Not So Expert

At The Guardian Sebastian Mallaby presents what I presume is an extract from his recent book on Alan Greenspan, illustrating rather neatly how experts are failing. Here’s his peroration:

Two decades ago, in his final and posthumous book, the American cultural critic Christopher Lasch went after contemporary experts. “Elites, who define the issues, have lost touch with the people,” he wrote. “There has always been a privileged class, even in America, but it has never been so dangerously isolated from its surroundings.” These criticisms presciently anticipated the rise of Davos Man – the rootless cosmopolitan elite, unburdened by any sense of obligation to a place of origin, its arrogance enhanced by the conviction that its privilege reflects brains and accomplishment, not luck and inheritance. To survive these inevitable resentments, elites will have to understand that they are not beyond politics – and they will have to demonstrate the skill to earn the public trust, and preserve it by deserving it. Given the alternative, we had better hope that they are up to it.

In the past I’ve expressed my distaste for the phrase “rootless cosmopolitan” and my reaction was the same in this instance. It has a bad pedigree.

The whole article is a long read but well worth it.

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Those Were the Days

The ideas presented in Ben Domenech’s review at Modern Age of Yuval Levin’s book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, are so intriguing that I may haul off and read the book.

The gist is that the primary impulse that unites progressives and conservatives in the United States is nostalgia. For conservatives it is a sort of reactionary, irredentist longing for a 19th century that never existed; for progressives for the 1950s—when manufacturing formed the largest part of the U. S. economy and trade unions were strong, viz.:

Whether rooted in a need for a system of governance that still runs on earmarks and smoke-filled rooms or a desire for a shared culture where everyone says “Merry Christmas,” Levin identifies a crippling sentimentality that is hardly monopartisan. His opening chapter cites the same from Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal (2007), which opens with “a characteristic example of the sort of homesickness, or longing for a time that got it right.” The economist is referring to his childhood in the 1950s, “a paradise lost.” It is the cultural dominance of this vision—not as a period that breaks with the rest of the nation’s history, but an apotheosis of our greatness—that has skewed politics to the point that many citizens long for a time when schools were segregated, taxes were high, and you had to save for a year to buy a refrigerator.

He continues:

In Levin’s telling, America began to grapple with the fact that you can’t go home again—that the global economy was here to stay, for good or for ill—beginning in the 1970s, only to cast the challenge aside. He writes: “The lesson many Americans implicitly learned in the 1970s was that the emergence of a new national ethic of liberation and fracture could not be reversed, and so had to be channeled to the good.” But after twenty years of wrestling with these challenges under first Republican and then Democratic administrations, decades in which every household of every race experienced significant income gains, the nation turned toward the softer appeal of nostalgia.

Levin’s explanation is that Americans have suffered a disconnect from the traditional core institutions that make life in America better—family, faith, work, and neighborhood. At the same time, the failure of our policies to mitigate or moderate the dramatic changes in our economy and culture have left Americans feeling abandoned by their government. Levin identifies many examples of this, particularly when it comes to the experience of workers who no longer benefit from the security of employment in the postwar economy. Our entire system of welfare, health care, and entitlements is built for a bygone era that was the exception to the American economic experience.

This loss of faith in mediating entities—churches, schools, unions, fraternal organizations—whether founded in the community or buttressed by government, to meet the needs of the people has generally accelerated levels of distrust for large bureaucratic institutions as well. Today the American people view many of them as irresponsible or corrupt, stagnant dinosaurs incapable of responding to the speed of an advancing and evolving society. Coupled with a decline in shared values and cultural experiences—moving from an era when two-thirds of television sets were tuned to I Love Lucy to one where highly developed subcultures thrive without any overlap—we see the disintegration of our common vision. We no longer share what it means to be American, instead viewing the pursuit of happiness as a purely individual act of self-actualization.

There are differing views, as one would expect under the circumstances, on how we can continue without tearing ourselves apart. My preference would be for devolution of power, subsidiarity, a more networked society that is tolerant of differences. Others, much more influential than I, look forward to increasing centralization of power, presumably to be followed by forcing their views on the reluctant.

That has been tried in many countries and at many times. It has invariably resulted in violent repression and catastrophic failure. Maybe it will be different this time.


Hillary Clinton Will Carry Illinois

The most recent poll of voter opinion on the presidential race in Illinois, the Simon/SIU poll, taken just two weeks ago, show Hillary Clinton with a 25 point advantage over Donald Trump in her run for the presidency here. Barring some cataclysm, she will carry Illinois.

We do not elect presidents at large. We cast votes for electors and the electors cast their votes for president. In general and on the first ballot, electors vote for the candidate to which they were pledged. Not to do so is referred to as being a “faithless elector”. Such action is relatively rare. There has been one faithless elector to date in this century and five in the last.

The law in Illinois is that whichever candidate receives the greatest number of votes is awarded Illinois’s 20 electoral votes.

That means that if I vote for Hillary Clinton, she will carry Illinois and receive 20 electoral votes; if I vote for Donald Trump (something I cannot envision doing), Hillary Clinton will carry Illinois and receive 20 electoral votes; if I vote for either of the other two presidential candidates on Illinois’s ballots, Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, Hillary Clinton will carry Illinois and receive 20 electoral votes.


Assessing the Political Campaigns

At The National Interest in an assessment of the two political campaigns Will Marshall remarks on Hillary Clinton’s campaign:

All in all, Stronger Together is a workmanlike compendium of small-to-medium-sized proposals for helping working and middle-class Americans buffeted by economic change, anemic wage growth, and growing disparities of wealth and income. There is little to fire the political imagination here—few if any bold innovations, radical changes in existing policy, or ideas that might discomfit any Democratic constituency.

As an unreconstructed “New Democrat,” I can’t help being struck by how different this is from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. In the years running up to the race, Clinton worked hard to develop new and often counterintuitive ways to advance progressive goals. His novel approaches recast Democrats as a reforming and modernizing party.

The issues and political context are very different now, of course, but there are two lessons Hillary Clinton might usefully have drawn from her husband’s electoral and governing successes. One is the primacy of economic innovation and growth for the aspiring American middle class. Reflecting contemporary liberals’ fixation on inequality, Stronger Together offers little fresh thinking about how to revitalize the U.S. economy following a long spell of slow growth and meager wage gains. Instead, it prescribes more government redistribution as the answer to the markets’ failure to provide good jobs and mass upward mobility.

The second lesson is that progressives should reform government, not just expand it. An especially pernicious effect of today’s paranoia-drenched populism is to deepen the public’s already profound mistrust of Washington. Bill Clinton’s push to “reinvent” government acknowledged that mistrust, and sought to make government more responsive to citizens and more results-oriented. He reinforced this theme by making radical changes in underperforming public systems—ending the welfare entitlement, shutting down crime-ridden public housing, supporting public charter schools to break the traditional districts’ monopoly, turning the Federal deficit into a surplus. By the end of his second term, public confidence in government was actually rising.

or, in other words, politics by focus group with all the sincerity and passion of a marketing campaign for a bar of soap.

He also makes some observations about Donald Trump. What is there to be said? Trump is Trump.


The Battle For Mosul So Far

The BBC has what appears to be a pretty good summary of the battle for Mosul so far:

Between 17 and 19 October, Iraqi army units moved towards Mosul from Qayyarah airbase, in the south, and the town of Kuwayr, in the south-east, and took back several villages. The Peshmerga also captured a string of villages near Khazer, to the east.
Then on Thursday, Kurdish fighters launched a large-scale operation east and north of the city, while Iraqi forces re-captured the town of Bartella, less than 15km (10 miles) east of Mosul.

Government forces said on Friday they had regained control of a further two villages – al-Awaizat and Nanaha – south of Mosul, evacuating 65 displaced families and killing 15 IS militants.

Meanwhile, IS militants mounted a ferocious counter-attack in and around the city of Kirkuk, killing at least 19 people.

Lots of maps.


Disturbance in the Force

There has been a major multi-site cyber attack today. USA Today reports:

SAN FRANCISCO — At least two successive waves of online attacks blocked multiple major websites Friday, at times making it impossible for many users on the East Coast to access Twitter, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon, Tumblr and Reddit.

The first attacks appear to have begun around 7:10 am Friday, then resolved towards 9:30 am, but then a fresh wave began.

The cause was a large-scale distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) against Internet performance company Dyn that blocked user access to many popular sites.

I’ve noticed unusual problems with several other major sites today and I don’t believe in coincidences, at least not when it comes to computers. Either more sites have been affected by the attacks or there have been secondary effects from the initial attacks against Dyn DNS. My minor researches have suggested problems affecting sites that use AWS. For several of the sites mentioned in the article the problems don’t seem to be over as of 2:00pm CDT.

I’m a bit puzzled about the motive for the attack. Plain mischief? What could they be going after?


The Third Not Given

At Bloomberg Noah Smith outlines two competing theories of economic stagnation, secular stagnation:

One model that gives this result comes from a 2014 paper by economists Gauti Eggertsson and Neil Mehrotra. The source of the negative demand shock comes from people’s attempt to deleverage after a big increase in private debt. That simultaneous deleveraging pushes down interest rates until they hit zero and can go no further. With interest rates unable to go below zero, economic activity slows down, meaning people can never pay off their debts. But they keep trying, and their continued attempts to do so keep the economy in its atrophied state.

and technological stagnation:

Technological stagnation is a different beast. According to Gordon and others, humanity has simply picked most of the low-hanging fruit of science and technology. Airplanes and cars travel no faster today than they did 50 years ago. Electricity, air conditioning and household appliances have made our homes about as pleasant as they’re likely to get, and so on. That doesn’t mean advances stop, but it means that each one is less game-changing than the last.

I have basic problems with technological stagnation as an explanation for what’s happening now. As a start most of the “low-hanging fruit” was picked 70 years ago. We haven’t seen much in the way of major breakthroughs but we’ve seen an enormous amount of elaboration. I see no reason that elaboration can’t continue indefinitely.

Even more basic is that I think it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of value.

I think there’s an even more likely candidate explanation for what’s happening now: deadweight loss. There comes a point at which all of the growth in the economy is being absorbed by inefficiency. Our societies are very different from those of the 1930s. Grover Norquist’s macabre fantasy of drowning the federal government in a bathtub was much more practical then.

It’s also possible that all three are true in varying degrees.

How would you go about disproving that we’re in a period of secular stagnation, that technological stagnation has set in, or that deadweight loss is just too high? If a theory cannot be disproven, it is not science. It is metaphysics.

I can see why it might be difficult or even impossible to prove whether any of those was the case but is it possible to disprove that one or more are a factor? For example, doesn’t Japan’s experience disprove the secular stagnation theory, at least in the case of Japan? There has been no lack of stimulus there.


The Limits of Economics

Jeffry Snider makes a good point in his post at RealClearMarkets:

The media through economists has chosen to believe but not verify that QE is money printing, and no amount of market contradiction, sinking economic fortune, global “dollar” illiquidity, Donald Trump, Brexit, unexpected Japan “dollar” attention, or China will ever convince them otherwise. None other than Janet Yellen spoke last Friday where her topic was all the things that economists didn’t know – and it was a lot, all vitally important concepts. Of one very telling passage in her speech I wrote:

“The Chairman of the Federal Reserve claims that it is now necessary to study whether or not people and firms act differently. I am not in any way surprised that I just wrote that sentence, but I suspect the vast majority of people in the world would be stunned by it. Alan Greenspan’s reign was truly the dumbing-down of economics because during it these economists really believed simple, common sense ideas were immaterial. As Yellen recalls in her speech, they just assumed that they could model but one kind of ‘average household’ as sufficiently representative of all the rest.”

Though the world is blindingly complex, economists were until just recently convinced they could sidestep it all through Positive Economics in the form of econometrics. As Milton Friedman said of it, they could get away with knowing very little so long as that little explained a lot. By accident of circumstances unique in time, Alan Greenspan thought he had done just that with his “all-powerful” federal funds rate tinkering. The Fed believed fully that it didn’t need to know why minor adjustments here and there to a minor market of only one small part of the money system appeared to work, just so long as for them it did. It is a highly flawed concept even where it might even have been right once, “The fatal conceit with all of this is that it applies only to a static world; even if you could actually explain a lot knowing so very little as economists clearly do, that still doesn’t mean you can always explain a lot by knowing very little.”

The sad truth is that economists just don’t know a lot. I think I’ve mentioned it before but in my very first economics class in his very first lecture the prof lamented the limitations of his chosen field. Economists were apparently more humble then. But even more sadly, that doesn’t stop them from ignoring what little they do know and forging blindly ahead.


Keeping the Oath

The oath of office that the President of the United States takes on assuming office is:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

That’s prescribed in Article II, Section One, Clause 8 of the Constitution. The president’s job description is contained in Article II, Sections 2 and 3:

Section 2.

The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.

He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.

The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.

Section 3.

He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in case of disagreement between them, with respect to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper; he shall receive ambassadors and other public ministers; he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and shall commission all the officers of the United States.

There’s nothing in it about saving the economy, seeing to it that everyone has health insurance, or fundamentally transforming the country. Only the most expansive possible reading of the law can interpret it that way. Those are all tasks left to the Congress and the states. Basically, the president’s job is to administer the federal government, enforce the laws, be the primary maker of foreign policy, and serve as the commander-in-chief of the military.

However much you like what President Obama has done outside his job description, the most fundamental way in which the job he has done should be evaluated depends on his performance in the basics of his job and there the president has left much to be desired.

I’ll just give an example from a single area of the job description. President Obama has lost more cases before the Supreme Court by a unanimous vote of the justices than any other post-war president. That can’t be attributed to partisanship.

I don’t think that the president is stupid so I think the most likely explanation is that he has a disdain for the law. That’s not a positive quality in a president and I’m very concerned that whoever is elected in November that poor example will continue.

Recently, I’ve seen a number of retrospectives of President Obama’s term of office. Those who speak glowingly of his work are grading on the curve. Being better than George W. Bush doth not a great president make.


Which Status Quo?

At RealClearPolicy Paul Roderick Gregory foresees a growing “emergence of anti-status quo candidates”:

Donald Trump’s “The system is rigged” resonates because it reflects what ordinary people think. According to Gallup, only three institutions — the military, small business, and the police — are trusted by more than half. Gallup shows that Americans are as likely to trust Internet news (which the media scorns as “unfiltered”), as T.V. news and newspapers. Trust in Congress, meanwhile, has collapsed from one in three to one in 10 since 2000.

These figures foretell the emergence of anti-status-quo presidential candidates, who promise to restore confidence in our institutions. Any status-quo candidate should be defeated unless the conversation is shifted to peripheral issues, such as character and personality. Indeed, “Restore America’s Greatness” Donald Trump and “A Political Revolution is Coming” Bernie Sanders reflect the burgeoning anti-establishment fervor of main street America.

He goes on to list the dwindling confidence in Congress, the FBI, the IRS, the intelligence community, public education, the mainstream media, the Supreme Court, and political parties.

While Mr. Gregory focuses on governmental institutions, those aren’t the only institutions in which Americans have lost confidence. Americans’ regard for organized religion and business, large or small, has never been lower. Of jobs and professions only nurses and firefighters are rated by Americans as very high or high with respect to honesty and ethics. Even the caring professions aren’t held in as high a regard as they once were.

A clear problem with voting against maintaining the status quo is which status quo do you mean? Do you mean the status quo in which we accept more immigrants than any other country or the status quo in which we deport more immigrants than any other country? The status quo in which there is more opportunity for immigrants and minorities than any other country or the one in which immigrants are minorities are poor and persecuted?

Both anarcho-capitalism and totalitarianism have ardent proponents in the United States, IMO largely through romanticizing the imagined past. There’s nothing like living in 19th century America or the 20th century Soviet Union to make you understand the shortcomings of each system but few of us have had either experience and Americans tend not to have a great regard for history. France seems very appealing. After all, aren’t French wines and Marion Cotillard wonderful? (in the 1970s that would have been Catherine Deneuve and in the 50s Brigitte Bardot) And everyone has health care. All of which fail to recognize that France is a much smaller country than the United States with much bigger problems than we have.

In one of his most iconic roles in 1953’s The Wild One, Marlon Brando’s Johnny in response to the question “What are you rebelling against?” answers “What have you got?”. The scene is pictured in the video above. That is nihilism in its most basic form and I think we’ll see more of it rather than less.