Blind Spots on Left and Right

Following up on Tyler Cowen's post about mistakes he thinks liberal and conservative economists make, David Leonhardt provides a matching pair of lists of economic blind spots among non-economists on left and right. You might agree with his lists or not, but he also has a broader point to make:

I think that liberal economists, by nature, tend to be less economically liberal than your average liberal. That’s not true — or at least it’s not nearly as true — about conservative economists and conservatives generally. As a result, some of the left’s biggest blind spots on economics arise much less often among left-leaning economists.

....The difference, I think, is that conservative economists’ blind spots overlap more with general conservative blind spots than is the case for liberal economists and liberal blind spots. That’s not a value judgment so much as an observation: liberal economists tend to be more economically conservative than average liberals.

Yep. Obviously there are some hardcore lefty economists out there, but for the most part liberal economists still tend to be fairly sober sorts who are wary of maximal arguments and generally in favor of market solutions in a wide variety of contexts. Conservative economists, by contrast, are largely willing — even eager — to trumpet a uniformly hardcore party line on things like regulation, taxes, unions, trade, and incentives in general. Maybe it's because they still feel like a beleaguered minority, maybe it's because the incentives work differently on the right. I'm not sure. But Leonhardt does seem to be right about this.

As a side note, I'll mention that I've seen a number of lefty bloggers engage with Tyler's original list of lefty mistakes, but I haven't seen anyone on the right engage with his list of righty mistakes. Maybe that's just because I haven't been reading the right blogs.  But I have a feeling that's not it. On the right, an awful lot of economic shibboleths have become almost religious totems, and that's just not something you're allowed to express any doubts about.

From Barack Obama, on the abusive treatment being meted out to Bradley Manning, the accused WikiLeaks leaker, in the Quantico brig:

Well, OK then! As long as the Pentagon says so, I guess 23-hour solitary confinement, forced nudity at night and during inspections, repeated awakening at night, and leg shackles during all visits is perfectly fine for a person who hasn't actually been convicted of anything yet. I'm so relieved.

Can We Please Put Away the Smelling Salts?

Just in case I wasn't crystal clear this morning, I want to double down on my view that NPR shouldn't have fired Vivian Schiller over James O'Keefe's latest video sting operation. First, though, here's a quick summary reminder of what Ron Schiller (no relation) said:

The two actors clearly goad Schiller into making observations, most of which are made after Schiller explicitly takes off his "NPR hat" to give his personal opinion. For example, Schiller says there aren't enough "educated, so-called elite" Americans, adding that public opinion is driven by "this very large uneducated part of the population."

Of tea partyers, he adds: "I mean, basically they ... believe in sort of white, middle-America, gun-toting. I mean, it's scary. They're seriously racist, racist people."

Here's what I'd like to hear from more people: there was nothing wrong with Schiller saying this. Period. He's a fundraiser, not a reporter. He's allowed to have personal views. He's allowed to express those views, even if they're obnoxious or intemperate, and even if he's doing it across the table from a potential donor. He did nothing wrong, and neither did his boss. He deserved, at most, a mild talking-to over this.

I can't begin to tell you how tired I am of all the faux fainting couch nonsense we have to put up with these days from both left and right. People say stuff. They despise certain groups and certain people. They get passionate. If you cross a genuine line, that's one thing. But I'm really weary of fairly ordinary political invective being routinely turned into a firing offense. It's time for all of us to grow thicker skins and knock off this nonsense.

Arguing With the Right

Paul Krugman notes today that Mike Huckabee is opposed to comparative effectiveness reviews. This is old news, of course. CER wasn't the basis for the whole death panel flap back in 2009 (end-of-life planning was), but it became the poster child for it pretty quickly anyway. After all, CER is just a multi-syllabic way of saying that we should compare various disease treatments to see which ones are most effective. That sounds like exactly the kind of thing that a government should do if it's watching out for taxpayer money, but of course it means that some treatments will end up being found ineffective and thus not worth paying for. According to Huckabee, this plants "the seeds from which the poisonous tree of death panels will grow."

To follow up on my post from Wednesday, this is what makes it hard to figure out which conservatives are worth reading and engaging with. The intelligent right doesn't buy the "poisonous tree" argument, of course, and has a considerably more nuanced view of what a conservative healthcare system would look like. That nuanced view includes the obvious point that we should try to figure out what works and what doesn't. That view, however, is not shared at all by the mainstream right, which long since abandoned reason to take Huckabee's side that CER is a liberal plot to kill old people and babies. Thus the liberal problem: it's not really worth arguing with the mainstream right about this, since their view isn't amenable to reason, and it's not really worth arguing with the moderate right about this since their views have no support in the real world. So what's the answer?

The Age of the Political Sting

Vivian Schiller, the CEO of National Public Radio, resigned Wednesday after her chief fundraiser was caught making nasty comments about the tea party movement during a conversation with someone he thought might be a potential donor.

No, that's not a misprint. A development executive, in a private conversation, let loose about the tea party. That's it. He thinks the tea partiers are a bunch of racist goons, an opinion that might be wrong but is hardly beyond the pale, and for that a CEO lost her job.

We now officially live in the era of guerrilla activism. It started in the fall of 2009 with the infamous ACORN sting. Conservative activist James O'Keefe secretly recorded ACORN employees providing advice to a faux pimp who wanted to bring underage prostitutes into the country from El Salvador. The tapes were edited misleadingly, but there was genuine misconduct there too and ACORN was soon defunded and out of business.

On the Importance of Public Opinion

Matt Yglesias on mistakes that journalists and activists make:

I think there’s often a tendency to systematically underrate the extent to which it’s possible to change minds over time....None of that is to deny that there’s a place in the world for concessions to political reality and for practical-minded people. But I think that as a society we’re actually under-invested in discussions of impractical schemes and public efforts to remediate widespread intellectual errors.

The course of the future is very uncertain. Three years ago, I would have agreed with the consensus that a cap-and-trade bill with side-deals was much more likely than a carbon tax. Today that now looks wrong to me and carbon tax as part of a long-term deficit reduction bill seems like the most likely (albeit not very likely) path to meaningful carbon pricing. In retrospect, we can see that George Allen’s “macaca moment” led to a massive overhaul of American health care policy. Under the circumstances, the best thing for people knowledgeable about policy-relevant subject matter to do is to share what they know with as many people as possible and worry less about pre-trimming ideas to conform to guesstimates about what’s possible/relevant/effective.

I'm not so sure about the "impractical schemes" part of this, since discussions of impractical schemes really are just flights of fancy most of the time: fun, perhaps, but not really the path to a better world.

Still, I basically agree with this. But at its core, it's an argument that we should spend more time trying to change public opinion, and when I've talked about this in the past I've found that most people (including Matt, I think) aren't really very persuaded, preferring to argue that institutional or demographic or economic forces are really all that matter. And they do matter, of course. But in the end, long-term public opinion is pretty important too, and we liberals ought to pay more attention to it. We've done a good job over the past decades moving public opinion on social issues, but not so good a job on anything else. That really needs to change.

The Limits of Libya

From the perspective of a Middle Eastern tyrant, the obvious lesson of Egypt was: don't give in. Keep the army on your side, fight like hell, and eventually you'll come out on top. That's certainly the lesson Muammar Qaddafi learned:

RAS LANUF, Libya — Forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi retook this strategic refinery town after an assault by land, air and sea Thursday, opposition leaders and fighters said, an onslaught that sent scores of rebels fleeing along a coastal road and underlined a decisive shift in momentum in an uprising that has shaken the Libyan leader’s four decades of rule....The apparent government victory capped several days of fighting as the rebels’ bold plans of a westward drive to Tripoli were dashed by the superior Qaddafi forces, which are seeking to retake several eastern oil cities that had slipped from the government’s control in the first days of the uprising.

Under a steadily escalating barrage, rebel fighters in dozens of trucks mounted with heavy weapons retreated east along the coastal road. In a chaotic scene at a checkpoint five miles east of town, fighters shot anti-aircraft guns randomly and ineffectually into the sky while arguing whether to flee or to try to establish a new defensive front.

....The urgency of the issue was underscored in Washington on Thursday where the United States top intelligence officer, James Clapper, said that Colonel Qaddafi “appears to be hunkering down for the duration.” Moreover, Mr. Clapper added, the government’s advantage in military and logistical resources would ensure that, “over longer term, that the regime will prevail."

Would a no-fly zone hamper Qaddafi enough to give the rebels a chance? Maybe, but I wouldn't count on it. And if it didn't work, what would be next? Ground troops?

I'd like to see the end of Qaddafi's rule. Who wouldn't? But Americans really need to get over the idea that we're the ones who control the fate of every hot spot in the world. We're not. If we can agree with NATO or the UN to create a no-fly zone, or if we can safely supply the rebels with arms, I'm all for it. What I'm afraid of, though, is that the John McCains of the world will never be willing to stop there if that's not enough. So before President Obama agrees to do any of this, McCain and his national greatness buddies need to be clear up front just how far they want to go, and they need to be willing to stick to that even if it doesn't work. Being sucked into an ever escalating civil war in Libya isn't something any sane person should wish on us.

From a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters:

The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass at an accelerating pace, according to a new NASA-funded satellite study. The findings of the study — the longest to date of changes in polar ice sheet mass — suggest these ice sheets are overtaking ice loss from Earth’s mountain glaciers and ice caps to become the dominant contributor to global sea level rise, much sooner than model forecasts have predicted.

Joe Romm has more. The study estimates total sea level rise by 2050 of just over a foot. That's only 40 years away, and it would make storm damage far worse than it is today, especially in poor, low-lying areas. I'll be dead by then, but the rest of you have been warned.

Chinese Girls and the Great Financial Collapse

One theory of the great financial crash of 2008 holds that it was partly caused by a "savings glut" in countries like China. Those savings found their way to the United States via the trade surplus China runs with us, and that in turn provided a huge pool of cheap, easy capital which fed the housing bubble. Allison Schrager reports today on the views of Columbia professor Shang-Jin Wei, who suggests he knows what's causing that high Chinese savings rate:

China adopted the one child law in the early 1980s. It resulted in a skewed sex ratio because many couples preferred a male baby and aborted female fetuses. In 1980, 106 boys were born were born for every 100 girls. By 1997, it was 122 boys for every 100 girls. This means that today one in nine Chinese men will probably never marry and the situation is expected to get worse as time goes on.

....The lack of a social safety net is often blamed for the high Chinese saving rate. Without welfare and government pensions the Chinese must save to self-insure themselves. But Mr Wei pointed out that even as the government has extended more social welfare programmes, the saving rate has continued to rise. He believes the uneven sex ratio can explain half of the increase in private saving between 1990 and 2005. He explained that the marriage market is becoming very competitive with so few girls. Chinese parents want to accumulate as much wealth as possible to ensure that their son can attract a wife. It is also important to provide sons with the best education possible. A competitive marriage market means that members of the disadvantaged gender must raise their game, which in China means greater wealth and education.

I find this surprisingly plausible. That doesn't mean it's true, it just means that I'm a sucker for demographic explanations of almost anything. But there's a good reason for that: demographics are really important, and although it's not fair to say they're ignored, I don't think they get nearly the attention they deserve. Partly, I suspect, this is because there's not much you can do about demographics, and people resist the idea that there are gigantic forces in the world that drive our destiny but which we don't have a lot of control over.

But there are, and we don't. Still, if you want to feel better about things, keep in mind that raw demographics are one good reason not to worry as much about China as we often do, and it's a great reason not to worry about Russia at all. Conversely, America is pretty well off, demographically speaking. And the bad news? I'll spare you that for now.

A Comment on Comments

As longtime readers know, I've always taken a hands-off approach to comments. I'm well aware of the price I pay for this in out-of-control comment threads, but for a variety of reasons I've always been willing to pay that price.

Lately, though, the quality of comment threads here has plummeted very close to zero. Farhad Manjoo says that anonymity is the problem, and he thinks its days should be over:

Advocates for anonymity argue that fuckwaddery is the price we have to pay to ensure people's privacy. Posting your name on the Web can lead to all kinds of unwanted attention—search engines will index you, advertisers can track you, prospective employers will be able to profile you. That's too high a price to pay, you might argue, for the privilege of telling an author that he completely blows.

Well, shouldn't you have to pay that high a price?.... Posting a comment is a public act. You're responding to an author who made his identity known, and your purpose, in posting the comment, is to inform the world of your point of view. If you want to do something so public, you are naturally ceding some measure of your privacy. If you're not happy with that trade, don't take part—keep your views to yourself.

Until recently this debate was largely academic....Facebook has changed that. Not only does a Facebook account include your real name, but it's also tied to your network of friends and family. This means that anything you post with your Facebook account is viewable by people you know. This introduces to the Web one of the most important offline rules for etiquette: Don't say anything that you'd be ashamed to say in front of your mom.

This seems pretty drastic to me. Every comment you make would also show up on your Facebook news feed? That would pretty much stop me from commenting entirely, even on my own site.

But how about the lesser step of requiring logins from all commenters and no longer allowing guest comments? I've always hated that, and I generally decline to bother commenting at sites that require me to log in. Still, maybe the time has come, whether I like it or not. A registration system is the only way to effectively ban trolls, and trolls have overrun the site. (Also at fault: a commenting community that doesn't have the self-discipline to ignore well-known trolls. What's wrong with you guys?)

Anyway: should I require registration from all commenters? Please leave your opinion in comments.