Field of Science

Science, Grime and Republicans

Every time I go to Russia, the first thing I notice is the air. I would say it's like sucking on a car's exhaust pipe, but -- and this is key to my story -- the air in American exhaust pipes is actually relatively fresh. You have to image black soot spewing forth from a grimy, corroded pipe. Pucker up. [That's the first thing I notice, unless I'm in St Petersburg -- In many parts of Petersburg the smell of urine overwhelms the industrial pollution. And I say this as someone who loves Petersburg.]

So whenever I read that regulations are strangling business, I think of Russia. The trash everywhere. My friends, living in a second floor apartment, complaining how the grime that comes in through the window (they can't afford airconditioning) turns everything in the apartment grey. Gulping down breaths of sandpaper. The hell-hole that oil extraction has made of Sakhalin. Seriously, I don't know why more post-apocalyptic movies aren't shot in Sakhalin. Neither words nor pictures can describe the remnants of clear-cut, burnt-over forest -- looking at it, not knowing how long it's been like that, since such forests (I'm told) will almost certainly never grow back. It's something everybody should see once.

At least Russia has a great economy, thanks to deregulation. Or not. New Russians, of course, live quite well, but most people I know (college-educated middle class) are, by American standards, dirt poor. And even New Russians have to breath that shitty, shitty air.


Listening to people complain that environmental regulation is too costly and largely without value, you'd be forgiven for thinking such places didn't exist. You might believe that places without environmental regulations are healthy, wealthy and wise, rather than, for the most part, impoverished and with lousy air and water.

This is the problem with the modern conservative movement in the US, and why I'm writing this post in a science blog. Some time ago, conservatives had a number of ideas that seemed plausible. It turns out, many of them were completely wrong. The brightest of the bunch abandoned these thoroughly-discredited ideas and moved on to new ones. Others, forced to choose between reality and their priors, chose the priors.

The most famous articulation of this position comes from an anonymous Bush aid, quoted by Ron Suskind:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Even More Reality

It doesn't stop there. Discretionary government spending, one hears, is the cause of our deficits, despite the fact that the deficit is larger than all discretionary government spending. Tax breaks for the rich stimulate the economy, whereas infrastructure improvements are useless. Paul Krugman's blog is one long chronicle of absurd economic fantasy coming from the Right.

Gay marriage harms traditional marriage -- despite the fact that places where gay marriage and civil unions exist (e.g., New England) tend to have lower divorce rates and lower out-of-wedlock birth rates.

European-style medicine is to be avoided at all costs, despite the fact that the European medical system costs less and delivers better results than the American system.

Global warming. Evolution. And so on.

A Strong Opposition

I actually strongly believe in the value of a vibrant, healthy opposition. In my work, I prefer collaborators with whom I don't agree, on the belief that this tension ultimately leads to better work. Group-think is a real concern. There may be actual reasons to avoid a particular environmental regulation, European-style health care, a larger stimulus bill, etc. -- but to the extent that those reasons are based on empirical claims, the claims should actually be right. You don't get to just invent facts.

So in theory, I could vote for a good Republican. But even if there were to be one running for office now -- and I don't think there are any -- they'd still caucus with the self-destructive, nutters that make up most of the modern party.

This is not to say Democrats have no empirical blind spots (they seem to be just as likely to believe that nonsense about vaccines and Autism, for instance), but on the whole, Democrats believe in reality. More to the point, most (top) scientists and researchers are Democrats, which has to influence the party (no data here, but I have yet to meet a Republican scientist, so they can't be that common).

So if you believe in reality, if you believe in doing what works rather than what doesn't, if you care at all about the future of our country, and if you are eligible to vote in the US elections this Fall, vote for the Democrat (or Left-leaning independent, etc., if there's one with a viable chance of winning).


Lev said...

Unfortunately, many people on either side regard the other side in the same way as you do. They do so by blinding themselves to whatever contradicts their world view.

Look what you are saying. Someone writes that California has too much regulation. They also show some empirical claims, but for some reason you seem to imply that only Democrats use those. Does Cato propose total deregulation? If so, please show me in which line. Do you propose total regulation? If so, pardon me but it's you who is out of touch with reality. But if you agree that the best answer lies somewhere between these two extremes, then you must agree that arguing where exactly that point lies does make sense. So why burn straw men?

Next. Paul Krugman. He's a Republican scientist. From this I conclude that you haven't met him :) Btw, he is a professor of Economy at Princeton and a Nobel Prize winner, while your field is cognition. If you say his statements are absurd, guess whom I would rather believe?

And another thing. If you read a stupid blog full of absurdities, and the author is pro-Democrat, will this make you a Republican? Or will you claim that all morons are Republican? Because if not, you will have to agree that the opinions of people who vote for some party don't necessarily represent that party. And Krugman AFAIK is not a politician.

"European-style medicine is to be avoided at all costs". Is this really what Republican politicians say? (though actions are more important than words) Or is it a statement of some blogger that happens to vote for the Republicans? Or are you again fighting straw men, as in the case of Cato?

An anonymous Bush aide. Right. Quote a poetic statement by someone anonymous and use that as an argument. You call that scientific?

Don't demonize the opponent. If you want to get closer to the truth than him, you must honestly listen to him and try to understand. If you filter incoming information through your own bias (which is very natural), you have a world view that cannot be disproved.

Edward said...

@Lev: guess whom I would rather believe?

GamesWithWords said...

@Lev: Ummm. I was citing Krugman, not disagreeing with him. So if you believe him, that's great.

I find it somewhat amazing that you don't believe Republicans are largely against banking regulations, against environmental regulations, against European-style health care, etc. I honestly can only conclude that you haven't been watching the news in the last 2-3 decades (e.g., I'm not going to dig up links, because a simple google search will find plenty of evidence for you (alternatively, you can just go to Replican congressmen's websites).

Similarly, I think it's a matter of public record that much of the conservative research coming out over the last number of years is simply fabricated or deeply confused (weapons of mass destruction, the "crisis" in evolutionary theory, the lack of global warming, etc.). No real citations needed here.

GamesWithWords said...

Here's the Krugman quote Edward linked to:

KRUGMAN: Look at what just happened, we had a proposal I think it was McCain’s proposal for an economic recovery package, his version of it which was all tax cuts, a complete, let’s do exactly what Bush did, have another round of Bush-style policies. After eight years which that didn’t work and we got 36 out of 41 Republican senators voting for that which is completely crazy. So how much bipartisan outreach can you have when 36 out of 41 republican senators take their marching orders from Rush Limbaugh?

Psi Wavefunction said...

Your point about regulation is accentuated further by the fact that the quality of life got substantially WORSE for the average Russian after the rampant deregulation associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sure, GDP and other economic voodoo may have increased, but things like a drastically reduced life expectancy and the upsurge of crime post-USSR are what really speaks for quality of life. My father was able to take public transit by himself to get to the centre of Moscow from the outskirts when he was 8; that was normal back in the 60's and 70's. Nowadays, it can be scary for a grown man to wander around the city a little too much...

It depends on personal tastes, I guess, but I'd take a reasonable, safe quality of life over "freedom of speech" (which doesn't properly exist anywhere, if you look US, society takes over much of the government's role in that department. It's scary.) any day of the week. It shouldn't be shocking to people anyway.

Of course, even during the Soviet times regulation wasn't anywhere near perfect, but it was pretty damn good compared to anything else we've ever had there.

Russia, as a country, an economy and a society, has conspicuously -regressed- since the 80's. It's quite sad...

For the record, I don't support communism either, has its own issues, obviously...

Lev said...

@Psi: Don't forget that there was lack of food in stores in the 80-s, and people had to stand in very long queues to get it. As for it being scary to wander around the city, this is true in some parts of some cities and false in others.
And of course the quality of life in Russia of the 70s was nowhere near that in the US, either then or now.
Russia is indeed a blatant example of the dangers of over-regulation.

Lev said...

Yes, I know that Republicans are against European-style healthcare, but I see nothing wrong with this. I thought you had already agreed that there are pros and cons to it.

Yes, I know that Republicans are in favor of less banking regulations, but I haven't found in Google any evidence that they support total deregulation. As you've seen, I don't support total regulation either, so I believe that the ideal point is in the middle. Therefore the public debate about this point is legitimate.

By the way, the key figures in Goldman-Sachs are Democrats, so I don't really believe that Democrats would regulate the banking system too much. Of course they can claim to...

As for the Global Warming Theory, I think it's an argument against the Democrats, but you won't agree...

GamesWithWords said...

@Lev -- I continue to suspect you may actually be a troll, so this is probably my last response on this topic, but if you read the wikipedia articles you linked to, you would have noticed Hank Paulson was both Goldman Sachs CEO and Treasure Secretary under Bush. I assume you also know that Democrats passed a banking regulation bill against nearly total Republican opposition and are just feigning ignorance. It also sounds like you don't believe in global warming, which would be Exhibit A that you don't believe in science. If you'd ever seen melting permafrost -- or read any science -- you'd know that global warming is a fact. in fact, there's considerably more evidence of global warming's existence than your existence, since it's been observed in many more and far more careful studies.

Psi Wavefunction said...

@Lev There were definitely shortages at the time of collapse, but by that point, it wasn't as much a problem with the economic system itself as it was a result of general chaos. The stuff that went extinct was in fact the non-perishable, ie. stockable products. What happened was that the entire nation panicked over potential food crises and such, and started stocking up in the most absurd ways. For example, my parents saw a crate of soap one day and bought it. More soap than they've used up in the preceding decade. Because it was there, and perhaps tomorrow it would be gone. It was a positive feedback loop that would bring down the economy of ANY system -- if such panic were to occur in the US, as soon as people begin fearing potential shortages, the system would crash entirely no less than it did in the USSR. The consumption was orders of magnitude above normal levels, and the supply system is incapable of dealing with such sudden and utterly absurd fluctuations. As a bit of a control, perishable things like milk, bread and vegetables weren't nearly as affected, because there's no sense in buying a giant crate of milk that'll all go bad in a couple days (this was before the days of creepy preservatives...)

And as for quality of life in the 70's, quality of life itself is somewhat subjective, past basic things like food and healthcare. Some aspects were worse than in the US, for example opportunity for ambitious people, and basically a lack of an entrepreneurial sector beside the basic stuff like small shops and restaurants. On the other hand, good students were practically PAID to go to school, and lived modestly yet comfortably on their stipends. After graduating with a quite strong educational background, you were guaranteed a job related to your field. While universities were officially about as poorly funded by the government as anywhere else, the industry sectors of the government donated vast resources to train their future personnel, enabling students to work with multi-million dollar installations we could only dream of here. Oh, and you didn't accumulate ridiculous amounts of debt. And unemployment was practically a non-existent concept.

In fact, the key problem was, that the -citizens- screwed the system more than the system screwed them. Since it was extremely difficult to get fired, there was no incentive to work hard at all. Many people just fucked around and collected pay. It wasn't socially encouraged, but tolerated nevertheless. Of course, this leads to inefficiencies, and combined with poor financial management that led to a bloating of government sector money with respect to that of the private sector, eventually led to the collapse of the 80's.

Perhaps Russia was not the best place in the world to conduct this experiment in the first place. We're a fucking lazy people, and also incredibly unyielding to authorities or common sense. Believe me, secretly, most of us admit it ;-)

A 19th century poet already saw that coming:
"Umom Rossiyu ne ponyat'" - "One cannot comprehend/grasp Russia with reason" ;-)

[/random lecture] (sorry for hijacking, Games with Words...)

Lev said...

Indeed this is going nowhere (as is usually the case). However, I feel the need to respond.

Am I a troll? If you mean that I argue for opinions I don't really hold, then no. If you mean my way of arguing, you judge.

I don't quite see why you bring up Hank Paulson. To show that not all "bad guys" are Democrats? I never said they were. I'm not advocating another black-and-white view.

The Financial Reform bill - yes, but I meant actual regulation.

Global warming. The bundle that IPCC and the Democratic Party is selling the world is this:
1. Temperature is rising.
2. This is caused (only? mostly? to a large extent?) by CO2 emission.
3. Unless we reduce CO2 emission, the temperature will rise much higher.
4. Results will be disastrous.
The first point in this bundle is a fact. The rest are controversial. Now here's the rhetorical trick: How is the bundle called? Simply "global warming". So if someone disagrees with, say, only point 4, this means that he disagrees with the bundle. Then he is labeled as not believing in global warming, and not believing in science. (Yes, I know that there are people who don't believe in global warming itself. They are stupid to begin with, but it is a result of that same rhetorical trick that their stupidity manifests itself in this way.) I consider the global warming hype a severe fault with the Democratic Party.

GamesWithWords said...

@Lev -- I mention Paulson because he presided over both most of the bad decision-making at Goldman Sachs and shares at least some of the blame for bad governmental decision-making during the financial crisis.

I find your reasoning about global warming interesting. It's climate scientists who essentially unanimously advocate the 4 points you list. So yes, someone who doesn't accept the "whole bundle" doesn't believe in science. If you want to be careful, you could say that this person believe in "some science" or "sometimes believes in science," but this isn't really a partial-credit question.

BTW Point 4 should be uncontroversial whether you accept Points 2 or 3. Relatively minor changes in global temperatures caused collapses of civilizations in the recent past, and we're looking at a much larger change. That's not even science -- that's just plain history (though, as Krugman is constantly reminding us, Republicans are just as fast-and-loose with history as with science).

Anonymous said...

The Bushista quoted in that Times Magazine article ("reality based community"): isn't he believed/known to be Karl Rove, who is now being deemed insufficiently conservative by the very wingnuts he inspired?

Nice posting. And g'luck the job search. Reality rules!