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.

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.

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.

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.

The Wall Street Journal has apparently tapped into the tea party id today and written the ur-text of modern-day climate denial we've all been waiting for. Ed Kilgore, from his new perch at my old perch, reads it so I don't have to:

In these turgid lines can be found a treasure trove of prevarications. You've got your impressive-sounding list of scientists agreeing with the Journal (with no corresponding list of those who disagree; the newsprint or bandwith necessary to publish those would bankrupt even the WSJ). You've got your quote marks around the term global warming. You've got your allusions to the silly "Climategate" kerfuffle. And you've got your unsubstantiated allegations of "persecution" of the brave "heretics" who dare stand with poor, puny Industry against the awesome power of academics.

Originally, climate denial went through three stages:

  1. The world isn't warming.
  2. OK, it's warming, but it's not man-made. It's just natural climate variability.
  3. Fine, people are responsible. But it's not economically worth it to do anything about it.

But conservatives have more recently backpedaled not just a single step in this process, but all the way back to the paleolithic era they're so fond of pretending to know more about than the folks who actually study it:

  1. Global warming is the biggest hoax ever put over on the American public.

This all fits in with the paranoia and conspiracy theorizing of the conservative base these days, which is pretty much identical to the paranoia and conspiracy theorizing of the far right since at least the 1930s. Climate change isn't merely wrong — that would be boring — it's an immense conspiracy being waged by a group of nerdy scientists (who want funding) and tree huggers (who are desperate to control everyone else's lives). And it's a damn successful conspiracy, too. Despite the fact that it requires thousands and thousands of participants from nearly every country in the world, with new collaborators earning PhDs every month, not a single one of them has broken the climate omerta yet and blown the whole thing open. But someone will, any day now. Just you wait.

Emily Yoffe writes today about the Soup Nazi approach that modern animal rescue groups take toward deciding who is and who isn't fit to adopt one of their pets. As she says, this isn't just a dog thing:

You might think adopting a cat would be easier than getting a dog. After all, the solitary, self-sufficient feline is the perfect pet for the working person. But I heard from people who were turned down because of the curse of full-time employment—the cat may ignore you, but you should be home all day anyway. Others were told they need to accept a pair of cats or get nothing. And don’t even think about telling the rescue people your cat might go outside occasionally. Lisa wrote to say that she rescues strays that live in her house but are allowed outdoors. When she was looking for another cat and explained this to the person at the shelter, they turned her away.

For any species, the outside world is full of dangers, even potentially deadly ones. Maybe we all should stay inside (and avoid bathtubs and stairs). I have one cat I can’t budge off the couch with a forklift. But the other bolts from between our legs when the front door opens and would be miserable contained in the house. I’ve had successive sets of cats for more than 30 years and have concluded the risk of them going outside is worth their happiness—and they’ve lived to ripe ages. Is it really sensible to keep rescued cats out of loving homes from which they may take an occasional stroll? 

I was immensely pissed off at the rescue shelter that we last tried to adopt a cat from, though judging from what Yoffe says, they were pussycats (so to speak) compared to lots of others. I'm appalled that so many of these groups apparently prefer to keep hundreds of cats caged up and obviously unhappy forever rather than adopt them out to someone who they feel is, perhaps, ever so slightly unsuitable in some obscure way. "Perhaps you should try a kill shelter," we were finally told after two hours of cat surveying and form filling out, in a tone of voice normally reserved for child molesters and rapists.

In the end, we did go to our local municipal shelter, the same one that we adoped Inkblot from, and took home Domino. So I guess it all worked out in the end. But it left a sour taste in my mouth that I don't think I'll ever get rid of.

From Renae Hathway, Ron Paul's former secretary, on his famously racist and loony newsletters:

It was his newsletter, and it was under his name, so he always got to see the final product. . . . He would proof it.

This should surprise exactly no one, but it's still good to get it on the record. And there's more:

A person involved in Paul’s businesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid criticizing a former employer, said Paul and his associates decided in the late 1980s to try to increase sales by making the newsletters more provocative. They discussed adding controversial material, including racial statements, to help the business, the person said.

“It was playing on a growing racial tension, economic tension, fear of government,’’ said the person, who supports Paul’s economic policies but is not backing him for president. “I’m not saying Ron believed this stuff. It was good copy. Ron Paul is a shrewd businessman.’’

What a creep. All things considered, though, I guess I'm glad this came out today, not yesterday. Paul deserves all the grief he's gotten over this, and I'm delighted to see his phony teddy bear image permanently tossed in the dustbin of history where it belongs. Still, I'm not sorry that we didn't waste debate time on this nonsense. It might have taken valuable attention away from Newt's plan to turn the moon into the 51st state.

No one asked me, but I just want to briefly weigh in on the question of whether the increasingly brutal primary process will hurt Mitt Romney in the general election. No. It won't. Voters will forget the debates even happened about ten seconds after the last genuine competitor (i.e., everyone except Ron Paul) drops out. Intra-party feuding will stop about ten seconds after that, when everyone remembers that Barack Obama is Hitler. And the Obama campaign itself, though I'm sure they're enjoying the bloodletting, probably had better versions of all the anti-Romney attacks already prepped and ready to go before the first GOP primary even got started.

Any other questions?

The End of Privacy

A few days ago Google announced a new privacy policy: If you're signed into any Google service, the information that Google collects from you can be combined with information from every other Google service to build a gigantic profile of your activities and preferences. On Tuesday I wrote that I was pretty unhappy about this, and a lot of people wanted to know why. After all, Google says this new policy will mean a better computing experience for everyone:

Our recently launched personal search feature is a good example of the cool things Google can do when we combine information across products. Our search box now gives you great answers not just from the web, but your personal stuff too…But there's so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with…well, you. We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too. For example, it's January, but maybe you're not a gym person, so fitness ads aren't that useful to you. We can provide reminders that you're going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day.

So what's my problem? Easy. In that mass of good news, the real reason for Google's announcement was stuffed quietly into the middle: "We can provide more relevant ads too."

This is so obvious that no one even paid attention to it. Of course Google wants to target its ads better. That's where most of its revenue comes from. Yawn.

So again: What's my problem? Why do I care if Google serves up ads that are a little more suited to my tastes? The truth is that I don't. What I do care about, though, is the obvious corollary: Google's main purpose in life, as you'd expect from any big, public company, is making money. And the way they make money is by helping third parties sell you stuff. Here, then, is the nut of the thing, from the same blog post announcing the new privacy policy:

Finally, what we're not changing. We remain committed to data liberation, so if you want to take your information elsewhere you can. We don't sell your personal information, nor do we share it externally without your permission…

Do you find that reassuring? I decidedly don't. If Google can change its privacy policy today, it can change it tomorrow. And it will. No company is an unstoppable juggernaut forever, and Google is already showing signs of becoming an ordinary corporation that has to scrap for profits just like everyone else. This is what's motivating their policy change this week, and someday it's likely to motivate them to sell my personal information after all.

It won't be mandatory, of course. If I want to close my Google accounts, they'll let me. But if I use an Android smartphone—and this is plainly one of the primary targets of Google's new policy—that will be pretty hard. And after years of using Google products like Gmail and YouTube, it's not as easy as it sounds to simply export all your data and move to a new platform. In reality, very few people will do this. Google is counting on the fact that they'll grumble a bit, like I'm doing, and then get on with their lives.

And maybe I should too. That's certainly the primary advice I got after writing Tuesday's post. Perhaps, as David Brin has been telling us for years, traditional notions of privacy are going away whether we like it or not, so we might as well like it. Complaining about it won't do us any more good than complaining about the end of transatlantic ocean liners or old-time radio shows.

And yet…I'm just not there yet. It's bad enough that Google can build up a massive and—if we're honest, slightly scary—profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk. Or any government agency that thinks this kind of information might be pretty handy.

So that's why I'm unhappy. I don't believe for a second that Google's policy against selling personal information will last forever. Maybe I should just relax and accept that this is the direction the world is going, but for now I think I'll continue to fight it.

You know those basketball rematches where a team that got pummeled last time suddenly comes out totally on fire and wins by a mile? It's never clear quite why that happens, but it happened in the Republican debate tonight. I don't know what Romney ate for breakfast this morning, but he came alive and wiped the floor with Newt Gingrich in this debate. He went after Gingrich for his Freddie Mac connections and made it stick. He was outraged when Newt said he was anti-immigrant, and for once he actually sounded outraged. And when Newt tried to buy some anti-media cred by attacking Wolf Blitzer, he got pwned by both Blitzer and Romney:

BLITZER: Earlier this week, you said Governor Romney, after he released his taxes, you said that you were satisfied with the level of transparency of his personal finances when it comes to this. And I just want to reiterate and ask you, are you satisfied right now with the level of transparency as far as his personal finances?

GINGRICH: Wolf, you and I have a great relationship, it goes back a long way. I'm with him. This is a nonsense question. Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we'll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?

BLITZER: But, Mr. Speaker, you made an issue of this, this week, when you said that, "He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts." I didn't say that. You did.

GINGRICH: I did. And I'm perfectly happy to say that on an interview on some TV show. But this is a national debate, where you have a chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues.

....ROMNEY: Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here?

Ouch. Gingrich has tried that bit before about nasty attacks being OK when you're on some radio show or something but not when you're on national TV, and for some reason he's gotten away with it even though it's transparently self-serving and ridiculous. Tonight he didn't.

This was all in the first half hour, but by then the debate was over. Romney lost a bit of his mojo later on and reverted to the stuttering, stumbling Mitt that we've seen in the last two debates, but not enough to hurt him, especially after Newt was forced to endure ten minutes of attacks over his support for a lunar colony during the second hour. This attack from Romney was both brutal and effective:

ROMNEY: I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, "You're fired."

The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it's not a good idea. And we have seen in politics -- we've seen politicians -- and Newt, you've been part of this -- go from state to state and promise exactly what that state wants to hear. The Speaker comes here to Florida, wants to spend untold amount of money having a colony on the moon. I know it's very exciting on the Space Coast.

In South Carolina, it was a new interstate highway, and dredging the port in Charleston. In New Hampshire, it was burying a power line coming in from Canada and building a new VHA hospital in New Hampshire so that people don't have to go to Boston.

Look, this idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into the trouble we're in now. We've got to say no to this kind of spending.

Coming from a guy like Romney who's famous for his willingness to say pretty much anything to anybody, this was a great job of jiu jitsu. It was also true. Gingrich really has been pandering to state interests relentlessly, and nowhere more so than in Florida.

I don't know how much debates really matter compared to the tidal wave of advertising that's inundating Florida right now, but if they do matter then Romney won the Florida primary tonight, and almost certainly the nomination along with it. The punters on Intrade obviously agree: Romney's chances of winning shot up to 89% tonight and Gingrich's plummeted to 5%. Adios, Newt.