FIAT IGNORAMUS

Posted in Election 2008 on July 22nd, 2008 by Ed

If you can spare 90 seconds, take the Pew Center's News IQ test. Or don't and just keep reading.

As I have stated repeatedly over the years, and as you are already fully aware, Americans are stupid. We already know this. Every conceivable way of measuring what Americans know about politics, government, and current events leads to the same abysmal conclusions. It is easy to take a survey like Pew is offering and point to alarming findings such as the fact that 84% of Americans know that Oprah likes Obama and 28% know that more than 4,000 troops have died in Iraq. Oh, that liberal media!

This is not new. Every 12-18 months, usually on a slow news day, another media outlet or polling organization rolls out a new but essentially identical set of data; lots of adults don't know who represents them in the Senate, which party controls what, where the Pacific Ocean is on a map (seriously), and so on. Several landmark studies in political science (notably Philip Converse's "Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics," 1964) and countless best-selling books (including Rick Shenkman's new Just How Stupid Are We?) have cashed in on telling the same story. Americans, aided by absolutely vacuous news media, are stunningly ignorant.

The data cited by these authors, both popular and academic, are doubtlessly accurate. Nonetheless the conclusions commonly drawn – we're too stupid to dress ourselves without assistance let alone wield democratic power – are controversial. Just how much, and more importantly what, does one need to know to participate in the political process? It would not be hard to support an argument that much of this has little relevance to opinion formation. Critics, in other words, assert that these tests of political/civic knowledge are essentially tests of trivia.

Does a person need to know the Senate Majority Leader – or find Louisiana on a map, or whatever – to form a negative opinion of one presidential candidate or the other? Is knowing the number of Senators relevant to understanding the motives and justifications for the war in Iraq? Objectively, no. At the same time, it is also obvious that some facts (whether or not WMD were found in Iraq, which nations were most responsible for 9/11, how many troops have died in the war) are very relevant to drawing accurate conclusions and forming intelligent opinions.

The reality about the relationship between basic civic knowledge and our electoral system centers around two dynamics. First, there is a threshold effect. It's not necessary to get 12-for-12 on the Pew quiz in order to be an informed voter and there's probably no effective difference between getting 9 or 12. There is a number, probably hovering around the mean, at which someone shows enough knowledge to form opinions that are not completely random. Going beyond that doesn't help a whole lot (although more is obviously better for other reasons) and dipping below it probably reveals comprehensive ignorance. Second, very high or very low scores are essentially measuring political interest; it's not possible to pay any attention to politics and be unaware of the Congressional majority. Conversely, it's not possible to know minute points (the names of Senate Committee Chairs and so on) without paying a lot of attention.

The conclusion I usually draw, and the sense in which I mean "stupid", is that Americans are vacant. True stupidity would be an inability to learn this stuff, and that certainly does not exist. Listen to sports talk radio for 10 minutes. You will hear callers, people who probably couldn't name their Senators for a million bucks, rattle off the batting averages of the entire starting nine of the 1986 Mets. Americans, in short, are simply chock full of information about meaningless things – Survivor, shoe shopping, celebrity romance, football, cars, and so on. Those things are all fine and good (see the sidebar for a set of baseball links I read every day). Survivor and sports are supposed to be our brain candy, our hobbies. Instead, they are the entirety of what we know. These subjects have become to the American mind what junk food has become to the American diet: what should be an occasional indulgence in the interest of pleasure and relaxation has become the whole menu.

Tags:

ED VS. COGNITIVE BIASES, PART 4: MORAL HAZARD

Posted in Ed vs. Cognitive Biases on July 21st, 2008 by Ed

Like an episode of Law & Order, this entry could be described as "ripped from the headlines." The current state of our nation's financial system is shaping up to be an exercise in moral hazard.

The concept is simple: people (and organizations) act differently when they believe they will be protected from the consequences of their actions. But there are rarely explicit guarantees to that effect; this amounts to an information asymmetry in which I know that you'll let me off the hook even if you think you won't.

A common example is found in the world of international aid. Rich Western Country gives Poor Dirty Country a giant check and a set of instructions: "Spend this on A, B, and C or else." Now, the kleptocrat in charge of PDC knows damn well that this is an idle threat. So he buys a gold-plated 737. RWC says "You failed to do A, B, or C. No more checks." But the checks come anyway for any number of reasons: guilt, concerns that PDC will buddy up with a country hostile to western interests, or emotional appeals about starvation and poverty and AIDS and sadness. "Benchmarks" are never met. The flow of money never stops. The money never gets spent on anything productive. Under the circumstances, how could we expect otherwise? Mr. Kleptocrat is reacting as all humans do to an environment in which the risks are manipulated in his favor.

Of course a good portion of our current financial turmoil is based on a moral hazard. For every stern-faced lecture from The Fed or Chimpy about how There Will Be No Bailout, there is always a bailout. It is difficult to convincingly threaten Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac just a few months after Uncle Fed served up a quarter-trillion dollar bailout for Bear Stearns. Remember that? Everyone on Wall Street sure does.

While the government is not above making examples out of smaller financial entities like IndyMac (a large bank, but far from an integral component of the world of finance), investment banks, underwriters, and large mortgage guarantors – Freddie and Fannie – are happy to play fast and loose with Other People's Money. Maybe they sweat a little more when they see FDIC take over a bank, but they know goddamn well that their time will never come. Congress and the President will saber-rattle, talk big, and lecture like a humorless hall monitor but they will be there with the bailout when things go to hell.

The Fed already created a situation ripe for abuse when they agreed to let mortgage lenders trade shitty, insolvent subprime paper for cold hard cash. That's a pretty sweet deal, eh? The Fed (i.e., the public) takes on worthless past-due mortgages and the lenders take on billions in cash. As usual, and as we'll shortly see again with Freddie and Fannie, the profits belong solely to the stockholders but the risk (i.e., the losses) belongs to all of us. It's socialism for Wall Street and hard-knocks capitalism for the rest of us. Fannie's executives earn $10-$13 million per year to risk someone else's money with full confidence that we will pay the tab when they fail.

And people wonder without a hint of irony why we ended up in this mess.

Oh, not everything is rosy from the investors' perspective. Bear Stearns stockholders certainly felt the pain of an 18-month free-fall from $170 to $2. Fannie and Freddie investors are walking funny these days as well. But in the long-term (which is, in my humble view, the only rational way to look at stocks) they will be just fine. If anything, they will benefit from an extended opportunity to buy cheap stock in companies that Uncle Sam will not allow to fail.

In a normal country, the government would insist on a restrictive set of regulations and caveats to go along with the bailout checks or dispense with the charade of private ownership altogether and simply nationalize Freddie, Fannie, and the other insolvent big-shots. But the financial sector doesn't believe in big government's rules, just it's cash. If the situation rights itself – as it did after the massive S&L bailout in the 1980s – you can guarantee that we'll be repeating it endlessly in the future. It's like being sent into a casino with someone else's money and two simple rules: win, and the money's yours. Lose, and the debts are on the house. Gee, what could go wrong?

REVIEW: THE DARK KNIGHT

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 19th, 2008 by Ed

(Spoiler-free, I think)

Amazingly, this movie comes painfully close to living up to its hype. It's really, really good. I would not put it in the pantheon of great films, but there is little doubt that it is far and away the best "comic" movie ever made. Not sure if there's a close second.

This review will seem a little negative only because I'm not going to waste time being redundant and pointing out what every critic on the planet has already said: it's dark, compelling, well-acted all around, and not "fun" in the summer movie sense. Everything you've heard is true. I'll mention two pleasant surprises and one big negative.

First, Christopher Nolan got slightly less terrible at filming action scenes! He replaced his technique from Batman Begins – shaking the camera around so the audience feels like they're "in the action" (i.e. nauseous) – with a mildly irritating Michael Bay-style series of rapid cuts. It's not good, but it's a dramatic improvement. They could get someone to film the action better, but then they'd be stuck with all of the idiocy that accompanies those folks. Second, Aaron Eckhart acts like someone other than Aaron Eckhart, Smug Asshole. That's refreshing.

The problem: this was very, very obviously two films. The original plan was to make the third film in the series about Eckhart (Two Face) as the main villain, but instead the writers and director chose to merge that story into the second film. It showed. A lot. The last hour of this film is a condensed version of a third film, and Nolan struggles mightily to A) connect the second act to the first and B) keep the Joker involved in the Two-Face storyline. Several storylines in the film were truncated as a result.

I suppose a second negative is that I have no idea how they're going to milk a third sequel. What could possibly follow this? One big problem with the Batman franchise (as sharply noted by commenter Scott N.) is that the villains absolutely pale in comparison to the Joker. The only other charismatic villain is Two Face and, well, they shot that wad too. Given the gravity of Heath Ledger's and Eckhart's performances, it's going to be nearly impossible for the writers and whatever actors are tasked to play a milquetoasty villain in the next film to keep pace.

OK, last complaint. Christian Bale's "When I Dress Up As Batman, I Talk Like I Am Trying Really Hard to Shit but Failing" voice gets so ridiculous that he's barely intelligible at the end of the film. Seriously, it's so over the top that, among all of the sound effects and music, I couldn't even understand a few of his lines. At this rate they are going to need to subtitle Batman in the third film. Or pump the Caped Crusader with prune juice until he craps. A lot.

Tags:

NPF: HYPE

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 18th, 2008 by Ed

1. So like most people in my age bracket I will be seeing The Dark Knight this weekend, and let me tell you something – after the amount of hype this film has received, it better be good. It better solve longstanding historical controversies. It better balance the Federal budget. It better make everyone who watches it lose 10 pounds. It better give me an above-average haircut. It better make Godfather II look like a high school play interrupted by fighting hobos.

The bar, it has been set high.

It looks good. It looks like it will be better than other movies coming out this summer. But for christ's sake, people, settle the fuck down. It's a Batman movie. I know too many people who are beside themselves with excitement and fully convinced that this will be Citizen Kane for the 21st Century. Perhaps if we keep our expectations grounded more firmly in reality we can avoid crushing disappointment.

I'm optimistic, though. If Christopher Nolan figures out how to film an action scene (which, don't forget, he can't do to save his soul in the first film) it might be a 10 out of 10. But seriously, let's all settle down.

2. I/we have been immortalized in cartoon form in NUVO, which is Indianapolis' version of the Reader or Village Voice. Contrary to the impression that this creates, our singer is not Fidel Castro.

Tags:

ON AGING

Posted in Rants on July 17th, 2008 by Ed

From the fine fellows over at The Monkey Cage (a blog run by political scientists who don't swear nearly as much as I do, which may be why they all have jobs):

A casual visual inspection suggests that people in their forties are more Republican than any other age group. Unfortunately that is one of two potential interpretations, the relative merits of which cannot be determined by this data. Are people aged 40 to 50 more conservative, or are the people aged 40 to 50 right now more conservative? This is a very old debate in the social sciences, the endless squabble over life-course effects versus age-cohort effects.

We could easily construct a story that supports either argument. For example, it's logical to suggest that people between 40 and 50 are bound to be a little less liberal, having settled into a life of property taxes, car payments, and saving for college. Conversely we could argue that the individuals between 40 and 50 today are more conservative because of the 1970s. They became politically aware during a thoroughly depressing era and experienced Carter Malaise followed immediately by Morning in America.

Short of doing decades-long panel data studies (and those have plenty of critics too) it's virtually impossible from a social science perspective to distinguish between these possibilities. I'm simplifying things, for certainly many researchers have devised innovative ways to support one argument or the other. But it is fair to say, as someone with no horse in the methodological race, that it remains an open issue.

On a personal note, I have long considered the first possibility – that aging makes us Republicans – to be overwhelmingly depressing. Ginandtacos nation, this post serves as binding legal authority for one of you to smother me with a pillow if I ever take up Tax Bitching as a hobby or cheerlead pre-emptive wars in the hopes of getting some great new footage for Wings.**

**The one on the Military Channel, not the delightfully crappy 1990s sitcom. I know there are only so many times one can watch the same episodes ("Wings of the Luftwaffe") but there is a moral limit to what I am willing to support to acquire new footage.

Tags:

MIKE HAS MOVED

Posted in Uncategorized on July 16th, 2008 by Ed

No Arts No Letters = No More. He is now here.

I don't know why it took me so long to notice. Oh wait, I'm furiously trying to finish my dissertation.

McCAIN ADDRESSES THE NATION

Posted in Election 2008 on July 16th, 2008 by Ed

My fellow Americans,

Now that I'm making up a little ground in the polls I think we should talk about what I am doing. Frankly you all are starting to worry me a bit. Some of you are seriously considering voting for me. Do you have any idea how ridiculous that is?

Listen. This entire campaign is just an elaborate piece of performance art. An experiment, if you will. We are seriously just fucking around with you – seeing how blatantly we can give you the finger without losing your support. I had Phil Gramm (remember when he ran for President and finished behind Lamar Alexander?!?!) go on TV and call you a bunch of whiners for complaining about the economy. Read that again – my multimillionaire surrogate mocked your economic difficulties! I also promised to stay in Iraq (you know, that war you fucking hate!) for 100 years while all but guaranteeing a new war in Iran. It's like Marcel Duchamp crawled from the grave and ran for President.

I'm publicly dropping hints that Mitt Romney will be my running mate. Mitt Fucking Romney!!! I mean, come on. I can barely even talk about it with a straight face, and you retards just keep applauding! Next I'll roast a live panda over a bonfire while my campaign staff steal medicine from pediatric cancer patients. And my supporters will send more checks! Ha ha!

Even when I act senile – trying to provoke a reaction like "Oh my God, this demented fossil can't possibly have his finger on the button" – you're unfazed! I just gave a goddamn speech about Czechoslovakia (and did it again after I got called on it!) That hasn't been a country for, what, 20 years? Your response: crown me a foreign policy "expert!" You gotta be shitting me.

It's no secret that my party has been trying to tank this one from the outset. We all know what's coming, and we're perfectly happy to blame Great Depression II on the liberals. No fracking way do I want to be the older, dumber Herbert Hoover for a new century. But at some point I started having fun with this, seeing how far I can go. I am standing before the camera with both middle fingers shoved in your face screaming "Hey! Suck my dick, losers! Sometimes I buy gas just to set it on fire!" And then you promise to vote for me. I give up. So here's my platform for the rest of the race:

  • 1. I'm sending Former Majority Whip Dick Armey to your mother's house to bone her in the ass. Not metaphorically. With his wang.
  • 2. I'm going to start referring to Asia as "the Orient" and southeast Asia in particular as "Indo-China." Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will be "Tojo."
  • 3. New tax breaks for single people who drive SUVs.
  • 4. Unrestricted immigration for gay Mexican welfare recipients.

    You people are amazing. Remember when the Supersonics played nothing but scrubs for a couple of months in 2006, hoping that they would lose enough games to draft Greg Oden? The damn scrubs tried too hard, won too many games, and the plan failed. That's what you're doing right now. Come on! I'm not trying to win; the point is to let my team reap the benefits of losing.

    Bite my ass,

    John McCain

  • Tags:

    THE END OF THE END OF HISTORY

    Posted in Rants on July 15th, 2008 by Ed

    If it's true that there is nothing sexier than a lapsed Catholic, then I will argue that there is nothing more entertaining than a lapsed neocon.

    Francis Fukuyama has long been lauded by the right for his classic, thunderingly stupid The End of History and the Last Man. While international relations is certainly not my field, I feel comfortable mocking the shit out of rhetorical detritus like:

    What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

    I will pause while you marvel at the fact that this man became internationally famous and virtually canonized by the right for proposing that in 1992, with Earth's sun not set to burn out for another billion-odd years, Western free-market democracy became the "final form of human government." We attained perfection. Fifteen years later I am still blown away by the hubris, naivety, and self-congratulatory tone of the early post-Soviet era.

    Tim Krieder (The Pain comics, with major h/t to Matthew) uses Fukuyama as a primary example of how the right lacks imagination and creativity. In the ideological glow of "their" victory over Marx, they were simply incapable of imagining an alternative or wrapping their minds around the idea that anyone could reject the promise of unfettered capitalism. How could anyone want anything else? There is nothing else.

    Well, it turns out that history didn't end and the rush to embrace The Only Way was less than universal. As Samuel Huntington argued in The Clash of Civilizations, it turned out that there were still a few ideological disagreements in the world.** Duly offended by the tepid response to Democracy's Promise in the middle east and Asia, the Western world has tried spreading it through economic hegemony. Or the barrel of a gun.

    Fukuyama seems to understand that he may have underestimated a few things (although he insists, as conservatives always insist, that the real problem is not the ideology but that we strayed from it). Since 2006 he has alienated his neocon devotees by suggesting that perhaps the Iraq invasion has not been a success. He has also repudiated the Neocon movement he was so instrumental in creating. Now? He's endorsing Obama. How's that for the "Where Are They Now" file?

    I can't tell if he's a late bloomer or simply a craven opportunist, but I am not a man who will stand idly by and fail to enjoy a very public academic humiliation.

    **Having mentioned Fukuyama and Huntington, we have now exhausted what I know about IR.

    Tags:

    MY HEART GOES OUT TO YOU, HUMMER OWNERS

    Posted in Rants on July 14th, 2008 by Ed

    The thinly-veneered "lifestyle" journalism that masquerades as news these days has yielded another gem, courtesy the New York Times (At $100 for Tank of Gas, Some Choke on ‘Fill It’") The purpose of this slipshod amalgam of random quotes is unclear. Are we supposed to feel sorry for these dipshits or simply marvel at the fact that some people buy GMC Suburbans without realizing that they will have to put a lot of gas in them? To wit:

    Bryan Carisone, a heating and air-conditioning contractor in Raritan, N.J., “absolutely loves” his new GMC Denali XL, an extra-large sport utility vehicle with televisions built into the leather seats. But in June, one week after he bought it, he pulled into a station on a near-empty tank and watched the total climb higher and higher — to $109. “It just about killed me,” Mr. Carisone said.

    Apparently the size of the GMC Denali XL's fuel tank and the EPA mileage estimates are both classified information, as obtainable to Mr. Bryan Carisone as the launch codes for Soviet ICBMs. It is unfortunate that he was forced to buy this grotesque land yacht without that information.

    It gets better.

    For people who love their big vehicles, the pain is acute.

    But the Avalanche also has a 31-gallon tank, which would cost $127 to fill at Saturday’s national average price. Even the truck’s most dedicated fans find that galling. David H. Obelcz, who founded the club in 2002 and is still a member of the board, sold his Avalanche because he could not afford gasoline for it.

    At what point in one's journalistic career do the trials of being a brainless yuppie qualify as "pain" let alone "acute pain?" Hold on while I cry my fucking eyes out for the Fan Club devoted to the Chevy Avalanche, a vehicle whose turn signals are labeled "port" and "starboard." I hope Mr. Obelcz had the version with the 8.1L V8, which is by far the largest gasoline V8 in a passenger vehicle.

    Families that were accustomed to the convenience of sport utility vehicles are having to cut back as well. Colleen Hammond of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, loves packing her three kids and all their soccer gear into her 2000 GMC Yukon XL. But she hates paying $160 to fill the 38.5-gallon tank. Last month, she parked the Yukon in her driveway and borrowed her friend’s Toyota Land Cruiser.

    Again with the dramatic language. People who have to decide between food and medicine "cut back." People pissing and moaning about how much their SUV costs to own do not. And for the last time, no one owns an SUV because of "safety" or "convenience." Minivans are far safer, hold more people and cargo, and are more fuel-efficient. People buy SUVs because they think it looks cooler than driving a minivan. Period.

    Steve Burtch bought a Dodge Ram truck last year, when gas cost $3.75, because he thought gas prices had peaked and would start coming down.

    Steve Burtch, I have taken shits smarter than you.

    “It’s a huge inconvenience,” said Dr. Walter Bahr, a chiropractor in Cape Coral, Fla., who drives a Dodge Ram 2500 pickup and pays $130 per tank.

    WHAT IN THE HOLY HELL DOES A CHIRPRACTOR NEED A 3/4-TON PICKUP FOR? This is not a rhetorical question. I will give anyone who can answer it one million dollars. Ram 2500 pickups are made for construction work and building contractors – they're work trucks with 10,000-pound towing capacity. Apparently Dr. Bahr needs it to haul his tiny penis around rugged Cape Coral, Florida.

    And here's the best part:

    By late spring, owners of pickups and sport utility vehicles with 30-gallon tanks, like the Cadillac Escalade ESV and Chevrolet Suburban, started paying $100 or more to fill a near-empty tank. As gas prices continue to rise — the national average stood at about $4.10 a gallon Saturday — membership in the triple-digit club is growing. Now, even not-so-gargantuan Toyota Land Cruisers and GMC Yukons can cost $100 to fill up.

    Way to pander to the yuppie readers, New York Times, by noting that high gas prices are also affecting the (implicitly "normal") vehicles that a quarter of your Sunday demographic drive.

    The Toyota Land Cruiser is over sixteen feet long and six feet wide. It weighs 5,690 pounds empty. It has a 5.7L 381-hp V8 (larger and more powerful than a Gen-IV Corvette from 1996). It gets 13 mpg in traffic.

    The GMC Yukon has a 26-gallon fuel tank at 14 mpg city. It too has a large V8 (5.3L) and weighs over 5,300 pounds.

    According to the Times, these are reasonable "not-so-gargantuan" vehicles which should not be expected to require $100 fill-ups. It is unconscionable to think that these entirely justifiable, average vehicles should be so burdening the wallets of the Normal Americans who drive them.

    From now on I intend to season all of my food with the sweet, sweet tears of SUV owners.

    Tags: ,

    WEEKEND BONUS: "MORE LIKE MISSIPUSSY"

    Posted in Uncategorized on July 12th, 2008 by Ed

    (Note: I wrote this during the recent flooding but it got bumped from the schedule. Since I kinda like it, I'm running it even though it is dated now. It owes a serious debt to Ben Metcalf's "American Heartworm" for the inspiration and P. Hawkins for the title, which he improvised as we drove over the muddy, shit-colored ditch itself.)

    Since I never tire of lobbing molotovs at inaccurate or misguided aspects of American folklore, let's spend a few minutes talking about the "mighty" Mississippi River. It occupies a special place in our history, especially in the West and Midwest. The Mighty Mississip! Old Man River! Big Muddy! Mile Wide and a Mile Deep! What an awe-inspiring force of nature, one whose imprint is visible not only in our art and culture but also on the very shape of the country we call home.

    In reality, the Mississippi River is a glorified creek that floods like a little bitch at the first sign of rainclouds. This incontinent drainage canal – stagnant, baby-shit brown, and stinking to high heaven – originates in a nondescript pond in Minnesota and steals flow from the actual major rivers in the US (Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, and others) in order to create the illusion of being impressive. If it were Mighty, it wouldn't flood three or four states every time the Midwest gets some rain. Nor would it need the herculean efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers just to make it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Nor would it destroy a few billion dollars' worth of communities every ten to twelve months because it is better suited to appearing in Mark Twain stories than actually carrying water, a task at which the average backyard creek is better.

    Neither its width (max. 3000 feet, generously rounded to a mile) nor its depth (an average of less than 100 feet, a.k.a. a mile) suggest that it is a force of nature to be reckoned with. In many places it maintains a navigable shipping channel of as little as six feet. The next time someone idicates "respect" for it (i.e., blatant ignorance of the fact that living next to something that floods every summer is a bad idea) please be sure to punch them for me. Aside from its appearance and reverential mythologization in a few colorful pieces of literature, the Mississippi's gift to the American Midwest has been to bring destruction – from the rifle- and smallpox-bearing Europeans who came to do away with its initial inhabitants to the steamboats integral in the slave trade to the annual devastating floods and finally to the riverboat casinos which expand the River's capacity to destroy beyond the physical plane and into the psychological.

    I do not understand why people of the region – Iowans, rural Illinoisans, Missourians, etc – hold annual festivals commemorating something whose only contribution to their lives is to submerge all that they own in fetid water on a regular basis. I do not understand why they speak reverently of something that exists only to take their money and teach them lessons in hopelessness, chaos, and the unfathomable stupidity of rebuilding their homes and lives so near something intent on destroying both. Fuck you, Mississippi River. Respect is given only to rivers that put up at least the appearance of a fight against the waters they purport to tame.

    Tags: