Kevin Drum - October 2011

Advice of the Day: Don't Trust Blowhards

| Sun Oct. 23, 2011 4:55 PM EDT

From Daniel Kahneman, in an op-ed written on my birthday:

You should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about.

Good advice. Also, as I'm sure Kahneman himself would acknowlege, advice that's unlikely to have any impact at all on the real world.

The whole piece is good, but I have to confess that I was stumped by the following story. It's about a test of leadership ability that he and other psychologists supervised back when he was in the Israeli army:

One test, called the leaderless group challenge, was conducted on an obstacle field. Eight candidates, strangers to one another, with all insignia of rank removed and only numbered tags to identify them, were instructed to lift a long log from the ground and haul it to a wall about six feet high. There, they were told that the entire group had to get to the other side of the wall without the log touching either the ground or the wall, and without anyone touching the wall. If any of these things happened, they were to acknowledge it and start again.

A common solution was for several men to reach the other side by crawling along the log as the other men held it up at an angle, like a giant fishing rod. Then one man would climb onto another’s shoulder and tip the log to the far side. The last two men would then have to jump up at the log, now suspended from the other side by those who had made it over, shinny their way along its length and then leap down safely once they crossed the wall. Failure was common at this point, which required starting over.

I would like someone to make a cartoon animation of this. My spatial skills suck, and I simply can't visualize this. Or, more accurately, I should say that the visualization I have in mind seems impossible. If I'm understanding it correctly, failure wouldn't be "common" at the end point, it would be universal.

Then again, maybe these groups typically had a few really strong people in them. But if it were me, I'd recommend taking off someone's helmet, putting it on the ground and jamming the pole into it. See? The log isn't touching the ground. And I'd take off someone's shirt and drape it over the top of the wall and then lean the log against it. See? The log isn't touching the wall. And then we'd all climb over.

And I'd get chewed out for being a smart ass. But at least we'd be safely on the other side of the wall.

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Mitt Romney Whistles to the Wingnuts

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 4:13 PM EDT

Mitt Romney's campaign strategy is fairly simple. He can't afford to dive too far down the tea party rabbit hole because that would hurt his chances in the general election, but he still needs the tea party vote in the primaries. So instead of flat taxes and electrified fences, he tries to appease them with absurdly over-the-top criticisms of the Great Satan himself, Barack Obama. Here's how this worked today, in his reaction to Obama's announcement that all U.S. troops would withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year:

President Obama’s astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women. The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government. The American people deserve to hear the recommendations that were made by our military commanders in Iraq.

Well, the naked political calculation was that instead of withdrawing American troops by the end of 2009, as he originally said he'd do, he agreed to follow the timeline negotiated by....George W. Bush in 2008. And talks over troop immunity failed because the agreement negotiated by — yes, George W. Bush in 2008 — cut off immunity at the end of 2011 and the Iraqi legislature flatly refused to consider extending it. And finally, the opinion of the military commanders in Iraq is, I'm pretty sure, adamantine: no immunity, no troops. Admiral Mike Mullen made this clear a couple of months ago when he — not Obama — insisted that troops would stay in Iraq only if they were (a) given immunity from local prosecution and (b) the immunity agreement was approved by Iraq's parliament.

So Mitt is being a horse's ass here. Still, as a campaign strategy it's not bad. And his decision not to try to out-wingnut the wingnuts was vindicated by Michele Bachmann's statement, which said that not only should we have stayed in Iraq, but we should have "demanded that Iraq repay the full cost of liberating them given their rich oil revenues." Even Dick Cheney never went that far.

Friday Cat Blogging - 21 October 2011

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 2:14 PM EDT

On the left, we have the miracle of foreshortening. It looks like Domino is investigating a rose about twice the size of her head, but the rose is actually a couple of feet in front of her. What she's really looking at is probably some invisible dust mote in the cat dimension. On the right, we have the miracle of bad framing. As usual, I focused on Inkblot's eyes and then forgot to reframe the shot, cutting him off at his knees. Or whatever passes for knees on a cat. Still, it's sort of a cool picture. It's amazing how a few blurry leaves in the foreground can make it look like Inkblot is in the middle of the Amazon rain forest, isn't it?

Obama: No Immunity, No Troops

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 1:41 PM EDT

Dan Drezner imagines Obama giving a campaign speech about the difference between foreign and domestic policy:

As president, I have to address both domestic policy and foreign policy. Because of the way that the commander-in-chief role has evolved, I have far fewer political constraints on foreign policy action than domestic policy action. So let's think about this for a second. On the foreign stage, America's standing has returned from its post-Iraq low. Al Qaeda is now a shell of its former self. Liberalizing forces are making uneven but forward progress in North Africa. Muammar Gaddafi's regime is no longer, without one American casualty. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down. Every country in the Pacific Rim without a Communist Party running things is trying to hug us closer.

Imagine what I could accomplish in domestic policy without the kind of obstructionism and filibustering that we're seeing in Congress — which happens to be even more unpopular than I am, by the way. I'm not talking about the GOP abjectly surrendering, just doing routine things like actually confirming my appointments. I've achieved significant foreign policy successes while still cooperating with our allies in NATO and Northeast Asia. Just imagine what I could get done if the Republicans were as willing to compromise as, say, France.

Roger that. In other foreign policy news, President Obama announced today that we'd be pulling all our troops out of Iraq by the end of the year:

According to a White House official, “this deal was cut by the Bush administration, the agreement was always that at end of the year we would leave, but the Iraqis wanted additional troops to stay. We said here are the conditions, including immunities. But the Iraqis because of a variety of reasons wanted the troops and didn’t want to give immunity.

“So that’s it. Now our troops go to zero,” the official added.

That last line is now mysteriously missing from the ABC News story, but it was in the initial version they emailed me. No immunity, no troops.

I wonder what Republicans are going to say about that? I'm sort of afraid to look. In a normal world, pretty much everyone would agree that if a host country won't cut some kind of immunity deal for military troops in what's still, after all, basically a warzone, then the troops have to come home. But we don't live in a normal world, so I imagine Republicans are going to turn this into some kind of massive appeasement/apology tour/lack of willpower outrage on Obama's part, frittering away the hard won gains of the Bush administration etc. etc. Or something. Let me know in comments.

Map of the Day: How's Obama Doing?

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 1:03 PM EDT

New York magazine's Dan Amira took a look at President Obama's fundraising database today and created this map of his financial prowess. It shows the number of per capita donors in each state, with darker blues indicating more donors. Obviously Obama is doing well in the Northeast and the Pacific coast, which is no surprise. He's also doing pretty well in Colorado and New Mexico. What else is there to see here?

Its biggest revelation, in our opinion, is Ohio. With its eighteen electoral college votes and working-class population, Ohio is a perennially important swing state. Obama won it by 5 percent in 2008. But as the map shows, it has a pretty low Obama donors-per-capita ratio. Every other state in Ohio's color tier was won by John McCain except for Indiana (and nobody expects Obama to win Indiana again) and that one weird Omaha electoral vote in Nebraska. This doesn't bode well for Obama's chances in Ohio.

Well, it's still early days. But this map does suggest that it's going to be a very close election.

The Great Showdown: Stimulus vs. Energy

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 12:37 PM EDT

The global economy has gotten ever so slightly better this year. Hooray! Of course, even a slightly stronger economy means rising oil prices. Brad Plumer tells us what that means:

In 2011, as gas prices have risen, Americans have cut back on fuel consumption by about 1.8 percent. But that’s not nearly enough to offset the price increase: overall gas expenditures still rose 25 percent over the past year, or $102 billion. That essentially wiped out all of the benefits from President Obama’s middle-class tax cut.

....The amount that families are spending on gasoline has leapt dramatically since 2004, as fast-growing countries like China and India nudge up oil prices. In states such as Montana and Mississippi, where even routine trips are long and transit alternatives rare, a whopping 19 percent of median income now goes toward gas.

Stimulus is hard in an energy-constrained world. I confess that the more I think about this, the more I wonder if conventional fiscal/monetary policy has as much traction as we believe. I'm not an energy fundamentalist by any stretch, but the constraints are real. Ordinary stimulus measures still work, and we should be pursuing them more aggressively, but I can't help but suspect that we're entering an era where they're getting less effective all the time.

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Obama and (Steve) Jobs

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 12:08 PM EDT

I can't help but be fascinated by these excerpts from Walter Isaacson's new biography of Steve Jobs:

Jobs, who was known for his prickly, stubborn personality, almost missed meeting President Obama in the fall of 2010 because he insisted that the president personally ask him for a meeting. Though his wife told him that Obama "was really psyched to meet with you," Jobs insisted on the personal invitation, and the standoff lasted for five days. When he finally relented and they met at the Westin San Francisco Airport, Jobs was characteristically blunt. He seemed to have transformed from a liberal into a conservative.

"You're headed for a one-term presidency," he told Obama at the start of their meeting, insisting that the administration needed to be more business-friendly. As an example, Jobs described the ease with which companies can build factories in China compared to the United States, where "regulations and unnecessary costs" make it difficult for them.

Jobs also criticized America's education system, saying it was "crippled by union work rules," noted Isaacson. "Until the teachers' unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform." Jobs proposed allowing principals to hire and fire teachers based on merit, that schools stay open until 6 p.m. and that they be open 11 months a year.

OK, three things. Regarding the first paragraph: Jeebus, what a dick Jobs could be. Regarding the second paragraph: We all know why it's easier for Foxconn to open a factory in China. I think I'll keep our child labor and environmental rules intact, thank you very much. And regarding the third paragraph: Just where does Jobs think the massive budget increase is going to come from that would allow schools to stay open ten hours a day and eleven months a year? Even if he's right about the dire effect of teachers unions, something with pretty scanty empirical evidence, I don't think that California, to pick a state at random, is really up for the $20-30 billion tax increase it would take to roughly double instructional hours. Besides, even a really good intensive preschool program would cost less than that and almost certainly deliver better results. Think different, people!

Other than that, though, Jobs sounds like a great guy.

In Politics, Fundamentals and Campaigns Both Matter

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 11:24 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias is annoyed with a New York Times piece about Barack Obama supposedly trying to replicate George Bush's awesome reelection strategy of 2004:

I’ve written about this before, but the fact of the matter is that this theory is based on a largely mythical recollection of what happened in 2004. Democrats seem to have persuaded themselves that the hideously unpopular Bush won re-election by trashing the reputation of John Kerry. The fact of the matter is that Kerry’s vote share outperformed most fundamentals-based models. The solid foundation of Bush’s re-election strategy was that on Election Day most voters said they approved of Bush’s job performance. Kerry got an extraordinary 93 percent of the vote of Bush-disapprovers. The phenomenon of the anti-Bush voter who voted for him anyway out of disgust with Kerry’s flip-flopping was extremely rare.

I don't actually disagree with this much. Economic fundamentals matter a lot, and on that score it's true that Kerry did better than expected. (Just as Democrats did worse then even the lousy fundamentals predicted in 2010.) But I don't feel like writing about Muammar Qaddafi again, so I'm going to disagree anyway.

Presidential elections, of course, aren't won by national vote shares. They're won in the electoral college. And if John Kerry had won Ohio, he would have won the election and become the lucky overseer of our economic catastrophe in 2008. (And John McCain would probably be president right now.)

So what happened in Ohio? Obviously economic fundamentals played the same role there that they played everywhere else. But there's also this: Kerry lost Ohio by only 120,000 votes. This means that a switch of 60,000 Kerry voters to the Bush column was enough to give him a second term. And Ohio was, infamously, ground zero for saturation TV ads from the Swift Boat Veterans group about how Kerry was a conniving, lying, phony war hero who didn't deserve his military decorations and, in fact, was something of a coward who connived to get his fake bronze stars so he could skedaddle out of Vietnam as soon as he could.

The Swift Boat smears ran in heavy rotation in Ohio. Did that make a difference of 60,000 votes? Political scientists might say no: TV ads don't have a huge effect, and they especially don't have a huge effect months before an election, which is when the ads ran. But I'm not so sure. In a state like Ohio, these ads left a very sour taste in a lot of mouths. They not only took away Kerry's aura as a decorated war hero, but actively tarred him as the worst kind of sniveling opportunist, a man who used fake wartime decorations to grease his way up the political pole. I don't have a hard time believing that this might have switched 60,000 votes out of the 5 million cast in Ohio.

So yes, fundamentals matter. But sometimes campaigns matter too. I think the 2004 presidential campaign is actually pretty good evidence for both.

Stat of the Day: Dismantling the EPA

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 10:53 AM EDT

From Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA:

Since the beginning of this year, Republicans in the House have averaged roughly a vote every day the chamber has been in session to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency and our nation's environmental laws.

These are, of course, all symbolic votes, since none of these bills are going anywhere in the Senate. Still, symbolism is a pretty good way of getting a read on what a party's real priorities are. And you never know: if they win control of the Senate next year, Republicans might turn out to actually be serious about this stuff. Best not to take chances, I think.

Climate Skeptics Take Another Hit

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Physicists are notorious for believing that other scientists are mathematically incompetent. And University of California-Berkeley physicist Richard Muller is notorious for believing that conventional wisdom is often wrong. For example, the conventional wisdom about climate change. Muller has criticized Al Gore in the past as an "exaggerator," has spoken warmly of climate skeptic Anthony Watts, and has said that Steve McIntyre's famous takedown of the "hockey stick" climate graph made him "uncomfortable" with the paper the hockey stick was originally based on.

Read also: the truth about Climategate.Read also: the truth about Climategate.

So in 2010 he started up the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST) to show the world how to do climate analysis right. Who better, after all? "Muller's views on climate have made him a darling of skeptics," said Scientific American, "and newly elected Republicans in the House of Representatives, who invited him to testify to the Committee on Science, Space and Technology about his preliminary results." The Koch Foundation, founded by the billionaire oil brothers who have been major funders of the climate-denial machine, gave BEST a $150,000 grant.

But Muller's congressional testimony last March didn't go according to plan. He told them a preliminary analysis suggested that the three main climate models in use today—each of which uses a different estimating technique, and each of which has potential flaws—are all pretty accurate: Global temperatures have gone up considerably over the past century, and the increase has accelerated over the past few decades. Yesterday, BEST confirmed these results and others in its first set of published papers about land temperatures. (Ocean studies will come later.) Using a novel statistical methodology that incorporates more data than other climate models and requires less human judgment about how to handle it (summarized by the Economist here), the BEST team drew several conclusions:

  • The earth is indeed getting warmer. Global average land temperatures have risen 0.91 degrees Celsius over the past 50 years. This is "on the high end of the existing range of reconstructions."
  • The rate of increase on land is accelerating. Warming for the entire 20th century clocks in at 0.73 degrees C per century. But over the most recent 40 years, the globe has warmed at a rate of 2.76 degrees C per century.
  • Warming has not abated since 1998. The rise in average temperature over the period 1998-2010 is 2.84 degrees C per century.
  • The BEST data significantly reduces the uncertainty of the temperature reconstructions. Their estimate of the temperature increase over the past 50 years has an uncertainty of only 0.04 degrees C, compared to a reported uncertainty of 0.13 degrees C in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
  • Although many of the temperature measuring stations around the world have large individual uncertainties, taken as a whole the data is quite reliable. The difference in reported averages between stations ranked "okay" and stations ranked "poor" is very small.
  • The urban heat island effect—i.e., the theory that rising temperatures around cities might be corrupting the global data—is very small.

In the press release announcing the results, Muller said, "Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK." In other words, climate scientists know what they're doing after all.

The BEST report is purely an estimate of planetary warming, and it makes no estimate of how much this warming is due to human activity. So in one sense, its impact is limited since the smarter skeptics have already abandoned the idea that warming is a hoax and now focus their fire solely on the contention that it's man-made. (And the even smarter ones have given up on that, too, and now merely argue that it's economically pointless to try to stop it.) Still, the fact that climate scientists turned out to be careful and thorough in their basic estimates of temperature rise surely enhances their credibility in general. Climategate was always a ridiculous sideshow, and this is just one more nail in its coffin. Climate scientists got the basic data right, and they've almost certainly gotten the human causes right too.

UPDATE: I didn't include the chart comparing BEST's results to those of the big three existing models, so here it is. As you can see, BEST's reconstruction is a bit lower than HadCRU's during the 19th century, where the measurement uncertainty is highest; tracks all three models very closely during the entire 20th century; and is somewhat higher than both the GISS and HadCRU models over the past decade.

Front page image: ClimateSafety/Flickr