• Are Eyes Really a Window Into the Soul?


    Here’s something to take our minds off politics for the next few hours as we await word from Florida about just how badly Mitt Romney and his George-Soros-Goldman-Sachs-New-York-Washington-establishment-money-power have crushed Newt Gingrich’s people power in today’s primary. It comes from a biography of Frances Perkins, FDR’s secretary of labor, and it’s a reporter’s description of her eyes:

    It is her eyes that tell her story. Large and dark and vivid, they take their expression from her mood. If she is amused, they scintillate with little points of light. If moved to sympathy or compassion, they cloud over. At the slightest suspicion of insincerity or injustice, they can become keen and searching.

    I’m pretty much oblivious to people’s eyes. I could sit across from you for an hour in deep conversation and come away not even knowing the color of your eyes, let alone whether they scintillate or cloud over from time to time. So I am, sort of literally, a blind man when it comes to stuff like this.

    So I turn to you, my faithful readers. Are descriptions like this for real? It’s part of the whole “eyes are the window to the soul” schtick, which has always seemed more poetic than verifiably factual to me, but what do I know? And another thing: if this is real, how does it happen? That is, what physiological mechanism makes eyes scintillate or cloud over?

    Help me out, those of you with normal human perceptions. What’s the deal here?

    POSTSCRIPT: And here’s a fascinating historical tidbit that I learned today. In 1938, suspecting that Perkins, the first female cabinet member, was a communist sympathizer, conservatives concocted a story that she wasn’t really American at all. Instead, she was supposedly a Russian Jewish immigrant who had lied about her real identity. Perkins eventually set the record straight in a letter outlining her genealogy, but there’s no mention of whether she also had to release a copy of her long-form birth certificate to quell the rumors.

    It’s remarkable how history repeats itself, isn’t it?

  • Reining in Super PACs Won’t Be Easy


    Adam Skaggs writes that Congress needs to do something about the tsunami of money coming into campaigns via supposedly independent Super PACs:

    Super PACs make a mockery of the idea of independence. As Elizabeth Drew wrote recently in the New York Review of Books, today, the “connections between . . . candidates and the Super PACs supporting them aren’t very well hidden.”….The candidate Super PACs were all established by former campaign advisors to the candidates. They are funded by friends and associates with close ties to the candidates (or, in the case of former candidate Jon Huntsman, by the candidate’s father). As election law expert Rick Hasen explained, Super PACs can do a lot that sure sounds like coordination, including soliciting funds, attending fundraisers, appearing in ads, and using the same lawyers — all without coordinating, and still legally claiming to be independent.

    ….There are countless ways the existing system of campaign finance should be reformed, but cleaning up Super PACs is an obvious first step. Congress should adopt common-sense rules that make terms like independence and coordination mean something. Super PACs that function as adjunct campaigns should be treated like what they are — and they should be subject to the same contribution limits as candidates. Putting candidates in charge of their own campaigns is the first step toward putting the public back in charge of democracy.

    I would really like to hear more about this from someone steeped in — something. I’m not sure what, actually. Election law? Insider trading law? Maybe both. In any case, I’d like to hear in some detail how, exactly, rules could be written that would guarantee genuine independence. Even if some of the most obvious loopholes were closed, it still sounds close to impossible to do this without creating a lot of unintended consequences that could end up being worse than the disease we’re trying to cure. Here’s Drew, for example, on various proposals to cure the plague of Super PACs:

    Another route would be through new legislation to assure the independence of the Super PACs. But even if this could be achieved another serious problem would arise: political consultants could be making their own decisions about what would help their candidates, who could lose control of their own campaigns.

    Would true independence be better or worse than what we have now? That’s as unclear to me as it is to Drew. And it’s unclear to me if we could really police independence effectively anyway. After all, how many successful prosecutions for insider trading have we seen recently? Not many. It’s a similar principle, and it’s really, really hard to prove even though financial records often make a prima facie case that’s even stronger than suspicions of collusion in electioneering.

    So: suggestions welcome. But I suspect this is a very, very hard problem.

  • Is Nine Months Long Enough for Evangelicals to Learn to Love Romney?


    Apropos of my post this morning suggesting that Republicans unhappy with the current presidential field will come around, here is Rick Perlstein:

    I’ve never been impressed with the argument that Mitt Romney makes for a weak Republican nominee because conservatives don’t like him. That’s not how that party works. Like they say, “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line.” Don’t believe me? Think back four years. When the race was still up in the air, the venom aimed at McCain was ten times worse than anything being suffered by Mitt. I collected the stuff back then: Rush Limbaugh said McCain threatened “the American way of life as we’ve always known it”; Ann Coulter said he was actually “a Democrat” (oof!); an article in the conservative magazine Human Events called him “the new Axis of Evil”; and Michael Reagan, talk radio host and the 40th president’s son, said “he has contempt for conservatives, who he thinks can be duped into thinking he’s one of them.”

    Then McCain wrapped up the nomination, and Mike Reagan suddenly said, “You can bet my father would be itching to get out on the campaign trail working to elect him.” One thing Republicans understand: In American elections you have to choose from among only two people — not between the perfect and the good.

    Roger that. However, Rick then goes on to argue that Romney’s Mormon faith won’t hurt him among evangelicals. After all, evangelicals hated Catholics 50 years ago (“Mother of Harlots,” “Whore of Babylon,” etc.) but they eventually came around when they decided they needed to make common cause to fight abortion. “When the siren song of cobelligerency beckons,” he says, “theological qualms tend to fall away. That’s the way it’s always been.”

    I’ll buy that. But the real question is: When? Rick suggests that conservatives usually abandon their cultural prejudices “in the fullness of time,” but Romney doesn’t have the fullness of time. He’s got nine months. And it’s not clear to me that evangelical suspicion of Mormonism as a cult is going to disappear in nine months.

    This won’t hurt Romney a lot. The alternative is our current Muslim president, after all, so most evangelicals will come around. But if even a few percent don’t, and if a larger number vote but don’t actively campaign, that could be enough to sink him. In a 50-50 nation, even a few percent can spell the difference between victory and defeat.

  • Republicans Don’t Like Their Candidates Much Anymore


    Steve Benen, posting from his new home at Rachel Maddow’s online presence, suggests that at this point in the primary process Republican voters ought to be getting happier with their candidates:

    And yet, as the Pew Research Center found, rank-and-file Republicans are finding themselves less satisfied with their presidential choices, not more. As the Pew report, released yesterday, explained, “In fact, more Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters say the GOP field is only fair or poor (52%) than did so in early January (44%).”

    In other words, this field of candidates isn’t just unappealing to the party’s own voters; it’s increasingly unappealing.

    But how unusual is this, really? Maybe someone with a vast collection of past polling data can weigh in on this, but I’m not sure that we’re seeing anything all that out of the ordinary. Campaigns usually get nastier as they get closer to their endgames, and that nastiness often translates into increased voter dissatisfaction. This year’s Republican primary only entered its nuclear phase after New Hampshire, and it’s not too surprising that this has driven up everyone’s negatives.

    Now, this is the point at which I’d normally remind everyone that it’s only January (hard to believe, I know, after the debate marathon of the past five months) and there’s plenty of time for everyone to cool down before summer. And I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Still, there’s that little niggling voice in my head saying “Newt, Newt, Newt…..” Will Newt Gingrich, even after he’s obviously lost, continue his scorched-earth campaign against Romney? Will Sheldon Adelson fund this doomed effort? I’d guess no. But it’s a soft, unconvincing no. He just might, after all.

  • Coming Apart, Coming Together


    David Brooks glosses Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart:

    His story starts in 1963. There was a gap between rich and poor then, but it wasn’t that big. A house in an upper-crust suburb cost only twice as much as the average new American home. The tippy-top luxury car, the Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, cost about $47,000 in 2010 dollars. That’s pricy, but nowhere near the price of the top luxury cars today.

    More important, the income gaps did not lead to big behavior gaps. Roughly 98 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 49 were in the labor force, upper class and lower class alike. Only about 3 percent of white kids were born outside of marriage. The rates were similar, upper class and lower class.

    Since then, America has polarized. The word “class” doesn’t even capture the divide Murray describes. You might say the country has bifurcated into different social tribes, with a tenuous common culture linking them.

    ….Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock, compared with roughly 45 percent of the kids in the lower tribe. In the upper tribe, nearly every man aged 30 to 49 is in the labor force. In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.

    People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.

    I haven’t read Murray’s book, and probably won’t. But I’m not unwilling to take his thesis seriously. The part that keeps pushing back at me, though, is the idea that this is something new. I don’t doubt that Murray can show that there’s a much larger group of very well-off people today than there was in 1963: these are the folks buying the McMansions and the $100,000 cars. That’s not news. And the behavioral changes in the bottom third are real too.

    But is it really true that back in 1963 the “upper tribe” and the “lower tribe” were more similar than they are today? It might seem that way in retrospect, but it sure didn’t at the time. It didn’t seem that way to Gunnar Myrdal or Michael Harrington, anyway. Overall, I can pretty easily buy the “Apart” piece of the title, but I’m a lot less sure about the “Coming” piece. For every example of a way in which top and bottom have diverged over the past 50 years, I suspect that you could also find an example of ways in which they’ve converged. It’s just that Murray wasn’t looking for any of those.

    But as I said, I haven’t read the book. Perhaps someone over at Crooked Timber, or someplace like that, would like to read it and do us all the public service of commenting on it? Thanks.

  • Super PACs Now Dominate GOP Primary Campaign Spending


    The Wesleyan Media Project has a new study out today that compares ad spending in the 2008 Republican primary vs. the 2012 primary. Overall spending is down, primarily because Mitt Romney spent a ton of money in Iowa in 2007 but very little in 2011. The big takeaway, however, is the rise of outside interest group spending. In 2008, nearly all spending came from ad buys by the campaigns themselves. In 2012, more than half the spending has come from outside groups, mostly super PACs formed in the wake of Citizens United:

    The campaigns all claim they hate this trend, but I’d take that with a grain of salt. Sure, campaigns lose some control when outside groups are spending so much money, but they also gain deniability. Outside groups have more freedom to air genuinely vicious ads — something we’re likely to get a big snootful of in the general election — and I’d be surprised if most campaign poobahs didn’t secretly think that’s a pretty good tradeoff for the loss of message control.

    Here’s another interesting tidbit from the report: Although overall spending is down, the number of ads purchased is about the same. This means that the average cost of an ad has gone down from $700 in 2008 to $400 this year. I really have no idea why this is. Recession or not, I’m sure ad rates haven’t fallen that much, which must mean that both campaigns and outside groups have changed their ad buying strategies. Maybe shorter ads. Maybe ads in cheaper time slots. Beats me. But the data is only for national cable and broadcast buys, not local cable buys, so it’s not due to a sudden surge of super-targeted local ads.

    Also, Romney is absolutely swamping Gingrich in Florida, buying 60 times as many ads as Gingrich. No, that’s not a typo. 60 times. More data at the link.

  • Chart of the Day: Federal Government Pay vs. Private Sector Pay


    The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) weighed in today on the fraught subject of whether federal employees are paid more than comparable workers in the private sector (full report here). Their analysis attempted to control for occupation, years of work experience, geographic location (region of the country and urban or rural location), size of employer, and various demographic characteristics (age, sex, race, ethnicity, marital status, immigration status, and citizenship). Their conclusion should come as no surprise: When you account for both wages and benefits, Uncle Sam is generous toward those with less than a college degree and stingy toward those with PhDs or professional degrees.

    According to the CBO, the federal government employs a lot more workers with doctorates or professional degrees than private sector companies do (7 percent of the workforce vs. 3 percent of the workforce). Nonetheless, when you look at the overall number, they figure that the federal government’s payroll is 16 percent higher than it would be if it paid its workers private sector scales.

    Another interesting result: If you look at the range between the lowest and highest paid workers, it’s about the same in the public and private sectors for both high school grads and college grads. But the private sector has a way higher range for those with doctorates. The federal government tops out at about $70/hour in wages for the top decile of workers while the private sector tops out at about $140. If you were to look at the top 1 percent instead of the top 10 percent, the difference would probably be even starker.

    None of this should come as a big surprise. Federal jobs have always been plum positions for blue-collar workers, while for highly-educated professionals it’s something you do if you either want a lot of job security or are really dedicated to public service. If you’re a doctor or a lawyer, you can almost certainly do better in private practice than you can working for the government.

    Would the quality of the federal bureaucracy improve if we paid less for low-level jobs and used the money we saved to compete better for top-level managers and other professionals? Maybe! But the CBO punts on this: “A key issue in compensation policy is the ability to recruit
    and retain a highly qualified workforce. But assessing how changes in compensation would affect the government’s ability to recruit and retain the personnel it needs is beyond the scope of this analysis.” Maybe next time.

    POSTSCRIPT: Just to be clear, this study is for federal workers only, not all government workers. Other studies I’ve seen suggest that state and local governments show similar dynamics (high school grads paid more than private-sector workers, professionals paid less), but the difference isn’t as large and the overall impact on payroll is close to zero.

  • Freddie Mac Profiting From Your Distress?


    Jesse Eisinger and Chris Arnold report on Freddie Mac’s latest wheeze:

    Freddie Mac, the taxpayer-owned mortgage giant, has placed multibillion-dollar bets that pay off if homeowners stay trapped in expensive mortgages with interest rates well above current rates. Freddie began increasing these bets dramatically in late 2010, the same time that the company was making it harder for homeowners to get out of such high-interest mortgages.

    No evidence has emerged that these decisions were coordinated. The company is a key gatekeeper for home loans but says its traders are “walled off” from the officials who have restricted homeowners from taking advantage of historically low interest rates by imposing higher fees and new rules.

    Ah, the old Chinese wall. I remember it well from the dotcom bubble days, when investment banks supposedly erected an impenetrable barrier between the bankers who helped Pets.com go public and the analysts who told clients whether Pets.com was a good investment. After it all blew up, of course, it turned out the wall wasn’t quite as impenetrable as everyone thought.

    So how is Freddie doing this? After telling us the story of the Silversteins, who want to get a refi on their current high-interest loan but can’t because of Freddie Mac policies, the authors explain:

    Here’s how Freddie Mac’s trades profit from the Silversteins staying in “financial jail.” The couple’s mortgage is sitting in a big pile of other mortgages, most of which are also guaranteed by Freddie and have high interest rates. Those mortgages underpin securities that get divided into two basic categories.

    One portion is backed mainly by principal, pays a low return, and was sold to investors who wanted a safe place to park their money. The other part, the inverse floater, is backed mainly by the interest payments on the mortgages, such as the high rate that the Silversteins pay. So this portion of the security can pay a much higher return, and this is what Freddie retained.

    In 2010 and ’11, Freddie purchased $3.4 billion worth of inverse floater portions — their value based mostly on interest payments on $19.5 billion in mortgage-backed securities, according to prospectuses for the deals. They covered tens of thousands of homeowners. Most of the mortgages backing these transactions have high rates of about 6.5 percent to 7 percent, according to the deal documents.

    So as long as homeowners have to keep paying high interest rates on their loans, Freddie’s investment is gold. If they refi into a lower-interest loan, the value of the inverse floater goes down and Freddie is in trouble. Naturally, it’s all just a big coincidence that Freddie is simultaneously making it hard for families to refi into lower-interest loans. Chinese wall, you know.

    Read the whole thing for more. It’s good to see that the American finance industry hasn’t lost a step just because of that whole financial collapse thing a couple of years ago.

  • Go Ahead, Watch More TV


    Aaron Carroll flags a study suggesting that spending a lot of time in front of a screen (TV or computer) doesn’t actually have any effect on your life span:

    On the whole, I think consuming amounts of technology that would stagger mere mortals has not hurt me too much; I think I’ve turned out OK…It may be that there are other factors that are correlated with lots of TV time that may make kids or people worse off. Perhaps parents who let their kids watch enormous amounts of TV are more likely to be bad parents. Perhaps parents who let their kids watch enormous amounts of TV are working three jobs, struggling to make ends meet, and can’t play with their kids as much as they would like.

    …Many of the studies account for that as best they can. But the media likes to run around extrapolating a small statistically significant correlation into headlines like “TV WILL KILL YOU!” The sensationalism is pretty staggering. This leads to a publication bias, where results that are likely to shock and garner headlines are more likely to get accepted and printed.

    So I’m glad to see a negative study get published. I bet you didn’t know about this study, though. It was published last week with almost no fanfare, and I doubt you will see any news stories on it. When it comes to science, I fear the media isn’t nearly as fair and balanced as many think they are.

    Well, yeah. But this seems to be part of a bigger problem linked to the actual effects of lifestyle choices, not just the reporting on them: Surprisingly few seem to have much impact on mortality. Just in the past few years, new studies have raised pretty serious doubts about the supposed effect on mortality of obesity, salt, saturated fat, routine mammograms under 50, colonoscopies, prostate screening, LDL levels, and lots of other things. Now even a sedentary lifestyle is under attack. I would have expected that to be the last holdout.

    One problem, of course, is our focus on mortality in the first place. Obesity may or may not kill you, for example, but it does make diabetes more likely and it does make your joints wear out faster. Modern medicine may be able to control the diabetes and replace your knees, allowing you to live as long as you otherwise would have, but you’re still stuck taking lots of medication, paying for joint replacements, and being less mobile.

    It turns out that there’s just a helluva lot of uncertainty around a lot of things we once thought we had a pretty good handle on. On a broader note, this is one of the reasons that I’m skeptical of studies about health care policies that focus on mortality, even though many of them provide evidence for policy positions that I support. It’s just too narrow a lens, because too few things have a major impact on mortality. We’d be better off, I think, spending less time on crude measures of death rates and more time on other good/ill effects of various policies. That would create problems of its own, but at least we’d be looking at things that are more sensitive indicators of whether our policies are working or not.

  • If You Take Taxpayer Money, You Have to Follow Taxpayer Rules


    E.J. Dionne makes the liberal case today that the Obama administration screwed up when it issued rules requiring insurance companies to cover contraceptives:

    Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the Church would be more open on the contraception question. But speaking as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the Church’s leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings. The administration should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here.

    I’m just a big ol’ secular lefty, so I guess it’s natural that I’d disagree. And I do. I guess I’m tired of religious groups operating secular enterprises (hospitals, schools), hiring people of multiple faiths, serving the general public, taking taxpayer dollars — and then claiming that deeply held religious beliefs should exempt them from public policy. Contra Dionne, it’s precisely religious pluralism that makes this impractical. There are simply too many religions with too many religious beliefs to make this a reasonable approach. If we’d been talking about, say, an Islamic hospital insisting that its employees bind themselves to sharia law, I imagine the “religious community” in the United States would be a wee bit more understanding if the Obama administration refused to condone the practice.

    I can understand compromising over a very limited number of hot button issues. Abortion is the obvious one. But in general, if Catholic hospitals don’t want to follow reasonable, 21st century secular rules, they need to make themselves into truly religious enterprises. In particular, they need to stop taking secular taxpayer money. As long as they do, though, they should follow the same rules as anyone else.

  • Lying With Charts, Global Warming Edition


    In my email today, the Washington Times passes along some great news: “Global warming trend ended in 1997, new data shows.” The link is to a piece in the Daily Mail that, sure enough, tells us that our real worry isn’t warming, it’s the possibility of the Thames freezing over. And to prove that the world is no longer heating up, they include one of my all-time favorite graphs. I’ve recreated it using NASA data:

    Look! No warming trend! But do you see the problem? I’ve given you a hint by embedding the 1997-2011 data within a larger chart, instead of just producing it on its own, as the Mail did. So that should make things pretty obvious. But in case you need a bigger hint, click the link for the full set of data, not cherry-picked to begin with the huge El Niño spike of 1998.

    Hey look! The warming trend is back!

  • Newt Gingrich Now Promising a Blood Feud for the Ages


    So what happens after Tuesday if, as expected, Mitt Romney wins a convincing victory in Florida? John Heilemann tagged along as Newt Gingrich visited a couple of Florida churches today (his appraisal of the second visit: “By no small margin, it was the worst and saddest campaign event that I have witnessed in this presidential cycle”) and reports that Newt is promising to keep running all the way to the end no matter what happens:

    Pledges to continue the fight unabated in the face of harsh and/or humiliating outcomes are staples of presidential campaigns. And they are also patently meaningless….But in Gingrich’s case, he might be serious, so much has he come to despise Romney and the Republican Establishment that has brought down on him a twenty-ton shithammer in Florida, and so convinced is he of his own Churchillian greatness and world-historical destiny. The same antic, manic, lunatic bloody-mindedness that has made him such a rotten candidate in the Sunshine State may be enough to keep him the race a good long time.

    This strikes me as….surprisingly plausible. And you know what? Rick Santorum strikes me the same way. He’s a true believer who’s always been in this more for the attention than because he really thinks he has a chance to become president, and people like that can keep going forever. And of course, we already know that Ron Paul will stay until the bitter end.

    I don’t know how likely this is, but it’s at least possible that all four of the current candidates will keep running all the way to the convention. But here’s the real question: if Romney builds up a big enough head of steam, he’ll declare victory and withdraw from future debates. Without Romney, no one will be much interested in airing the debates, and no one would watch them even if they were aired. So all three of the also-rans would have to keep up their campaigns even though they weren’t getting regular time to yak on national TV and the press corps was no longer taking the race seriously.

    Would they do that? I can hardly believe they would, but I guess you never know.

  • Can Economists Pick Winners in the Stock Market?


    Suzy Khimm points us to the latest survey of economists and the general public sponsored by Northwestern University. She highlights their finding that while economists all agree that raising tax rates by one percentage point on the rich would bring in more revenue, only 66% of the public believes this. That’s a big victory for Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. But I actually find this result more disturbing:

    Survey respondents appear more confident than economic experts about one’s ability to predict the stock market. In response to the statement, “Very few investors, if any, can consistently make accurate predictions about whether the price of an individual stock will rise or fall on a given day,” 64 percent of economists strongly agreed whereas only 54 percent of the Index sample agreed. [Emphasis mine.]

    More accurately, I might find this result disturbing, because it suggests that 36% of professional economists think that lots of investors can consistently and accurately predict the price of a specific stock on a specific day. Oddly, though, the 64% figure for economists is for those who “strongly agree,” while the 54% figure for the general public is for all those who merely “agree.” So perhaps 64% of economists strongly agree with this statement and 36% merely agree. That would be OK. But then again, maybe 36% of economists don’t agree at all. That would be a travesty.

    I’m curious to know which it is. But I’m even more curious to know why this survey project reports its results in such an ambiguous fashion and doesn’t make the raw results available. What’s up with that?

    UPDATE: Thanks to Twitter, I have my answer. If I had only realized that the raw data was available at an entirely different website, based on a poll done three months ago, I would have gone straight here and discovered that, in fact, 100% of economists agreed with this statement. The only distinction is that 64% strongly agreed and the other 36% agreed.

    So the relevant comparison, I think, is that 100% of economists agree with this statement but only 54% of the general public agree with it. It’s not clear to me why the Northwestern folks seem to have rather egregiously fudged that.

  • The Decline and Fall of Public Support for Public Education


    Atrios writes about the growing cost of a university education:

    The basic thinking seems to have been that it was wonderful for university to be free back when most people who attended were quite wealthy, but once the masses started getting ideas about going it was time to force them to pay. And there again is your generational divide.

    Actually, I think the dynamic is a bit different from that. It was back in the early 20th century that most people who attended college were wealthy — or at least upper middle class — and at that time, universities were expensive, not free. Private universities cost a lot of money (and handed out only a few scholarships here and there to salve their consciences), and state land grant universities, while not as expensive as Harvard or Yale, still cost too much for most ordinary working class schlubs. Neither of my grandfathers could afford to attend college, for example, even though they wanted to. (One of them joined the Navy instead, and the other drove out to California to make his fortune.)

    That changed after World War II, when the economy was booming and everyone suddenly woke up to the fact that there were lots of working class kids who were plenty smart enough to attend college. This happened at exactly the time that America needed lots of college-educated workers, so we made sure they could all go. The GI Bill helped lots of them while all-but-free public universities helped lots of others. This was the golden age of low-cost higher education, and it was an era with more class mixing than ever before or after.

    This started to erode in the post-Reagan era, but I don’t think it’s because of a generational divide. That’s just the symptom, not the disease. It’s largely a class divide. For a few decades following World War II, when state universities were a legitimate ticket into the white collar world for everyone, they were supported by everyone. But after the first generation or two got their tickets punched and moved out of the old neighborhoods and into middle-class suburbia, all the low-hanging fruit was gone. Poor and working class neighborhoods were no longer producing lots of kids who had the smarts for college but couldn’t afford to go. More and more, universities were populated by the grandchildren of the GI Bill generation, all of whom were already middle class or better.

    And as that happened, public universities began to lose public support. Why should working class and lower middle class taxpayers subsidize the education of children who had already benefited from a privileged upbringing and whose college degrees would provide them with a lifetime of higher earnings? After all, if some well-off kid wants a sheepskin that will make him rich, why shouldn’t he pay for it himself?

    And with that, universal support for cheap higher education dwindled, but not really for generational reasons. If poor and working class families still felt like their kids had a good shot at going to college, I’ll bet they’d still support low-cost public universities just as much as they used to.

  • Fighting Bullshit, Part 2


    Yesterday I suggested that fighting bullshit is every bit as important as fighting genuine misunderstanding. Karl Smith takes issue with this:

    This is an important point but we should define a line between where the contributions of professional intellectuals end and where the contributions of professional advocates take over.

    If there is genuine misunderstanding then there is a role for intellectuals to say — well actually I think it’s like this.

    However, once an issue simply [becomes] a proxy for which team you want to win, this is not our fight. There are good men and women who are paid to do that and they should.

    However, our role is the spread of knowledge. Once people are no longer concerned with knowledge but simply scoring points, we should move on.

    I don’t get this at all. The case at hand was a Mark Zandi op-ed debunking the BS that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac caused the 2008 financial crisis. This wasn’t a case of fighting BS with BS. Zandi was fighting BS with facts. Nor was it a case of harmless BS that only a small lunatic fringe believes. The Fannie/Freddie myth is believed by millions of people, some of them very influential, because they think the BS sounds plausible and they don’t have the tools to evaluate it.

    Generally speaking, the contagion vector for misinformation goes something like this:

    Liars/hacks —> Bullshitters —> General public

    Now, I do think public intellectuals have a responsibility to fight this stuff in a sober, factual, evenhanded way. They should leave the histrionics and cherry picking to partisan shills like me. Still, fight it they should. Their duty is to inform, and that duty stands regardless of where the misinformation comes from, what the motivation behind the misinformation is, or who the misinformers are targeting.

    This task can’t be left solely to popularizers and party wheel horses while academics limit themselves to conferences and professional journals. Public education is too important for that, and hearing the facts frequently and forcefully from those with the deepest knowledge of a subject is important since they bring with them with a level of credibility that no other source can match. Academics and other intellectuals don’t have to take partisan sides, but they should take sides, and they should take them as publicly as possible.

    POSTSCRIPT: By the way, just in case anyone is offended by the repeated use of the word bullshit in this exchange, it’s worth noting that Karl and I are both using it in its technical, analytical sense as explicated by Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt in his famous essay, On Bullshit. There’s a short summary here if you don’t want to read the whole thing.

  • Chart of the Day: What’s Your Major?


    Via Tyler Cowen, Benjamin Campbell and Samuel Wang report that your college major depends a lot on which particular psychopathologies are common in your family:

    We surveyed an entire class of high-functioning young adults at an elite university for prospective major, familial incidence of neuropsychiatric disorders, and demographic and attitudinal questions. Students aspiring to technical majors (science/mathematics/engineering) were more likely than other students to report a sibling with an autism spectrum disorder. Conversely, students interested in the humanities were more likely to report a family member with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse problems.

    Is it science or is it bullshit? You make the call! But there’s a chart to go with it, along with the usual throat clearing that this could all be due to nature, nurture, or a combination of both, so please don’t send them any death threats. In any case, it all seems pretty plausible, doesn’t it?

  • Fighting Bullshit


    Karl Smith says lefty intellectuals have a problem dealing with bullshit. Case in point: Mark Zandi spending several hundred words this week demonstrating, yet again, that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac weren’t responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown:

    Mark, Mark. Clonazepam. It’s a beautiful thing. Let go.

    I am betting that maybe five people in the US actually believe Fannie and Freddie caused the housing bubble. Maybe half a dozen more are actively lying about it.

    The rest are just Bullshitting. That is, they don’t really care what the truth is one way or the other. This is just a way to gesture in the general direction of the federal government and say Urrhh!!!

    Ah, but what’s the proper response to bullshit? Karl is almost certainly right that among actual conservative economists, only a few actually believe that Fannie and Freddie played a big role in the financial collapse. But those few true believers have a significant effect on:

    • Other conservative thought leaders, who don’t know anything themselves but are happy to parrot congenial talking points.
    • Conservative legislators, who need intellectual justification for their speeches on the House floor.
    • The media, which is willing to continue suggesting that this is a genuine controversy as long as conservative thought leaders and conservative legislators keep pushing it.
    • Millions of rank-and-file conservatives, who listen to Fox News and read the Wall Street Journal editorial page and honestly believe this stuff because they’re getting it from people they trust.

    Does Mark Zandi know this? Of course he does. He’s not an idiot. But what’s the proper response? If you ignore the bullshitters, then the anti-GSE narrative gets set in stone whether or not it’s bullshit. If you fight it, at least it remains fluid for a while — possibly long enough for things to settle down.

    So sure, it’s kabuki. All of us who write about politics for a living understand that 90% (at least) of what we do is just shadow boxing. Controversies are invented, then debunked, then invented all over again, and debunked. Sometimes the inventors know perfectly well what they’re doing, while other times they’ve talked themselves into actually believing their own nonsense. In either case, these things are mostly just proxies for the issues that really matter.

    But so what? The Reichstag fire was wholly invented too, and look what happened after that. As demeaning as it is, fighting back against bullshit is every bit as important as fighting back against the real stuff.

  • Breaking: Still No Voter Fraud in South Carolina


    Are dead people voting in South Carolina? That’s what their DMV director claimed in a sensational hearing a couple of weeks ago. To stop this, South Carolina desperately needs its photo ID law — currently on hold thanks to the Chicago thugs in the Obama Justice Department — to go into effect. “We must have certainty in South Carolina that zombies aren’t voting,” said state Rep. Alan Clemmons.

    Except, um, maybe not. The South Carolina attorney general’s office gave the State Election Commission six names off the list of 950 allegedly dead voters, and guess what they found?

    In a news release that election agency spokesman Chris Whitmire handed out prior to the hearing, the agency disputed the claim that dead people had voted. One allegedly dead voter on the DMV’s list cast an absentee ballot before dying; another was the result of a poll worker mistakenly marking the voter as his deceased father; two were clerical errors resulting from stray marks on voter registration lists detected by a scanner; two others resulted from poll managers incorrectly marking the name of the voter in question instead of the voter above or below on the list.

    So that’s oh-for-six. Five of the six were actually alive and the sixth had voted absentee before dying. There’s no evidence of any fraud at all, just the usual bunch of administrative slip-ups.

    This is the story of voter fraud in a microcosm. Claims of fraudulent voting become urban legends practically before the first YouTube video goes up on someone’s website, but upon investigation the actual incidence of voter fraud turns out to be virtually nonexistent. Despite Newt Gingrich’s infatuation with having MasterCard run our country’s immigration program, anyone who’s ever worked in the private sector knows that keeping customer and prospect mailing lists clean is a huge pain in the ass. If you manage to stay even 95% accurate, you’re a genius. That’s doubly true for voter registration rolls, which are a nightmare of people moving, dying, getting married, registering twice by mistake, providing incorrect addresses, and so forth. After any election, you can always find thousands of discrepancies if you look hard enough.

    But almost none of them ever turn out to be actual voter fraud. The registration rolls might be sloppy, and poll workers might make mistakes, but practically no one who’s ineligible to vote ever shows up at the polls and tries to vote. Study after study after study has made this crystal clear.

    But it doesn’t matter. The 950 graveyard voters in South Carolina have now entered the pantheon of voter fraud paranoia. That’ll be good for passing photo ID laws, which tend to suppress the turnout of Democratic-leaning voting groups, and it’ll be good for Republican Party fundraising, but not for much of anything else.

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 27 January 2012


    We haven’t had a picture of the cats up on the fence lately, have we? Let’s fix that. Wednesday was a lovely day here in southern California, and Inkblot and Domino both took turns promenading up and down the fence in the early morning sun. (Though not that early. They both need their beauty sleep.) Quite frankly, they both look fundamentally, profoundly more presidential than any of the folks running in Florida. If you live in the Sunshine State, I recommend you write in the cat of your choice on Tuesday.

  • It Doesn’t Matter if We Make It, Only Whether We Can Trade It


    Matt Yglesias notes a tension in lefty thought today: the stuff we all support (better healthcare, more teachers, childcare, new infrastructure, etc.) is in the non-manufacturing sector, and yet we all cheer when President Obama calls for increased focus on manufacturing. So which do we want? More people working in manufacturing or more people working in service and construction industries? It’s hard to have both, after all.

    For the time being, let’s put aside the question of whether we should take Obama seriously on this subject (I suspect not) and whether lefties are really all that committed to manufacturing in the first place (ditto). Instead, I’ll repeat a point that I think Matt probably agrees with: the real issue isn’t manufacturing per se, it’s the tradable sector. That is, we really do have a long-term trade deficit problem, and weakening the dollar is unlikely to fix this all on its own. We also need to make stuff that other people want to buy from us, regardless of whether it comes from someone with a manufacturing NAICS code. So whether we like it or not, we really do need to have more workers in the tradable sector. In practice, this probably means more people working in manufacturing, since that accounts for a big chunk of the tradable sector, but maybe not.1

    Either way, though, we can’t import oil from Saudi Arabia and MacBooks from China forever unless we figure out something to sell back to them. We can’t all be MRI techs, home nursing companions, and K-12 teachers.

    1And just to get everyone riled up, I’ll point out that the content industry (movies, TV shows, books, music, etc.) is one of the most important non-manufacturing components of the tradable sector. It’s why every administration ever, both Democratic and Republican, has supported strong international IP protection. This, perhaps, suggests an even bigger tension in lefty thought than whether we really love manufacturing.