Two vs. One vs. Zero

Deutsche’s firing of top trader sparks probe

No real surprises, but sparks some interesting discussion of correlation trading from ‘Janet Tavakoli, a Chicago-based derivatives consultant’, whatever that is:

…said many bank managements did not fully appreciate the illusory nature of the trading profits being generated from derivatives correlation desks before the financial crisis. She said those profits often disappeared and turned into losses when the underlying assets turned south. “The thing about correlation desks is that it will appear you are making a lot money from trades, but it is all money at risk,” said Tavakoli. “I call this kind of trading an invisible hedge fund.”

My only real dispute with this statement is that it appears to single out correlation trading as if it alone, among derivatives trading, is somehow unique in this regard. All derivatives (as opposed to, say, simply crossing bonds i.e. the pure Platonic ideal of what broker-dealers supposedly could or should confine themselves to doing) put money at risk. All derivatives by definition come onto the book with a valuation that would ‘disappear and turn into losses when the underlying assets turned south’ (for appropriate definitions of ‘south’). If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be derivatives.

They can go south, that is, unless those derivatives are properly and perfectly (!) hedged with liquid hedging instruments. Of course, as a general matter, except for very simple cases, derivatives won’t and can’t be hedged perfectly, hedging instruments won’t always be liquid, putting on the hedges won’t be costless, etc. Although some derivatives (say, equity options) are probably easier to hedge accurately and with little bid-offer cost than others (say, ABS correlation trades). Such things lie on a continuum. So the truth in her statement is that correlation trades had a far greater likelihood for the hedging to slip/fail and the resulting net valuation to lead to losses than would probably be the case for, say, an equity options book. Yes, that is almost certainly true. But this doesn’t make this ‘illusory trading profits’/’it is all money at risk’ thing some sort of unique property of correlation trading alone. Again, please let’s stop with the artificially treating a continuum like an on-off switch.

Besides, is it even true that other derivatives, e.g. equity options, are so perfectly hedgeable that they don’t have the ‘illusory profits’ time-bomb potential? What happened in 1987 exactly? What exactly is supposed to be the perfectly-hedgeable, ‘nice’ derivatives trade? How about an interest-rate swaps book. Surely those never lose money because all their PnL is clean and riskless and they never take positions. Um…no. FX options? Equity index futures? Surely those derivatives have no potential for illusory gains, hidden time bombs, stealth prop trading, or huge losses. Hmmm. Well, I’ll have to get back to you….

The article proceeds directly to an ominous-sounding, yet non sequitur discussion of VaR:

In an early 2010 regulatory filing, Deutsche attributed some of the rise in the bank’s value-at-risk, or VAR, at the end of 2009 to a “recalibration of parameters in the Group’s credit correlation business.”

On Wall Street, VAR is one metric used by a bank to estimate how much money it could conceivably lose in a day if all of its trading bets and hedges went awry. It’s an imperfect measurement, but one followed by most industry analysts.

As I have written before, VaR is nonsense. It is a single number calculated by an army of well-paid Master’s and PhD’s about which the one definitive statement we can make is that it is wrong.

But this article also puts the cart before the horse, treating the ‘rise in VaR’ as if it is an interesting event in and of itself. It isn’t. VaR is a model number that has no effect on anything by itself. What did DB really do at the end of 2009? ‘Made VaR higher’ is just not an interesting answer. Even to say they ‘recalibrated parameters’ isn’t interesting by itself; parameters are just a means to an end (the mark). Marks are what count. Did they mark their book up or did they mark it down? Sure, any model change calls into question the prior model – but clearly some changes are more ominous than others, i.e. remarkings that bring marks in line with the market vs. those that move them away from the market. Which was this? We just don’t know, presumably because the reporter doesn’t ask the ‘derivatives consultant’ or anyone else a question of real importance.

Obviously there is plenty of genuine and deserved embarrassment for DB to be had in this article but what is frustrating is how a true-enough fact pattern can be so grossly misread. The premise of the article is clearly that [such-and-such kind of trading] is a Bad Kind Of Trading, and this bank was guilty of it, and now they’re embarrassed and trying to get out of it, because of the Volcker Rule, because it’s hedge-fundy, or some such thing. My dispute is not with the embarrassments listed. My dispute is with the conceit that one can single out this kind of trading as the Bad Kind Of Trading, and somehow distinguish and then firewall it off from all the Good Kind Of Trading that banks do that (supposedly) isn’t risky, or dependent on opaque valuation methods, or hedge-fundy, or whatever bogeyman we are supposed to blame for The Financial Crisis.

Maybe I’m dumber or denser than regulators and Congressmen and ‘derivatives consultants’ and Reuters reporters, but I just don’t really see the two easily-distinguished kinds of trading that everyone else seems to. I don’t see these banks’ activities as separating neatly and cleanly into the (bad, nasty, tainted) “prop”/hedge fundy activity and the Nice, Sweet, Organic, Free-Range Trading that supposedly are the banks’ bread and butter, and that they could somehow get back to with clever enough regulations.

Although I obviously see and acknowledge differences lying along a continuum, I really only see one kind of trading, not two. You can artificially rope off the one and ban it, while keeping the other, but I don’t know what you think you’ll be accomplishing other than to incentivize banks (& the shadow banking system), as staffed by even more highly-paid personnel, to proceed to explore the boundaries you’ve just artificially drawn and patted yourself on the back for doing so.

As such, I have grown well good and tired of the ‘let’s identify and purify our village of the Bad Kind Of Trade‘ subgenre of financial criticism. To paraphrase (and improve upon) Ben Stiller’s frustrated (and incorrect) little soliloquy to Darryl Zero in Zero Effect, there aren’t evil kinds of trades and innocent kinds of trades. It’s just… It’s just… It’s just a bunch of… trades.

Worse Than Distraction

As someone who thinks we should remove all military personnel from Iraq and Afghanistan and cease all related expenditures, I welcomed the news I think I vaguely heard about President Obama pulling out of (?) Afghanistan, or whatever it was exactly that was announced and discussed last week while I was flipping car radio stations1 on vacation.

(As with most of President Obama’s acts, it’s very difficult to determine whether this thing that was done? announced? memo’ed? was purely rhetorical, or actually will result in some tangible activity somewhere down the line.)

The only question I have, however, is for all the lefties out there: Is this what y’all meant by “focusing on the Real War On Terror In Afghanistan”?

I mean aren’t you angry? Not only are we now “distracted” from fighting in Afghanistan, we’re apparently (?) going to pull out altogether! Which totally pisses y’all off, because of how much you totally SINCERELY cared about that military action, about “focusing” on it, about not being “distracted” from it, and all.

I mean….right? Or am I misremembering about 10,000 totally-sincere arguments I endured and totally took seriously as worth addressing at face value between 2003-2008? Let me know and thanks in advance.

1Side note: According to my admittedly unscientific sampling of radio stations up and down the East Coast, a randomly-chosen song drawn from the measure space [songs played on the sort of FM radio station I'm not likely to instantaneously skip past] is, at this time, probabilistically likely to be – in descending order -

  1. “The Logical Song” by Supertramp (3x)
  2. “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey (3x)
  3. “Take It Easy” by The Eagles (2x)
  4. that F-word song by Cee Lo Green (sp?) (2x)
  5. “The Spirit Of Radio” by Rush (2x)

So now you know.

Memo To All Media Screenwriters Who Put Homosexual Characters Into Their Scripts

Just because a person is homosexual, doesn’t automatically make them interesting.

(Apropos of nothing in particular. Just needed saying.)

Declinism Should Always Strive To Be More Funny

I’ve been puzzling over this (somewhat entertaining but ultimately embarrassing) thing that Randy Newman apparently made in 2007. (HT PowerPop)

Such a curious historical document, isn’t it?

Just four years later and it’s basically inconceivable that Randy Newman – beloved middle-of-the-road songwriter, Pixar crooner – would have even felt the compulsion let alone the need to record that video. And why? Only one reason of course: the President now has a (D) after his name rather than an (R). So it’s all good now, and back to “You Got A Friend In Me”! Nevermind!

Such a difference one single letter can make to the psychology of so many! Has this been studied?

But what’s really jarring is the stuff at the end about how our “empire” is “declining”. In this (rather commonplace) telling, the “decline” of our supposed “empire” is always painted as a somehow poignant, almost tragic thing by the declinists. Like: they say it more in sorrow than in anger, as the sage bearers of bad tidings to the rest of us. But aren’t lefties supposed to hate empires? What would be so great about us being an empire, even if we were one?

Second, whatever else we are, good or bad, we’re simply not an ‘empire’ and we don’t have one to be ‘declining’ in the first place. None of the declinists are even using the word correctly, or even in a way consistent with how they’d use it elsewhere. So what do they even mean by it? And what do they mean by wisely, knowingly predicting its ‘decline’? What about us is so supposedly ‘declining’? Are they using ‘empire’ as a synonym for ‘country with the largest GDP’, or some other (stupid) decline criteria?

I think what really happens in the mind of a ‘declinist’ is that he wants to be an interesting participant in an important drama. One way to do this is to be on the winning side of a Historic™ election. But if you were on the losing side, you walk around in a fog of resentment over how there’s no way for you to see yourself as heroically dramatically important for the next four years. So you invent stuff to fret about, dramas to place yourself at the center of – things like a Disastrously Wrong War, or a Declining Empire.

Now you’re interesting! Stuff’s happening!

When I was younger I sometimes had this weird impulse to have chaotic, safely-dangerous stuff happen in my life. Stuff that always seemed to be happening to more interesting people. Someone would come to school Monday morning with a story of how, say, their car broke down on Skyline boulevard on Saturday night! And they had to push it and it was dark! And then some bikers came by and threatened them with broken bottles, but drove away! Meanwhile the car was rolling down a hill and they barely jumped in in time to throw the emergency brake! But finally a cop came by and helped them with a jump start! But they were lucky cuz they hid the beers they had!

Or whatever.

I’d hear “interesting” stories and feel a certain twinge of something very much like jealousy. Why does my mom have to so religiously maintain the car with regular tune-ups and oil changes? Why couldn’t she left stuff slide, so that something might actually threaten to happen? Why did everything have to be so predictable and safe?

These are the thoughts that can occur to you when you live a safe, protected life. You end up with no stories to tell. The thing is, though, I’m pretty sure I outgrew this feeling; I no longer wish for the ‘chaotic’, but something close to its opposite.

Declinism, however, strikes me as springing from that very same impulse, a longing for chaos, for drama, for ‘interesting’ things to be happening. This explains why wealthy, coddled entertainers without cares in the world can pop up (when the leaders have the wrong letters after their name) spouting declinism, conspiracy theories and the like. They have literally nothing else interesting in their lives to be going on about.

Don’t get me wrong. The longing for drama is perfectly natural and everyone experiences it. I’m certainly no exception. I guess I’d just say that if I’m going to have to sit through the working out of someone’s psychological angst over having a sheltered, prosperous and privileged life, I’d much rather it at least be hilarious:

HT Fourth Checkraise

The Cars Franchise Is This Generation’s Star Wars

Everyone knows that Cars was the least-critically-adored Pixar movie. It’s the movie that critics feel safe beating up on in order not to seem like slavish Pixar devotees for lavishing so much drool on the Toy Storys, Wall-E and even Up. I’m not sure I’m even an astute enough movie watcher to know whether the critiques are deserved (yes, I recognize that the basic story was more or less Doc Hollywood warmed-over, but so?), so I can’t necessarily rebut the critics. I just know that for whatever reason – too NASCAR-oriented for SWPLs? – it’s clear that Cars doesn’t have the Gen-X-approved Pixar cred of their other films.

But I can only assume most of those critics don’t actually have small children. As I’ve tried to explain privately in emails to some fraction of my 2.3 readers, to small children, Cars was a world-changer.

In fact I get the feeling that it is the closest thing to this generation’s Star Wars. What the Star Wars franchise was to roughly anyone (or at least, any boy) who was between roughly 4-8 years old when one of the original three came out, Cars will be remembered the same way by today’s 4-8 years olds. Not Harry Potter, and not even Toy Story. Which, don’t get me wrong. The Toy Story movies are great. I sincerely still maintain that Toy Story 3 ought to have been last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner. My personal favorite Pixar movie, and maybe one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time, is The Incredibles. But to the little kids of today, these just don’t seem to rival Cars in the imagination. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. Self-contained universe. Of course, all the above mentioned movies/series have a well-fleshed-out, self-contained universe, as this is important for any kiddie fantasy. A simple yet rich world with good guys and bad guys, with rules of its own, that seems large and endless, yet which isn’t complicated by boring/confusing real adult world stuff, so that it can be easily studied and ‘debated’ in and of itself by kids. Jedi vs. Sith, Gryffindor vs. Slytherin, Rust-eeze vs. Dinoco. Darth Vader, Voldemort, Thunder. Other series may do it ‘better’, but Cars does have a universe that feels as if it’s large and fleshed-out, yet understandable, and can hold as many stories as needed. What this does is give kids a large but manageable list of facts about the world to memorize and feel good about memorizing. Adult Cars-watchers may not have remembered that the roadside hotel (with orange-cone-shaped rooms) in Radiation Springs is called the Kozy Kone Motel, for example, but kid repeat-DVD-viewers definitely do.

2. A rich list of colorful but mostly blank-slate character types. The Toy Story series has basically two interesting characters (Woody the good guy, and Buzz the confused spaceman who embraces his newly-discovered toyhood), and a huge supporting cast that is entertaining but – like many of their jokes – is probably more interesting to adults than to kids. Kids have no emotional connection to Mr. Potato-Head, for example; kids today probably don’t even know that Mr. Potato-Head wasn’t just made up for the Toy Story series like Woody and Buzz were. But Cars came fully decked out with about a dozen instantly-recognizable stereotype characters that easily slide into kids’ imaginations, even the relatively small characters in the movie (the Sheriff, Ramon) that loom disproportionately large to the kids who were paying attention.

3. Action figures/craven marketing. Of course Cars – like Star Wars – was a genius idea simply for the marketing potential. At its most calculated level it’s basically a movie-length CGI commercial for endlessly-sellable lines of little made-up car toys that can cost $9.99 a pop or more. Combine this with fact #2 (all the different stereotype characters) and you have a potent force for making the franchise loom larger in kids’ imaginations than anyone seems to realize.

Add it all up and you get the fascinating spectacle of a four year old coveting his friend’s “Dinoco Thunder” toy, which as far as I can tell is just a different-painted version of the side villain-character “Thunder” – a version which, as far as I recall, didn’t actually appear in the movie except by implication (since, having won the final race, and Lightning McQueen having turned it down, Thunder would have presumably been offered the Dinoco oil company advertisement contract? I guess). Not that the four-year-old really understands much of that, except in broad outline – but he wants it. It is as absurd, yet as meaningful, as the fact that Star Wars kids could long for a stupid “IG-88″ or “Hammerhead” action figure on the basis of like 3 seconds of screen time, or needed to have both the classic and the “snowsuit” Han Solo, or became so illogically fascinated with the side character Boba Fett (who essentially doesn’t speak and barely does anything, certainly reveals no character).

Critics are now mostly – Roger Ebert being an unexpected exception – in the process of giving Cars 2 a righteous drubbing, and I expected nothing less. It will kill at the box office. It has also, like Empire Strikes Back, surpassed the first film both in scope and in number of characters, settings, and emotions. I enjoyed it a lot. But more to the point, I think I’d rather ride the wave than try to fight it. Lightning McQueen is now Luke Skywalker for these people, and one needs to respect that.

Why People Who Want More Than One Line Are A-Holes

Situation: You’re waiting in line for a cashier who has two sides on which he can ring up patrons. You know exactly who’s in front of you (it’s like three people/groups). The guy behind you taps you on the shoulder and says, “Are there two lines or only one?”

Here’s what he’s really saying: “I’d like to cut in front of you.”

After all these facts are not in dispute. 1. You arrived before him. 2. We’re all going to see the same dude eventually, one way or another. 3. If there’s one line you will definitely get rung up before him. 4. But if there could be construed to be “two lines” then, due to the alternating nature of who the cashier sees when, the guy behind you might actually get rung up before you by that guy.

Like, if you choose the wrong “line” in which to stand.

Since the guy behind you is asking, this is evidently what he’s hoping for. He wants to cut in front of you. Otherwise he wouldn’t ask, because he wouldn’t care. If he had no intention of cutting in front of you, whether there was one line or “two lines” (to see the same dude, remember) would make no difference to him.

By the way, the same also holds true in a situation with multiple cashiers, it’s just that in those cases it’s usually less egregious because multiple lines can be a geometric necessity.

So basically, anyone behind you in a line who asks you this question wants to screw you over. There is no non-screwing-over motive for ever asking this question.

Have a nice day.

P.S. True story.

Cancer Cure Exposes The Cancer In Our Institutions

I have no way of knowing whether the cancer treatment that is the subject of this documentary works. (HT Seth Roberts) I do know that it’s impossible to watch that documentary all the way through – which I did – without feeling infuriated and disgusted. But most of all, helpless.

The long and the short of it is that a doctor in Texas has been using some chemicals to treat cancer, based on his own theories (and patents), and has undeniably found some success where others have not. So – of course – the full force of the government has been thrown against him. The government filed patents on the same substances, and not so coincidentally over the course of decades has attempted to have him suspended, prosecuted, thrown in jail. Partnership with pharmaceutical companies is involved, the FDA is involved, the NCI is involved….

As the documentary mentions, pharmaceuticals are a huge business – perhaps the biggest – and cancer is a key driver. But it’s not just pharmaceutical companies; you can’t blame this all on Big Pharm. Consider all the doctors, clinical instructors, textbook writers, sales representatives, receptionists, MRI techs, linear accelerator techs, CT techs, chemo techs, postdoctoral researchers, therapeutic medical physicists, diagnostic medical physicists, nuclear medical physicists, medical dosimetrists, radiation safety officers, field service technicians, electrical engineers, nuclear engineers, government safety inspectors, fund-raisers, pink-clothes-wearing Walkers, trade-fair girls who hand out pens and fridge magnets, hot redhead radiation oncology residents, hot Serbo-Croatian Medicare code-entry clerks, hot half-Asian nurses, hot…erm, sorry, as usual started to get too specific there…anyway, just consider the huge army our society has currently mobilized that are in some way involved in the business/assembly line we know as “cancer treatment”. A business which, as it is currently constituted, consists primarily of repeatedly squirting poisonous chemicals, radioactive rocks, and/or beams of ionizing radiation into peoples’ bodies, and simultaneously (no less an undertaking) filling out forms for “reimbursement”.

Yeah, so this guy’s approach doesn’t use any of that machinery. He makes some stuff out of urine & blood plasma, and that’s what he uses. So, like, all you folks busily working on getting your paper published on (or trying to sell high-priced gadgets for) high dose-rate brachytherapy, or the latest and greatest chemotherapy, or proton therapy? If his thing works then…nevermind. Go find some other career.

Which would all be well and good, you might say, because can’t a Merck or Pfizer just pivot and devote all their machinery to pushing that stuff, if it really works? What do they care what gunk they are pushing, they can still just give it a dumb-ass made-up name and sell it for thousands of dollars a course, like they do everything else. Well in this case they can’t do that, you see, because he owns the patent on this particular gunk. They don’t.

This documentary makes it starkly obvious that an individual guy with a medical patent is a pariah, a menace who just doesn’t really fit into our system. That’s why he must be either crushed, or his method discredited. At least until a big pharm, or better yet the US Government, can patent it themselves. So what is the root of the problem here. First, it is the FDA. Second, it is the patent system.

And the frustrating thing is, once you have those two forces in play, the rest of it plays out in an entirely predictable fashion. Of course pharmaceutical companies would want to discredit a new treatment unless/until they could co-opt it. Of course those in responsible roles in government would have temptation to be bought out by corporations with big pockets. Of course the FDA’s role as drug-gatekeeper would be harnessed by the existing treatment establishment to quash new treatments. None of this is at all surprising.

Nor does it even require malice or malevolence on the part of most people involved. The vast, vast majority of folks working in this area – like in most areas – are decent people doing an honorable job at what they’re tasked with. Existing rules and structures are all undoubtedly well-intentioned. Nevertheless something about the institution of government, or regulators, or corporations, or all the the above conspires such that the result is pure malevolence grown out of control. From all these good intentions and hardworking smart people, outrage and crime results. The most apt metaphor that comes to mind, in fact, is cancer itself.

One thing that does seem required are the Smart People. The Smart People peppered throughout all these institutions seem to act simultaneously as the dupes and the enforcers of the greedy and venal who would use these institutions, and their power, for personal gain. For every time a treatment like this is said to be discredited or unproven because it ‘needs to go through a randomized controlled trial’ (that the FDA will not allow to proceed in good faith), there are a thousand Smart People out there to nod their heads, because that’s exactly what they Smartly learned in their Smart schooling.

Again, though, I do not say I know much about this treatment. I will say though, that having seen radiation therapy in action, if I had something like brain cancer I’d much rather cast my lot with this doctor than to go through the external-beam/chemo/repeat assembly line.

But maybe I’m just not so Smart.

Publius, Lincoln, And Palin

One of the rules of publicity so well-known that even I know it is that it cannot be bad. The detractors of Sarah Palin would do well to keep this in mind in light of Friday’s spectacular and historic release, to much fanfare, of The Electronic Epistles Of Governor Palin, 2006-2009.

These Letters, as far as I can tell from the reaction to and fascination surrounding them, are being greeted as if they are among the most seminal and essential historical American civil documents in our young nation’s history, and as such I can only assume they are destined to take their place alongside the writings of Publius now known as “the Federalist Papers”, the writings of Abraham Lincoln on the back of an envelope that we now call “the Gettysburg Address”, the Lincoln-Douglass debates, and similarly-solemn, almost-religious documents.

Or if not, then I can only surmise the media and the left are making an awfully big, not to mention bizarre, miscalculation.

Seriously. Treating Sarah Palin’s emails as if they merit countless man-hours of “study”, interpretation, and debate. For a group of people dedicated to the proposition that Sarah Palin is an intellectual lightweight and historical error unworthy of any role in American public life, the left sure seems determined to keep her in the spotlight and elevate her stature. What can they be thinking?

Presumably there is a vague, but no-less-emotional-for-it, hope that the letters will contain some nail-in-the-coffin proof of the sort of wrongdoing, misdeeds, hi-jinks, corruption, gossip, Facebook flirting, pillowfight schedules…(oh sorry where was I?)…that would end, once and for all, this strange political career that the left seems so determined both to slay and to keep alive. If so, the notion of Governor Palin of Alaska using her Alaska Governorship to engage in the type of serious, substantial corruption evidence of which the left/media are obviously hoping against hope to find – this is quite at odds with the image they so carefully painted of her, as the lightweight governor of a podunk, nothing state. I always thought Alaska was tiny and backwater and that being its governor meant nothing! The stakes being so presumptively small, what can there even be in these emails, then? Kickbacks to the Juneau PTA? Sled-dog-race fixing that goes all the way to the top? Fishery graft? I almost think anything along these lines one can imagine them finding, even actual corruption, would only serve to elevate Palin’s stature. (You mean she was capable of that?)

This brings to mind the now-classic SNL skit with Phil Hartman as President Reagan, in which he is shown as grudgingly adhering to his jolly, avuncular, and absent-minded ’80s stereotype to the press/public, but as an intellectually-deft master strategist to his staff behind the scenes.

Either Governor Palin is the same way, or there is nothing of substance to be found in these emails – beyond of course the predictable misspellings and lower-class-signifying language usage that the left will predictably titter over – and this is a wasteful (and strategically dumb!) fishing expedition on the part of the left.

Oddly, this isn’t even the first time I’ve mentioned Palin and Reagan in the same breath. Call me insane if you will – and you will – but to me the parallels just keep stacking up. It was about ten years ago that Reagan: In His Own Hand was released, an amazing collection of handwritten essays on a wide variety of subjects he had prepared in the ’70s as opinion pieces for radio recitation. If Palin has a publicity machine with an ounce of sense, they will get out in front of this email release and turn it into the next bestseller in this tradition, Palin: At The Keyboard – with annotations and context provided by the great and historic figure Sarah Palin herself. She owes it to history! And we will have our own inquisitive and energetic Fourth Estate to thank.

GREAT MINDS/NEWTON-LEIBNIZ UPDATE: Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff in comments points out neo-neocon independently making the same point, AND using the same clip.

My Thoughts On The Weiner Situation

Unlike most bloggers, I haven’t yet blogged anything about Rep. Weiner. Well, this post is going to change that!

But only in a highly technical sense.

Because this has been all that I have to say about that, and now I have come nearly to the end of this blog post. Thanks for reading my thoughts about Rep. Weiner, and let me know yours in comments!

The Left’s One-Way Tax Ratchet

South Bend Seven on the folly of trying to speak about whether taxes are ‘fair’. I agree and have commented there.

Also links to an earlier post where he mentions a bar-tab conundrum, which I’ll summarize as: if a group of differently-wealthy friends had been divvying up bar tabs unequally, and one day the bartender gives the group a rebate, how should they divvy that rebate? Equally (which may actually give the poorest person more back than he paid in)? In proportion to the proportions they’d always been using (which would give the rich person the most)? Some other rule?

Of course the answer (if you think there is one) depends on your idea of ‘fairness’, and has a direct analogy to tax changes/cuts. This brings to mind my main annoyance with leftist atitude toward tax policy: the logical end-state of the tax changes they seek (or oppose) is just the confiscation of all wealth (greater than theirs). A tax code that says pay 100% to ‘the rich’ (not them), and nothing for everyone else.

This sounds harsh, but objectively, it’s difficult to dispute that leftists will favor any tax change that moves in this direction (makes the tax-incidence function higher and steeper), and oppose any tax change that does not (makes it flatter). So, this ideological position, if heeded, creates a one-way ratchet in the tax code: it can never get flatter and will always move toward simple leveling, toward pure confiscation.

One might rebut this by saying that leftists wouldn’t pursue such a direction indefinitely, that their ‘no flattening’ stance is just a strategic one, in the face of liberal (i.e. ‘conservative’) demands to flatten taxes, and would have a limit. This argument might hold some water if there had ever been any evidence of such a limit, i.e. of a proposed tax-steepening that was generally opposed by leftists. I cannot think of one.

Can you?

Guys Like Girls Who Guys Can Tell What They Look Like

The interesting thing to me about “Lady Gaga”, who I’ve become aware of as a purportedly popular pop singer/music-video dancer/actress, is that it’s basically impossible to tell what the woman actually looks like. One gets only a vague impression of fake-blondeness, heavy makeup, perhaps complicated underwear flapping around. There is nothing in her actual features that you can latch onto. If I saw her out of Gaga garb on a bus or at the mall I’d have absolutely no idea it was her. If she were a suspect I had to describe to a police sketch artist, I could say “well, her hair is blonde when it’s dyed blonde or she’s wearing a blonde wig”, or “wears underwear. No, more underwear.” But that’s about it. It’s as if her appearance is calculated to be the visual equivalent of a dog whistle; none of it registers to me. I don’t even feel like I have a reliable way of determining what she looks like at my disposal. I could study her photos for hours. I doubt it would help me recognize her in normal dress at the mall.

As James Bowman writes,

For someone who has made her name and reputation so largely by appearing in ever more outlandish costumes marked by extreme artifice, there could not but have been a degree of deliberately cultivated cognitive dissonance in the production of a signature tune titled “Born This Way.” [...] I guess mama never got around to explaining why, if God made her perfect, it was necessary to roll the hair and put the lipstick on.

So who actually likes Lady Gaga, and why? A pop singer like her is not liked for her singing or songs per se, but for her image & behavior; it follows that some people actually like and/or are fascinated by the way she looks. So what is the fan base that likes can’t-tell-what-she-looks-like looks? According to Bowman, Gaga’s core fan base consists of gay males, and by extension, females.

Do females & gay males just intrinsically like can’t-tell-what-they-look-like female entertainers more than hetero guys do?

L.G.’s obvious predecessor is Madonna, who also launched a career on the strength of a largely gay & female fan base. I do feel like I know more what Madonna looks like, but this was not always true. Particularly at the beginning of her career, with the frizzy hair and gigantic number of accoutrements copied by all 8-13 year old girls at the time (oversized bracelets/bangles, hair bands, leg warmers, etc). Also, what she looks like has continually changed over the years. For a while she was trying to look like Marilyn Monroe. And it kinda-sorta worked, if you squinted your eyes.

Obviously it’s clear, and not all that surprising, that female vs. male standards for what sort of women are good to look at differ wildly. I’m reminded of an old stand-up routine (I think it may have been a younger Jerry Seinfeld?) where he made fun of women who raved, or pretended to rave, about how ‘beautiful’ Meryl Streep is. “She looks like Snoopy!”, according to the comic. This may be harsh, but it is valid as another example of a celebrity whose fan base is largely female. Not that men don’t respect her acting ability, but come on; no (hetero) guy wants to go see a Meryl Streep movie as such.

A more current actress whose fan base seems to be largely female, I would suggest, is Angelina Jolie. Guys will go see an Angelina Jolie movie, sure, but it’s women (and gay males) who get interested to see her for the sake of Angelina Jolie, for what she looks like. Now, as is often the case when I write about actresses, Jolie seems like a highly unique, singular exception, a counterexample to what I’m trying to say. Because it’s not like I can’t tell what Angelina Jolie looks like. I totally can. However, I will assert that her ‘beauty’ is built on a lot of artifice. Nobody who watched the now-highly-dated mid-90s genre film Hackers would have come away thinking that the pale-skinned, round-headed, elf-faced girl with the short hair and the roller skates was destined to be deemed one of Hollywood’s top beauties, marry Brad Pitt, and essentially take over the world as its reigning bisexual Amazon priest-goddess. After all, take away the highly-well-constructed hairstyles she now sports, and the poise she got from somewhere, and the nudity, and you’d be pretty much left with a pair of (grotesque, IMHO) lips. Which can only take you so far, really. But people love to watch Angelina Jolie! Who especially? Women, and gay males.

In between there’s Rene Zellwegger – cute in an ugly sort of way, ugly in a cute sort of way, like Streep a well-respected actress with awards and whatnot – who you can kinda tell what she looks like. Just not around the eyes, which seem locked in a permanent squint that let’s no natural/normal facial features escape. I suggest women will be the driving force behind whoever goes to a Rene Zellwegger movie as well.

By contrast, let me throw out a female name whose fan base is not obviously heavily concentrated amongst women and gay males (though surely many of them are fans too): Catherine Zeta-Jones. Here’s another name: Scarlett Johansson. Salma Hayek. Monica Bellucci. Julianne Moore. Even Nicole Kidman.

Now, I feel like I know what they all look like. I would recognize them on the street. Their looks have never altered that much. And I would suggest that they have plenty of male fans.

So what separates celebrity women whom women/gay males like, from those men like? You might think it’s just beauty, pure and simple. I’m not so sure.

My bold thesis here, submitted for your approval, is simply this: guys like being able to tell what a girl looks like. Girls (and gay men) don’t; instead, they like to see what a girl is trying to look like.

Why this would be, I have a few interrelated conjectures. Maybe girls naturally like to observe the visual experiments of other girls trying to alter their appearance, because it gives them hope that they can easily fool people about what they look like too. Maybe girls want to destroy the notion of beauty so as to level the playing field – if beauty isn’t valued and artifice is, nobody can call them ugly. Maybe they just like it when cute-ugly/ugly-cute celebrities can pass as beauties because it gives them hope too. Maybe all of the above.

I’m just not sure. What I am sure of, though, is that even though I’ve now seen her hundreds of times, I have no idea what Lady Gaga looks like. As far as I can tell, that seems to be precisely her plan, and it works.

The Age Of Perennial Two-Termers

In reaction to discussions of potential 2012 (R) challengers to President Obama, I can only say that I fully expect President Obama to still be President Obama in 2013 and will be surprised by any other outcome. In fact the thought of him losing re-election is almost (not quite, but almost) inconceivable to me. Why would he lose? Economy etc. aside, President Obama is doing precisely what the country elected him to do, which is to be President while being a slick, photogenic, skinny guy with a darkish skin hue. That is the only reason he was elected and therefore, empirically, that is what the country wanted him to do. And in no way shape or form has he fallen short of that mandate, nor does he threaten to any time in the foreseeable future.

But this thought got me wondering: what would it take for this President, or any President for that matter, to lose re-election? I’m honestly not sure at this point. It’s very hard to picture, isn’t it?

For example, President Bush (43) was probably demonized, on a net basis, more than any human in history not named Hitler (and perhaps even more than him too). His re-election campaign and the election came during a controversial war that was actively leading to casualties on an ongoing and seemingly increasing basis. The full weight and power of the entire intelligentsia and media establishment was dead set against him. And he won. The Clinton case is less striking because he was up against a weak opponent, but the way I remember it his 1994-96 years were not particularly good ones, plagued by a neverending sequence of dumb scandals and hamstrung into paralysis by an (R) Congress, and in a generic sense he was eminently defeatable; but his re-election was (in Presidential-election terms) a landslide.

Before them, however, we had Bush (41), Carter, and Ford all lose re-election bids in a span of 16 years. The Bush loss was pretty much for no reason (because Bush ‘didn’t care’, and got a question wrong about supermarket checkouts, or something); the Carter loss was against someone widely considered a lightweight and a joke; and the Ford loss deserves an asterisk, perhaps, but is still notable in that it came against Carter, a creepy guy nobody knew who basically had no business being President (and was, seemingly, elected precisely for that reason). At least for a time, it seemed as if re-election bids weren’t sure things or rubber stamps, as if something was genuinely at stake, as if the outcome was actually in doubt.

It doesn’t seem that way to me now, and hasn’t for almost 20 years.

I wonder if we’re transitioning to a new age of Perennial Two-Termers, if for all intents and purposes we should just come to grips with the empirical fact that our office of Presidency is an eight-year office. For good and/or ill, whoever we elect in year X is going to still be President in year X+8. This wasn’t always true, or even often true, but it seems to be a reasonable assumption nowadays.

But the question arises, why would this be? Many factors seem to be at work.

  • increased power of the Presidency: He can basically do whatever he wants now, and as a practical matter is empirically more powerful than any dictator ever has been. This can only be an asset when trying to win an election.
  • President-as-celebrity: Nobody is elected based on actual executive skill (let alone ideas), but rather, on celebrity talent/draw. Big time celebrities, once embraced, just don’t fade in 4 years; we like to keep them around.
  • inherent (generic, small-c) conservative nature of the country: We don’t like change. We’ve all become investors, through our 401k’s and homes purchased with option-ARMs; we like our incomes and the gadgets (iPads etc.) they can buy; we are wired into the economy like never before. So our approach to politics/government is more corporate. And corporations just don’t change CEOs on a whim.
  • we’re spoiled because we’re so wealthy, safe, coddled, and secure: in historical elections, real things may have been at stake. Civil war, depression, etc. Nowadays even in the wake of a Financial Crisis™ and a Wrong War™, many/most people probably still live the same sorts of lives they did four years ago and as a practical matter haven’t really been tangibly affected by these things they like to complain about all that much. Since they haven’t been tangibly affected, there’s no great impetus to change course; all the complaining/handwringing about the crises of the day is just a lot of fun water-cooler talk that nobody actually really believes deep down.

Most of these seem to be rather secular, long-term trends that will only continue. If so, we would definitely expect more two-terms and fewer one-termers, just as we’ve been seeing.

Obviously that last bullet point is probably seen by (R)s as the shaky one, the chink in President Obama’s armor. It is where they will poke and prod – asking people if they feel ‘better off’, say – and try to find an opening to gain on him. I don’t think they will succeed, but if they do, they will have proven me wrong that our country has now transitioned to The Age Of Perennial Two-Termers.

Celebrating Our Nation’s Glorious Defeat Over A Website

It’s easy to forget now, but we mustn’t lose sight that just a few years ago this country was essentially taken over and destroyed by the nonprofit/website PNAC. As you’ll recall from the billions of photons expended writing/exposing PNAC at the time, this website is the website that made us do The Iraq War (which we must never forget was wrong). It also unleashed The Neocons across the entire country, to infiltrate virtually all of our institutions and public life to such an extent that literally no one with any sort of education could get through a conversation without mentioning The JThe Neocons. The Neocons’ main message, as we were to learn, was that the United States should kill everyone else, except Israel, in order to give them democracy. And so, tragically, that is precisely what we did. Finally there was also Halliburton, which wanted us to kill everyone else primarily so that they could make a killing installing Carl’s Jr. franchises onto all the forward operating military bases we would be planting everywhere (in order to kill). Something like that.

Which makes it all the more amazing that now, in 2011, just a few short years after all of the preceding was totally true, literally none of it is anymore. (After all, no one ever mentions it/complains about any of it anymore.) So let us survey this apparent great victory of ours over the existential menace represented by the above totally valid concerns that everyone was hysterically expressing circa 2004-2007. Thanks largely to the efforts of (bloggers?), we have overcome all of those terrible menaces outlined above to such an extent that at the time of this writing in 2011, I can happily report, that as far as I can tell (from the lack of hyperventilating about them): Halliburton is in retreat. The Neocons have literally not been heard from or about since approximately November 2008. And the website PNAC is, as far as I can tell, back to being just a website instead of the world-spanning espionage, infiltration, extortion and terror ring that it once was.

In particular, we still have military presences in both Afghanistan and Iraq but now no one gives a rat’s ass because it’s not due to PNAC/The Neocons (anymore) like it totally actually was (at the time). Indeed, we’re even fighting a whole ‘nother war “on” Libya just for the hell of it, and nobody can even articulate why, but nobody gives a rat’s ass about that either. Because, the website has been vanquished. PNAC, I mean. So it’s all good.

The only mystery to me in all this is why isn’t the lefty blogosphere more energetically touting its glorious defeat over that website and all the other menaces they were always going on about? Evidently none of them are problems anymore, so the lefty bloggers evidently won, and saved this great nation of ours (with their blogging). Good for them!

All I can say is bravo, brave blogging sirs. Bravo.

I’ll Have What He’s Having

Speaking of comic-book movies/TV, this video of an apparent Smallville fan freaking out to what (I gather) is the Smallville series finale is really something else.

I’m going to go out on a limb and conjecture that those six minutes are probably more entertaining than the entirety of the actual TV series was, which (gratefully) I shall never have to spend any time watching.

[HT io9]

When The Hands That Build Betray The Mind That Plans

For whatever reason, out of the approximately 7.39 vigintillion blog posts that Matthew Yglesias posted on June 3, 2011, the one that caught my eye was Automakers Repay Obama Administration Rescue Of Car Industry By Battling Fuel Economy Standards. Or at least the blog post’s title caught my eye (as with virtually all of Matthew Yglesiases’es output, I didn’t actually read the post itself, but now I guess I’m going to have to.)

Having read it (well sort of; mostly skimmed, really), I think I’ve figured out what bothered me about it. It seems to me that it betrays a somewhat favor-based conception of the economy. Actual economic rules such as supply and demand, and rational profit-seeking, play no role in this conception of the world. Notice that no actual argument for why there should be higher CAFE standards is even proferred – in fact, Yglesias seems to be against them, all things considered! But that doesn’t matter. All that seemed to matter to Matthew Yglesias here was that The Obama Administration did car companies a favor, and so now they’re supposed to do one back. Or at least, he considered it post-worthy that they didn’t. (Not that what is ‘post-worthy’ to Matthew Yglesias is any sort of high bar, but I digress.)

The point is that this is a pretty instructive case study in left-wing economic thinking. The economy consists of a bunch of quasi-autonomous large actors (‘workers/unions’, ‘car companies’, ‘the rich’, ‘the government’…) and their interactions. And the main concern of the lefty is that the interactions should obey a sort of morality: If actor X does such-and-such then actor Y should do such-and-such back. To lefty economic thinkers, it is this morality that is their primary concern, and the level on which they seek to produce economic outcomes.

So take the issue of, say, unemployment. An economic liberal (i.e. ‘conservative’) such as myself might cite the high burden of taxes and regulation on would-be employers and suggest that the direct route to increasing employment would be to reduce this burden. Leftists, on the other hand, see employment in terms of this morality, so their focus is on simply stating that private firms – regardless of actual economic considerations – ‘should’ hire more people. Hence the standard critiques we’ve been hearing, such as that corporations are ‘sitting on piles of cash’.

In this moral-based view, the only imperative is to just berate and nag and shame private companies until they Do The Right Thing and take those piles of cash they’re supposedly ‘sitting on’, and use it to invent a bunch of jobs to hire people into. Not, mind you, because it makes any economic sense to do so. (It may or may not, but leftists aren’t even attempting to make that argument in the first place.) Simply because it’s the right thing to do, because it will restore a sense of balance to the Force if you will, i.e. to the relationship because The Workers and The Companies.

Roughly speaking: The Workers bailed out and TARP’ed and stimulus’ed The Companies, so now The Companies are supposed to return the favor and hire The Workers. Similarly: The Obama Administration bailed out The Car Companies, and so now The Car Companies aren’t supposed to oppose whatever regulations he wants (regardless of their merits).

Fans of Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis will be quite familiar with this super-advanced style of economic thinking:

Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it. The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many – BABEL! BABEL! BABEL! – Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.

Personally, I’m not a fan of Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis. Or of any piece of art that is a propagandistic ode to economic fascism, for that matter.

Hulk’s Teeth

Having finally caught up with the Edward Norton version of The Incredible Hulk that I had DVR’ed 2/3rds of maybe six months ago, I have to say something on the plausibility of the “Hulk” transformation here. I find it implausible. There I said it.

I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking “duh. A guy transforms into a giant green monster due to ‘gamma radiation’, and you call it implausible? It’s a comic book concept. Duh!” And, other things involving me being an idiot. But hold your horses. Can you answer me something:

Why/how do the guy’s teeth get bigger?

Maybe it’s because I grew up with the TV show (and not so much the comic book), but till these CGI movies I had really never thought of the Hulk as someone 2-3x the size of a normal human. I’d just thought of him as a guy the size of Lou Ferrigno. You know, a guy with big muscles. I’m not even sure whether Lou Ferrigno was any taller than Bill Bixby. And the notion of transforming, due to whatever ‘science mishap’, into a green-skinned guy with giant muscles, who can smash things, was always somehow tolerable to me, as these things go.

But the notion of transforming into a guy twenty feet tall, or however tall he’s supposed to be, with a head to proportionally match, does not. This brings me to my question. Far as I can tell from the video-game-quality CGI, the Hulk’s size is proprtionally bigger than Edward Norton/Eric Bana’s size in basically all respects. It’s not just that his muscles got bigger in the sense of having taken super-steroids or something. He gets way taller – sometimes, it seems, way way taller. Let’s say the factor is 2.3x. (Who the hell can say…one major annoyance of both movies is a seeming inability to keep the scale consistent.) This means that all his bones got longer: 2.3x longer femur, 2.3x longer tibia, etc.

His head, of course, must expand to match. If it didn’t, the CGI Hulk would look ridiculous, a giant body with a regular-sized head. But it doesn’t look like that. We can therefore assume that his head – skull, jawbone, the flesh around it – expands by roughly the same 2.3x factor.

Now look at any scene where his teeth are shown. The teeth appear to be the right size for his (suddenly way oversized) head. There’s only one thing this can mean:

As part of the Hulk transformation, all your teeth get bigger: they get longer and they get wider. Then when things die down, all the teeth shrink again.

Seriously? Why? Why would the teeth do that? And how?

This issue has survived the ‘reboot’ and bothered me through two movies now. Am I the only one? Surely I can’t be the only one.

Idiotic Moments In ‘Fact-Checking’

I’m not a big fan of “Mitt” Romney or anything, but this ‘fact check’ quasi-news article is an embarrassment to its author and anyone else involved: FACT CHECK: Romney miscasts economy in GOP debut

How did Romney ‘miscast the economy’, and what ‘fact’ did the intrepid reporter ‘check’?

ROMNEY: “When he took office, the economy was in recession. He made it worse. And he made it last longer.”

Simple grade-school parsing of this English sentence, which the AP reporter is apparently incapable of, reveals that two and only two claims are in evidence here:

1. Obama made the recession worse

2. Obama made the recession last longer

Now right away there’s a problem. Whether you agree with those statements or not, they aren’t ‘facts’ that can be ‘checked’. They are just not that sort of claim. They are, instead, counterfactual claims about what the economy would have been like had not Obama been elected or done whatever stuff. You might agree with those claims, disagree with them, be agnostic about them, but you CANNOT look up any ‘facts’ to bring to bear on the question. You’d have to consult a few alternative universes to see how they’ve turned out with President McCain. But that is not possible. So there’s nothing to ‘check’ here, there are only arguments to make and honest disagreements to be had.

This doesn’t stop the dumb reporter from trying, of course – after all, he’s got a ‘fact check’ assignment to fulfill, and presumably water to carry for his side! – so he proceeds to rebut Romney’s (un-fact-checkable) claim by pointing to….GDP:

The gross domestic product, the prime measure of economic strength, shrank by a severe 6.8 percent annual rate before Obama became president. The declines eased after he took office and economic growth, however modest, resumed.

What does this even mean, or have to do with Romney’s claim? Implicitly, the reporter is saying:

1. How ‘The Economy’ is doing depends solely on a single metric: GDP. You can never claim the economy is worse at time T2 than T1 if GDP went up between those two times.

2. GDP shrank a lot before Obama took office

3. The shrinkage slowed down after he took office

4. Then it started growing again

There are many problems with this argument. First, the idea of GDP as the sole barometer of ‘The Economy’ is just stupid. Second, even if you bought into it, the reporter never actually gets around to making the case he’s trying to make. Claims 2-4, put together, don’t actually tell us whether GDP – supposedly the barometer of the economy, and the ‘fact check’ disproof of Romney’s statement – is higher now than in January 2009. (It is, I think, but I had to look it up myself elsewhere.) The reporter speaks of growth and shrinkage and turnaround but he doesn’t actually speak about the actual level. This sort of sleight of hand is typical of propaganda artists who don’t actually have facts on their side and know it.

It’s as if he doesn’t understand the difference between a function and its first derivative. Reading this ‘fact check’, for all I knew, GDP (to make up numbers) could have been 15 the year before Obama took office, shrank to 10 by the time Obama took office, shrank further to 8, and then climbed up to 9. That would be perfectly consistent with what is written, and yet it would add up to an economy that got worse (=shrank from 10 to 9) under Obama.

Ironically, the reporter actually seems to realize how idiotic he’s being, by backpedaling again by the end of the blurb:

A case can be made for and against the idea that Obama’s policies made the economy worse than it needed to be and that the recession lasted longer than it might have under another president. Such arguments are at the core of political debate.

Quite. Of course, that’s not what made the headline of the story, is it? Having fulfilled his headline propaganda purposes, he can freely bury the actual logic and truth in the body of the article, giving himself plausible deniability.

Then there is the larger issue of whether President Obama, or any President, can ‘make the economy better’ or ‘worse’ in the first place, but that shall have to wait for another post, because both Romney and his would-be ‘fact-checker’ are guilty of that particular form of idiocy.

Well You’re Certainly A Crappy *Something*

This video is being touted as Norway’s answer to Rebecca Black’s “Friday”, but to me, there’s one important difference. Whereas I couldn’t dispute her critics that the Black video was amateurish, it also had a charming sweetness and innocence to it, and you wished her the best.

This one? Not so much.

Teenagers As Royalty

Being a teenager is like being royalty. You have no responsibilities and virtually all your mental energy is focused on your personal entertainment and relative social status. This royalty is also perpetually declining, however; by definition and construction it has a finite shelf life: the royal status ends more or less when high school does, or at least college. And teens are painfully conscious of this expiration date, even if not explicitly in these terms.

This is why so many teen movies are tinged with nostalgia, sadness, and angst. In any event it should be possible to identify strong parallels between stories of ‘declining royalty’ and stories of ‘teen angst’. Are they really the same story? Crossover movies like Cruel Intentions made the link explicit. But the sense of a sadness for a lost royal age, and desperation to salvage something before the peasants storm the castle, is there in most teen movies, from explicitly nostalgic ones like American Graffiti to modern ones like Can’t Hardly Wait.

It also may help explain phenomena such as teen suicide and pointless rebellion. Different people respond to being conscious of their declining royal status in different ways. You can point to the decadence of pre-revolutionary French royalty or you can point to the decadence chronicled in a Larry Clark movie.

If this is even partially right, society seems to have made something of a macro error in creating the life stage we call ‘teenager’, which is a relatively new phenomenon. Consciously it is a well-intentioned effort to shield young people from realities while they have a chance at an extended childhood and to complete their development, but in practice it seems to be a recipe for unhappiness while it lasts and regret/nostalgia once it’s over. To treat people like royalty only to set them up for an ouster from the royal house is not an unalloyed kindness. Worse, we seem to be going in the wrong direction; according to conventional wisdom, an ever-increasing percentage of young people are supposed to continue with more and more years of ‘school’ after age 18 – and the more schooling the better. This is a doomed attempt to extend the unsustainable stage of royalty beyond economic realities.

This observation of mine is not necessarily a call for child labor and a mass movement to drop out of high school and such, but it’s not necessarily not, either. It does appear to me we would do a lot of good to look for ways to dismantle and disrupt the artificially-royal social situation most teenagers find themselves in, and then summarily kicked out of.

Also see: From Disney to Vampires

“Global Warming” Is A Political Issue

It seems obvious and redundant to state that such a hot-button issue as “global warming” is a political issue, but it’s worth reminding oneself how few people actually take that fact to heart. If you listen to one side of the debate, “global warming” is purely a scientific question. By this reckoning, once you get all The Scientists to state their Consensus on the subject, you’re done, there’s nothing left to discuss. The other side, flummoxed, is then left scrambling to dispute or cast doubt on or debunk The Scientists, tacitly conceding the (incorrect) notion that this is purely a scientific issue. But political issues are not purely scientific issues.

And make no mistake, “global warming” – meaning, the theory that human greenhouse gas emissions will make the Earth measurably warmer, and that something needs to be collectively done about that – is a political issue.

Here for reference is my framework for thinking about “global warming”. Spurred by an email exchange with a friend, I feel the urge to expand on Question 4 of that post: Will this future [=our future climate, if we don't consciously address GW] weather be bad?

Whether the earth has gotten warmer? That’s a scientific question – which is to say, it is in principle answerable by scientific means (it doesn’t mean we necessarily know that answer).

Whether it will continue to get warmer if X, Y, and Z aren’t or are done? That’s a scientific question.

What the tangible effects of getting warmer will be on this, that, and the other thing? Scientific questions.

Whether those effects, overall, would be “bad”: not a scientific question.

What is “bad” for some is not as bad, or even good, for others. More deeply, “bad” implies values. Values can conflict. And value conflicts are not resolvable by science.

A person in Minnesota, for example, might not mind a little global warming. They might reckon it wouldn’t be as bad for them, and they’re probably right about that. You might think they’re wrong, or being short-sighted, or whatever, but they not you are best positioned to determine what they value, and on what time horizon. Notice that such a value judgment is not answerable by scientific means. That is, no Scientists can, using Science, prove the Minnesotan “wrong” to place little value preventing GW. It’s just not that kind of issue. Instead, the way we resolve such issues is via politics, and at the ballot box.

Thus, when voters go to the polls and vote against anti-GW policies or politicians who espouse them, they are expressing a perfectly valid value judgment, and their opinions ought to be weighted equally with those who favor anti-GW policies. There is no “scientific” basis for calling them wrong, or dumb. Because this is a political issue not a scientific one.

But, the GW believer retorts, New Orleans will be underwater in like 200 years! That’s terrible! And indeed it would be. But it would be more terrible for 2211 New Orleanians than for 2011 Minnesotans. How much should 2011 Minnesotans be forced to pay to possibly prevent this contingency that future New Orleanians, we presume on the assumption that New Orleans is still there at that time, would not like? Whatever the answer is, it is (a) not infinite and (b) not a Scientific answer. Science can inform the answer but ultimately must remain silent on the political issue.

One might say “but we can count the cost and show that even to the Minnesotan the cost of GW is X, whereas the cost of prevention is only Y”. Such methods admirably attempt to convert this sort of question into something answerable by Science (or at least Economics). However, any reckoning of the “cost” to this or that person of something like Global Warming inevitably involves assigning weights, costs, penalties, or other sorts of scores to different climate outcomes, at different times, using different discount factors. Some of the “costs” one might count – the cost of rebuilding a building, say – could conceivably be boiled down to something more or less objective. But not all of them can be, in any complete sense, so ultimately you have to make up some point values to create your “cost function”. And once you’ve done that, your “cost function” inevitably embodies a set of value judgments, if only implicitly. Such methods don’t turn political questions into scientific ones – how could they? All they do is hide the political component inside mathematical formulas.

When used by ideologues to quash debate, such appeals to Science represent attempts to deny that “global warming” is a political issue. “Science” becomes merely a tool invoked to deny that honest, genuine, informed disagreement on the subject can possibly exist. This sort of intellectual bullying has no place in a free, democratic society.

To see this however requires appreciating – truly understanding – that “global warming” is a political issue. If you understood the above, then you understand that very few people do.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 314 other followers