Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Glorious World of the Future? Most Americans Say: Not So Much

In today's Times, an economics professor named Donald J. Boudreaux (who happens to be a libertarian and former president of the Foundation for Economic Education, a conservative outfit located within spitting distance of where I live in Irvington, New York), pooh-poohs today's economic insecurities with this letter:
Bob Herbert quotes the observation by Andrew L. Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, that Americans today "cannot see where the jobs of the future are that will allow their kids to have a better life than they had." Mr. Stern adds, "And they're not wrong."

But when could Americans of any generation foresee future jobs? Did the blacksmith in 1890 foresee jobs in the auto industry? Did the corner grocer in 1940 foresee his son prospering as a regional manager for Wal-Mart?

Did the telegram-deliverer in 1950 foresee his child designing software for cellphones? Did the local pharmacist in 1960 foresee his daughter's job as a biomedical engineer?

Our inability today to see the details of the future is no more worrisome than was the same inability of our grandparents.
Professor Boudreaux is engaging here in sophistical logic-chopping. It's true of course that people can't predict the details of the economic future. So, for example, it was not literally possible for a pharmacist in 1960 to foresee the emergence of biomedical engineering by the time his daughter was at work forty years later. But this is a trivial truism.

More relevant is the fact that most Americans in 1960--and, I think, in most past generations--were broadly optimistic about the economic future of their country and, specifically, of their children. And while the average American of 1960 surely didn't know that something called "biomedical engineering" was on the horizon, there was no dearth of giddy expectation about the incredible economic and social potential of emerging future technologies--as anyone who attended the 1964 World's Fair can attest.

Although Prof. Boudreaux's pharmacist might not have predicted that his daughter would someday work as a biomedical engineer, he might well have imagined that she would lead aqua-scooter tours outside the underwater Hotel Atlantis (as shown at the Fair's General Motors pavilion in the picture above).

If Americans today aren't so sanguine about their future, it's not (pace Prof. Boudreaux) because we're unimaginative dullards. It's because we have plenty to worry about, and we know it.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Facts Are Stupid Things

My abject apologies for the recent lack of blogging. Life has been even more hectic than usual this December, including for example a week spent traveling from one city to another across the United States to attend focus groups on political attitudes--a different time zone every night. (Fascinating but quite disorienting.) As partial atonement for my long silence, here are a few quick items, including a couple of points I've been looking for opportunities to write about.

* * *

Just saw a report on the NBC morning news about lackluster retail sales this holiday season. Reporter commented, "When people think it's a recession, they shop like it's a recession." I feel bad for the retailers but good for the Democrats--a crummy economy plus a lousy war spells electoral change even more than a lousy war alone.

When Mary-Jo and I visited Bangladesh last January-February, we were stunned by the prices of clothes--six dollars for a shirt, seven dollars for a tunic, forty dollars for a suit, etc. We joked that when we next visit we should bring empty suitcases and buy an entire wardrobe on our first day in Dhaka.

Now, on the same NBC news show I mentioned, an English family visiting America, delighted by the weak dollar, says they are planning to do exactly that--only in New York, not Dhaka. It's a sad comment on what we've come to when London : New York :: New York : Dhaka.

* * *

A fine op-ed piece about the baseball steroids scandal in today's Times by a couple of professors from the University of Chicago. Unlike 99 percent of the other impassioned commentators on this topic, these guys actually looked at the evidence concerning the effects of steroids on baseball performance. What did they find? Not much. Most pitchers and hitters who started using steroids (according to the Mitchell report) showed little or no improvement in their performance--and many declined.

One might object that the players themselves obviously believed that steroids enhanced their abilities, and who should know better than the athletes? But this wouldn't be the first time that a fad swept through an industry based on little or no actual demonstrated benefit. In the end, history may judge that the steroids "scandal" was really just a stupid, self-destructive craze that had no real impact on the game except to trigger a wave of anti-drug hysteria with psychosocial and political roots.

I for one would like to see some proof that steroids alters players' performance before we start meting out the draconian punishments today's baseball puritans are demanding--suspensions, expulsions, revocation of awards, barring from the Hall for Fame, etc. etc.

(Although I could be induced to support the proposal that the 2000 Yankees, because of their high number of steroid users, should have their World Series victory taken away and given to their opponent in that series. Hmm, let's see, who would that have been . . .?)

* * *

In the "Things People Say" department, the current New Yorker contains a letter featuring one of today's most annoying unsupported-yet-ubiquitous assertions. The letter, written by someone named Brendan Hayward from Santa Monica, is a response to a review by Jeffrey Toobin of a recent book by Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. The letter reads, in part:
. . . perhaps Thomas's transparent vehemence actually reinforces the need for an alternative to affirmative action, as it is evident that prejudice combined with reverse prejudice does nothing but cause confusion and anger. Sure, it assuages guilt for past wrongs, and gives opportunity to those born unto oppression; but, at the same time, it brands those who succeed, thus reinforcing the very prejudice that it seeks to negate.
Conservative opponents of affirmative action have been using this "affirmative action stigmatizes its beneficiaries" idea for decades. They like it because it allows them to pretend that their position is based on sincere, selfless concern for the poor Blacks who they fear are being hurt by affirmative action. (It sounds better than saying, "As a white person I don't see why I should have to give up the advantages my people stole fair and square.")

The problem is that scientists who have actually studied the evidence about affirmative action (sorry for my tiresome insistence on facts!) have found little or no actual evidence that this "stigmatization" effect exists, as you can read about here and here.

Of course, it may be that the unspoken hope of those who constantly decry the stigmatization of affirmative action recipients is that, simply by talking about it constantly, they will make it come true. Kind of like saying to your cousin (whom you dislike), "Gee, I'm so proud of the way you ignore your huge nose. I don't care what anybody says, I think having a giant schnozzola gives you character. All those people who make fun of your nose are so mean. Just ignore them, I support you," etc. etc.

Say this to someone long enough and maybe she will eventually come to believe she has a big nose. In the same way, if conservatives keep asserting, without evidence, that Blacks (and women) feel embarrassed about affirmative action, maybe they will make it happen.

* * *

Finally, Muhammad Yunus's new book, which I helped him write, is about to reach bookstores. I hope you'll find it worth a read. Although it deals primarily with Professor Yunus's new "big idea," social business, rather than with microcredit as practiced by Grameen Bank, I suspect that the publication of the book is likely to be the occasion for a conservative backlash against the concept of microcredit.

One reason for this suspicion is the recent appearance of a couple of articles "debunking" microcredit. Here is the latest example. For the most part, these articles are built around the straw man fallacy, "disproving" claims that no one has really made--for example, the notion that microcredit can eliminate world poverty all by itself.

However, microcredit opponents are also not above making up facts that suit their positions. For example, Thomas Dichter of the Cato Institute, a well-known proponent of the aid-to-poor-countries-doesn't-work-so-let's-keep-the-money-ourselves school of economic development, is quoted in the article I linked to as saying, "In Bangladesh, 30 years after Yunus's invention, poverty statistics are worse than they've ever been, so something else is the source of the problem and micro-credit is not helping."

Ever since reading this line, I've been scouring the web, trying to find out where Dichter said this and what evidence he cited, if any. (There I go again, still obsessed with mere facts.) I've been unsuccessful so far--if any of you can help, please do. But as far as I can see, there is no basis for Dichter's claim that poverty in Bangladesh is worse than ever. In fact, in Creating a World Without Poverty, Yunus and I devote three full pages (pages 105-108) to statistics from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank showing how poverty in Bangladesh has been reduced over the past three decades.

Don't believe everything you read. Just because someone who is treated as an "expert" says something in a tone of glib self-assurance doesn't mean he is right. Demand evidence, and then judge the facts for yourself.
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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Hillary-Haters And The Racial Insult That Wasn't

The Hillary-haters have found their latest outrage to froth about. This one is the supposedly vicious attacks being launched by the Clinton campaign against Barack Obama. If the latest claims of the Hillary-haters are to be believed, what makes these attacks so unconscionable is the near-racist motivation behind them: The Clinton camp doesn't just regard Obama as a dangerous rival for the White House, but as an "uppity" Black man who is being "presumptuous" for daring to challenge Hillary's right to waltz to the nomination.

Wow--if true, this is nasty stuff. (Calling Black men "uppity" sounds more like Bull Connor or the unreconstructed George Wallace than Hillary Clinton.) No wonder concern trolls like Slate's Mickey Kaus and the Obama-infatuated Andrew Sullivan have been eagerly blogging about this latest evidence of Hillary's arrogance.

But then you click through the links and devote thirty seconds of scrutiny to the actual source of these accusations, and you discover it is this post by David Corn:
When talking to Clintonites in recent days, I've noticed that they've come to despise Obama. I suppose that may be natural in the final weeks of a competitive campaign when much is at stake. But these people don't need any prompting in private conversations to decry Obama as a dishonest poser. They're not spinning for strategic purposes. They truly believe it. And other Democrats in Washington report encountering the same when speaking with Clinton campaign people. "They really, really hate Obama," one Democratic operative unaffiliated with any campaign, tells me. "They can't stand him. They talk about him as if he's worse than Bush." What do they hate about him? After all, there aren't a lot of deep policy differences between the two, and he hasn't gone for the jugular during the campaign. "It's his presumptuousness," this operative says. "That he thinks he can deny her the nomination. Who is he to try to do that?" You mean, he's, uh, uppity? "Yes."
So the idea that Hillary's people "hate" Obama for being "presumptuous" comes not from one of her spokespeople or even one of her supporters but from a journalist's conversation with an anonymous "Democratic operative" who has no link to Hillary or her campaign. In other words, David Corn was swapping opinions with somone in a coffee shop somewhere, and the two of them decided they had a shared impression of the Clintonites--which thus becomes "news" to be breathlessly reported.

And notice where the word "uppity" comes into the picture: It wasn't uttered by anyone associated with Hillary. It wasn't even suggested by Corn's "source," the anonymous Democrat. It arose in the conversation through prompting by Corn himself: "You mean, he's, uh, uppity? 'Yes.'"

In other words, there's nothing there.

But given the sloppy way in which people like Kaus and Sullivan have passed this meme along--and the eager way in which people tend to latch onto, over-simplify, and magnify ideas that fit their pre-conceived narratives--it's easy to picture how people who hate Hillary will remember, and repeat, this story: "Did you hear the latest? Hillary has been going around calling Obama 'uppity'! What a bitch!"

This latest example of how the haters have been demonizing Hillary illustrates why I agree with Ezra Klein's take on the theme of the "polarizing candidate." Klein points out that, in fact, candidates deemed "polarizing" are simply those who have long been politically prominent and therefore subject to partisan attacks for a long time. He shows, for example, how John Kerry magically became "polarizing" after the Swift Boaters and the Republican spin machine did its work on him.

If Hillary is currently considered "polarizing," that is simply because the Republicans have been attacking her, using some ammunition based on fact and some that is utterly dishonest, since the early 1990s.

The obvious corollary: If either Obama or Edwards gets the Democratic nomination instead of Hillary, he will experience the same miraculous transformation from unifying figure to "polarizing" one. Just as, somehow, the Republicans managed to transform moderate, religious Southern Democrats like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore into weak, corrupt, ultra-liberal threats to the republic.

If you believe that nominating yet another conciliatory, centrist, "non-polarizing" Democrat will inspire the Republicans to mount a clean, civil, honest, respectful election campaign, I have some beautiful beachfront property in southwest Bangladesh to sell you. Instead, let's stop wasting our time trying to identify the "least polarizing" Democratic candidate and instead nominate the one who will fight hardest and most effectively for our values and policies.

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