Monday, November 5, 2012

On not worshipping the powerful and connected

Yes, I know that I rarely quote Paul Krugman even though I agree with him at least 80% of the time.  He already has the pulpit of the New York Times so I figure he needs no exposure help from me.  But today's subject is so near and dear to my heart, I have to post a quote.  The subject is: How much do our experts actually know?

I got an astonishing insight into this problem at an absolutely lovely dinner in Washington DC.  I have recounted the details of that party here.  But essentially, it was a gathering of some of the people I call the "permanent government"—the GS16 and higher bureaucrats who make the daily calls on how policy is executed.  Several of the guests were State Department and a couple were NSA / CIA.  I was excited beyond words.  I had this notion that no matter the official Cold War pronouncements that appeared in the press over the years, there had to someone in the important offices who had the "real" story.  And I had some questions I wanted to ask.

When I was a child, the relentless war-mongering, atomic drills, fallout shelters, high-altitude bombers, etc., had their desired effect—I was terrified of the Soviet Union to the point of having vivid nightmares.  When Sputnik was launched, I was afraid mostly because I could hear the naked fear in the voices of the newscasters.  I am not sure that anyone who was minimally aware during the Cold War actually ever fully recovered from the trauma.  But I started feeling a whole lot better about sharing the planet with the USSR when I discovered that MOST of the tales that had so traumatized my childhood were these incredibly ridiculous lies.

My great dinner party was held in 1981.  The Reagan people had been in town for 10 months and some of the guests were tasked with the threat inflation necessary to justify his massive arms build-up.  Soon we would be told that the economy of the Warsaw Pact was growing at an astonishing 3+% a year. (See, because western intelligence had decided there was a fixed ratio between the size of the Warsaw Pact economies and their defense spending, we could exaggerate the size of their military capabilities by simply exaggerating the growth of their economies.  No, you cannot make this shit up!)

Of course, this fictional economic growth was utterly preposterous as anyone could see if they spent 12 seconds in Warsaw or Prague or Leningrad.  But since virtually no one actually got see the inside of the actual Warsaw Pact, official Washington could say anything they wanted about USSR and the vast majority of citizens had NO way of checking out the story.

When I began to quiz my host and his friends about Eastern Bloc issues, I quickly discovered that these people had reached the upper levels of the bureaucracy precisely because they never questioned the official story.  In fact, they took great pride in having developed communication channels that would allow them to get the party line more quickly than someone else in their department.  They had a great deal invested in their inside track—they had no reason to question the accuracy of the information that came through such channels.  There was no "real story" because everyone wanted so badly to believe the bullshit.

When the insiders are wrong, they are usually all wrong for the same reasons.  So when the Warsaw Pact came apart in 1989, this event was predicted by absolutely no one—at least no one above a GS15 in Washington.  They were all wrong about Iraq.  They are wrong to ignore climate change.  Astonishingly, they are wrong about just about everything—this in spite of the fact they live in a world awash in information that could easily lead them to more enlightened conclusions than, for example: climate change is a subject so trivial it isn't even worth discussing during a presidential election.

Scoop Dupes

Paul Krugman

Well, we’re safe, comfortable — and trapped. I don’t know if you can drive across a downed power line that’s stretched right across your driveway, but I guess no point in trying. I hope PSE&G doesn’t take too many days to at least remove the line, never mind actually restoring power..

Limited blogging due to limited bandwidth (and don’t be surprised if comment moderation lags, since both here and at the Times conditions are, shall we say, not ideal). But I thought I’d weigh in on this post by Brad DeLong.

Brad has fun with Jonathan Martin of Politico, who thinks that liberals will be deeply disheartened to learn that Nate Silver “admits” that he’s mainly relying on public polls for his forecast. Of course, Nate has been clear about that all along — and what should he be doing? And look: the message from the polls is very clear: national surveys show a tight race or a slight Romney lead, but state polls — which are telling us about the electoral vote — show a clear if narrow Obama advantage in enough states to win the electoral college. Those polls would have to be off, systematically, by about 2 percent for Romney to win. So the odds are in Obama’s favor.

Oh, and don’t quote some poll or other that seems to say different. Polls have a margin of error (duh). This means that if there are a lot of polls, say of Ohio, sheer luck of the draw will produce a couple of polls seeming to tell a different story. That’s why all the serious analysts rely on poll averages, and stick to those averages rather than picking and choosing.

But Martin’s tweet also reveals a broader issue in reporting, which I’ve commented on before, I think (no time to search): the unhealthy cult of the inside scoop.

A lot of political journalism, and even reporting on policy issues, is dominated by the search for the “secret sauce”, as Martin puts it: the insider who knows What’s Really Going On. Background interviews with top officials are regarded as gold, and the desire to get those interviews often induces reporters to spin on demand.

But such inside scoops are rarely — I won’t say never, but rarely — worth a thing. My experience has been that careful analysis of publicly available information almost always trumps the insider approach.

This is sort of obviously true in election season: in a vast, diverse country, no amount of talking with big shots (who are pushing an agenda) — or for that matter hanging out at campaign events and trying to assess the mood — is a substitute for polls that collectively sample tens of thousands of voters.

It’s even more obviously true on economic matters, where top officials basically work from the same data everyone else has, and a smart economist is almost always a better guide than the Minister of Silly Walks.

Remarkably, it has even been true for national security. Reporters with top-level access got completely snookered by the lies about Iraq, while many ordinary concerned citizens, looking at what we actually seemed to know, figured out early on that the Bush administration was cooking up a false case for war. more

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