A Defense of Mitt

Is Mitt Romney really a chameleon willing to change his colors endlessly and without shame in his quest to become president? Brendan Nyhan isn't so sure. He's been reading recent press coverage of Romney (He's wearing Gap skinny jeans! He's hanging out at NASCAR races! It's Romney 3.0!) and feels vibes from the media's treatment of Al Gore in 1999-2000:

In both cases, of course, detractors of Romney or Gore will argue that the candidate really is especially phony or inauthentic. Even if this is true, the problem is that the perception that a politician is phony encourages reporters to manufacture misleading narratives to reinforce that frame (as we saw with Gore in 1999-2000). In reality, almost every politician is calculating in the clothing they wear, the images they present, and the events they stage. Any reporter can deconstruct this stagecraft or write stories about how candidates are reinventing themselves (indeed, this is one of the few sorts of criticism allowed under what NYU's Jay Rosen calls the view from nowhere). But they tend to only write these stories about candidates for whom the narrative of phoniness seems to apply. For instance, Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who briefly ran for president in 2008, had a homespun manner. As a result, the story that Thompson pretended to drive away from a public event in his signature red pickup truck before transferring to a luxury car got little attention.

OK, point taken. But Brendan is right: I would say that Romney is unusually willing to say and do anything to make himself more acceptable to the tea party crowd that now controls the Republican nomination process. It's not so much his new jeans or his love for NASCAR as it is his all-too-transparent effort to scurry shamelessly to the far right and pretend that he's anything other than the moderate conservative technocrat that he really is. I suppose Brendan might say that all politicians are calculating in the positions they take during primaries too, and that's true. But unless I'm way off base, Romney sure does it a lot more — and a lot more clumsily — than most.

What is Mitt Romney's Problem?

Jon Cohn sends us to Joe Klein's latest head scratching over Mitt Romney:

Romney remains a mystery to me: He's smart, he was a good governor, he's essentially a responsible moderate-conservative...but he has made an utter fool of himself flip-flopping and fudging--and taking wildly stupid positions (against the START treaty, for example) on issues about which he knows little or nothing. It almost seems a personality disorder. In this case, his efforts to distance himself from his own, essentially successful program, are particularly pathetic. If the man had the tiniest smidgeon of courage, he would make a conservative argument in favor of universal health care--it liberates a great deal of potential economic energy (all those would-be entrepreneurs now stuck in stultifying corporate jobs because they don't want to leave their health plans). Or he would simply plead humanity: it's inhumane for an industrial giant not provide health care for all its citizens.

But no. Instead we get the embarrassing spectacle of an intelligent man acting like a semi-coherent jerk.

This isn't really a mystery, is it? Romney's a moderate conservative who figured out sometime between 2006 and 2008 that it was no longer possible for a moderate conservative to win the Republican nomination for president. The events of the past two years have made this even clearer than before, but Romney really, really wants to be president. His only option, then, is to pretend to be a tea party conservative, but both his past record and his weak acting skills make this really hard to pull off. So he ends up sounding like a semi-coherent jerk.

This is common knowledge, isn't it?

Our Computer Overlords

Paul Krugman writes that us college-educated types are hardly immune from being put out of work by computers:

Computers, it turns out, can quickly analyze millions of documents, cheaply performing a task that used to require armies of lawyers and paralegals. In this case, then, technological progress is actually reducing the demand for highly educated workers. And legal research isn’t an isolated example. As the article points out, software has also been replacing engineers in such tasks as chip design.

True enough. You know those thin copper lines on circuit boards that connect all the chips together? Creating those lines is called routing, and back when I first joined the high-tech world in the mid-80s, routing was done at my company by a room full of pretty skilled, pretty well paid pros. Engineers would compete to get their projects assigned to one router over another, because some of them had an especially good reputation for being able to perform complex routes quickly and efficiently. It was as much art as science.

Within a decade, it was all science and autorouting software had pretty much taken over the job. Humans were barely involved. The same thing has happened in the document world. Defendants in civil cases used to try to bury opposing lawyers during discovery by handing over truckloads of documents and hoping they would never be able to find the one or two damning documents in the bunch. Then high-speed scanners came along, and in big cases lawyers would send the whole pile of discovery documents to a service bureau, get the whole mess scanned and OCRed, and then do keyword searches. It was great. Later, software got more intelligent and more sophisticated and humans were less and less involved. Krugman extrapolates from this, suggesting that "quite a lot of white-collar work currently carried out by well-educated, relatively well-paid workers may soon be computerized. Roombas are cute, but robot janitors are a long way off; computerized legal research and computer-aided medical diagnosis are already here."

Maybe so. It's useful to think of two big challenges in the world of artificial intelligence. The first is creating analytic ability. This is what Watson did on Jeopardy! or what Deep Blue did in chess. The second is emulating the sensory perceptions of human beings. This is, if anything, even harder. Humans are extremely good at looking around a room, identifying objects, figuring out what they are, and then doing something about it. A robot that, say, was designed to go from room to room emptying wastebaskets would need only a modest amount of analytic ability but a huge amount of sensory ability. Right now we're not really very close to getting there.

Still, it's not clear to me just how far apart progress is on these fronts. It's probably true that analytic ability is further along, but mainly because you don't need to have a human level of analytic ability to be useful. A modest amount that merely does some of the prep work and reduces the number of hours it takes to do something is pretty handy. Sensory ability is a little different: you really do need something pretty close to full human capability to be very useful in an independent environment. So if I had to guess, I'd say that analytic ability will progress steadily, while sensory ability will remain largely limited and experimental until it gets to a useful level, at which point it will suddenly burst out of the lab and seemingly be everywhere within just a few years. This may still be a decade or two away, but really, that's not a very long time.

Over the past few years, my guess about how soon truly useful AI will be available has gone down. Human level AI may still be quite a ways away (I don't really know), but AI useful enough to create massive economic dislocations might well be no more than a decade away. Maybe two at the most.

In the meantime, I just hope that Mother Jones doesn't figure out that they could almost certainly find some extremely bright, knowledgable, plugged-in Indian blogger who would work much harder than me and for a quarter of my salary. There probably aren't a ton of Indians who could replace me, but there don't need to be tons. There only needs to be one.

The GOP's Orrin Hatch Problem

This is old news, but I'd just like to draw attention again to the fact that Orrin Hatch is in danger of losing the Republican primary in Utah next year because he's not conservative enough. Orrin Hatch! 

Your Kind Not Wanted Here

Peter Wallsten reports in the Washington Post today on the latest wave of Republican efforts to pass state laws requiring picture IDs for voters. "Backers of the voting measures," says Wallsten, "say they would bring fairness and restore confidence in a voting system vulnerable to fraud."

Well, yes, that is what they say. They're lying, but that's what they say. The real reason that Republicans are so gung ho on these measures, even though there's no measurable voting-booth fraud anywhere in the United States, is because certain demographic groups are less likely to have picture IDs than others:

An analysis by the North Carolina State Board of Elections showed that any new law requiring a state-issued ID could be problematic for large numbers of voters, particularly African Americans, whose turnout in 2008 helped Obama win the state.

Blacks account for about one-fifth of the North Carolina electorate but are a larger share — 27 percent — of the approximately 1 million voters who may lack a state-issued ID or whose names do not exactly match the Division of Motor Vehicles database. The analysis found about 556,000 voters with no record of an ID issued by the DMV.

Imagine that. It might suppress black turnout, which helped Obama win the state two years ago. Elsewhere, Wallsten reports on efforts to prevent college students from voting. Guess who they vote for? If you guessed "Democrats" again, you win a gold star. In Indiana, which implemented a voter ID several years ago, a survey showed that blacks, the young, and low-income voters had access to picture IDs at significantly lower rates than whites, the middle aged, and the middle income. A quick look at the exit polls from any election in the past few decades shows that the most loyal Democratic demographics are blacks, the young, and low-income voters — exactly the groups targeted by voter ID laws.

There's a level of loathsomeness and naked corruption to all this that's hard to take even for those of us who follow politics closely and have few illusions about Marquess of Queensberry rules. But the goal of voter ID laws could hardly be more plain.

Wasted Money

I'm curious about something. About a decade ago the LA Community College District floated a series of massive bond issues for building construction. Gale Holland and Michael Finnegan of the LA Times spent 18 months looking into how that money has been spent, and the last of their 6-part series on the building projects is in today's paper. They document boondoggles galore, including some extremely timely questions about the widespread use of politically connected "body shops" who paid the salaries of consultants at seemingly indefensible markups.

But here's what I'm curious about. The district has so far spent $2.6 billion on its construction program. I went through all six parts of the Times series, and if I added things up correctly, they identified about $100 million in wasted money of various kinds. That's about 3.8% of the total.

So is that good or bad? Serious question. If someone told you that a public agency was embarking on a multi-billion dollar building project, and in the end about 96% of the total would end up being used properly and 4% would end up wasted, would you consider that a decent outcome or not? In any big project like this, how much waste should you reasonably expect, once all is said and done?

UPDATE: I added a bit of this in comments, but just to clear up a couple of things.....

Yes, that $100 million is only what the Times uncovered. Maybe there was more. On the other hand, all I did was add up all the numbers in the series, and some of it might not really count as waste. Sometimes construction projects go over budget for perfectly defensible reasons. So that $100 million number could be either high or low.

Oversight of public programs like this is important, and I think the Times series was terrific. I'm glad they were willing to spend the resources on it. Still, whenever I see a piece like this, I automatically think in terms of percentages. Horror stories are worth telling, but I still want to know what the total damage is, and I want to know how that compares to other similar programs. After all, construction projects are famous for running into problems and going over budget, and you'd be foolish not to expect any of that in any big building program. But stories like this never seem to provide that kind of comparison, and it's one that I think is important.

Bradley Manning

No blogging for me this weekend, but I'd just like to second Jane Hamsher, Mark Kleiman, Glenn Greenwald, and everyone else who's appalled at the way we're treating Bradley Manning. If he's guilty of a crime, then try him and sentence him. Until then, as Mark says, "This is a total disgrace. It shouldn’t be happening in this country. You can’t be unaware of this, Mr. President. Silence gives consent."

Friday Cat Blogging - 4 March 2011

Today's catblogging is dedicated to that traditional favorite, cats inside of things. On the left, Inkblot is peering out of the box my new desk chair came in. It's a drafting stool, which allows me to sit higher and hopefully ease the strain on my arm and shoulders caused by typing and mousing too much. On the right, Domino is staring suspiciously outside her grocery bag because she's attracted a visitor. This means everyone gets a double dose of Inkblot this week, but who'd complain about that?

In the Boston Review, Stephen Ansolabehere and James Snyder write that the tea party movement has been overrated:

It is tempting to believe that the Tea Party endorsement moved voters. Indeed, the candidates endorsed by these groups did well: 64 percent of Republican candidates endorsed by the Tea Party Express or FreedomWorks (or both) won, while only 52 percent of non-endorsed Republicans won. The numbers look even more impressive among non-incumbents: almost 52 percent of endorsed candidates won, while only 28 percent of non-endorsed candidates won.

But the tea party groups mostly endorsed candidates in heavy Republican districts who were going to win anyway. If you take a look at the vote percentage of tea party candidates (shown with black Ts in the chart below), it looks pretty similar to the vote percentage of all the other Republican candidates:

This seems pretty plausible, especially since it matches what seems to have happened in the Senate, where tea party candidates didn't do any better — and might even have done worse — than other Republicans. On the other hand, I think it's possible that this might miss what happened in the primaries, where tea party endorsements helped power conservative candidates to victory over more moderate ones. That doesn't show up in the general election results, but it's a real effect nonetheless.

The Glenn Beck Vortex

I almost agreed to do a piece about Glenn Beck for the next issue of the magazine, but in the end I begged off. I just couldn't do it. The tipping point came a week after I'd said I'd do it, when I was in a bookstore and decided that if I was going to do a Beck piece, then I guess I'd better read his latest book. So I took a copy off the shelf and started browsing. And the pit in my stomach grew. I just couldn't dive down that rabbit hole for the next month.

Besides, I was also halfway convinced that Beck had also reached a tipping point and might very well have imploded completely by the time the magazine hit the newsstands. In the New Republic today, James Downie recounts Beck's steep decline in the ratings and suggests that the implosion might have happened already:

Beck, says [biographer Alexander] Zaitchik, was caught “in a vicious circle”: To keep viewers coming back, he had to keep creating new, more intricate theories. Last November, in a two-part special that indirectly invoked anti-Semitism, he accused liberal Jewish financier George Soros of orchestrating the fall of foreign governments for financial gain. During the Egyptian Revolution, Beck sided with Hosni Mubarak, alleging that his fall was “controlled by the socialist communists and the Muslim Brotherhood.” Beck is now warning viewers not to use Google, accusing the search-engine giant of “being deep in bed with the government.” In recent months, it seems, Beck’s theories became so outlandish that even conservatives—both viewers and media personalities—were having a hard time stomaching them. Now, each new idea appears to be costing Beck both eyeballs and credibility. “At some point,” says Boehlert, “it doesn’t add up any more.”

I caught a few minutes of Beck's show yesterday for the first time in a while, and he was rattling on about.....Van Jones. Jesus. Surely he's milked that dry even for an audience as credulous as his? And that's his problem. He either replays his greatest hits over and over, which starts to get preposterous even for his biggest fans, who must have an increasingly hard time believing that Van Jones is literally at the center of all that's wrong with the world. Or he creates ever more convoluted alternate universes that are not just harder to follow, but are also increasingly hard to believe for an audience that basically just wants to hear that Barack Obama is Satan. There's really no way off this carousel.