…Perhaps They Need To Get Out More…

One of my “guilty pleasure” movies is the James Caviezel version of ‘The Count of Monte Christo.’ There are a few great scenes in it; in one Caviezel, having gathered the wealth left at Monte Christo by Abbé Faria, sits morose in a carriage with Jacopo (played to perfection by Luis Guzmán). When asked why, with his newly wealth, he isn’t happier, Caviezel explains that he wants vengeance. Jacopo answers

“Why not just kill them? I’ll do it! I’ll run up to Paris – bam, bam, bam, bam. I’m back before week’s end. We spend the treasure. How is this a bad plan?”

How is this a bad plan?” is now a standard phrase in our house…

There’s another line which was pretty sharp as well.
Caviezel has just swum from the Chateau d’If, and washed ashore on an island beach were a group of pirates is camped.

The leader of the pirates explains that he must fight and kill one of the pirate group or be killed himself. And then explains that: “Oh, and by the way, Jacopo is the best knife fighter I have ever seen.”

Caviezel replies, with a perfect deadpan – “Perhaps you should get out more…

I had exactly that thought – perhaps they should get out more – reading Yglesias and Will Wilkinson writing about the problem of income inequality today.

Yglesias realizes that we can’t raise enough money via taxing the rich to really balance income inequality. His response?

The most important thing is to just have lots of tax revenue. Public expenditures are pretty progressive in their impact everywhere, and the difference between a very progressive and a not-so-progressive system is mostly that the more progressive ones are bigger. So while liberals have no reason to give in to conservative demands to make the existing revenue scheme less progressive – by adopting a flat tax, say, or replacing the income tax with a consumption tax – there’s very good reason to basically be looking for revenue by any means necessary. If it’s easier, politically, to get some center-right politicians on board for new consumption taxes than for higher income taxes, then it’s incumbent on progressives to walk through that door and take the revenue.

Wilkinson amplifies the point, in a post delightfully called…wait for it…’Will Coddling the Middle Class Kill Obama’s Plans?‘ Here’s the key graf:

So Yglesias is right (though he doesn’t quite put it this way). Democratic strategists need to be looking at clever ways for the government to take a lot more money away from middle-class families without thereby making the GOP look golden again. Obama’s been behaving as though he’s much less fiscally constrained than he really is. But by catering to the idea that middle-class taxes shouldn’t ever go up, he’s making it even tougher on himself. Unless he’s in the middle of some kind of ten-steps-ahead rope-a-dope wherein reaffirming the middle class’ right to not pay taxes is a way of softening them up to accept huge tax increases, he may be making a mistake.

Now I don’t begin to have an idea of when Yglesias is being serious or not, and Wilkinson is someone I’ve read a few times – not enough to make any judgment about whether the colossally lame post above is a brain fart or a core belief.

But I have one comment to both of these fine gentlemen – perhaps you should get out more

Look, I’ve written a bunch about inequality – most centrally in 2002 in a post Google archived here (right now www.armedliberal.com exists only as a tar file, sadly – I’ll get it reposted sometime soon)

Look, you can’t have enough traffic police to enforce the laws everywhere. So obedience to traffic rules comes from two sources: First, a sense of “correctness”; a belief that the rules make sense, that we all benefit from the rule being followed, and that others will also follow the rule; Second, fear of punishment, either through direct consequences (an accident) or through the actions of other citizens or agents of the state (being threatened by someone you cut off, or being cited and fined by a police officer).

It ought to be obvious that the first source works better than the second. It works all the time, regardless of the state of enforcement; it is internalized so that each driver can freely respond to current situations. I’ll argue that it is morally better, as well, because it treats each driver as a responsible actor, rather than just a subject for enforcement.

But the first source depends on something which is in ever-shorter supply; a sense of the legitimacy of the rules, and a sense that one is connected to the others who are also bound by those rules. So why not run red lights?

Habra and Schaar each have a different vision of why legitimacy is in short supply; they are rich and difficult to summarize, so I won’t right now. To those, I will add the simple fact of inequality as it exists today (and here I’ll poach from Montesquieu as noted by Bertram, above).

I’m talking about a level of ‘Gilded Age’ inequality that gives us Lizzie Grubman and all she represents, a sense of separation, entitlement, and inheritance which is mirrored by the people who read about her and are convinced that modern American society is structured for people like her, and not people like them.

The kind of separation between people in the SkyBoxes and the rest in the cheap seats.

And the consequence isn’t just bad views or a mild sense of disengagement between classes. It is a profound corrosion of the relations that tie society together, as those in the SkyBox decide that they are above the law, and those in the nosebleed section see no reason to obey, as the law does nothing for them.

So as the light turns yellow, they just gun it, and the rest of us just have to be very, very careful because we are the ones they hit.

I believe passionately that we have to reduce the level of inequality – in wealth, income, and power – in this country.

But to me that means we grow the middle class, not try and hammer it with taxes just as the global hand is wiping it flat into Neal Stephenson’s Pakistani mud.

How do we do that, if we’re not going to follow the suggestion above and just have everyone work directly or indirectly for the state?

Well, for one, we can sit down and look hard at the rules which we’ve allowed to be continually rewritten from the late 60’s through today to advantage capital and disadvantage labor, to advantage investment income over earned income, to tilt the tables away from the working middle class and toward the politically wired wealthy and powerful.

I’m sensitive to the need to make investment more attractive than consumption; neither am I insensitive to the need to make investment more attractive than speculation.

‘Cause we’ve seen how well we do in an economy built on speculation, rather than investment.

Government doesn’t need to put men on the field to play the game; it just needs to take it’s role as a ref seriously.

That’s “smart power,” paid for with “smart taxation.”

Kilcullen Is As Smart As They Say He Is

Here’s the conclusion to his – great – piece in SWJ, “Crunch Time In Afghanistan-Pakistan”:

To conclude, it might be impolite but it’s certainly not inaccurate to say that our policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan have, until early last year, been marked by woolly and wishful thinking, and a tendency to seek quick, neat solutions to intractable, messy and long-standing problems. The vital requirement now is to be clear-eyed about what we need to do, how much it will cost, and how long it will take. We need to be straight with the American people and our allies (including Afghans and Pakistanis) about this.

In Afghanistan, we have an immediate crisis to deal with. We need to stop the rot and regain the initiative before we can hope for long-term progress. That progress will come at a cost, and it will involve the four key tasks of preventing another 9/11, protecting the Afghan people, building sustainable institutions and then handing-off the effort to them.

In Pakistan, we need to stop asking ourselves the question “Is Pakistan an enemy or an ally?” Pakistan is NOT the enemy. But we have enemies – as well friends – in Pakistan. We need to identify those friends and enemies, and empower our friends to deal with our enemies. This is a classic diplomatic strategy, and an essential enabler for it is to build a willing partner in Pakistan – something that will mean, amongst other things, that we need to help Pakistani civilian politicians gain control over their own national-security establishment, and we need to impose a much more stringent set of limitations on strikes into Pakistani territory.

Things aren’t hopeless, but they are extremely serious. This is the critical year: the situation is still salvageable, but we must act now to put the AFPAK enterprise onto a sound footing before it’s too late.

Go read the whole thing, right now.

Then read TM Barnett’s reply.

I’m working on a piece on Afghanistan, but I have a few books to read first.

One Theory About The New York Times Blown To Hell

So my reaction to the drumbeat of disclosures by the New York Times of classified military programs – even ones that were unquestionable legal, like SWIFT – had been that they had it in for George Bush and were using every opportunity to disclose news that would embarass and weaken him.

Boy, was I wrong. On Feb 23, the Times published this story:

U.S. Unit Secretly in Pakistan Lends Ally Support

BARA, Pakistan – More than 70 United States military advisers and technical specialists are secretly working in Pakistan to help its armed forces battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the country’s lawless tribal areas, American military officials said.

The Americans are mostly Army Special Forces soldiers who are training Pakistani Army and paramilitary troops, providing them with intelligence and advising on combat tactics, the officials said. They do not conduct combat operations, the officials added.

They make up a secret task force, overseen by the United States Central Command and Special Operations Command. It started last summer, with the support of Pakistan’s government and military, in an effort to root out Qaeda and Taliban operations that threaten American troops in Afghanistan and are increasingly destabilizing Pakistan. It is a much larger and more ambitious effort than either country has acknowledged.

Boy, that’s gonna go over well in Pakistan, isn’t it?

Could the NYT have done anything to make that program less effective or more of a political liability – for Obama?

Man, I’d love to know what the Times editors are thinking.



I’m chewing over my response to Obama’s leaked decision to pull 90+K of the troops out of Iraq by mid-2010. Like everything, there is a positive and a negative side to it; while my real judgment will wait until I understand better why he justifies this, I’m very concerned that this is really a domestic decision as opposed to one based on the real needs there. That’s amplified by the reporting, which suggests that the generals on the ground managed to pull the deadline out a few months – meaning that Obama is negotiating against his generals, as opposed to supporting them in the context of his larger strategic decisions. That gives me kind of a cold, prickly feeling…

One thing I give GWB massive credit for is his decision to screw domestic politics and push the surge. Of course, if he’d done a better job managing domestic politics…


But I can’t help feeling like we’re close, and a little more patience might create the space for a more stable politics in Iraq. Then again, the Iraqi government gets the trump card in making these decisions.

So…this will take a lot more reading and thinking.

Cranks, Empiricists, and Sunlight

Thinking a bit this morning about the hoo-hah in the comments thread to my post on climate change meta-issues below, I started to surf around looking for people who were thinking about the same meta-issues. I don’t have a conclusion yet, but tripped over two interesting things.

The first was a blog supporting AGW and opposing the people who challenge it as ‘cranks, deniers, etc.’ and generally taking on Creationists, 9/11 Truthers, AIDS deniers, and AGW skeptics. Generally, it supports mainstream thinking and – indirectly – arguments from authority.

Here we will discuss the problem of denialists, their standard arguing techniques, how to identify denialists and/or cranks, and discuss topics of general interest such as skepticism, medicine, law and science. I’ll be taking on denialists in the sciences, while my brother, Chris, will be geared more towards the legal and policy implications of industry groups using denialist arguments to prevent sound policies.

First of all, we have to get some basic terms defined for all of our new readers.

Denialism is the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one’s viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.

I’m generally sympathetic to this view; I hear from 9/11 truthers periodically on an email list I’m on, and I don’t have a lot of time for their claims.

But then, I also found an article on the importance of fact-checking scientific claims (pdf).

Yes, it’s sponsored by a libertarian, corporatist Canadian think tank – but discounting for that, the claims made, and the conclusion of the article made lots and lots of sense to me.

In recent years, there has been considerable attention paid to the question of whether financial statements and other data from corporations are adequately reviewed prior to release. An analogous question concerns the data and findings in academic papers which sometimes influence public sector decisions. Disclosure of data and code for the purpose of permitting independent replication in no way intrudes on or imperils academic freedom; instead, it should be seen as essential to good scientific practice, as well as a contribution to better public decisionmaking.

The article cites a litany of scientific and research error and malpractice, all shielded by stonewalling. Over the next few days, I’m going to dig into the ones I don’t know about, and see what I can find (I’d welcome assistance…); if the point of this article is that we need to check the math in research that’s given to us, we need to extend the same level of scrutiny to the claims in the article itself.

But here are the stories it tells, and a few comments of my own.

The ‘Harvard Six Cities’ study

In 1993, a team of researchers led by D.W. Dockery and C.A. Pope published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine supposedly showing a statistically significant correlation between atmospheric fine particulate levels and premature mortality in six US cities (Dockery, Pope, et al., 1993). The “Harvard Six Cities” (HSC) study, as it came to be called, attracted considerable attention and has since been repeatedly cited in assessment reports, including those prepared for the Ontario government, the Toronto board of public health and the Ontario medical association. In each case the reports have used the HSC study to recommend tighter air quality standards or other costly pollution control measures.

…after continuing pressure, Dockery and Pope gave their data to a third party research group called the Health Effects Institute (HEI), which agreed to conduct an audit of the findings. In 2000, fully six years after the CASAC request, and three years after the new air quality regulations had been introduced, the HEI completed its reanalysis. The audit of the HSC data reported no material problems in replicating the original results, though there were a few coding errors (Health Effects Institute, 2000). However, their sensitivity analysis showed the risk originally attributed to particles became insignificant when sulphur dioxide was included in the model, and the estimated health effects differed by educational attainment and region, weakening the plausibility of the original findings (Heuss and Wolff, 2006).

The Boston Fed Study

Although there had been political pressure on banks to increase lending to minorities, there was no legitimate justification for doing so until the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston released a now-famous working paper in 1992 entitled Mortgage Lending in Boston: InterpretingHMDAData, which purported to show widespread discrimination against minorities in the Boston mortgage market. This led to a series of rapid rule changes affecting bank lending practices. These coincided with passage of the 1992 Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act, which forced Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to accept sub-prime loans, thus removing from the banks the risks associated with making bad loans.

Day and Liebowitz (1998) filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain identifiers for these observations so they could re-run the analysis without them. They also noted that the Boston Fed did not use the applicant’s credit score as generated by the bank, but had replaced it with three alternate indicators they themselves constructed, which Day and Liebowitz found had omitted many standard indicators of creditworthiness. Day and Liebowitz showed that simply reverting to the bank’s own credit score and correcting the 26 misclassified observations caused the discrimination coefficient to drop to zero.

I’ve looked a little bit into this one, and there are a set of newer papers that suggest that there is some impact of race on loan approvals for marginally qualified candidates, as well as other newer papers that suggest that there is no impact.

The “hockey stick” graph

OK, now I’m sure it’ll get ugly.

The Mann, Bradley, and Hughes (1998; 1999) “hockey stick” graph, shown in figure 1, was a key piece of evidence used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2001 Third Assessment Report to conclude that humans are causing climate change (Working Group I, IPCC, 2001, ch. 2, fig. 2.7c and ch. 2, fig. 2.20). The graph has a striking visual effect, suggesting the Earth’s climate (represented by the average northern hemisphere temperature) was stable for nine centuries prior to industrialization, then underwent a rapid warming in the 20th century. The hockey stick graph appeared five times in the Third Assessment Report, each time in an unusually large and colorful format compared to other data series. It was widely reproduced on government web sites around the world and played an influential role in the debates that took place in many countries between 2001 and 2004 over whether to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

In 2005, the House Science Committee asked the National Research Council (NRC) to investigate the controversy over the hockey stick. Prior to beginning its work, the NRC revised its terms of reference to exclude any specific assessment of Mann’s work. The Energy and Commerce Committee then asked Edward Wegman, Professor of Statistics at George Mason University and Chairman of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Theoretical and Applied Statistics, to assemble a separate panel to assess Mann’s methods and results. The NRC report ended up critiquing the hockey stick anyway, noting that it failed key statistical significance tests (National Research Council, 2006: 91), relied on invalid bristlecone data for its shape (pp. 50, 106-7), used a PC technique that biased the shape (p. 106), and, like other proxy reconstructions that followed it, systematically underestimated the associated uncertainties (p. 107). The Wegman panel report was published in July 2006 (Wegman et al., 2006). It upheld the findings of McIntyre and McKitrick (p. 4). Among other things, the panel reported that, despite downloading the materials from Mann’s web site, they were unable to replicate the hockey stick results (p. 29).

Given the controversy around this issue, it’s important to note the modesty of their concluding paragraph:

The hockey stick episode illustrates, among other things, the inability or unwillingness of granting agencies, academic societies, and journals to enforce disclosure to a degree sufficient for the purposes of replication. Government intervention in this case resulted in release of essential code. Unless granting agencies and journals deal with this issue forcefully, policy makers should be prepared to accept a responsibility to act if their decisions are going to be based on the findings of unreplicated academic research.

The US obesity epidemic

In March 2004, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a paper by Dr. Julie Gerberding, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and three other staff scientists, claiming that being overweight caused the deaths of 400,000 Americans annually, up from 300,000 in 1990 (Mokdad, Marks, Stroup, and Gerberding, 2004). This study, and the 400,000 deaths figure, was the subject of considerable media attention and was immediately cited by then-US Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in a March 9, 2004 press release announcing a major new public policy initiative on obesity, a $20 million increase in funding for obesity-related programs and a further $40 million increase the following year (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2004).

The CDC soon found itself under intense criticism over the chaotic statistics and the issue of whether internal dissent was suppressed. In response, it appointed an internal review panel to investigate, but the resulting report has never been made public. Some portions were released after Freedom of Information requests were made. The report makes scathing comments about the poor quality of the Gerberding study, the lack of expertise of the authors, the use of outdated data, and the political overtones to the paper (Couzin, 2005). The report also found that the authors knew their work was flawed prior to publication but that since all the authors were attached to the Office of the Director, internal reviewers did not press for revisions.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment

In late 2004, a summary report entitled the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) was released by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization formed to discuss policy issues related to the Arctic region. The council had convened a team of scientists to survey available scientific information related to climate change and the Arctic. Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Highlights (Arctic Council, 2004) was released to considerable international media fanfare, and prompted hearings before a US Senate committee on November 16, 2004 (the full report did not appear until August 2005). Among other things, the Highlights document stated that the Arctic region was warming faster than the rest of the world, that the Arctic was now warmer than at any time since the late 19th century, that sea-ice extent had declined 15 to 20 percent over the past 30 years and that the area of Greenland susceptible to melting had increased by 16 percent in the past 30 years.

Shortly after its publication, critics started noting on web sites that the main summary graph (Arctic Council, 2004, Highlights: 4) showing unprecedented warmth in the Arctic had never appeared in a peer-reviewed journal (Taylor, 2004; Soon, Baliunas, Legates, and Taylor, 2004), and the claims of unprecedented warming were at odds with numerous published Arctic climate histories in the peer-reviewed literature (Michaels, 2004). Neither the data used nor an explanation of the graph’s methodology were made available (Taylor, 2004; Soon, Baliunas, Legates, and Taylor, 2004). When the final report was released eight months later, it explained that they had used only land-based weather stations, even though the region is two-thirds ocean, and had re-defined the boundaries of the Arctic southwards to 60N, thereby including some regions of Siberia with poor quality data and anomalously strong warming trends. Other recently published climatology papers that used land- and ocean-based data had concluded that the Arctic was, on average, cooler than it had been in the late 1930s (Polyakov et al., 2002). But while these studies were cited in the full report, their findings were not mentioned as caveats against the dramatic conclusions of the ACIA summary, nor were their data sets presented graphically.

The Donato study of post-fire logging and forest regeneration

On January 5, 2006, an article entitled “Post-wildfire logging hinders regeneration and increases fire risk” appeared in Science Express, the pre-publication venue for accepted articles in Science (Donato, Fontaine, Campbell, Robinson, Kauffman, and Law, 2006a). The paper examined logging activity in Oregon’s Biscuit Forest following a 2002 fire. It argued that logging reduced by 71 percent the density of viable seedlings during the recovery period, and led to an accumulation of slash on the ground, increasing potential fuel levels for future fires. The article drew attention to legislation pending before the US Congress, H.R. 4200, which mandated rapid salvage logging on federal lands following a fire. The authors concluded that post-fire logging “can be counterproductive to stated goals of post-fire forest regeneration.” The article was quickly cited by opponents of H.R. 4200 as authoritative scientific evidence against it (eg., Earth Justice, 2006).

In their response, Donato, Fontaine, Campbell, Robinson, Kauffman, and Law (2006c) acknowledged that their findings were less general than their title suggested, but they defended their sampling methodology and conclusions. At this point their critics asked to inspect the data and the sites where the data were gathered. The authors refused to disclose this information. Following publication of the exchange in Science, Newton and coauthors have repeatedly requested the underlying data collected at the measurement sites, as well as the locations of the specific sample sites, so they can examine how the seedling density measurements were done. These requests have been refused by Donato and coauthors (J. Sessions, pers. comm.), as have been similar data requests from Congressman Baird (Skinner, 2006).

The Bellesiles affair

Here’s one I have some pretty intimate knowledge of.

In 2000, to great fanfare, Knopf Publishing released Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Written by Michael A. Bellesiles, then a professor of history at Emory University, the book purported to show that prior to the Civil War, guns were rare in America and Americans had little interest in owning guns. Other history professors wrote glowing reviews of the book: Garry Wills in the New York Times Review of Books, Edmund Morgan in the New York Review of Books, and Fred Anderson in the Los Angeles Times. The Washington Post did publish a critical review (Chambers, October 29, 2000), but it was a rarity. The book was promptly awarded Columbia University’s prestigious “Bancroft Prize” for its contribution to American history.

Despite the political importance of the topic, professional historians did not actively scrutinize Bellesiles’ thesis. Instead it was non-historians who began the process of due diligence. Stephen Halbrook, a lawyer, checked the probate records for Thomas Jefferson’s three estates (Halbrook, 2000). He found no record of any firearm, despite the fact that Jefferson is known to have been a lifelong owner of firearms, putting into question the usefulness of probate records for the purpose. Soon after, a software engineer named Clayton Cramer began checking Bellesiles’ sources. Cramer, who has a master’s degree in history, found dates changed and quotations substantively altered. However, Cramer was unable to get academic journals to publish his findings. Instead he began sending articles to magazines such as the National Review Online and Shotgun News. He compiled an extensive list of errors, numbering in the hundreds, and went so far as to scan original documents and post them on his website so historians would check the original documents against the text of Bellesiles’ book (Cramer, 2006).

Here’s a case where the initial critics were backhanded and dismissed as cranks by the author, and by many in the field – until the weight of evidence simply collapsed Bellesiles’ case completely.

Referring to Clayton Cramer, Bellesiles said, “It is not my intention to give an introductory history lesson, but as a non-historian, Mr. Cramer may not appreciate that historians do not just chronicle the past, but attempt to analyze events and ideas while providing contexts for documents” (Bellesiles, 2001).

They cite other studies, and miss citing still others – like that of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who apparently falsified data about a study linking thimerosol in vaccines to autism – which study led to an unknown number of children not getting potentially life-saving vaccinations.

Personally, I side with both the anti-crank blog authors and the challengers in the paper pointing out the deficiencies in widely publicized, honored, mainstream science that has become the root of policy.

But as a matter of principle and action, I think I side with the paper’s authors core agenda – which is that papers which purport to tell scientific truths through statistical analysis need to release both raw data and code or pseudocode so that others can validate it.

My first serious science class – high school physics as a freshman – taught me that science was the art of making repeatable observations and drawing conclusions from them. Repeatable is a key word here, because it implies that science is, above all, empirical and intersubjective.

We need to base our policy decisions on science; that is science that is, above all, repeatable. This implies a level of transparency in the scientific and academic establishment which is often lacking.

Let’s fix that. And then we can make decisions based on something at least somewhat empirical, and hold the cranks and denialists up to the light of the sun.

It’s For Posterity

Over at Normblog, Norm Geras (one of the UK’s best bloggers!!) posted a challenge:

The story is that, civilization approaching its possible doom (not really, but it’s the premise of the poll), the normblog readership has been assigned the task of assembling for posterity a representative collection of the Arts of Humankind, to be preserved in a sealed container so that some future beings of intelligence, discernment and taste can discover it and be impressed. That’s you and me, and also you. What we all have to do is to nominate under the following 12 headings those artists whose work we would like to see going into the sealed container…

I’m going to cheat and do it twice, once for people who I think everyone should agree must be there – “Standards”, and once for people who I think might not be so well-known “Upstarts” – who are likely to be my personal choices.

Everyone / Upstart

1. Poet – Homer / Mark Doty
2. Playwright – Shakespeare / Tom Stoppard
3. Novelist – Vladimir Nabokov / Jim Harrison
4. Composer – Johannes Sebastian Bach / Igor Stravinsky
5. Jazz musician – Miles Davis / Joe Williams
6. Rock or pop star/group – The Who / The Clash
7. Country music ditto – The Carter Family / Johnny Cash
8. Movie director – Francis Ford Coppola / John Ford
9. Painter – Picasso / Marie Cassat
10. Photographer – Imogen Cunningham / W. Eugene Smith
11. Sculptor – Constantin Brancusi / Joseph Cornell
12. Architect – Christopher Wren / Frank Gehry

Drop Norm an email and play yourself…

Climate Change and Bar Fights

So was reading John Quiggin over at Crooked Timber writing about climate change, and something crystallized in my thinking a bit.

Here’s Quiggin:

In one sense, the blogosphere has reached a near-universal consensus on climate change. Everyone who follows the issue at all closely agrees that there is no real debate. Instead, it’s generally agreed, we have a situation where (1) a large body of people devoted to serious scientific research is confronted by (2) pushers of silly Internet talking points who are ideologically motivated, financially driven or just plain delusional . The only disagreement is which group is which.

I’ll get to my own beliefs and prescriptions in a bit; what’s interesting to me is that Quiggin neatly sets out what makes me so uncomfortable with the state of the argument today. It’s the tone of the people who are pushing hard for Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).

In my somewhat misspent youth, I put myself in places where I often encountered stupidly aggressive people. Bars. And there’s an interesting point about aggressive people in bars; you should pay close attention to the ones who are loudly threatening to kick your ass – but you don’t need to be afraid of them. Because if they were serious, they would already be kicking your ass, not just telling you about it.

Two things put my environmental-regulation-loving, hybrid-driving, solar-panel powered self off from supporting AGW and the policies that fall out from it:

1. The bullying tone of the supporters of AGW. Look, if you’ve got the facts and the science, you don’t need to try and rhetorically drive people out of the debate. But if you don’t…

2. The fact that many (not all) of the supporters of AGW are people who also – for a variety of reasons good and bad – have issues with “the dominant paradigm” of Western industrial society. It’s kind of like the local Lothario discovering that nude hot oil massages are the key to preventing some kind of fatal disease.

As someone who knows something (certainly not everything) about physical sciences and complex systems, I can say with some certainty that there is no way in hell that the level of certainty in the data we have supports an absolute society-restructuring belief in AGW. We’re talking about something vastly more complex than markets, and yet with a smidgen of data and a few complex computer models we have a group of bright people assuring us that absolutely they know what’s going to happen next.

Note how well that worked out in the financial markets…

At the same time, it’s hard to argue that we are taking on some unknown risk – a risk that could be catastrophic – by dumping ever-increasing amounts of anything into the environment. So maybe it makes sense – a lot of sense – to do what we can as quickly as we can to minimize our byproducts.

The devil is in defining “what we can” and “as quickly as we can.” Some people – Quiggin certainly among them – don’t like industrial capitalism much for reasons of their own, and arguably see this – the deep regulation necessary to reverse our carbon impacts – as both good for its own sake and good because it will provide an opportunity to move society closer to the desired model.

I have a good friend who is a senior official in a national agency tasked with environmental management, and we’ve talked about this; how the same people who argued that resource constraints and population growth required that we remake society; then species protection; now climate change. The constant is the need to remake society and the issues are sellable justifications for why it should be done.

I’m not so interested in remaking society; but I do worry about the impacts of climate change.

My response on AGW is somewhat different than Quiggins, and more like the “on one hand, and on the other” that many AGW proponents criticize.

We have some data which is highly suggestive of an impact by human activity on climate. Even if we accept the existence of the impact, and its significance in changing a naturally-variable climate, its extent is hard to determine with the information we have. But in the worst reasonable cases, by the time we have enough data, it may be too late to act in any meaningful way.

So we should act.

Our inefficient dependence on oil and coal wastes finite, valuable resources, creates pollution, has significant geopolitical impacts, and possibly worsens out climate.

There are a variety of painless things we could do to be more efficient, and we should do them immediately.

There are a variety of things we can and should do to improve efficiency and security, like building a smarter electric grid and beginning to decentralize power production, which also have positive impacts on overall energy efficiency and our climate impacts. We should do them quickly.

And there are harder, more complex things we should do – from changing land use development patterns to adding nuclear power – and we should be looking hard at them with an eye to deciding on what we can do soon.

That seems like a set of positions it would be relatively easy to build a consensus on, and one that could lead to relatively quick and somewhat effective action. No one has to – or needs to – bully anyone else, we just start doing it.

And that, perhaps, is the most challenging step of all.

Happy Birthday, Biggest Guy!!

Readers of this blog know how proud I am of my sons. Here they are at my oldest’s graduation from Basic Training last year:


Today is Biggest Guy’s 25th birthday, and I can’t begin to tell you how happy he’s made me for all 25 years.

Because I see my job as harassing, abusing, and embarassing my children at every opportunity (to prepare them for the shocks of adult life…), let me publicly share some photos.
c. 1999


c. 1998



Yes, his mom dressed him. And yes, she’s French!

What’s The Right Price For Housing??

There’s a lot of discussion of Obama’s (and some state governments’) housing bailout plans. Several measures are designed to provide price support for housing – the tax credits for purchases, as well as the newly announced refinance option for troubled homeowners.

The goal of these policies is clear; they want to try and arrest the slide in home values (and so personal wealth) and provide a backbone to the consumer economy.


…are they the right thing to do?? There’s a separate argument about whether they will work, but let’s skip over that.
One thing that’s concerned me over the years has been what I perceive to be an overall overinvestment in housing. The fact is that too much of our national capital is tied up in what is really a consumption item – private housing – and not in businesses, infrastructure, or other places where more wealth and capital can be created.

Let’s talk for a second about what I mean by ‘overinvestment.’ Today, the average starter home is 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, a 2-car garage, and 2,000+ square feet. When my dad built GI homes after WWII, they were 2 bedrooms, one bath, carport, and 900+ square feet. But we have reset our expectations, and even affordable (ownership) housing now must be better than that.

And the speculative approach to housing has fed the problem; because if houses are going to go up 10%, you’re better off owning a $600,000 house than a $300,000 one. So we all overbuy housing and tell ourselves a) it’s our right as consumers to live like this – island kitchens, granite countertops; and b) that it’s a good ‘investment’.

And as a consequence, we tie up a substantial portion of our national capital in homes. Yes, they trigger other economic activity – someone has to install the countertops – but in reality we’d be better off is that capital (and labor) had been invested in productive assets. (Note: there are a broad set of issues in international finance that this decision triggers that are well worth having, but not here and now).

So – if that’s the case, why dump more capital into preserving home prices and maintaining their inflated importance in our economy??

Why not let them fall to a sustainably lower level, and use the capital elsewhere?

A few reasons come to mind. First that the capital lost when home prices go down doesn’t magically appear somewhere else. It’s lost, debited from the national books, with no corresponding new asset to take its place. Second that the followon effect of homeowners (like me!!) seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars in household wealth suddenly evaporate won’t be pretty.

From my point of view, I think we need to do something about declines in home prices (personally, I’d be a little more modest, and offer credit to banks that agreed to lower interest rates for existing borrowers in targeted markets, and possibly offer upside-down homeowners direct credits to stay in place in the form of secured junior liens (to get something back when prices go back up). But I’d also like – a lot – to see policies aimed at moderating the overdiversion of national assets to housing as the cycle moves toward recovery.