Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Opinions of Experts Are Not Facts

Q: What is a fact?
A: Something The New Republic agrees with.

Want an example? This morning, Timothy Noah posted this on his blog:
Take a look at the following statement:
"Permanently raising the federal tax rate by one percentage point for those in the top income tax bracket would increase federal tax revenue over the next 10 years."
This is a bit like saying if you jump into a swimming pool you'll get wet. When researchers at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management presented this statement to a "panel of distinguished economists," 100 percent of them agreed with it. But when the researchers presented this statement to the general public only 66 percent of respondents agreed with it. Only fifty percent of Republicans agreed with it, compared to 80 percent of Democrats. "This difference exists in spite of the fact that this statement is factual, not political," the researchers observed. "Indeed, all economists, regardless of their political orientation, agree with it." Well, all economists except for Arthur Laffer, keeper of the supply-side flame.
Why does the public resist believing a statement that is factually true? ...
When one hundred percent of economists agree on something, it doesn't become a fact. More importantly, if this is a fact, that would mean government revenues would maximize when the tax rate is 100%. How many economists believe that? Does The New Republic believe that?

I don't know what tax rate would maximize government revenues. I believe it would not be a rate of either 0% or 100%. So, it has to be somewhere in between. Therefore, there are scenarios where raising the tax rate would result in a decrease in government revenues. Consequently, at this moment in time, whether or not raising the tax rate 1% would result in an increase in revenues is an opinion. If 100% of economists agree with that opinion, it is still an opinion. It hasn't become a fact.

The gap between left and right, not to mention the elite and public, continues to grow. Not only can't we agree on the facts, we can't agree what facts are.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Me First

April 15th will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. It might be a tad early to cite the date, but last week's capsizing of an Italian cruise ship brings her maiden voyage to mind. However, unlike the Titanic's evacuation, times have changed:
It was every man – and crew member – for himself.
Survivors from the Costa Concordia spoke angrily yesterday of the nightmare evacuation from the stricken ship as women and children were left behind.
In the terrifying moments after the giant vessel began to list, fights even broke out to get into the lifeboats.
Men refused to prioritise women, expectant mothers and children as they pushed themselves forward to escape. Crew ignored their passengers – leaving ‘chefs and waiters’ to help out.
In heart-rending footage, recorded on mobile phones, British children could be heard shouting ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mummy’ in the melee.
As she waited for a flight home from Rome, grandmother Sandra Rogers, 62, told the Daily Mail: ‘There was no “women and children first” policy. There were big men, crew members, pushing their way past us to get into the lifeboats. It was disgusting.’
Unlike the depiction in James Cameron's dreadful 1997 film, the social norms of 1912 held up under the pressure of the Titanic sinking. Seventy-four percent of women (but only twenty percent of men) survived the iceberg. I'm not suggesting everything was better in 1912, but I don't think today's society could reproduce casualty figures like that.

Thankfully, the Costa Concordia merely capsized and did not sink. Only six people have been reported killed with an additional 15 listed as missing.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Legal Extremism

Legal philosophy and Constitutional interpretation are polarizing subjects. We all know how divisive Supreme Court decisions can be - particularly when they break along ideological grounds. However, I find the Court's unanimous decisions to be just as interesting. We know the topics the Justices split on - but which are the issues where they all agree?

There was such a decision today. The Huffington Post's Mike Sacks' explains:
WASHINGTON -- Employees of religious organizations whose job duties reflect "a role in conveying the Church's message and carrying out its mission" are barred by the First Amendment from suing over employment discrimination, said the Supreme Court in a unanimous opinion handed down Wednesday morning.
The decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was the first time the Supreme Court had endorsed the "ministerial exception" to discrimination protections that many courts of appeals have come to recognize over the past several decades.
"Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts on behalf of the entire Court. "By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments."
Paul Horwitz, a constitutional law professor at the University of Alabama and and author of "The Agnostic Age: Law, Religion, and the Constitution," told HuffPost that the Court's decision backed up the central constitutional principle that "the church cannot administer the state, and the state cannot administer churches."
There you have it! A 9-0 decision for religious freedom!

There's an additional reason why I find unanimous decisions interesting - I want to know who made the legal arguments that couldn't find a single vote in the Court? Since I'm constantly being told that Justice X is an extremist, or Justice Y is out of the mainstream, I want to know who made the argument that couldn't get a single vote from any of the nine justices?

In this case, it was the Obama Administration.

P.S. The Huffington Post article continued for another nine paragraphs without mentioning that part of the story.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Occupy Wall Street's Friendly Fire

The word out of Iowa is that the flood of youthful Ron Paul supporters canvassing the state has had the opposite effect - alienating middle-aged voters from their preferred candidate. The same phenomenon was seen in 2004 when Howard Dean's campaign tanked after out-of-state youths had thoroughly aggravated the local citizenry.

When enthusiasm for a candidate turns to mocking and taunting, one loses the ability to influence and persuade. At the risk of painting with a broad brush, Ron Paul supporters are some of the more passionate (and obnoxious) people on the political spectrum. Iowa found this out over the holidays.

The mainstream media might indulge the Occupy Wall Street types, but most Americans are repelled by firsthand exposure to such tactics. Through selective reporting, the media can whitewash the transgressions of OWS for their television audience, but they can't be on every Iowa street corner. We are a long way from the youthful enthusiasm Obama rode in 2008. Today's candidates must be increasingly careful when harnessing the energy of petulant activists. Iowans are witnessing the juvenile tactics of Paul's college-aged partisans without the media filter, and are being driven away from the candidate.

Ron Paul has said he is a politician who can bridge the Tea Party and OWS, but the reality might be that he is the latter's first political casualty.

There will be others.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Great Moments in the History of Journalism

Two days ago, Newt Gingrich got a little emotional on the campaign trail. The L.A. Times explains:
With his presidential campaign drifting out of contention, Newt Gingrich veered from his typically brash, boastful personality on the campaign trail Friday, choking up in front of a group of moms when he recalled his mother, Kit, who died in 2003. ...

At the end of her life, Gingrich said, his mother lived in a long-term care facility, which helped him understand and become interested in brain science. ...

"She had bipolar disease and depression, and she gradually acquired some physical ailments, and that introduced me to the whole issue of quality long-term care … and that introduced me to the issue of Alzheimer's," said Gingrich, who chatted with the founder of a popular website for mothers at Java Joe's coffeehouse here.

"My emphasis on brain science comes indirectly from dealing with — " he said, and then his voice broke and his eyes welled with tears. "See, I am getting very emotional — but dealing with the real problems of real people in my family. And so it's not a theory; it's in fact my mother."
This calls to mind one of the more exploitative moments in television journalism - when 60 Minutes put Newt's mom on TV:

I always found Connie Chung's "just between you and me" to be bothersome. After hearing about the mental ailments the woman was facing, it strikes me as pernicious.

Great job, CBS!