Saturday, October 3, 2015

Occam's Razor

This is Joseph.

I know Mark is often lukewarm about Kevin Drum.  But he has been asking some pretty good questions lately, and I think this one about Hillary Clinton is quite good.  I find, in practice, that people tend to assume that others know about he things that they do.  Many of my most geeky friends who are good with coding also tend to not be the biggest fans of the Clintons. 

I wonder if much of the email and server issues are about what they could know that one could do with such a set-up if they were intending to be nefarious.  But it seems, from the emails, that Hillary was not especially adept with technology, asking to be taught how to use an iPad. 

So I am starting to side with Kevin Drum -- the private server is looking more like an idea that seemed cool at the time, and nobody thought that it would ever look bad.  After all, people are still not attacking Colin Powell over exactly the same practice when he was Secretary of State.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ken Levine shows us how NBC shows get on the air

 A rocket scientist I know once observed the fundamental similarity between LA's two defining industries: entertainment and aerospace. Both exist from deal to deal, lining up risky, hugely expensive projects. Each of these projects require much of the work to be done from scratch, so much so that it's often like setting up a new business every time a deal goes through.

There are, of course, limits to the analogy. In business terms, perhaps the biggest is the nature of the customer. For all the talk of a private age of space exploration, aerospace is still a business driven by government contracts. This entails a certain level of craziness, as Ben Rich spells out in his memoir (just look up 'navy' in the index)...

... but those issues pale next to coping with the unpredictability of the viewing public. As screenwriter William Goldman famously put it "Nobody knows anything." Studio executives have to decide whether or not to spend a hundred million dollars based on only a rough idea of what the customer might want. The good executives like Moonves, Silverman, Tartikoff or, in the cable world John Landgraf (all of whom may have been worth their enormous compensation packages) can be both derivative and original, quick to jump on trends while they're still hot but also willing to try something or someone untested but promising.

At the other extreme, you have executives who are so overwhelmed by the uncertainty that every decision has to be based on precedent, not so much because to maximize profit as to minimize blame. Once again, Goldman has lots of smart observations on this topic.

Another smart observer who's made perhaps as many pitches as Goldman is Ken Levine. Levine regularly satirizes the networks and his favorite target is probably NBC which, for at least fifteen years, has been the home of the worst executives in the industry. Here's the beginning of Levine's take on what the pitch for the new NBC show Blindspot might have gone.
WRITER/CREATOR: We got this totally cool idea. It’s like a mix between the Bourne movies, PRISON BREAK, MEMENTO, the old game show CAMOUFLAGE, and what shows do you like?


W/C: It’s also like BLACKLIST.

NBC: We’ve been looking for another BLACKLIST. And another HEROES.

W/C: Ours is that too.

NBC: That’s okay. We’re remaking HEROES.

W/C: Well, if you ever want to remake THE BIONIC WOMAN ours is also like that show.


W/C: Wait. I forgot. We took out THE BIONIC WOMAN elements.

NBC: So what’s the series?

W/C: Well, we don’t actually have a concept yet – what’s it about, what happens every week, who all the characters are – we still need to tackle those details.

NBC: So what are you bringing us?

W/C: An opening scene.

NBC: An opening scene? That’s it?

W/C: Yep. Something with sizzle that you can promote all summer. Who cares if it has legs?

NBC: Well, like I said, we’re looking for another BLACKLIST. And that’s BLACKLIST. We’re sort of hoping they’ll figure something out this season.  What’s your first scene?

W/C: We’re in Times Square. It’s night. Crowded. And someone discovers a duffel bag. Just sitting in the street. And it has a tag that says CALL THE FBI.

NBC: Wouldn’t they call the FBI anyway?

W/C: You know that. And I know that. But NBC’s audience doesn’t know that.

NBC: You think they’re that dense?


NBC: Good point. Go on..

It goes on in this vein for quite a while, leading to a very funny if predictable pay-off. You should check it out. There is, however, one point Levine doesn't mention that I like to stress. Good studio executives can make their companies lots of money; bad ones can cost them even more, but both the good and the bad take home huge paychecks, and the truly awful usually manage an obscene golden parachute on the way out.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Daraprim story

This is Joseph.

The drug Daraprim jumped in it's cost from $13.55 a pill to $750 per pill after it was purchased by a new company:
“This isn’t the greedy drug company trying to gouge patients, it is us trying to stay in business,” Mr. Shkreli said. He said that many patients use the drug for far less than a year and that the price was now more in line with those of other drugs for rare diseases.

“This is still one of the smallest pharmaceutical products in the world,” he said. “It really doesn’t make sense to get any criticism for this.”
Aaron Carroll is skeptical:
“Trying to stay in business”? If the company couldn’t make money at the same price the old company was, then why did they buy the drug? And asking people to pay WAY more to fund other drug development seems like gouging sick people with no choice. I’m having trouble understanding the optics of this. 
The ability to boost the price dramatically was certainly a way to maximize profits, but it does so at the cost of increasing health care costs.  And because the drug is infrequently used, it is unlikely you will see a lot of competitors manufacturing the drug. This is especially true, here, with a closed distribution system being used.  If you can't get enough drug to do a bioequivalence study, then you can't enter the market.

How we navigate these issues is tricky . . .  That said, there is something to be said about competitive market failure if the barriers to entry allow one to increase the price by so much and yet you don't immediately lure competitors to get their share of the $749 per pill (or so) in profit. Similarly, blocking the proof of equivalence between two agents is also a complete barrier to entry and not necessarily helping matters at all.

EDIT: The company has dropped prices from the $750/pill level.  However, the underlying issue of market failure remains, unless we think that social media should be a way of enforcing market discipline on companies.  Usually, this only influences the most egregious cases. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cliches so hoary it hurts to type them

"Star Trek: Renegades," the 90-minute first installment of a planned Internet series, was released on YouTube Monday (Aug. 24). The film is not a part of the official "Star Trek" universe — it was financed primarily by three crowdfunding campaigns over the last several years — but it does feature characters and actors familiar to Trekkies.


"Together, they assemble a new elite strike force, consisting of rogues, outcasts and criminals, led by the fearless yet haunted Lexxa Singh (Adrienne Wilkinson). ... The Renegades’ mission is simple: take on an army and stop their leader, Borrada (Bruce Young), from destroying the Earth," the website adds. "Outnumbered and outgunned, the ragtag crew is in an adrenaline-pumping race against time and space. But they soon find their foes are the least of their concerns: the real trouble may be coming from within!"

I watched about a half hour and...

I really dislike punching down. It's seldom funny and never pretty and, even when it's well done, it raises the question "Can't you find anything better to make fun of?" Criticizing a fan film, even a fan film with professional aspirations, would seem to be the essence of punching down. The weaknesses of this particular film, however, are a very good fit with another of our ongoing threads. So...

I watched about a half-hour and, other than some well done prosthetics, it was every bit as bad as you might expect, from the clumsy exposition to the uneven acting to the endless stream of cliches.

It's that last one I want to focus on. The producers raised nearly $400,000 on Kickstarter and Indiegogo not only to make yet another film in the over-explored Star Trek universe, but to make one with perhaps the most overused premise imaginable, a pitch that wasn't all that fresh when Robert Aldrich made it fifty years ago. Even if the final film had been well executed (and it wasn't), there was little chance of it being anything more than competent hack work.

My concern here isn't that Renegades is a bad film, but that it's bad in a way that suggests bigger problems in the way we fund projects these days. By some accounts, this is supposed to be something of a golden age for new ideas. Between venture capital and crowd funding, you might assume that it has never been easier for creative and innovative people to get money, but the assumption behind that assumption is that there's a strong positive correlation between how creative and innovative a proposal is and how likely it is to get funded. What if the correlation is weak? Hell, what if it's negative? That may seem like a strong statement, but between this and Soylent and numerous other examples, you have to wonder.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Revisiting Nate Cohn -- Scott Walker edition

I was going back and forth on whether or not to revisit this critique of the New York Times' Nate Cohn in the wake of the Walker implosion. If you remember, little over a month ago, Cohn made the argument that:
In the end, Mr. Trump almost certainly won’t win the Republican nomination; the rest of the party will consolidate around anyone else. He can influence the outcome only if his support costs another candidate more than others. But for now, he seems to be harming all candidates fairly equally.
This was never a convincing claim (at the time I called it "strained and convoluted"), and it has gotten even less defensible in the light of recent events, but that's not necessarily enough reason to dredge things up. There's a difference between keeping score and piling on (and the last post on Cohn was a bit on the harsh side).

I was leaning toward dropping the thread until I read Cohn's piece on the collapse of the Walker campaign and again saw things that bothered me. It was better than the Trump pieces, but it was improvement without progress.

[Yeah, I know, it sounds garbled but let me unpack the oxymoron. If the most recent outcome is better than the previous one, that's an improvement; if conditions change so that we can expect future outcomes to be better than previous outcomes, that's progress. (My blog, my definitions.)]

Over the past three months, Nate Cohn and many of his colleagues have not only failed to anticipate major developments; they've also made a string of predictions that haven't come to fruition. This wouldn't be worrisome if it were leading to a critical examination of the analogies and assumptions that led to these errors, or at least a little less self-assurance.

What we don't want to see is yet is yet another simple narrative presented as the explanation. Which brings us to..
Mr. Walker faltered so quickly because he simply was not skilled enough to navigate the competing pressures of appealing to the party’s establishment at the same time as arousing its base. It was much like the story of Rick Perry.

Though the entry of Donald Trump into the race made things harder for all the Republican candidates, Mr. Trump can’t be blamed entirely for Walker’s troubles. Mr. Walker was tied with Mr. Bush for second place in national polls heading into the first debate, long after Mr. Trump took a lead in those polls. By the time he dropped out, Mr. Walker had the support of less than one-half of 1 percent of Republican primary voters, according to the most recent CNN survey.

The Walker campaign — or perhaps the candidate personally — felt pressure from the rise of Mr. Trump on his right, especially once Mr. Walker started slipping a bit in the polls. This sort of pressure isn’t unusual and was inevitable — he would have felt it at some point, if not from Mr. Trump, then from Ben Carson or Ted Cruz.

Mr. Walker, to put it gently, did not handle this pressure well. His instinct was to move to the right as fast as possible at any point of vulnerability. He staked out a conservative position on birthright citizenship and a fringe position on considering a wall at the Canadian border. These moves alienated party elites and weren’t credible to conservative voters. He quickly reversed positions; in the end, he reassured no one.

First off there's the argument itself. It seems to be a reasonable, if not all that convincing, little story (not all that different than the one Nate Silver tells, but more an that in a minute) until you consider magnitude of the event being discussed. Walker did have notable missteps (to use Silver's term) but they were relatively minor. If we were talking about a campaign losing momentum or dropping a few points they might make sense as a possible cause, but we're talking about a complete implosion with a well-funded candidate going from near the top of the field to less than one percent support in shockingly little time.

The important part here is the speed of the collapse. Cohn himself was discussing Walker's weaknesses as a campaigner back in July, but he also said Walker had "plenty of time to assuage these concerns."

We now know Walker didn't. A month later, he would already be in free fall.
Scott Walker has sought to reassure jittery donors and other supporters this week that he can turn around a swift decline in the polls in Iowa and elsewhere by going on the attack and emphasizing his conservatism on key issues.
And, if you check the dates, you'll notice that the donors got jittery before Walker started talking about that Canadian wall.

Furthermore, probably Walker's most high-profile move to the right was the anti-labor position. I suppose this could have alienated the party elites (though we are talking about Koch brothers here) but if Scott Walker can't make an attack on unions credible to conservative voters, I honestly can't imagine anyone who could.

But the argument itself isn't what really bothers me. What's troubling here is the way that Cohn deals with the failure of his predictions. Even those with a good track record on the GOP race, such as Josh Marshall, admitted to being surprised at just how rapidly the collapse transpired. As a good rule of thumb, if you did not expect something, you should be careful about offering explanations about how it happened. As far as I can tell, Marshall and company are doing their best to follow this rule.

Cohn, by comparison, has perhaps the worst track record of any of the analysts I've been following when it comes to the GOP primary. After calling a premature end to the Trump surge a number of times and making the just-another-Herman-Cain analogy on no less than five separate occasions, he then made the previously mentioned claim about Trump not having any effect on the race.

Despite this, Cohn appears to be one of the most confident commentators when putting forward his theories about the causes of the implosion. The comparison to Nate Silver here is instructive. Silver actually opens his piece by acknowledging just how wrong he and his team were on Scott Walker. In addition to caution, Silver also offers a great deal more in terms of complexity and counter arguments. Cohn actually uses the word "simply" to describe his version of events.

But what's important here is not just the unwarranted confidence. We all have our moments. What merits attention is what Cohn's confidence in this situation tells us about his process. Anyone who works with data long enough will have occasion to see their models break down and their predictions go so far awry that they are no longer even directionally accurate.

When journalists looking in from the outside describe these disasters, they almost invariably use the phrase "go back and check your numbers," but in complex situations that is relatively seldom the source of the problem. More likely and far more difficult to catch are problems with robustness and modeling assumptions.

I realize I may be making too much of this, but there's a bigger issue here that has been bothering me for a long time. When Nate Cohn says this is what happened to Scott Walker, he is displaying a this-is-how-the-world-works tone and mindset that is very common in places like the Upshot, even when it is not at all appropriate. If you read carefully the work of journalists inspired by Nate Silver (though not so much Silver himself), you pick up the implicit belief that the standard methods and assumptions being employed are as true and as reliable as the laws of mathematics , that they have always worked and will always work.

This is a dangerous way to approach the social sciences, particularly when you start running into range of data issues (and between Trump, Carson, and the rise of the tea party, I think we are definitely in new territory now).

As mentioned before, I strongly suspect that the theory that Walker collapsed because his move to the right offended the elites and yet was not credible to the base is wrong, but I would be much more comfortable with it and would certainly have not written this post if it had been clearly framed as a theory.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The magic of markets

This is Joseph

Dean Dad on buying shares in students:
Of course, Salerno elides entirely issues of equity and inclusion.  For example, nationally, white students graduate at higher rates than African-American or Latino students.  Should the market respond accordingly?  High-income students graduate at higher rates than low-income students.  Should the market respond accordingly?  Assuming that investors act to maximize returns, we should expect to see the student body get much smaller, richer, and whiter than it is now.  The market has spoken!  
 This is just one of the many reasons that this approach is a bad idea.  Markets do poorly when they are being used to provide public goods and the issues with higher education are not exclusively a lack of economic incentives.

Nor does this even touch on how you would police such an agreement.  How do you make sure that a student who doesn't succeed (but owes a percentage of income for life) doesn't hide out in a cash business?  Or leaves the country?

The idea doesn't seem great once the practical pieces get thought about.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Papering the house -- 21st Century style

Equal parts interesting and annoying. This another one of those stories where the reporters (and possibly founders)  are so fixated on buzzwords and new economy BS that they don't realize how the new technology actually solves a business problem.
Surkus [pronounced 'circus' -- MP] calls it "crowdcasting" — providing clubs, restaurants and events in New York and Los Angeles with bodies to fill the room, order drinks, and liven the place up. Promoters and bar owners tell the company how many people needed — what age, sex, lifestyle, and what you'll pay — and they hook you up with people like Chuli Joy:

"Going out and getting to talk to the pretty girls, that's cool, you know?," said the 28-year-old actor. "But to get paid to talk to pretty girls? I'm like, hey, you can't beat it."

"I only thought celebrities got paid to party," said Myriah Klingler, a 23-year-old production assistant. "But nope, anyone can. I guess that's part of L.A."

Some of these so-called "Surkus-goers" say they've made as much as 30 to 50 bucks at other events, just by being there. But what about the clients? Paying people to come and drink free booze seems like a good way to go out of business, fast.

"People find crowds interesting," said Robert Menendez, the company's president and co-founder. "Why is that crowd there? What is happening there? This is just human nature. I mean, nobody walks by a crowd and goes, 'eh.' People are curious."

Surkus pitches its value also as a matter of timing. People who show up right when the doors open keep the place from feeling dead. Their presence is a kind of kindling for the raging party bonfire to come.

Jin Yu has been running Jazz Night at the W for five years with a fashionably-late arriving crowd in attendance. Surkus changed that, he said.

"Most of my guests get here around 11 p.m. Surkus-goers get here at 10 p.m. and it's an immediate energy burst right before all my guests get here," said Yu. "So the moment they walk in they say, 'Wow! This is amazing!'"

Yu was so amazed by Surkus, he said, he joined the company—Yu is Surkus' Chief Creative Officer now.


Surkus says more than 30,000 people have downloaded the app, and the company is looking for investors to expand that number. Potential "Surkus-goers" are asked to fill out a personal profile and then give the company access to some of their Facebook data — how else will you know if someone would enjoy a hip-hop event if you don't know what they publicly like?

Surkus also looks at how many followers its users have have, on Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram. Surkus says it sells more than just bodies to its clients, it sells influence, too—what Surkus-goers Instagram, their followers see.
Of course, this sort of thing has been going on since at least the end of Prohibition. Clubs have always brought in ringers to create the impression that the establishments were popular and exciting and frequented by the right sort of people. The main problem was that, while theaters could simply give away tickets, clubs had to spend considerable time and/or money and/or ingenuity to get the sort of people they wanted in the club when they needed them.

The combination of mobile computing and social media has made this problem orders of magnitude simpler. With social media the number, location, and demographics of followers allow you to easily quantify the desirability of your plants, while smart phones allow you to bring them in at literally the last minute (or at least the last ten minutes).

In the full article, Menendez drops various trendy references to big data and behavioral economics, but not in a way that suggest a strong grasp of the concepts. This might indicate that the company's founder doesn't have all that solid a grasp on his own business model (these things have been known to happen) but I suspect it's more a matter of wanting to downplay the actual nature of the service.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Under our radar

This is Joseph

Mike Konczal has been quietly doing some great analysis about student loans and their implications for financing higher education costs.  One thing that has been quite interesting is how he points out that no such market can be designed without government intervention.  He even points out the main free market solution actually increases government oversight:
You’ll be happy to note that Kelly is against any kind of usury regulation and bankruptcy protections for ISAs. That would interfere with the market. The thing where he describes building a joint government–creditor surveillance state, where the IRS uses its extensive power to consistently feed all of your personal information to debt collectors in real time to assess the earnings they need to collect? That’s just normal for markets.
The exact quote is:
An ISA servicer cannot efficiently verify a recipient’s income, particularly in real time, without the involvement of the recipient’s employer or the involvement of a governmental agency that can withhold wages. The former is difficult because of privacy concerns and confusion with prohibitions on the assignment of wages. With data from the Internal Revenue Service or Social Security Administration, the Department of Education could provide ISA servicers with the information they require. 
This tends to reinforce my view that there is no such thing as a completely unregulated market.  Even a place without formal enforcement mechanisms (e.g. medieval Iceland) had the strength of convention and informal rules of conduct. 

Generally speaking, something has to act to create markets and large markets (with a high potential for fraud) really need that to be something that looks like a government.  So there is no question that the government will be interfering in markets (e.g. to prevent fraud) and the real question is how extensive will this involvement be.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Disability in the United States

This is Joseph.

The New York times had a very nice article on social security disability insurance.  Of especial note were:
If people on disability were faking it, they wouldn’t have such high death rates. People on disability are three to six times more likely to die than people in their age group who are not on disability.
Disability claims are not skyrocketing. Rather, the population most likely to go on disability, those aged 50 to 64, is growing. The potential disability population is also larger now than in the past because today’s older women are more likely to have worked enough to qualify for disability than in earlier generations.
These points suggest that increases in disability claims are much less of a point of concern than one might think.  An elevated death rate is a pretty strong indicator of morbidity and it is impossible to fake.  Nor do I think an increased level of workforce participation (making it possible for more people to be eligible for benefits) is bad news. 

I don't want to minimize worries about fraud, but there are times when there is unlikely to be a lot of low hanging fruit. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Jonathan Chait is strongly (but selectively) offended by Islamophobia

Jonathan Chait recently took up the subject of religious bigotry in the GOP making his points with characteristic forcefulness:
How Conservatives Explain Away Republican Islamophobia
Donald Trump’s candidacy exposed a burning, and heretofore mostly concealed, resentment of immigrants among large segments of the Republican base. As the campaign has proceeded, it has exposed a second related resentment, which Republicans have only barely concealed: paranoia and hate against Muslim-Americans. Ben Carson’s assertion yesterday that a Muslim should not be allowed to serve as president — chilling in its mild, almost sleepy frankness — laid bare a majority sentiment among his party’s voters. Right-wing Islamophobia provides a new, mainly untapped source of populist resentment into which Trump, Carson, and several other social conservatives can tap. It is also a source of embarrassment for party elites committed to the delusion that their party is mostly innocent of bigotry. 
It's a well-written piece -- blunt and pithy play to Chait's strengths -- but it's also a bit curious to those with long memories (or at least, with access to Google).

Though he's been with New York for quite a while now, Jonathan Chait will always be associated with the New Republic (a legacy he continues to defend proudly). Unfortunately, TNR, in turn, is associated with things like this (Max Fisher via Brad DeLong)

But Hughes' predecessor, Marty Peretz, did much worse. In the years of Peretz's ownership, from 1974 to 2007 and then partially until 2012, the sewing machine fortune heir gave himself the title of editor-in-chief and regular space in the magazine and on its website, which he frequently used to issue rants that were breathtaking in their overt racism. The columns typically came during periods of turmoil for the minorities he targeted: often blacks and Latinos, later focusing especially on Muslims and Arabs.

The overwhelmingly white writers and editors who worked for Peretz knew his work was monstrous, and often struggled over the morality of accepting his money (as did I, during my brief internship there). But none ever resigned en masse as they did over the firing of two white male editors today. That fact is just a particularly egregious example of a much larger problem among the elite Beltway publications: a lack of diversity and a begrudging tolerance of racism that go hand-in-hand.
Here are the sorts of things that Peretz wrote or said over the years; all but the speeches here ran on the New Republic's pages or website.

Quoted speaking on the 'cultural deficiencies' of 'the black population':
Citing statistics on out-of-wedlock births among blacks, Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, said, 'So many in the black population are afflicted by cultural deficiencies.' Asked what he meant, Peretz responded, 'I would guess that in the ghetto a lot of mothers don't appreciate the importance of schooling.' Mfume challenged Peretz, saying, 'You can't really believe that. Every mother wants the best for their children.' Peretz agreed, then added, 'But a mother who is on crack is in no position to help her children get through school.' Some in the audience of 2,600 young Jewish leaders hissed at Peretz's remarks.
Writing on the 'lives of Africans':
The truth is that no one has ever really cared about the lives of Africans in Africa unless those lives are taken out by whites. No one has cared, not even African Americans like [Jesse] Jackson and [Susan] Rice. Frankly -- I have not a scintilla of evidence for this but I do have my instincts and my grasp of his corruptibility -- I suspect that Jackson was let in on the diamond trade or some other smarmy commerce.
Writing on the 'deficiencies' of 'Latin society':
Well, I am extremely pessimistic about Mexican-American relations, not because the U.S. had done anything specifically wrong to our southern neighbor but because a (now not quite so) wealthy country has as its abutter a Latin society with all of its characteristic deficiencies: congenital corruption, authoritarian government, anarchic politics, near-tropical work habits, stifling social mores, Catholic dogma with the usual unacknowledged compromises, an anarchic counter-culture and increasingly violent modes of conflict.
By far his worst screeds, though, were reserved for Muslims and Arabs, whom he famously argued should all be stripped of free speech rights:
But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imaam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.
On the 'higher standards of civilization' that 'we' (that most telling pronoun) hold than do Muslims:
I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) 'atrocities.' They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures. That comparison shouldn't comfort us as Americans. We have higher standards of civilization than they do. But the mutilation of bodies and beheadings of people picked up at random in Iraq does not scandalize the people of Iraq unless victims are believers in their own sect or members of their own clan. And the truth is that we are less and less shocked by the mass death-happenings in the world of Islam. Yes, that's the bitter truth. Frankly, even I--cynic that I am--was shocked in the beginning by the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq. But I am no longer surprised. And neither are you.
And no one resigned — including me, while I was an intern at the magazine for four months. Though I was unpaid, I eagerly accepted the resume-boosting prestige that came from working there. And, like the rest of the staff, I did it knowing it meant turning a blind eye to Peretz's frequent screeds on the magazine's website, fully aware that they were not just the crazy rants of an old racist but were in fact palpably damaging to the minority families who had to live in a society that was that much more intolerant because Peretz enjoyed a platform that legitimized his views.
Chait was with the magazine for much longer than Fisher and he sometime gave his boss more than implicit support. For example, when Matt Yglesias objected to Peretz's claim in 2010 that:
And the truth is that it is not yet clear in the president’s head–or he is not yet being candid (which is my substitute for “frank” and “honest”)–that you can’t have a true view of routine mass murder in the contemporary world without having quite a harsh view of Islam today.
Chait immediately mounted a defense -- And I do mean immediately. Both appeared on January the eighth -- in a post with a title that was less of joke than Chait intended (My Suck-Up of The Day). I'm not going to get into the details of the exchange. You can follow the links if you're curious, but the real importance lies in the pattern. Peretz had been at this since the seventies. This wasn't a case of a subtle argument being taken out of context. Chait knew that Yglesias was simply pointing out the latest expression of Peretz' racism and religious bigotry and he knew that, by arguing with Yglesias, he was providing cover for his editor-in-chief.

All of which is, of course, old news, which begs the question of why bother to retell it. Peretz isn't worth bothering with. He's not the first unpublishable writer to buy his way into print with his wife's money and he will he be the last. Nor is Chait's part that notable; it wasn't that big of a lapse and the overall quality of his work is exceptional (this incident aside, I am far more impressed with him than I am with Yglesias).

What's important about this and the other reaction-to-Peretz stories is the role that social dynamics play. The journalistic establishment is filled with people who liked and/or felt obligated to Marty Peretz. This allowed him to get away with statements and opinions that otherwise would have been roundly condemned.

And if you think that's an isolated case, you haven't been paying attention.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Dynamic scoring

This is Joseph.

I have noticed this issue in the data on economic growth for a while, as a general impression.  But Robert Waldman has a past pointing out that the current data suggests that it is quite possible that lowering tax rates is an effective way to decrease growth:
I haven’t run the numbers (I can’t) but I am confident that Jeb’s plan would cause lower growth. Partly this is because of post WWII data on top marginal tax rates (I admit on labor income) and growth in OECD countries. Atheoretic estimates, if taken literally, suggest that the growth is maximized at a top rate of over 50% (some estimates are 70%). In contrast, I know of essentially no evidence published in the peer reviewed literature that lower rates cause more rapid growth (the essentially is in regressions which consider convergence that is include initial per capita GDP as a regressor — it’s negative coefficient is overwhelmingly statistically significant for the sample.
 Now it is true, as one of the commenters points out, that there is a lot of unexplained variance in the data and so it possible that this estimate is incorrect.  But think carefully about the implications: the best available estimate not only has to be wrong but the sign needs to switch (and the magnitude still needs to be large as a very small positive effect might still be essentially zero).

So what if we decide that the data is utterly unreliable.  All we would have are theoretical models that we really cannot test (as the hypothesis was proposed under Reagan and we have since seen two switches in tax rates, both going in the direction of the data -- if that isn't enough data we are basically giving up on a data based answer for decades). 

So what happens if you justify tax cuts, assuming no effects on economic growth?  Or, worse, if you model deficits as decreasing growth but not tax cuts? 

I think you would end up with some very different policy conclusions. 

Postscript: Paul Krugman also has a very nice plot of this data, after both a tax cut and a tax hike. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

A natural experiment in journalistic objectivity (or at least a chance to draw a sharp comparison)

Discussions of objectivity in the mainstream (as opposed to partisan) press generally focus on the ideological and start with the assumption of a liberal bias. This assumption is usually backed by various studies of journalists' party affiliations and op-ed positions. As statisticians, our natural impulse at this point is to start examining these studies and trying to determine their validity, but while that might make for an interesting classroom conversation, it would miss the real question.

There's a big difference between holding a position and showing bias against those with different positions. Not only can we not assume that people in group A discriminate against not-A, it can often break the other way.  For instance, perceived biases can be over-corrected for. This is particularly true in fields like political reporting where the stakes are high and there's a serious potential for push-back. Another possibility is that the acknowledged factor correlates with another factor where the bias runs the other way. For example, the New York Times is, by many metrics, a liberal paper, but it tends to identify strongly with the one-percent, which can sometimes produce a de facto liberal bias

This week's GOP debate has given us an excellent opportunity to test some of the assumptions about the way the press does or doesn't favor liberals over conservatives.

From Talking Points Memo:
Carly Fiorina on Thursday morning defended claims she made during the CNN Republican presidential debate that the Planned Parenthood sting videos showed a kicking fetus as employees discussed harvesting its organs. However, reports indicate that the videos recently released by the anti-abortion group The Center for Medical Progress did not include the scene Fiorina described.

During the debate, Fiorina told her Democratic opponents to look at the videos and "watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."

During a Thursday morning interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," host George Stephanopoulos asked Fiorina if she incorrectly characterized the videos.

"Analysts who have watched all 12 plus hours say the scene you describe - that harrowing scene you described -- actually isn't in those tapes. Did you misspeak?" he asked.

"No, I didn't misspeak, and I don't know who you're speaking about in terms of watching the tapes, but I have seen those images," Fiorina responded. "I don't know whether you've watched the tapes, George. Most people haven't. Certainly none of the Democrats who are still defending Planned Parenthood have watched those tapes."

Stephanopoulos then referenced a report by Vox's Sarah Kliff, who said that she watched all of the videos released and that she did not see the scene Fiorina described.
Here's the operative quote from Kliff's piece.

Either Fiorina hasn't watched the Planned Parenthood videos or she is knowingly misrepresenting the footage. Because what she says happens in the Planned Parenthood videos simply does not exist.

A few years ago, Al Gore received a flood of negative coverage for false statements about his personal and legislative record. (All of these turned out to be the result of misreporting but let's put that aside for the moment.) We know that Gore was generally disliked by the Washington press corps -- Many of the reporters actually commented on this at the time – even though most members were in general agreement with his center-left positions. 

By comparison, Fiorina doesn't seem to have staked out any notably moderate, let alone liberal, positions, even by the current GOP standards. Not on taxes, not on foreign policy and certainly not on abortion. Ideologically, there doesn't appear to be any common ground between those positions and those of the editorial board of a paper like the NYT. In terms of style and personality, however, the paper (and the press in general) has been very friendly to wealthy ex-CEOs.

If the press really does have a strong pro-liberal/anti-conservative bias, we should hear a lot more about Fiorina imagining organ-harvesting than we did about Gore inventing the internet (and more about her campaign financing violations than about Hillary's emails).

Anyone care to wager which way the results will break?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Tasteless joke first, intellectual stuff later

This started out as another lexicon post in response to this must-read piece from Andrew, but I realized that the title to the post I had in mind spoiled the punchline of the joke it referred to.  We can't have that, so...

The Scientist and the Frog

There once was a scientist who studied frogs. One day, the scientist put the frog on the ground and told it to jump. The frog jumped four feet.

So the scientist wrote in his notebook, "Frog with four feet, jumps four feet."

So the scientist cut off one of one of the frogs legs. The scientist told the frog to jump. Frog jumped three feet. So the scientist wrote in his note book, "Frog with three feet, jumps three feet."

So the scientist cut of another leg. He told the frog to jump. The frog jumped two feet. So the scientist wrote in his notebook "Frog with two feet, jumps two feet."

The scientist cut off one more leg. He told the frog to jump. Frog jumped one foot. So the scientist wrote in his notebook, "Frog with one foot, jumps one foot."

So the scientist cut off his last leg.

"He said, "Frog jump. Frog jump. FROG JUMP!"

So the scientist wrote in his notebook, "Frog with no feet, goes deaf."

CARLY and the sliding scandal scale

Here's Charles Pierce commenting on  a recent National Journal article by Emma Roller
Consider the latest prime example of fudge from the campaign of Carly Fiorina. As you know, presidential campaigns are forbidden by what's left of our campaign finance law from "coordinating" their operations with the Super PACs that also are dedicated to the election of the same candidate. This is a rule that everybody knows but to which very few people pay attention. That's why most of them have names like American Heartland Jesus Highway or something.

Anyway, down at the Federal Election Commission, somebody came out of their klonopin coma long enough to notice that Fiorina's SuperPac was called "Carly For America." This person also noticed that Fiorina's campaign seemed to be doing no actual campaigning, but that the SuperPac was doing a lot of the nuts-and-bolts that a campaign usually does. Hey, said the person from the FEC, this doesn't look right, speaking softly so as not to awaken the other watchdogs.

No, he was told. Carly For America and the Fiorina campaign were separate things. (You got your SuperPac in my campaign! No, you got your campaign on my SuperPac!) The way that you know this is that, in the SuperPac's name, "Carly" stood for "Con­ser­vat­ive, Au­then­t­ic, Re­spons­ive Lead­er­ship For You."

This dif­fer­en­ti­ation between in-kind and in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures can lead to some con­fus­ing op­tics. It was Fior­ina's birth­day on Sunday, and at a cam­paign stop in New Hamp­shire she was presen­ted with a birth­day cake. The cake was dec­or­ated not with her cam­paign's logo, but the su­per PAC's logo. At a Labor Day parade the next day, a video sent out by Fior­ina's of­fi­cial Twit­ter ac­count shows the can­did­ate walk­ing down the street, sur­roun­ded by sup­port­ers in CARLY T-shirts, wav­ing CARLY signs. There was no vis­ible cam­paign swag from Fior­ina's pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, so a cas­u­al ob­serv­er could reas­on­ably as­sume that the paraphernalia was com­ing from the cam­paign it­self. Sarah Is­gur Flores, Fior­ina's deputy cam­paign man­ager, ac­know­ledged that the cam­paign does not do as much mer­chand­ising at events as CARLY For Amer­ica does, but said the su­per PAC's ad­vance work does not con­sti­tute an in-kind con­tri­bu­tion be­cause it is not co­ordin­at­ing with the cam­paign.

And we're supposed to believe this nonsense. It's our new responsibility as citizens to accept the fact that our politics are mere dumbshow for an increasingly irrelevant audience. Gullibility is the new civic duty. The actual power of self-government has been leached away into fewer and fewer hands while we sit back at home and enjoy the show, committing democratic suicide by acronym.

Pierce doesn't mention perhaps my favorite part of Roller's article

“For a can­did­ate like Carly Fior­ina, who is a polit­ic­al out­sider, who does not have the polit­ic­al base that a lot of these oth­er kind of ca­reer politi­cians in the race have had, what we de­cided as an out­side group that the best thing that we could help to provide is ground-game sup­port,” Shedd said.

When asked to cla­ri­fy wheth­er or not the su­per PAC provides those ser­vices so that the Fior­ina cam­paign does not have to worry about them, Shedd balked.

“No, I would def­in­itely nev­er say that be­cause that would be co­ordin­at­ing,” Shedd said. “What I have told you is that we have as­sessed the situ­ation and we have de­term­ined that one of the ways that we can help is by help­ing with the ground game.”

You see, it's just a string of lucky coincidences. The CARLY people just happened to bring the signs and the tee-shirts and the tables and all the other things a campaign needs. It could just as easily turned out that both CARLY and the campaign would have brought cake.

Roller does throw in an everybody's at fault paragraph (because this is the National Journal and unbalanced journalism makes Ron Fournier cry) but it is remarkably weak stuff.
And Cor­rect the Re­cord, an op­pos­i­tion-re­search firm led by prom­in­ent al­lies of Hil­lary Clin­ton, is ar­gu­ably tak­ing work off Clin­ton staffers’ hands by dig­ging up dirt on Clin­ton’s op­pon­ents.
The might-ar­gu­ably-tak­e-work-off-staffers’-hands standard is exceeded by pretty much all SuperPACs. CARLY is not only blatantly coordinating with the campaign; it's routinely doing so on an event by event basis. You might think that the frequently scandal-hungry New York Times would eat this up but, as far as I can tell, Fiorina's apparent violation of campaign finance laws barely shows up on their radar. The only reference I could find was one sentence at the end of the eighteenth paragraph of this story.

The liberal bias of the press has always been overstated. The how and why is a topic for another post (or thread) but simply as an assertion, it's fairly easy to argue that the mainstream press has been as tough or tougher on Democrats than Republicans ever since the Republicans turned hard right in 1980. This isn't to say that the MSP (exemplified by the NYT) is not biased, but that other biasing factors such as cultivation of sources, fear of conservative pushback, social norming, style and personality conflicts, class and regional bigotries, and commitment to flawed narratives almost always swamp ideological biases.

For a variety of reasons, the NYT et al are comfortable with the ex-CEO Fiorina and the old money/old power Bush family. The result has been conspicuously slanted and selective coverage. Add to that the fact that having a Clinton in the race has always made the paper's editorial staff crazy and Trump has the same effect on lots of people.

Mark my words, over the next few months, the journalist standards of the old gray lady will be hitting the ground like bags of wet cement. There goes one now.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Planned Parenthood, channeled information and catharsis

This recent TPM post about the looming government shut-down ties in with a couple of ideas we've discussed before. [Emphasis added]

Facing a Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government, GOP leaders in both chambers decided they would fast-track standalone anti-abortion bills in an effort to allow conservative Republicans to express their anger over a series of “sting” videos claiming to show that Planned Parenthood is illegally harvesting the tissue of aborted fetuses. The leadership hoped that with those votes out of the way, the path would be clear for long-delayed bills to fund the government in the new fiscal year, even if those bills contained money for Planned Parenthood.

But anti-abortion groups and conservative House members are not backing down from their hard line. They are reiterating that they will not vote for bills that include Planned Parenthood funding under any circumstances, despite the maneuvering by leaders to vent their outrage over the videos. If anything, anti-abortion groups are amping up the pressure on lawmakers not to back down from the fight.
Here's what we had to say about the GOP reaction to those videos a month ago.

Fetal tissue research will make most people uncomfortable, even those who support it. If you were a Republican marketer, the ideal target for these Planned Parenthood stories would be opponents and persuadables. By contrast, you would want the videos to get as little play as possible among your supporters. With that group, you have already maxed out the potential gains – – both their votes and their money are reliably committed – – and you run a serious risk of pushing them to the level where they start demanding more extreme action.

With all of the normal caveats -- I have no special expertise. I only know what I read in the papers. There's a fundamental silliness comparing a political movement to a business -- it seems to me that in marketing terms, the PP tapes have been badly mistargeted. They have had the biggest viewership and impact in the segment of the voting market where they would do the least good and the most damage (such as pushing for a government shutdown on the eve of a presidential election).
[I really should have said "causing supporters to push," but it's too late to worry about that now.]

I haven't followed the press coverage that closely, but based on what I've come across from NPR and the few political sites I frequent, I get the feeling that the center-left media is more likely to discuss the doctoring of the tapes than to focus on the gory specifics of harvesting fetal tissue. I'd need to check sources like CNN before making a definitive statement, but it appears that the videos are having exceptionally little effect on what should have been their target audience.

Instead, their main impact seems to have been on the far right. The result has been to widen what was already a dangerous rift. The pragmatic wing looks at defunding as a futile gesture with almost no chance of success and large potential costs. The true believers are approaching this on an entirely different level. It has become an article of faith for them that, as we speak, babies are being killed, dismembered and sold for parts. They demand action, even if it's costly and merely symbolic, as long as it's cathartic.

I've been arguing for quite a while now that we need to pay more attention to the catharsis in politics (such as with the reaction to the first Obama/Romney debate), particularly with the Tea Party.  Conservative media has long been focused on feeding the anger and the outrage of the base while promising victory just around the corner. This has produced considerable partisan payoff but at the cost of considerable anxiety and considerable disappointment, both of which produce stress and a need for emotional release.

There's a tendency to think of trading political capital for catharsis as being irrational, but it's not. There is nothing irrational about doing something that makes you feel better. That's the real problem for the GOP leaders: shutting down the government would be cathartic for many members of the base. It would be difficult to get the base to defer their catharsis, even if the base trusted the leaders to make good on their promise that things will get better.

For now, the Tea Party is inclined to do what feels good, whether it's supporting an unelectable candidate or making a grandstanding play. It's not entirely clear what Boehner and McConnell can do about that.