Category Archives: Media

Is the U.S. an Oligarchy?

I came across something the other day that isn’t particularly noteworthy on its own, but serves as a useful example of a common journalistic malpractice. Plus, it’s from the Washington Times, so it presents an opportunity to abuse a non-MSM source while getting in on the ground floor of the predictable internet arguments over the subject matter of the article.

The article in question bears the arresting headline, America is an oligarchy, not a democracy or republic, university study finds, which seems like pretty good click-bait for an article that doesn’t contain a word about a single Kardashian. Now, for those of you without a lot of time to spare, I’ll tell you right now that this “study” finds no such thing, so you can move along now and sleep comfortably. But there’s quite a bit to unpack from this silly article.

First, there’s really no such thing as a “university study”, despite the fact that newspapers constantly use this term. What this thing is, and what all such “studies” are, is a humble little academic paper written by two guys with jobs as professors at some universities. It gets worse in the main body of the article, where this paper is pimped as a “study jointly conducted by Princeton and Northwestern universities.” The casual reader would be nearly blameless in inferring that high-ranking officials at those two schools had decided to order members of their faculties to drop everything and get to work studying the state of the American polity. But that’s a laughably incorrect notion of academic life, where in reality profs are rewarded for grabbing some “external funding” for their research. The subject matter is of no particular interest to university officials unless it generates a lot of bad publicity. The only things that really matter to them about research are the money kicked in to the university’s general slush fund and the number of publications the authors can squeeze out of their projects.

OK, what about the research that underlies the bold claim of the headline?  The basic argument is that organized interest groups exert some degree of influence on the US government. Oh, and business lobbying is aimed at increasing business profits. No, I’m not kidding. That’s it. Pretty much stuff that Marxists and libertarians agree on, although they differ radically on the implication of this for the optimal size and scope of government.

So where does the “oligarchy” stuff come from? The actual “study” uses the term only in reference to work by another Northwestern political scientist, Jeffrey Winters, who–as far as I can tell–argues that concentrated wealth is the same thing as concentrated political power. Wealth inequality in the US therefore means oligarchy because money buys influence over policy. You can get a pretty good idea of Winters’ views from his recent post at HuffPo.

Of course, this argument is nothing more than underwear-gnome logic without specifics about the influence that the wealthy exert over policy. Did they install their fellow rich guy Mitt Romney as president? Did they kill Obamacare? Going back a few decades, when the oligarchs gave us President Nixon, why did they allow him to sign the laws creating the EPA and OSHA?

No, Prof. Winters isn’t so foolhardy as to claim that oligarchs rule the US in the way that they run, say, Russia. Instead, our unambitious oligarchs largely concern themselves with lowering the top income-tax rate. Which is to say, they’ve had to deploy all their political might to reducing the amount of their wealth voted away from them. This has got to be the most sorry-ass oligarchy ever.

The argument made by Winters’ colleagues, in the study that is the subject of the WashTimes article, is a bit different. They look at opinion survey data for the US and contrast the for/against views for an unspecified group of policy proposals, distinguishing between the responses of the top 10% of income earners and those of “average Americans”. They then attempt to estimate the responsiveness of each actual policy outcome to the preferences of these respondent groups (plus some lobbying groups). Unfortunately for the authors, the policy views of “elites” and average Joes in the US are highly correlated (to the tune of a .94 correlation coefficient, where 1.0 represents exact conformity, 0 represents complete independence, and -1 represents completely opposing views). So the main thing to be learned from their study is that there’s hardly any class warfare at all in the US.

But that’s not what the two scholars in question concluded. Being determined to sort out the differential influence of the people being taxed heavily relative to those being taxed lightly, they proceeded to massage their data in the name of eliminating “measurement error”. I’m not competent to evaluate their procedure–and only partly because they do not describe it in this study, but refer the diligent reader to a separate paper–so I’ll only report that the “cleaned” data are used to find that the opinions of ordinary Americans have no influence on public policy.

Now, one important thing to bear in mind is that merely fitting a statistical model like this and getting some estimated effects of assorted variables doesn’t necessarily tell us a lot about the importance of the results. It’s the “predictive” power of the model that tells us how important it is, and this paper never discusses that. (One type of measure of this is reported, and it’s very small, but we’re not told which of the several possible measures it represents.) In fact, this study doesn’t even contain the customary table reporting the simple summary statistics for its sample. So, for example, we aren’t told what percentage of the 1,779 “policy proposals” in question were actually enacted. This is pretty important to know in order to assess the statistical model. In a world where you get 50% “positives” and 50% “negatives”, a model that can predict positive outcomes 75% of the time is pretty good. On the other hand, if only 5% of the outcomes are positive, there’s not much to explain.

Furthermore, real-world policy outcomes aren’t binary, which means that the data used in this study contain an unknown degree of subjective opinion. Suppose, for example, people are asked if they favor or oppose an increase in the top income-tax rate, and that high-income earners oppose it while average earners favor it. Also suppose that there are three options considered by Congress: Raise the top rate by 10%, raise it by 5%, and leave it unchanged. If what passes is a 5% increase, should that be classified as a “win” for the fat cats or for the hoi polloi? And that’s a simple case. Suppose what happens is that the top rate is increased but the income threshold for being in the top bracket is also increased? How would you code that? And, given that a lot of policies are rolled up into a single mess of an omnibus bill, what are we to make of the assorted logrolling deals that were made to get the ultimate legislation passed?

I don’t mean to say that this study is rubbish, but it does seem awfully weak to serve as the basis for the view that the US is an oligarchy.  What I do mean to say is that the Washington Times report on this study is indeed rubbish, and not at all unrepresentative of MSM summaries of social-science research.

Oh, plus this: The Constitution is supposed to establish a republic, not a simple democracy that quickly passes laws that embody the weakly held, indifferently thought-out views of a simple majority. I can’t believe that I have to make that point in writing about a study by a political scientist, but then the other author is a sociologist.

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Filed under Media, Politics, Social Justice

When the Theory Doesn’t Fit the Facts, Print the Theory

A recent piece by James Surowiecki, the New Yorker reader’s guide to the perplexing world of economics, gives us an inkling of what’s worrying all the best people in the Hamptons this summer–the price of lobster. After all, it’s one of the few problems these days that can’t be traced directly to some ruinous Obama-administration policy, so it’s not only of vital importance to New Yorker readers but also something that nice people can talk about without being called racists.

According to Surowiecki, the problem–in a carapace–is this:  “There’s more lobster out there right now than anyone knows what to do with, but we’re still paying for it as if it were a rare delicacy.” He explains this conundrum by asserting that people can’t tell a good lobster from a bad one by taste, so they judge it by price. Thus, in order to assure their customers of the high quality of their lobsters, restaurateurs decline the additional profits they could make by knocking a few bucks off the price of their lobster thermidor in order to move more of the abundant crustaceans. Or so the story goes.

What’s the evidence for this claim? Pretty much nothing, other than some manipulative prose from Surowiecki:  “Even as the wholesale price of lobster has collapsed, restaurant prices for lobster tails and that hipster favorite the high-end lobster roll have stayed buoyant.” How much of a fall in price constitutes a “collapse”, you ask? James S. doesn’t say. How far can prices decline and still be declared “buoyant”? No idea. If you’re a New Yorker subscriber you already know the old saying, If you have to ask the price then you can’t afford it.

I mention this not because of my concern for the tight budgets of lobster-eating New Yorker readers, but because this fish story provides an excellent example of one of the great failings of what passes for our “intelligentsia” today: they never let crude facts get in the way of a satisfying theory.

The essential fact about lobsters as far as restaurants are concerned is that they are highly perishable. That’s why restaurateurs who boast of their aged steaks never say the same thing about their lobsters. Also, unlike chickens, lobsters aren’t produced in assembly-line fashion; there are bountiful harvests and thin ones, both determined by the vagaries of nature. If you’ve ever had a bad lobster, as I have, you know it’s a particularly unsatisfactory experience, particularly upon excretion. So what we have here is a food item that’s produced in a very small geographical area, is costly to pack for proper shipping, must be stored in salt-water tanks upon delivery, and deteriorates fairly rapidly. In short, the price paid to a lobsterman at the dock amounts to a relatively small share of the total cost of delivering a fresh-cooked lobster to a restaurant table. Therefore, restaurant’s lobster prices fluctuate much less in percentage terms than do the prices of those same creatures right off the boat. [For example, if in normal times lobsters sell for $5 a pound off the boat and a 2-pound lobster dinner costs $40 at your local swankateria, then a 50% fall in lobster prices off the boat would only reduce the cost at tableside by a 12.5  percent (5/40).] Of course, I have no idea if that’s a sufficient basis for calling lobster prices “buoyant”, because Surowiecki doesn’t bother to define price buoyancy for us. That’s an essential part of the art of telling just-so stories.

But I do have a taste for facts, as well as a working knowledge of search engines, so it took me not much time at all to find out a few things about the market for lobsters.

First, it’s pretty common for restaurants that sell a lot of lobsters not to specify a menu price at all  their lobster dinners. Instead, what their menus typically say is “market price”. This is true in Boston, and it’s true in Florida.* Most people would take that as a sign that lobster prices fluctuate frequently enough that it’s not worth printing them on menus. They might further suppose that restaurants that only sell a few lobster dinners  would rather print a single, stable price on their menus than submit their customers to the gaucherie of having the price told to them by their server. James Surowiecki is not one of those people.

Second, if my explanation is correct, we ought to see bigger retail price fluctuations at restaurants where the price of the lobster itself represents a larger fraction of the total cost of the full lobster dinner. There are lots of such places along the New England coast, and the prices  at those places are so low that they’re newsworthy.

James Surowiecki and his readers do not wish to bother with such banal facts. They far prefer a story as insubstantial as spun sugar, as long as it can be used to illustrate the fundamental irrationality of ordinary people and the impotence of the forces of supply and demand. The people who eagerly scarf up this nonsense are just another segment of the market for ignorance, which is one of the cornerstones of 21st-century liberalism.  Sadly, it’s yet another market in which supply responds quite agilely to demand.

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*Note that items made from canned lobster meat do typically have standard menu prices. Greater storability is the explanation for that.

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Filed under Economics, Media

Al Sharpton, Entrepreneur

I saw that pic of Al Sharpton and his new squeeze today on Drudge. Gotta say, I’m impressed.

I mean, here’s a guy who looked like this when he was 29. He was a better candidate for the dead pool than the dating pool. By any measure, the man’s been hugely successful. But at what?

As far as I can tell, the man’s basic skill set consists of an uncanny ability to get out in front of a crowd, to whip up that crowd with remarkably poor rhetoric, and to avoid being held accountable for the subsequent, frequently substantial, damage resulting from his actions.

This can’t just be a run of incredibly good luck. No, Sharpton seems to have identified–or stumbled upon–a previously unmet demand in the marketplace: a demand for ignorance. The thoroughly depressing aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict demonstrates that that many of our fellow citizens seem positively eager to hold strong views fueled by massively mangled facts. This is as true when the subject is economic policy as it is when the topic is criminal justice. When the truth is readily available at low cost and people still prefer to be wrong, then it’s got to be concluded that they prefer to be wrong. In econojargon, they demand it. And Sharpton supplies it the way Nike provides shoes.

So, in the spirit of reconciliation, I salute Al Sharpton as a canny entrepreneur with apparently excellent taste in female companionship. What Bill Gates did for personal computing, Al has done for ignorance.

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Filed under Media, Politics, Social Justice, TV

Manti Te’Obama

Serious journalists everywhere are talking about the complete failure of their sportswriter colleagues to verify any aspect of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s heart-rending story of the loss of his lovely girlfriend to leukemia. Only a couple of wannabe reporters at Deadspin bothered to fact-check his claims, and found that the “girlfriend” was an imaginary amalgam of tweets from one of Te’o’s best buds and pics of a woman known to that bud.

As weird as Te’o’s tale is, what’s even weirder is the bafflement of the “news” media over it. Here is  the question that puzzles them: How can it be that professional journalists failed to fact-check the inspirational stories told to them by a charismatic guy from Hawai’i? Why didn’t they try to find the relevant official certification? How could they not have discovered that his “girlfriend” was a composite figure rather than an actual person?

Yeah. Where in the world could sports reporters have possibly gotten the idea that it was unfair, and probably racist, to question the narrative of a person of ethnicity? I hope one of those smart J-school professors can figure this one out.

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Filed under Barack Obama, Media, People Who Lack Self-Awareness

The Best Online Writer Is James Lileks. Yes!

New York magazine, best (only?) known as the coop where Tom Wolfe was hatched, has published yet another homeopathic version of The Innocents Abroad in the form of an “exposé” of the fact that those National Review cruises tend to be populated by people who are wealthy enough to afford cruises. The problem for the writer of this nullity is that a month before his article was published, one of the objects of its failed derision–James Lileks–scooped it.

Pity the editors of New York! The nouveau Wolfe doesn’t write for them, and–horrors–doesn’t even live in New York!

The Capital of Mockery has moved to Minneapolis–or St. Paul or some burg on Kitsche Gumee– sneaking out of town on the Info Hi-Way. Who are these proles who live in actual houses with actual families (and DOGS!) and dare to mock the Cultural Hegemon? And why are they conservatives?

Non-contiguous information streams!!

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Filed under Media