Monday Message Board

It’s time again for the Monday Message Board to resume. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language. Lengthy side discussions to the sandpit, please.

BTW, apologies again for slow response time and 503 errors if you are getting them. I’m looking at shifting to an alternative hosting service.

Oz Fail #4

Oz chief political reporter Matthew Franklin tries for a bit of a beat-up with this story about some platitudinous speeches given by Swan and Gillard at the annual conference of the AWU, where, as is customary on such occasions, they said some nice things about their hosts, Bill Ludwig and Paul Howes. Franklin points out, rightly enough, that the AWU supported Gillard in the overthrow of Kevin Rudd. The real problem is with the sub-editor who ran this routine piece of snark with the striking headline “PM, Swan in praise of union ‘saboteurs’ “.

According to the standard, slightly arcane principles that apply here, the use of single quotes around the word “saboteurs” implies that Gillard and Swan actually used the word as a term of praise, with the rest of the headline being a paraphrase. This isn’t quite as crazy as it might sound – the original saboteurs were factory workers who threw their wooden shoes into the machinery as a crude but effective way of protesting against speedup. A historically minded radical might suggest that similar resistance to the work intensification push that began in the 1990s was to be applauded. But of course, Gillard and Swan are never likely to say anything like that, and they didn’t.

The error wouldn’t be so serious if the article quoted someone else calling Ludwig and Howes saboteurs, though it would be more correct to write “PM, Swan ‘in praise of union saboteurs’ “. But in fact there is nothing of the kind, and no hint that anything has been lost in editing. It’s simply that the sub (or maybe the editor) is incorporating his own opinion. If so, it would be more appropriate to run it as a factual description without any quotes. That would entail dropping any pretence of objectivity, but such pretences have worn pretty thin at the Oz.

There are still pockets of good journalism at the Oz. But when even the craft values of subediting are sacrificed to the paper’s political agenda, there isn’t much hope for the future.

Oz Fail#3

In a snark before a totally unrelated item, Oz Strewth columnist James Jeffrey writes

ACCORDING to the UN (there’s a statement that doesn’t exactly carry a a lot of weight, but let’s push on), the world’s human population should pass the 10 billion mark some time around 2040.

As you’d expect of any factual claim made in the Oz, he’s wrong. The UN medium projection is for a population around 9.2 billion in 2050. Even on the high projection, 10 billion isn’t reached until about 2045.

The Onion meets Poe’s Law — Crooked Timber

A little while ago, my son pointed me to a news item in a periodical called The Onion, reporting Republican opposition to an Obama proposal to protect the earth against destruction by asteroid impact. The usual libertarian arguments were advanced, pointing out that everyone would be forced to pay for this protection, thereby undermining the incentive to act for themselves.

At the time, I was suspicious that this might be some sort of satirical gag[1]. But now I see the proposal being discussed, and rejected, at the very serious Volokh blog (H/T Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias).

So, based on my extensive agnotological studies, let me make some predictions about some of the scientific claims we are likely to see advanced (by the same people, but at different times), once the debate over Obama’s socialist plan hots up.

  • Asteroids don’t exist
  • The law of gravity means that an impact between an asteroid and the earth is physically impossible
  • An asteroid would inevitably burn up in the atmosphere
  • In a quest for grant funding, NASA has fiddled the data on asteroid orbits to overstate the risk of a collision
  • Massive asteroids hit the earth all the time and nothing bad happens
  • Asteroid strikes are natural so environmentalists are hypocritical in opposing them
  • Al Gore is fat

The general point is that if some physical state of the world would require government action inconsistent with libertarian principles or conservative tribal taboos, then since libertarianism/conservatism is always right, logic dictates that the physical state in question must be impossible.

fn1. I’m susceptible enough that I believed DD when he said that Natalie Portman was starring in the movie version of Nassim Taleb’s book. I just went to see it, and, at the very least, the screenwriters took a lot of liberties with the text.

Shibboleths

A recent report on a poll finding that a majority of Republicans (that is, likely primary voters) are “birthers”, with only 28 per cent confident that Obama was born in the United States has raised, not for the first time, the question “how can they think that?” and “do they really believe that?”.

Such questions are the domain of agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. Agnotology is not, primarily, the study of ignorance in the ordinary sense of the term. So, for example, someone who shares the beliefs of their community, unaware that those beliefs might be subject to challenge, might be ignorant as a result of their cultural situation, but they are not subject to culturally-induced ignorance in the agnotological sense.

But this kind of ignorance is not at issue in the case of birtherism. Even in communities where birtherism is universal (or at least where any dissent is kept quiet), it must be obvious that not everyone in the US thinks that the elected president was born outside the US and therefore ineligible for office.

Rather, birtherism is a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe. (The original shibboleth was a password chosen by the Gileadites because their Ephraimite enemies could not say “Sh”.) Asserting a belief that would be too absurd to countenance for anyone outside a given tribal/ideological group makes for a good political shibboleth.

It’s clear, as Dave Weigel points out, that beliefs of this kind are a marker for partisanship, as witness the high correlation between stated birtherist beliefs and approval of Palin. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the statement isn’t actually believed. Rather this is an open question and an important one for agnotological understanding of the emergence of comprehensive culturally induced ignorance as a marker for the Republican tribe.

In this context, it’s worth noting that birtherism is only a minor part of Obama-related Republican agnotology. The belief that Obama is a secret Muslim is similarly widely held, as is the view that he sympathises with those seeking to impose sharia law.

It’s also worth distinguishing such stated beliefs from statements like “Obama is a socialist”, in which what matters most is the interpretation of the term “socialist” (AFAIC, the most common US meaning is “Democrat with spine”). Compare “Bush is a war criminal”. In these cases, facts about what Obama (or Bush) has actually done are less relevant than judgements about the appropriateness of labels.

My feeling (derived largely from observations on climate change and creationism, which raise similar questions) is that we can distinguish numerous different belief states that go along with birtherist answers to opinion poll questions. There are lots of nuances, but most are combinations of the following

  • A conspiracy-theoretic view of the world in which liberal elites (a term encompassing Democrats, unions, schoolteachers, scientists, academics and many others) are plotting to undermine the American way of life and replace it with some unspecified, but awful alternative. In this case, answers to these questions reflect actual beliefs
  • Partisanship as suggested by Weigel in which Republicans choose to give the most negative answer possible about Obama as an affirmation of tribal identity.
  • Doublethink in which people are aware that in some mundane sense Obama was born in Hawaii, but also believe that Republican ideology is true and implies the birtherist answer
  • Conformism, in which people know the truth but give the culturally preferred answer, or choose some evasive form of words, as with John Boehner recently.

Does all this hurt or help the Republicans? In short-run electoral terms, I think it helps. A base of loyal supporters who, for one or other of the reasons mentioned above, are immune to factual evidence has to help win elections. There are, however, two big costs

  • First, people have noticed that Republicans have a problem with reality. That perception, which undermines the rationale for all sorts of thinking about policy, will take a while to sink in, but it will also be hard to erase once it is generally accepted. In the long run, this has to turn off a fair number of Republican-leaning independents and any remaining Republicans with a capacity for embarrassment.
  • Double-think is very difficult, and people will start to act on the basis of their beliefs. If those beliefs are ludicrously false, trouble is likely to follow.

Hockey sticks his neck out

I was at a Media Club lunch in Brisbane today where Joe Hockey was the speaker. Amid a bunch of fairly predictable talking points, he offered the view that, if we want to address problems of housing affordability, measures that increase demand, like the First Home Buyers Grant, are exactly the wrong way to go. He’s right of course, and just about every economist who has every looked at the issue has made the same point. Still, given the sacred-cow status of home ownership (both in itself and as a speculative investment) it’s the kind of statement that Sir Humphrey would call “courageous”.

Strikingly, not one of the assembled journalists took him up on it. Instead they bowled him up a series of questions on the kerfuffle du jour regarding the Christmas Island funerals all of which (to mix my cricketing metaphors) he padded away, let through to the keeper or dispatched to the boundary with ease. If I had been looking for a story instead of going through the motions, I would have asked something like “How much could the government save by abolishing FHBG, and where would the money be better spent”.

Given that Hockey has tackled one sacred cow, let me express the hope that some truly courageous politician will make the point that the biggest source of house price inflation is the set of subsidies to owner-occupied housing including exemption from land tax and capital gains tax and exclusion from most means tests. Michael Egan tried to tackle this in NSW, only for houses worth more than $1m IIRC, and got nowhere.