Thursday, November 30, 2023

To understand the NYT's good soldiers, you have to understand the paper's culture

 Previously, I've referred to certain NYT journalists including Frank Bruni, Ezra Klein and Nate Cohn as "good soldiers." These are writers who reliably and enthusiastically toe the "pre-designated line," going a step beyond the level of compliance expected from everyone who works for the paper. With a tiny number of exceptions such as Krugman and, to a lesser degree, Jamelle Bouie, reporters and pundits may sometimes chafe at their leash, those who insist on too much independence go the way of Molly Ivins.

The article by Michael Cieply quoted below is the best explanation I've seen of NYT culture. Read it and ask yourself what kind of writer would thrive in that world. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The NYT's election face plant reflects a long standing problem

Michael Cieply writing in 2016. [Emphasis added.]

Having left the Times on July 25, after almost 12 years as an editor and correspondent, I missed the main heat of the presidential campaign; so I can’t add a word to those self-assessments of the recent political coverage. But these recent mornings-after leave me with some hard-earned thoughts about the Times’ drift from its moorings in the nation at-large.

For starters, it’s important to accept that the New York Times has always — or at least for many decades — been a far more editor-driven, and self-conscious, publication than many of those with which it competes. Historically, the Los Angeles Times, where I worked twice, for instance, was a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?”
It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.

Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?”

The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.” 

Not only is the New York Times far more committed to its narratives than are its peers, the narratives it embraces are almost uniformly the worst possible kind: simplistic; hackneyed; and static. Truths are obvious. Characters tend to fall neatly into the four basic categories: hero, victim, villain, fool. A story of scientific standards and incentives becomes a tired Scarlet Pimpernel tale of revolutionary zealots persecuting a young woman who overcame great hardship to learn how to dance again. A serious debate over the best educational approaches degenerates into a black hat / white hat fight between those who care about children and those who simply want to pursue their own selfish ends. The enormously complex problem of housing is reduced to a handful of trivial old money versus new money fights about tiny pieces of land.

Add to this arrogance, provincialism, enormous resistance to criticism, and a tendency toward the self-serving, and you get a dangerously toxic mix.

For the press in general, and the New York Times in particular, there is no narrative as safe and as reassuring as Dems in disarray.The basic plot had dust on the script back when Shirley Temple was the biggest thing in Hollywood, it plays to comfortable notions and stereotypes, and best of all, it hits that sweet spot for nominally center-left publications terrified of accusations of liberal bias. (Something that conservatives have found extraordinarily easy to take advantage of.) It appeases critics from the right while framing the story as concerned rather than dismissive.

"Dems in disarray" and the New York Times' other narratives and literary tics have become so predictable that the satirical New York Times Pitchbot's parody headlines often show up in the paper a few days later almost verbatim.

Given the paper's self-importance, the satire is deeply amusing, but given its actual importance, this kind of lazy writing and even lazier journalism isn't acceptable in the paper of record.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023


This is Joseph.

I wanted to return to a very old topic. The use of hypotheticals to induce moral intuitions is often stated in a very stylized way that does not really convey how real decisions are made. Let us consider the famous trolley problem:
There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two (and only two) options:

Do nothing, in which case the trolley will kill the five people on the main track.
Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. 
Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

The problem with this is that these problems remove the complexity and uncertainty of real decision making. It is like the famous "use torture to find the location of a nuclear bomb" hypothetical. In a real situation nobody knows for sure that torture will work. The existence of the actual (working) bomb may not be clear. If everybody knew all of this with high confidence, I wonder how you get a jury of people (who were just freshly saved by the defendant) to convict of anything except a parade. I wonder how the law against torture would change the decisions of the person if they know, for certain, that millions of lives could be saved? I doubt it would based on what we see in actual dynamic combat situations. This example provides roughly zero insight into the confusion and terror of real situations. I remember 9/11 and just how many false and confusing narratives were present on that day. Confusion is what a crisis looks like, not precise clarity. 

We see the same simplifications in video games. If I play a total war game I miss all of the important stuff (how do I feed my army?) and simplify the hardest part of battle (how to do I give orders to a screamingly mass of engaged soldiers hundreds of feet away?). Bret Devereaux has a great series on this point

But what I think is most missing here is the hard part of these problems is how to manage uncertainty. Sam Bankman-Fried famously said:

“She recalled that Bankman-Fried once posed a coin-flip scenario where if the coin landed on tails, the world would end. But if the coin landed on heads, ‘the world would be twice as good.’ Bankman-Fried said he would take the bet.”

But the problem is not calculating rational expectations when you know what the outcome sets and probabilities are exactly. It is dealing with the uncertainty that makes calculations hard. 

Climate change would be much easier if we knew precisely the consequences between a 2.1C and 2.3C temperature change, know precisely how much carbon needed to be eliminated to be sure of it, and could project the pace of green technology to plan exactly what should be phased in or out. Instead we have a complex discussions about electric cars, which have a higher upfront carbon cost for a lower lifetime carbon output. Given feedback effects, could the switch trigger a crisis before the benefits emerge? Unlikely, but who can be sure? If electric cars have a shorter lifespan then that would be bad but we don't have 25 year old Tesla to look at (company was founded in 2003) but there are 14 millions ICE cars on the road

So I suspect we have very large confidence intervals on a lot of these calculations. That, I think, suggests some humility on making these decisions. The trolley problem looks different if you can dash to try and free the one person after flipping the switch (even if it is hard) but could never cut 5 people free. 

Given that, some intuition on probability theory would seem to be a good thing to cultivate. Let's check in on that. Oh. Oh, no. Philosophy Bear provides some useful context about timing, that rather dramatically shift the Bayesian priors, but the idea of using priors alone after you have data seems to make no sense at all. 

So, what I am proposing? We should start thinking about uncertainty a lot more and a lot less about cases where all of the unknowns are sharply understood. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Bret Stephens is doing his job (and I don't mean that in a good way)

Andrew Gelman has some issues with comments the NYT's Bret Stephens made back in June (you can check them out here), but I think some context makes them more understandable, if not more defensible.

After 2016, the NYT made a major effort to adapt to the new post-election world. Unfortunately, being the NYT, they did it without any real self-reflection or acknowledgement of their own responsibility. In addition to the widely and deservedly ridiculed decision to put their reporters in pith helmets and send them to the diners of middle America, they also embraced any hard-right conservative who would disavow Trump. It didn't  matter how repugnant their views were, up to and including Ann Coulter.

Stevens: Trump is what the Republican Party wants to be. He’s a white grievance candidate in a party that is over 80 percent white and has embraced its victimhood. Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson are alternatives, but there isn’t a winning market for an anti-Trump message. Trump will be the nominee.

Coulter: I think you’re both more focused on personalities and whiteness than the voters are. It’s issues. And on the issues, Christie is totally out of step with the G.O.P. — and I’d say the country. He weeps about Ukrainians killed and raped by Russians, but doesn’t seem to give two figs about Americans killed and raped by illegal immigrants in our country.

Bruni: Fair point about personalities, Ann, so let’s indeed turn to issues and larger dynamics. You’ve identified Ukraine as an issue getting too much attention. What else is getting lots of attention but largely irrelevant to this race’s outcome, and what’s hugely relevant and being overlooked?

To summarize: Stevens is a shrewd political observer; Coulter is an unrepentant racist; Bruni is a spineless nonentity; the sun rose in the east.

Hiring Bret Stephens in 2017 was an obvious attempt to boost the right-of-Trump opposition and a reminder that the main thing that bothered the NYT about Trump was never his politics. 

In this context Stephens' comments from back in June make perfect sense.

Christie is everything a Democrat could reasonably want in a Republican: gregarious, pragmatic, competent, highly intelligent, capable of reaching across the aisle and most definitely not a hater. I doubt he has any kind of realistic shot at the nomination, but I also know that he’s too much of a realist to think he has a realistic shot, either. His job is to demolish Trump so that Republicans can finally get past the former president. My guess is he’d like the job of attorney general in a DeSantis administration.

The first sentence is obviously bullshit (He's gregarious! Is there no pleasing you people?), and it omits a number of things Democrats (and Republicans who use the George Washington Bridge) would definitely object to, but it's the rest of the paragraph that spells out the agenda. Pump up Christie enough to keep him in the race and make just enough of a threat that he'll have enough of a platform to effectively attack Trump.

If you're a glutton for punishment, here's more on Stephens' hypocrisy and general dickishness.

Monday, November 27, 2023

We don't normally give candidates credit for floundering erratically on hot button issues, but the NYT grades Haley on a curve


This recent article provides quite a bit more fodder for critics of the paper's coverage of the third place candidate for the Republican nomination. The first takeaway is that the New York Times is all in, fully committed to giving the former governor the most positive and supportive coverage they can manage, whether it is pumping up political skills or giving space to the most delusionally optimistic of her supporters. (Of course, they did the same with DeSantis and briefly flirted with Ramaswamy, so this may not be a long term relationship.)

 Her ascent in the polls and strong debate performances have raised hopes among Republicans hungering to end the dominance of former President Donald J. Trump that maybe, just maybe, they have found a candidate who can do so.



“There were people that don’t like Trump at all but were very skeptical that he could be stopped,” said Eric Levine, a Republican fund-raiser who leads the bankruptcy and litigation practices at Eiseman Levine Lehrhaupt & Kakoyiannis. “They now believe he can be stopped,” he said, pointing to Ms. Haley’s steady climb in the polls.

Mr. Levine, who initially backed Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, is co-hosting a Haley fund-raiser on Dec. 4. “His aura of invincibility is just peeled away completely,” he said.


Maybe we need to zoom in a little...


Polls show that Ms. Haley has gained traction against Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has held the No. 2 spot in national surveys all year. In Iowa, she has pulled nearly even with Mr. DeSantis, even as he has pursued an all-in strategy for that state. In New Hampshire, where she is in second place, she has been nearing 20 percent in polling averages.

Seriously, people...

As ripe for mockery as these sections are, my favorite part of the article was this.

Some business leaders say they appreciate her focus on cutting taxes and government spending. Others praise her foreign-policy chops and her search for a winning Republican message on abortion rights, on which she has sought a moderate path but recently tacked to the right by saying she would have signed a six-week ban as governor of South Carolina.
After the almost impossible task of getting past Donald Trump, probably the biggest challenge faced by a Republican candidate for the presidency is navigating this issue. You can certainly argue that, given a close to no-win scenario, Nikki Haley shouldn't be judged to harshly for some missteps, but framing this as a sign of strength takes wishful thinking into the realm of psychological disorder..

It gets even worse if you click through the link. Haley, who is already dogged by charges of RINOism, managed to hand the Democrats a huge club -- bans are politically toxic; six-week bans are political ricin -- and yet do it in such a weaselly way that it's difficult to imagine she has won over anyone from the culture warrior side. 

By the standards of the GOP race, Haley might be the the most acceptable choice for president, at least among candidates who have broken 5%, but puff pieces and positive thinking are not going to change the facts of the campaign. Barring a major health crisis, incarceration, or flight to avoid extradition, Trump has a virtual lock on the nomination. 

Anyone who is approaching the coming election hoping that this problem will just go away is lying to themselves, and the stakes are far too high for that.


Friday, November 24, 2023

Random Elon post-Thanksgiving thoughts

This is Joseph. 

If you are bored on on this quiet Friday between Thanksgiving and the weekend, then this is a simplistic but fun discussion of Elon Musk. It catches up with the narrative that Mark has been saying for years about how the genius label might be just a touch of hyperbole. 

Now, perhaps his genius is administrative? He doesn't design the rockets or cars, but he uses his deep understanding of management culture to enable technologically sophisticated people succeed? In further evidence, the company formerly known as Twitter is suing Media Matters for a report on how extremist content can be served next to corporate advertising if you do the right searches. So he sued the organization. Blue Sky has some great threads on this. 

Based on the legal summary, it appears that X sued Media Matters in an extremely right wing part of Texas. This is despite X's terms of service that makes California the venue. This choice of venue is entirely because people in Texas might have seen the reporting, a argument for venue that could justify any venue whatsoever. X admits that the reporting was accurate as to the content being present on their platform but felt the reporters were unfair in not giving additional context that would have made X look a tiny bit less bad. Further, the use of politically connected lawyers was coincident with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton deciding to investigate Media Matters (an out of state firm) for potential fraud, which is not great given that they are defendants in this case and this further muddies the waters. Other reporting on the contents of the complaint suggest that the media story that led to the lawsuit was accurate in the details, if not generous in reporting context. The reports on why it is a bad case just keep coming (this article had eight reasons from Mike Masnick). 

Elon's response suggests that this will be a long battle:

So, if you are bored today this is a fun rabbit hole to check out. 

Thursday, November 23, 2023

"As God as my witness..." is my second favorite Thanksgiving episode line [Repost]


If you watch this and you could swear you remember Johnny and Mr. Carlson discussing Pink Floyd, you're not imagining things. Hulu uses the DVD edit which cuts out almost all of the copyrighted music. [The original link has gone dead, but I was able to find the relevant clip.]

As for my favorite line, it comes from the Buffy episode "Pangs" and it requires a bit of a set up (which is a pain because it makes it next to impossible to work into a conversation).

Buffy's luckless friend Xander had accidentally violated a native American grave yard and, in addition to freeing a vengeful spirit, was been cursed with all of the diseases Europeans brought to the Americas.

Spike: I just can't take all this mamby-pamby boo-hooing about the bloody Indians.
Willow: Uh, the preferred term is...
Spike: You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not goin' around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.
Buffy: Well, I think the Spaniards actually did a lot of - Not that I don't like Spaniards.
Spike: Listen to you. How you gonna fight anyone with that attitude?
Willow: We don't wanna fight anyone.
Buffy: I just wanna have Thanksgiving.
Spike: Heh heh. Yeah... Good luck.
Willow: Well, if we could talk to him...
Spike: You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.
Xander: Maybe it's the syphilis talking, but, some of that made sense.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Do business schools make money?

This is Joseph.

There is a letter by Clifford Ando on the costs at the University of Chicago. This passage particularly struck me as interesting:

Now, tuition in the business school is $80,961. Undergraduate tuition is $63,801. So whatever the difference is, it is hard to imagine a 33% tuition premium could compensate for half the class sizes and a cost of instruction of 3.5 x as high based on salary. Just in instructional costs, that would suggest class sizes are big (for parity you need classes 5.25 x as big, presuming instructional costs are the most important piece of this costing). So that isn't where the revenue likely is. 

So where is it coming from? These are very large salaries at the assistant professor level and are well above the salary cap for federal grants, even with it currently increasing briskly, so even research grants don't much sense unless they are massive. Keep in mind these are assistant professor salaries, so we'd expect them to increase with rank quite substantially. 

Consulting does not seem to be something that could cover so much and they have 200 faculty. There endowment is > 1 billion, so maybe that is the answer? But at around $5 million per faculty member it still seems to be light. 

Anybody have insight into what is going on here?

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

"Doom-saying without some operational plan to do something better is a luxury and a cheap one"

Thoughts on inciting panic.

We've spent quite a bit of time on how certain journalists have been trying to reconcile the knowledge that a second Trump presidency would be disastrous for the country with a definition of bias that basically boils down to anything that makes Republicans mad. One desperate workaround which has been tried so far has been to throw all journalistic standards out of the window in an effort to promote any non-Trump Republican candidates and conservative voices, up to and including the racist rants of Ann Coulter.  

This was always wishful thinking and we are finally reaching the point where even the most self delusional are starting to own up to the fact that barring a health crisis, incarceration, or fleeing the country to avoid extradition, Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for the presidency in 2024. Some are facing up

Another attempt to evade the obvious, and one which we are likely to see even more of as the maybe-it-won't-be-Trump rationalizations fade is the panic mongering in the guise of concern. This avoids being seen as taking sides in favor of Biden while at the same time evading responsibility for the disaster of another Trump administration.

Josh Marshall has the definitive take.

Which raises a related issue. Are we calling alarms to calm our own anxiety? Or are we doing it to put responsibility on to someone else if everything goes wrong. Over the weekend Maureen Dowd published a Times column entitled ‘The Axe is Sharp,” essentially an encomium to Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod and an anti-encomium to the incumbent President who Axelrod has been dumping on for months.

Circle Jerks are generally assumed to be a male only affair. But here Dowd seems to have broken a new, albeit perverse, glass ceiling. The column is a richly gilded example of DC party circuit tut-tutting shorn of any operational plan. Axelrod has quite famously never been a fan of Biden’s. I don’t doubt he has real concerns about whether Biden, who turns 81 today, will be able to beat Donald Trump a second time. But his press comments over recent weeks have generally demanded the White House ‘grapple with the age’ issue or ‘take it seriously.’ He’s noted that it might be better if Democrats had a younger more dynamic candidate without explaining how the timeline or anything else makes this possible or likely — indeed, without explaining how this will happen without any credible candidate willing to challenge Biden.

Our first poll of the Democratic primary race shows Congressman Dean Phillips pulling 4% to Biden’s 77%. When Emerson polled California and added the state’s popular governor, Gavin Newsom, Biden polled 51% to Newsom’s 21%. The point of sharing these numbers is not to suggest that Democrats universally support Biden. Indeed, they show he has some work to do to unify and energize Democratic voters for the general election. What they illustrate is why no serious candidate has challenged Biden. Because that candidate would almost certainly lose. If Newsom is getting crushed in his own state where he is popular and has almost universal name recognition that tells you the story.

The Axelrod story shows us something important about political commentary and how it intertwines with advocacy and politics. It goes back to those questions I asked above. Are we proposing a more effective approach? Are we simply trying to tamp down our own anxieties? Or are we trying to call dibs on the possible bad outcomes to put the responsibility on someone else if everything goes wrong?


At the present moment it’s the easiest thing in the world — and in many ways the most inviting — to say Biden may lose! It would be great to have a younger, hypothetical candidate! It’s a free call since it’s not going to happen. So there’s no chance you’re going to be accountable for whether or not this was a good idea. If Biden wins next year everyone will be so stoked they either won’t remember what you said or won’t care. But if he loses, for you it’s bit of a win, isn’t it? There’s bragging rights. It amounts to a kind of emotional and professional hedge against the sting of electoral defeat.

Doom-saying without some operational plan to do something better is a luxury and a cheap one, generally a way to opt out of the work and potential consequences of harrowing moments when the future is not clear and stakes are high. That’s the David Axelrods of the political world. What interests me more is something a bit different, what I think AB and many others of us are grappling with: the very human desire to pull some alarm or break some glass when the reality is that we will likely have to sit with the discomfort of a very nerve-wracking year and put every effort into winning with this team. There’s nothing cheap or buck-passing about that. It is a totally human and real feature of this political moment.


Monday, November 20, 2023

Ten years ago at the blog -- thoughts on the myth of JFK.

 The only thing I have to add is that the myth of the Kennedys brought us RFK jr.'s career.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Kennedy, Camelot and the danger of myth

"I just can't see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man's terrible."
Jacqueline Kennedy, speaking in the months after her husband's assassination.

Over at the Monkey Cage, there's a political science take on the anniversary of the assassination (Why so many Americans believe Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories). It makes some interesting points but I have a somewhat different take.

As we've talked about before, if there's an idea that fits in with pre-existing beliefs (particularly one which alleviates cognitive dissonance) and which is aesthetically attractive, people will tend to favor that idea over better supported but less appealing alternatives.

The Sixties are a period that inspire intensely conflicting emotions, particularly among boomers, often producing great cognitive dissonance and there is probably no more resonant myth than that of a lost golden age (with loss due to betrayal being a particularly popular variant). In the case of John F. Kennedy, the Camelot allusions started almost immediately after the assassination and Johnson was soon identified with one of the most mythic of betrayers. (The use of conspiracy theories to delegitimize presidencies is, of course, not limited to LBJ.)

The power of these loss myths obviously rely on the counterfactual leading to a happy place. (if Orpheus and Eurydice were headed for a miserable marriage, the story isn't nearly as effective.) In the case of JFK, for many Democrats and boomers (particularly boomers who had been draft eligible), this basically means the great society without the escalation in Vietnam.

As for the latter, there is certainly evidence that Kennedy was seriously considering getting out, having come to suspect that the war was a lost cause, but every president from Ike through Nixon saw Vietnam as problematic, but every administration got us in deeper. Wars have a long history of being easier to get into than out of. Add to that JFK's commitment to fighting communism (particularly in Latin America and, because nothing ever changes, Iraq) and you can see how certain historians take this position:
Patricia Limerick, a University of Colorado history professor who heads the school's Center of the American West, doubts Kennedy would have backed off from U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The policy of communist containment was too ingrained in him.

"That was one Cold Warrior, that Kennedy," Limerick said. "He gave so much momentum to Vietnam. Cold War thinking was such a powerful arranger of brain cells of people of a certain age at that time."

The domino theory — the notion that communist expansion would continue unless directly confronted — drove decisions. Even the race to the moon was a direct competition with the Soviet Union.

"So I don't know any reason to think that foreign policy would have evolved," Limerick said. "Lyndon Johnson inherited a rat's nest, and we all know who he inherited it from."
How about domestic (and extraterrestrial) policy? Kennedy had laid out an ambitious "New Frontier" agenda but outside of research the progress had struck many observers at the time as somewhat slow, particularly on the social justice side. It's not entirely clear why that would have changed. Even when it came to Apollo, Johnson had been pushing the space race as early as the late Fifties and was, if anything, more dedicated to the issue than was Kennedy.

Of course, the cause where the difference is sharpest is civil rights. While Kennedy was certainly progressive on these issues, they were not a priority. Furthermore, there was considerable emotional distance between the Kennedys and the leaders of the civil rights movement, most notably Martin Luther King who was not even invited to JFK's funeral.

By comparison:
By this time in January 1965, Johnson had already driven through Congress the most important civil rights legislation since emancipation. Now, he told King, their work was only beginning. When Congress reconvened, he intended to introduce a voting rights bill, one that would bring justice to the segregated South, creating a vast new pool of loyal Democratic voters even as it would surely alienate multitudes of whites. ''The president and the civil rights leader -- the politician and the preacher -- were bouncing ideas off each other like two old allies in a campaign strategy huddle, excited about achieving their dreams for a more just society,'' Nick Kotz writes in his narrative history of the two men's alliance. ''As always,'' he continues, ''Johnson did most of the talking. As always, King was polite and deferential to the new president. But there was a shared sense of new possibilities, new opportunities for cooperation to bring about historic change.'' This carefully etched scene serves complementary purposes. It captures Johnson and King at the apex of their collaboration, a snapshot of an optimistic peak that only magnifies the friction and tragedy to come.
The standard response to the Kennedy-King antipathy has generally been to blame J. Edgar Hoover ("Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of John and Jacqueline, said her mother's comments about King are evidence of the 'poisonous' activities Hoover was engaged in, as he ruled the FBI as his private fiefdom."), but as appealing as this is from a psychological standpoint (the "bad council" excuse is often used to alleviate cognitive dissonance), there are at least a couple of problems with this explanation.

For starters, Hoover had constructed his empire in large part by being able to sense both what presidents needed to know and wanted to hear. Here's Tim Weiner, author of "Enemies: A History of the FBI."
GROSS: So did Hoover kind of make a lifelong practice of using his wiretapping to spy on people he perceived as his enemies in government?

WEINER: Well, that's correct, but he also was very well-attuned to what presidents wanted to hear. President Eisenhower wanted to hear about the communist threat. President Johnson wanted to know about the Ku Klux Klan, and despite his lifelong predilection for opposing integration, Hoover did as the president ordered. He was very sensitive to the needs of presidents.
More importantly, Johnson had heard the same FBI reports that Kennedy had but they had no apparent effect on his attitude toward King, though they may have shaped his feeling toward Hoover. ("It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.")

In other words, the golden age story here assumes that Kennedy was about to change direction on the two defining issues of the decade -- Vietnam and civil rights -- and that he was going to change in the right direction (right according to the belief system of those who tend to hold most tightly to the Camelot myth). This could well have happened during a second Kennedy term. Or we could have had withdrawal from Vietnam but no Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, or Voting Rights Act. We might have even stayed in Vietnam and lost all of those programs.

Myths of golden ages and the loss of innocence are tremendously appealing in large part because they let us avoid facing the way things really are. With all due respect to JFK (who was, in many ways a great man), maybe it's time to let this one go.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Simple solutions to complex problems

This is Joseph.

Something that always amazes me is how there is a brand of political solutions that suggest that this "one simple trick" could solve a difficult and daunting problem. One of the best examples of this comes from presidential . . . aspirant (contender seems strong given Mark's reporting) Vivek Ramaswamy. 

The tweets in questions are here

Now it is true that a lottery system will insulate the administration from a personal bias claim and make disproportionate impact hard. On the other hard, large cuts that are thoughtfully made will also tend to have this property (of not creating bias claims).

I have questions. Here are a few:

Who is in the civil service? 

So does that include Federal Judges? Supreme court justices? What about the rules governing judges? Do we just replace the key persons immediately (e.g., will judges really suddenly have half as many clerks and not care?). 

Or what about the secret service? Do they now guard half as many people or the same number very badly? What does the FBI do? What happens when the senate confirmed cabinet member has an odd SSN? Did we just gut military support services? 

How is the implemented? 

What about seniority rules? Don't the probationary employees go first? What about bumping rights? Does this just fire the junior half of the civil service creating a knowledge pipeline problem in the future? 

Judges will run afoul of article 3 of the constitution. Plus, to be cynical, it is unlikely that judges will suddenly fall in love with a new way of firing judges. 

What about essential functions? For example, one presumes that there will need to be an ambassador in every country with an embassy? Aren't we just rehiring people for essential functions and do we really think clever lawyers won't come up with causes of action based on harm? It might not be discriminatory, but to fire a person with seniority to immediately replace them outside of the existing rules seems like a very expensive plan. 

Separation of powers?

There are also congressional laws on this subject. They include fun things like "Willfully obstruct a person's right to compete for employment." being against current laws. How does an odd SSN not count? Maybe it does and maybe it does not, but I think a lawsuit from a bunch of suddenly dismissed workers at a military base in Nebraska seems likely. How much savings you have left post-lawsuit is an interesting question. 

Worse, who will still be able to hold to budgets when they need to hire a ton of emergency contractors? 

The nitpicks are the point

I am immediately jumping to the hard cases but that is very deliberate. Once you start building out a case then it quickly becomes clear that this plan is not simple and never was. It is dramatic and attention grabbing but the exact opposite of a well thought out plan. The argument that absolutely nothing will be break involves a complete lack of understanding of what is and is not properly staffed.

I really dislike this myth. In the movie Dave, a small town accountant works miracles on the federal budget in an evening. This line of thinking is just bogus. Large and complex organizations need to be carefully curated to avoid real problems. It would be no different going to Meta and firing 50% of the employees at random -- you'd suddenly have a lot of regrets. It's time for this myth to just die. 

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Post-dated foresight

As we discussed last time, Josh Marshall wasn't too impressed with the latest piece of NYT political analysis.

First a small digression. I don’t know if it was immediately before we started recording yesterday’s podcast or during the recording, but what I said was something like this: There’s this weird pattern with the Times/Sienna poll, the most recent installment of which kicked off the latest freakout. They have a poll which is bad for Democrats. Then there’s an election that’s good for Democrats. Then the Times publishes a story that says the results confirmed the findings of their poll. And the kicker is that when they dive into the inner workings of the numbers it kinda seems like they’re right? Sorta? Maybe?

Here's the central thesis of Nate Cohn's piece:

Put simply: Tuesday’s results don’t change the picture for President Biden heading into 2024.

First off, this is obviously false. A strong performance by Democrats and Democratic issues in purple and deep red States one year before a presidential election pretty much has to shift the priors of any responsible analyst. Cohn can't argue this point and, despite some hand waving, doesn't really try. Instead, he comes up with various hypotheses that tend to reduce the impact of this new data point on the upcoming presidential election. None of these theories are self-evident or even particularly well supported by the election results. As Marshall points out, he's seriously stretching the definition of low turnout election. Not to mention ignoring conflicting data and making the counter-intuitive leap that younger voters are less concerned with reproductive rights.

He also wants us to know that poll savvy folk like him weren't caught off guard in the slightest.

Abortion rights and marijuana legalization prevailed in Ohio. Democrats held the governor’s mansion in Kentucky, took full control of the State Legislature in Virginia and won a Supreme Court election in Pennsylvania. They even were competitive in Mississippi.


The polls showed the Democrat winning Kentucky. They showed abortion rights and marijuana legalization prevailing in Ohio — and showed them to be popular in many red states all over the country. They also show that voters disapprove of Mr. Biden and that Mr. Trump leads in the battleground states.

Funny thing, though. Cohn published two analyses of these polls the weekend before the election and as far as I can tell  he didn't say anything about the big news of these imminent elections. If he really saw it coming, a story about the Democrats being on the verge of a big night would have been a huge scoop. Possibly even a career highlight.

It's not like Cohn and the New York Times are reluctant to make predictions about political events like Trump not getting the nomination in 2016 or Dobbs having limited impact (see our real-time reply here) or DeSantis crushing Trump (by Michael C. Bender with Cohn contributing). If we go back to the previous Nate, we even get this...


 Almost exactly twelve years ago.


Not sure what brought this to mind...

Most billet reading is an example of a generalized class of tricks known as "one ahead" reading. It is accomplished by having the performer know one of the statements beforehand, typically through a plant, or through sleight of hand by opening one of them before starting the act.

To start the act, the mentalist selects the topmost envelope on the stack and pretends to mind-read the contents, typically by holding it to their forehead. Instead of announcing anything related to that envelope, they instead read aloud the memorized statement. The plant in the audience then cries out some variation of "that's mine!" Another variation is to claim to be unable to read the first card due to some problem, perhaps that the audience member's mind is closed or too powerful. In either event, the mentalist then opens the envelope to "make sure they got it right" or perhaps to "see what is so confusing" and is then able to read what a real audience member wrote on their billet.

The trick proceeds to the next envelope. The mentalist pretends to mind read it, but reads aloud the statement from the envelope previously opened. This time a real audience member is impressed and agrees they got it right. The mentalist then reads the contents of the second envelope and repeats this sequence. The trick then continues until the envelopes are exhausted, the last one being empty or the envelope of the plant. Throughout, the mentalist is "one ahead" in the envelope stack, pretending to be reading one while actually reading the next one.

To disguise the reason for opening the envelope, the typical variation used by mentalists has the audience members write questions on their cards, which the magician will answer. The magician then starts by making a statement like "I feel beautiful!", expresses some confusion about why he would say that, and then opens the envelope to read the question, "will the weather be nice tomorrow?" (while actually reading the next card, "what is my shoe size?"). As the questions may be impossible to guess, like a random person's shoe size, comedy or misdirection is often worked into the routine. For instance, "a size larger than last year" makes a reasonable answer to shoe size no matter who asks the question. Mediums may use the question and answer format as well, except that the questions are to be asked of the deceased, or perhaps are simply names of people to be contacted in the spirit world.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Josh Marshall appears to be joining the annoyed at Nate Cohn club

... or perhaps more accurately the annoyed at Cohn's role at the New York Times. 

 The NYT has one of the strongest and most identifiable institutional cultures in journalism. We know this not just from reading the paper but from accounts of reporters and editors who have worked there and, in my case, private exchanges with journalists. One telling anecdote from that last category, a number of these writers have publicly criticized their own papers (albeit usually mildly), but the only one I've come across who was concerned about their employer's reaction and thought they might need to dial it back was from the NYT.

Nate Cohn has always been a good soldier, supporting the standard narrative, defending the paper in the face of criticism, and doing his best to present his employer in the best possible light. Those aren't ideal standards for journalists even in the best of times, and in case you haven't been paying attention, these aren't the best of times.

[I'll try to have my take on Cohn's piece soon. TL;DR it's not good.]

First a small digression. I don’t know if it was immediately before we started recording yesterday’s podcast or during the recording, but what I said was something like this: There’s this weird pattern with the Times/Sienna poll, the most recent installment of which kicked off the latest freakout. They have a poll which is bad for Democrats. Then there’s an election that’s good for Democrats. Then the Times publishes a story that says the results confirmed the findings of their poll. And the kicker is that when they dive into the inner workings of the numbers it kinda seems like they’re right? Sorta? Maybe?

At a minimum they need to do a better job saying what their poll means on the front end. Because everyone keeps getting really confused.

So now back to the latest piece from Nate Cohn. [No link provided, but I assume he means this. -- MP]

His argument is this: the “bad” polls for Democrats are polls about Joe Biden. But Biden wasn’t on the ballot yesterday. The environment for Democrats and their issues is fairly positive. It’s just Joe Biden who voters are down on. So there’s no contradiction. Then Cohn makes the key additional argument that the voters who are really down on Biden tend to be more occasional voters: younger, less white, more disaffected. Those are the kinds of voters that don’t show up in special elections or other low turn out elections but do show up in general elections. So when properly understood, everything actually fits.

This isn’t a crazy argument or necessarily an incorrect one. But when I read Cohn’s piece it seemed less illuminating than a full firepower review focused mostly on bringing the election results into line with the most recent poll.

One example: I’ve mentioned a few times that Democrats have been consistently over-performing in special elections since Dobbs. Cohn classes Tuesday’s election as another low turnout election similar to special elections. But that’s not really the case. In the states that elected governors or state legislators, these were major elections. Equating the two is kind of a stretch. They’re still not general elections. Those are different. But they’re closer. And yet the general pattern of Democratic strength continues. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Five years age at the blog -- Looking back through the archive and I came across this. Surprised I only used the Scheherazade line once.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

There's still nothing there (and other lessons journalists refuse to learn about Elon Musk)

[See comments]

From Ars Technica

Similarly, Musk told mayors on Thursday that he wants The Boring Company to dig sewers, water transport, and electrical tunnels under cities, in addition to the transportation-focused tunnels he hopes to dig to house electric skate systems.

Musk mentioned this alternate use for his boring machines at the National League of Cities' City Summit, during a "fireside chat" with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti. According to Forbes, Musk told the audience, "The Boring Company is also going to do tunneling for, like, water transport, sewage, electrical. We're not going to turn our noses up at sewage tunnels. We're happy to do that too."

The Boring Company is built on the premise that tunneling technology has not been adequately developed. Musk claims that his boring machines will tunnel faster than the industry's best machines.

Elon Musk is good copy. Perhaps more than anything else, that is the one thing you need to keep reminding yourself of when trying to make sense of why reporters remain so hopelessly credulous on this story. As Upton Sinclair might have told you, the press is remarkably willing to accept dubious claims when they drive traffic and reinforce rather than challenge the standard narrative.

In this case, "reinforce" is far too weak a term. Elon Musk has fashioned himself to personify the cherished tech messiahs narrative. Like Abraham Lincoln in the old Bob Newhart monologue, if he hadn't existed, they would've had to invent him.

Musk is, to his credit, an exceptionally gifted promoter, particularly adept at the art of misdirection. No one is better at distraction, dramatically changing the focus of attention just long enough for goalposts to be moved, promises to be forgotten, and "I'll address that later" to become "we've already covered that."

These distractions are nested. Less like a "real life Tony Stark" and more like a modern day Scheherazade, Elon Musk tells stories within stories, constantly shifting back and forth so that all but the most careful and critical listener will lose the thread and get swept up in the fantasy. When it becomes increasingly obvious that Tesla is unlikely to ever justify its stock price, he announces that construction will soon begin on a long-distance maglev vactrains running along the East Coast. When the buzz fades from that, he very publicly launches a company that claims to be able to increase tunneling speed and decreased costs by an order of magnitude. When the lack of actual breakthroughs start to become noticeable, he releases cool CGI videos of giant slot cars racing underneath Los Angeles.

A key part of this magic show is the ability to make the ordinary seem wondrous. People have been digging tunnels for thousands of years and there is no reason at this point for us to believe that the excavation which is about to be announced with such fanfare employed methods in any way more sophisticated than those used on construction projects around the world.

The press has become so docile on this point that Musk doesn't even have to lie about having made some major advance in the technology. He can just pretend that the enormous superiority of his system was a proven fact, confident in the assumption that no reporter will point out the truth. As far as I can tell (and I've read all that I had time and stomach for), the few specifics he has provided have been either meaninglessly vague (blah blah blah automation blah blah blah) or have displayed a fundamental lack of understanding about engineering and infrastructure (making projects cheaper by making tunnels smaller in situations where the reduction in capacity would actually drive up costs).


Dude. I'm no Musk fan, how does this excerpt show hopeless credulousness? If anything, I read weary skepticism from it. They say that Musk's assertions are premises based on claims. What more do you want? The purpose of the article from Ars is to report Musk's comments, not evaluate whether he can revolutionize tunneling. I'm sorry, would you rather they didn't report on a major tech figure's remarks? Quite a lot of people think Musk is newsworthy. How is this Ars' fault? You seem to want Ars to turn into SeekingAlpha. There are plenty of Musk fluff pieces you could have cited; choosing to focus on the Ars article makes it seem like you're just out to nitpick.

  1. You've got a point. I picked Ars Tech because it seemed to be going viral and because I generally expect better from them, but they were far, far from the worst.


Monday, November 13, 2023

Oh, Nikki, you're so fine, you're so fine, you blow my mind...

In the horse race coverage of GOP primary, the big story over the past few days has been the stunning rise of Nikki Haley, suggesting that Trump is not only vulnerable, but vulnerable to a traditional Republican.


This certainly is exciting news. Let's check in with 538 to see how much she has narrowed the gap.

Hmmm... That doesn't seem t be much to write home about. Perhaps we need to drill down further. After all, in her Nov. 8th NYT piece ("Nikki Haley Is Gaining Ground"), Katherine Miller tells us "[Haley] is gaining in the places that matter." As an example, Miller links to this story about polls in New Hampshire.

 Funny thing about that USA Today article, it was over a month old when Miller posted her piece. That doesn't really support the narrative that recent gains show growing momentum behind Haley.

Let's take a closer look.

A new poll from Suffolk University, The Boston Globe, and USA TODAY found that likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters overwhelmingly favor former president Donald Trump as their party’s nominee for the 2024 presidential election.

Respondents also weighed in on issues like climate change, immigration, and Trump’s legal woes. The poll of 500 likely New Hampshire Republican presidential primary voters was conducted between Sept. 28 and Oct. 2., with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.


Given that even a month ago, Haley had already spent enough time in New Hampshire that she might legally be allowed to vote there, a distant second is not all that impressive. Trump, by comparison, had been focusing most of his campaign on a golf course in Florida, but that appears to be changing

Trump’s rally on Saturday is one of several trips he’s making to New Hampshire this month as part of a strategic effort by his campaign to ensure he doesn’t lose momentum heading into the early months of 2024 as his rivals campaign relentlessly in the first-in-the-nation primary state, his advisers told CNN. 

Nonetheless, Miller argues, "A win in Iowa or New Hampshire for Ms. Haley would reset the entire primary contest" and it was a recent Iowa poll that set off this latest round of Nikki-mania. The next day the NYT ran another pro-Haley piece, this time without the cover of the opinion section, focused more on Iowa.

 A close second-place finish — or even capturing the biggest vote share in Iowa after Mr. Trump — could catapult Ms. Haley into New Hampshire and the contests that follow, attracting fresh support and prompting some rivals to bow out, her aides and surrogates argued.

 "[C]apturing the biggest vote share in Iowa after Mr. Trump" would include a distant second, which is unlikely to do a great deal  of catapulting, regardless of what aides and surrogates tell gullible reporters from back East, but putting that aside. Let's take a closer look at that Iowa poll. 

From the Des Moines Register:

Also from the Register:

The one place Iowa does have a potentially important and useful role is with politicians who don't yet have a big national presence. The state functions, in a sense, as a search committee, looking over candidates who may not have been on our radar. If Asa Hutchinson were to significantly outperform his polling numbers and come in third or even fourth, that could indicate that he has real potential, but Nikki Haley has been a prominent figure on the national stage for years and is currently experiencing a wave of coverage.

As we've talked about before, there is a certain ebb and flow you expect to see in a primary, particularly among alternatives to a controversial front runner. Voters unhappy with their party's likely choice will look around for a broadly acceptable candidate to converge on. This can produce some rapid and in some cases surprisingly large surges which tend to go away as quickly as they came. If you go back and look at the 2012 and 2016 Republican primaries, you will see this happening repeatedly and far more dramatically than what we're seeing here.

There are certainly scenarios where Haley could get the nomination (almost all involving Trump's health or legal issues), but with this story as with so many we've seen over the past eight years, the main driver of political journalism seems to be wishful thinking.