will repay them.

“The Fed regional banks represent, in essence, the banking community, which tends to be very conservative and hawkish,” Mr. Levey says. “Creditors don’t like inflation — it’s good for debtors.” Indeed, the three recent dissents all came from regional bank presidents: Richard W. Fisher of Dallas, Narayana R. Kocherlakota of Minneapolis and Charles I. Plosser of Philadelphia.

This is obviously the traditional view, and certainly it was true at one time. But is it still true? Or maybe my real question is: should it still be true? Isn't most long-term debt either indexed to inflation in some way (usually via links to LIBOR or treasury spreads or something similar) or else hedged for inflation risks? Shouldn't banks these days actually be fairly indifferent to inflation as long as it stays within a moderate range? There's probably a hole here in my understanding of how finance works, but I don't really get why this creditor/debtor divide on inflation still exists.

The Guardian has a big scoop today:

The bastards! "Recognisably rightwing"! That's going too far. Someday soon there will be a price to be paid for this kind of insolence.