Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Brexit and the problem of referendums

This is Joseph.

There has been a lot of discussion about direct democracy in the wake of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.  On one hand, you want to respect the will of the average citizen.  On the other hand, it is one thing to set a policy and quite another to carry out.

Consider the Sicilian Expedition carried out by classical Athens.  Clearly this course of action was voted for by the majority of the citizens of Athens and was an exercise of direct democracy.  But the result was a complete catastrophe, and likely the beginning of the end of Athens as a major power.  The loss of the sailors in the this debacle was a key element that led to the eventual defeat and conquest of Athens by Sparta.

This isn't a argument against democracy but rather an endorsement of representative democracy, as practiced by countries like the United Kingdom. These sorts of governments have the ability to develop complex policies to handle complex questions, and to make difficult trade-offs. There seems to be a naive notion that asking people to make tough decisions is a good idea, but this is only true if the sequela are also pretty simple.  It is one thing to vote to invade Sicily.  But the question presumes a competent expedition and the answer might be very different if the people would presume that the politicians might bungle the implementation.

Possible analogies with Brexit are left as an exercise to the reader.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Accusation-driven reporting

I recently came across an excellent piece by Eric Ravenscraft (old but new to me) on dealing with fake news. The whole thing is worth reading but I wanted to take a minute to share his summary of Prof. Jay Rosen's accusation-based reporting concept.

On top of people making stuff up online (whether intentionally or accidentally,) political and corporate figures often muddy the news waters with accusations. In an attempt to promote “neutrality,” many news outlets are hesitant to claim a statement made by a public figure is outright false, even if it’s demonstrably so. Professor of Journalism at New York University Jay Rosen calls this accusation-based reporting.

Accusation-based reporting follows a basic structure:
  1. Person A makes an accusation against Person B.
  2. Person B denies the accusation.
  3. A news outlet reports that the accusation has been made and denied, but doesn’t offer any information to support or disprove the accusation.
  4. The accusation itself, not the accuracy of the claim, is treated as the newsworthy story.
Rosen says this runs counter to evidence-based reporting. In evidence-based reporting, a story should lead with information about the veracity of the accusation. If there is no evidence to support the accusation, a story should say so. If there is evidence to disprove an accusation, the piece should say that as well. The evidence should be given top billing, instead of the accusation.

For example, President-Elect Donald Trump claimed that millions of votes were cast illegally, costing him the popular vote. As Rosen points out, accusation-based reporting would present this accusation as valid until disproven merely because it was stated by the president-elect. In an evidence-based report, there must be evidence before a story is treated as true. In this particular case, The Washington Post explained that there has been no hard evidence of mass voter fraud on the scale the president-elect mentioned. Recount efforts are underway in several states, but until the recounts are finished or data is released, there’s no evidence to rely on, only accusations.

While most news outlets at least reported this information, many legitimate organizations feature headlines that simply quote the president-elect’s assertion, giving the impression that the accusation is more credible than it is. This practice presents the claim in a bombastic way to draw in readers, but it sets a misleading tone from the outset.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Quote of the day

This is Joseph

Via Stumbling and Mumbling, here is a George Carlin quote:

Conservatives say if you don’t give the rich more money, they will lose their incentive to invest. As for the poor, they tell us they’ve lost all incentive because we’ve given them too much money.
Now it is true that the mechanisms of subsidy are different, but there is no reason that the investment activities of the poor could not have similar approaches to that of the wealthy.  I think that it is a very important flag that incentives are very complex to apply, and it is not always straightforward to figure out the net effect that they will have. 

Sometimes I post something just so I'll remember it later

Like that assembly line music from the old Warner Bros. cartoons.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Selling you pain"

Kristin Wong, writing for the Gawker remnant Lifehacker, has an excellent piece up on the economics of air travel.

I like the way Skift puts it: airlines are selling you pain. They make your experience as uncomfortable as possible so you’ll pay more.
by increasing the density of the Economy cabin, airlines “can boost capacity without adding to the fleet. Of course, as they shrink the coach section they force many to pay more to be able to have an ounce of comfort.” This is a key element of the up-selling strategy employed by airlines today to boost revenues, shored up by unbundled pricing strategies which offer to sell the pain away.
And with some of the carriers, you can’t even buy relief. Spirit is the worst airline for on-time arrivals, for example; only 73.8% of its flights arrive on time. You can’t pay extra to ensure they’re prompt. And when my friend and I were yelled at by WOW gate agents, we were afraid to even approach the desk to ask what our options were. We laughed about it later, but there wasn’t a fee we could pay to not get reprimanded like children. In other words, you can’t buy your way to better overall service.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

When you ignore bullshit artists, the pile does not get smaller

This is where we are now.

From New York Magazine:

As PolitiFact, the Daily Beast, and other outlets have noted, Phillips, a former executive deputy commissioner at Texas’s Health and Human Services Commission who was embroiled in corruption allegations there, has not provided any evidence to back up his assertion. Two and a half months later, we know nothing about his methods, and there is no sign of True the Vote having initated legal action. Moreover, Phillips launched his claims well before some states had even certified their results. That didn’t stop those claims from getting picked up by Alex Jones’s conspiracy-theory cauldron Infowars, where an article by Paul Joseph Watson — “Report: Three Million Votes in Presidential Election Cast by Illegal Aliens” — helped amplify them greatly, especially after the piece got picked up by the Drudge Report.

Since Trump first floated his “3 million” number, several journalists have pointed out the very high likelihood that it came from Phillips, given that Trump is a known gonzo-news connoisseur and a fan of Jones and his site (though the White House has denied Jones’s claim he was offered press credentials there). In public, though, Trump and his staff have generally instead referenced two studies from mainstream sources, one from Pew and one from Old Dominion University researchers, to support the claim, despite the fact that neither study does so. As of two days ago, the Daily Beast said that Phillips was the “apparent source” of Trump’s belief — there was still a bit of uncertainty.
A bit of background, for years now the Republicans have been trying to counter demographic tides with increasingly blatant voter suppression measures. They have justified these measures by raising concerns about voter fraud. These claims have been thoroughly debunked, but most journalists have been reluctant to come out with a straight declaration of the fact.

The voter ID debate has been one of those stories where reasonably accurate reporting would inevitably lead to charges of liberal bias. There is simply no way of honestly describing the situation without making the Republicans look bad. As a result, we got a lot of coverage of voter ID laws that seriously downplayed or omitted the part about voter fraud not being a real thing in this country.

We addressed this in the following post a few months ago:

Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Context only counts if it shows up in the first two dozen paragraphs

The New York Times has a good piece on the impact of voter ID laws but I do have a problem with a few parts (or at least with the way they're arranged).

Stricter Rules for Voter IDs Reshape Races


SAN ANTONIO — In a state where everything is big, the 23rd Congressional District that hugs the border with Mexico is a monster: eight and a half hours by car across a stretch of land bigger than any state east of the Mississippi. In 2014, Representative Pete Gallego logged more than 70,000 miles there in his white Chevy Tahoe, campaigning for re-election to the House — and lost by a bare 2,422 votes.

So in his bid this year to retake the seat, Mr. Gallego, a Democrat, has made a crucial adjustment to his strategy. “We’re asking people if they have a driver’s license,” he said. “We’re having those basic conversations about IDs at the front end, right at our first meeting with voters.”

Since their inception a decade ago, voter identification laws have been the focus of fierce political and social debate. Proponents, largely Republican, argue that the regulations are essential tools to combat election fraud, while critics contend that they are mainly intended to suppress turnout of Democratic-leaning constituencies like minorities and students.
In the third paragraph, we have two conflicting claims that go to the foundation of the whole debate. If election fraud is a significant problem, you can make a case for voter ID laws. If not, it's difficult to see this as anything other than voter suppression. This paragraph pretty much demands some additional information to help the reader weigh the claims and the article provides it...

More than twenty paragraphs later.

Mr. Abbott, perhaps the law’s most ardent backer, has said that voter fraud “abounds” in Texas. A review of some 120 fraud charges in Texas between 2000 and 2015, about eight cases a year, turned up instances of buying votes and setting up fake residences to vote. Critics of the law note that no more than three or four infractions would have been prevented by the voter ID law.

Nationally, fraud that could be stopped by IDs is almost nonexistent, said Lorraine C. Minnite, author of the 2010 book “The Myth of Voter Fraud.” To sway an election, she said, it would require persuading perhaps thousands of people to commit felonies by misrepresenting themselves — and do it undetected.

“It’s ludicrous,” she said. “It’s not an effective way to try to corrupt an election.”

I shouldn't have to say this but, if a story contains claims that the reporter has reason to believe are false or misleading, he or she has an obligation to address the issue promptly. Putting the relevant information above the fold is likely to anger the people who made the false statements, but doing anything else is a disservice to the readers.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Sometimes analogies are the most interesting when they break down -- UPDATED II

[I wrote this a few days and then half-forgot about it until last night when TPM started running headlines like "What Did The President Know?" (a question that was quickly answered while others were raised). We can debate exactly where we are along the path, but it seems fairly likely that we will multiple impeachable offenses by the end of the year. If that happens, we shouldn't count on history as a guide.]

At the risk of taking the "look for the silver lining" approach to a pathological level, one of the positives of the Trump phenomenon has been the way it has made the subtle plain, the plain obvious, and the obvious undeniable. This has been even more true with journalism, particularly the pundit class.

For a long time now, it has been apparent that opinion writers and news analysts are simply terrible when it comes to the analogy heuristic suggested by PĆ³lya. Many writers apparently thought that an analogy was simply a collection of similarities ("Herman Cain was a businessman just like Trump. He had a big surge in the polls just like Trump. He..."). Still others treated analogies as some sort of path of destiny that could be extrapolated endlessly into the future. My favorite of these was the argument that the parallels between Trump and Goldwater meant that we would have a historic Republican loss followed by complete conservative dominance 12 to 20 years from now.

That is not how these things work. Analogous relationships can give us insights into situations and they are potentially useful for suggesting hypotheses and lines of inquiry. Ironically, this usefulness is sometimes greatest when the analogies break down.

There's already been lots of discussion about the Trump/Goldwater analogy and a fair amount, more recently, about the Trump/Nixon analogy. Both of these provide some interesting points to explore, but what strikes me is most important here is where the analogies fail. At the risk of oversimplifying, the extremism of Barry Goldwater and the corruption and abuse of power of the Nixon administration both qualified as comparable threats to the Republican Party. The GOP was able to weather these threats with no lasting damage in large part because it successfully distanced itself from both men.

That was, of course, a different Republican Party. Even as late as the 1980s, you could still find Republican leaders like Bob Dole pushing back against Reaganomics. Since then the party has changed radically. Absolute loyalty is demanded and party discipline is strictly enforced. The flow of information (and in the case of the base, misinformation) is carefully controlled. The displays of independence that allow party members to pull away from controversial candidates and officeholders is no longer possible.

Which pretty much leaves GOP office holders with the option of keeping their head down and hoping the storm will pass.


UPDATE: This Josh Marshall post from earlier today provides a perfect example of the Party's unwillingness and inability to distance itself from upcoming WH scandals.

But only three or four hours before Flynn resigned, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee (House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence), Devin Nunes, said there was no problem and it was just the President's enemies ("the swamp" in his words) making trouble. "It just seems like there's a lot of nothing here," Nunes told Bloomberg's Steven Dennis.

This is only a particularly embarrassing illustration of a larger problem. The Republican Congress has no interest in any oversight of the Trump administration. None. Sure, opposing parties usually scrutinize administrations more aggressively. But it's rare to have this level of complete refusal.


And from Jonathan Chait:

3. Leave Trump alooooone. Republicans insist they do not support any probe of Flynn’s actions or what Trump may have known. “It’s taking care of itself,” insists House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz.

What about House Speaker Paul Ryan? Ryan is known for his fanatical belief in informational security. The Speaker once held such strong views on classified information that he demanded Hillary Clinton be denied access to classified briefings during the campaign because she had shown, by using a private email server, she could not be trusted with the nation’s secrets. “The consequences for the safety of our nation are grave,” he wrote solemnly. “Clinton’s actions may have allowed our enemies to access intelligence vital to our national security.” Ryan has learned from that episode to be far less judgmental. And now today, even the prospect that Trump allowed intelligence to be exposed to a staffer whom he knew to be potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail strikes him as unworthy of investigation.

Today, Ryan said, “I’m not going to prejudge the circumstances surrounding this.” And since Ryan is not forcing an investigation, he won’t post-judge, either. No prejudging, no post-judging, no judging of any kind, just moving on.

Monday, February 13, 2017

You all get that DeVos is the one with the chainsaw, right?

We all remember the moral of the story: even the hitchhiker with the acts is freaked out by the one with the chainsaw.

Eli Broad is one of the most aggressive of the many billionaire education reformers. He has directly or indirectly supported any number of sketchy activists and questionable entrepreneurs. It takes a lot to freak this guy out, but Betsy DeVos has what it takes.

From Bill Bradley's essential report.
In a letter to the Senate, philanthropist Eli Broad, a student of Detroit Public Schools and a longtime charter advocate, voiced his “serious concerns” over DeVos’ “support for unregulated charter schools and vouchers.” That the Michigan native, who was unavailable for comment, would have come out so vocally against DeVos signals just how spooked the education community is by her new perch in Trump’s cabinet.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Let's close out the week with some satiric journalism

The Shocking Way Private Prisons Make Money

Adam Ruins Everything - How Prostitutes Settled the Wild West

Adam Ruins Everything - Why Trophy Hunting Can Be Good for Animals

Adam Ruins Everything - The Conspiracy Behind Your Glasses

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The press does something right

This is Joseph

We often give the media a hard time, but this coverage by the Washington Post is a nice example of being appropriately critical of the remarks of spokespeople:
Kellyanne Conway has taken “alternative facts” to a new level.
During a Thursday interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, the counselor to the president defended President Trump’s travel ban related to seven majority-Muslim countries. At one point, Conway made a reference to two Iraqi refugees whom she described as the masterminds behind “the Bowling Green massacre.”
“Most people don’t know that because it didn’t get covered,” Conway said.
The Bowling Green massacre didn’t get covered because it didn’t happen. There has never been a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Ky., carried out by Iraqi refugees or anyone else.
Now, there was a story underneath this one, but it rather defied the term "massacre", where one presumes at least one person would need to actually be killed (as opposed to a couple of arrests).  If we can trust Talking Points Memo, this was not a singular lapse. 

This can be more difficult with opinions, or difficult to prove facts.  For example, at Chaos Manor, prominent science fiction Jerry Pournelle claimed:
It is not universally agreed that universal health care is so easily attained or that it works so well; Canada’s is tempered by the proximity of US clinics which can relieve much of the waiting times, as an obvious example. But this is hardly the place to debate that.
This is much more tricky to debate.  The first sentence is obviously true (Mr. Pournelle claims it, making it clear that it is not universal).  The second point is overly broad, and it isn't clear to what extent it is occurring.  But it could be true, at least for some diseases or procedures (and is a real point in regards to Canada)

I generally presume socialized medicine works best for public health interventions and worst for elective surgery.  But this is the sort of tricky political opinion that already gets complicated, because real world evidence is complicated.  I get the decision to try and not take sides on these claims.  My personal opinion is that the US has a trivial effect as a safety valve on Canadian waiting times for most procedures, because the cost is so high.  But I could very well be incorrect.

However, I think that we should call out invented examples early and often.  The evidence is challenging enough as it is, without adding fictional evidence in as a complication to the whole thing.

Hopefully, this was a failure of recollection on an overburdened staffer dealing with a difficult transition, and not the beginning of a pattern.  

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"Must read" is one of the internet's most overused phrases, but this time it applies

Last December, Prof. Jay Rosen wrote the best and most comprehensive piece I've seen on how the decline in American journalism enabled the election of Donald Trump. The follow-up is almost as good.

Though, to be perfectly fair, Tennessee has always been a hotbed of leftist radicals

We have all heard the statistics about how difficult it is for a Congressional representative to lose his or her job. This is partially because of things like gerrymandering and spigots of campaign cash, but it also reflects a process that does a pretty good job allowing a reasonably competent and dedicated legislator to keep the constituents fairly happy in his or her district. A big part of that process is the maintaining of good relationships and lines of communication with voters and communities. Many political career has ended when voters felt someone had "lost touch with the people back home."

In this context, stories like the following from Talking Points Memo's Allegra Kirkland take on a special significance.
Constituents requesting that Rep. Jimmy Duncan Jr. (R-TN) hold a town hall on repealing the Affordable Care Act aren't being met with a polite brushoff from staffers anymore. Instead, Duncan's office has started sending out a form letter telling them point-blank that he has no intention to hold any town hall meetings.

“I am not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals,” the letter read, according to a copy obtained by the Maryville Daily Times. “Also, I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them.”

In the first weeks of the 115th Congress, elected officials dropping by their home districts were surprised to find town halls packed to the rafters with concerned constituents. Caught off guard and on camera, lawmakers were asked to defend President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and provide a timeline on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

Now, many of them are skipping out on these events entirely. Some have said large meetings are an ineffective format for addressing individual concerns. Many others have, like the President himself, dismissed those questioning their agenda as “paid protesters” or radical activists who could pose a physical threat.

Voters turning out to town halls are pushing back hard on this characterization, arguing that they represent varied ideological backgrounds and have diverse issues to raise. Constituents unable to meet with their elected officials over the weekend told TPM that they’re not attending town hall events to make trouble. Instead, they say they want accountability from the people they pay to represent them.

Kim Mattoch, a mother of three and event planner, told TPM that she tried to go to a Saturday town hall in Roseville, California with GOP Rep. Tom McClintock but couldn’t make it in. The 200-seat theater hosting the event was quickly filled to capacity, leaving hundreds waiting outside.

“I’m a constituent of McClintock and a registered Republican in a very Republican district—though I don’t really align very well these days with the Republican Party,” Mattoch said in a Monday phone call. “So I wanted to go to the town hall because I legitimately had questions for the congressman.”

Mattoch said the protesters waiting outside had a wide range of “legitimate concerns.” She personally hoped to ask her representative about how the GOP was progressing on repealing and replacing the ACA and why House Republicans last week voted to kill a ruling aimed at preventing coal mining debris from ending up in waterways.

Yet McClintock told the Los Angeles Times that he thought an “anarchist element” was present in the crowd outside his event, and said he was escorted to his car by police because he’d been told the atmosphere was “deteriorating.”

Ramon Fliek, who attended the McClintock event with his wife, told TPM on Monday that police “were kind enough to block the whole road” to make space for the overflow crowd, and that he overheard protesters thanking law enforcement for “doing their jobs.”

“If you look at the videos from the event, you can’t get any notion that it was aggressive,” he said. “There was an older woman with a poodle that ran after him and it’s like, okay, the older lady with the poodle is not going to threaten you. I understand that he might want to give that impression, but it was very pleasant.”
Admittedly, it is a long time until midterms, but possibly not long enough to repair this kind of damage.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Build it and they will come. Post it and they will provide you with examples. [updated]

Remember last week when we were talking about Strauss and the cult of the savvy ? Do you remember how we singled out Paul Ryan as a subject on which journalists continue to delude themselves?

If so, the following by political correspondent Jon Ward will seem a lot more relevant.
On issues, Trump and Ryan are on different sides of some core issues: trade, entitlement spending, and immigration. Trump demonized free trade deals during the campaign. Ryan has been a big advocate for free trade. Trump has vowed not to change Medicare or Social Security. Ryan has long described those programs as driving the national debt, and wants to overhaul them.

Trump has disparaged immigrants, instituted travel restrictions from seven predominantly Muslim countries via an executive order last week, and slammed a federal judge last summer for bias because he was of “Mexican heritage.” Ryan rebuked Trump for the latter comment, saying it was “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Ryan has tried to work toward a solution to the nation’s problem with illegal immigration, unlike Trump, who has merely denounced the government for not fixing the problem. As president, Trump will find that solving problems is far more difficult than complaining about them.

The two men also have a fundamental different approaches to the role of government and guidance of the U.S. Constitution. Ryan comes from a political and deeply conservative background, and so he believes in the Constitution’s prescriptions for how the government should work. Among other things, the Constitution clearly limits the president’s authority and hems in the office. Trump comes from a nonpolitical background, is not known for reading much of anything, and it’s not clear whether he’s ever actually read the Constitution. He made many statements throughout the presidential campaign that promised unconstitutional actions, and often issued vague threats to people who criticized him. If he were to continue this kind of behavior in office, it would be more fitting for a third world dictator than for a U.S. president, and at some point, Congress would need to step in. Ryan is the leader of one half of Congress. He believes in the American system. It is far from clear that the new president does.

As people who have followed his career closely (such as Paul Krugman, Josh Marshall, and Jonathan Chait) are quick to point out, Paul Ryan's rhetoric on the deficit is completely and consistently contradicted by his voting record. Even though Ryan was compelled to distance himself from Randianism when it became a significant political liability, he continues to reliably support the tenets when it comes to progressive taxation and the social safety net (which he still sometimes describes in the language of a hammock rather than a net). This even applies to programs such as Obamacare which are better than deficit neutral.

The case for Ryan as a champion of principled government is nearly as bad. This is someone who owes his position as speaker to gerrymandering and voter suppression, someone who has, at best, turned a blind eye to the use of government offices for partisan ends. As for the rest of the deep ideological divide, here's Jonathan Chait:
It is widely known that very few Republican elites share this Trumpist vision. What’s grown clear since the election is how little this matters. Traditional Republicans would prefer to build a coalition for their small-government policies that would attract immigrant communities, but they will take any coalition that presents itself. Paul Ryan’s professions of love for tolerance and openness before the election reflected the calculations of a politician who expected his nominee to lose and was planning to repair the anticipated damage to his party’s brand. The ideas that deeply troubled Ryan when articulated by a losing presidential candidate sound far more acceptable when articulated by a sitting president who promises to sign his fiscal bills. “People close to Ryan and the White House say the Speaker shares an easy rapport with Steve Bannon,” reports Politico.

Ward's entire piece is pretty much one long attempt to alleviate cognitive dissonance. He either has to admit to himself that he has been played for a sucker or he has to embrace a scenario, no matter how implausible, that allows him to preserve his dignity. You will notice that he goes all the way back to June of last year to find an example of Ryan (briefly) pushing back against Donald Trump. If you were following the campaign closely, you will remember that as a period when establishment Republicans were very nervous about the potential political cost of associating themselves with a controversial and seemingly doomed candidate. You will also remember that Trump subsequently slapped Ryan around and the congressman immediately fell into line.

"Centrist" pundits arguing that Paul Ryan obviously didn't say what Paul Ryan obviously just said has long been a cottage industry (consider this classic example from James Stewart of the New York Times), but as with so many things, the arrival of Donald Trump has made the absurdity of the practice difficult to ignore.


TPM reports the latest in the Ryan/Trump divide.
“We respect an independent judiciary. This is a separate branch of government,” Ryan said. “He’s not the first President to get frustrated with a ruling from a court.
“I think what’s most important are the actions,” he continued. “This administration is honoring the ruling, and this administration is going through the proper procedures to deal with the ruling to try and get the ruling overturned. They’re going through the appeals process, they’re respecting the separation of powers in the process. Look, I know he’s an unconventional President. He gets frustrated with judges, we get frustrated with judges. But he’s respecting the process, and that’s what counts at the end of the day.”
Trump lobbed multiple attacks on his Twitter account at U.S. District Judge James Robart after the judge blocked Trump’s immigration order. And White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that Robart had gone “rogue” in stopping the order.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A useful footnote on Medival Iceland

This is Joseph

Megan McArdle has a great footnote
Yes, anarcho-capitalists, I know about medieval Iceland. I do not think that the U.S. can be run on the same basis as a tiny, culturally homogenous island nation.
Whether or not I agree with the article, this point is actually the most important one.  The ability to make a diverse nation work depends on the rules of conduct.

I also read Icelandic sagas.  It's unclear that things are notably better when law enforcement is private (some rather spectacular massacres occur due to feuds).  International relations become a challenge -- unless we want a nation of privateers like Egil from Egil's Saga.  After all, how do you enforce agreements between nations when all law is private the parties who negotiated the law are likely far away. 

It's not that we cannot find ideas of value in medieval Icelandic culture, but that perhaps we should pay close attention to the actual problems they had as well. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

The NYT doesn't just bury the lede; they chop up the body and dissolve it in acid.

Last year we spent a lot of time complaining about the New York Times' softball coverage of Donald Trump (at least after he cinched the nomination). Well before that, we were complaining about the paper's sloppy, credulous, and deferential coverage of Silicon Valley billionaires. It was only a matter of time before the two threads converged.

Check out the following from today's edition by Mike Isaac [emphasis added]:
Uber was under attack — unfairly, many staff members believed — after people accused the company of seeking to profit from giving rides to airport customers in New York during weekend protests against President Trump’s immigration order.

But there was another matter disturbing the employees: Mr. Kalanick himself. He had joined Mr. Trump’s economic advisory council in December. After the immigration order against refugees and seven Muslim-majority countries, many staff members wondered why Mr. Kalanick was still willing to advise the president.

At least in the immediate sense, “seeking to profit” is the opposite of what CEO Travis Kalanick is accused of. The key point of contention here is the decision to suspend surge pricing.

Here are William Turton and Bryan Menegus explained it writing for Gizmodo:
#deleteuber was born Friday while demonstrators at JFK airport protested Trump’s executive order on immigration. While the New York Taxi Worker’s Alliance was striking in protest of the ban, Uber sent a tweet saying it had dropped surge pricing. This, in combination with Kalanick’s participation on the business advisory council, started a wave of deletions so huge that Uber had to build a new system to handle them all.

Or put more bluntly by Raphael Orlove at the sister site Jalopnik.
#DeleteUber is trending on Twitter after the notoriously scummy ride-hailing app broke a strike and undercut taxi drivers’ protest of President Trump’s refugee-detaining executive order.

The New York Times pretty much tells the story the way Uber would like it told, omitting or downplaying accusations of strike-breaking and undermining protests. It's the kind of reporting we've increasing come to expect from the once great paper, the kind of reporting that did a lot to get us into our current crisis.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

When it comes to Straussians, everybody thinks they were the last to make the cut

 [I told you we'd be coming back to this.]

After taking a preliminary pass at this topic, I realized that setting up the rules might be a bit more complicated than I first thought. With that in mind, here's my initial attempt at an oversimplified Straussian communication matrix

Members of this system pass information to each other. This information can be true or false. Recipients will not listen to information they believe to be false. The members who generate the false information have divided the population up into two groups: everyone in the preferred group is told the truth;  everyone in the other group is fed incorrect information whenever convenient. While there are many people in the matrix who are aware of the cutoff, few believe that they fall below it. The lied-to generally assume that they just made the cut, that the lies start one or two levels below them.

Unless they are to stupid to breathe, reporters covering Paul Ryan have to know that he lies routinely, that he's not a world-class marathoner, that his tastes run less to domestic beer and more to $350 bottles of wine, that he was neither surprised nor disappointed when the camera crews show up to find him washing dishes at a soup kitchen. Journalists could still consider Ryan an honest man because they felt he was only lying to those below them on the hierarchy.

Even among the lied-to journalists, there were strata. There were those who didn't believe the humble everyman bit but swallow the rest. Then there were those who (having a rudimentary understanding of the numbers) knew that Ryan's budgets were profoundly dishonest, but they put those deceptions down as the compromises necessary to make the sausage. They too believed that he was only lying to those below them on the hierarchy, colleagues who lacked the sophistication to follow detailed budgetary discussions. Ryan was, after all, a serious policy wonk who cared deeply about issues like fiscal responsibility.

Of course, every bit of evidence we have indicates this is also a lie, that Ryan is a committed Randian who is willing to inflate the deficit like a birthday balloon if that's what's required to redistribute wealth from the takers to the makers.

Almost all of the journalists who have been lied to by Ryan knew that he was lying to other journalists. This brings us to the I'm-not-going-to-believe-anyone-who-lies standard versus the I'm-not-going-to-believe-anyone-who-lies-to-me standard.

The big problem with the second (and more widely followed) is that detecting lies directed at you is far more difficult than detecting lies directed other people. First, of course, there is simply the sheer number of total lies versus the small subset directed at you. On top of that, lies directed at you are tailored to deceive you. Lies tailored to deceive other people are generally much easier to spot. Then finally and possibly most importantly, there is cognitive dissonance. We simply don't like thinking of ourselves as easily fooled. This is doubly true for journalists, particularly those in the cult of the savvy.

If we all held to the don't trust a liar standard, bullshit in the Straussian network would have a relatively short half-life, and given the increasingly dire consequences, it would be enormously helpful if we all adopted the more demanding standard. I would even go further and propose a don't trust anyone who lies or anyone who trusts a liar standard, though these days, few news sources would make that cut..

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Tyler Cowen asks an interesting question

This is Joseph

From Marginal Revolution:
By applying a dual citizenship provision, in effect we are making Iranian law American law.  It is Iran who determines who is banned, not Trump.  You even could imagine a foreign government using this to punish or blackmail people who have scant current connection to their nation.  What should I do if Yemen offers me honorary national citizenship, in return for the service of promoting their cuisine and restaurants in the fine state of Virginia?  Can I turn it down?  Prove I don’t really hold it?  What exactly is to count as such proof?
 This is a rather good point about the complexities of immigration law.  Dual citizenship is always going to be a complex things.  But it is a fair point that this puts control over border crossing with governments that are not always close friends and allies of the US government. 

Now one presumes that this sort of "targeting by citizenship" could be fixed in an actual court of law.  But it does speak to why complex regulations can make sense -- to minimize gaming and to provide clarity for complex cases.