Public service announcement: Steve Benen’s new blog chez Maddowblog

Steve Benen’s blog is dead, long live Steve Benen’s blog.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Steve Benen’s blogging. So I was pretty sorry to hear last week that he would no longer be blogging for the Washington Monthly and would be working instead for Rachel Maddow. While it’s of course a triumph for Steve, and well deserved, I was afraid that in transforming himself from blogger to talking head Steve would deprive me of most of his dead-on content and Stakhanovite output.

Not to worry. After a very brief lull, Steve is up and blogging on the Maddowblog, with a format that looks much as it did on Political Animal. The link to his content specifically is:

Meanwhile, Ed Kilgore, whose work I’ve always liked (he’s slightly to my right, I guess, but compared to Gingrich and Boehner the daylight between me and a New Democrat hardly matters anymore), is ably, though differently, filling Steve’s old shoes at (Political Animal).

Update: fixed to make the text URLs into hyperlinks (which I thought I’d done already). Thanks to Uncle Vinny for the catch.

Name-calling, political ethics, and blogging.

Should we call Mitt Romney “Willard”? It depends on who “we” are and what role we see ourselves as playing.

Mark has proposed (and, for a second time practiced) calling Mitt Romney “Willard” from here on in. Harold disagrees. I’ll start by saying I’m on Harold’s side. But the reasons for that are, on reflection, kind of complicated.

First, let’s dispose of a piece of silliness: the idea that it’s respectful to call him Willard because it’s his “real” first name. With due respect to Joel Hanes, who put forth this argument in a comment, J. Michael Neal has it right: “To treat someone with respect, you cal[l] them what they wish to be called, whether it is their first name, their middle name or something that doesn’t appear on their birth certificate at all.” My birth-certificate first name, like Ross Perot’s, is “Henry,” and there’s nothing objectively wrong with it. But since neither of us likes that name, it would be disrespectful to hang it on either one of us. Nor does anyone think that one would have shown maximal respect for Tip O’Neill or Woodrow Wilson by calling either one of them “Thomas.”

But that doesn’t settle the issue. As Mark explicitly said, the point of calling Romney Willard would be “to needle him”: i.e. to show him deliberate disrespect. The hope would be to weaken him politically by making others disrespect him too. (James’ comment, learned as usual, noted the long history of doing that.) This isn’t inherently absurd, but it goes to the question of what kind of politics we favor and what kind of blog we’re trying to be.  And it’s not just a matter of “respectable” vs. “populist” or similar labels.

Continue reading “Name-calling, political ethics, and blogging.”

About Willard

Let’s be respectful and refer to Mitt Romney as “Mitt Romney.”

It continually annoys me that Maureen Dowd calls President Obama “Barry.” I find that usage superficial, uncreative, and disrespectful.

In a similar spirit, though, I submit that progressives shouldn’t call Mitt Romney “Willard.” What say others?

Political Blogs as Comfort Food, with Some Notes on RBC

A slow day off of work combined with a fast new lap top (Xmas gift) and no hangover (I followed Mark’s suggestion) makes this a good day to blog. I better understand this medium than I did when I started, and though I remain ambivalent about whether I should keep blogging, there is no denying that I learn from the blogosphere, including RBC.

One of the things I have observed is that many political/public policy blogs are comfort food for a pool of regular readers. If you create a site called “” or “” or “” you will over time accrue a readership, potentially a large one. Your role as a blogger is to repeat, in a thousand different ways, the message captured in your blog title. Your amen corner will then comment enthusiastically, over and over, in post after post that you are oh so right about what you think.

If such a blog strays from its message, the tell will be readers commenting “Hey, this blog is supposed to be advocating X and this post of yours seems to indicate that Y may be true”. And then, the ultimate insult from a comfort food seeker “This is the kind of post I would expect to see on blog Y”. The accusation isn’t that the blogger is wrong, but that the blogger is a traitor to the cause.

Whether providing political comfort food is right or wrong, it’s human nature to seek it out at least some of the time and that’s not going to change. But I thought it was worth saying that it is a feature and not a bug of RBC that if you read us for long you will encounter viewpoints and analyses with which you disagree (perhaps quite strongly).

When Mark Kleiman asked me to start blogging here, he knew there were things we didn’t agree about. And he didn’t say “You must support position Y, political party A, candidate Q” or anything else of that sort. He just asked me, as he asked a diverse range of people over the years, if I wanted to blog here and I said yes. Quincy Adams (ahem), Jonathan Zasloff, Amy Zegart, Robert Frank, Kelly Kleiman, Matthew Kahn, Steve Teles, James Wimberley, Lesley Rosenthal, Michael O’Hare, Bob Jesse, Andy Sabl and Harold Pollack have different knowledge bases and different points of view, which I consider all to the good.

I can tell from our comments that most RBC readers understand that there is no loyalty oath required to be a blogger here, nor an understanding that the posters must agree with each other. There is a shared commitment to evidence over opinion, as well as to civil debate, but that’s different than being monolithic on substance.

Very occasionally I get a comment along the lines of “This blog is supposed to advocate Y and you aren’t doing your part”. This makes it worth repeating that this isn’t a comfort food blog; that’s not our comparative advantage. Does this cost us readers? I am sure it does, but that doesn’t bother me and I assume it doesn’t trouble Mark either. The readers we keep are smart and intellectually curious, and those are the kind of people I want to spend my time around.

Do I wish that more people were interested in data, dialogue and potentially having their opinions proved wrong than are interested in comfort food? Broadly speaking, yes. But I hope this blog comforts those who have a taste for something other than comfort food.

Dumbest Blog Post of 2011

Karl Smith on ignoring climate change.

My nomination (within a circle of prima facie grownups who should know better, omitting children and wingnuts) goes to economist Karl Smith´s post of 2 December on climate change. This is bravely entitled ¨In Praise of Dirty Energy: There Are Worse Things Than Pollution and We Have Them¨.

We should pursue the development of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible including looking for ways to streamline regulation in North American regarding fossil fuel production. …
However, even if we have to face the warming, we face it in the future with a much richer and more progressive world. …
100 years is a long time in the industrial age. However, it is simply forever in the information age. There is an extremely high chance that the very nature of human society itself will have changed by that time in ways that render this entire issue moot.

Read the whole thing as a fine example of yahoo values, data-free scaremongering and reckless optimism, and an indifference to economic reasoning.

The last paragraph cited is self-refuting. It´s very likely to Smith that humans will stop needing food, transport, consumer durables, heating and cooling, and shelter because of an unspecified information singularity, as in Charles Stross´ SF romp Accelerando. On the other hand, the risk of population losses on a genocidal scale as a result of well understood and carefully modelled climatic processes can be ignored.

The second paragraph at least reflects an actual argument. Future generations will very probably be richer and better able than us to afford the costs of adaptation and mitigation. However, this depends on how much. Faced with a trend in damage and adaptation costs rising to infinity, there is some point at which we should spend the money to mitigate. The equilibrium depends on the cost curves and the discount rate. You need a model to work it all out and infer whether the date is in the future (Nordhaus) or has already passed (Stern).

Amazingly, there have actually been attempts by economists to think about this: Stern, Quiggin (eg here), Weitzman, Nordhaus. Professor Smith is a professional economist. It´s very curious that he does not think it worthwhile to use the tools of economic analysis to address the most important question of public policy of our generation.

For example, one key issue in the debate. The use of high rates of time preference, rather than Stern´s and Quiggin´s near-zero, leads to discount rates of 5% or so. These imply a morally unacceptable indifference to the fate of our grandchildren, many of whom will still be alive in 2100 – their incomes and costs valued today at 1.04c on the dollar if we accept 5%.

As it stands, Smith´s Micawberish paragraph simply illustrates the bounded rationality of risk-seeking aversion to losses : to avoid a certain loss, people will take substantial risks with an expected negative value exceeding it – though they would not take symmetrical risks to secure an equal gain. The fact that mitigation now involves modest costs to the lifestyle of Americans including Professor Smith is to him sufficient (un)reason to gamble his and my grandchildren´s lives to avoid it.

Loss aversion – an observed fact of human nature – leads to a paradox. Consider the equilibrium reached by a standard rational utility model. We suppose, following Nordhaus rather than Stern, that it´s in the future. At that point, the rational thing to do is to launch the crash mitigation programme. (It is all about mitigation; the adaptation costs are a trivial consequence of our mitigation policy, whether action or inaction.)

The costs of this programme at that date are necessarily higher than they would have been under a mitigation-now scenario, as long as the inefficient early-start measures have some positive effect. But generation z will be richer than us, so they shouldn´t mind, right? Their marginal utility of money will be lower than ours.

Not so, according to Kahneman and Tversky´s empirically grounded prospect theory. Welfare gains are losses are evaluated relative to a changing baseline. The higher costs of mitigation will therefore be taken very seriously. In fact, there´s a very good chance generation z will simply repeat our own buck-passing loss-aversion analysis, and kick the can down the road to the next generation. Ainsi de suite, until catastrophe.

A form of reasoning that allows an avoidable catastrophe is unsound, however much it´s embedded in human nature. The duty of scholars is to fight our cognitive illusions, not to parrot them.

* * * * * *

Wishing all our readers a fulfilling and enjoyable 2012 – and the same to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren in 2112.

2011 Annual Comments and Commentators Awards!

Or at least my award selections based on comments on my own posts; my fellow posters can organize their own ceremonies if they are so led. Internet blogging is a new way of writing. The blogger writes something and then almost instantly people all over the world can suggest changes and make counter-arguments, to which the blogger may or may not respond. The revised post technically remains the blogger’s and yet in at least some cases could better be thought off as a multi-authored essay for which only one person is receiving credit.

Because we bloggers become so wealthy and famous from our work, it is often thought that we forget those who improve our writing through their comments. True perhaps in some corners, but not here at RBC. To wit, I hereby recognize distinction in commenting with these prestigious awards:


Envelope please (Insert sound of audience holding breath as envelope is torn open). And the winner is…wait, ladies and gentlemen, it’s not just one winner! It’s a tie!!

Alejandro Hope and Katja, who had different approaches to commenting, in my opinion added the most value through this year with their excellent comments. Katja commented more frequently, most commonly by making brief but trenchant remarks about matters related to the UK and Continental Europe. Alejandro commented less frequently, but his comments, which usually related to Mexico and/or drug policy (see one here) were unusually long and data-packed. And both of this year’s co-awardees were extraodinarily civil, even in some cases when other commenters did not pay them the same courtesy. Thank you very much and congratulations to Katja and Alejandro!


Envelope please. Continue reading “2011 Annual Comments and Commentators Awards!”

Conservative radar

A rejoinder to Megan McArdle´s rejection of the prospects for solar PV.

My rant on solar energy against Tyler Cowen and for Paul Krugman (with boilerplate classical economics truisms) has attracted the attention of Megan McArdle at her blog on The Atlantic. I´m rather miffed by the poor quality of the takedown I rate. As Denis Healey said of an attack by Geoffrey Howe, it´s like being savaged by a dead sheep.

She starts by getting my name wrong. The rest of the piece is up to the same high standard. My tedious but necessary rejoinder below the jump.
Continue reading “Conservative radar”

Is blogging a waste of time?

Passing on good ideas is not.

In the typical case, probably so. But then again, possibly not. Ideas travel.

I’m not claiming personal credit for simply echoing an obvious idea. But the folding container was an obvious idea for the 50 years it wasn’t actually developed. We should all pass on good ideas, you never know.

BTW, Wikipedia has no page [correction: I learn it has under the right name!] for the American trucking entrepreneur Malcolm Malcom McClean, who invented the standard shipping container in 1956, lowered shipping costs by a factor of thirty, and changed the world.

Blogging Without End?

The creator of Binge Inking, a fine UK-based blog about addiction and recovery, has decided to end his blog. I will miss reading it, but also find something satisfying and admirable in a blogger making a clear decision and acting on it. Many blogs seem to just slowly peter out, as the blogger loses interest but can’t seem to face up to the fact the he or she has said what there was to say and now it is time to move on.

I suppose a popular culture parallel is that television shows such as “Callan” and “The Fugitive” are well-remembered because their creators wrapped them up on their own terms, in each case shooting what was known to be a concluding episode that tied up the story lines. In contrast, we all can think of shows that just suddenly went off the air and left us all hanging. Most unsatisfying.

…To Forgive Divine

My flight was late, the cab got stuck in traffic and I was at risk of missing a critical meeting with a group of senior scientists that would have a significant impact on my career. I changed clothes rapidly in my hotel room and raced downstairs. In the hallway I ran into Professor Ken Maton, an old friend. He smiled at me and walked forward. Rather than giving me a hug or a handshake, he did what seemed a peculiar in-between gesture of patting me in the upper back while saying “Good to see you”. A few minutes into the meeting, a smile spread onto my face as the light bulb went off: In my haste to get dressed I must have flipped up my coat jacket collar. Rather than see me embarrassed in front of senior colleagues Ken had smoothed down my collar surreptitiously. He could have just told me to turn it down myself, but he didn’t want me to suffer even the mild embarrassment of knowing that a friend had observed me looking disheveled.

At a different time at a different hotel, a couple sat down at a booth near me in the half-empty restaurant. Either the Maitre d’ or the server of our section had clearly screwed up, because no one even stopped by their table for about 10 minutes. The woman suddenly stood up and yelled “What the $%&@ do we have do to get service in this *#@%&^ place!” Humiliated wait staff scrambled to her table, uttering apologies as they abased themselves before their angry customers.

When we make a mistake we put ourselves in others’ power. Some mistakes are so destructive that they are not easily forgiven or smoothed over, but many are like the examples above: Little stumbles on the road of life. In Michael O’Hare’s essay here on “class”, he wrote “One diagnostic of class is being comfortable, and making others comfortable, in any company.” Part of that virtue I think is being merciful towards, even unusually kind to, people who are vulnerable because they have made a mistake. But some people take the reverse approach of blasting and humiliating those who err, maybe out of self-importance (as if to imply that they never make errors themselves) and maybe because they have constant free-floating rage that they discharge at any remotely socially acceptable moment.

Blogging provides an ideal environment in which to observe how different people respond to mistakes. To blog is to err. Even the world’s two greatest newspapers have typographical, grammatical and factual errors in every issue, despite their skilled copy editors, fact checkers and research departments. Most bloggers in contrast operate with no such safety net. They work alone and often write quickly. Blog posts are composed in loud coffee shops and on bumpy bus rides. Sometimes the dog is barking and the kids are yelling in the background. Or maybe the house is at last quiet, but it’s two in the morning when the drowsy blogger really ought to be in bed.

As a result, anyone can go on any blog, read for 15 minutes or less and find a mistake, sometimes a small one and sometimes a real doozy. I don’t find that in itself interesting because it’s universal and inevitable; what fascinates me as a psychologist is the variance in response to such errors among those who catch them. Some people for lack of a better word just “go off” in self-righteous fury like the woman in the restaurant. Others point out the error in the comments section or on their own blog with a sincere desire to educate (We are blessed with a lot of this community-building work at RBC). And others pull a Ken Maton, and email the blogger quietly and privately. I absolutely do not expect this, but it’s a classy move when it happens. This is therefore as good a time as any to say thank you Jay Livingston, I can’t believe I misspelled Akira Kurosawa either!