Reflections on Coverage of Bridgegate and the Gates memoir

Two big cable news brouhahas yesterday — the Christie Bridgegate and the Gates memoir — offer opportunities to see the shallowness of the press corps in action, with a few bright spots dramatically in relief.

On the Christie matter, most commentary has stayed on the surface and has barely asked why Christie was not as upset about the skullduggery as being lied to and why he  and his administration and appointees in the Port Authority seemed unconcerned with massive tie-ups in Ft Lee in the first place.  But  the main question that hasn’t made sense is what was the game in deliberately snarling the traffic in Ft. Lee.  As Gov. Christie and the Ft. Lee Mayor both noted in the last day, the proportionality of this didn’t make much sense.  Perhaps it was intended to warn other NJ politicians to stay in line? Was this about creating a reputation for willingness to retaliate all out of proportion, as deterrence theorists going back to Henry Kissinger and Tom Schelling have at times recommended?   Rachel Maddow, who has been the primary voice raising Bridgegate to national attention,  last night on her show raised the interesting possibility that the Ft. Lee retaliation had nothing to do with the Mayor’s endorsement, but instead based on Supreme Court reappointment politics in New Jersey — the background is that when he took office, Gov. Christie took the unprecedented action of refusing to reappoint a sitting Supreme Court Justice — who was the only African-American member of the court and who had been originally appointed by a Democrat.  Senate Democrats refused to confirm any other appointees for that seat and seemed poised to refuse to confirm the reappointment of a Republican woman Justice who is married to a senior member of Christie’s administration.  On the afternoon of August 12, an angry Christie announced that he was pulling the nomination so that this Justice would not have her reputation besmirched by what he called the “animals” in the state senate— early the next morning the now-fired Deputy Chief of Staff sent the email “time for traffic problems in Ft. Lee.”  Maddow’s suggested connection other than the timing? Loretta Weinberg, the leader of the Democrats in the State Senate, represents Ft. Lee.

Kudos to Maddow and her team  for the spadework in developing this connection as well as insisting on keeping a national focus on this story between September and now.

On the Gates memoir, it’s best to withhold judgment until one has read it — however one major theme has been reporting taking Gates’s excoriation of Joe Biden at face value without any of the background between the two men.   Apart from a smart note by a Washington Post blogger — saying essentially that it’s a little rich for Gates to say Biden has gotten everything wrong since Gates was wrong about the biggest issue (Gorbachev’s reforms and the evolution of the Soviet Union) that he ever faced — there has been little questioning of the source and none of his motivation.   According to one person who has read the book, Gates sprinkles snarky references Biden throughout the memoir.   This is less surprising once one remembers that then Senator Biden opposed Mr. Gates confirmation to the CIA Director role in 1991, and that as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the 1980’s Senator Biden was very critical of the CIA’s role in Iran Contra, and that President Reagan had to back down in nominating Gates for CIA director in 1987.   But other than some vague references to Gates having been a Republican there is no mention of any of this history among the commentariat.

More broadly, the Christie and Gates stories are connected by the proper role of a Chief Executive in relation to staff and of Executive staff in relation to line agencies.  According to press coverage, Gates seems to take umbrage at both WH staff and Presidential questioning of military advice and seems to prefer the George W. Bush style of unquestioning non-interference to the Obama style of deliberative intensity and insistence on civilian control.  In the Christie matter the core of what needs to be unravelled is the Chief Executive’s responsibility -whether by actual knowledge or by setting a tone — for malicious politically-motivated interference with the processes of a line agency (in this case the Port Authority).

More Claptrap on Science on the NYT webpage

The NYT has done it again — posted more claptrap on science.  But this time it’s by a respected philosopher, Thomas Nagel.   Nagel’s post is a cliff notes version of his book published last year, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.  

This book title alone provides a good indication that Nagel should be ignored on these matters,  since any scientific theory is likely to be “false” in an old-fashioned philosophical  sense of an exact description of nature- as Newtonian mechanics is “false” because it does not comprehend relativistic or quantum interactions.    So we need to ask what is it about our academic institutions and intellectual cultures that allow tenured faculty at NYU (at least a second-tier University) and Oxford University Press (a premier publishing house that publishes academic and quasi-academic books) to advance misleading nonsense that proceeds in ignorance of  how other professors in nearby offices do their work.

Let’s try to go through Nagel’s argument and see what it relies on and what it misses.

First he builds a strawman that physics aspires to be a “theory of everything.”  Leave out the silly grammar where a field of study is anthropomorphically given aspirations.   When physicists talked about a “theory of everything” they didn’t mean a theory that comprehends such things as consciousness, morality, aesthetics, free will, or even  the stock market —  they meant, to use informal terms,  a theory that provided unified explanations of gravitation and the previously unified theory of electricity, magnetism, and strong forces within atomic nucleii.  This was an ambition to unite the world of physics, not to use physics to subsume all other sciences.

So let’s not beat up on physics.

When we get to neuroscience and psychology, there is a hard  question about what is the relation of the biochemistry and connective structures of the brain to conscious life -part of the conundrum is about subjective experience, and another part of this is about agency and free will.    Neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and humanists struggle with these issues.  Granted there is a lot of nonsense in these fields, but there is a lot of serious investigation also, involving both theoretical constructs and experimentation of various kinds — in other words, science.

Nagel’s response is to wave his wand and act as if none of this science exists.  He argues that if physics cannot explain subjective experience, then we need wholly new theories “of a different type from any we have seen so far.”    But we have lots of scientific theories that have no direct contact with physics, and many of these relate to understanding complexes of  human behavior.  Nagel acts as if he has never met an economist or an information theorist or a computer scientist or a  social psychologist or an ecologist or even a logician (obviously impossible for a modern philosopher) — but these people routinely deploy theories that are different in character from those of physics, and many of them deal with systems that behave teleogically.  Teleology turns out to be the wholly different element that Nagel says needs to be melded into natural science.

Nagel wants to declare “mind” as a fundamental part of “nature”  — certainly one would have a hard time explaining the historical trajectory of the post 1900 evolution of the Earth environment without reference to mind, so it’s clearly important now, but that does not mean it’s a fundamental part of the natural order everywhere.  Nagel seems to believe that mind cannot not spring up from nothing, and so it can’t have arisen by evolution.  Never mind that this is formally equivalent to saying that we need a fire element because you can’t create fire from nothing.   He wants morality and reason to exist outside of history and evolutionary contingency because he can’t seem to vanquish the bugaboo of relativism otherwise.  (This is spelled out in detail, if speciously, in the book).  So his response is to insist on somehow mentalizing nature itself, in some way yet to be determined — maybe like the aether was needed to conduct light.

I suppose we should not foreclose this possibility — but what sort of theory would it be and how would it be testable?  More tellingly, it is not at all necessary to make progress.  In fact,  Nagel considers and rejects the primary overall frame within which active scientists are making progress on these issues- the notion of “emergent properties.”  So far as I can tell, Nagel’s rejection is purely aesthetic — he doesn’t think you can create something just by increasing complexity of interactions and changing the level of analysis.  Similarly, his rejection of the evolutionary emergence of reason is also primarily aesthetic — he fears that recognizing that reason and morality arose historically and contingently undercuts their legitimacy by making them appear more unreliable.   In my view this recognition engenders a more critical stance that should open up the possibility to make them more reliable, but I wouldn’t use this personal judgment as a way to sniff out truth and falsehood.

It’s entirely clear that one can fully resist Nagel’s conclusion on the need to mentalize nature without resorting to any of his supposedly exhaustive four-fold options for resistance.   You don’t need to mentalize physical nature to recognize the power of thought once mind comes into being — especially social mind backed up by culture and language.   I don’t mean to minimize questions about, for example, whether you could have a different logic and where logic comes from, and I am also not going to completely foreclose the possibility that one day a scientific theory might somehow look like what Nagel is proposing now.  This would be mere speculation.

It’s completely clear that Nagel has not made anywhere near the case he thinks he has.  There is lots of room for improved understanding of the nature of mind and consciousness in ways that are completely consistent with materialist physics and neo-Darwinism, with the addition of complex systems understanding.

A NYU professor who pronounces science’s conception of reality to be false without engaging with any current science should be ashamed of himself.    Oxford University Press should not have published this book.   The fact that Nagel is respected and picked up in the New York Times is a symptom of our fragmented and fundamentally un-serious intellectual culture.

If the universe had any sensible teleology or nature were infused with Mind we would no doubt be served much better than this.

Update:  A comment notes that, according to one apparently reputable ranking, the NYU Philosophy Department is the best in the English speaking world, which just makes me shake my head more.


Question for legal eagles re same-sex marriage rhetoric

Several times in the last few days I have heard advocates of same-sex marriage explain that they would have all the rights accorded to married couples except for the gender of their partner. But why isn’t it a more powerful anti-discrimination argument to say that they are being discriminated against not because of the gender of their partner but because of their own gender — that if they were of the opposite gender they could be legally married to their partner?

Bruce Bartlett, Conservative Republican Midwife of Supply-Side Economics, on the “Revenge of the Reality-Based Community”

Read  Bruce Bartlett’s account of how he was shunned by his tribe for daring to think for himself a little.   He joins the likes of David Frum and Christopher Buckley in being ostracized (or was it self-deportation”?).   While his account of Republican “epistemic closure” is a useful inside testimonial, what is perhaps more revealing is his honest admission that  

“I’ve paid a heavy price, both personal and financial, for my evolution from comfortably within the Republican Party and conservative movement to a less than comfortable position somewhere on the center-left.”

The “financial” heavy price is a reminder of the extent to which the vaunted Republican intellectual establishment, from Heritage to Cato to AEI, is fully bought and paid for by right-wing interests with tests of fundamentalist purity, in a way that has absolutely no parallel on the center/liberal/left portions of the political spectrum.

h/t Brad DeLong

Marginal Income Tax Rates and Small Business: The Economics of the “Stupid Party”

John Boehner today again argued against returning to the top marginal income tax rates of the prosperous Clinton era (themselves relatively low by historical standards) by referring to their supposed negative effects on “job creation” by small businessmen.   Though the real-world economic effect is likely to minimal, there are sound arguments from economic theory that the increase might actually create jobs.

Labor costs are subtracted from business income before arriving at the profit that might then be taxed, whether at corporate or individual rates.   Workers are not hired out of a business’s profits, they are hired using before-tax cash.   If the small business is not making a profit,  a (unitary) small business owner is not paying the top tax rate, and this is all irrelevant.    So hiring a worker is something a profitable small business owner can do to reduce its exposure to tax.   It will create more firm value for the future, so if the small business owner later sells (and realizes value that is taxable at lower capital gains rates), the effect will be to have avoided the income tax now to pay lower capital gains tax later.   Even if they pay income tax on increased profit later, the tax will have been deferred.  So economic theory says that a higher marginal tax rate will be an extra incentive to avoid realizing profits now, especially if it can be turned into a capital gain rather than ordinary income later.

If the small business person has an after-tax income target that they are trying to meet, then a higher average tax rate will require more profits to reach this target, so in fact increasing both marginal and average rates may be better (so eliminating deductions might actually be worse than increasing marginal rates — and not just because of the fairness issue that cutting deductions favors the super-rich compared to the merely rich, or because many mechanisms for recapturing deductions create a “bubble” of higher marginal rates for a certain income segment).

In the real world all of these marginal incentive effects are small, certainly in regards to the difference between 36 and 39.6%- so the talk of incentives is  really an academic discussion- the major point is that Boehner and others who talk about higher individual income tax rates as a disincentive to hire workers are flat wrong just because labor costs come from pre-tax firm funds, not after-tax funds.

Jim Webb’s full throated endorsement of Obama and put down of Mitt Romney


Jim Webb brought his passion and his eloquence to the task of  introducing President Obama today in Virginia Beach.   Senator Webb, a combat veteran, was Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan Administration and can be considered the tribune of the Upland South, and so he speaks with special authority.

Per Politico,  “Webb drops the hammer on Romney,” for his lack of military service, lack of recognition of military service in his speech accepting the “nomination to be commander-in-chief,” and most of all for his attitude toward the “47%” including veterans and military folks on active duty in combat zones overseas.

Read the full text.

Can someone find the video and cut it into a campaign ad?

UPDATE:  Thanks to commenter  MovieJay who has provided the link:

MovieJay says:
Here is a link to the entire rally, beginning with Senator Webb’s incredible remarks, followed by President Obama. Please pass it along, retweet it, post it to your facebook.

Experience needed: I don’t want a “replacement” president

Mitt Romney on the importance of experience:

“I’d sure like to see some experienced referees, some with NFL experience, come back out to the NFL playing fields.”

SNL did a skit extending the concept of incompetent replacements to other fields such as medicine and the jury box.  I half expected to see a bumbling Mitt Romney not knowing the right “call” to make as a “replacement president.”  (see for example his statement on Libya, or how he doesn’t know what his health care plan is, or whether or not he thinks Obama raised taxes…)

I don’t want to see another “replacement president” acting out psychodramas over his father.  (Also see Nicholas Lemann’s article in the current New Yorker)     GWB, or arguably John Quincy Adams (in a different way), was the first one.




David Brooks is Mostly Right about Mitt Romney

Pardon me for piling on but I think one element of the Mitt Meltdown has been missed.

Brooks is on to something but doesn’t understand completely the enormity of what he is saying. The comparison between the two fundraiser recordings — Romney’s on the 47% and Obama’s on clinging to the guns and religion — is instructive.    Obama’s could be seen as pop sociology and it certainly could have been phrased better (or left unsaid!) but it shows someone grappling with the question of why some folks were resistant to following their own interest in supporting change. In other words Obama was grappling with how he could reach these people and perhaps expressing a certain amount of frustration that he wasn’t succeeding. He certainly wasn’t saying they were a hostile force motivated by self interest and moral turpitude that he should ignore.  Contrast Romney… who was writing off (electorally at least) a broad swath of people whom he regards explicitly as having fallen into a morally degraded state where they are unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, with this situation being the result of deliberate action by his political opponents.

This substantive difference is certainly damning.  But another aspect of the contrast has not received notice, which is why I am posting this.    Obama’s analysis, so far as I can tell, was original with him in its specifics (though of course it has cognates for example in “What’s the Matter with Kansas” by Thomas Frank). Romney, on the other hand, appears to be repeating practically word for word tropes created by right wing bloggers, obviously without having taken the effort to understand the underlying statistics.    In other words his own words seem completely untouched by his own thought processes.

It’s not like this is unusual for Romney.  In foreign policy, he is repeating slogans from right-wing neo-cons who wish to outsource American mid-east policy to Israel, and then when he is interviewed by George Stephanopoulos he shows no comprehension of the supposed difference between his policy and the President’s (here he isn’t helped by the fact that the neo-cons are largely attacking the Administration for not doing things it has actually done and the Bush administration didn’t succeed in doing -such as really strong sanctions or slowing enrichment, but never mind that) — the point is that he evinces no understanding of any substance behind the mean and mendacious sloganeering, and then shows no understanding of why he has gotten into trouble (See Mark’s post on Being Mitt Romney means not knowing you need to say you’re sorry, and contrast his behavior with Obama who knew when to say he had said the wrong thing.)

In his column, Brooks hits hard about Romney’s failure to understand anything about American culture, politics, and policy but then turns into a quivering and inconsistent bowl of mush in his close:

“Personally, I think he’s a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. Mr. Romney, your entitlement reform ideas are essential, but when will the incompetence stop?”

This is untenable.     Romney has advanced no serious entitlement reform ideas, just slogans, and when he is challenged to say whether he would repeal specific parts of Obamacare he seems to have gotten his own policy wrong.

There are two explanations that are probably both true to an important degree.  First, continuing with the analysis that Brooks presents in the body of his piece, Romney is indeed an upper crust reactionary in his political orientation, although at times he has been able to suppress these hard-edged views for political advantage. Second, and more certainly, he is indeed “pretending to be something he is not” — though Brooks misunderstands the depth of the pretense.   Romney wants us to take him to be a serious person who might have any claim on the presidency, and this is clearly far from the truth.   The comparison with Obama’s own leaked fund raiser video shows that this is a tin-horn CEO who is incapable of thinking about public policy or politics for himself.

What’s even more damning than Brooks’s contention that Romney has no understanding of America is that from all the evidence Romney has has not bothered to try to learn anything about the policy choices he would face.  In this regard he is even worse than the previous Republican Harvard MBA presidential candidate, George W. Bush, who in advance of his run tried to educate himself in areas where he felt himself weak, for example by inviting Condi Rice to Austin for intensive tutorials on foreign policy. Needless to say I disagreed with the policies that emerged from this effort, including the focus on China and the ideological distraction of extirpating arms control that pervaded the first nine months of the Bush administration and quite possibly prevented the 9/11 attacks from being disrupted.  But at least Bush’s effort showed some appropriate seriousness about the task of being president.

The rap on Romney in Massachusetts, was that he showed much more interest in becoming governor than in governing.   This is confirmed by the latest poll in which he has the support of 38% of the voters in his home state who experienced his reign.  W had much higher approval in Texas.

Romney’s complete mismanagement of his own campaign is a likely premonition of how well he would manage as president. And it’s worth reflecting that this campaign was his second consecutive try for the presidency with practically unlimited Wall Street money.

All new presidencies experience the first year in office as a perilous one because the administration is barely staffed, various factions have not learned to work together, and the political and international landscapes have not been calibrated.  Even with questions of ideology and political direction put completely aside, (ignoring for example irreversible changes in Obamacare and the Supreme Court) one has to shudder for the country about what might go wrong in the first year of an administration managed in the style of the Romney campaign.

Just think — There is abundant reason to believe that Romney would be WORSE THAN W.  And after only four years of Barack Obama he would be starting with the government and households in much worse financial shape than the one W inherited after eight years of Bill Clinton.

If you need any motivation to get out there and organize, just think on this and the fact that the weight of the Romney and SuperPac money has not been fully felt yet in the swing states.



Jobs Numbers and the Election

Political prognosticators and pundits (including Nate Silver at 538) have long suggested that President Obama will be in more trouble the more the economy seems to be faltering.  This makes obvious sense.   But there is a way in which both a rational voter model and an attentional shift model could militate in the other direction.   Voters might reasonably be concerned both about the immediate jobs outlook and the long term health of the economy as they perceive it to be affected by the debt and deficit.  If people became complacent about the job situation, they might  vote more on the deficit, assuming (albeit contrary to experience) that the Republicans would be more likely to reduce the deficit.

Thus Obama could suffer in the event of a recovery both from voters making rational tradeoffs and voters shifting emphasis between two values they care about.   Here’s an extreme analogy — in 1945 immediately after World War II Winston Churchill and his Conservative party were turned out of power despite having just led the country to victory, because voters thought the Labor party better equipped to deal with post-war reconstruction.  It would be interesting to look at how Obama is doing in State polls compared to 2008 depending on how the state unemployment rate or change in the state unemployment rate over the last six months.

I’ve long believed that Democrats would do better to emphasize the historical regularity that economic and job growth has been higher in Democratic than Republican administrations.    Bill Clinton’s comparison of job growth under Democratic  and Republican presidents led many commentators to express surprise, but this relationship should come as no surprise to RBC readers going back to 2008.  (See Mark’s RBC post from 2008, or the current Oppenheimer Funds blog addressing the relation between control of the White House and Congress and the stock market). *

Romney’s push to use lackluster economic performance against Obama is handicapped by the fact that voters do not believe Romney has a superior understanding of the needs of the middle class or a better recipe for economic growth than Obama.  Even in the ABC News / Washington Post poll released today, whose topline showed Romney closer to Obama than other recent polls, shows Obama favored (in a half-sample result) by 53-38 as better to advance the interests of the middle class, and in the full sample Obama leads by 47-45 on managing the economy.  The CNN/ORC poll released Monday has Obama ahead 51-47 on dealing with unemployment, with Romney favored 50-47 in dealing with the deficit.  While these numbers are not conclusive-one would rather focus on potential swing voters rather than the whole electorate, what they show after the Democratic convention is an electorate that doubts Romney’s competence on and concern for the issues they care about.  At this point for Romney to push on Obama’s economic record seems unlikely to pay much in the way of electoral dividends, even if the economic news does not improve.

According to Crane Brinton’s  classic historical analysis of revolutions,  regimes fall from within more than from direct attack from outside.  The same may be true of Presidencies.  Administrations that lose confidence in their ability to deal with the economic challenge are going to lose coherence and appear rudderless and without forward momentum (viz. Jimmy Carter after his cabinet shakeup following the “malaise” speech).  This is the picture of Obama that the Republicans tried to paint at their convention, but which seems unlikely to stick, especially after the successful Democratic Convention.   Combining a projection of confidence with a clear argument that Democratic Presidents  are better for job growth than Republicans (and that all the Republicans have in their tool kit is a return to the failed policies of George W. Bush) seems likely to be a key element of a winning message going forward.

* For those who missed it, what Bill Clinton said was

“Since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24.  … In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private-sector jobs. So what’s the jobs score? Republicans 24 million, Democrats 42 (million).”

This statement was widely fact-checked and is true, as are similar claims about superior economic growth under Democratic presidents.  See for example the Miami Herald story.

Presidents and business experience

Re Mitt Romney’s claim that Presidents require business experience:

Presidents with NO business experience:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt
Harry Truman (“a failed haberdasher”)
Dwight Eisenhower
Abraham Lincoln
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Lyndon Baines Johnson
William Jefferson Clinton
Ulysses S. Grant
Ronald Reagan, unless you count shilling for GE

Presidents with business experience::

George W. Bush, MBA
Herbert Hoover

Oh and Abraham Lincoln (R) was a  lawyer (re Clint Eastwood’s disparagement of lawyer Presidents)