Sunday, August 26, 2007

Further evidence that your opinion of the conservative movement is too generous

Sometimes I wonder if I'm too uncharitable to the conservative movement in this country. Sometimes I wonder if it's really fair to characterize the right as an unholy alliance of plutocrats, theocrats, totalitarians, bigots, crooks, and thugs. However, I have to admit, this surprised even me. If anything, my opinion of conservatives is clearly too high.

One lone nut case waving around machine guns on stage is kind of disturbing, but relatively inconsequential. What's far more disturbing is the room full of cheering fans, and fact that the Wall Street Journal publishes his writing.

This is also why any false equivalence between nut case leftists and nut case right wingers is ridiculous. It is not the nut cases who matter; it is the relationships between nut cases and mainstream movements that matter. Nut case leftist loons who prance around on stage with weapons, yelling their fantasies about assassinating Presidential candidates and Senators, get excluded from the mainstream discourse pretty quickly. Yet nut case right wing loons like Nugent, and Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, remain tightly coupled to the mainstream conservative movement --- not marginalized, not shamed, but given voice in influential outlets where they can reach millions of people.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A feature, not a bug

Yglesias writes, in the context of the growing movement in Washington to depose al-Maliki and re-install Allawi:

I find it hard to find words to describe what a disaster it may be if the US ends up engineering the return to power of a grossly unpopular ex-Baathist ex-Prime Minister. It's as if people are trying their hardest to come up with policies designed to end with Muqtada al-Sadr marching at the head of a crowd shouting "Death to America" into the rapidly abandoned Green Zone sometime in 2010.

In all likelihood, the President and Congress in 2010 will both be Democratic. Worsening the objective situation in Iraq in 2010 would be a feature, not a bug.

Of course, the Iraq war was largely architected and executed by Republicans, in a time when the Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress. It would be logical to blame Republicans for the consequences. However, Republicans are working hard to crystallize the "stab in the back" narrative --- i.e., that the war could have succeeded, if only it weren't for those meddling critics --- in the public consciousness. If this propaganda effort succeeds, then worsening the consequences of our inevitable withdrawal would pay political dividends for Republicans.

So far, I don't think they're succeeding, except among the "28 percenters" who believe basically anything that the right-wing noise machine spews out. But there's still a long way to go until withdrawal. And using foreign policy for political ends is hardly out of character for this administration.

UPDATE 2007-08-26: OK, in this post, my cynicism got the better of my sense. What can I say; I was in a bleak mood. Sometimes you can be too cynical. Truthfully, I don't think that this administration consciously wants to worsen long-run outcomes in Iraq.

However, I do think they're determined to extend the occupation until Bush leaves office. If they accomplish this, then one of two things will happen. Either the next administration will initiate the withdrawal, causing the aftermath to play out under their watch; or the next administration will remain in Iraq, extending Bush's running long-shot gamble that something good will happen someday. In either case, the outcome can be spun into reduced blame for the Bush administration. Probably, they even believe in earnest that the next administration would deserve the blame for a disastrous withdrawal.

Given that the desired outcome is to remain in Iraq until 2009 at all costs, the question becomes how to maintain some illusion of progress, some hope for imminent improvement, however flimsy, in the short term. Hence ongoing noise about ousting al-Maliki; hence the noise about Petraeus's September report; and hence, and hence, and hence.

When you're grasping at straws like this, it becomes easy to disregard the long-run consequences of your actions. It is not active malice that drives our astonishingly bad Iraq policy. It is selfish shortsightedness. But that's hardly better in the end, is it.

Friday, August 24, 2007

+1 for the experts

After my last post you will find me profoundly unsurprised at PZ Myers pointing to a science journalist's mangled account of some paleontology reporting.

What's interesting is that the headline here was especially egregious, and it's generally editors who write headlines, not the reporters. This parallels the Michael Skube case, where the editor suggested some of the factually incorrect insertions to Skube's article.

One of the structural advantages claimed by proponents of old-style journalism is that editors impose quality control. And editors may be extremely valuable when they are subject matter experts --- for example, at scientific journals, where the editors have roughly the same credentials as the researchers. But in journalism, an editor's typically a generalist who knows even less than the reporter about the subject at hand. At least the reporter talked to the primary sources. If reporters work from secondhand knowledge, then editors do their work based on thirdhand knowledge. Why should we believe that editorial review by non-expert editors improves news coverage more often than it degrades it? Editors may improve the quality of the prose, but do they really, on average, improve the accuracy of the articles?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Expertise and journalism

Friends know that I've long held that the biggest problem with reporters is that most of them are not experts in anything in particular, which makes them gullible, easily manipulated, and prone to mangling the facts. Recently, there have been several worthwhile posts in this vein from Brad DeLong, Matt Yglesias, and (less directly) Ezra Klein.

Here's an excerpt from an actual email that I wrote two years ago, to an acquaintance who works at a major national magazine, discussing Michiko Kakutani's review of Bill Clinton's autobiography, which Brad DeLong discussed some time ago:

Moving along, if the Times prints book reviews in the daily paper, but never solicits such reviews from people who actually know something about the material in question, then that is a structural problem with the Times. Likewise if the Times rushes articles into print too soon. Perhaps I'm naive and don't know why the newspaper business is set up as it is. Perhaps there are good reasons, and not just ingrained shibboleths, causing the Times to use staff writers exclusively for the daily paper (outside of Op-Ed).

More broadly, I think the fact that journalists are mostly smart generalists is a huge weakness of the press. Save for a few geniuses, generalists are basically obsolete in every other field. Journalism should join modernity and take specialization of labor seriously, with all the attendant educational requirements. I can't count the number of times I've winced at some clueless description of computing technology in the general press. DeLong's frequent outrage at the economic ignorance (and general innumeracy) of the press shows that economics coverage is, if anything, much worse. Kakutani should not be reviewing history; she should be confined to literary fiction, where all the training one needs is to have read a great many books.

Newspapers hire full-time reporters who are not expert in any field because that has historically been an efficient way to produce news articles on deadline. At a high level, a major newspaper hires a hundred people who each write a few articles a week, instead of hiring ten thousand people who each write a few articles every hundred weeks. People assume this is simply the natural order of things, but it's not obviously the better choice: ten thousand experts can give you more substantive coverage of far more subject areas than one hundred generalists. It's true that one percent of a journalist's annual salary is a relatively small sum to pay a freelance expert for a couple of articles a year, but many experts care enough about communicating their subject matter to the public that they would probably work at cut rates (or, as blogs demonstrate, for no pay at all).

So why should newspapers be organized as small bands of generalists, instead of large federations of experts? I think the answer is coordination costs: you would need to maintain the world's biggest rolodex to keep up with all these experts, and aggregating the irregular work output of ten thousand people requires much more sophisticated planning than aggregating the regular output of one hundred people.

But coordination costs are an artifact of available technology. Mechanisms exist today that coordinate the output of many more than ten thousand voices. It's true that no existing system can serve as a drop-in replacement for the modern news reporting organization. However, the field of software-assisted content aggregation is young, and I believe that someday someone will figure out how to exploit the world's existing network of experts directly for reporting on complex issues, rather than relying on secondhand summaries of expert knowledge.

On a slightly related note, it's always laughable to me when I read about junk like this (and more! via Atrios; and more!), where some journalist sniffs contemptuously at the unwashed blogging rabble, and then gets promptly pwned (sorry, that truly is the mot juste).

What's especially rich to me is that, unless I misread Michael Skube's biography, Skube hasn't done hard investigative or beat reporting (at least, not full-time) for about two decades. His biography describes his freelance and city paper reporting from 1975 to 1982, but from 1982 onward his roles are described variously as an editorialist, book editor, columnist, and critic. In other words, it appears that he's spent the better part of his adult life doing exactly what he accuses bloggers of doing: sitting on his ass in a chair, reading what other people write, and commenting on it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

In which I toss comparative advantage to the wind

Attention conservation notice: Nothing but a link to an alternate blog that bears at best a distant topical relationship to this one.

I am a reasonably competent writer and programmer. Nevertheless, for some reason I have not been writing much lately (and not finishing the things I start); and as for programming, I code so much at work that, at the end of the day, that particular mental muscle prefers to sack out on the couch.

So, I have lately taken up drawing a comic strip instead, which I offer with neither apology, nor remorse, nor particular endorsement of its quality. It's kind of fun to be doing something that I am not particularly good at. Expect updates every Tuesday.

Be warned that in my writing, I care about getting things right, whereas with the strip I deliberately plan to privilege regularity and volume over quality. One interesting thing about drawing is that even if you don't have any ideas, you can kind of bullshit around with your instrument and learn something about the craft by observing your mistakes: how not to cross hatch a circular area, how not to draw a foreshortened hand, how not to balance light and dark areas on the page. By contrast, bullshitting around in prose fills me with a moral, existential horror.

Anyway, enough expectations management. By this point you know whether you care or not. I now return you to the usual regimen of irregularly updated spleen.