Kevin Drum

Are We Really In Control of Our Own Outrage? The Case of Social Media and Tim Hunt.

| Sun Jun. 14, 2015 12:23 PM EDT

British scientist Tim Hunt. We all know his story by now, don't we? Here's a quick refresher:

  1. In 2001 he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
  2. In 2015, speaking in Korea, he decided to make a Sheldonian1 joke about women in the lab. "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls ... three things happen when they are in the lab ... You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry."
  3. Social media immediately erupted into a firestorm. Within days he was fired by University College London and the European Research Council and had essentially been exiled from the scientific community in Britain.

There's no disagreement about either the inappropriateness of Hunt's remark or the insufficiency of his "explanation" the next day. What I'm more interested in, however, is the binary nature of the punishment for this kind of thing. As recently as 20 years ago, nothing would have happened because there would have been no real mechanism for reporting Hunt's joke. At most, some of the women in the audience might have gotten together later for lunch, rolled their eyes, and wondered just how much longer they were going to have to put up with this crap. And that would have been that.

Today, remarks like this end up on social media within minutes and mushroom into a firestorm of outrage within hours. Institutions panic. The hordes must be appeased. Heads are made to roll and careers ended. Then something else happens to engage the outrage centers of our brains and it's all forgotten.

Neither of these strikes me as the best possible response to something essentially trivial like this. Ignoring it presumes acceptance, while digital torches and pitchforks teach a lesson that's far too harsh and ruinous, especially for a first-time offense.

The fact that media outlets had limited space and were unlikely to report stuff like this hardly made it right to ignore it in 1995. Likewise, the fact that social media has evolved into an almost tailor-made outrage machine for every offensive remark ever uttered doesn't make it right to insist on the death penalty every time someone says something obnoxious.

I'm whistling into the wind here, but why do we allow the current state of the art in technology to drive our responses to things like this? Hunt deserved a reprimand. He deserved to be mocked on Twitter. That's probably about it. He didn't deserve the guillotine. One of these days we're going to have to figure out how to properly handle affairs like this based on their actual impact and importance, not their ability to act as clickbait on Facebook. We all have some growing up to do.

1Sheldonian (Shell • doe’ • nee • un) adj. [TVE < OE sheldon, valley with steep sides] 1. awkward, socially inept behavior, esp. among male scientists toward women.

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Every Four Years, We Vote For Our Heart's Desire

| Sat Jun. 13, 2015 6:37 PM EDT

After listening to Hillary Clinton's official announcement speech, Ezra Klein has a question:

Clinton name-checked almost every center-left policy idea in existence: universal pre-k, guaranteed paid sick days, massive investments in clean energy, rewriting the tax code, raising the minimum wage, and so on....Many of these ideas are good. But there's a Democrat in the White House right now. He supports these ideas, too. And yet, they languish in press releases and stalled legislation. How will Hillary Clinton make them law?

Well, yeah, that's a good question. It's also a good question for the Republican nominee, who will probably have to face a Democratic Senate, and at the very least will have to face Democratic filibusters. That means a Republican president might be able to cut taxes, but not a whole lot more.

I dunno. Maybe that's enough for Republicans. Get in a few tax cuts, appoint some conservative judges, and prevent anything new from happening. Nobody's ecstatic, but everybody's satisfied.

In any case, I doubt it's an issue for Hillary either. As near as I can tell, Americans seem to vote for president based almost solely on affinity. That is, they vote for whoever says the right things, with no concern for whether those things are obviously impossible or little more than self-evident panders. It's kind of amazing, really. Most voters seemingly just don't care if presidential candidates are lying or stretching or even being entirely chimerical. They merely want to hear the desire to accomplish the right things. Every four years, they really do take the word for the deed.

I suppose it's like that everywhere, not just America.

No, We Won't Leave You Alone

| Sat Jun. 13, 2015 1:47 PM EDT

In response (I assume) to my nasty post about libertarians a few days ago, Cameron Belt tweets:

leaving people alone, what a radical idea!

This is pretty standard libertarian stuff, and on a personal level I'm sympathetic. I'm not quite a hermit, but I really do like to be left alone most of the time.

But for some reason it got me thinking. I wonder if the people who repeat this bromide understand just how radical an idea it actually is. Humans are, and always have been, social, hierarchical creatures. In every society since civilization began,1 it's been all but impossible to be left alone. It's such an unusual thing, in fact, that those who manage to spend a lot of time in solitude are often spoken of with reverence and awe. Spending even a few days in solitude is powerful enough that it's been a rite of passage in a surprising number of cultures.

But for the other 99.9 percent of us, the norm is to be among, dependent, and answerable to other people. Family members, priests, bosses, governments, neighbors, police, creditors, merchants, and hundreds of others. In any society with more than about two people this is, and always has been, how humans organize themselves. We are gossipy and we are bossy. We are busybodies, we are rulemakers, we are rebels, we are moral scolds, and we are friends. (And enemies.)

So yes: leaving people alone really is a radical idea. Probably unworkable too, but that's secondary. We are all merely hairless primates and we just aren't going to mind our own business. Best get used to it.

1Yes, yes, I'm sure there's an exception somewhere. Spare me.

Friday Cat Blogging - 12 June 2015

| Fri Jun. 12, 2015 2:45 PM EDT

Who can resist a cat in a basket? Hilbert quite enjoyed rolling around in this one, massaging himself on the wicker. He obligingly held this pose for a few seconds before rolling around to massage a different part of his body. When he was done, he hopped out and went to sleep.

The TPP Is Dead. Now Let the Scapegoating Begin.

| Fri Jun. 12, 2015 2:16 PM EDT

The House just voted down fast-track authority for the TPP, handing President Obama a stinging defeat. This happened mainly because too few Democrats voted to support it. But why? Here's the Washington Post:

Lawmakers said the White House has pushed harder on trade than any legislative issue since the health-care reform effort during his first year. After keeping trade on the back burner, Obama joined forces with business-friendly Republicans after the midterm elections in pursuit of a rare bipartisan deal and launched a fierce effort to win support from his usual Democratic allies over the intense opposition of labor unions.

And here's the New York Times:

A president who has long kept Congress at arm’s length may have paid a price. Representative Henry Cuellar, Democrat of Texas, said Mr. Obama mustered rousing applause Friday morning as he went through the battles he had fought with fellow Democrats — on labor organizing, health care access and environmental protection. But he could not change minds.

“I wish there had been much better outreach,” Mr. Cuellar lamented.

So either Obama made this his #1 priority or else Obama barely bothered to lobby for it. I assume that eventually one narrative or the other will stick and we'll all agree on just what Obama did.

UPDATE: Sorry, I jumped the gun. TPP is dead for now, but Obama may get another bite at the apple next week. It all depends on whether he's able to negotiate a more liberal version of Trade Adjustment Authority to couple to the fast-track bill. The trick is appeasing Democrats sufficiently without losing too many Republican votes. Could be a busy weekend.

We Finally Have Something to Thank Michele Bachmann For: She Killed the Iowa Straw Poll

| Fri Jun. 12, 2015 1:51 PM EDT

Some interesting news today out of the Hawkeye State:

The Iowa straw poll, a political jamboree that has been a fixture in the Republican presidential nominating process for nearly four decades but has come under criticism in recent years, was cancelled Friday by state GOP leaders in a unanimous vote.

The Republicans cited a lack of interest in the event from leading presidential candidates and they said their decision will help preserve the importance of the Iowa caucuses, which are slated to be held early next year before any other state gets to vote.

It's the end of an era. Or, at least, the end of the nation's most famous state party fundraising extravaganza.

Now, it's not true, as you might expect, that the straw poll has always been won by some lunatic conservative with an unusually fanatical following, thus doing nothing except embarrassing all the legitimate candidates. Still, last time around the winner was Michele Bachmann. Maybe that was the death knell. More and more, the rise of the tea party meant that mainstream candidates were progressively less enthused about participating in an event they were likely to lose to a slavering mob. And for what? To help fund the Iowa GOP? There are easier ways of doing that.

Anyway, Ed Kilgore is my go-to guy to explain The Meaning Of It All for this kind of thing, but he hasn't weighed in yet. But maybe he has since I began typing this. Hold on a sec....ah yes, he's totally on top of things. Basically, the straw poll died for the reason everyone thinks it did: Because all the candidates got tired of it and didn't want to risk participating. And yet:

You could make arguments, however, that Fox News did in the Straw Poll by making it a distraction from the national campaigning necessary to qualify for the first debate, or that Erick Erickson did it in by counter-scheduling a presidential cattle call for the same weekend, or that Jeb Bush did it in by announcing he wouldn't be there practically before anybody had time to ask. The point is there were a lot of knives out for this event, and not enough determination among Iowa Republicans to blackmail candidates into participating or else.

Rest in peace, Iowa straw poll. In the age of Facebook and micro-targeting, you were a dinosaur. You won't be missed.

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Dear Twitter: There's No Need to Piss Anyone Off. Why Not Give Us Two Kinds of Timelines?

| Fri Jun. 12, 2015 12:57 PM EDT

Twitter is getting a new CEO, so it must be time for some bold new directions. But what should Twitter do? Here's a suggestion that I've read at least half a dozen times in the past couple of days:

Right now, Twitter displays tweets in strict reverse chronological order, but [Chris] Sacca encourages Twitter to relax this assumption. Instead, when a user logs in, the platform should show a selection of the most interesting and insightful tweets that would have appeared on the user's timeline since the last check-in.

The counterargument here is that a more accessible version of Twitter already exists. It's called Facebook, and it's wildly popular. The danger is that aping Facebook might alienate existing users more quickly than it attracts new ones.

I totally get this. I only follow 200 people on Twitter, and even at that it's like a firehose. All I can do is dip into it whenever it happens to cross my mind. This means that once an hour or so I see 10 or 20 random tweets, and then go back to whatever I was doing. I almost certainly miss lots of stuff I'd be interested in.

At the same time, chronological order is pretty handy if you're having a conversation, or some kind of news is breaking. I wouldn't want to give that up.

But why should I? Is there really any technological barrier to having both? I'd love to toggle back and forth. Maybe I'd take a look at the algorithmic feed once an hour to see if I've missed anything important, and then switch to the chronological feed if something was going on or if I just felt like randomly dipping in to the firehose. Sometimes random is good, after all. It keeps you out of a rut.

So....what's the deal here? Why can't we have both?

UPDATE: Atrios comments here. FWIW, I blame Apple.

TPP and Chemo Brain: My Story

| Fri Jun. 12, 2015 11:51 AM EDT

You may be wondering what I think of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. All the cool kids are talking about it these days. Unfortunately, I don't really have a position because I haven't studied it enough.

But perhaps that will change soon. You may not have noticed, but yesterday was a miniature milestone for me. My post about Paul Ryan and Obamacare was the first time in months that I wrote a fairly analytical piece based on actual research. It was hardly an academic white paper or anything, but it's the kind of post I haven't really trusted myself to write ever since chemo brain took over my life. However, this week seems to have been a bit of a turning point. I still expect ups and downs, but I feel a bit better and sharper and able to write more. My concentration is a little more acute and I have a bit more energy. Progress! (I hope.)

Anyway, that's a long way of saying that until now I just haven't been up to the task of seriously evaluating the TPP. So I'll say just this much: I am in favor of fast-track promotion. If it were up to me, I'd make it permanent, since it's obvious that no treaty can ever be negotiated without it. But am I in favor of actually passing TPP? I'm not sure.

Bottom line: yes to an up-or-down vote, because that's just common sense. But I'm unsure about how I'd like to see that vote go. Maybe I'll dig into it a bit over the weekend.

Are Police in Baltimore Sulking Over Indictments in Freddie Gray Case?

| Fri Jun. 12, 2015 11:16 AM EDT

Crime has increased significantly in Baltimore since the Freddie Gray funeral. Police say it's because of a spike in drug gang warfare. But it also appears to be a result of a deliberate pullback by police officers who are angry at seeing their own members indicted for Gray's death. Alex Tabarrok produces the chart on the right that illustrates the sudden drop in arrests right at the time of Gray's funeral and the indictments of the officers a few days later.

Is this drop legitimate, because it now takes more officers to handle a single incident? Or is it the drug war? Or is it a deliberate attempt by police to slow down, work to rule, and create a vivid demonstration of what happens when you mess with the thin blue line? I don't know, but when you look at the sharp line on that chart it's hard not to think the latter is part of it, just as we've seen before in Ferguson and New York City. And the more of these petulant outbreaks we see, the harder it gets to sympathize with the police. Much harder. Tabarrok also fears a possible long term problem:

With luck the crime wave will subside quickly but the longer-term fear is that the increase in crime could push arrest and clearance rates down so far that the increase in crime becomes self-fulfilling. The higher crime rate itself generates the lower punishment that supports the higher crime rate....Once the high-crime equilibrium is entered it may be very difficult to exit without a lot of resources that Baltimore doesn’t have. I have long argued that high-crime areas need more police but the tragedy is that they also need high-quality policing and that too is made more difficult to achieve by strained budgets and strained police.

Stay tuned. The police slowdown is a dangerous and juvenile tactic that could backfire very easily if it keeps up. That would be bad for Baltimore and bad for the Baltimore PD.

Surprise! Paul Ryan Is Misleading People Again About Obamacare.

| Thu Jun. 11, 2015 2:20 PM EDT

Rep. Paul Ryan really, really doesn't like Obamacare. And now he's got the facts and figures to prove what a disaster it is:

The whole point of Obamacare was to make health care more affordable. But premiums aren’t going down; they’re going up—way up. All over the country, insurers are proposing double-digit premium hikes. In Maryland, it’s close to 30 percent. Tennessee, 36 percent. South Dakota, 42 percent.

Tax season was like a bad dream before. Now it’s a total nightmare. People could never afford these plans on their own, so the law gave them subsidies. Well, now, two-thirds of the people who got them had to pay the IRS back—on average over $700. That’s not the kind of money most people have lying around.

And for all of this hassle, what are we getting for it? The argument was if people had insurance, they’d go to the doctor instead of the emergency room. But now even more people are using the emergency room.

My initial reaction to this was, "That's it? That's all you got?" I mean, even if it were all true, it's a pretty meager set of complaints to set aside a program that's provided decent, affordable health care to more than 10 million people, and has done so at a cost that's surprisingly reasonable and surprisingly lower than initially projected.

But you probably know what's coming next: It's not actually all true. I know Paul Ryan doesn't care, but just for the record, let's take his horror stories in order:

  1. This is based on a small number of insurance companies who have asked for large increases—something that happens every single year. They won't get them, and when 2016 dawns the average increase will almost certainly be in the range of 4-7 percent. Paul Ryan knows this perfectly well.
  2. This is based on a study from H&R Block that covers only its own customers. It appears to have been reported only in right-wing publications, most of which conveniently left out a few facts: (a) that $700 was a refund reduction, not money that had to be paid out of pocket, and (b) a quarter of recipients overpaid and got a $400 increase in their refund. Actual data based on all taxpayers isn't available yet, so there's no telling how close this is to the truth.
  3. I wouldn't be surprised if ER visits have gone up now that more people know that a visit won't bankrupt them. But by how much? We don't know yet, because as the chart on the right shows, the CDC only has data through 2013. Ryan's statement is based on a.....poll. That's right: a poll of ER doctors, three-quarters of whom think nothing has changed much and one-quarter of whom think business has increased significantly. That's frankly unlikely given that Obamacare has only increased the share of insured Americans by about 5 percent, but I guess it's possible, especially in specific geographic areas that are already underserved with primary care physicians and emergency services. However, it's all just guesswork at this point. We'll have to wait until next year to get actual figures from the CDC.

Bottom line: Ryan doesn't have much. And what he does have ranges from misleading to outright lies. I wish I could say I was surprised, but this is his usual MO. He's a little more slick about it than your average TV shouter, but the results are about the same.