Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mea Culpa

Yesterday I posted a clip from The Daily Show on my Facebook page. The clip showed Jon Stewart mocking the half-logic of various media figures, mostly from Fox News, first saying the cultural center in Manhattan is no big deal, then flipping and saying it’s a terrible idea because it’s insensitive. The clip was funny in the usual Daily Show way. It’s always nice to see media figures hoisted on their own petard by their own words caught by their own television networks. But the part of the clip that struck me most was the ending. Jon Stewart showed a clip of Charleton Heston defending the right of the NRA to hold their convention in Colorado Springs right after the Columbine High School tragedy. And then Stewart admitted the he’d made fun of Heston for that, and that he, Stewart, was wrong. He pulled the classic Daily Show gag on himself, and it wasn’t just funny (though he did his best to make it so). It also made Stewart’s point better than all the usual clip-a-thons could. But that couldn’t have made it easy. It’s hard to admit when you’re wrong. It’s always hard. It’s easier when it’s about something unimportant. Oddly, I think it’s also easier when one’s error is so patently obvious, so overwhelmingly clear, that you can hardly help it. That’s where I find myself.

I was wrong. Sure, I’ve been wrong about a lot of things. Admitting that one is a sinner, or only human, or even a bafoon, is pretty easy when it’s done in the abstract. But I’ve been wrong in a very specific way. I feel compelled to confess.

Last night I read SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I couldn’t put it down. At 4:30am I had to force myself, and when I woke up this morning I went right back to it. I loved Freakonomics, but SuperFreakonomics is better, or at least it affected me more, because the points made in Freakonomics were smaller and safer. I found them fascinating, but even having some of my “conventional wisdom” upended was pretty comfortable. SuperFreakonomics was less so, and all the more powerful for it. The book made me re-examine assumptions I’ve made about the safety of car seats, the danger of Global warming, and even the nature of human altruism. But the point that hit me hardest wasn’t something I didn’t know, but something I’ve actively chosen to forget.

I’ve argued that one of my chief issues with conservatism is that it’s regressive, dependent on a mythic view of the past as a halcyon time when people had “values” and everything was hunky-dory. I’ve pointed out that this is patently, demonstrably false; that we are, in every measurable way, living in the best time to be alive in human history. I’ve reminded people that the news media has no incentive to portray the world as safe, happy, and healthy. That doesn’t bleed, so it doesn’t lead. But, as an avid consumer of media (especially news media), I’ve fallen victim to the very fears I derided in conservatives. Only, because I tend to read liberals less critically than conservatives (I try to read both, but admit that I don’t read them the same way) I acknowledged that the present is a lot better than the past, but bought into the notion lots of people are peddling, on both the right and the left, that even though things are good, they are about to get a lot worse. Terribly worse. Apocalyptically worse.

Now, it’s fine to believe that as a tenant of a religion. You can say that your scripture or your prophet tells you that the end times are coming, and that’s enough. But I wasn’t doing that. I was accepting, and even preaching, that some kind of horrible dystopia was on its way, and that since this horror would come from some human source rather than a super-natural one, I could believe in it based on evidence.

But Dubner and Levitt reminded me that I didn’t find that evidence myself, or even read it from authoritative sources. I read it, largely, from people trying to sell newspapers, or heard it from people trying to glue my eyes to TV stations or even Oscar winning documentaries. But Dubner and Levitt are just trying to sell books too, right? True, but they are selling books with a different message. Their message is that we should look at the numbers, so their incentive is to find examples wherein the data conflicts with conventional wisdom. If the conventional wisdom said that the world is safe and improving, they would find examples that show that the data doesn’t back that up. But that’s not what the conventional wisdom shows, so those contrarian examples aren’t the examples they put on display. It’s not that they are apologists for a particular view of the future. They are advocates for the numbers themselves, and for the economist’s view that we should trust the numbers even when they go against what we believe.

So while I’d dismissed conservative fears of a socialist take-over of the government, or the notion that President Obama is opposed to private gun ownership, or that he’s secretly a Kenyan-born secret Muslim secret Marxist secret Black Supremacist, all because these notions lack any evidence to back them up, I’d bought, hook line and sinker, some liberal friendly notions of the coming dystopia. Foremost among these is the notion that global warming is going to destroy the world, and that gasoline in cars is largely responsible for that global warming. Turns out the latter is demonstrably untrue, and the former is wildly unlikely in the foreseeable future. That’s not to say Global Warming is a myth, or that it isn’t a pressing problem. It’s just not at all the problem I thought it was. It’s far more distant in time, far less extreme in its effects, and far more easy to solve than I ever would have expected. I won’t completely explain all that I learned from the book here (read the book!), but suffice it to say that some very smart scientists (not crazy global warming deniers, but respected environmentalists) have come up with a fix that will cost about 50 million dollars. That sounds like a lot, but compare it to the 300 million that Al Gore’s group is using to try to “raise awareness” about the coming apocalypse, it’s pretty small change.

So, if I was wrong about global warming, what else have I been wrong about. Upon reflection, I realize I’ve been wrong to be so concerned about the fight for gay marriage. Yes, it’s a tragedy that it may take a while for gay marriage to become the law of the land, but if trends hold it’s an inevitability. That’s not much consolation for gay couples who want to get married now, but it does mean I should ratchet down my rhetoric. And what about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? The human tolls are awful, and the consequences of the money wasted are only magnified when you think of all the lives that could have been saved with that money if it had been spent here on, say, better computer systems for hospitals to reduce human error, or on HIV medication in Africa. But I need to remember that, even with two wars going on, the rate of death by warfare is at nearly historic lows. In fact, so few people are killing each other in war that it’s realistic to believe that war itself could come to an end in the future, a notion that is still unimaginable for most people, despite the fact that our species got by for most of its history without anything we would call war. (For more on, check this out.)

Does this create for some fundamental shift in my politics? Yes and no. I’m still a “progressive”, a “liberal”,a “leftist”. But I don’t need to be a panicked one, and I need to remind myself that people who disagree with me aren’t woefully misinformed fools wandering headlong over a cliff. They may be right. And they may be wrong, but about things that aren’t nearly the big deal I was trying to make them.

Levitt and Dubner point out a bunch of ridiculous, inefficient government programs to illustrate that often the best of intentions lead to fixes that are worse than the problems they are designed to address. This doesn’t incline me to abandon progressivism. For one thing, I don’t buy the false dichotomy that conservatives all want a smaller government while progressives all want a bigger one. It seems to me there are a lot of conservatives who want the government to criminalize abortion, and, one would assume, enforce that criminalization, which is quite a government intrusion on private lives. Meanwhile, this progressive has always believed that it’s ridiculous that our country spends about as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. If a conservative were to give up on their anti-abortion stance, that still wouldn’t cut nearly as much federal spending out of their vision of a better government as my cuts to defense would cut out of mine. I’m perfectly willing to admit that government is not good at some things, and that many of its solutions are bad ones. I also recognize that the public sector can be just as inefficient in some areas, and with more dangerous consequences when they aren’t accountable to anyone but a small number of shareholders. On a theoretical level, I trust the American people to do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else, just like Churchill said. The same cannot be said for private companies. Furthermore, I still believe the history of the United States has been one of slow but inexorable progress away from bigotry and aristocracy toward pluralism and inclusiveness. I also believe that pluralism and inclusiveness are essential ingredients to our standard of living and our financial success, creating more economic benefits than deregulation or tax cuts for the wealthy could ever hope to achieve, because the educated, tolerant middle class drives the economy more than distant haves and have-nots. I believe that standing on the side of slowing change down has, historically, always meant standing up for bigotry, intolerance, or economic inefficiency in the face of technological change. I won’t stand on that side.

Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is the time in history when conservatism is correct, when we’ve gone too far and my grandkids will look back and say, “He supported gay marriage? He railed about U.S. torture policy? He thought taxes on the wealthy should go back up to the rates during Reagan or higher, and that a robust social safety net actually produced greater economic growth in the aggregate while diminishing human suffering during economic downturns? That guy was crazy!” Maybe gay marriage will have destroyed the social fabric of American society. Maybe a little more torture will have made us safer. Maybe “Voodoo Economics” will suddenly start to work. Maybe a society needs some people to starve to death or die from lack of basic health care in order to motivate everyone else to work hard. I could be wrong about all those things. Or maybe my grandkids will be living in bubble cities under the ocean due to massive sea level increases because I’m insufficiently alarmed about global warming. I just hope, when they look back, they are willing to make their decisions based on the best possible data, and when confronted with numbers that don’t fit their preconceived notions, they are willing to change their minds.


Mr. Thissell said...

I appreciate your closing hopes for grandchildren. I caution you in regards to talking with Craven about the findings on global warming; he is not too fond of their presentation. I am also glad you enjoyed Super Freak; I just wish I could find a way to effectively use it's brilliant lesson in supply and demand.

Benjamin Gorman said...

Yeah, you probably can't talk about prostitution. But maybe you could do a lesson on black-market DVDs wherein students set a price-point for the theatrical experience of a few popular movies, then you introduce the idea that there are pirated copies of greatly reduced copies for sale and see how that affects the price, the really high quality copies online and see how that affects the price. Then, the movie leaves the theaters and is released on DVD and you set the price again. Make one person the film studio, another the theater owner, another the pirate who has to worry about getting caught by the police, and another a low level employee at the studio trying to figure out just how much to sell the DVD to the Russian Mob for, knowing he could get caught and lose his job as well as getting sued, or could get cheated by the Russian Mob. As everyone makes their decisions, everyone else has to recalculate. Might be fun and illustrate it well.

Neil said...


Thanks for walking the talk. However, you might need to explain about the road to your tipping point; it can not have been due solely to Leavit and Dubner.

As economists (Leavitt at least is), they succeed at number crunching by narrowing the scope of the data to fit a question. In other words, economists start with the conception that, "all things being constant ..." That fragments the larger context, in order to produce counterintuitive data. Rigorous analysis prevents analysis from tracking back to the original big picture. Using data means having a theory in which the data make sense. For economists, that theory must be localized and small, missing the big point. Data do not speak; analysts do.

And analysis, in the end, requires a will to believe. At some level, perhaps, our understanding is religious; we can not "get behind" ourselves to know exactly why we believe as we do. Belief provides the ultimate ground for identity; we can question what we believe, just not that we believe.

At least with gay marriage, your "new" point of view cleaves nicely into Booker T. Washington's call for accommodationalism. "Lay down your buckets" updated into "thanks, we'll wait." WEB duBois, Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes and Malcolm X challenged that disposition. MLK lived its rebuttal.

As for climate science, as even Bjorn Lomborg has now joined the call for immediate action, conceptual ideas of geo-engineering are abstract and utopian (exactly what liberals are accused of proposing - which is why a carbon tax is the conservative option!) For example, here is one take, relative cogent and not complete unhinged, on their latest book:

Good luck with the cognitive dissonance. That means you embrace life-long learning. Your son needs to experience that, as do your students. Just do not let one set of data, framed however it is, control your keel.


Benjamin Gorman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Benjamin Gorman said...

On gay marriage, my only shift is that I have been wrong to be so vitriolic towards those who oppose it. I still think it's moral, consistent with the value of the separation of church and state, and in the best interests of children of gays, parents of gays, neighbors of gays, and anyone who lives in a country with gay and lesbian couples, as well as the gay and lesbian couples themselves. I don't think I can go so far as "thanks, we'll wait". I'm just realizing that calling a bigot a bigot, even when it's accurate, is not only rude behavior that speaks ill of my character and volumes about my lack of self control, but also does nothing to forward a cause that's only a matter of time.

As for global warming, my feelings are more complicated. I didn't get the impression that Levitt and Dubner were trying to say that global warming is no big deal, as Lomborg seemed to before his recent conversion. What swayed me more toward geo-engineering was the logical inconsistency of some of the most alarmist of my fellow environmentalists. On the one hand, they will tell you that the situation is now so dire, and CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for so long, that even if we were to halt all emissions immediately, we'd be in for a disaster. On the other hand, they'd say that we should be spending our time and energy on reducing emissions, no matter how slowly. That seems to be a lot of time and effort devoted to a solution they've already conceded is insufficient. Levitt may not have crunched the numbers correctly (or may have had an overly narrow scope of data), but he's crunched more numbers than I have, and has interviewed people who have done a lot more work in this field than I have. Though those experts may have disputed the modeling mechanisms we have, and the emphasis on CO2 over methane, for example, nothing they said persuaded me that these people don't also see this as a crisis. But I'd previously felt that the only solution was in our collective willingness to cut our own CO2 emissions, and I'd felt quite hopeless because I was very cynical that people could be motivated to do so by anything other than a large degree of human suffering, probably their own. In that case, according to everything I'd read, it would be too late to avoid disastrous results. This gave me hope that, even if people put their heads in the sand as long as they can and the developed world keeps pumping out emissions until the death toll comes to our own shores, it still will not be too late for the human race. That's cold comfort to the millions suffering from the effects now, and the millions who might die before we start making real investments in geo-engineering (or, more accurately, reverse geo-engineering), but it's still a more hopeful place than where I was at before. That might just mean I was at an unrealistically hopeless place before reading the book, but I'll take a small step in a hopeful direction where I can find one, even if it means I have to admit I was wrong.

By the way, I'm struck by how childish and petty both Dubner and Kolbert come across in the exchange you posted. Very disappointing. Maybe they weren't so bad in context, but snarking about each other's credentials rather than disputing the facts... lame.