Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Stop Blaming The Borrowers

A guy walks into the doctor's office and says, doc, I want liposuction. And the doctor has the guy's medical records and the records show that he has a heart condition and that there's a significant risk he won't make it through liposuction. The doc says, no problem, just give me $5,000. I'd be happy to do it. The guy, who has no idea that his heart condition puts him at risk during surgery, dies on the table. Who do we blame?

It's so obvious a point I wouldn't think it needs mentioning, but too many people don't get it. When you have a banker agreeing to lend an average guy $500,000, the average guy is going to assume the banker knows what he's doing. Sure, he might suspect the banker's taking advantage of him to some extent, but it would probably never occur to him that there's a good chance he'd be unable to make his payments. He wouldn't know that the real estate market might crash and that if it did, he'd be upside-down in his mortgage. (In fact, he's probably never heard the term "upside-down" as it relates to mortgages.)

The average American has an IQ of 100 and a high-school diploma. He doesn't understand compound interest and isn't likely to have a good grasp of the nuances of housing markets or ARMs. The guy in the fancy suit with all the big words tells him he can handle the mortgage. And it's not just some guy who knocked on his door, but a man employed by a major national bank as an expert on mortgages. What's he going to do? Drill the guy on real estate markets and debt-to-income ratios? Or just trust that the guy knows what he's doing?

Republicans have been gleefully passing around this video that shows what some rich asshole thinks of average Americans like that who got screwed on their mortgages. They're "losers."

No compassion, no understanding. Just pure rage. Rage and hate.

Oh, and by the way, here's Santelli on September 2nd, saying that the economy was healthy.

I'm sure Republicans will soon be passing each other Santelli's next rant about how losers like himself are still rich and employed despite having been irresponsible and completely fucking wrong about the subject he is supposed to be an expert in.

Here's Matthew Yglesias, who says it better than I can:
Along with the absurd, Santelli-led revolt of the overclass against efforts to help middle class homeowners, there’s been a larger sense that “reasonable” people can all agree that there’s “plenty of blame to go around” and that on some level “irresponsible borrowers” deserve to take their lumps in all of this. I have my doubts.

When someone applies for a mortgage, there are two parties to the transaction. On one side of it is a teacher or a blogger or an electrician or a lawyer or a nurse or a guy who manages a Home Depot. On the side is a guy who, for a living, as a professional, works in the “deciding on what terms to offer people mortgages” business who works, for a living, at a financial services business. Businesses like that got in the habit of making loans with little regard to actual prospects for long-term payment on the theory that since house prices were rising, the borrower could always sell or refinance. That, to repeat, wasn’t the judgment of electricians and store managers; it was the judgment of people who were professional mortgage-offerers. They, in turn, were being lax in part because they were finding it very easy to sell the mortgages off as securities. And it was easy to sell the mortgages as securities irregardless of their quality, because big sophisticated financial services firms devised tactics for slicing and dicing the securities into packages that could be easily resold. Those packages could, in turn, be easily resold because they had high ratings from the bond agencies. These ratings were based on models which held that a nationwide decline in housing prices was impossible. The ratings agencies and the modeling firms were, in turn, regulated by the U.S. government. And in addition to the formal regulatory agencies, there are a variety of public officials—the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the President, the Secretary of the Treasury—who have a kind of generalized responsibility for oversight of the economy. Beyond the political system, the American media offers extensive coverage of business and real estate.

There really is plenty of blame to go around here. But I just don’t see how more than a tiny fraction of it could possible adhere to our electrician or teacher or secretary who’s decided, basically, that the financial services professionals and government regulators know what they’re doing. Now could she have known better? Sure. She could have been reading Dean Baker and Paul Krugman and others. The idea that this lending was all being undertaken on a false premise that a nationwide housing bust was impossible wasn’t a highly guarded secret. I was, for example, familiar with the chart above and with the analysis suggesting that a bust was, in fact, likely. And I believed that analysis. But at the same time, I write about U.S. public policy debates for a living. If there’s a dissident line of thinking that, despite its general unpopularity, is popular among left-of-center economists—well, that’s the kind of thing I know a lot about. But our nurse? Why would she know?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What Do Scientists Think About Global Warming?

In my previous post, I mocked the common tactic of listing as many scientists as one can find opposing a scientific consensus. They do it frequently for scientists who disbelieve in man-made global warming, but also for creationism and other subjects.

Here's a list of 2,648 people whose "doubts about AIDS are publicly known," for example. It includes scientists, doctors, nutritionists, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers, and for some reason a large number of mathematicians and physicists.

By contrast, the Republicans in the Senate only came up with 650 scientists who don't believe in man-made global warming. (Here is the document (.pdf) linked to in a comment on my previous post by Ezzie with the claim that "science disagrees.")

As I pointed out in my last post, listing the number of scientists who hold position A tells us nothing useful without also listing the number of scientists who hold position not-A. (It would of course disprove the argument that NO scientists believe in A, but nobody actually makes that claim. It's a straw man argument.)

So, because I'd like to know what's likely true rather than propagandize for a point, I thought I'd look into just how many scientists really don't believe in man-made global warming as compared to the number that do.

Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change (.pdf) is the most recent answer to that question that I could find. (I found it in the very well-sourced wikipedia article Scientific opinion on climate change.) Published just last month in Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, a publication of the American Geophysical Union, the paper details the results of a poll of 10,257 Earth scientists (with 3,146 respondants.)

The questions:
1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?
2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?

The answers:
Results show that overall, 90% of participants answered “risen” to question 1 and 82% answered yes to question 2. In general, as the level of active research and specialization in climate science increases, so does agreement with the two primary questions (Figure 1). In our survey, the most specialized and knowledgeable respondents (with regard to climate change) are those who listed climate science as their area of expertise and who also have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change (79 individuals in total). Of these specialists, 96.2% (76 of 79) answered “risen” to question 1 and 97.4% (75 of 77) answered yes to question 2.

They then compare these numbers to the beliefs of the general public.

Okay. So the public is divided, but the 82% of scientists and 97.4% of scientists specializing in the subject come out on the same side. Yes, it's a web survey, and yes, "is a significant contributing factor" is probably too vague. But all of the other surveys (there are several more referred to on that wikipedia page, for example) come to similar numbers.

Here's just one more:
In 2007, Harris Interactive surveyed 489 randomly selected members of either the American Meteorological Society or the American Geophysical Union for the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) at George Mason University. The survey found 97% agreed that global temperatures have increased during the past 100 years; 84% say they personally believe human-induced warming is occurring, and 74% agree that “currently available scientific evidence” substantiates its occurrence. Only 5% believe that that human activity does not contribute to greenhouse warming; the rest are unsure; and 84% believe global climate change poses a moderate to very great danger.[75][76]

I think it's safe to say the large majority of scientists believe in man-made global warming. Could they be wrong? Of course, anything's possible. But what could be the basis for assuming that they are wrong, let alone the extreme confidence with which many on the right make that claim? I submit it's pure wishful thinking combined with a reflexive rejection of anything the "other side" believes. Al Gore devotes his post-VP life to "spreading the gospel," ergo the gospel must be false. And did you hear about his mansion?

These scientists are aware of Martian warming, and of sunspot activity, and of all the thousand other little straws the deniers have grasped at. They are professionals in the field, and they've heard it all. But they still believe. To assume that you, a layperson, can better interpret the evidence than the majority of scientists is pure hubris. This isn't the kind of thing where everybody's opinion is equally valid. It's the kind of thing where some people are experts and most others are just talking out of their asses.

Presumably none of you deny the HIV-AIDS link, and even most of my religious readers have accepted that evolution is true, so why cling to this position? What good reason do you have? How can you be so sure?

And please, please stop with the "X number of scientists believe this!" garbage.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How Republicans Lie About Climate Change

The majority of climate scientists all over the world believe that climate change is happening, that carbon emissions are a big part of it, and that it's a big deal. Republicans? Not so much.

Here's George Will, the Republicans' version of an intellectual, in the "liberal" Washington Post:
According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

Ok, good. That's a simple, factual claim. Quite easy to check. The Washington Post's fact-checkers don't need to measure global sea ice levels -- they just need to check that the Arctic Climate Research Center says what Will says they say. And because everybody knows the Washington Post is liberal (that's sarcasm, folks) they obviously would have rushed to prove him wrong.

They don't. The ACRC:
We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.

Okay, so that's just a straight-up lie. No problem, it's easy to debunk lies. But disingenuous implications are harder. Will again:
[A]ccording to the World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade.

He cites his source again. Good! We can check.

Oops. The WMO:
The long-term upward trend of global warming, mostly driven by greenhouse gas emissions, is continuing. Global temperatures in 2008 are expected to be above the long-term average. The decade from 1998 to 2007 has been the warmest on record, and the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74C since the beginning of the 20th Century. [...] "For detecting climate change you should not look at any particular year, but instead examine the trends over a sufficiently long period of time. The current trend of temperature globally is very much indicative of warming," World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General, Mr Michel Jarraud said in response to media inquiries on current temperature "anomalies".

Yes, George, if you choose the hottest year in recent memory as your baseline, most years since then will be cooler. That doesn't mean warming stopped. The decade beginning with the year you chose as your baseline has been the warmest on record.

It's hilarious listening to Republicans on climate change. When they're not outright lying, it's just total amateur hour. They'll start talking about sunspots and Martian temperatures and how that one measuring station is totally right next to a heating vent. But they don't know what they're talking about. They're just like creationists who go on and on about this fossil or that footprint and how obviously the eye is too complex to have evolved.

(It's always "obvious," too. It's not just that the majority of scientists are wrong, it's that they're OBVIOUSLY wrong. Most of the smartest and most expert people on Earth are wrong, but Joe the Plumber's got the truth. Right.)

Now there are of course some scientists who don't believe in climate change just as there are some who don't believe in evolution. It's just that they're vastly outnumbered. (Yes, Einstein was outnumbered at first. Science isn't a democracy, and sometimes the minority is right. But when they're right they can generally prove it, and win over the majority. That's what makes it science rather than, say, religion.)

Republicans love to list all the scientists they can find who don't believe in global warming. Now an honest person would then compare that number to the list of all the scientists they could find that do believe in global warming. But they don't do that. They're not interested in honesty. Their arguments are one-sided.

Project Steve is a great parody of that tactic as used by creationists. You may have seen the lists of scientists who don't believe in evolution, numbering in the hundreds. Here's one (.pdf) from The Discovery Institute. (See kids, even scientists don't believe in evolution!) Project Steve decided that they would create a list just of scientists named Steve (or variants thereof) to highlight the ridiculousness of that technique. A couple of days ago they reached a thousand. There are more scientists named Steve who believe in evolution than scientists with all names who don't. Ouch. I'm sure the folks at The Discovery Institute will change their minds based on this new evidence.

Finally, George Will again trots out the lie that the scientific community believed in global cooling just a few decades ago. Ezra Klein puts it best:
There needs to be some sort of Godwin's Law variant for conservatives who try to argue against global warming because they remember that Newsweek dipped into pop-science in the mid-70s and touted "global cooling." Call it Will's Law, after George Will, the supposedly cerebral conservative who brings this up every time he doesn't have a better column idea.

For a good summary on the global cooling myth -- an idea that took root in the popular press but never in the scientific literature -- go sit in on the free lecture provided by the folks at Real Climate. Will makes a lot of the 1975 Newsweek cover on the subject, but the more telling document is a National Academy of Sciences report from the same year. The report argued that climate change is the product of many potential forces and the state of the science wasn't yet advanced enough to discern which would prove decisive. To put it in the NAS's own words, "we do not have a good quantitative understanding of our climate machine and what determines its course. Without the fundamental understanding, it does not seem possible to predict climate." As such, they recommended "a major new program of research designed to increase our understanding of climatic change and to lay the foundation for its prediction."

Monday, February 09, 2009

Defending Marriage By Destroying Marriages

That's the logic of Ken Starr (previously obsessed with Bill Clinton's penis) who has filed a brief on behalf of the Yes on Prop 8 crowd to retroactively annul the 18,000 couples married in California last year before Prop 8 was passed.

Republican "family values" at work.

This is the response from the Courage Campaign:

Friday, February 06, 2009

Catholics and the Pope

Here's what I don't understand. How do grown men and women take Catholicism seriously when the pope is so ridiculous?

Sure, there are crazy rabbis and plenty of crazy imams, but none is officially the head of their whole religion. In the pope, you have all the hypocrisy and evil and pomposity of religion wrapped up in one man.

Now the current pope isn't as bad as, say, Alexander VI, but he's hardly a paragon of moral virtue or wisdom. Shortly after un-excommunicating a holocaust-denying bishop, he has named a guy who said Hurricane Katrina was "God's punishment" and that the Harry Potter books spread Satanism to bishop.

Before he was pope, he and the previous pope covered up the child-abusing spree of Marciel Maciel. (He's also an overtly anti-gay man who wears a dress and bright red Prada shoes and has suspiciously handsome assistants, but that sort of argument is beneath this blog. Yeah right.)

All the popes dress in ridiculously over-the-top costumes and live in gigantic palaces controlling 10-15$ billion in wealth while preaching against greed and materialism and pretending to be against povery. I mean, seriously, how does a grown person look at this guy and see a spiritual leader? It's beyond me.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Republican "Economics" and Propaganda

Nobel-winning actual economist Paul Krugman:
But the part that really got me was Broder saying that we need “the best ideas from both parties.”

You see, this isn’t a brainstorming session — it’s a collision of fundamentally incompatible world views. If one thing is clear from the stimulus debate, it’s that the two parties have utterly different economic doctrines. Democrats believe in something more or less like standard textbook macroeconomics; Republicans believe in a doctrine under which tax cuts are the universal elixir, and government spending is almost always bad.

The Republicans are really pissing me off. They have no legislative power, but they continue to play the media like a fiddle. Democrats control the White House, the Senate, and the House, but the great "liberal" media has had twice as many Republicans as Democrats on t.v. discussing the stimulus package.

And the Republicans are singing the same song as always: tax cuts! Wait, they're singing that other song, too: the experts are wrong! It's so obvious! So what if basically all the scientists in the world say that anthropogenic global warming is happening? All you need is common sense to tell you that's a lie! What do those stupid scientists know?

Now economics is a much softer "science" than climatology, it's true. But it's not like economists are dumber than your average television pundit. They're smart, and they base their opinions on data. And when the data change, their opinions change.

Republicans, on the other hand? Different data, same opinion. Economy booming? Tax cuts! Gas prices rising? Tax cuts! Economy tanking? Tax cuts! Two wars? Tax cuts!

Another article by Krugman, called Bad Faith Economics:
As the debate over President Obama’s economic stimulus plan gets under way, one thing is certain: many of the plan’s opponents aren’t arguing in good faith. Conservatives really, really don’t want to see a second New Deal, and they certainly don’t want to see government activism vindicated. So they are reaching for any stick they can find with which to beat proposals for increased government spending.

Some of these arguments are obvious cheap shots. John Boehner, the House minority leader, has already made headlines with one such shot: looking at an $825 billion plan to rebuild infrastructure, sustain essential services and more, he derided a minor provision that would expand Medicaid family-planning services — and called it a plan to “spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives.”

But the obvious cheap shots don’t pose as much danger to the Obama administration’s efforts to get a plan through as arguments and assertions that are equally fraudulent but can seem superficially plausible to those who don’t know their way around economic concepts and numbers. So as a public service, let me try to debunk some of the major antistimulus arguments that have already surfaced. Any time you hear someone reciting one of these arguments, write him or her off as a dishonest flack.


Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending. Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created (see the previous fraudulent argument) — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

This suggests that public spending rather than tax cuts should be the core of any stimulus plan. But rather than accept that implication, conservatives take refuge in a nonsensical argument against public spending in general.

Obama preemptively compromised with the Republicans by providing huge tax cuts as part of the stimulus package. In return, he got nothing. ZERO Republican votes in the House. Let's hope he stops pretending that the Republicans are acting in good faith or have any good ideas at all sooner rather than later. There's no sense in weakening the stimulus, and therefore the economy, to appease a bunch of know-nothing dogmatists with no actual power.

I've leave you with a quote from the genius just voted RNC Chairman:
You and I know that in the history of mankind and womankind, government—federal, state or local—has never created one job. It’s destroyed a lot of them.

Clearly a rational man well-versed in economics and history.