Kevin Drum - March 2011

Our Computer Overlords

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 11:09 AM PST

Paul Krugman writes that us college-educated types are hardly immune from being put out of work by computers:

Computers, it turns out, can quickly analyze millions of documents, cheaply performing a task that used to require armies of lawyers and paralegals. In this case, then, technological progress is actually reducing the demand for highly educated workers. And legal research isn’t an isolated example. As the article points out, software has also been replacing engineers in such tasks as chip design.

True enough. You know those thin copper lines on circuit boards that connect all the chips together? Creating those lines is called routing, and back when I first joined the high-tech world in the mid-80s, routing was done at my company by a room full of pretty skilled, pretty well paid pros. Engineers would compete to get their projects assigned to one router over another, because some of them had an especially good reputation for being able to perform complex routes quickly and efficiently. It was as much art as science.

Within a decade, it was all science and autorouting software had pretty much taken over the job. Humans were barely involved. The same thing has happened in the document world. Defendants in civil cases used to try to bury opposing lawyers during discovery by handing over truckloads of documents and hoping they would never be able to find the one or two damning documents in the bunch. Then high-speed scanners came along, and in big cases lawyers would send the whole pile of discovery documents to a service bureau, get the whole mess scanned and OCRed, and then do keyword searches. It was great. Later, software got more intelligent and more sophisticated and humans were less and less involved. Krugman extrapolates from this, suggesting that "quite a lot of white-collar work currently carried out by well-educated, relatively well-paid workers may soon be computerized. Roombas are cute, but robot janitors are a long way off; computerized legal research and computer-aided medical diagnosis are already here."

Maybe so. It's useful to think of two big challenges in the world of artificial intelligence. The first is creating analytic ability. This is what Watson did on Jeopardy! or what Deep Blue did in chess. The second is emulating the sensory perceptions of human beings. This is, if anything, even harder. Humans are extremely good at looking around a room, identifying objects, figuring out what they are, and then doing something about it. A robot that, say, was designed to go from room to room emptying wastebaskets would need only a modest amount of analytic ability but a huge amount of sensory ability. Right now we're not really very close to getting there.

Still, it's not clear to me just how far apart progress is on these fronts. It's probably true that analytic ability is further along, but mainly because you don't need to have a human level of analytic ability to be useful. A modest amount that merely does some of the prep work and reduces the number of hours it takes to do something is pretty handy. Sensory ability is a little different: you really do need something pretty close to full human capability to be very useful in an independent environment. So if I had to guess, I'd say that analytic ability will progress steadily, while sensory ability will remain largely limited and experimental until it gets to a useful level, at which point it will suddenly burst out of the lab and seemingly be everywhere within just a few years. This may still be a decade or two away, but really, that's not a very long time.

Over the past few years, my guess about how soon truly useful AI will be available has gone down. Human level AI may still be quite a ways away (I don't really know), but AI useful enough to create massive economic dislocations might well be no more than a decade away. Maybe two at the most.

In the meantime, I just hope that Mother Jones doesn't figure out that they could almost certainly find some extremely bright, knowledgable, plugged-in Indian blogger who would work much harder than me and for a quarter of my salary. There probably aren't a ton of Indians who could replace me, but there don't need to be tons. There only needs to be one.

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The GOP's Orrin Hatch Problem

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 10:32 AM PST

This is old news, but I'd just like to draw attention again to the fact that Orrin Hatch is in danger of losing the Republican primary in Utah next year because he's not conservative enough. Orrin Hatch! 

Your Kind Not Wanted Here

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 10:06 AM PST

Peter Wallsten reports in the Washington Post today on the latest wave of Republican efforts to pass state laws requiring picture IDs for voters. "Backers of the voting measures," says Wallsten, "say they would bring fairness and restore confidence in a voting system vulnerable to fraud."

Well, yes, that is what they say. They're lying, but that's what they say. The real reason that Republicans are so gung ho on these measures, even though there's no measurable voting-booth fraud anywhere in the United States, is because certain demographic groups are less likely to have picture IDs than others:

An analysis by the North Carolina State Board of Elections showed that any new law requiring a state-issued ID could be problematic for large numbers of voters, particularly African Americans, whose turnout in 2008 helped Obama win the state.

Blacks account for about one-fifth of the North Carolina electorate but are a larger share — 27 percent — of the approximately 1 million voters who may lack a state-issued ID or whose names do not exactly match the Division of Motor Vehicles database. The analysis found about 556,000 voters with no record of an ID issued by the DMV.

Imagine that. It might suppress black turnout, which helped Obama win the state two years ago. Elsewhere, Wallsten reports on efforts to prevent college students from voting. Guess who they vote for? If you guessed "Democrats" again, you win a gold star. In Indiana, which implemented a voter ID several years ago, a survey showed that blacks, the young, and low-income voters had access to picture IDs at significantly lower rates than whites, the middle aged, and the middle income. A quick look at the exit polls from any election in the past few decades shows that the most loyal Democratic demographics are blacks, the young, and low-income voters — exactly the groups targeted by voter ID laws.

There's a level of loathsomeness and naked corruption to all this that's hard to take even for those of us who follow politics closely and have few illusions about Marquess of Queensberry rules. But the goal of voter ID laws could hardly be more plain.

Wasted Money

| Sun Mar. 6, 2011 10:08 AM PST

I'm curious about something. About a decade ago the LA Community College District floated a series of massive bond issues for building construction. Gale Holland and Michael Finnegan of the LA Times spent 18 months looking into how that money has been spent, and the last of their 6-part series on the building projects is in today's paper. They document boondoggles galore, including some extremely timely questions about the widespread use of politically connected "body shops" who paid the salaries of consultants at seemingly indefensible markups.

But here's what I'm curious about. The district has so far spent $2.6 billion on its construction program. I went through all six parts of the Times series, and if I added things up correctly, they identified about $100 million in wasted money of various kinds. That's about 3.8% of the total.

So is that good or bad? Serious question. If someone told you that a public agency was embarking on a multi-billion dollar building project, and in the end about 96% of the total would end up being used properly and 4% would end up wasted, would you consider that a decent outcome or not? In any big project like this, how much waste should you reasonably expect, once all is said and done?

UPDATE: I added a bit of this in comments, but just to clear up a couple of things.....

Yes, that $100 million is only what the Times uncovered. Maybe there was more. On the other hand, all I did was add up all the numbers in the series, and some of it might not really count as waste. Sometimes construction projects go over budget for perfectly defensible reasons. So that $100 million number could be either high or low.

Oversight of public programs like this is important, and I think the Times series was terrific. I'm glad they were willing to spend the resources on it. Still, whenever I see a piece like this, I automatically think in terms of percentages. Horror stories are worth telling, but I still want to know what the total damage is, and I want to know how that compares to other similar programs. After all, construction projects are famous for running into problems and going over budget, and you'd be foolish not to expect any of that in any big building program. But stories like this never seem to provide that kind of comparison, and it's one that I think is important.

Bradley Manning

| Sat Mar. 5, 2011 12:00 PM PST

No blogging for me this weekend, but I'd just like to second Jane Hamsher, Mark Kleiman, Glenn Greenwald, and everyone else who's appalled at the way we're treating Bradley Manning. If he's guilty of a crime, then try him and sentence him. Until then, as Mark says, "This is a total disgrace. It shouldn’t be happening in this country. You can’t be unaware of this, Mr. President. Silence gives consent."

Friday Cat Blogging - 4 March 2011

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 1:13 PM PST

Today's catblogging is dedicated to that traditional favorite, cats inside of things. On the left, Inkblot is peering out of the box my new desk chair came in. It's a drafting stool, which allows me to sit higher and hopefully ease the strain on my arm and shoulders caused by typing and mousing too much. On the right, Domino is staring suspiciously outside her grocery bag because she's attracted a visitor. This means everyone gets a double dose of Inkblot this week, but who'd complain about that?

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Chart of the Day: Who's Afraid of the Tea Party?

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 12:41 PM PST

In the Boston Review, Stephen Ansolabehere and James Snyder write that the tea party movement has been overrated:

It is tempting to believe that the Tea Party endorsement moved voters. Indeed, the candidates endorsed by these groups did well: 64 percent of Republican candidates endorsed by the Tea Party Express or FreedomWorks (or both) won, while only 52 percent of non-endorsed Republicans won. The numbers look even more impressive among non-incumbents: almost 52 percent of endorsed candidates won, while only 28 percent of non-endorsed candidates won.

But the tea party groups mostly endorsed candidates in heavy Republican districts who were going to win anyway. If you take a look at the vote percentage of tea party candidates (shown with black Ts in the chart below), it looks pretty similar to the vote percentage of all the other Republican candidates:

This seems pretty plausible, especially since it matches what seems to have happened in the Senate, where tea party candidates didn't do any better — and might even have done worse — than other Republicans. On the other hand, I think it's possible that this might miss what happened in the primaries, where tea party endorsements helped power conservative candidates to victory over more moderate ones. That doesn't show up in the general election results, but it's a real effect nonetheless.

The Glenn Beck Vortex

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 10:54 AM PST

I almost agreed to do a piece about Glenn Beck for the next issue of the magazine, but in the end I begged off. I just couldn't do it. The tipping point came a week after I'd said I'd do it, when I was in a bookstore and decided that if I was going to do a Beck piece, then I guess I'd better read his latest book. So I took a copy off the shelf and started browsing. And the pit in my stomach grew. I just couldn't dive down that rabbit hole for the next month.

Besides, I was also halfway convinced that Beck had also reached a tipping point and might very well have imploded completely by the time the magazine hit the newsstands. In the New Republic today, James Downie recounts Beck's steep decline in the ratings and suggests that the implosion might have happened already:

Beck, says [biographer Alexander] Zaitchik, was caught “in a vicious circle”: To keep viewers coming back, he had to keep creating new, more intricate theories. Last November, in a two-part special that indirectly invoked anti-Semitism, he accused liberal Jewish financier George Soros of orchestrating the fall of foreign governments for financial gain. During the Egyptian Revolution, Beck sided with Hosni Mubarak, alleging that his fall was “controlled by the socialist communists and the Muslim Brotherhood.” Beck is now warning viewers not to use Google, accusing the search-engine giant of “being deep in bed with the government.” In recent months, it seems, Beck’s theories became so outlandish that even conservatives—both viewers and media personalities—were having a hard time stomaching them. Now, each new idea appears to be costing Beck both eyeballs and credibility. “At some point,” says Boehlert, “it doesn’t add up any more.”

I caught a few minutes of Beck's show yesterday for the first time in a while, and he was rattling on about.....Van Jones. Jesus. Surely he's milked that dry even for an audience as credulous as his? And that's his problem. He either replays his greatest hits over and over, which starts to get preposterous even for his biggest fans, who must have an increasingly hard time believing that Van Jones is literally at the center of all that's wrong with the world. Or he creates ever more convoluted alternate universes that are not just harder to follow, but are also increasingly hard to believe for an audience that basically just wants to hear that Barack Obama is Satan. There's really no way off this carousel.

11-Dimensional Chess

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 10:09 AM PST

I disagree completely with Ezra Klein's blanket statment that "No one can carry out complicated plans." People can! If you're willing to put in a lot of hard work and clear thinking, you absolutely can make complicated plans and carry them out successfully fairly often.

However, I agree completely with Ezra's specific observation that politicians are rarely as sneaky and devious and 11-dimensional-chess-ish as we think:

Partisans are very good at recognizing disarray and incompetence on their side of the aisle, but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities. And there's so much press interest in Svengali political consultants like Karl Rove or David Plouffe, all of whom get built up in the press as infallible tacticians, that the place just looks a lot more sophisticated than it really is.

But I tend to be shocked at how sophisticated it isn't. Communication between various political actors — a crucial ingredient in any serious plan — is surprisingly informal and inadequate....There's also a lot less long-term planning than you might think. In general, politicians are overworked and understaffed....The most common lamentation you'll hear from congressional staffers when a legislative fight starts going badly is "didn't anyone think of this beforehand?" In general, the answer is yes, someone saw the fight over the excise tax or the expiration of the Bush tax cuts coming. They just didn't have enough time, or couldn't get their boss and the relevant principals and staff members from other offices to put aside the time, to plan for it.

I don't have even a scintilla of personal experience observing Washington strategists up close, but even from 3,000 miles away this rings true. There's no 11-dimensional chess. There are no bank shots. Virtually all political plans are straightforward efforts to figure out how to persuade more people to support you. Sometimes those plans are sophisticated and sometimes they're bumbling, but they're almost never anything other than what they seem. At most, they're hidden by the usual thin veneer of hypocrisy or self-righteousness, and that's about it.

Bernanke Betrays the GOP

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 9:07 AM PST

Bloomberg reports that the Republican whip in the House is sad:

U.S. Representative Kevin McCarthy thought he had an ally in Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on the impact that Republican budget cuts will have on jobs.

McCarthy, of California, the third-ranking House Republican, said this week the spending cuts won’t cost the nation jobs, pointing to Bernanke for support. Within hours, Bernanke testified on Capitol Hill that the budget reductions may lead to the loss of 200,000 jobs.

The Fed chief said the House Republican plan to slash $61 billion from 2011 government spending could also subtract “a couple of tenths” of a percentage point from U.S. economic growth over several years.

So did McCarthy change his views once Bernanke set him straight? I know you can't wait to find out, so click the link to learn the exciting answer!