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A Rally to Restore Anti-Climax November 2, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in politics, society, sports.
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Dedicated readers of Philly Bluejay—hi Mom—may have noticed that posts during this election season have been surprisingly sparse and that the occasional post has been either rambling or milquetoast—by the way, I love the word milquetoast, it just sounds so delicious. But back to my main point, how could a flaming liberal like myself sit on the sideline while the Boys and Girls in Blue are taking one revisionist insult after another and party stalwarts like Harry Reid and Russ Feingold are getting ridden out of town by clueless lunatics. Well, obviously that was not my the intent. The plan was to have a very digitally active election season, but somehow life, work, travel, and the constant stream of media blather got in the way. Every time I saw some outrageous piece and started to either fan or flame the author, a more outrageous piece came out which immediately caused me to suspend my previous piece and shift gears. As a result, my dashboard shows nine half-finished posts with titles like “Smokin’ TEA,” “The Sharron Angle,” and “Do Any Republicans Actually Know Why Deficits Are Bad?” Well, we’re down to the 11th hour of what must be the nuttiest midterm season since 1994. By the end of today, we’ll have the House we deserve, hopefully not the Senate we deserve, and zero shot of getting a serious energy bill passed in the next two years. On the bright side, the Dallas Cowboys are 1-6 and Donovan McNabb just got benched! A few personal notes from this election season:

Mrs. Bluejay and I attended The Rally to Restore Sanity on Saturday. Or maybe it was The March to Keep Fear Alive. Or Scared-Dem-a-palooza. Actually, attended poorly describes what we actually did. First, we waited for 50 minutes on the platform at Van Ness while eight red line trains, each more packed than the previous, rolled by. On the ninth train, I power-rushed off left guard, pushed the pile forward, and then pulled Mrs. Bluejay behind me just before the doors decapitated her. On the train, the Mrs. and I figured out why so many people on the platform we actually taking the train in the other direction—they were hoping to catch the train further out in hopes of catching it while it wasn’t full. The ride was pleasant enough. I spent it chest-to-chest with a woman in a San Francisco Giants jersey—not my wife, she’s a Royals/Phillies girl—while getting a sensual massage from a sixty year old man on the other side. All is forgiven. Getting off at Metro Center, we attempted to swim our way to the mall. We got as far as 7th and Independence, largely because we slipped in behind a pulling block from an ambulance, and ended up not far away from this dude. From the angle, it looks like we were standing next to the person taking the video. The woman on the other side of us held a sign that said “Don’t tread on me, I just got a pedicure!” After about an hour of not being able to hear or see anything, but enjoying the second-hand high—the highlight of the hour was a woman heading to the meetup point because she got separated from her six-year old daughter—we decided to make our way back home. The highlight of the event was definitely the handmade signs. In addition to “DTOM,” other winners were “Is this the line for Georgetown Cookies?”, “Am I late for the Glenn Beck rally?,” “Actually, I’m pretty content!,” and “When I think about Christine O’Donnell, I touch myself!” In the end, it was pretty … milquetoast—there goes that word again. Just a little pre-Halloween party, notable mostly for the exaggerated ratio of hype to happening. Controlled experiments are obviously impossible, but it’s doubtful whether this particular Comedy Central special increases Democrat voter turnout much less turns any race blue. Someday, will I tell my kids I went to this rally? I didn’t even tell them where I went when I got home.

Speaking of insanity and anti-climax. Mrs. Bluejay and I missed the deadline to register for absentee voting in Pennsylvania’s 7th district by a scant three hours. And so for the last week, I have been monitoring theRCP poll aggregator—the new official website of Philly Bluejay—to see whether Sestak v. Toomey was close enough to prompt me to drive 360 miles round-trip from Bethesda, MD to Havertown, PA so I could vote. Early last week, Sestak was trailing by a point—well within the polling error margin—and six hours in the car was looking likely. Towards the end of the week and through the weekend, though, the margin grew to 4.5 points leaving me with the choice of violating my political principles or my environmental ones. In the end, environmentalism won—I am keeping my vote in my pocket and 190 pounds of CO2 in my gas tank. Mr. Sestak—I will see you in 2012. Mr. Lentz—keep Mr. Sestak’s seat warm for him, will ya? Mr. Easterbrook—I know you disapprove, and I will avert my eyes in shame the next—first—time I see you at Georgetown Bagelry or Moo Cow. But I will continue to bitch, moan, and parody. Because, as my daughter says, “I just like to.”

Finally, everyone has an explanation for the anti-Democrat backlash, but here’s one that caught me off-guard. And I don’t really mean the article. I mean the comment by Jennifer from Texas. Women are turning away from the Democratic party because they are still angry about Barack over Hillary in the 2010 primary? Because they are turned off by Democrats portraying Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell as clueless bimbos? Because they want to identify with a party that promotes strong women rather than discarding them? Wow. I always thought that calling Palin and O’Donnell clueless bimbos was an insult. But I thought it was an insult to clueless bimbos.

Anyways, post mortem tomorrow. Or Thursday. Or next week.

P.S. Here’s a top-15 list of “best blogging practices.” Philly Bluejay is a pathetic 5 for 15. You choose which 5.

P.P.S. Congratulations to Buster Posey, Pat Burrell, Brian Wilson, Tim Lincecum, Drew, Barb, Charlie and Ty Kunz—that’s right kids, Ty Kunz—and Martha and Bill Brook on the Giants winning the World Series. You want to win the World Series? Get as many ex-Marlins on the team as possible.

The Expert Problem October 30, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, politics, society.
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My current DC Metro book is “Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb—a full report is coming when I finish. The Black Swan theory says that history is largely a product of low-probability, high-impact, unpredictable events—think fall of the Soviet Union, 9/11, Facebook—and that bell-curve events are low-impact essentially by virtue of their predictability. There are several interesting and counter-intuitive conclusions that fall out of the BS theory. One is that “book” smarts are often useless—even dangerous—in the real world because the artificially simplified world of the academy often prejudices one to believe that he understands the world more than he does, to underestimate the unknown and its effects, and to willfully ignore risk. Another is that fields that are fundamentally dynamic and prone to exogenous influences also fundamentally resist expertise—only static, self-contained fields can have true experts. Physics lends itself to expertise—it’s a closed system and the rules don’t change over time. So does brain surgery. And plumbing. But economics doesn’t have experts—economists are only slightly and insignificantly better than non-economists at predicting future economic events. Neither does politics. Nor business. Nor, fundamentally, can any discipline that deals with human subjects. The famous adage that “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” is trivially both true and false. It’s trivially false because history never exactly repeats itself, even in microcosm. The same social and techonolgical context never comes up twice, nor does the exact sequence of external events. It’s trivially true because in a rough sense even those who do know history are doomed to repeat it, insofar as history repeats” itself. Knowledge of historical events does not help much in predicting the future. And you laugh dismissively when I tell you that I could run the Eagles or be a decent Senator! Well, I don’t know about the Eagles, but I would certainly be a better Senator than some of the yahoos who will appear on actual ballots this coming Tuesday. You don’t need to know much about the theory and history of politics and economics to be an effective legislator. Theory—which doesn’t capture large unpredictable events—and history—which never repeats—exactly are largely irrelevant in determining whether a given piece of legislation will achieve its desired effect.

The political “expert problem” is interesting in light of the alarming number of (Republican) candidates for national political office who are ignorant and seemingly proud of it. I parenthesized Republican because all the ignorant candidates I can think of are Republican. Christine “I didn’t go to Yale! I’m YOU!” O’Donnell. Ron “This election is not about ‘details’” Johnson. Sharron “I can’t spell Sharon” Angle. If BS is right and deep knowledge may be as much a hindrance to legislative and governance success as a pre-requisite, then maybe TEApublicans are on to something. Maybe Samantha would make a kick-ass Senator.

Nah! Taleb downplays domain-specific knowledge in some domains but not the process of acquiring knowledge or the tools used in acquiring it—intelligence, curiosity, and skepticism. Deep reserves of knowledge are rarely helpful in dealing with a given economical-political situation, what is helpful is the ability to gather information specific to the situation at hand, to weed out low-order details, and to weigh outcomes of different strategies.
While Team Christine certainly lacks domain specific knowledge—at least in constitutional law although perhaps not in other domains—she also lacks the tools to deal with real-world situations. All she has is doe eyes, white teeth, and Sunday-school dogma.

The ironic thing about the “I didn’t go to Yale! I’m YOU!” campaign is that it actually proves Christine’s point. What Christine is hopefully trying to say is that she didn’t have the opportunity to go to Yale because she isn’t an old-boy/old-money elitist like her opponent Chris Coons. But whereas old-boy/old-money may describe Yale of the 1950s, Yale of the 1990s has need-blind admission policies and enrolls more women than men. Christine didn’t go to Yale because she wouldn’t have gotten close to getting in if she tried. By saying “I didn’t go to Yale” Christine may as well be saying “I’m not intelligent!” and by saying it with the tone that suggests “I wouldn’t want to go to Yale even if I could!” she is effectively saying “I don’t want to be a Senator!”

Christine, what do you think the Senate is if not Yale 2.0? The point of Yale is not to learn more than you would learn at Fairleigh Dickinson or the Claremont Institute or Wilfred Beauty Academy or wherever it is you went, it’s to get to hang out with other people smart enough to get into Yale! Christine, you are obviously ignorant. But that’s not your biggest problem. The biggest problem is that you lack the mental tools and desire to overcome your ignorance to suit the situation. What is the last book you read? Facebook? Could you give a specific action item for any one of your issues? A cap-and-trade system is a “market-based” approach to the energy problem—do you favor that? How many points behind Coons are you polling? What’s four plus two? By the way, the answer to the last question is 6. And to the one before that is 18. Which thankfully means that after Tuesday, we will never hear from you again.

Unfortunately, we might still hear from Mr. Johnson—leading stalwart Russ Feingold by an incomprehensible six points—and Ms. Angle—ahead of majority leader by four points, albeit in a beaten-down state like Nevada. I understand the anti-incumbent backlash. I don’t agree with it but I understand where it comes from. But anti-incumbent does not equal pro-idiot! How did we as a society get to a place where a large swath of us values ignorance over erudition? Blind faith over intellectual curiosity? Claremont Institute—which by the way is a conservative think tank, not a college—over Yale Law? If you had to have brain surgery—or even a root canal—would you like to be treated by Christine O’Donnell or Chris Coons? If you were on trial and facing the death penalty—or even six months in Martha Stewart-ville—would you want to be defended by Sharron Angle or Harry Reid? How did we get to a place where we value intelligence and competence in most places except for politics? How did we get to a place where we simultaneously scream about the incompetence of government but fawn over clearly clueless politicians? People, we have huge problems. Now is not the time to be putting crackpots and morons in Congress! An ignorant doctor can kill a few people. An ignorant politician, properly placed, can actually do a lot more damage than that.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to go restore sanity! Woot!

P.S. This post was partially inspired by Anne Applebaum’s “Rise of the ‘Ordinary’ Elite.” The piece describes a new kind of populism which is not “anti-elite”, but “anti-elite-education.” Its targets are not the old-money, old-boy elite but the new, upwardly mobile, self-made elite. Working-class to White House elites like the Obamas. The piece is interesting precisely because of the angle it avoids—racism! Applebaum may not want to touch this subject because she likes her job at the Washington Post, but I have no such problems and I will touch most things. Merit-based elite education is the great equalizer. It’s the “in” to the circle of national politics and power. What could be worse if you are an ignorant white person than to see a black family use that vehicle to get into the passing lane and blow by you. While elite education was the privilege of privilege, you could always pretend that “you could have been a contender” if only you were born to the right parents. That elite status was not fairly earned and—by juxtaposition your non-elite status—was not your fault. But now that elite education is open to all and you still can’t get a sniff, you have no one to blame but your ignorant self and perhaps your ignorant parents. And given this what could be a more transparent self-preservation strategy than to pretend that elite education doesn’t matter anyways? And that you wouldn’t avail yourself of it if you tried? Who do you think you’re fooling other than ignorant people like yourself? Pfffft.