Friday, December 30, 2011

My not-most-read posts of 2011

As Kevin Drum notes today, all the cool kids (himself now included) are putting up their most-viewed blog posts of the year. Well, you know how we uncool kids cope: with variations on a theme.  My most-read posts have all been boosted by links from my more-trafficked friends in the blogosphere. What I'd like to do here is pull out of storage a few posts that I could have wished had grazed a few more eyeballs.

First, recent readers may have noted how stimulated I've been by Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.  I've kept up a kind of response journal, in which I've oscillated between enthusiastic assent and various doubts and caveats. Why a running annotated read, instead of a finished review?  Well, I'm impatient, and it's a long book. But also: whatever you think about humanity's prospects, and whatever the weaknesses in Pinker's historiography, this is a book that changes the way you view history and the moment we're living in as you read. I keep viewing other things I read, and age-old musings, in light of it. I hope there's some value in recording this process. So here are the posts, earliest first:

The bettering angels of our nature
Better angels in the news
Religion helped develop our better angels
How our better angels' wings might be clipped
Better angels leave their kitchens in Cairo
Can humanity lead itself out to pasture?
Better dead than red, revisited
Better Angels in Super Hornets

Here are a few more posts, mostly nonpolitical, that I'd like to give a second chance:

The best liar in the field
A president confesses error and defends democracy
Rat race or fluid human dance?
Prophets of the new millennium
Five questions for Obama
Jeffrey Goldberg, excommunicator
Slo-mo grow on the plateau: Tyler Cowen's general theory of American malaise
About those free-range little Krugmans and Manzis
Ruth Marcus's false "false false choice" charge
MIA in the latest Jane Eyre

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned in 2012.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

EU epitaph?

The headline of what the Wall Street Journal bills as an insider narrative of the escalating European debt crisis is "Dithering at The top Turned EU Crisis into Global Threat."  I'm not sure dithering is quite right. The story suggests that European leaders couldn't agree not because they were indecisive per se but because their national interests were at odds and each was answerable to his or her own people. At one moment, French President Nicholas Sarkozy expressed the problem succinctly:
Finnish premier Jyrki Katainen also complained. His parliament wanted collateral in exchange for more Finnish lending to Greece. "No collateral, no agreement from me," he said.

Mr. Sarkozy was peeved. "All our parliaments can cause problems," he said.

Better dead than red, revisited

Please excuse my flipping this post forward; it got buried...

Early this year, in a 'come to it cold' look at John F. Kennedy's inaugural address on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, I was struck by its beleaguered tone -- its somber sense that freedom and even human life itself were on a double knife's edge of communist domination or nuclear war.

In Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, I just happened on a smidgeon of context:
In 1961 Americans were asked whether the country should "fight an all-out nuclear war rather than live under communist rule." Eighty-seven percent of men said yes, while "only 75 percent of the women felt that way -- proof that women are pacifist only in comparison to men of the same time and society (location 11629).

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Greg Miller, WTF?

In a disturbing and apparently well-sourced article by the Washington Post's Greg Miller on the Obama administration's escalation of drone warfare, one unattributed assertion looks like an ideological plant:
The escalation of the lethal drone campaign under Obama was driven to an extent by early counterterrorism decisions. Shuttering the CIA’s detention program and halting transfers to Guantanamo Bay left few options beyond drone strikes or detention by often unreliable allies.
How does this compute? Are we supposed to believe that if the CIA had secret torture chambers at its disposal, it would opt to capture some targets rather than kill them? Or is the implication that human intelligence was hamstrung by ending torture, so counterterrorism operatives have nothing better to do than kill their targets? But isn't the very idea of a drone strike predicated on reliable intelligence? 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Question for Republicans

Okay, so now we know that not only did Romney consider his Massachusetts health insurance plan a national model, Gingrich* enthusiastically embraced it as a plan "tremendous potential to effect major change in the American health system," asserting that 100% of Americans should have health insurance and implying that the individual mandate was a linchpin to reaching that goal (I don't consider his spokesman's plaint that Newt didn't write the "Newt Notes" in question worth bothering about). As Ezra Klein reminds us, Obamacare is essentially a Republican scheme for delivering near-universal coverage: "insofar as the Republican Party had a plan for health-care reform, the individual mandate was it."

A question, then, for Republicans: When Romney's healthcare plan was news -- from, say, April 2006, when Romney signed his plan into law, until February 2007, when John Edwards came out with a national plan embracing the individual mandate -- was there any prominent Republican or conservative who went on record saying that Romneycare was an interesting and promising experiment, but that a similarly structured national plan would be inappropriate or unworkable?  Did any mainstream Republican or conservative suggest that an individual mandate imposed by the federal government would violate the U.S. Constitution?

*I don't consider the plaint by Newt's spokesman that Newt didn't write the "Newt Notes" in question any more exculpatory than Ron Paul's claim that he didn't know what was in the Ron Paul newsletters. If you're name's on it, and you disavow it, you're a self-confessed fraud.

UPDATE: I have found a libertarian critic of the individual mandate, writing in USA Today Magazine on July 1, 2006: Cato's Michael Tanner, a critic of "big government conservatism." Tanner argued that the individual mandate was unenforceable; that subsidized mandated insurance for individuals would be unpriceable; that minimum coverage standards would become a goody bag for providers of various health services; and that the individual mandate would lead to more government control of the healthcare system.  As prelude to his attack, Tanner noted that "proposals for an individual mandate have drawn a surprising degree of support from conservatives."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Oh, for a worthy enemy to crush

I try to reassure myself that Romney is at least a competent and rational, data-driven guy, I really do. I remain convinced that he is the only Republican candidate who wouldn't necessarily destroy this country if elected. I was even mildly reassured -- grasping at straws though I was -- by the technocratic stance vis-a-vis taxation he struck in a Wall Street Journal interview published this week:  "I'm not running for office trying to find a way to lower the tax burden paid for by the very high, very highest income individuals. What I'm solving for is growth."  I could even, in this relatively (if faux) wonkish context, stomach the thrust of his economic attack on Obama as advocating "a European social Democratic model."  False though the alleged choice between such a model and a "merit-based opportunity society -- an American-style society--where people earn their rewards" may be, it is at least true that Obama is closer to a European social Democrat than Romney.  And that's about as much truth as you're going to get out of a GOP candidate this election season.

But in compensation for his relative economic moderation, Romney felt compelled to double down on a cartoon narrative about Obama and America in respect to the world at large:

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Can humanity lead itself out to pasture?

A few more thoughts on how the steady evolution of human norms toward peacefulness, self-control and respect for life tracked by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature could go wrong.

One weakness in Pinker's analysis of our social evolution, as far as I can tell so far, is that while he sometimes identifies an adverse trend, or an adverse offshoot of a positive trend, he doesn't consider the potential dangers that such trends might pose. Stephen J. Gould, as I recall, recounted the story of a moose-like creature for which natural selection favored the growth of ever-larger antlers, which attracted females of the species. Competition led to the antlers growing to absurd height and weight, which ultimately, or so the hypothesis went, led to the species' extinction.  While Pinker is careful to stipulate that the positive behavioral developments he tracks are not products of biological evolution, could not social evolution go off-track in similar ways?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A hit! A palpable hit!

Say what you will about economic fundamentals governing elections, and the ephemera of spin.  Ever since Obama acceded to an all-spending-cuts "deficit reduction bill" on Aug. 1, he has needed above all else to win a fight with the GOP.  He just got what he needed:
House Republicans on Thursday crumpled under the weight of White House and public pressure and have agreed to pass a two-month extension of the 2 percent payroll-tax cut, Republican and Democratic sources told National Journal.
Obama staged this fight and has stuck to his guns for two months.  He has orchestrated and escalated the pressure in a very public manner. He's brought home a bit of bacon for almost everyone. The perception of weakness and ineffectuality should be in large part erased.  His improved persona is working in concert with modestly improved economic data to lift his poll numbers.

Credit the man with learning from experience.

UPDATE 12/23: Just to reinforce the basic narrative line, note the verbs (and verbal nouns)  in the lede to the WaPo coverage of the GOP cave:

Facing withering criticism from across the political spectrum and abandoned by Senate allies, House Republicans bowed to political reality Thursday and agreed to a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans.

The agreement represented a remarkable capitulation on the part of House Republicans, who had two days earlier rejected such a deal with Democrats as the kind of half-measure that their new majority was elected to thwart.

Chronicle of a crisis diffused?

My perception as a semi-informed layman of the latest chapter in the Eurozone crisis has been singular, and maybe worth recording.

For months, the supremely knowledgeable columnists on my favorite opinion page, the FT, along with many other observers, have played Greek chorus to an EU tragedy unfolding in several acts. Most recently, in the runup to the early December EU summit, Wolfgang Munchau, Martin Wolf, Philip Stephens and others have warned that the Eurozone is on the brink of avoidable doom. The most recent lament has been that the European Central Bank could at any given time end at least the immediate existential crisis by buying bonds Italian and Spanish government debt -- on the secondary market, since the EU charter apparently bans the ECB from buying the bonds directly. But the ECB's new president, Mario Draghi, like his predecessor, has demurred. The summit yielded only a pact for stricter enforcement of budget austerity standards, which does nothing to ease the pressure of rising interest rates.

Then, yesterday, I pick up some uncertainly-sourced snippet to the effect that banks are buying Italian and Spanish debt, those countries' interest rates are falling, and some are saying that the crisis may be over.  Yeahrright....

This morning, however, the Times' Floyd Norris brings those glimmers into focus:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Obama's uncertain trigger finger, cont.

It is perhaps a measure of Obama's poor negotiating track record that as I read both Republican and Democratic assertions that Democrats have all the leverage in the fight over the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits extension, I worry that Obama will find a way to cave.

Nate Silver, who asserts that Obama's recent poll bounce is likely due more to economic upticks than to his more confrontational stance over the last two and a half months, provides the rationale for another 'hostage negotiation':

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Obama to cash in his "compromiser" chips?

Back in August, in response to Drew Westen's denunciation of Obama as a spineless rollover to the Republicans, I wrote:
in a fearsomely stressed and politically polarized country, Obama's relentless refusal to demonize an extremist opposition may yet win the day by means of contrast. Perhaps it will prove in the long run to be the political equivalent of the nonviolence of Martin Luther King...

Let's not forget that many African Americans at times regarded King as an appeasing sellout, much as many progressives now see Obama as one.    The Panthers and the Nation of Islam were more satisfying to many. King called out his adversaries, but he never shrank from engaging with them. Neither has Obama -- though the results have not always been what his base could have wished.

Now, after two and a half months of relentlessly calling out the GOP for refusing to stimulate the economy or raise taxes on the wealthiest, the moment may have arrived  when he cashes in his "nonviolent" chips. His poll numbers are spiking -- by a widening margin, Americans trust him more than the GOP to protect the interests of the middle class. Having blessed a Senate compromise over the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefit extension -- the fiscal heart of his September stimulus package -- he is refusing to negotiate further as Boehner once more reneges and lets the House extremists scotch the placeholder deal.  Now, having convinced Americans over the course of a year of bloody partisan conflict that he is the one willing -- too willing -- to compromise, he is poised to in his civil way to KO the House holdouts over their rejection of a deal that Boehner blessed and the Senate approved 89-10. He made his first strike today:

Better Angels leave their kitchens in Cairo

Serendipity: I was just reading this morning Steven Pinker's discussion in The Better Angels of Our Nature of the astonishing drop in the rate of rape in the U.S.over the past generation -- an 80% decline from 1973 to 2008. That decline is far longer in duration and far steeper than the drop in murder rates and other violent crime rates from the mid-nineties to the present.  Pinker credits the feminist movement for recasting rape as a crime against an individual woman's agency and bodily integrity, spotlighting Susan Brownmiller's 1975 bestseller Against Our Will, which "showed how the nonexistence of a female vantage point in society's major institutions had created an atmosphere that made light of rape" (loc. 8820). He documents the swiftness with which the treatment of rape in both law and popular culture were transformed, and casts the change as one more chapter in the delayed triumph of enlightenment ideals:
The history of rape, then, is one in which the interests of women had been zeroed out in the implicit negotiations that shaped customs, moral codes, and laws. And our current sensibilities, in which we recognize rape as a heinous crime against the woman, represent a reweighting of those interests, mandated by a humanist mindset that grounds morality in the suffering and flourishing of sentient individuals rather than in power, tradition, or religious practice. The mindset, moreover, has been sharpened into the principle of autonomy: that people have an absolute right to their bodies, which may not be treated as a common resource to be negotiated among other interest parties. Our current moral understanding does not seek to balance the interests of a woman not to be raped, the interests of the men who may wish to rape her, and the interests of the husband and fathers who want to monopolize her sexuality. In an upending of the traditional valuation, the woman's ownership of her body counts for everything, and the interests of all other claimants count for nothing...The principle of autonomy, recall, was also a linchpin in the abolition of slavery, despotism, debt bondage, and cruel punishments during the Enlightenment (location 8793).
This particular assertion of autonomy is playing out on the streets of Egypt today:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

I contain multitudes, and not in a good way

As I mentioned once before on this blog, Kurt Vonnegut got me early (at about age 14) with his vision of time in Slaughterhouse Five, and it's stayed with me: all moments always have existed and always will exist; to be finite in time is no more remarkable than to be finite in space. This raises the question: when you die, in whose "when" are you dead? Even for a monotheist, there's no clear answer. For millennia, theologians have asserted that all moments are equally present to God. You're only 'dead' in the perception of those who live 'after' you -- and they will soon be dead, and so it goes. But our personal timelines are not the universe's. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How our better angels' wings might be clipped

To support his hypothesis in  The Better Angels of Our Nature that the human race is, in effect, outgrowing war, Steven Pinker amasses considerable cultural evidence that individuals in the developed world, spurred in part by the development of commerce, have grown progressively 1) more interactive -- able to see another's point of view, address her concerns, meet his expectations; 2) more 'mannerly,' i.e. more self-controlled, less gross to others, slower to signal readiness to take violent action or to in fact take that action; 3) more empathetic, able to imagine another's pain, and hence more reluctant to inflict it; and consequently, 4) more moral, in any meaningful sense of the word.

Assuming that this kind of development has in fact taken place, unevenly but unmistakably, it's possible to imagine opposite directions from which this social progress might reverse itself.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Buenos Aires, buenos break

My wife and I are off in Buenos Aires this week, visiting our son, who's wrapping up a semester abroad here -- seems like it's the latest hot spot for that college ritual.  His Spanish is now very impressive!  In any case, blogging will be light this week.

Alas poor me, I missed that grave public policy forum, the ABC GOP debate, $10,000 bet and all.  Of course, a large part of me would pay $10,000 to miss it, or rather not to have to contemplate the possible fallout from our political discourse having sunk low. In fact, I can play the short version any time: less taxes on the wealthy! More taxes on the poor! Less regulation! Drill, baby, drill! Bomb Iran! Let Israel bomb Iran!  Give Israel the whole West Bank! Give Israel the whole State Department! Increase military spending! Defund the State Department! Abolish the Department of Education! Abolish the Department of Energy! Abolish the entire federal government except the Department of Homeland Security! Privatize Medicare! Drown Medicaid in the bathtub!  Deport Obama to Kenya!

There, I just saved you 120 minutes of bellicose farce and fraud.

Friday, December 09, 2011

"Allow me to sell you a couple!"

Free association time, re Gingrich's reflexive/relentless promotion of his books and movies in the midst of his presidential campaign. Who could read this
When asked last week about Russia during a town hall-style meeting in South Carolina, he noted that he made a film about the Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher-Pope John Paul II nexus that he posits helped bring down the Soviet Union. Any mention of "American exceptionalism" earns a mention of his movie on the subject of America's special role. And his film and book about Reagan seldom goes unmentioned as he hails the former president as a role model....

For Gingrich, the campaign sometimes takes on the feeling of an extended book tour.

"At 8:30 tomorrow morning, we're going to be at the Westin at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and we're going to be talking about jobs and the economy," Gingrich told a radio interviewer last month. "And then after the town hall meeting, Callista is going to be signing her new book, the New York Times bestseller, `Sweet Land Of Liberty.' ... And I'll be signing my new novel, `The Crater,' about the Civil War, and a book on American exceptionalism called `A Nation Like No Other.'"

Without reverting to this, from Alice in Wonderland?

"You are old," said the youth, "as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door--
Pray, what is the reason of that?"
"In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his gray locks,
"I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment -- one shilling the box --
Allow me to sell you a couple?"

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Romney's lullaby

Mitt Romney is doubtless capable of forming a coherent argument in response to any question that requires knowledge, analysis and judgment.  His problem just now is that his current positions are predetermined by his need to pander to the GOP base -- which in itself would leave him with the relatively simple sophist's task of making the weaker argument seem stronger -- and then further contorted by his need to justify past actions and positions, which were less distorted by a less extremist constituency.

Wooing GOP primary voters, he must wax as paradoxical as the most ardent lover. Reading the transcript of his recent discussion with the editorial board of the Washington Examiner, I was reminded of a folk song that poses a string of riddles:

I gave my love a cherry that had no stone,
I gave my love a chicken that had no bone,
I gave my love a story that had no end,
I gave my love a baby with no cryin'.

How can there be a cherry that has no stone?
How can there be a systemic financial rescue that has no bailouts of individual institutions?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Two speeches at Osawatomie

Very interesting that for his landmark speech yesterday spotlighting middle class stagnation and growing income inequality as "the defining issue of our time," Obama chose to channel Teddy Roosevelt. He delivered the hour-long speech in Osawatomie, Kansas*, where in 1910 T.R. laid down a long manifesto calling for a "new nationalism" that would empower the federal government to effectively regulate powerful business interests and so deliver a "square deal" that would "deliver a more substantial equality of opportunity." Obama cited Roosevelt at length, drawing an extended parallel between T.R.'s fight to break up monopolies and establish fair labor laws and a progressive tax code and his own quest to re-establish effective regulation and more taxes on the wealthy. E. J. Dionne does a nice job today exploring the relevance of T.R.'s agenda to our own time.

Primed by Dionne, I took a look at T.R.'s speech yesterday evening. One thing leapt out at me: Roosevelt, unlike Obama, was a fighter, bred in the bone. His speech in many ways casts the fight against the entrenched privilege of special interests as a moral equivalent of war, as William James famously called for in struggles to better the human condition. T.R. was James' pupil.  But he was less willing than James to abjure war itself as the crucible of character. While James, according to one scholar, "championed the rigor and strenuousness of his rough-riding former pupil Theodore Roosevelt," ... "he also slammed Roosevelt for his ''gushes over war as the ideal condition of human society, for the manly strenuousness which it involves.'' In the Osawatomie speech, Roosevelt addressed himself throughout to listening Civil War veterans, drawing parallels between their battle and the one he was joining to strengthen democracy and curb special interests.

More comprehensively than he has at any point since he took office (though not more so than in the '08 campaign), Obama yesterday directly confronted Republicans for their belief that "the market will take care of everything," for putting forward further deregulation as a panacea, for advocating trickle-down economics (he used the phrase), for blocking restoration of Clinton-era tax rates for the wealthy, for trying to strangle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in its crib.   But for better and/or worse, Obama will never conceive his political task as the sublimated war that Teddy Roosevelt saw himself in:
The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows. That is what you fought for in the Civil War, and that is what we strive for now.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Say I ain't dumb, Drum! I bought Obama's rhetoric...and still do

Kevin Drum, en route to a fair-minded accounting of Obama's accomplishments and failings, blames liberal disappointment on Obama's campaign rhetoric:
Obama's core problem with his supporters from 2008, the ones who listened to his soaring rhetoric and believed he really was going to transform Washington — and have since been bitterly disappointed. This has always been something I could understand only intellectually, since I never for a second paid any attention to his stump speeches. Of course they soared! Of course they promised a new era! That's what politicians always promise. Why on earth would anyone take this seriously, when every single other piece of evidence showed him to be a cautious, pragmatic, mainsteam, center-left Democratic candidate?
This is the Gideon Rachman school of thought about Obama's hopemongering: that it was composed of"some of the most clich├ęd and least challenging slogans in the American political lexicon: unity not division; the future not the past; change not stagnation."

I beg to differ. Of course there is a lot of cliche in Obama's political speech -- political speech cannot subsist without it.  But there was always a good deal more -- evidence of a truly rare mind at work upon the political process and the historical moment.  Among the star-struck count a New Yorker editorialist, probably David Remnick, who in October 2008 compared Obama to Lincoln:
Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one––something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.
To those who think that Obama's call to hope and promise of change was just window dressing for a center-left laundry list of policy proposals, let me suggest the following:

What Republicans would like to believe about Obama's current strategy

Michael Gerson, while granting Obama grudging respect for the relative resiliency of his poll numbers in the face of of terrible economy, mis-casts his current political strategy:
Obama’s recent conversion to the old-time Democratic religion of class conflict — preached at Occupy Wall Street tent meetings — has rallied American liberalism. This approach has its limits. A message that shores up support from the left may complicate Obama’s appeal to independents. The construction of a 43 percent floor may also involve the construction of a ceiling not far above it. But Obama’s appeal to the political middle was no longer working. A base strategy was his only credible strategy, and it seems to have prevented a polling collapse.
Obama's current strategy -- highlighting his policy contrasts with Republicans, hammering them for resisting new taxes on the wealthy, pushing popular stimulus measures (by other names), and "balanced" deficit reduction  -- is aimed as much at "independents" -- or rather, at majorities much broader than the Democratic base -- as it is on shoring up that base.  As Greg Sargent says, Gerson is "just wrong about the Dems’ new populism being a “base” strategy."

Monday, December 05, 2011

Religion helped develop our 'better angels'*

To prove his point that past eras were violent almost beyond our current imagining, Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined rather revels in chronicling the brutalities of the late middle ages and early renaissance, particularly those carried out in the name of God by religious authorities -- in crusade, Inquisition, and, once the protestant movements got going, centuries of religious war.  At times, he slips into the 'new atheist' mode of attack, and his contempt gets a bit thick -- and as one dimensional, I'm beginning to think, as idealizations of 'the age of faith' by earlier generations of historians, or by fundamentalists today.

At the same time, Pinker makes much of the study of the "civilizing process" carried out by a certain Norbert Elias, who focused on, of all things, etiquette books, and mapped out the steadily rising standards of self-control -- e.g., of bodily fluids, and of impulses and gestures toward violence in polite company -- that those guidebooks prescribe.  The development of the basics of what we now compartmentalize and trivialize as manners tracks the centuries of dramatic reduction in homicide rates in Europe, from about the 12th century through the 20th.

One part of the civilizing story that Pinker has so far ignored is the rise of a less punitive, more nurturing and accessible concept of God-- a God who could be encountered on an individual basis in a safe private space. This softening and some cases literal maternalizing of God took place, ironically, throughout centuries of Inquisition, dogmatic enforcement, and political strife within the Catholic church; ultimately, the personalization of worship helped trigger the Reformation and hence the centuries of religious warfare which Pinker asserts to be proportionately as lethal at some points as the wars of the twentieth century.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The reader over your shoulder

Whither the U.S.? Whither the human race?  I've read some pretty good books recently that grapple with the big questions, and I've enjoyed engaging with them here, whether in the form of reviews, free association, nitpicks, whatever.  Below, various responses to some good reads.

Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature
Religion helped develop our better angels 
Better Angels in the news 
The bettering angels of our nature

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's Race Against the Machine 
We may be half-drowning, but we're not stagnating
see also:  A Kling-free future prosperity?

Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation
Slo-mo grow on the plateau: Tyler Cowen's theory of American Malaise

Friday, December 02, 2011

A blow against faux reportorial balance

Left-side political commentators such as Greg Sargent and Steve Benen, along with the more even-handed James Fallows, keep a constant watch for faux balance in political reporting -- that is, quoting partisans on both sides of a given issue without giving any hint if the claims of one side (or both) are manifestly false or unsupported by evidence. 

Today, the New York Times' senior economics columnist Floyd Norris strikes a blow against faux balance, and does so in good reportorial fashion, by calling in outside authority. In fact in this case, the 'authority' is the news hook for the article. 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Romney hasn't changed -- the audience has

What's all this fuss about Mitt Romney's allegedly "disastrous" interview with Bret Baier?  I just watched it, and I saw the same Romney I've seen in a half dozen debates--evasive with regard to past and current positions, drawing distinctions without differences, happily misrepresenting opponents' positions and deeds -- in a word, full of shit -- but also in full command of his contorted policy positions and campaign messages, never really at a loss for words.  If a little stammering could sink a candidate, Obama would still be a state senator.  As for the "snippiness," I thought he just took a page out of Herman Cain's playbook: when challenged, begin by asserting forcefully that your challenger is wrong.

Let's look at* the exchange over immigration policy:

Crowd-sourced cliff notes--->crowd-sourced editing?

I was just going through my notes and highlights in a book on Kindle -- a frustratingly awkward process, but I won't bore you with an account of this year-old machine's limitations. What struck me was the latent possibilities in an option I never considered: "view popular highlights." Kindles show you what other readers have highlighted, a feature I've always considered an annoyance, like reading a marked-up library book.  But now, on the plus side...