“Ending The War”
February 28, 2009, 3:02 am
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Matthew Yglesias characteristically responds to Obama’s announcement (i.e. words) that he’s going to order the re-stationing of a majority of troops currently stationed in Iraq by referring to it as a move “…to End the War in Iraq”.

You see, by the logic we’ve all become inured to these past five years, having U.S. troops stationed somewhere is automatically and forever a “war”. We have U.S. troops stationed in Iraq (doing…? um, what exactly? doesn’t matter!) so that gets called “the war in Iraq” or even more amusingly “The Iraq War”. One can only assume that if we have a contingent of troops stationed in Iraq 30 years from now, they will still call that “The Iraq War” and walk around thinking that something called “The Iraq War” is still taking place.

But now, after some future point in time, Obama plans to reduce the number of troops we have stationed in Iraq. (Something which was going to happen anyway, incidentally.) Amusingly, this gets called – by thinkers like Matthew Yglesias – “ending the war in Iraq”. Troops somewhere? War. Stationing (most of) those troops somewhere else? “Ending the war”.

Annoyingly, this is how some people actually think.

It’s worth adding that most such people are the same people who, 2-3 years ago, were insisting that Iraq was “mired” in an intractable “civil war”. Even back then it was clear that they were not connecting the dots of their own logic (if it’s a civil war, how will removing our troops “end” it?). But the reality is that they’ve forgotten they ever said that altogether. Like everything else these people say, it was just an argument they found it convenient to put forth to try to get what they wanted.

Global Warming: The Questions
February 27, 2009, 4:56 am
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“Global Warming” means a lot of things to a lot of people. Mostly oversimplified things to simple people.

It is also complicated by ideology to the point that the debate isn’t even honest. It is not uncommon to hear a GW advocate say something like “but even if the theory is wrong, we should still [limit CO2, whatever], because of [some supposed vague social benefit involving 'equality' or somesuch nonsense]“. People who say this type of thing are admitting they don’t actually care about the scientific debate at all, not really. After all, they’d support limiting CO2 if there were no such thing as global warming and nobody had ever put the theory forth in the first place – they just said so themselves!

But anyway, the issue is important (or could be), and here is a framework for how the issue could be usefully addressed, if it had not been cartoonized and co-opted by creepy ideologues like Al Gore:

  1. Q: Has the earth been getting warmer recently, on average? Scientists say yes. Or, at least, we are told that scientists say yes, and I have seen certain temperature timeseries that seem to indicate yes. There are some subtleties here that shouldn’t be glossed over so quickly though. First of all the idea that we know how warm “the earth” has been at any point in time – where does that come from? How warm was some point out the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1873? You. do. not. know. Nobody knows. (The Pacific Ocean is fricking HUGE. Ever seen it?) We have temperature records in some places: cities, shipping routes, etc. But the Earth is HUGE and those “some places” do not even come close to covering it. In some places there are also true scientific means (ice core samples, satellite measurements of radiative intensity, etc) of backing out what the temperature probably (if certain theories/assumptions/models hold up) must’ve been at this or that time. This can help. Then scientists basically average/interpolate all their findings together and fill in the gaps somehow. But there are a lot of gaps. Are they filling in the gaps in a reasonably way? (And what is “average” temperature anyway? L1-norm? What?) But ok, it seems reasonably clear that they’re getting the direction right. My answer: Yeah, if they say so, sure.
  2. Q: Have humans caused this? This is an interesting debate to observe. Pro-GW folks say yes. “Skeptics” say no. My answer: Doesn’t matter! Think about it. If GW is bad, doesn’t matter whether we’ve “caused” it or whether it was 100% “natural”. Either way, it’s bad and we should try to do something if we can. Right?
  3. Q: What will the future weather be like if we keep things status quo? Al Gore seems to think that climate modellers know the answer to that: it will get much much warmer. Personally, unlike Al Gore, I have worked on climate models. These models do not impress me as being all that more sophisticated than the models used to create cartoon oceans for Pixar cartoons. In fact, they are basically the same models. Which is to say they can get pretty good, state-of-the-art, and make nice cartoons, but I am not certain they don’t leave out or can deal with potentially important effects (cloud formation, cosmic rays); they use bootstrapped ad hoc rules of thumb for other important effects (turbulence); they make simplifications (coarse grid-size, shallow-water approximations). In my judgment such models are not appropriate bases for significant mass action/public policy. My answer: Probably a bit warmer, based on current trends, for a while. We don’t really know in any reasonable detail, with any certainty.
  4. Q: Will this future weather be bad? Not so obvious. All weather is “bad” at some times, for some people. (And by the way, the important thing is how things are for people. It’s people that matter, not “the Earth” per se. Let’s keep that straight.) Even if the weather were ideal by whatever criteria Al Gore uses, wouldn’t there still be the occasional hurricane, flood, fire? No? Of course there would. So the real questions become: given this or that future-path of weather, how bad (or good) is it, for how many (or, for which) people? One could imagine trying to come up with a “cost” function for each possible future weather-path, for each person, and then add up the “cost” to each person of such-and-such weather type. Compare the “cost” of this weather-path to that and then you have a basis for calling one “bad” compared to the other. But constructing the “cost” in the first place is the sticky wicket because it would involve choices. Let’s say that weather path X is good for people in Alaska but bad for people in Florida. Who’s more important? Are they “equal”? But Florida has more people? But maybe they’ll be less affected on average? And how do you compare one badness to another? Weather X causes increased malaria in Somalia, weather Y causes increased pneumonia in Siberia – what’s more costly, how do you attach a relative “cost” to the two? Here’s the problem: once you start down this road (and you have to!) you are no longer being scientific. You are being political. This has become an inherently political question now. You can ignore the political ramifications of this question but that just means you’re answering this question haphazardly and sweeping the political ramifications under the rug (and then coming up with a solution where a political choice has implicitly been made but not acknowledged). My answer: I really don’t know, on balance. I would guess net-flat: the “cost” of the future weather path will not be measurably worse than current weather conditions we have seen the past 100-300 years.
  5. What can we theoretically do to alter the future weather? It’s ridiculous that I need to point this question out. To hear Al Gore talk, “we” can just change the future weather at will, like turning a dial on a thermostat. Just reduce CO2 emissions. That will change the future weather significantly! It’s just that easy. In reality, I’m not so sure. Even if the earth has gotten warmer, and even if it’s been due to CO2 emissions, what makes us think that reducing CO2 emissions by any feasible amount can significantly cool it? What if it just doesn’t work like that? What if there’s a feedback effect occurring now? The question here needs to be answered before we do anything at all. Yet everyone assumes the question away. My answer: I don’t know. I gather that models where the amount of CO2 is used and varied as a “forcing” term give people the idea that we know what these sensitivites are and they are material. But as I said, I do not have a lot of faith in those models. I doubt we can affect future weather a whole lot at present.
  6. What can we feasibly do to alter the future weather? This is a different question than the previous because even if there is something we could theoretically imagine doing that would scientifically have the effect of improving future weather, it may not be feasible to get it done in practice. It may not be feasible politically. It may lead to unintended consequences that have the effect of negating the action. For example I do believe that we, plus Europe could set up a cap-and-trade carbon emissions system. However, this would not necessarily actually reduce global CO2 emissions. One problem is that China, India, and Russia would not sign on. Or, if they would sign on, they would cheat and collect a bunch of $moola from us (which is what I believe the current European system amounts to – Eastern Europe swindling naive Western Europe out of dough). Or, they would collect the dough, and use the emission credits to attract Western companies to relocate their plants – which just relocates emissions, not reduces them. None of these things are actually methods of or would have the effect of reducing carbon emissions in practice. So, even though “reduce carbon emissions” may be a theoretical solution to something, it may not actually be feasible, in practice, to get human society to actually do it (short of perhaps nuking everybody through intentional global genocide – although that too probably isn’t feasible, let’s hope). My answer: Probably nada. Whatever we try that is anything like an emissions-reduction will just amount to shooting ourselves in the foot and being taken advantage of by Russia and China and the like.
  7. At what cost? But ok let’s say (a) the future weather will be net-bad, and (b) we have the power to alter it (both theoretically and feasibly). How much will it cost us to do so? This is important because the whole point here (I thought) was to avert the “cost” (see point 4.) of the future weather. If that cost is $X trillion but we spend $2X trillion to prevent it, then sorry but what’s the freaking point? And couldn’t it possibly be cheaper to just address the symptoms as they come? What gives anyone the idea that “change the weather” is a more cost-effective thing to do than, say, “build floodgates in lowland areas”? Maybe it is, but you can’t know that without knowing the cost of your GW solution at all. So the cost of any proposed global-warming solution has to be taken into account for me to take the argument seriously. Of course, most GW advocates don’t even bother trying. The closest some of them come is to try to pretend that we should use a discount rate (for the “cost” associated with future weather-paths) of 0, which is arrant nonsense and is really just a way of avoiding the cost-benefit question by trying to load the equation so that they can pretend that the “cost” of future GW weather is INFINITE. (If the “cost” of something is INFINITE then you don’t even have to do cost-benefit analysis, because it’s worth trying to prevent at all costs….). But in the real world, nobody uses a zero discount rate. (If you think you do or claim you do, give me $1,000,000. I’ll just promise to have my great great grandkid pay yours $1,000,000, and we’ll be square.) My answer: Probably large, and underestimated by most, with unintended consequences for society and government.

The above questions, at minimum, need to be answered by anyone who wants to seriously make a case for mass action when it comes to global warming. The answers need to be along these lines: Yes, future weather will be bad (compared to now) based on status quo. Yes, there is something we can do, that is feasible. And its cost will be less than the cost of doing nothing.

Anyone who can support those definitive answers to my above questions will convince me of the need to take action on global warming. As things stand, my answers are equivocal and do not add up to a convincing case for mass action at this time. Perhaps some of my answers are wrong. Perhaps I could be convinced of that.

The problem is, given the current state of the science, anyone who thinks they can give definitive answers to all of the above questions is a freaking liar and/or craven ideologue, and not worth my time. And yes I’m looking at you Al Gore.

“This Is A Student Free Zone”
February 25, 2009, 3:18 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Truer words were never spoken. I’ll give him that.

HT: Volokh

Smelt It
February 25, 2009, 3:03 am
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I was quite amazed by the hubbub made about the chimp cartoon last week. I keep going it over and over in my head, and any way you slice it, it still seems to boil down to:

1. Someone drew an editorial cartoon featuring a chimp.

2. A bunch of stellar minds saw the chimp and thought of President Obama.

3. And then cried: “that’s racist!”.

Read 2. again. And then go ahead and read 3. again.

I don’t know about you, but seeing an editorial cartoon featuring a chimp does not and did not make me think of President Obama. It made me think of that chimp who went nuts in Stamford. And you know why? BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT THE F**KING CARTOON WAS REFERRING TO.

What sort of obtuseness and lack of self-awareness does it take to cry “racist” because you saw a chimp in a cartoon and you thought of President Obama?

Just like with the controversy when Arnold Kling used the word thugs, this sort of thing says far more about those doing the complaining and (mis)interpreting than about the supposedly offensive act. I think it’s high time we take heed the old tried-and-true adage,

“He who smelt it, dealt it.”

February 24, 2009, 3:43 am
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Work-starred = starred at work, for the uninitiated.

  1. Mario Rizzo has a great article explaining that all these “Keynesians”, who think Keynesianism supports the Obama ‘stimulus’ approach, don’t actually seem to have read or understood Keynes. Not altogether surprising now that I think about it.
  2. The Anti-Bono: A foxy African economist explains why “aid” to Africa sucks. Here’s a taste:

    What do you think has held back Africans?
    I believe it’s largely aid.

    I love it. :-) At least go look at the picture.

    (HT corner Derb)

  3. Some people actually think grades should be based on “effort”. The mind boggles. I had to read the following part twice to make sure I was reading what I thought I was reading, and I still can’t quite believe that any halfway intelligent person holds this view:

    “I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

    “If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.

  4. Important issue: the differences between Isla Fisher and Amy Adams. I once watched a whole movie starring Isla Fisher (Definitely, Maybe) thinking it was Amy Adams, the girl from Enchanted.
  5. Cobb actually made me laugh at work, which is worth bonus points:

    I have yet to see any comment on any blog noticing how ridiculous it is that there are commercials on television featuring talking babies that buy and trade securities. Think about it. How stupid are we? That stupid. My hat’s off to the marketing geniuses at ETrade. You are selling snow to eskimoes, no, you are selling salt and pepper to the grigoes in the cannibal stew pot. What a country! PT Barnum would be proud.

February 24, 2009, 2:39 am
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I was on the subway reading a book and listening to my iPod. When we got to my station, it was time for me to pack up for the walk home. So, without thinking much, while keeping my book open I switched off/packed up my iPod and started to put it in my bag….

Wait, huh? That doesn’t work. It’s the other way around of course.

What Happened To “The Multiplier”?
February 22, 2009, 3:31 pm
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Yahoo news seems to have made itself into a useful conduit for administration trial balloons and spin. Here’s a top story now: Obama plans to slash deficit in half.

Hold on. What? Cut the deficit?


I thought we were all Keynesians now! I thought it had been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Keynes was in fact correct in his ultrascientific macroeconomic theories, rather than wrong and antiquated and steeped in 1930s-1950s thinking that served Britain oh so well in its socialism.


After all, as we all now agree, there’s such a thing as a “multiplier”! (And it’s not a phony oversimplification at all.) And this multiplier has been tested and measured and it’s greater than one. Always. In English this means that the more money the government spends, the richer we all get. Which is one of the most scientific concepts I’ve ever heard of! (Because Keynesianism is, as I’ve said and wish to reiterate without any sarcasm whatsoever, totally scientific.)

But so then if the “multiplier” is bigger than 1, why would we ever want to reduce the deficit? Deficits are great. The bigger the deficit, the more money the government is spending (which is good!) relative to revenues. Reducing the deficit is bad according to Keynesianism.

That’s what we all supposedly now believe, because it was supposedly proven in September of last year, when the crisis spiked, conveniently right before the election!

What gives?

Ok, let me just read the article….oh wait, what’s this?:

The official … said the deficit will be shrunk by scaling back Iraq war spending, ending the temporary tax breaks enacted by the Bush administration for those making $250,000 or more a year, and streamlining government.

Oh. Oh I see. Oh yes I get it now.

Here’s another way this article could have been headlined:

“Obama plans to scale back Iraq war funding.” (But why? What about the “multiplier”? Spend spend spend, the more the better. Spending on the Iraq war = jobs for munitions factory workers and the like. Right?)

Or: “Obama plans to raise taxes on the high tax bracket.”

Or: “Obama plans to ‘streamline government'”, except “streamlining government” is a bogusly vague concept they tossed in there that doesn’t really mean anything.

Anyway, all this really proves is that – just as nobody really cares about “the deficit” when they find spending they like – it also seems that none of these newly-spun Keynesians really believe in “the multiplier” when they find spending they don’t.

P.S. Notice how once again we are treated to the “words=deeds” thinking of the Obama administration. A whole news story gets spun out of the (meaningless) fact that Obama “plans to” cut the deficit in half. Will he actually do it, in practice? Does anyone really believe that? Doesn’t matter! He “plans to”. Good enough for me.

Or at least, for most people.


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