Monday, December 5, 2011

Cascading failure

"A cascading failure is a failure in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of a part can trigger the failure of successive parts."


Here's Paul Krugman again railing against the cult of balance:

All indications are, however, that Campaign 2012 will make Campaign 2000 look like a model of truthfulness. And all indications are that the press won’t know what to do — or, worse, that they will know what to do, which is act as stenographers and refuse to tell readers and listeners when candidates lie. Because to do otherwise when the parties aren’t equally at fault — and they won’t be — would be “biased”.

This will be true even of those news organizations specifically charged with fact-checking. Yes, they’ll call out some lies — but they’ll also claim that some perfectly reasonable statements are lies, in order to keep their precious balance. This is already happening: as Igor Volsky points out, one of the finalists for Politifact’s Lie of the Year is a Democratic claim — that Republicans want to abolish Medicare — that happens to be entirely true.

While Bruce Bartlett discusses how reliable sources of information have been dismantled because they've been politically inconvenient:
In addition to decimating committee budgets, he also abolished two really useful Congressional agencies, the Office of Technology Assessment and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. The former brought high-level scientific expertise to bear on legislative issues and the latter gave state and local governments an important voice in Congressional deliberations.

The amount of money involved was trivial even in terms of Congress’s budget. Mr. Gingrich’s real purpose was to centralize power in the speaker’s office, which was staffed with young right-wing zealots who followed his orders without question. Lacking the staff resources to challenge Mr. Gingrich, the committees could offer no resistance and his agenda was simply rubber-stamped.

Unfortunately, Gingrichism lives on. Republican Congressional leaders continually criticize every Congressional agency that stands in their way. In addition to the C.B.O., one often hears attacks on the Congressional Research Service, the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Government Accountability Office.

Lately, the G.A.O. has been the prime target. Appropriators are cutting its budget by $42 million, forcing furloughs and cutbacks in investigations that identify billions of dollars in savings yearly. So misguided is this effort that Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma and one of the most conservative members of Congress, came to the agency’s defense.

And Andrew Gelman (and countless others) have pointed out numerous cases that suggest there is no real consequence when a journalist doesn't bother to get even the most basic and easily-checked facts right.

I don't want to push this analogy too far -- there are some important dissimilarities -- but all sorts of failures have grown more common in what you might call our feedback system, the channels we use to get the information we, as a democracy, need to make informed collective decisions. Worse yet, these failures have the potential to trigger and intensify each other, leading to catastrophic results.

1. Reliable information sources like the CBO are undermined;

2. An increasing amount of our information comes from unreliable subsidized sources like Heritage;

3. Journalists suffer no penalty for publishing inaccurate information;

4. Journalists also fashion for themselves an incredibly self-serving ethical rule that lets them, in the name of balance, avoid the consequences that would have to be faced if they honestly assigned responsibility for screw-ups;

5. A growing tendency to converge on a narrative makes the media easier to manipulate.

All these things are serious. All are getting worse. And if we don't do something about them, I think we're all pretty much screwed.

p.s. I added a link to number 4

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