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Friday, August 30, 2002

 
THE DISMAL SCIENCE.

Steven E. Landsburg has an odd little piece in Slate that asks a question only an economist would think to ask: Why do people walk up staircases but not up escalators?

Unless you're an economist yourself, you're probably thinking either: "well, duh -- stairs don't move," or else (if you're from the East Coast) "why don't they move along? I'm in a hurry here people!"

But you'll never get tenure in a physics-envy riddled economics department with that kind of lazy, qualitative thinking. No, people's stair-climbing and escalator-riding behavior, like all human behavior, must be explained with quantifiable theories.

To his credit, Landsburg isn't all the way gone. His tongue seems at least partly in cheek when he writes:

It was observed early on that if you stand still on stairs, you'll never get anywhere. But for reasons I can no longer entirely reconstruct, that explanation was dismissed as overly simplistic. Soon the search for a deeper theory was under way. Within a few days, blackboards all over the economics building were covered with graphs and equations. Research projects were temporarily shelved while we tackled the escalator puzzle, which had taken on the dimensions of a profound and perhaps insurmountable challenge to economic theory.

The tone of that gave me hope for Landsburg, perhaps he was one of those rare economists still able to think humanly.

But alas, no. We've lost another good mind to economics. Here's the kicker:

Marginal analysis really works. If it seems not to be working, the right question is not, "Why doesn't the marginal analysis work?" Instead, the right question is, "How am I failing to understand the marginal analysis?"

In other words, when the theory clashes with the facts, change the facts.

(Paraphrasing Steven Wright: The university had a power outage. The economics department got stranded on the escalator for three hours.)

"Everything can be reduced to economics," says Tara Sue Grubb, sounding strangely Marxist for an avowedly libertarian candidate for Congress. Tara Sue has the preposition wrong:

Everything can be reduced by economics.

This reduction is the result of the same kind of skewed perspective the Kids in the Hall demonstrated in their skits with the head crusher. You know, I'm squishing your head! I'm squishing your head! -- that guy. If you squint just right, you can make the whole world look like it fits between your forefinger and thumb, but as Kevin McDonald learned the hard way, you can't really squish someone's head.

Someone named Bjorn Lomborg takes a turn at head-crushing in a recent New York Times op-ed titled "The Environmentalists Are Wrong."

Mr. Lomborg recites a list of things about which he thinks environmentalists (all of them, apparently) are wrong:

We constantly hear a litany of how the environment is in poor shape. Natural resources are running out. Population is growing, leaving less and less to eat. Species are becoming extinct in vast numbers. Forests are disappearing. The planet's air and water are getting ever more polluted. Human activity is, in short, defiling the earth — and as it does so, humanity may end up killing itself.

But, the great Dane says, "this litany is not supported by the evidence."

The bait is tempting, but the hook is barbed. Mr. Lomborg would like nothing better than to waste your time debating the evidence, but no amount of evidence will ever persuade him that, say, rainforests are being depleted. Mr. Lomborg believes -- all evidence to the contrary be damned -- in a cornucopian economic utopia in which growth, all growth, is always good and qualitative questions about that growth are not permitted.

His creed can be summed up in a paraphrase of Mr. Landsburg's conclusion in Slate:

Cornucopian optimism really works. If it seems not to be working, the right question is not, "Why doesn't the cornucopian optimism work?" Instead, the right question is, "How am I failing to understand the cornucopian optimism?"

It would be interesting to research the Environmental Assessment Institute, which Mr. Lomborg directs, just to see if know-nothing anti-environmentalist groups in Denmark have the same level of corporate funding as those here in the U.S. (You can read a chapter from his book here.)
 
But a sufficient measure of Mr. Lomborg's credibility is to examine his main assertion in the Times op-ed:
 
"Energy and other natural resources have become more abundant."

Laws of physics? Who needs 'em?

Mr. Lomborg believes conservation is wrong-headed, even if you're talking about the conservation of energy. If his economic ideology clashes with the First Law of Thermodynamics, then the First Law of Thermodynamics will have to go. (And don't bother asking what he thinks of entropy, either.)
 
Lomborg seems to be a disciple of the immortal Julian Simon (you can even buy their books as a package deal at Amazon).

Simon founded the dangerously absurd cult of substitutability, which is summed up neatly at the above link: "Supplies of natural resources are not finite in any serious way; they are created by the intellect of man, an always renewable resource."

Simon managed to make a career out of this one idea by studiously avoiding biologists, geologists and Gloucester fishermen. By limiting his sparring partners to the ineptly hyperbolic Paul Ehrlich he was able to provide semi-respectable intellectual cover for some rather exhaustively extractive industries.

To his credit, Simon seems to be a true believer, and not a corporate propagandist like so many of his followers (e.g. Bjorn Lomborg and Rush Limbaugh). But he still has much for which to answer for abetting, for just one example, the depletion of fisheries while keeping his head buried in his asymptote.

I speak of Mr. Simon in the present tense because, as his theory dictates, his apparent death is an economic impossibility.

Supplies of natural resources [including, say, the number of years in a human life span] are not finite in any serious way ...

For extra credit: explain in 200 words or less why Julian Simon's own bald head refuted his theory of the inexhaustability of resources.

For additional extra credit: Cancer is a form of growth. Discuss.

Okay, enough. If, despite knowing its a trap, you still are tempted to engage people like Bjorn Lomborg in debate on the facts of the matter, I recommend you secure a copy of Tracking the Charlatans, Edward Flattau's "refutational handbook for the propaganda wars."
posted by Fred Clark 2:06 AM


Wednesday, August 28, 2002

 
CATCHING UP.

We wouldn’t want that. Joseph Verrengia has been providing excellent coverage of the UN Summit for the AP. Here’s the lede from his latest dispatch:

The United States, Saudi Arabia and other nations at a U.N. summit worked Tuesday to water down promises to rapidly expand the use of clean, renewable energy technologies around the globe.

Despite all the talk lately of tension between the U.S. and the Saudis, it’s nice to see the two nations uniting to face a common enemy: clean, renewable energy.

This calls to mind a recent bit of parody advocating the "Driving Solo Enforcement Act of 2002." Sadly, as this report shows, such legislation would be redundant.

Makes these stickers seem like a good idea.

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"We laughed, --knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags."


That’s from Wilfred Owen in "The Next War." You’ll find that and many others at this site.

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One expects the peace-loving lefties at Sojourners to propose a nonviolent alternative to war with Iraq, and they do.

But it’s pleasantly surprising to find the non-lefty Calvinists at the Center for Public Justice denouncing George and Dick’s Bogus Adventure as "imperialist." They just published this essay, by Steven Mayer – a professor at the National Defense University. Some highlights:

The Bush administration's "axis-of-evil" chest-thumping has cost us dearly. Saddam Hussein and his forces are currently boxed in and he knows what his fate will be if he ever again uses weapons of mass destruction. So why should we unleash a war against him that would have highly uncertain and potentially very deadly and destabilizing consequences? Why push our preferred political outcome in Iran so hard and so publicly that we undermine exactly the people we want to see win in Teheran? And why maintain such a palpable double standard between Israelis and Palestinians that we actually encourage violence, when the role of a genuinely honest broker might just help resolve that vicious tragedy? Finally, why not actively encourage reconciliation and eventual reunion between North and South Korea rather than a more dangerous policy of isolation for Pyongyang?

The time has come in this debate to turn a critical eye toward the American sense of privileged moral rectitude that may be leading us astray.


= = = = =

Shock-jockery bottoms out. Opie and Anthony’s unfunny, pornographic sex-in-a-cathedral stunt is further proof that the "shock jock" phenomenon, like its progenitor, Howard Stern, peaked years ago. It’s long, boring coast into irrelevance is painful to hear. Outrageousness for the sake of outrageousness is, well, pointless.

The shock-jock fad might still endure if it learns to serve some purpose beyond the stunted sexuality of arrested adolescent Maxim-reading Frat boys. Abbie Hoffman’s antics – like dumping 3,000 $1 bills onto the floor of the Stock Exchange – were outrageous, but they also (usually) had a point. And unlike Stern and the rest, Hoffman was rarely dull.

The folks at The Smoking Gun have pretty strong stomachs, so it says something that they’re disgusted by Opie and Anthony’s appalling schtick.

= = = = =

Eric Alterman comes through with a link to that Penn Jillette article on The Boss.

And congratulations to Udo Schmitz for completing The Amazing Slayerthon. Grrrr. Argh. 122 times. Good news, Udo, only 28 more days
posted by Fred Clark 3:38 AM

 
CONSUMER CONFIDENCE.

In 1985 the slacktivist was finally old enough to drive himself to the Woodbridge Mall. I remember wandering through that consumerist temple feeling somehow perfectly, ideally confident.

I remember telling my friend Doug this. "You know something, Doug," I said. "I'm feeling pretty confident. As a consumer I mean."

Even as I said it, it sounded kind of strange, and I was afraid he would think I was having one of my episodes. But instead, he agreed.

"I know what you mean," he said. "I've had the same feeling. All year really. This sense of ... of ... confidence."

"Yes," I said. "Not too confident, mind you. But not exactly unconfident either ..."

"Right. Like somehow this year I've felt a strange baseline of confidence. I can imagine feeling more confident than I am now, or less confident -- but I think from now on whenever I think of my confidence as a consumer, I'll think back to how I've felt this year and measure it against this feeling that I have now."

"Yeah," I said. "Weird, huh?"

We didn't know it then, of course, but our feelings were shared by millions of other Americans that year. This strange phenomenon was later discovered by a team of top scientists, and a quantifiable economic statistic was born!

The consumer confidence index: just one more reason the precision of economics makes it the envy of all other sciences.

posted by Fred Clark 1:50 AM

 
MAIL CALL.

For those keeping score, the spam/legit ratio at slacktivist@hotmail.com is running at 28 percent spam, 72 percent legitimate mail.

Some highlights:

"Dino" says Brendan Lynch on the question of Mickey Kaus' "moderate" stance:

Coulter, Noonan, Horowitz et al. exist purely to entertain the other side's troops, and it dignifies them out of all proportion to their merits to engage them in debate. I'm starting to wonder, though, whether Mickey Kaus isn't in the same fetid league (and why does anyone treat him as a liberal? whatever his personal views, kausfiles is a conservative blog, period).

= = = = =

John Davis says hello from Locust Eater, a thoughtful Christian site out to prove that's not an oxymoron. This multi-authored site proclaims, "Christianity in the U.S. has become little more than a civil state religion. We find this to be a bad thing." Indeed.

Note: That's locust not lotus -- it's a reference to John the Baptist's peculiar diet, not to The Odyssey.

(For the record, www.lotuseaters.com apparently is the property of a band from Iowa. I have no idea what they sound like, but they've been successful enough to open for The Outfield. Which helps to answer the nagging question: "Whatever happened to The Outfield?")

= = = = =

Nathan Lott dropped a note to let me know slacktivist has been linked to his blog -- another fine site I no longer can access from The Cube. Slacktivist is included along with Talking Points Memo and Brad DeLong which makes me want to do the Wayne & Garth "we're not worthy!" ritual.

Mr. Lott wrote later with some reactions to slacktivist's comments on TIME magazine's "Green Century" issue. "I might make a post of this," he said at the end of a longish e-mail. And, happily, he did.

= = = = =

In response to slacktivist's rambling essay about rudderless moderates, the sensible conspiracy theorist Zizka offered this useful moderate bestiary, classifying four distinct breeds of the species:

1. Polite, timid, cautious politicians who don't want to be defeated and don't believe they can win; they hope for small nibbling  victories on the edges, but don't dare make the other side mad.

2. Genuine moderates whose actual opinions are towards the middle on most issues. These are capable of taking a strong stand from time to time.  Jeffords and Hatfield strike me as examples.

3. People with very strong and genuine opinions which are are not usually found joined. Anti-abortion liberal Democrats and some libertarian Republicans are examples.

4. Complete opportunists who follow every trend, moderate, left, right, in between.


Kudos to Zizka for mentioning Mark Hatfield, the former Republican senator from Oregon was a principled politician who threatened to give evangelicals a good name. A war hero and peace activist, Hatfield was one of the last Republicans to credibly speak of "the party of Lincoln." As Dick Cheney beats his hollow war-drum on Iraq, I find myself wishing Hatfield were still in office.

My coffee mug is resting at this very moment on a United States Senate coaster from Hatfield's office, for which I traded the Senator a renewable energy button, which he promptly stuck on his lapel on the way to the Senate floor. How cool is that?

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From someone or something called "Mitmark" I received the following urgent message:

Carne de Qualidade no Brasil Angola

Temos as melhores carnes do mercado brasileiro atestadas pelo Ministerio da Saude e com excelentes precos.


This seems to me to be spam advertising Brazilian beef, but since 1). the slacktivist doesn't speak Portugese, and 2). the idea that someone is sending me spam advertising Brazilian beef seems implausibly ridiculous, I figured I would include this message here.

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D. Lature wrote to applaud slacktivist's mention of our mutual hero, Tony Campolo. His own bloggish site highlights some other worthy heroes, including Clarence Jordan.

A quick Clarence Jordan anecdote: Jordan's radical experiment at the integrated Koinonia Farms relied, like many worthy efforts, on donations from wealthy supporters. But Clarence managed to appeal for support without ever really approving of his supporters' wealth. On visiting their homes he liked to say, "Well, this is a fine piece of plunder you've got here."

= = = = =

Thorgeir Tryggvason chimes in from Iceland (!) with a solution to the antinomy about the barber who shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves. (The question: Who shaves the barber?):

There is a solution to the Barber Paradox (and it comes, I think, from the
late and great Willard van Orman Quine): There is no such barber!


(I had read the barber antinomy in David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System. Reading Wallace's novel prompted my actuary/philosopher brother to give me two books: Wittgenstein's Tractatus, and Quiddities, by the late great W.V. Quine. For the record: Quiddities was a lot funnier.)

= = = = =

Thanks to all of the above and to others not posted here for your kind words and encouragement. Keep those cards and letters coming.

posted by Fred Clark 1:30 AM


Tuesday, August 27, 2002

 
WALL OF FIRE.

I Fell Into A Burning Wall Of Fire
I Went Down, Down, Down
And The Flames Went Higher

And It Burns, Burns, Burns
The Wall Of Fire
The Wall Of Fire


-- June Carter (sort of)

Aargh. In addition to saddling me with all this intrusive work to do, The Company seems to have tweaked its Internet security so I can't access blogspot from The Cube, which for the moment prevents me from blogging during the 9 to 5. (It also means no Rittenhouse Review, no Doxagora, etc. in The Cube either.)

I will try to find a way, to quote Grover, "over and under and through" the firewall. Until then, looks like late-night blogging for a bit.


posted by Fred Clark 11:41 PM


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