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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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Hasn’t India Got Much On?

October 7, 2010 2 comments

The Foreign Office in India has summoned New Zealand’s High Commissioner in that country to explain the racism of TVNZ breakfast presenter, Paul Henry, after Henry deliberately mispronounced the surname of the Delhi chief Minister “dick-shit”. If her surname was Patel, for argument’s sake, this would be and open-and-shut case of outrageous racial insensitivity. In fact, her name is Dikshit.

Sheila Dikshit.

Apparently it is pronounced as in “Dixit” with a silent H. (I wonder if the Dikshit family ever considered discarding the “h” altogether since it serves no obvious purpose except for making their name look very much like it should be pronounced DICKSHIT).

None of this is to forgive Paul Henry. I am not a member of the racism police, but it is enough for me that Henry is a self-styled trouble-maker to determine that he is the worst kind of wanker.

If finding foreign language surnames that sound a lot like rude words in English funny is racist, then racism is very rampant indeed. A friend of mine once reported how the stiff formality of his graduation ceremony was shot to pieces when “Edwin Yu Phat Kok” was awarded his engineering degree.

If “quin” meant ejaculation fluid in Hindi, would I be offended if my arrival at Delhi airport was met with howls of laughter? I doubt it. I would probably find it funny and eventually really boring — but I would never ask my government to intervene.

So, it seems a little overwrought to call in diplomats over “Dikshitgate”. If anything calls for a radio play, this is it.

Indian Foreign Office. Tea cups clinking.

Official: Mr High Commissioner, you know why you are here.
HiCom: Yis.
Official: It is a very serious matter.
HiCom: Yis, ut uz.
Official: Minister Dikshit is a great servant to India and the Commonwealth and we find it extremely insulting that she should have her surname deliberately mangled so as to sound very much like obscene English words.`
HiCom: We understand.
Official: How would you like it if your name were mischievously reconfigured into synonyms for penis and excrement?
HiCom: I should like it not at all.
Official: You see the point, then, High Commissioner?
HiCom: I most certainly do.
Official: We are not content to leave it there.  The Indian Government wants to convey this message very clearly to your government and to the Commonwealth more broadly: as punishment for the gross insensitivity of Mr Paul Henry, we will withhold from all parties a well-run Commonwealth Games.
HiCom: I big your pardon?
Official: You heard me, High Commissioner. India will ensure that the Delhi Games are a complete debacle as a way of conveying our offense at the Henry comments. We will make the whole experience weird and annoying for everyone involved.
HiCom: Forgive me, but isn’t that somewhat extreme?
Official: What is extreme, High Commissioner, is the phrase “DICKSHIT”.
HiCom: Yis, but…
Official: “Thanks, Paul Henry, for this  terrible, terrible sporting event” – this will be the phrase will echo in every farflung corner of the Commonwealth, my dear High Commissioner!
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Brian Edwards and the Republic of (E)ire

October 4, 2010 1 comment

Provocative TVNZ breakfast presenter Paul Henry is in hot water for racist comments about NZ’s Governor General, Sir Anand Satyanand, who is of Indian parentage and whose term is about to expire.  “Are you going to choose a New Zealander who looks and sounds like a New Zealander this time,” Henry asked of Prime Minister John Key, who was appropriately taken aback, “are we going to go for someone who is more like a New Zealander this time?”

Paul Henry’s reputation revolves around saying precisely this kind of outrageous thing.  He called Susan Boyle “retarded”, for example, and made fun of a female Greenpeace activist for having facial hair.  You get the picture: champagne comedy.

The GG slur has dominated headlines in NZ for the past 24-hours, and much outrage is ensuing.

Veteran broadcaster “Doctor” Brian Edwards, an Irishman who moved to New Zealand when he was deemed to have an inadequate sense of humour, was interviewed in the NZ Herald about the Henry comments:

Dr Edwards said he was a good friend of Sir Anand and found the comments “doubly offensive” for that reason. “He couldn’t talk about a more delightful, charming and wonderful born and bred Kiwi.”

Dr Edwards said TVNZ should look at itself and ask whether it was worth keeping Henry. “He’s offended a whole lot of people before, but they weren’t in the same calibre as Sir Anand.”

I am outraged by two aspects of Dr Edwards’ outrage.

  1. Edwards is “doubly” offended by Henry because the GG is a good friend.  I am fuming at this vile favouritism!  In effect, Edwards admits he would be only 50 percent as outraged if the offended person were a stranger.  This clearly discriminates against the nearly 4 million Kiwis who are not friends of Brian Edwards and yet could conceivably find themselves offended by Paul Henry.
  2. And how about Edwards’ suggestion that this is a worse-than-usual crime because the people usually insulted by Henry are “not in the same calibre as Sir Arnand”? In Brian Edwards’ sick mind, the level of anger he feels at Henry’s aspersions is directly related to the calibre of person at whom they are directed.  According to this formulation, Henry can insult low-calibre types — Susan Boyle does creep into mind here — to his heart’s content without risking the ire of Edwards or his ilk. It seems that only when Henry directs his attention to high-status individuals — especially when those people are on the Edwards Xmas card list —  that Edwards will find cause to summon a conniption.  This unequal application of fury by Edwards is sickeningly elitist.

As a low-calibre-Kiwi-non-Edwards-friend who is not at all “delightful, charming and wonderful”, I am offended.

Doubly, triply, multitudinously offended.

Edwards should resign, from his golf club if necessary.

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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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