Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Reading this review of Ross Douthat's new book, I'm reminded of the chutzpah with which professional op-ed columnists assume they are experts about everything. Speaking as someone with a Master's in Theology, there's some pretty risible stuff in this review. Say what you will about the opinions of Elaine Pagels; it's pretty presumptuous for a man with a bachelor's degree to call someone with an endowed chair at Princeton a "half-educated evangelical guru."

This is a problem with our news and, in particular, the political opinions we read in the news. Most of these guys are gifted writers who don't actually have expertise in anything but writing, but think they can read a few books and have a special insight on the subject that even those who've spent their lives researching the matter never figured out. Douthat does a little research on the side and thinks he can talk down at a woman who wrote her first groundbreaking book on ancient theology literally when he was still in diapers.

How often have Paul Krugman and Elizabeth Warren been accused of being idiots or ignorant of basic economic truths in our news shows and papers by guys whose sole exposure to the field of economics was a 101 class they took as college freshmen?

Socrates believed that wisdom lies in understanding the depths of one's own ignorance. Our bookstores and newspapers are filled with the scribblings of fools.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

election predictions mostly a waste of time

A number of the people I'm reading are batting around potential models for election predicting. As the title shows, I think this is mostly a waste of time. As much as economists in particular seem to be into this stuff, the field of economics and social sciences generally are, in my impression anyway, exceptionally bad at forecasting.

It isn't a knock against those fields. It's just that human behavior, despite seeming like it's so predictable, just isn't once someone has to start trying to predict it. There are too many variables. Kevin Drum notes, for instance, that despite the attempts of various people to come up with a model for predicting presidential election winners, one can get just as much accuracy by simply predicting that if the incumbent's party has occupied the White House for less than 8 years, they win, and if more, they lose.

You see another weakness, though, in the fact that these models always start at 1948. Why? Because election behavior was very different with FDR, who beat just about every electoral adversity imaginable. And before FDR, there was a very easy, but starkly different, way to predict elections: if the Republican candidate was running against a candidate not named Grover Cleveland or Woodrow Wilson, he won. Before 1860, it was the exact opposite: if one candidate belongs to a party with "democrat" in the name, he's probably going to win.

And how long will any given model last? Until it stops being predictive, which he won't know until it fails to predict several elections.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Hunger Games

Just finished it. Glad I read it, though I'm not quite sure how I feel about the book. I get now why people have spent so much effort trying to parse the politics of the book, and why everyone thinks they can claim it for themselves. It sort of reminds me of the Star Wars prequels in this sense, in that it looks like it refers to current politics somehow, and we want it to. We want to be able to extrapolate who's at fault for Panem, which party's agenda it more closely resembles, etc.

The problem is, I think the allusions are largely illusory. It looks like it refers to us, but it really doesn't, at least not in any coherent way. Sure, you could potentially spin something out about wealth inequality or big government or whatever, but what's the point? That having a government that keeps everyone under its thumb, keeps most of the population in a state of destitution, and puts children to death for entertainment value and fearmongering is bad?

 I suspect that instead this is going to be a story about how bright-eyed young people, even if poor, can "change the world" if they can keep it from changing them first.

 Another thing, too: I get that this is a book for teens, and Katniss clearly has elements of Diana/Artemis in her, and people get all uptight about the possibility of teen sexuality, but seriously, Katniss never at any point in the first book even considers or feels any urge to go beyond kissing with either of her beaus, one of whom is coveted by every girl in town and the other is as strong as an ox? I love the idea of female heroes, especially stories showing women that are strong, intelligent and independent. It seems to me, however (and I could be totally out to lunch here), that just as it's demeaning to portray heroines as thinking about nothing but their man and wanting to be his barefooted housewife, it's also demeaning to strip the heroine of their sexuality in order to show their independence, as if a woman can't be independent, wise, good-hearted, and have normal biological urges at the same time. As if sexual activity for girls is mutually exclusive with a strong moral compass.

Contrast Katniss, for instance, with Peeta, who is smart, wily, and strong, but who expresses his sexual attraction to Katniss freely in the book. Does it cross some line for Katniss to feel those things that it doesn't for Peeta?

Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive or obtuse about this issue, but it just seems to me like we made a lot of progress in the '90's in terms of portraying young women who could be sexually active without being implicitly dismissed as sluts, and that progress is being rolled back now. Consider Buffy Summers, for instance, who has multiple sexual partners in high school and college, or Monica Gellar from Friends who sleeps with a guy on their first date on the pilot episode, and admits that she has a lot of sexual partners, but is likeable, independent, caring, and good in relationships. It's sad to think we're actually regressing now when it comes to sex-positive portrayals of women.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

the legacy of welfare reform

The Times looks into the performance of welfare programs during the last recession and finds, predictably, that Clinton era reforms hamstrung them, preventing them from expanding their rolls to help those who fell on hard times and leaving Gods knows how many people to such indignities as shoplifting, dumpster diving, and in the case of single mothers (who constitute the lion's share of TANF recipients) returning to violent boyfriends/spouses. Paul Ryan hails the performance of welfare reform as "an unprecedented success." Father Santorum tells his flock that Jesus loves us more because of it.

having it both ways on budgets

This is the best distillation I've seen of the kind of rhetorical ploy Republicans and their surrogates like David Brooks have been playing with budgets and such the past few years. Ezra is absolutely right about the illustrative capacity of budgets, and the whole point of all of Paul Ryan's various "budget plans" has been to obfuscate, not to explain. A great quote here:
There’s a bottom line here: You can’t cut spending without cutting spending. But Ryan wants to have it both ways: He wants to get the credit for cutting spending, but he doesn’t want to have to propose specific spending cuts. Oh, and he doesn’t want anyone to extrapolate what those cuts would be, either.
You can't, for instance, say you're going to cut X amount from "discretionary programs," give no details as to which get cut more and which less, and then whine when the other guys assume that number is an across the board cut. This kind of slipperiness allows Paul Ryan essentially to say he's going to cut some huge mythical chunk out of the budget, while promising every individual person that their pet issue will be safe. There's no courage here, no productive activity, because until the cuts are specific, they are a mirage.