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The Krugman Lantern

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment

The New York Times published an opinion piece by Paul Krugman today that veers close to greatness. The Nobel Prize winning economist has a twice-weekly column in the Times that allows him to flex his Keynsian muscles. While I am ideolgically predisposed to share Krugman’s leftish perspectives, my actual knowledge of economics, such that it would barely cover the back of a postage stamp with a calligraphy pen, doesn’t qualify me to comment on his work with anything resembling authority.

I do, however, know a thing or two about the art of the 700-900 word opinion piece, and Monday’s Krugman was a masterpiece of the form. I suggest you read if you haven’t already, but it stood out to me for its incredible clarity, rhythm and punch.

Krugman has been making this same argument for 18 months — despite conventional wisdom that it was excessive, the Obama stimulus wasn’t nearly big enough to counter the impact of the GFC — and always more effectively than most. But today”s piece is such a powerhouse of persuasion it is hard (but hardly impossible) to imagine how anyone, even the most dyed-in-the-wool tea-party activist, could remain unswayed by it. I could conduct a half-day seminar on advocacy writing using no more than this solitary column and still run out of time; as a matter of fact, I very probably will.

But I don’t plan to gush any further about the Krugman piece except to highlight one particular technique he uses. I have dubbed it the Krugman Lantern.

I began this blog as a kind of living draft for a book I have long wanted to write about bullshit in its many pernicious forms. The idea was to highlight the ways politicians, corporates, academia, the media etc. employ bullshit in the service of spin, evading or shifting blame, obfuscating the ugly truth, making a molehill of a mountain or vice versa, or for non-specific venal purposes.

I think it is an important topic for humankind, I genuinely do.

As it happened, the blog became more and more random as time went on but it retains its core mission: to explore the role of Mendacity in the Public Square. In discussing the Krugman Lantern today, I am returning Irredeemable to its tenuous roots.

    The Krugman Lantern is a technique whereby one simultaneously highlights and downplays one’s opponent’s strongest argument in order to deprive it of its potency.

The lantern reference comes from the early days of television when script-writers learned to “hang a lantern” on glaring continuity errors or plot holes in order to relieve viewers of the dissonance they otherwise cause. The idea is simple if you think about it. If you are watching a much-loved sitcom and a dog you have never seen before wanders on the set, it will throw your concentration. By explicitly addressing the matter — hanging a lantern on it — and having a character say “I wish you had told me that we were looking after the neighbour’s dog this weekend”, the viewer can breathe a sigh of relief and continue enjoying the show.

Krugman employs a variant in today’s column in the way he addressed the single most potent and persuasive rebuttal point to his general argument about the stimulus, which goes something like this:

Listen up, Krugman. It’s all well and good going on and on about how the stimulus bill wasn’t big enough but THERE IS NO WAY WHILE YOUR ARSE OR MINE IS POINTING TO THE GROUND THAT IT WOULD HAVE PASSED CONGRESS IF IT WERE A DOLLAR BIGGER. How’s the view from that Ivy Tower, Prof?

This is a killer argument, almost literally. If true — and most people think it is — then it kills Krugman’s thesis as a practical matter. While the theoretical proposition — the stimulus wasn’t big enough in the context of the US economy — stands, Krugman wants to be so much more than a theoretician. He wants to be a player, and so he knows he has to address and quash the political argument. Welcome to the Krugman Lantern :

Actually, the [Obama] administration has had a messaging problem on economic policy ever since its first months in office, when it went for a stimulus plan that many of us warned from the beginning was inadequate given the size of the economy’s troubles. You can argue that Mr. Obama got all he could — that a larger plan wouldn’t have made it through Congress (which is questionable), and that an inadequate stimulus was much better than none at all (which it was)

Are your (upper) cheeks burning with the brazenness of it all? Mine are.

He invites the argument in (“you can argue”) only to punch it in the face (“which is questionable”) and send it scurrying from the room. He introduces, acknowledges and dismisses the single greatest threat to his entire world-view in just 24 words. In this way, he hangs a lantern on this biggest problem and, in so doing, allows the reader to put it aside and get on with the business of being blown away by Krugman’s (now) unassailable assertions.

“Professor,” Blackadder would surely say, “I admire your balls.”

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The IRB’s Totalitarian Bent

September 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Displaying a impressive knack for totalitarianism, the International Rugby Board has decided to impose penalties on teams that show insufficient respect for the haka during the Rugby World Cup next year.

When, where and how does this kind of irredeemable stupidity take hold? How many people must stand silent or bite their tongues and allow something like this to evolve from bad idea to terrible decision?

Have the All Blacks themselves expressed a fear of haka-mocking? Do they feel that only the prospect of penalties will keep recalcitrant opposition players from turning their nose up at New Zealand’s iconic challenge? God forbid, could offense ensue without an adequate codification of manners? Could umbrage occur? Thankfully, the IRB is comfortable with the idea of regulating against poor manners, so our poor players will never need to feel the sting of disrespect, the hot shame of a cultural dissing.

The All Blacks should announce that they will pay the fines of any country that chooses to defy this astoundingly misguided ban. Whatever the small financial cost, the on-field shellacking that has always followed haka-related rudeness will more than make up for it.

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The Antithesis of Looting #eqnz #nztv

September 6, 2010 4 comments

The enthusiasm  and alacrity with which the New Zealand media took up the alleged looting story in the immediate aftermath of the Canterbury earthquake was matched only by their reluctance to disown it when confronted with the boring truth.

Looting in the wake of natural disasters is a great news story. It is one of those narratives that some media outlets find too compelling to resist, notwithstanding the presence or absence of actual proof.

Looting is a spectacular act of bastardry. It repels us. The idea that some people are so malevolent that they would seek personal gain in the midst of tragedy is morally incomprehensible to the vast majority of humankind. This makes for juicy copy.

There is a lot of praise floating around for the New Zealand media’s coverage of the Canterbury earthquake. From from what I can see, little or none of it is deserved. A fair test for the reporting of a natural disaster is how effectively media outlets cover the story before they begin receiving media releases and background information from government agencies. (Reading out statements and asking no-brainer questions of government officials is hardly journalism).  By that measure, the New Zealand media demonstrably failed. This is a complex subject, worthy of a thesis that I have neither the patience nor the inclination  to write, but the looting story deserves attention. It is the shining turd atop the pile.

Let’s be clear, once and for all: there was no looting in Christchurch after the 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit the city in the early hours of Saturday morning. There is no dictionary in the world that defines looting so loosely that it would extend to two minor acts of vandalism by teenagers.  Looting is serious and widespread by definition. You cannot have mild looting any more then you can have a slight massacre. In fact, we now know that there were fewer crimes reported in the hours after the quake than occur on an earthquake-free weekend. Yes, that’s right: less crime than average. Christchurch experienced the antithesis of looting.

This leads to several questions. First, what and how many sources did the media rely on when they first reported these false looting rumours? Second, what steps did they take to verify the rumours? Third, how soon after reporting the rumours did the media outlets discover them to be false? And fourth, why did it take so long to inform the rest of us?

Fundamentally, I don’t believe that news media outlets should report allegations of crimes such as looting without credible evidence to back them up. It could and did lead to needless fear and panic. However, in the teeth of an unfolding crisis,  mistakes like this will be made.

What is less defensible is how long it took the media to categorically debunk the reports once the facts were established. TV3 was still repeating the rumours in its 6pm bulletin, many hours after the Christchurch police had laconically laid them to rest.

Before the news media commences an orgy of self-congratulation over their earthquake coverage, they should be held to account.   Surely it is not their job stoke unwarranted anxiety, especially in times of disaster?  And is it too much to ask that the media spend at least as much time quelling baseless rumours as they do amplifying them?

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Christchurch Earthquake and the Real Looting Scandal #eqnz #christchurchquake #nztv

September 4, 2010 5 comments

Update: A couple of people have responded to this post by saying that police have arrested a couple of people for alleged “looting”. I was aware of this — but in my view the word “looting” implies more than a couple of kids hurling rocks. It implies anarchy and mayhem, both very unlikely in Christchurch under any circumstances. What the police have done is arrest a couple of kids for vandalism. Words matter.

There were early reports that there was some looting in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake this morning. This is par for the course. Reports of looting are far more common than actual looting. Who are these people that touch off these looting stories, most often without any basis? Pranks? Paranoia? Are these the same people that constitute that mysterious 3 percent in surveys who answer “no” to questions like “do you think education is important?” We called them shit-stirrers at school. As it turns out, the NZ police looked into the “looting” rumours and found a couple of “isolated incidents” that didn’t amount to anything worthy of national hysteria.

But the real scandal uncovered by the 7.1 quake is the looting of news reporting capability in New Zealand, although it is not a phenomenon limited to this country.

It took four hours for the state TV network, TVNZ, to broadcast live from Christchurch. Up until that point, the only interview with anyone on the scene was by phone to a reporter who happened to be on holiday in Christchurch at the time. Her stunning insights included a description of how the earthquake caused her hotel room to shake as if it had been hit by, well, an earthquake. Things, she went on, may also have rattled on shelves a little.

By contrast, Twitter came into its own. Under the hashtags #eqnz and #christchurchquake, tweets flooded in (if you’ll excuse the mixed natural disaster metaphor) from the moment the quake subsided. Photos soon followed, giving a visceral sense of the damage that the number “7.1” can never convey. News outlets, playing catch-up, went on to Twitter to trawl for information signifying, perhaps, the end of primary news reporting in New Zealand. For several hours, the television and online news coverage consisted solely of material generated by Twitter (including, admittedly, the looting rumours).

NZ television news has long survived on the smell of the proverbial oily rag. The 6PM news bulletin is a triumph of Kiwi ingenuity, managing to cobble together a half-credible hour-long program made up of overseas stories, recycled breakfast news and detailed descriptions of car accidents, minor crime and unremarkable weather events. The Christchurch quake has exposed the cracks in the capacity of TV organisations to cover big, breaking stories. The coverage only came together once the government response swung into action, providing news outlets with cut-and-paste-friendly information to dress up as reporting. Further evidence, if needed, of how the diminution of genuine news reporting is great for governments and spin-doctors, but terrible for the rest of us.

Now, this is a quake-prone country and tremors don’t confine themselves to working hours or weekdays. This should not have fallen outside the realms of likely disaster scenarios. It is a disgrace, if not altogether surprising, that NZ’s state TV broadcaster took four hours to begin half-decent coverage of such a significant story.

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The Discovery Hostage Crisis and the American Left

September 3, 2010 Leave a comment

Is it just me, or was yesterday’s Discovery Channel hostage crisis one of the great political allegories of our time?

First, a quick recap:  a lone gunman, James Lee, took several hostages at the headquarters of Discovery Communications in Maryland — the hostages survived, but Mr Lee did not. He came down in a hail of bullets courtesy of the Silver Spring Police Department. It turns out that Mr Lee was a radical environmentalist who believed, above all, in the urgent need for human sterilization.

To Lee, Discovery Channel was a sell-out. Instead of using its prime position on cable TV to encourage viewers to neuter themselves, they insist (via sister network, TLC) on airing Jon and Kate Plus Eight and 19 Kids and Counting, reality shows that promote rampant fertility. Admittedly, these are terrible shows — almost bad enough to warrant hostage-taking, but not quite.

It turns out that James Lee’s weapons were a combination of starter pistols and homemade, not particularly explosive, bombs strapped to his body.  This rounds out the allegory nicely.

If James Lee were not now dead, he should stand up and take a bow.  Surely he will go down in history as a poster-child of the modern American far left.

Like his ideological brothers-in-arms, Lee would rather direct his ire at those he considers sell-outs on his own side than the actual enemy.  Why target Discovery Channel and not, say, BP or Exxon Mobil or loggers or coal-fired power plants, or even the Catholic Church if baby-making really worries him so much?  For fuck’s sake, if you are going to die on the altar of the giant green god, would you really go after a cable channel that produces nature documentaries, even if it makes some crappy reality shows on the side?    But leftists, for all their big talk, have always found perverse comfort in cannibalism…a tendency immortalized by Monty Python’s “people’s front of Judea”.

The fact that Lee was shooting blanks and letting off fizzers for bombs is also typical of his comrades on the Left fringe.  They are terrified by real power — explosive or otherwise — and use martyrdom as a front for cowardice.

Lee was not totally harmless.  Apparently, he was motivated to pursue radical environmental causes after watching An Inconvenient Truth, and anyone who finds Al Gore inspiring is obviously unstable.

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Reverend Nile and the Sound of One Hand Typing

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Fred Nile is a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council — a state senator, if you like. He is also a firebrand Christian conservative, scourge of the Sydney Mardi Gras and hater of all things carnal. It will therefore come as no surprise to anyone that he is also a rapacious consumer of Internet porn.

Today’s Daily Telegraph in Sydney reports that the randy Rev. clicked on to porn sites 200,000 times, according a a recent audit by Parliamentary watchdogs. This makes it impossible for Nile to use the “technophobe” defense since even the most stupendous Luddite could not click on 200,000 porn images by mistake.

There are two standard defenses in these cases — blanket denial or the “research” canard. Cutting his losses maybe, or spreading the risk, Nile has opted for both: on the one hand, he says that it is “impossible” that his computer was used so many times to access x-rated images; on the other, he admits that his staff may have used his log-on details to view the occasional porn site as part of their ongoing and appropriate investigation into the depravity sector.

The research angle has been used before — from memory, Pete Townsend of The Who actually managed to convince the authorities that he was telling the truth when he used it to deflect child porn allegations. It strikes me as an especially weak defense. What kind of research could this conceivably be?

The sound of distant chanting, as a large door slams shut with a creak.

Staffer: Your holiness, we have completed the research.
Nile: And?
Staffer: It is worse than we thought.
Nile: Go on.
Staffer: It is vile, ungodly. Unspeakable.
Nile: Smooching, my child. Do they portray smooching between the unmarried?
Staffer: Oh, far worse, Your Grace.
Nile: Shirtlessness?

Staffer: Oh yes. Much shirtlessness. And bottoms too.
Nile: Wobbly bits!!?? The full array of naughties on display?
Staff: Yes, and more.
Nile: What can you mean, my innocent one?
Staffer: I can say not in English for it shames me!
Nile: In Latin, then, my child.

Staffer: Cunnalingus et fellatio.
Nile: Oh dear God. Bring me my horse. I ride for Parliament!

Internet porn is many (many, many) things, but it is not especially complicated.

So if you believe Fred Nile was surfing porn for science then faith really can move mountains of bullshit.

Students of behavioral psychology are never surprised by these stories. The human tendency to rant and rave against things that, in all honesty, excite us, is as old as time.

This explains why gay-bashers are often immensely conflicted themselves — a perfectly well-adjusted straight boy is far too busy chasing tail to bother bullying benders. It also solves the riddle: why is it always Tory MP’s caught strung up to the ceiling fan by their testicles while dressed as nuns? We are disgusted, in short, by own impulses so we project this revulsion in the public sphere while harboring deep and unspoken desires privately.

The term in psychology for this is Reaction Formation which would also be an excellent name for a barbershop quartet.

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