Archive for March 2014

Zombie Ideas and VSPs

I have been writing here about my favorite topic, which is a failure to think logically, to believe what you want to believe and selectively mine data to support that view. Or in the case of global warming, just go into total denial. And there is another mode of this behavior which Paul Krugman, who I borrow liberally from describes.

Paul defines a zombie idea (an idea that has been killed a thousand times, but keeps coming back from the dead), the skills gap, which is a favorite of VSPs (Very Serious People) to explain the unemployment, except it is not true. From Paul:

But the belief that America suffers from a severe “skills gap” is one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true. It’s a prime example of a zombie idea — an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die … The point is that influential people move in circles in which repeating the skills-gap story — or, better yet, writing about skill gaps in media outlets like Politico — is a badge of seriousness, an assertion of tribal identity. And the zombie shambles on

So he covers both ideas here, the VSPs and their insular reinforcing of a false idea, not supported by the data, and a zombie idea, “an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.

This phenomenon is something we see on our cable news shows where all they have are VSPs spouting zombie ideas and nobody takes them on. Even Bill Clinton was out there last year pushing the skills gap nonsense. But even more salient, think about how all our financial policy evolved utilizing all the VSPs from the financial industry. And that is the real problem. We have policy based about zombie ideas (austerity anyone?). Sure we can have honest debate, but rarely is any of it honest when data and facts are totally misrepresented, and we seem to lack the skills to know what facts are except what we have heard over and over or what we want to believe, not what the data is telling us.

Small Government, Libertarianism, and Oso Washington

Sometimes along comes a story that points out some of fallacies in our thinking. Oso is one of those events. A large number of people were killed in a landslide, mostly in their homes, probably where homes should never have been built. And it turns out that it was a known slide area so the question is why did not government not permit construction there. That would be BIG government telling you what you can and cannot do with your property.

But before we examine that, if you agree with this logic, how come we let people live in San Francisco? Sooner or later … The whole North Pacific is built on active volcanos. Sooner or later … There is a really informative article in the NYT on Saturday, No Easy Way to Limit Construction in Risky Areas, pointing out all of the pressures that come into play to in fact allow people to use their property as they see fit, even if it puts them in great danger. Probably the most insightful response to this and other risky building was:

“You don’t need to prevent people from developing in higher-risk areas,” he said. “You just have to make sure they bear the risk themselves.”

The trouble is nobody wants to bear the risk. As the article noted:

After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey backed programs to help the state’s coastal residents stay in their homes, while next door in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo favored programs that would provide incentives for those along the shore to move. Congressional efforts to reduce incentives to rebuild in areas that flood repeatedly have been significantly weakened with a bill passed this month that delays cost increases for flood insurance.

In other words, they want to do what they want and live where they want, but they want you and I to subsidize their risk. They hate government mandated building codes to protect against fire, earthquake, or winds, but expect us to be there to pull them out when shit happens. They don’t want big government, but they want it there when nature does what it does. They forget who pays for all the training and supplies all those “volunteer” rescuers. Oh, and they want less regulation until their neighbor is doing something that degrades their life style on their own property and then wonder where government is to protect their rights.

Millennials lean libertarian and don’t like Obamacare and it makes me laugh. They are the young “invincibles” still haven’t the worldly experience that sooner or later shit happens to all of us, and these programs are part of sharing the risk so we don’t go under when really bad things happen to us. And like most of my neighbors, are clueless about everything government does do to make the lives easy (roads, streets, clean water, fire and police protection, rapid and safe air transportation, affordable education loans, environmental protections that keep industry from poisoning you, and the list goes on and on.

So small government and doing your own thing unfettered by government sounds really good until shit happens and you look for help and somebody to blame. And it turns out all those independent folks want government right there holding their hands, whether it is subsidizing flood insurance, cheap drinking water, or digging us out of a mud slide. But if you really want to take that risk, go ahead, but assume the risk and don’t look for us to bail you out.

Knowing What We Know Part II

Earl Morris completed his series (The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld) this morning in the NYT and kind of got to the meat of the thing. If you read my blog you know my interest here is because I see fuzzy logic everywhere these days and beliefs based upon faulty data and wonder why. People believe things because they want to believe, not based upon evidence. I wonder why people cling to things that are demonstrably false and are hurting us, so the whole examination of Donald Rumsfeld and his absolute certitude that there were weapons of mass destruction is fascinating.

Mr Morris discusses the statement that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. He points out that this statement came about from the search for extraterrestrials. Said another way, while we have no evidence of their existence (direct evidence) with the endless possibilities in the universe, this is not evidence they don’t exist. On WMD they really had no evidence (except what they manufactured), but they were certain Saddam had them therefore the absence of evidence was not evidence of absence. But how do you get to 100% certainty leading to an invasion from that?

Here I think Mr. Morris kind of sums it up:

Ultimately, W.M.D. were not found in Iraq, and Rumsfeld’s belief proved to be false. Many people assume that Rumsfeld was lying. That he knew that there were no W.M.D. in Iraq. But I believe that he was able to convince himself that he was telling the truth. Or even worse, that he lacked the ability to discriminate between truth and fantasy. That over the years he had developed a gobbledygook philosophy that — seemingly paying lip service to empiricism — devalued evidence and made a mockery of logic. Alas, if you believe that you are 100 percent right, then your beliefs are like a hard, impenetrable, protective shell, like the carapace of a turtle.

What do I take from this? To me, progress hinges on our ability to discriminate knowledge from belief, fact from fantasy, on the basis of evidence. It’s not the known unknown from the known known, or the unknown unknown from the known unknown, that is crucial to progress. It’s what evidence do you have for X, Y or Z? What is the justification for your beliefs? When confronted with such a question, Rumsfeld was never, ever able to come up with an answer.

I believe a large portion of the country exists in Rumsfeld land. One can argue that they are ignorant or that they live in reinforcing echo chambers, but they choose to. When you see what appears to be highly intelligent people making conservative arguments that are patently false, you wonder if you are missing something, when in fact they are. They have convinced themselves their lies are true because they have to believe it. They are selectively looking at data and constructing intricate arguments that may confuse, but in the end, are false. The worrisome thing is that Mr. Morris gives us no clue how to penetrate this shell.

My belief is that the controlling power in the Republican Party are the Donald Rumsfelds of today. Whether motivated by self interest, racism and fear, or psychological disposition, their shells are impenetrable. But the others that follow them or give them credence by voting for them are seduced by their confidence as the nation was seduced by Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush’s confidence. For the rest of us, it is our job to hammer away at them, and make them provide their evidence so we can examine it and decide whether it is just made up to allow them to maintain their beliefs. As Mr. Morris tells us:

Rumsfeld, too, may believe what he is saying. But believing something does not make it true. The question is why he believed what he believed. On the basis of what evidence? Mere belief is not enough.

Footnote: If you think this is an abstract discussion, here is what I heard on the news this morning: Sarah Bajc, partner of Phillip Wood, one of the Americans on Malaysia Flight 370, was interviewed this morning and she related how the grieving had already begun as she took a flight from Bejing to KL on a super bumpy flight and having an image of him strapped into his seat at the bottom of the ocean. Then she said:

I still believe there is a chance that Phillip and other passengers are alive because there is no proof they aren’t.

So when you want to believe something so bad (and who wouldn’t) the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. On the other hand, she did not make the 100% confidence leap of Rumsfeld. She is just holding on to hope. It just demonstrates that holding on to something we want to believe is human, but to take the leap to 100% certainty he is alive (which she did not) is pathology.

Related Posts:
1. The Loss of the Inquisitive Mind
2. Knowing What we Know

Vote Damn It!


You want this fat old rich guy to determine who is our next President and what are important politics? Last time he bankrolled Newt Gingrich, but now wants a more electable team. He may well do that as he is having a little get together with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. And they must all kiss the ring to get his blessing and unlimited funds.

And kissing the ring means carrying his water, the first of which is to ban internet gambling. Now I don’t give a flying f…. about internet gambling but Mr. Sheldon Adelson who owns tons of casinos does, and the boys gathered have all bowed down to support banning that vice. I wonder what else he might want? Think he spends much time with the 47%?

So if you are young, a millennial, or one of the Democrats who only votes when it is convenient, this is what you bring us. If you say your vote doesn’t count, there is a good reason. You let all the fat old white people who are ruining the country control the ballot. So get off your ass and vote! If you vote Republican, you may find that they are not your friend, but Adelson’s>

Knowing What We Know

This topic gets more and more interesting to me as I observed our political life and recognize that we are talking past each not because we are not listening to each other, but because what we define as known is very different depending on your point of view. And yet is it?

I don’t think so and we have confused what is honest disagreement with belief based upon dogma. Example: We can argue about which would be more effective to control greenhouse gases, a cap and trade system, or a carbon tax, but the need to control them is not in doubt, except it is among the conservative faithful who deny its existence or that it is human caused.

Here is another example: Yesterday I criticized Abby Huntsman (although her heart is in the right place) for wanting to get into a debate about controlling entitlement costs as a percent of GDP. The debate is fruitless because the underlying assumption of conservative Republicans precludes some of the most effective solutions. They simply reject government solutions (single payer) and simply “know” market place solutions are the best approach. Data does not shake that (See the rest of the world and their various single payer systems) so the “debate” will be around cutting entitlements, not looking at all other options.

Almost all of the truly partisan government we now experience as feckless and powerless is a result of living in two different worlds of knowns, two different realities if you want. Remember the cries from the Tea Party to keep your government hands off my Medicare? It is just not in their knowns that their Medicare is an effective government program. My point is simple, look at every issue we face, and the divergence of the knowns of the two parties makes them intractable. President Obama’s great mistake when coming into office was failing to recognize that rational argument is only rational if we accept the same basic underlying facts that are not faith based. In other words, that we live in the same reality.

I am reading with wonder the series in the NYT, The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld. It is about what we know what we don’t know, knowing what we don’t know, and dealing with uncertainty. It is even more about Donald Rumsfeld’s certainty in the absence of evidence. Although extreme, he reflects a lot of thinking these days, I know what I know, and I don’t need no stinking evidence.

His certainty that WMD were being exported by Saddam, but could produce no evidence (or there “wasn’t any evidence he wasn’t either”), his ability to deny the mass looting when shown video, and years later to deny in the face of ton’s of evidence that the American people were confused about who actually perpetuated the 9/11 attacks (confusing Saddam with Bin Laden) are classic examples of this faith based thinking unperturbed by evidence to contrary.

I guess that is why I am so enjoying the series the Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. It is a lesson in what it means to know something based upon reality testing (not anecdotal and filtered reality). When creationists tell you that evolution is just another theory, it is clear they have no idea what it means to know something in a scientific way, to objectively test your ideas against reality, and modify that theory when it fails that test. And although this is an extreme comparison, we have the whole generation of think tanks created to give the allusion of reality testing once again to support and shore up a faith based hypothesis that reality is telling us is false. Again an extreme example, but remember all those studies by cigarette manufacturers that tobacco was harmless?

I used to think all we needed was honest debate and the truth will fall out. I know better today because honest debate requires a definition of what is known and known facts today in our political spectrum (mostly from Republicans) are based upon what has to be, not what is. Until we can open ourselves up to all possibilities, debate is a waste of time.*

*So you turn the tables on me and say well try flowdown and job creators. Try lower taxes and less regulations. Try market placed healthcare. Try militarizing our borders and throwing out immigrants. Try austerity. We did. It has failed miserably, but then I live in a different reality than they do.


So what did we learn from the self-serving report by Christie’s Attorneys? That there probably is not a paper trail proving Christie was involved so when the people who actually know testify, it will be he said/she said. Other than that, we know nothing we did not already know and they did not bother to look into why but made allusions to a relationship breakup between Bridget Kelly and Bill Stepien, and Weinstein was a loose cannon. So why again were they close associates of Christie again?

Dean Baker and Abby Huntsman

Oh, I do hope Dean Baker caught the end of MSNBC’s The Cycle as Abby Huntsman claimed once again that entitlements are out of control, that the growing percent of GDP spent on these programs is just unsustainable. Then she trotted out the usual suspects from raising the age of eligibility, means testing, even that bad old raising taxes (“liberals in particular would like that more”). And then demanded that we need this debate!

But Abby, we had it. And the folks on your side of the aisle brought out death panels and killing grandma, and when money was actually cut (but did not impact benefits, just costs) your folks went ballistic and accused Obamacare of stealing from Medicare and cutting benefits for old people.  If we could have a rational debate we would love one, but so far, we are not the problem. Your side is not going to move on anything that might help and will use any proposal to create new myths and lies for the next election.  

Oh, and the facts are all out there on how we can get control of costs, but many of those things are off the table as far as Republicans are concerned. You know, single payer system, more control of fees and costs of medical procedures, incentivizing outcomes, evaluating the effectiveness of medical procedures, lifting the cap on earnings for tax purposes (raising  taxes!), allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, allowing more foreign competition, limiting the reach and limit of patents on drugs. They all work, but your folks are all against them. With so much off the table, it is not a debate, just another Republican list of programs to cut or limit.

And sadly, your debate starts at the wrong point. Most Americans did not have your affluent upbringing, do not have disposable income to save, and their pension plans got cut out from under them. For them it is a very different world than you live in. And as we see the market place further evolve where workers need to be more and more flexible and be able to take risks, the only retirement program for most of them will be social security. That and with a safety net of government healthcare coverage, they can actually take advantage of opportunities in that market place without risk of losing everything. So the first question is what should our safety net look like, then we ask how we can afford it. And the first answer is it needs to be bigger, not smaller.  The second is answered below.

All of your focus is on the fact that we can’t afford the costs, not why can’t we afford them. Or said another way, why are these costs way out of line with other countries that make them unaffordable? So you want to fix the bottom line by cutting benefits (raising retirement ages, means testing, chained CPI, etc) which are really just cuts to the program that impact the poor the most, instead of looking at what we need to institute to reduce and control the actual costs themselves and their growth. And as I, and much more ably, Dean Baker have argued, we certainly can afford them if we did some of the things that are apparently are off the table. So the answer to the question how can we afford them is we can’t afford not to afford them. Pick your poison.

So yes, I would love to have that debate Abby. But we have to have a definition of fact over fiction and your side has a real problem with that. Yo, Dean, are you out there? Need for you to weigh in here.  Oh, and Abby?  This call for a debate reminds me of a call for a debate on global warming, except we already know it exists and what we need to do, but your side fails to even recognize the problem.  The only difference here is your side recognizes the problem as a means to an end, cutting programs, not fixing the problem.  Since dealing with global warming would require more programs and spending money on infrastructure it can’t possibly exist.  See a problem with debate here?  It is like discussing evolution with evangelicals.  It simply can’t be true.

The President and the Pope

The news is all over the President’s visit with the Pope and their discussions, especially on Obamacare covering contraceptions for women. Now we have Bishop This and Father That being interview on the Church’s views on all kinds of things. But I keep hearing the words of an earlier President who truly understood our Constitution:

John F. Kennedy: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. That is officially not Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish. Where no public official either requests or accepts instruction on policy from the Pope, National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source.

Thank you Catholics for Choice for reminding us of this. We are going down a troubled and dangerous road when one religious leader’s pronouncements are more important than any other, and probably all should be ignored, good or bad.

Faulty Logic

I was listening to the new anchor on MSNBC, Ronan Farrow, interview Bernie Sanders about single payer health care. Ronan indicated that he has experience in wait times in Britian and they were much worse than here as an argument against single payer. Bernie responded with it depends who you are. If you are wealthy there is no better care. If you are poor, there is no worse. Your wait times can be terminal as it is estimate that over 40,000 die a year for lack of health care. Your convenience over 40,000 deaths?

But I was thinking this in anecdotal and what do wait times look like across most countries (ours the only one who does not have some form of single payer). So I looked here for a real comparison. What is interesting to note is that wait times are radically coming down in the worst cases, and that there where countries, Germany and France, who had similar wait times to ours. What again is the argument?

Footnote: What is the real argument here? Is it that single payer systems somehow de-incentivize supply to meet demand? If the assumption that the health care providers are national workers as in Britain, does this say that people interested in medicine will work somewhere else because it is all about the money? If it is more like an expansion of Medicare in which health providers are still private entities, will the ability of government to better control costs and fees de-incentivize in the same way? Clearly if we have a single payer system, there will be more patients and some form of rationing in terms of wait times. But isn’t that more palatable than rationing by level of wealth where the rationing is lethal? And doesn’t how we set policies to meet demand determine the level of wait times? What again is the argument?

Can We Survive with Professional Politicians?

She who must never be mentioned here counsels me frequently when I start grumbling about politicians that they are all scum. Now I know that is unfair, but then again you start to wonder. Now I go after Republicans as the embodiment of that claim and if you watch Darrell Issa or Mitch McConnell you start to think this is self evident. But Democrats are not excepted.

Here in California, the Democrats sweep all branches of State Government in 2012. Now we are in 2014 and the third Democrat has been indicted on felony charges of corruption, gun running, accepting bribes, oh, you name it. Some have been convicted yet not ejected from the Senate. What is it with these people?

Well the answer might reside in the political system itself, driven by money and ego. While there are certainly exceptions who overcome these temptations to valiantly serve their electorate, for the most part, we see not the sharpest tools in the shed, but people who know how to manipulate and weld power for their aggrandizement. Chris Christie come to mind? If you look at how he came up the system, it was all political patronage.

So how do we reform the system so that instead of pandering to our desires while they secure their positions and financial status? Well first we have to understand the system. How many compromises did they make to gain support and the money they needed to get elected? How many times did they have to adjust their own values to align with what the polls tell them should be their stand on issues? How many times did they have to make nice to despicable people to get a campaign contribution? When does that change who you are? As Robert Redford said in the wonderful movie, The Candidate, after going down this road, getting elected, and wondering who he was anymore, “Now what do I do?”

Well here would be my simple suggestion, and as always the devil is in the details. We have to get money out of politics. We should limit campaign contributions and publicly fund all campaigns. Second, we should drastically shorten the campaign season. California has opened up the primary polls to all voters, and top two win for the final. It reduces polarized base elections. Maybe I live in a bubble, but unless we do these things, we will just get more of the same, and the only people who get through this system are not the people you want to invite into your home.