Kevin Drum

Nerds and Hacks Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose Except Your Chains.

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 12:22 PM EDT

David Roberts has a long post at Vox about tech nerds and their disdain for politics. He highlights one particular tech nerd who describes both major parties as "a bunch of dumb people saying dumb things," and jumps off from there:

There are two broad narratives about politics that can be glimpsed between the lines here. Both are, in the argot of the day, problematic.

The first, which is extremely common in the nerd community, is a distaste for government and politics....a sense that government is big, bloated, slow-moving, and inefficient, that politicians are dimwits and panderers, and that real progress comes from private innovation, not government mandates. None of which is facially unreasonable.

The second is the conception of politics as a contest of two mirror-image political philosophies, with mirror-image extremes and a common center, which is where sensible, independent-minded people congregate.

There's about 4,400 more words than this, so click the link if you want to immerse yourself.

But I have a little different take on all this. The truth is that politics and tech are the same thing: inventing a product that appeals to people and then marketing the hell out of it. Back in the dark ages, this was a little more obvious. Steve Wozniak invented, Steve Jobs sold. It was so common for tech companies to be started by two people, one engineer and one salesman, that it was practically a cliche.

The modern tech community has lost a bit of that. Oh, they all chatter about social media and going viral and so forth. As long as the marketing is actually just some excuse for talking about cool new tech, they're happy to immerse themselves in it. But actually selling their product? Meh. The truly great ideas rise to the top without any of that Mad Men crap. Anyway, the marketing department will handle the dull routine of advertising and....well, whatever it is they do.

Politics, by contrast, leans the other way. Inventing new stuff helps, but the real art is in selling your ideas to the public and convincing your fellow politicians to back you. It's all messy and annoying, especially if you're not very socially adept, but it's the way human beings get things done.

Well, it's one of the ways. Because Roberts only tells half the story. As much as most tech nerds disdain the messy humanness of politics, it's equally true that most politicians disdain the eye-rolling naivete of tech nerds. You wanna get something done, kid? Watch the master at work.

In politics, you have the wonks and the hacks—and it's the hacks who rule. In tech, you have the nerds and the salesmen—and it's the nerds who rule. There are always exceptions, but that's the general shape of the river.

But guess what? The most successful nerds have always been the ones who are also willing to figure out what makes people tick. And the most successful politicians have been the ones who are willing to marry themselves to policy solutions that fit their time and place. That doesn't mean that nerds have to slap backs (Bill Gates never did) or that successful politicians have to immerse themselves in white papers (Ronald Reagan never did), but wonks and hacks and nerds and salesmen all need each other. The political hacks and the tech nerds need to get together and get messy. And more important: they have to genuinely respect each other. When that happens, you have a very, very powerful combination. So get to work.

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TGIAS: Finally, August Is Almost Over

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 11:39 AM EDT

August is almost over. Huzzah! Kids are back in school, the weather will soon turn balmy, and we only have to pay attention to Donald Trump for a few more days. In September we'll have more important stuff to obsess over. Right?

Well, we can hope. In the meantime, Dan Drezner has a question:

For this entire calendar year, I’ve heard how the current crop of GOP presidential candidates “showcase[s] the party’s deep bench of talent”....And, to be fair, this seemed to be a fair analysis. There are no fewer than nine sitting and former governors of big states in the field....And yet, after all the declarations, we’re at a political moment when Trump is clobbering all of these talented politicians in the polls — and doing so by honing the lessons he learned from reality television.

....So here’s my question: What does it say about the deep GOP bench that none of them have managed to outperform a guy who has no comparative political advantage except celebrity and a willingness to insult anyone who crosses his path?

I've had the same thought myself. Nor is this a partisan question: the Democrats have such a weak bench this year that there's literally only one truly plausible candidate in the entire field. And this isn't because Hillary Clinton is so widely beloved: there's just no one else around who seems to have the usual bona fides to run for president. Hell, even the sitting vice president, usually a shoo-in to run, has a public persona that's a little too goofy to make him a strong candidate.

In other words, there are hardly any decent candidates in the entire country. What the hell is going on?

But Drezner actually prompts another question that's been rattling around in my brain: Is there anyone out there who could be the Democratic equivalent of Donald Trump? There was some inane blather earlier this month comparing him to Bernie Sanders, but that was always pretty preposterous. Sanders is a serious, longtime politician. He may be too extreme for you, but he's not a buffoon.

More specifically: Is it even possible that someone like Trump—no political experience, buffoonish, populist, boorish—could ever make a big impact in a Democratic primary? It's never happened before, but then, it's never happened quite this way in the Republican primary either. It makes me wonder. What if Trump had held on to his lifelong liberal beliefs instead of "evolving" so he could compete as a Republican? What would be the fate of a liberal Donald Trump? Would a big chunk of the liberal base embrace him?

US Economy Growing Faster Than We Thought

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 10:49 AM EDT

This is welcome news:

The U.S. economy expanded at a brisker pace than initially thought in the second quarter as businesses ramped up spending, a hopeful sign for an economy that has been repeatedly buffeted by bad weather, domestic political standoffs and overseas turmoil.

Gross domestic product, the broadest sum of goods and services produced across the economy, expanded at a 3.7% seasonally adjusted annual rate in the second quarter of 2015, the Commerce Department said Thursday, up from the initial estimate of 2.3% growth.

Average growth in the entire first half of the year was still fairly sluggish, thanks to a miserable first quarter, but today's news might be evidence of some decent acceleration in the economy. Given all the bad news of the past month or so, this comes as a bit of a relief.

Here's Why No One Cares About Modern Philosophy

| Wed Aug. 26, 2015 9:48 PM EDT

Via someone on the right (I don't remember who, sorry) I learned of a minor tempest over at Vox.com. One of their editors asked a Swedish philosopher, Torbjorn Tannsjo, to write a piece defending the "repugnant conclusion," which Tannsjo describes thusly:

My argument is simple. Most people live lives that are, on net, happy. For them to never exist, then, would be to deny them that happiness. And because I think we have a moral duty to maximize the amount of happiness in the world, that means that we all have an obligation to make the world as populated as can be.

There are a number of caveats in the piece, but that's basically it. Vox ended up rejecting it, partly because they decided not to launch a planned new section for "unusual, provocative arguments," and partly because they were squeamish about the implications of a piece which argued that "birth control and abortion are, under most circumstances, immoral."

Brian Leiter, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago, was appalled:

If you solicit a piece from a philosopher, knowing what their work is about (as was clearly the case here), you have an obligation to publish it, subject to reasonable editing. What you can't do, if you are an even remotely serious operation (and not an echo chamber), is reject it because someone not paying attention might think the argument supports a conclusion they find icky.

I'll confess to some puzzlement about this affair. Leiter is right that Vox editors must have known exactly what Tannsjo was going to write. That was clear from the start. So why did they get cold feet after seeing the finished product? On the other hand, Leiter is dead wrong that any publication has an obligation to publish every piece it solicits.1 That doesn't pass the laugh test, whether the writer is a philosopher or not. Stuff gets rejected all the time for a million different reasons, potential offensiveness among them.

But here's the part I really don't get: Why on earth would anyone take Tannsjo's argument seriously in the first place? The entire thing hinges on the premise that we all have a moral duty to maximize the absolute amount of felt happiness in the universe. If you don't believe that, there's nothing left of his essay.

But virtually no one does believe that. And since Tannsjo never even tries to justify his premise, that makes his entire piece kind of pointless. It would have taken me about five minutes to reject it.

I dunno. Too many modern philosophers seem to revel in taking broadly uncontroversial sentiments—in this case, that we have an obligation to future generations—and then spinning out supposedly shocking conclusions that might hold if (a) you literally care only about this one thing, and (b) you take it to its absurd, ultimate limit.2 But aside from dorm room bull sessions, why bother? That just isn't the human condition. We care about lots of things; they often conflict; and we always have to end up balancing them in some acceptable way. Nothing in the real world ever gets taken to its ultimate logical conclusion all by itself.

I suppose this kind of thing might be interesting in the same way that any abstract logic puzzle is interesting, but it's not hard to see why most people would just consider it tedious blather. If this is at all representative of what Vox got when it started looking around for unusual, provocative arguments, I don't blame them for deep sixing the whole idea.

1Depending on the publication and the type of article, they might owe you a kill fee for the work you put into it. But that's all.

2Well, that and ever more baroque versions of the trolley problem.

Chart of the Day: World Trade Is Down 2% This Year

| Wed Aug. 26, 2015 4:51 PM EDT

Here is your chart to ponder today. It shows the total level of world trade:

You can see the huge dip during the 2008-09 recession, followed by a steady recovery. Until this year, that is. During the past six months, world trade has declined by about 2 percent.

Most of this loss was made up in June, but monthly figures are volatile and June could be just a temporary artifact. Time will tell. Most likely, this is yet another indication of a weak global economy, one that's going to get even weaker if China's recent troubles portend a genuine recession.

Hillary's Email: Still No There There

| Wed Aug. 26, 2015 3:12 PM EDT

The AP's Ken Dilanian reports on the use of email in the State Department:

The transmission of now-classified information across Hillary Rodham Clinton's private email is consistent with a State Department culture in which diplomats routinely sent secret material on unsecured email during the past two administrations, according to documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

....In five emails that date to Condoleezza Rice's tenure as secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration, large chunks are censored on the grounds that they contain classified national security or foreign government information....In a December 2006 email, diplomat John J. Hillmeyer appears to have pasted the text of a confidential cable from Beijing about China's dealings with Iran and other sensitive matters.

....Such slippage of classified information into regular email is "very common, actually," said Leslie McAdoo, a lawyer who frequently represents government officials and contractors in disputes over security clearances and classified information.

What makes Clinton's case different is that she exclusively sent and received emails through a home server in lieu of the State Department's unclassified email system. Neither would have been secure from hackers or foreign intelligence agencies, so it would be equally problematic whether classified information was carried over the government system or a private server, experts say. In fact, the State Department's unclassified email system has been penetrated by hackers believed linked to Russian intelligence.

....Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said State Department officials were permitted at the time to use personal email accounts for official business, and that the department was aware of Clinton's private server....There is no indication that any information in Clinton emails was marked classified at the time it was sent.

Whatevs. Let's spend millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of congressional committee time investigating this anyway. Maybe we'll finally find that Whitewater confession we've been looking for so long.

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Sigh. Yet Another Thing to Freak Out About.

| Wed Aug. 26, 2015 2:57 PM EDT

Mutant super lice? WTF? I blame liberal moral decay.

Breaking News: Kids Don't Like to Eat Vegetables

| Wed Aug. 26, 2015 1:38 PM EDT

Excellent news! We have new research on whether kids like to eat vegetables:

The Agriculture Department rolled out new requirements in the 2012 school year that mandated that children who were taking part in the federal lunch program choose either a fruit or vegetable with their meals.

...."The basic question we wanted to explore was: does requiring a child to select a fruit or vegetable actually correspond with consumption. The answer was clearly no," Amin, the lead author of the study, said in a statement.

This will come as a surprise to exactly zero parents. You can (usually) make your kids eat vegetables if you refuse to let them leave the table until they do, but that's what it takes. Ask my mother if you don't believe me.1

I'm not actually making fun of the researchers here. Sometimes seemingly obvious things turn out to be untrue. The only way to find out for sure is to check. And in fact, the study actually did produce interesting results:

Because they were forced to do it, children took fruits and vegetables — 29 percent more in fact. But their consumption of fruits and vegetables actually went down 13 percent after the mandate took effect and, worse, they were throwing away a distressing 56 percent more than before. The waste each child (or tray) was producing went from a quarter of a cup to more than a 39 percent of a cup each meal. In many cases, the researchers wrote, "children did not even taste the [fruits and vegetables] they chose at lunch."

Yep: when kids were required to plonk fruits and vegetables onto their trays, average consumption went down from 0.51 cups to 0.45 cups. Apparently sticking it to the man becomes more attractive when kids are forced to do something.

In any case, the researchers kept a brave face, suggesting that eventually the mandates would work. We just need "other strategies" to get kids to like eating vegetables:

Because children prefer FVs in the form of 100% fruit juice or mixed dishes, such as pizza or lasagna, one should consider additional factors, such as the types of whole FVs offered and how the cafeteria staff prepares them. Cutting up vegetables and serving them with dip and slicing fruit, such as oranges and apples, can positively influence students’ FV selection and consumption by making FVs more accessible and appealing.

I dunno. Cutting up veggies and serving them with dip decidedly doesn't make them taste anything like pizza or lasagna. I speak from decades of pizza-eating experience here. Anyway, parents have been trying to get their kids to eat their vegetables for thousands of years, and so far progress has been poor. I'm not sure what the answer is. Shock collars? DNA splicing? GMO veggies that taste like candy bars?

1Yeah, yeah, some kids actually like vegetables. Little bootlickers.

Watch Ted Cruz Turn a Simple Immigration Question Into an Attack on Obama and the Mainstream Media

| Wed Aug. 26, 2015 11:59 AM EDT

Megyn Kelly tried to nail down Ted Cruz last night on a simple question: If a pair of illegal immigrants have two children who were born in the United States and citizens, would he deport the citizen children?

Cruz did not answer the question, but instead launched into an explanation of how he thinks the immigration system should be changed, starting with finding areas of bipartisan agreement such as securing the border, and then streamlining legal immigration.

"But that doesn't sound like an answer," Kelly said...."You've outlined your plan, but . . . you're dodging my question. You don't want to answer that question?" Kelly asked.

...."Megyn, I get that's the question you want to ask. That's also the question every mainstream media journalist wants to ask," Cruz said.

"Is it unfair?" Kelly asked. "It's a distraction from how we actually solve the problem. You know it's also the question Barack Obama wants to focus on," Cruz said.

"But why is it so hard?" Kelly asked. "Why don't you just say yes or no?"

This is Ted Cruz showing off his debating skills. His supporters hate the mainstream media and they hate President Obama, so Cruz adroitly turns this into a show of defiance against both. "I'm not playing that game," he insists, the courage practically oozing out of his pores.

Nice job, senator!

Did Donald Trump Discover Religion in 2011?

| Wed Aug. 26, 2015 11:27 AM EDT

Here is Donald Trump on religion in a 2011 interview:

“I believe in God. I am Christian. I think The Bible is certainly, it is THE book,' Trump told CBN's David Brody.

....When asked by Brody about whether he keeps a lot of Bibles, Trump said, "Well I get sent Bibles by a lot of people... we keep them at a certain place. A very nice place. But people send me Bibles. And you know, it's very interesting. I get so much mail, and because I'm in this incredible location in Manhattan, you can't keep most of the mail you get.

I put this up for two reasons. First, Trump's claim that he puts all the Bibles he receives in "a very nice place" is pretty amusing. I'd like to see this Taj Mahal of Bible storage! Second, it's the earliest reference I can find to Trump talking about religion.

I don't have access to a good news database, so I can't really say for sure that Trump never displayed any religious tendencies before this. I can say that even though he's a Presbyterian, he got married in 2005 in an Episcopalian church. And when his daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism, he apparently had no problem with it. That's not much, but it's all I've got.

So what's the deal with Trump and religion? He seems to have discovered it pretty conveniently during his slow-but-steady conversion process into a viable Republican presidential candidate, but maybe not. Maybe he's been a regular churchgoer all along. Does anyone know?