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Monday, December 13, 2010

You have a right to your opinion-but it may be worthless (the opinion, that is)

Let me start by paraphrasing others

1. The late Robert A. Heinlein wrote a short story concerning physicists who, upon re-examining certain mathematical calculations, realized that a particular kind of nuclear power plant was far more dangerous than they had assumed.  They decided that the plant had to cease operations.  But the lead physicist was called into a meeting of the Governing Board of the plant, and was informed that the members of the Board had reached a different conclusion about the implications of the calculations.  The lead physicist responded with a statement to the effect of: "Unless they're nuclear physicists, they don't have the right to an opinion".

2. (On a lighter note)Fran Liebowitz, in her book, Metropolitan Life, wrote something like:  "As is obvious to any single woman who walks into a room at a party, all men are not created equal".

As many commentators have noted, we appear to be living in a political atmosphere which takes pride in anti-intellectualism, and a general suspicion of those who claim some "expertise" based on education or study.  Sarah Palin seems to take pride in her lack of knowledge in many areas.  The successful Republican candidate for Senate in Wisconsin took pride in his statement that he would need a map to find Washington, D.C.  Pundits on all sides scold President Obama for appearing "intellectual" rather than "populist".

There are reasons for this, and some of them are, at least to me, pretty good, or at least understandable. 

First, people with "more" of anything they consider important - education, money, good looks, or religious fervor, tend to look down upon those who have "less" of that item. It's particularly true in the "education"  and "religious fervor" areas because those areas seem to be more "status" oriented than money or power oriented.  The resulting condescension (which is often obvious) causes an understandable resentment in those of us who have less.  We "lessers" also may have some psychological insecurities that increase our resentment.

Second, intellectuals and "experts" in general have a not perfect track record.  They have a tendency to speak with a certainty that even their mere theories are correct based on their superior education or knowledge, and yet at least some of what they say is not obvious, is counter intuitive, and is often (eventually) proven incorrect.  I believe this to be particularly true in what we call the social sciences.  (This is not meant to be critical of anyone, including social scientists.  The nature of any kind of predictive science is that new evidence may demonstrate that current theories are not correct.)

Third, experts tend to set forth general theories which may run counter to our own particular experience in specific cases.  For instance, experts seem to believe that phonics is the best way to teach children to read.  Since I, my siblings and my children learned perfectly easily without using phonics, the experts' theory, although it may be correct,  starts off with two emotional strikes against it, at least for me.  This is even more true when we "ordinary people" have knowledge the experts do not.  For example - I have lived with my kids.  I know how my body tends to react.  I have been running my business.  The experts almost certainly know stuff that I do not about what I should do to "manage" my kids, my body and my business in certain situations, but the reverse is also true.

Fourth, like any other group, intellectuals have their share of idiots and those with their own axes to grind, but they (I'm tempted to say "we") tend to make our failures more public.

Fifth - an understandable but really "bad" reason.  Sometimes the experts want us to do stuff, individually or collectively, that we do not want to do.  This one is really tempting, really common, and really awful.

Generally, I believe I have a strong populist and egalitarian streak.  Nevertheless, I think the anti-intellectual /anti-expert streak manifesting itself in American politics is very, very dangerous.  The "experts", individually or collectively,  may or may not be right in any particular case, but they are usually experts because they have more training or experience in a given area than most people, and, as a result their opinion is often worth a lot more than "ours".

I'm a lawyer.  Have been one since 1978.  I know a lot about some areas of the law, and much less about others.  In some areas, I could be called an "expert".  Everyone (it seems) loves to argue about the law.  That's good.  It affects us all.  And when you are telling me what you think the law should be, your opinion may be worth as much as my own.  But, when you are a client or prospective client who asks me about an area of the law in which I am expert and in terms of what the law is at the moment, your opinion is not equal to mine; I simply know a lot more about the subject.  Many clients want to argue with me at length about what the law is or is not, because they do not like the answer I just gave them.  This is understandable, if sometimes annoying.  "Annoying" is OK, but having a client actually do or not do something because he or she thinks that he knows as much as I do is often dangerous to the client.

Some of my frustrating experiences in this regard have been with physicians, academics, and very successful business people - people who are, frankly, often "smarter" than I am.  Sometimes much smarter.  However, that does not mean that they know more about my field than I do.  (This is not to say that they cannot learn what they need to know about the law in their particular situation.  Given enough time and focus, most of them can and may actually do so.  The law (at least what I do)really is not that intellectually hard.  It's complicated, but not all that complex.  It can't be; it's created by people and supposed to be generally understandable.)

Politically, the most troubling example of this may be in the area of climate change.  Somewhere between 90% and 98% of those who could be considered "qualified" climate scientists believe that global warming is becoming a problem and will become a bigger one.  There is less general agreement on the causes of global warming and what should be done about it, but almost all the true "experts" believe that it is a very real problem.  These are generally very bright people, and they each have studied climate science for years; they are professional scientists opining about what is a scientific issue. Could they be wrong?  Sure. Are they?  Almost certainly not.

Despite the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion, a disturbingly large number of politicians have characterized global warming as "bullshit" or a "scam".  However, is any politician's opinion contrary to what almost all scientists are saying in this area worth anything ?  No.  Your basic politician (or lawyer) is about as capable of really evaluating climate change evidence as my dog is.  (Not intended as an insult; my dog is very smart, but she is not a climate scientist).  This is not necessarily stuff that just anyone can evaluate with a little reading.  As most schoolchildren (and adults who remember) will tell you, science, once beyond elementary levels, is hard.  And being a scientific "expert" takes a lot of knowledge as well as smarts.

There are other "political" examples of: "it isn't so because I say it isn't.  Nyah, nyah", but I won't go into them here.

What bothers me even more than the politicians (I have low expectations) is that a large number of the American people still seem to believe Snake Oil Salesmen, so long as they tell us what we want to hear.  Enough.

P.S.  Addendum

Since I posted the above thoughts, I have heard from some people who at least partially disagree.  They raise (along with some looniness) some good points:

1.  Scientists and the politicians who cite them often blur scientific conclusions with political conclusions, and claim that the combination is "scientific".   True.  So does everyone on all sides interested in making a political point.  This may make the "blurred" conclusions suspect, but the strictly scientific ones tend to be based on evidence or data that is generally transparent.

2.  Some of the scientists involved in the Climate Change debate fudged the data to support their own political agendas.  Yep.  But I think there were exactly 2 of them, and the overwhelming majority of scientists, using "unfudged" data, think it's a serious problem

3.  Most scientists are liberals.  Not sure where the data is on that. (If true, I think that says bad things about Conservatives rather than about scientists, but I have my doubts). It's possible, I guess, but it doesn't make their conclusions invalid or less "scientific".

4.  Scientific research which is inclined to come to "liberal" conclusions is more likely to be funded, and, therefore, science is likely to have a liberal bias.  This would be troubling, if true, but across the board, I think it's not true.  A lot of research is done or sponsored by companies that want to make a profit.  Period.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A good article on Obama being "too reasonable"

Here's the best thing I've seen so far on the issue of whether President Obama should be "tough" or "reasonable".  It's a critique, but a "friendly" one, and comes at the question from a sociological perspective about how groups function to encourage normative conduct. 

No, You Can't
By Shankar Vedantam

It is worth reading if only for the last line, which I will preview here

"Memo to Obama: Being unreasonable all the time is crazy, but if you're always reasonable, you might as well hang a sign around your neck that says, "Exploit Me." "

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The idea of "small government" as politically-induced bullshit -Someone (else) always has some control -

I will (narcissistically) start with a quote from my last Post, which started a train of thought - "Mr. Beck, however, apparently trusts everyone, except the government (which does not have a profit motive), to act in the public good."

Last week, I was talking to my (and I say this fondly) conservative wingnut partner Micheal about tax cuts and the deficit.  Michael admitted that his major concern was not the deficit, but his desire to shrink the government by "starving the beast" by cutting the money available to the government.  While he focused on the federal government, he believes that governments in general do not do anything (except the military) as well as the private sector, and that government should not "interfere" with people's lives.

I will concede that governments are not always "cost-efficient".  And, as readers of this Blog know, I value the rights of individual adults to act as they please, without government interference.

Let's roughly categorize "Government Spending" as follows:

1.  Defense from violent foreign threats
2.  Defense from violent domestic threats (includes police, courts, prisons)
3.  Infrastructure, which theoretically benefits all of us(in a broad sense-includes roads, bridges, air traffic control, electrical grid, national parks, education, the Post Office)
4.  Payments or other distribution or redistribution of wealth to or for individual citizens or entities (again a broad definition which would include things like agricultural subsidies and tax code provisions like the mortgage interest deduction which benefits one group of taxpayers over others)
5.  Regulatory (which overlaps with "criminal"), (the IRS, the SEC, the FDA, the FCC, state insurance commissions, banking regulations). 

I want to focus on this last, "regulatory" category in this Post, both because it seems to be a frequent target of alleged conservatives, and because looking at it really exposes the fundamental weakness about "small government" I allude to above.

My friend and his "drastically shrink the governments" compatriots are missing a really big point;  none of us lives in isolation.  Someone else produces and sells my food, my house, my electrical appliances and my clothing.  Someone else provides the train service that gets me to work.  Someone else tries to make sure that my my own food or garden tools or medicines do not kill me, that I can safely put money in a bank, and that people who sell me investments or whatever don't constantly cheat me. 

Of course, I have my own very significant responsibilities in all of these areas.  I have to be watchful and careful and not really stupid in how I live my daily life.  However, I am simply not in a position to protect myself in an adequate or even efficient manner from all "dangers".  I can avoid eating spoiled food, but I can't inspect meat-packing plants.   I can avoid sticking my hands under a running lawnmower, but I cannot create electrical or other safety standards for lawnmowers. I can put my money into an allegedly conservative mutual fund instead of going to the track, or even choose individual stocks or bonds, but I must rely on information and advice from other people (unless its my own company and I'm the CEO or CFO) when doing so.  None of us can do all of these things; we have neither the time nor the expertise, nor the bargaining position.

If the Government does not regulate these areas, they will be "regulated", but not by the individual citizen.  Rather they will be "regulated" by those producing or selling the goods or services and (sometimes) the "market" itself.  The producers and sellers are, naturally enough, usually more motivated by profit than anything else.  And while the market in an abstract sense may effectively regulate some things in a long term, it's really not an effective device at protecting us.  For example, the "market" would allow television and other advertising for cigarettes aimed directly at children. (also called shooting fish in a barrel).  A bad food producer or drug manufacturer might gradually get a bad reputation and would be driven out of business (or at least change its name), but a number of people would be poisoned in the interim.  If laws did not regulate insurance companies, they would not have to keep any reserves to pay claims.  Does anyone want to abolish the FDIC and its guarantees of depositors' accounts?

In many circumstances, the idea of a market adequately governing transactions is ludicrous.  For a market to work in those situations, there must be, among other things, some parity of both knowledge and bargaining position.  Take a mortgage or a stock offering or an insurance policy.  Anyone ever tried to actually negotiate the fine print with the bank or insurance company?  Yeah, right. (I would note that if you are sophisticated enough, and are borrowing enough money, you can negotiate some things with a bank - because of the possibility that you can get a better deal elsewhere).

There are situations where the market works wonderfully.  If there are two grocery stores in the neighborhood, the one offering cheaper prices or better produce will tend to get more customers on that basis.  I can look at the grocery store ads;  I cannot go out to South Dakota and Nebraska and inspect the meat packing plants.

It is not the individual consumer who is producing all of his own food, or running his own bank or deciding what medical services will be "covered".  It is someone or something else.  And that someone or something else usually has a strong profit motive that may incline, him, her or it to do "bad" stuff.

Perhaps the best and most topical example of this demonization of "government intrusion"is the debate about health care.  Small government advocates claim the government should not be involved in health care, and warn of "death panels".  I have bad news for them; we already have "death panels", and we've had them for a long time.  For those of us who have medical insurance as well as those who have government sponsored medical care, someone else (besides us and our own doctors) is already limiting our care by limiting how much we can spend on medical treatments and for what.  For those of us with private insurance, it's the insurance companies, whose power to deny claims is limited only by the (gasp!) government. (It's the (evil) government and its laws that requires group insurance to be "portable"; previously, it was very hard for someone with a serious medical condition to take a new job.  It's the (evil) government that requires COBRA benefits and the administrative burden it places on employers). For those of us with government sponsored health care, our care already limited by the government itself.

I would point to the recent situation in Arizona, where the Republican controlled state government eliminated transplant coverage for Medicaid recipients.  I am not blaming the Republicans; they were trying to cut costs and were apparently given incorrect or incomplete information.  Nor am I taking a position as to whether Medicaid should or should not cover transplants or anything else.  Similarly, private insurance companies deny coverage on a daily basis.  I am not saying these denials are right or wrong.  What they are, whether done by the Government or the insurance companies, is necessary.  If I (or one of my kids!) is sick, and particularly if it involves spending someone else's money, I'll spend whatever is possible, reasonable or not, cost effective or not, or whatever.  A wildly experimental and extremely expensive procedure?  You betcha. The best specialist and hospital available, whether they are in my "network" or not?  If it's serious enough, sure. As long as it does not actively harm me, I'll bet I can get a doctor or hospital to do it, as long as they get paid.

There are all sorts of legitimate reasons for and against what is called "Obamacare".  A fear of ggovernment "involvement" and "death panels", however, is simply politically induced bullshit.

Another topical example is the regulation of the sale and purchase of investments and financial instruments.  Despite at least some laws, the investment banking community was able to sell a lot of people (including allegedly very sophisticated investors) utter garbage for a lot of money.  Yet the investment banking industry (who took bailout money) and their political lackeys (hey, you know who you are) have been and are screaming about too much government regulation. Instead, they appear to say we should leave protecting the public up to them, an incentive system that rewards risk, and the "market".  (That's worked out well for the last couple of years, hasn't it?)  More politically induced bullshit, with "we need less government intrusion" as a cover story.  I would be more inclined to believe "the dog ate my homework".  Enough

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Glenn Beck comes out in favor of Salmonella!

Well not exactly, but . .

Yesterday, the Senate (with bipartisan support) passed a bill providing for, among other things, increased frequency of inspection of food production by the FDA. 

My own opinion is that increased food inspections are inherently good, although one can reasonably argue about: 1)to what extent regulations should be applied to small local food producers; 2)what actual standards should be; and 3)how much food inspection and regulation we want to pay for (a basic cost/benefit analysis).  In short, I think that the theory of having the Government make some effort to make sure that our food does not make us sick or kill us is a good.

Glenn Beck apparently strongly disagrees, attacking (yesterday on TV) the passage of the Senate bill in question,  the creation of the FDA by the "progressive" (said with scorn) Teddy Roosevelt, and arguing that if the Government could "control our food", it could totally control our lives.  (Huh?)

Apparently, Mr. Beck believes that we can and should totally rely on the food producers (who certainly don't want to poison anyone, but whose primary motive is -and nothing wrong with this - to make as much money as possible) to make sure that our food is safe.  I think that history shows us that when you leave "the public good" up to those with a profit motive that may not always coincide with that public good, sometimes people will (yep, I'm an optimist) try to act to protect the public good at the expense of some of their profits, and sometimes they will not.  Mr. Beck, however, apparently trusts everyone, except the government (which does not have a profit motive), to act in the public good.

Earth calling Glenn; Earth calling Glenn . . .

Think about that highlighted sentence above - I will get back to it in a future Post. Enough

Comments by the outgoing Dem. Gov. of Ohio

Another reference to an "outside" work, as follows:

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet. Ted Strickland: Democrats Suffering From 'Intellectual Elitism'
WASHINGTON -- Fresh off a narrow loss in his gubernatorial re-election campaign, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland on Wednesday offered some somber and sober-minded criticism for...
I do not necessarily agree with what Gov Strickland says about the desirability of Obama focusing on his "base", but, as I have written previously, I do agree that he needs to take a more "populist" and agressive tone.