Thursday, August 11, 2011

It's Go-Time (actually, it's go-thirty)

It's not a standoff if you begin to stand down before you've really stood up. We desperately need to be seeing a lot more of our President right now. That is to say, we need to be seeing much more of the version of the man we thought we elected, and much less of the man we have increasingly begun to suspect that he actually is. That's what frightens me: the identity issue. Did somebody catch their forty winks next to a pod on inauguration night?

It's not just the number of press conferences he holds, or how many interviews he sits for; it's also the tone of those appearances, and the behind-the-scenes "negotiations" which thoroughly misunderstand both the dynamics of the game and the role of a leader. In the context of recent negotiations, he seems to have neglected what I would call Rule Number One: NEVER make concessions to bullies and expect them to compromise in return. They will always view it as a simple victory, another validating stamp for their superior position, and keep trying to push you even further. To the bully, it scans as weakness. If you don't seize the discursive field decisively with such people, you will never gain any control over the flow of play. And as our leader, if you let them play you, you've let them play us.

It has been said—and I suspect there's something to the notion—that not even the President can change the public's mind if it's already made up. But he ought to be able to at least get out in front when public opinion is squarely in his corner—surely that couldn't be construed as going beyond his brief. (Minimally, this means immediate job-oriented stimulus and letting the "dumb then and dumber now" Bush tax cuts for the oligarchs mercifully expire.)  And were he to make a valiant and concerted effort to that end, he would almost certainly find that even his enemies would accord him a grudging respect. To be fair, that is why we hired him. The idea is to move the ball as far as humanly possible, with the passion and eloquence that becomes a leader, in the direction you believe to be right—before you begin negotiating. But his tentativeness makes us question both his commitment to his position and his resolve--two things you don't want to have up in the air when you come to the table.

It takes a lot of strength and inner intensity, not to mention resilience, to hold such a line. There's no shame in not possessing these qualities; you just don't want to be the guy running the ball if you lack them. Charisma and deep intelligence will not suffice without the fierce courage of your convictions. That courage tends to work even when those convictions are misplaced; it becomes even more critical when the convictions are arrived at rationally and thoughtfully, and when the world is in crisis mode.

Obama's greatest asset, given his rhetorical skills, is his pulpit. If he is hoping that the GOP will overplay their hand and leave him ahead at the end of next year, well, then I fervently hope that he's right about that. I fear that will not be the case. And I pointedly question any decision to rely on that sort of too-clever legerdemain rather than stepping out in front and nailing his theses to the church door. One of your most powerful perquisites, when you hold the office of President, is that it offers you the opportunity to establish a new frame, a new narrative. Sure, your natural enemies will oppose you vociferously—that's what they're there for—but they aren't the POTUS. And don't think that they (and everybody else) don't know that too! Unless you, yourself, forget...

Obama is the greatest campaigner I've ever seen. I will always love the man, come what may. But my esteem for him as an advocate for America is dwindling by the hour. I am ashamed that he seems so constitutionally averse to making enemies, because effective leadership so often demands just that—and because the nature of your enemies can be just as telling as that of your friends. Calculating a clever strategy is also important, as far as it goes. But if, in the clutch, that strategy does not involve getting out in front powerfully and decisively to oppose those who are pushing in the wrong direction, and staying there with his jaw set and his back unbowed, then He. Is. No. Leader. He may be a lot of splendid and charming things, but if he lacks that iron will and that sense of moment when the moment is dire, then he lacks what the moment requires.

I'm afraid it's time to step up or step off. A lot of lives and livelihoods depend on it. I believe he that can do it, but that's not the point, is it?. He needs to do it now—because while we have already lost much, we could always lose much, much more.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

No New Taxes?! (Take 2)

The GOP's obvious allergy to any sensible tax structure, combined with their claimed infatuation with the Constitution, has to rank near the top of the list of the most ridiculous things I've seen in my short, happy life. One of the crucial driving forces behind the creation of the Constitution at the outset was the government's need to collect excises and levy taxes on individual citizens when necessary. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had little recourse in the collection of revenue beyond reliance on the good faith of the states. The country was up to its eyeballs in the debt we'd incurred in the birthing and administering of this new experiment in democracy, and we needed to be able to service this debt if we were going to remain viable as a nation. So a small group of insignificant troublemakers—shameless "big government" types with names like George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams—began to push for a stronger central government to oversee commercial and fiscal policies directly, and thereby maintain the stability of the U.S. economy.  The result was our Constitution.

Bizarrely, we have a surprising number of people in Congress today who purport to be rabid for the Constitution, yet utterly fail to recognize the necessities that gave rise to it—necessities that remain in force today. In many respects these intellectual poseurs are anti-constitutionalists. Because it's still true: you cannot pay down the debt without raising revenues. In fact, I believe Alexander Hamilton may have said it best back in 1780: "Without revenues, a government can have no power. That power which holds the purse-strings absolutely, must rule."

Of course you don't want to raise taxes on those who would be rendered destitute by it, or in a way that will adversely impact the health of the economy.  One of the more thoughtful early comments on this comes directly from noted anti-federalist Patrick Henry: "the oppression arising from taxation, is not from the amount but, from the mode — a thorough acquaintance with the condition of the people, is necessary to a just distribution of taxes." That's why progressive taxation is such a vital idea. People who insist that the rich will stop spending if you raise their income tax a bit are—how to put this delicately—talking out of the wrong end of their digestive tracts.  That is to say, such utterances smell funny for pretty much the reason you'd expect. One of the more robust behavioral findings of the last few decades is the recognition that the spending habits of the astronomically wealthy don't change much at all when you slightly decrease the rate at which they're growing astronomically wealthier. In fact, pretty much the only thing that changes under those conditions is the size of the bequests that they leave to their broods.

Surely the ones who have benefited most disproportionally from the way our economy is structured and regulated are the very ones who both (a) owe that system the greatest debt of gratitude and (b) ought to bear the greatest responsibility for its continued stability. Eisenhower understood this, as did Nixon and Ford—and to some extent even Reagan and Bush the Elder—so it's not really a traditional Republican blind spot. This is a madness of relatively recent vintage.

In any event, I certainly have little time for anyone who claims to worship at the altar of the Constitution, yet asserts that raising taxes is anathematic to the American way of life. Even in terms of history alone, that one is a non-starter.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tortured Logic

Here’s something that has frustrated the crap out of me lately: this sudden rush from right to legitimize torture after OBL's execution. The general arguments--explicitly or implicitly--all take some variation of the following form:
[a] Some of the information we used to locate OBL was obtained through 'enhanced interrogation' techniques; therefore such techniques really do work.
[b] Since they work, we ought to accept that they're simply a necessary part of doing business in the rough-and-tumble world of questioning suspected terrorists.
This argument is a mess on at least three different levels. The problem is not that a premise is inaccurate or that some term is misleading; rather, the reasoning does not compute at all. It's counterfeit logic--and a lousy knock-off at that. This is the rational equivalent of a wooden nickel. As the physicist Wolfgang Pauli used to say, “no, no that’s not right--that’s not even wrong!”

First, (from [a]) it is not legitimate to conclude that a technique "works" merely because it has produced a reliable result in an unspecified percentage of instances. A stopped clock, as they say, is right twice a day. In order to show that a given approach is even comparatively useful, one needs to evaluate its success in the context of alternative approaches. One of the most glaring practical deficiencies of our charitably labeled 'enhanced interrogation' approach is that it consistently
under-performs other known methods of information gathering. Individuals under such duress are as likely as not to produce any narrative they imagine might please their captors, irrespective of its accuracy, thereby introducing noise into the communication that's even less productive than deliberate and expected disinformation. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of this whole torture issue is the breadth of professional consensus on the point that it in fact does not work at all. As they say in the South, "that dawg don't hunt." [a] doesn't even represent a fallacy worthy of the name. You want to dignify it with a label like "hasty generalization," say, or "fallacy of exclusion;" but no, mostly it's just lazy, fatuous assertion.

Secondly, the rest of the argument at least purports to rest on that first premise, which is illigitimate; therefore, the sum of the reasoning--even if it were structurally valid--is unsound.

Lastly, and most embarrassingly haywire, is the bizarre disconnect between [a] and [b]. In the fallacy business, this is our old friend
Ignoratio Elenchi. The premises are unrelated to the conclusion. The question of whether or not something "works" has nothing necessarily to do with whether it should be deemed ethically acceptable or in any other way desirable. To see how the wheels come off here, we need only consider the same argument with one modification: substitute a different value for the "technique" variable. Suppose it were discovered that whenever we wanted perfectly honest and reliable answers to any question we might think to ask of a suspect in custody, all the interrogator need do is execute his own mother. Quick, simple and efficient! By the flawless illogic of our lovely formula, we should then view such workaday matricide as a perfectly unexceptionable "technique" of interrogation. Its chief drawback might be that you couldn't use the same interrogator twice. Lots of things work. A .44 magnum discharged in one's mouth as an orally administered pain reliever is 100% effective. It's just that the question of efficacy is distinct from the question of appropriateness or desirability.

Clearly, even if [a] were completely accurate on its own, when we combine it with [b], we’ve still got the howling absurdity of that classic informal fallacy to deal with: a premise and a conclusion that aren’t even on speaking terms.

For godsake, QED already…

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bad Weather for Good Science

Getting a little weary of all the armchair science-phobes using recent heavy weather as an excuse to try to whack sound climate science. Erm, kiddies, this unusual weather is a *feature* of global climate change (the net effect of which is "global warming") not counter-evidence. Many casual observers seem to have a spot of trouble distinguishing between weather and climate. This is just fine, provided that these "observers" are responsible enough to withhold their opinions until they've done their homework. But sounding off from a place of benighted misconception only serves to advertise the cluelessness.

What has been happening with the weather, of late, is that unusual deviations in the jet stream are producing uncommon local weather events; this is precisely what the models predict as well. The topography of the changing temperature gradients is shifting and bending these currents in new ways, and instances of unseasonable, unprecedented or extreme weather are the inevitable and expected result.

The planet really is heating up--and in a hurry. Indeed, the science behind global climate change has never been more robust. A recently released World Meteorological Organization report shows that 2010 will likely be among the three warmest years on record--and the period between 2001 and 2010 the warmest decade on record--for our planet.

All of the GCC models emphatically *predict* erratic and extreme weather in the process of climate change. An enormous and diverse majority of the scientists who think carefully about such things for a living consider the evidence overwhelmingly compelling. And make no mistake, if somebody could supply a piece of counter-evidence that could take the whole edifice of theory down around our ears, it would be a career-making move for them. Trouble is, there isn’t any one assumption in the climate change argument which one might conceivably undermine or disprove to make the whole game collapse. There’s a whole matrix of relevant perspectives, observations, and analysis--a shocking number of which point clearly in the direction of human-caused warming.

But even more frightening than the implications of the science is this simplistic campaign of disinformation that conflates weather and climate, and thumbs its nose at the stunning body of research and careful analysis that both measures and models this unsettling trend toward (decisively) increased warming. The fact that so many are unable to make even simple distinctions between the basic terms of the argument (e.g. between climate and weather, or between single data points and broad trends) should be a source of considerable embarrassment. It well may be emotionally satisfying to congregate with like-mindedly un-, ill-, or misinformed friends to take potshots at the overwhelming scientific consensus, but when this jeering pointedly misunderstands its subject at such a fundamental level, one has to marvel uneasily at the ease with which fallacy displaces reason in such a high-stakes debate.

If our crackpot lay opinion-makers weren’t so enamored of their role in telling hardworking scientists how silly they are, perhaps they would be less inclined to mistake ignorance for perspective. The "negative team" seems to pose, in some sense, as the repository of reasonable counterargument, but they simply don't possess even the most elementary tools that might be required to deliver it. For example, that tired chestnut about "ruining the economy" over climate change is a perversely misleading sack of badger bollocks. Research into alternative sources of fuel--as well as new modes of energy acquisition and deployment, increased efficiency, etc.--could quite conceivably pump our national economy like nothing ever has before (even the Internet boom) if we promote it right. Strict environmental regulations trigger innovation and motivate upgrading. The countries that take the lead in patenting and exporting more efficient means of producing and consuming energy will carry the day economically. But it's going to be "get in front or get in line." We'll need to push pretty hard to position ourselves at the bleeding edge, as we did with the World-Wide Web, or it could blow right by us. (China already has an early advantage here, and they're playing a shrewd game.) In any event, a positive impact on the economy seems every bit as likely as a negative one, on balance, as a result of taking action to reduce the destructiveness of our tenancy on this pretty rock.

As the rug is increasingly tugged out from under the climate change scoffers, I expect them to become more and more shrill. This is what often happens when people commit themselves to an increasingly untenable position or belief in a public way as these folks have done. (see "Sociology of Belief" by Borhek and Curtis.) As the evidence against their position continues to mount, so will the volume and acerbity of their disparagement of the science. Their rhetoric will become more vague, simplistic and ambiguous, but more emotional. They will increasingly insulate themselves from sources of substantive dissent in their daily lives, choosing instead to surround themselves with true-believers. They will hone their rhetoric until any anomaly can be marshaled in support of their vague, contrarian cant (Unusually cold winter in region X? "Al Gore is a fool!" Snow in Florida? "Those goofy Climate Change sheeple!"). They will attempt to replace rigor and cogency with volume and authoritativeness on the assumptiuon that nobody will notice--and often nobody will. And they will rehearse the rhetoric of indignation and beleaguered rectitude endlessly and emphatically within their reference group, as this is what insulates them against evidence. Even normally rational people can shoe-horn all kind of nonsense into their heads if it's packaged, lubricated and reinforced just right from a psychological standpoint. It's hard to see your own fallacies--and especially so when you're pre-committed to a belief that requires them for its sustenance.

But our climate scientists are not arguing from the occasional anomaly; they are making careful predictions, from very detailed (and often conservative) models based on vast vaults of constantly accruing data. *All* of these theories actually predict increased volatility, wild local swings and anomalous behavior. It's a complex system fer Chrisakes. That's how they behave when they're pushed away from equilibrium.

Here's a short list of other "issues" that are often raised out of ignorance, where the answers reveal simple misunderstandings that could have been cleared up with five minutes of due diligence:

Not all of the glaciers are melting--and besides, glaciers are always growing and receding!

Of course "not all the glaciers are melting," but that's not even the question, is it? The smart kids ask what is happening to glacier mass globally. On balance, the pervasive and accelerating trend is in the direction of increasing loss. The global glacier mass balance is decreasing every day. The annual loss from Greenland's massive ice sheet alone is passing the 100 gigaton range.

The temperature record relies on readings from differing equipment, technology, locations, altitudes, etc. How can you rely on that?

We don't. That's just one angle--one that's constantly being tweaked and corrected as new sources of potential error are identified. But the globally averaged trend is clear. It's the same trend as the one identified using (for example) sea level rise, declining arctic sea ice, analysis of boreholes, increasing ocean temperature, data on glacier mass, satellite measurements in the troposphere, weather balloon data and proxy reconstructions. Pick one or pick them all, the implication is the same.

There's no consensus!

Yuh-huh. And it's not just the IPCC either. The conclusions of their most recent assessment was endorsed by these lightweights too:
National Academy of Sciences (United States)
Royal Society (United Kingdom)
Academia Brasiliera de Ciências (Brazil)
Royal Society of Canada,
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Academié des Sciences (France)
Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany)

Indian National Science Academy,
Accademia dei Lincei (Italy)
Science Council of Japan,
Russian Academy of Sciences,
Australian Academy of Sciences
Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts
Caribbean Academy of Sciences
Indonesian Academy of Sciences
Royal Irish Academy
Academy of Sciences Malaysia
Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences....

How much censensus is required before one feels obliged to wake up and take action? Of course, the deniers don't care if there is consensus or not. As soon as you demonstrate that there is, in fact, such a surprising degree of consensus, they flip the script and suggest that consensus = collusion. In the pathological denier narrative, the rules are whatever they say they are--and they're free to change them whenever it's convenient to do so. The constraints of reasoned debate find no traction in this fluid discursive environment. Best to restrict our efforts at persuasion to those who find data and careful analysis persuasive. Those who are unconvinced because they've not yet seen the light are within reach; those who have kitted themselves out with heavy blindfolds (apparently as some sort of contrarian fashion statement) are not.

Gore's "Hockey Stick" didn't hold up on the ice.

There were issues with the original hockey stick showing sharp increases in recent warming: it was a prototype and it had some bugs. But with the ever-increasing barrage of data and proxy reconstructions rolling in from the trenches, we now have enough hockey sticks for the entire league. They aren't as straight or uniform as the first one (that's exactly what made it seem a little dodgy), but they have precisely the same general shape. Read 'em and puck off:

The list could go on for some time.

Are we really so thoroughly science-illiterate, as a country, that a thoughtful and intellectually-legitimate conversation on the most urgent topic of our time is completely outside the realm of possibility? Oh, I think we are. I dare you to prove me wrong. In fact, I'd love you for it...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Legion: Stream of Subconsciousness

I own few things in my life like I own my demons. I think it's mutual. We're made for each other. I'm sure yours are endlessly fascinating, and sometimes I may even envy you them--they're probably much more interesting than mine--though they'll seldom have much use for me. Perhaps you call them by many of the same names I use for my own, but they are distinct. Even the demons we share are no more alike than are you and I. Their identities are defined by our own. Some are as protean and labile as quicksilver; some are as stolid and immutable as stone. But they all have voices. They all tell us who we are. Just not all that we are. Surely, I'll allow, they are too much at times; but they are not as enough as all that--all this. Me. Me and whose army? Mine, alas, all mine.

Sometimes, when I feel like clocking myself in the eye, I wish I had somebody else's demons. But I know: they'd never fit. Mine are made or grown, wrecked or spoiled locally. Yet sown or reaped, sewn or ripped, these dark little bastards are my own bespoke bastards and are, in my way, quite legitimate. So why deem them demons? Oh, make no mistake: their dual citizenship in hell is amply attested by the many trips they've made there with me. There was never the slightest fuss at the border. They are known. They vouch for me and I am welcomed with unsettling alacrity. I am never charged for passage or for lodging; they know that I always will pay in full measure. They will never starve. Their hunger is my own.

Of course it is not that simple. Of course it is simpler than that. That's the problem with communication: there is always another distinction to be made. There's always another layer of viscous descriptive membrane over the mirror. At each successive level, former opposites pair bond and marry ecstatically. Push through it and they repulse like magnets confronting like poles. Difficult, to be sure. Sure to be difficult. Sure difficult to be. Intermittently, I am assured that faith is necessary in order to locate my own meaning--as if it were a fixed point in a static landscape. I am admonished not to think, but to know. Don't I know? I don't know. Know I don't. But that's neither here nor wrong. Distracting abstraction. Clamora obscura, lensing the grave dance of the quotidian pinhead. What was my point? Only that what happens is always part accident; a failure or triumph of will; a firm resolution that never completely resolves. Forgive me, I was too flexible; I untied myself in nots. Not you too?

No, thank you, I will wait in my own cocoon. These demons are changing. This is so laborious--yes, I am in labor. I am being born. It is the only birth that matters: the birth from sleep. I grow in slow spirals into the ground, into the air,whether in resonance, resplendence or remorse. Temporary. By turns, I am an argument, then a song. I sing, I am sung; I wring, I am wrung. I am at home in this tangle, roiled and coiled and fastened and sprung. This is the only honest lie I know, the lying in wait for some patent, insoluble truth. Each withering ambush is beaten back by friendly fire. There is dissension in the ranks, insurrection by competing episteme. Capture, sequester and then: cell division. A virulent case of me-osis. Divide and conquest; re-parse and re-posit. I am A and not-A. Permute me to introduce myselves. System failure, then careful diagnosis. By nightfall, I am only a flag, indicating the momentary direction of capricious winds above a citadel besieged. I will look the same tomorrow. The song will be new.

But I will retrench for revanche. I will try this again.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Have You Slugged Your Teacher Today?

Okay, honestly, WTF is this about?

This is the third scare-piece I've read on this topic, but, look as I might (and have), there's no there there.

I just don't understand what these people are talking about. There's not one mention in this piece of a single instance of union activity that is putting the unsavory squeeze on one employer in the current (or any specific) context. Let me say that again: Greenhouse gives not one solitary example of a threatening gesture on the part of labor. (Whatever happened to supporting assertions with examples? Has journalism finally gone so hopelessly fuckwit that mere assertions now suffice to anchor an opinion or a point of view in the New York Times?) Rather, he simply plays scribe while the GOP paints "YOUUU-NYUNS!" in those big wiggly letters that signify "spooky" on the side of the kids' haunted house each October--presumably to the accompaniment of some gleeful, Tea-Partying theremin player just off-stage. Even the title, "Strained States Turning to Laws to Curb Labor Unions!" just seems carefully calculated to simply shriek "BOO!" to a distracted audience. Curb them from doing what? Exactly? Making you shudder at the swoon-inducing prospect of their doing something remotely curb-worthy at some alarming point in the near or distant future? The only evidence on offer here is that of fear-mongering about the idea of even the most anemic labor representation.

    “They’re throwing the kitchen sink at us,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We’re seeing people use the budget crisis to make every attempt to roll back workers’ voices and any ability of workers to join collectively in any way whatsoever.”
There's talk of Republicans being miffed about Unions wielding undue influence in elections, but shutthefuckup!--that's idiotically absurd. While unions are pretty savvy about where their political dollars go, they've been outgunned in that domain for decades: business and corporate political organizations were outspending Labor more than five to one late in the Carter administration, and Labor is now just a speck on the landscape--financially and organizationally. There were 224 labor PACs in '76; a decade later there were 261. Looking at the other side, we saw an increase in corporate and trade PACs from 922 to 2182 over that same interval. And it only got worse from there. The tax-cut-and-spendthrift Reagan made sure of that. The GOP just wants to put the final nail in the coffin of the American worker right now, the second they get hold of the fucking hammer--no waiting!--and silence forever the traditional voice of our working middle class. But please, for the sake of appearances, couldn't they at least have waited for some cheeky, strapped worker somewhere to pipe up and ask for a living wage?

And what's this--what fresh hell is this?!:

    “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots,” Mr. Walker, a Republican, said in a speech.
Oh dear. Seriously, those insufferable, no-tax-paying elementary school math tycoons and their bling-encrusted Bentleys--don't they just make your righteous fucking blood boil? This is a pathetic example of the proverbial (rumored) tempest in a (hypothetical) teacup, and it's pissing me further off than I've been pissed in some time. It's like the privileged bully in the schoolyard kicking the malnourished kid in the teeth after stealing his lunch money for an entire year--just to make absolutely sure he keeps his mouth shut about the whole affair for the foreseeable future. Rich.