Kevin Drum - May 2012

Welcoming Our Computer Overlords to High School

| Wed May 9, 2012 3:37 PM EDT

Dana Goldstein writes today that very shortly computers are going to lose their ability to efficiently score student writing test samples. Why? Because new tests are going to be more fact-based. Instead of asking students to ruminate on "the benefits of laughter," they'll ask students to read a nonfiction passage and write something about it. "Since robo-graders can’t broadly distinguish fact from fiction," Dana says, they won't be very good at scoring these kinds of essays.

My first thought when I read this was "IBM's Watson cleaned Ken Jennings' clock on Jeopardy! Don't tell me computers can't distinguish fact from fiction." But then I was put in my place:

Brown University computer scientist Eugene Charniak, an expert in artificial intelligence, says it could take another century for computer software to accurately score an essay written in response to a prompt like this one, because it is so difficult for computers to assess whether a piece of writing demonstrates real knowledge across a subject as broad as American history.

Oh man. I don't have anything like Mitt Romney's wealth, and I know Charniak's the expert, but I'm still willing to bet him $10,000 that a computer will be as good as a human at scoring fact-based high school essays by — oh, let's say 2022 just to make it sporting. I figure there's at least a chance I could lose that bet. 2032 would be a no-brainer. Later in the piece, after noting that new techniques have produced quantum leaps in language processing before, Dana weighs in on this:

A paper by ETS’s Derrick Higgins and Beata Beigman Klebanov points to a potential path forward: using Web databases of human knowledge, like online encyclopedias and news repositories, to check how factual and intellectually sophisticated an essay truly is.

....[One] program, called ReVerb, can recognize about one-third of the “facts” writers present on such topics, such as the century in which Chaucer lived (the 14th) and Einstein’s most famous scientific contribution (the Theory of Relativity)....Currently, however, computers struggle with determining how trustworthy various Web sources are, and they can’t weigh or synthesize competing claims from good sources.

Yeah, well, a lot of humans have this problem too, and I'll bet H. siliconis overcomes it way before H. sapiens does. We haven't made a helluva lot of progress on this front over the past few thousand years.

Anyway, you're all probably tired of hearing me harp about this. Still, I'll put my money on the computers. They're getting better a lot faster than most of us think.

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Quote of the Day #2: It's Always the Left's Fault

| Wed May 9, 2012 1:57 PM EDT

From right-wing anti-immigrant activist Mark Krikorian, reacting with dismay to the news that fellow right-winger Michele Bachmann has acquired dual Swiss-American citizenship:

The fact that even a patriot like Bachmann would do something like this is testament to how thoroughly the moral relativism of the post-national Left has permeated our culture.

Somehow, it's always the left's fault, isn't it?

Yes, I Pretty Much Think the Euro is Doomed

| Wed May 9, 2012 12:16 PM EDT

Could Europe cut Greece loose with only a moderate amount of pain and chaos? That's steadily becoming the mainstream view, but Ryan Avent begs to differ:

Some are speculating that with Greece in the midst of a deepening depression and suffering from full-on capital flight, there is little risk to calling it quits. Indeed, if one is going to have an economic disaster, one might as well get a depreciation out of the bargain.

I suspect this analysis is wrong. Yes, a depreciation would boost the competitiveness of Greek exports, but I'm not sure that would matter much in the chaos following on an exit. Both people and capital would make a mad rush for the exits once it became clear that Greece would be leaving. In such circumstances, currencies typically overshoot on the way down. A plunging drachma would create intense inflationary pressure. That would no doubt be exacerbated by Greek funding needs; despite deep austerity it continues to run a large deficit and the temptation to fund it through printing will be strong. Hyperinflation would be a real possibility.

....I suspect matters would worsen for the euro zone, as well. Some now argue that exposure to Greece has been reduced sufficiently that the rest of the single-currency area could cut the country loose without too much financial trouble. That might be right. The question is whether this particular genie, once released, could be contained. The stakes of such a gamble would be enormous. If there were contagion, and if markets attacked Ireland, Portugal, and perhaps Spain and Italy, thinking that they could be next, the euro zone might be overwhelmed and driven into chaotic collapse.

So here's my problem. I am, by nature, attracted to explanations based on deep, fundamental processes. Eurasia beat out the New World because they got an earlier start and had more powerful disease pools. The South inevitably lost the Civil War because their economy was weaker than the North's. Standards of living have improved over the past two centuries primarily because of the march of technological improvement. Both hardware and software will continue following Moore's Law until artificial intelligence becomes a reality and wrecks our current economy. Housing should not double in price nationwide when wages are stagnant, and if it does trouble will follow. Etc.

I'm not saying this view is always right. But I am saying that I think its track record is pretty good. Deep forces will win out in the long term no matter how many short-term fixes/obstacles are put in their way. In the case of the eurozone, there are deep structural imbalances — current account flows, productivity mismatches — that, on current form, look set to continue pretty much forever, and that's unsustainable in a fixed exchange rate area. Since things that are unsustainable eventually break, that means the eurozone is eventually going to break. The only thing that could save it is a set of equivalently fundamental changes to Europe's politico-economic governing structure, and there are darn few historical precedents for something like that happening within the space of a few years.

That's still not impossible, though. Impending doom can concentrate the mind wonderfully on occasion. All I can say is that (a) deep forces usually win, and (b) organizations are rarely willing to address them at a deep enough level to hold them at bay. The problem is that the solution to a deep problem has to work with it, not against it, and it's damn rare for either leaders or the led to have the vision to see this and act on it. So far the Europeans show no sign of being an exception.

So do I think the eurozone will break up, either wholly or in part? Yep. Could I be wrong? Absolutely. It certainly won't go down without a fight. But unless European leaders suddenly do a volte face and decide to face up to the real issues at hand and deal with them aggressively, it's hard to see a happy ending here. Don't be fooled by day-to-day ups and downs and press conferences and six-month plans and demands for austerity. Those are just distractions. Instead, ask yourself if eurozone leaders are addressing the deep forces tearing them apart. If they're not, they're just marching toward a cliff that's in plain sight and getting plainer every day.

Quote of the Day: The Rich Should Favor Stimulus

| Wed May 9, 2012 11:40 AM EDT

From Peter Orszag, after reporting on new evidence that the incomes of the very rich are far more sensitive to economic growth than in the past:

If anything, high-earning households should be the ones most in favor of aggressively boosting the economy in the short run — and not just out of benevolence. Yet I suspect, without definitive proof, that support for additional stimulus declines as one moves up the income scale.

Well, I suspect that he suspects right. I also suspect that the very rich (a) just flatly don't believe that Keynesian stimulus works, and (b) know for sure that tax cuts will increase their disposable incomes. So it's Team Austerity for them. Sure, they'll have to ride out the bad times by letting one of the yacht scrubbers go, but everyone has to make sacrifices, right?

Resume Padding Being Taken to a Whole New Level

| Wed May 9, 2012 10:31 AM EDT

Personally, I don't really care if Jonah Goldberg has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and I don't care what he says in his official bio. But this story about pretending to be a Pulitzer nominee is bizarre on so many levels that I can't make sense of it. It doesn't make sense that anyone would do this innocently, but neither does it make sense that anyone would do it knowingly. It's like pretending you were a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. WTF?

Greek Future Looking Ever Dimmer

| Wed May 9, 2012 2:02 AM EDT

This morning we were talking about whether Greece has any leverage to get a better bailout deal out of Germany and its other creditors. The New York Times reports tonight that the answer is "probably not":

“Germans are now predominantly of the opinion that they would be better off if Greece left the euro zone,” said Carsten Hefeker, a professor of economics and an expert on the euro at the University of Siegen....With the so-called troika of lenders — the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — demanding budget savings of $15 billion by the end of June, the issue seems likely to come to a head soon.

Perhaps the one card Greece has to play is the danger its exit could pose to other, much larger members like Spain and Italy, with far greater consequences....In what some consider the most likely possibility, the creditors would agree to renegotiate the terms of the bailout and the new Greek government would go along.

But there is also the possibility that the troika will finally refuse to hand over any money whatsoever, something the I.M.F. did a decade ago in Argentina, when Buenos Aires failed to meet its bailout terms. If this happens, many experts say, Europe will be ready.

“Preparations are quietly being made for the contingency if Greece decides that it’s better off with its own currency,” said Heribert Dieter, an expert on international financial markets at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Most Greek debt is now held by the troika, easing the threat to the banks, and rescue mechanisms are in place to ease speculative pressure on other members of the euro zone. “Those measures could be used temporarily to take speculative pressure away from Italy and Spain,” Mr. Dieter said. “These are the two candidates that may need to be sheltered for weeks, maybe months, but not years.”

Bottom line: The German public is tired of Greece. The rest of Europe increasingly thinks of them as a special case and doesn't think Greek exit from the euro would produce insurmountable contagion to Spain and Italy. In addition, since the troika already owns most Greek debt, default wouldn't have much impact on EU banks.

In other words, quietly but steadily the rest of Europe has been preparing itself for Greek default and exit from the eurozone. The only real reason to avoid it is that it wouldn't solve any of Europe's structural problems anyway, but German leaders don't seem to be buying that argument at the moment. A eurozone crackup is hardly inevitable, but it's becoming an ever more tolerable possibility with every passing day.

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The Grim Future of the Supreme Court

| Tue May 8, 2012 11:49 PM EDT

Dick Lugar, just about the last moderate Republican standing in the Senate, lost his primary bid for reelection tonight. Jon Chait notes one of the reasons why:

The most important and alarming facet of Lugar’s defeat, and a factor whose importance is being overlooked at the moment, is one of the reasons Mourdock cited against him: Lugar voted to confirm two of Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.

....The social norm against blocking qualified, mainstream Supreme Court nominees is one of the few remaining weapons the Republican Party has left lying on the ground. But if Republican Senators attribute Lugar’s defeat even in part to those votes for Kagan and Sotomayor, which seems to be the case, what incentive do they have to vote for another Obama nominee? And then what will happen if he gets another vacancy to fill — will Republican Senators allow him to seat any recognizably Democratic jurist? Especially as the Supreme Court interjects itself more forcefully into partisan disputes like health care, will it become commonplace for the Court to have several vacancies due to gridlock, for the whole legitimacy of the institution to collapse?

Good question. Supreme Court nominations have been getting steadily more partisan for the past three decades. Setting aside Clarence Thomas, who's clearly an outlier, take a look at the number of opposing votes that nominees have received since the mid-80s. Scalia and Kennedy received zero opposing votes. Souter received 9. Ginsburg received 3 and Breyer received 9. Roberts received 22 and Alito 42. Sotomayor received 31 and Kagan 37. We're already damn close to the day when Supreme Court nominees are approved (or not) on straight party-line votes.

That's unworkable, of course, which means that either the trend toward strict party discipline reverses at some point, or else the Senate changes its rules. At the moment, I'd bet on the latter.

Chart of the Day: Time to Buy a House

| Tue May 8, 2012 6:47 PM EDT

Is housing overvalued? This is a hard question to answer, but one of the key metrics everyone looks at is the price-to-rent ratio. Felix Salmon produces a current version for us on the right, and as you can see it was pretty steady from 1988 through 2004 at roughly 1.5 to 1. Then the housing bubble sent the ratio sky high, and the housing bust brought it back down to earth. Recently, however, the lines have crossed:

In the chart, the red line shows the mortgage payment you’d have to make if you took out a standard 30-year mortgage for the median asking sales price for vacant sale units. In reality, your mortgage payment would be lower, since this doesn’t take into account any downpayment. But in any case, thanks to ludicrously low mortgage rates below 9%, that number is now lower than the median national rental price. This is the first time that’s happened since 1988, and probably for quite some time before that, too.

The question is: what does this mean? Option 1: Housing prices have overshot on the downside and are now due to rebound. Option 2: We're not building enough rental units to meet demand. Option 3: There are so many foreclosed and underwater houses on the market that this is just the way things are going to be for a while. That's the problem with data like this: it can mean a lot of different things, so it's hard to say what its predictive value is.

It's also worth noting that things can vary a lot from place to place. The map below is a year old and based on a different metric, but it still gives you a decent idea of how things vary. In New York City, renting is still a much better deal than buying. But buying is a better deal anyplace in green, and there are a whole lot of places in green. A 2012 version of the map would probably show even more.

The Perils of Criticizing Black Studies

| Tue May 8, 2012 6:07 PM EDT

A week ago at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm blog, Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote a post titled "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations." As it happens, though, Riley didn't read any of the dissertations she mocked. She just read the titles and unilaterally declared them useless. "What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap," she grumbled, "The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them."

A firestorm ensued, and yesterday the Chronicle fired Riley. Over at Reason, Nick Gillespie acknowledges that Riley's post was ill-considered on a number of grounds, not the least of which is that it's dumb to judge an entire field just by reading the titles of a few dissertations:

But I do find the Chronicle's response absolutely breath-taking and craven in its censoriousness....It strikes me as disingenuous to sack someone for a single blog post that did not meet the Chronicle's "basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles." There's no question of ethics or professionalism raised by Schaefer Riley's posts than those that are raised by an ongoing series of articles about what a waste of time and money and resources it is to get a degree in English, or art history, or sociology, or whatever.

This is plainly a politically correct response to a thug's veto and should be owned up to as such. Schaefer Riley contributed huge numbers of posts on a wide variety of topics at Brainstorm and she was clearly game to debate what she wrote. If her opinion is too much to bear — and it plainly is — academic discourse is in far worse shape than even the most anti-intellectual yahoo might think. Her Brainstorm colleagues felt free to take shots at her opinions, writing dissents and even poems about what they considered her faulty logic. Which is just how it should be, at a university-type setting of all places: Argue about stuff, don't just shut down viewpoints you disagree with!

I find myself agreeing with Gillespie, even though virtually every blogger I know and respect seems to have come down on the Chronicle's side and everyone I know and don't respect so much has come down on Riley's side.

What Riley wrote was certainly juvenile and almost certainly ignorant. You don't judge dissertations by their titles, and you don't judge a field by a few dissertations. And yet: it was a blog post. There should be a lot of room for ill-considered opinions in blog posts. What's more, I think Gillespie is right: if Riley had written the exact same blog post about, say, Classics or Film & Media Studies, she'd still be working at the Chronicle. Classicists and film buffs would be outraged, but it would be the usual kind of outrage that blog posts and opinion columns provoke all the time.

There are excellent historical and political reasons for us to be sensitive, even oversensitive sometimes, toward broadbrush cultural criticisms with obvious racial overtones. But arguing — even badly — about the value of Black Studies shouldn't be on the list of topics with a glass jaw. It's an academic discipline, and like any academic discipline it should be fair game even for brutal criticism. Treating it like a delicate hothouse flower does it no favors.

The War Between Data and Storytelling

| Tue May 8, 2012 2:02 PM EDT

Today David Brooks and Paul Krugman are having yet another of those infuriating New York Times arguments where they're not allowed to actually say they're arguing with each other because Times editors apparently think we'd all keel over in shock if they were allowed to mention each other by name. So it's all "many people on the left" and "the renewed push by conservatives" and similar circumlocutions.

Note to the Times op-ed page: give it up. The world has long since moved on from your genteel notions of editorial propriety. Let 'em duke it out, OK?

Ahem. In any case, today's argument is about whether our economic problems are cyclical or structural. If they're cyclical, it means we're in an ordinary slump and can get out of it by the proper application of monetary and fiscal policy. If they're structural, it means we have deep-seated issues that may take years or decades to address. Low interest rates and deficit spending just won't be enough.

I'm not going to get into the actual argument itself. You can read Brooks and Krugman for that. My layman's sense is pretty much the same as it's always been: Krugman is two-thirds right and Brooks is one-third right. That is, proper monetary/fiscal policy could solve about two-thirds of our unemployment problem, but a third of it is likely bound up in some long-term trends that began a decade ago — many of which show signs of getting worse as time passes.

But for some reason, what really struck me today was the way that both Brooks and Krugman play to type. Krugman the liberal is all about the data: he hauls out charts, models, "signatures," and international comparisons. Brooks, by contrast, barely admits that data even bears on this question. He's all about telling a plausible story: the chickens of globalization, failing education, high federal debt, and political sclerosis have finally come home to roost, so what do you expect? Of course the economy is in tatters.

You see this play out on TV too. Conservatives tell a story, and Krugman then explains impatiently that the data simply doesn't back up what they're saying. Every week it plays out the same way. It's like a kabuki show.

I'm a little stuck trying to figure out how to wrap this up because I don't really have any special insight to offer about this. I'm mostly on Krugman's side (about two-thirds, in fact!), and over the weekend I thought about writing a long post on the whole cyclical-structural argument, but then abandoned it because others had already said most of what I would have said myself. Plus I had a deadline on some other work. But this meta-observation seems important too. Are we arguing about data or are we arguing about different views of common sense? Both, of course, but one side generally prefers facts and figures and the other generally prefers morality plays.

I'm generally on the analytic/data-driven side of things, so it's no surprise that I mostly believe the data-driven story in this case. But for a variety of reasons, data can never tell us everything. We don't have enough of it, it doesn't all point in the same direction, we don't always know how to analyze it, etc. So I find myself partly persuaded by the morality stories too. Both have their place, but who's going to be the person to meld them together into something persuasive to more than half the country?