Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pity the Poor Republicans

Even David Brooks was saying that the Republicans' choice to "rebut" the State of the Union Speech, Governor Bobby Jindal, was a "disaster" and that his ideas are "insane."

The best example of wasteful government spending in the stimulus bill that Jindal could come up with was a few million dollars for "volcano monitoring." I suppose he considers this wasteful because there are no volcanoes in Louisiana. But to be fair, he would have to agree that if you take away the money for the U.S. Geological Survey to prepare for potential volcano disasters, then you should probably also take away the money for hurricane monitoring, and levee monitoring in New Orleans. In Jindal's view, therefore, it must be wasteful to spend government money to try to prevent or to prepare for any kind of natural disaster. Maybe he thinks it is more efficient for private businesses each to spend their own resources keeping track of the volcanoes and hurricanes in their area. Or perhaps he thinks it is better for the government to wait for the natural disaster to destroy your city, and then spend billions supposedly re-building it. (Oh yeah, but we already tried that approach, and it didn't work out too well.)

Meanwhile, President Obama was of course, awesome. He seems to appreciate as well as anyone that it is time to seize the moment, to put forward ambitious proposals, and to make them happen with all deliberate speed.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Further Evidence of Change

Three years ago, Brokeback Mountain lost out to Crash for best picture, which many interpreted as homophobic reaction from Hollywood's old guard. Tonight, Sean Penn's portrayal of gay city councilman Harvey Milk was the surprise winner over a strong comeback performance by Mickey Rourke. Penn noted that he could not have won unless there were a lot of commie homo lovers in Hollywood now. That seems like hopeful news to me, except that the cultural conservatives out there in what's left of Red State America, who are still getting used to the idea of President Obama, must be reeling over the celebration of the life of Harvey Milk. People who call themselves Christians were out in front of the Kodak theatre protesting the nominations of Milk and of Sean Penn and Heath Ledger. Do these people think we should erase the true story of Harvey Milk from the history books? Have they forgotten that Jesus actually disapproved of condemning people accused of sexual immorality?

And to top it off, Slumdog Millionaire won an incredible eight Oscars, without winning any acting awards. No real surprise there, since this fantastic fairy tale had the same kind of crowd-pleasing appeal as Rocky. Yet we have made a lot of progress by being able to identify with a nobody from the slums of Mumbai, when it used to take a low-class white guy from Philadelphia to make us cheer for the underdog. The celebration of Slumdog Millionaire demonstrates America's expanding awareness and embrace of a much bigger world full of exotic, brown-skinned people.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Nobody "believes" in evolution.


In honor of Darwin's 200th birthday, a Gallup poll found that fewer than 40% of Americans believe in the theory of evolution. While we should be concerned about the low levels of understanding of Darwin's theory in this country, this poll may exaggerate the extent of that lack of understanding. The poll asks the wrong question, a question that reveals the pollster's own lack of understanding of the scientific process.

Science is antithetical to belief. Science does not ask for belief, but instead allows for hypotheses that are tested by experiment. To the extent experiments prove the validity of those hypotheses, they become accepted as theories. Those scientific theories remain valid, unless and until they are disproved and superseded by a better theory. Scientific theories are not valid because a lot of people believe in them, or even because a lot of scientists accept them. They are valid only because they continue to have explanatory power in the face of repeated challenges.

To ask people if they "believe" in a particular theory, is to tell responders that a scientific explanation stands on no different footing from any other kind of explanation, whether based on religion or culture or a pseudo-science like astrology. So responders are free to believe it or believe in something else as they choose. The question actually gives credence to those fundamentalists who argue that Darwinism is some kind of secular religion that has its own creed and adherents and that should be given no higher status in school than the "theory" of creationism. Think how absurd the question would sound if a pollster asked people if they "believe" in gravity, or if they "believe" that the earth revolves around the sun. People ought not to be permitted to reject a scientific theory simply because they choose not to believe in it. You can reject a scientific theory if you have done an experiment that challenges the validity of the theory. Or you can say that the scientific explanation is not the whole explanation, or that it does or does not conflict with other beliefs you hold. Or you can just admit that you don't understand it. All those answers are acceptable. But it is pointless to say that you don't "believe" in a particular scientific theory. It is equally pointless to say that you do believe in it.

Maybe I'm quibbling by objecting to the language used in this poll, but I think it is important to insist on better terminology. The kind of confusion revealed by Gallup's questions lies at the heart of uninformed debate about not only evolution, but other scientific issues such as climate change. Journalists repeatedly make the mistake of thinking that these questions can be resolved by debate, or that they are matters of opinion. They are not. Questions such as whether or not human activity is causing the temperature to rise, or whether species evolve by natural selection cannot be resolved by debate, and are not matters of opinion. They can only be decided by the scientific process.

It would have been better for Gallup to ask whether people understand the theory of natural selection, or even whether they accept the theory. It might also be useful to ask more specific questions, such as whether people understand that when antibiotics kill germs, only the strongest germs survive. Or whether genes can mutate. Or whether finches with a particular shape of beak are more likely to survive a drought. Asking questions like that would probably give slightly more reassuring answers about the average person's understanding of natural selection, or at least expose their ignorance. Those kinds of questions would be more respectful of Darwin's legacy, and of science.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Chill Out, Paul Krugman!

Liberals are so accustomed to being out of power that they don't even recognize when they are winning, and they are never satisfied. Many on the left still seem to feel that the $800 billion stimulus bill which is about to be passed by Congress represents some kind of a betrayal, because it is too small, or it has too many tax cuts, or it doesn't include enough money for infrastructure or health or education or whatever. These people are missing the forest for the trees.

Congress is about to pass what may be the largest domestic deficit spending bill in history. Not only that, but the content of that bill is substantially the same as the bill President Obama proposed several weeks ago. Some may second guess his strategy of accommodating Republican views and courting Republican votes, but no one should deny this tremendous achievement. Some might decry the failure to fight harder for a better stimulus bill, but no one can be sure that a better bill would have resulted from such a fight. Fighting can produce backlash, while Obama's method of attempting to create a consensus, can often achieve . . . consensus. The fact is that the bill needed three Republican votes in the Senate to pass, and that's all it got. Perhaps that result should be taken as a sign that this is the most liberal bill that could possibly have passed Congress. And perhaps Paul Krugman should stick to economics, because he is not an expert on politics.

Here is what is most important about the stimulus bill. It represents the most dramatic possible reversal and repudiation of the political philosophy that has held sway for the past nearly 30 years: the theory that government is the enemy. Ronald Reagan allowed the federal government to start running up massive deficits only based on the theory of "starving the beast," in other words, keeping money in the hands of taxpayers so as to pressure the government to reduce its spending and its role in the economy. These deficits were never justified on the theory that government spending could actually help people. When Clinton came in, he never really challenged the prevailing view that government is evil. He even stated that the era of big government is over. Rather than attempting to demonstrate that government could actually do good, Clinton merely got government on a better financial footing by balancing the federal budget. That made him basically an Eisenhower Republican, and did not help the Democrats much politically. The reason for that is that people don't really care that much about deficit spending. When the Republicans re-imagined themselves as the party of deficit spending, and the Democrats identified themselves as the party of balanced budgets, the Democrats started losing elections.

Look what President Obama has achieved in less than a month in office. He has completely turned the tables on the Republicans. Now the Democrats are back to their rightful place as the party of deficit spending, while the Republicans are back to carping about the deficit (the fact that they created most of the deficit of course making their cries a lot less credible). More importantly, President Obama has already persuaded the majority of the public that increased government spending can actually help people, which means that the Reagan era is finally over.

Another thing that economists seem to forget is that the purity of their economic prescriptions may matter less than the public perception that things are getting better. Look at the variety of half-baked ideas that the government has put forward to deal with past economic crises. Roosevelt came up with the NRA and the WPA and a whole host of other agencies. Nixon (of all people!) instituted wage and price controls. Reagan cut taxes and government spending. Clinton raised taxes and balanced the budget. Bush brought back the war economy. Now Obama is trying an unprecedented borrowing and spending program for peaceful purposes. The funny thing about these programs, as contradictory and sometimes ineffectual as they sometimes were, is that they all worked to some extent. And the reason they worked is that people believed they were working. Ultimately, what gets the economy moving again is not what the government does to fix the economy, but what all of us do when we start a business, or invest in new equipment, or buy a new car. By doing those things, we show faith that things are going to get better. And because enough of us believe that, things do get better.

So let's keep in mind this timely image from last September, when the polls took a turn for the worse, and many Obama supporters were nervous that John McCain's Sarah Palin strategy might actually work:

Monday, February 9, 2009

Roosevelt and the Depression


Here's a chart to show anyone who starts spouting the revisionist theory that Roosevelt's policies did not help end the Great Depression.

(full story published on Dailykos)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Environmental Hope

Some of what I read about the looming environmental disasters facing us--like our new Secretary of Energy's statement that my adopted state may become practically uninhabitable in my children's lifetimes due to the potential drying up of our primary water supply--makes me feel that we are doomed no matter what we do. But this morning I perked up when I read in a review in the Los Angeles Times that we can make an electric car that leaves a Porsche in the dust! Maybe the future we have all been waiting for has finally arrived.