Listening to the Talking Heads

Today Nick Kristof hauls out the columnist's favorite evergreen subject for a slow day: Philip Tetlock, the Berkeley professor who famously found that expert predictions weren't much better than throwing darts.

Indeed, the only consistent predictor was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. [The worst performance came from] experts who provided strong, coherent points of view, who saw things in blacks and whites. People who shouted

....Mr. Tetlock called experts such as these the “hedgehogs,” after a famous distinction by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (my favorite philosopher) between hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.

This was the distinction that mattered most among the forecasters, not whether they had expertise. Over all, the foxes did significantly better, both in areas they knew well and in areas they didn’t.

I don't have any actual data to back this up — which, ironically, might make this a hedgehog-ish thing to say — but my experience suggests that a key difference between the two types is respect for history and broad trends.  That is, Tetlock's foxes understand that if you want to know what's going to happen in the future, you should pay attention to what's happened before.  If simpleminded data says there's a housing bubble, there's probably a housing bubble.  If foreign occupations usually turn into guerrilla wars, then your occupation is probably going to turn into a guerrilla war.  If tax cuts usually reduce government revenues, then your tax cut will probably reduce government revenues.

The problem is that most people don't find this kind of thinking at all persuasive.  If somebody gets on TV back in 2005 and explains in detail why this time it's different and high housing prices are completely sustainable, it all sounds vaguely plausible.  The skeptics don't believe it, but they don't have fancy arguments.  They just point to a chart and say that the numbers look really high by historical standards, and whenever that's happened in the past there's been a crash.  So there's probably going to be a crash this time too.  And they're duly ignored.

Details are important for operational planning, but they mostly just blur things at a broader level.  Even in my own areas of expertise, I've usually found that to be true: if the broad trends point in a particular direction, odds are that's what's going to happen.

"This time it's different" is probably the most dangerous phrase in the world.  It's especially dangerous because every once in a while it's true.  But not often.

As for Tetlock, I've read so many columns about him that I guess I really ought to read his book.  Too bad it's not available for the Kindle.  Princeton University Press needs to get on the stick.

Black (and Brown) Can Only Be Just So Beautiful

Kim Kardashian got airbrushed lighter, smoother, and thinner for a photo shoot. Happens every day in Hollywood, I know. I don't know if she was in on it, but I know I wasn't when it happened to me.

A while back, my hairdresser asked me to be photographed for a black hair magazine. Trust me: we sisters LUV those things. I was beyond psyched. Until I saw the photos. I threw the magazine away in disgust, so I can't show it to you, but they'd airbrushed me at least five shades lighter and gave me gray eyes. Gray!

This was a totally black-run operation. They wanted my kinky hair (checks my twists on this page), but not my actual blackness. How pathetic.

When I first started doing TV, the makeup chicks (I've rarely had a non-white one) would cagily, carefully, ask me questions about what kind of foundation I wanted. "Whatever matches...?" Were these trick questions?

I figured there was something special about being made up for TV that a newbie like me just wasn't hip to. Finally, when they figured out that I wasn't going to go off, they told me that often blacks wanted to be made as light as possible. You'd be amazed at some of the names, but I ain't going there.

Pathetic.

We Have a New FOIA Policy

The Obama Administration has nailed down its Freedom of Information Act policy, which will go a long way in determining whether or not the federal government is open for public inspection the next four/eight years. The verdict: way better than Bush, but not perfect.

Chart of the Day - 2.26.2009

From Brad Setser, who notes that "much of the expansion of global trade over the last decade...rested on a weak foundation."  In particular, countries like China and Japan and Germany exported too much and countries like the United States and Great Britain consumed too much.  Since this needs to change in the long term, you'd like to see the surplus countries running bigger stimulus programs than the deficit countries, but that's not what's happening:

Big external deficit countries like the US and the UK are going to run fiscal deficits of between 8 and 10% of their GDPs, while the deficit in surplus countries like China and Germany remains between 3 and 4% of their GDPs.

....All in all, fiscal policy clearly is being used to support global growth, as it should be. The fall in exports globally in February leaves no doubt that there is an enormous shortfall of demand, relative to the world’s capacity to produce. But the global decomposition of the stimulus doesn’t suggest that it will do much to support “rebalancing.” The surplus counties generally aren’t leading the stimulus league tables.

Something more for Obama and Geithner to talk about at the upcoming G20 meeting.

The Geithner Put

Tim Geithner's toxic waste plan allows investors who want to bid on distressed assets to use Treasury matching funds plus FDIC non-recourse loans to lever up their investments.  The combined leverage is about 12:1, so a hedge fund that wants to buy $100 worth of toxic assets would end up investing about $7 of its own money.  What's more, since the FDIC loan is non-recourse, it means that if the investment goes bad the hedge fund doesn't have to pay back the loan.  It only loses its original $7.

For investors, this is a great deal.  If the investment does well, they make lots of money.  If it tanks, they can only lose $7.  The upshot is that they can afford to bid more than they normally would since their losses are capped.  But how much more?

Estimate 1 comes from Paul Krugman, who suggests they'll overvalue the assets by about 30%. Estimate 2 comes from Nemo, who suggests it could be as high as 68%.  Estimate 3 comes from Rortybomb, who figures something on the order of 20% or so.  Estimate 4 comes from Wagster, who thinks that in real life the assets will be overvalued by less than 10%.

So who's right?  Beats me.  To be honest, I don't even completely understand the four posts I just linked to.  But it's a pretty important question that some financial engineering types should spend some more time on.  If, in the end, the toxic waste gets overvalued by 10% or less, that's not too big a deal.  If it's overvalued by 50%, it's a disaster.  Not only will taxpayers likely lose a lot of money, but no one outside the auction will have any faith in the prices.  And since price discovery is one of the goals of Geithner's plan, lack of faith would be disturbing indeed.

Anyway, I just thought I'd toss this out to stimulate discussion.  I can't really participate since I don't have the financial engineering background to have an opinion, but plenty of other people do.  Let's hear from them.

The World's Dumbest Deliberative Body

Midway through the second period of our global economic collapse, how's the home team doing?  Conventional wisdom says the Wall Street crowd is whiny and petulant.  President Obama is well-meaning but maybe a little too cautious. Europe is too disorganized and too eager to shift the blame instead of taking action.

And then....there's the Congress of the United States.  Michelle Bachmann, taking a page out of the Bircher playbook circa 1963, wants to make sure the Chinese don't foist a one-world currency on us while we're down.  Don Manzullo is so relentlessly clueless that even the normally imperturbable Ben Bernanke can't pretend to understand him.  And LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik is watching television:

On C-SPAN I found the perfect thing: The House Financial Services Committee was grilling Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke about the AIG rescue.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) grumbled about "socialized medicine," as though he had wandered into the wrong committee room. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) obsessed about the "small group of Wall Street types who are making decisions," especially Goldman Sachs & Co., which she described in terms James Bond uses to describe SPECTRE.

Their colleagues, meanwhile, emitted what the writer David Foster Wallace might have described as "recombinant strings of dead cliches" about undeserved bonus payments, U.S. taxpayer money paying off foreign banks and the mushrooming of that new American art form, the bailout.

They showed, in sum, that they have no understanding of the roots or remedies for the financial crisis, and — more to the point — no great desire to understand. They left me convinced that if we are to have a productive investigation of the financial meltdown, it must be taken away from posturing lawmakers.

Hiltzik's solution is a fantasy lineup of investigators to shove Congress out of the way and figure out what really happened.  A friend who works on Wall Street ended an email cautiously supportive of Geithner's toxic waste plan with this: "One last thought — could we possibly send Congress into recessuntil this is all over? They are killing us...."  My solution is — what?  I don't have one.  Enjoy the show, folks.

Who's Afraid of The Big, Bad Zit?

Residents of Nottinghamshire in the UK, apparently tormented by a scourge of young ruffians, have come up with a new addition to the cottage industry of anti-teenager technology. (See my earlier post about a New Zealand shopping mall's use of Barry Manilow's music to disperse unwanted teenage loiterers.) In this case, members of the Layton Burroughs Residents' Association have installed pink lights in three locations, which amplify the ugliness of pimples--a practice meant to embarrass teenagers and drive them away in search of softer, more sympathetic light.

From the BBC:
Tony Gelsthorpe, chairman of the Layton Burroughs Residents' Association, said the lights were important for the residents.
"We've had problems with underage drinking, drug dealing, anti-social behaviour and general intimidation.
"I was a little bit dubious about the pink lights at first but it's done the trick. We've got to think of our residents and we've got to live here at the end of the day.

Rihanna Gets a Gun

Two of them actually. Tattoos. Click here to see them. Wonder what that means?

I hope she's staying silent just because she refuses to play the game and not because she's either ashamed or...who knows what's she's feeling.

But guns....? I hope it's a warning to any other man who ever puts his hands on her. But only Rihanna knows for sure. Maybe she meant it for people like me who won't get out of her business. Regardless, I'm impressed by her silence. I hope I'm right. I hope she's all right.

BTW, I spoke with some high school girls this weekend and yup, they blame Rihanna. Not for "making" him hit her but for taking him back. If she really has. They also introduced me to this.

 Ah youth. 

Regulation Redux

Slowly but surely, the Obama administration is rolling out its vision for reformed financial regulation:

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will call Thursday for changes in how the government oversees risk-taking in financial markets, pushing for tougher rules on how big companies manage their finances as well as tighter controls on some hedge funds and money-market mutual funds.

....The new rules will likely require financial institutions to hold more capital as a buffer against losses and will bolster risk-management standards. All told, the proposals would mean significant expansions of power for the Treasury, Federal Reserve and other regulators.

This is all well and good, though I'm still a little hazy on what underlying principles are guiding all this stuff.  That aside, though, I wonder how much good this will do all by itself.  After all, the problem during the housing bubble wasn't a lack of regulatory authority, it was a lack of regulatory will.  The Fed could have insisted on stiffer mortgage lending standards, but it didn't.  Alan Greenspan could have pushed for higher interest rates to slow down the rate of credit expansion, but he didn't.  Congress and the president could have raised taxes and run budget surpluses, but they didn't. The SEC could have tightened capital adequacy standards for investment banks, but instead it loosened them.

A more sensible set of financial regulations is long overdue.  But the bigger problem is ensuring that regulations actually get used, even when it means slowing down an economic expansion and spoiling everyone's fun midway through the party.  I'm not quite sure how to deal with that — I'm not quite sure it's even possible to deal with that — but it's something we should be addressing if we're even halfway serious about this stuff.

Getting to Yes

I was browsing through The Corner today and came across David Freddoso lauding the House Republicans' new housing plan.  You will be non-shocked to learn that it consists of a bunch of new tax breaks, including — naturally — elimination of the capital gains tax on investment property.  Yawn.

But wait!  It turns out that the House GOP's plan has inspired some surprising comity between right and left: they both hate it.  Jerry Taylor gives the conservative rationale for opposing the plan:

I know that there is plenty of political capital to be gained by providing handouts to middle-class homeowners and little political capital in removing the same. But a political party that ostensibly stands for free markets and limited government should not be in the business of underwriting or subsidizing private investments in anything unless we can find some plausible market failure in need of correction (and perhaps not even then).

Matt Yglesias provides the lefty view of why this plan sucks:

Preferential subsidies for investment in housing lead people to, on average, consume more housing and less stuff-that-isn’t-housing than they otherwise would. In other words, bigger houses instead of fancier clothes. This, in turn, has a substantial negative impact on the economy. Larger houses cost more to heat and cool, and larger houses lead to longer commutes. We shouldn’t stop people from buying big houses if that’s what they want to do, but it’s quite harmful to be specifically encouraging them to invest their resources in this way quite independently from the financial crisis. Reduce the tax-side subsidies to homeownership and we’d have somewhat faster economic growth, somewhat more public revenue, and a somewhat cleaner environment.

So: get rid of housing subsidies and we'd have both a freer market and bigger government.  It's a win-win!  Except for anyone who actually voted for it, of course.  But at least we get this bonus factoidish wonkery from Taylor:

For what it is worth, Switzerland is the only major country I am aware of that does not implicitly or explicitly subsidize housing in any substantial manner. Home ownership rates are somewhere around 35% as a consequence. But no one thinks of Switzerland as poor or deprived somehow because it does not receive the positive externalities allegedly associated with private home ownership.

I suppose not.  Still, it didn't stop the Swiss from buying our crappy mortgage-backed securities, did it?