Lacking anything constructive to write about, I thought I’d list what’s been on my reading list today.
First was an article from the Guardian reporting on Mark Zuckerberg’s statements that internet connectivity is a “human right.”
I’m not sure we should go so far as to classify connectivity as a “human right,” given that there are other things like food, security, education and health care that many people around the world don’t have access to, but I do agree that communications are essential for all four. Anti-tech folks will, of course, be annoyed but fortunately powerless. Communications development in Sub Saharan Africa, fueled by intense and enthusiastic demand, is nothing short of impressive. It’s hard to measure, but from a recent survey I performed in Kenya, it would seem that people on the ground are enthusiastic about the technology.
Second was an article on cancer meds in India in the NYT. Drug makers are apparently worried that India will flour patent laws and produce expensive cancer drugs cheaply, pricing out US and European markets. I’m encouraged that anyone at all is talking of cancer in a developing country.
India, no stranger to ignoring onerous patent restrictions on meds, is right to move against the hard-headed pharma industry. While the noted concerns of drug makers are certainly legitimate, there have to be ways to accommodate demand in developing countries while still insuring profitable domestic and international enterprises. If they can’t think of a way to do it, they aren’t thinking hard enough.
Third was an article on GMOs from Henry Miller a molecular biologist at Stanford on the unreasonable hysteria surrounding genetically modified foods.
While it is right to be concerned about the safety of new technologies, the attention and regulatory backlash against GMOs is disproportionate. It is akin to a bizarre witch-hunt or maybe a good Christian book burning. I’m sure that many would not agree with Dr. Miller’s position but I found it to be an interesting article.
But then, maybe he’s just a paid stooge of Monsanto and we really all are slowly dying from “GMO poisoning”. It’s certainly possible; the credibility of academics is being called into question over connections with Wall Street. I’m interested in reading the work of the two academics interviewed here, which argues that price increases in commodities throughout the 00’s had little to do with speculation.
Just as I’m not an expert on biotech, I’m also not an expert on finance but the data shows that price increases seem to be slowing as regulation to control commodity futures speculation has been in the works.
Economics, Austerity and the Selective Use of Data
Policy makers in the US and Europe seized on the paper as proof that cutting stimulus and social programs was a good idea, and proceeded to do so with abandon. Of course, right wingers wanted to cut money to social programs anyway, and would have done so regardless, but the paper was held out as scientific proof that it was a solid plan of action.
I won’t comment on how strange it was that Republicans were interested in science at all, given recent efforts to politicize the NSF and micromanage the grant decision process.
The trouble was that the results presented in RR were shown to be based on the selective use of data. Thomas Herndon, a 28-year-old graduate student, obtained the dataset from RR themselves and couldn’t reproduce the results.
In fact, he found that the only way to accurately reproduce the results in RR’s paper that showed that high debt restrained economic growth was to exclude important cases. When including the missing data, high debt was associated with consistently positive growth, though modestly slowed.
Originally, I took the view that this was a case of sloppy science. RR had a dataset, got some results which fit the narrative they were pushing and didn’t pursue the matter any further. Reading Herndon’s paper, however, I changed my mind.Herdon took the data and did what any analyst would do when starting exploratory analysis, he plotted it (see figure on the right). Debt to GDP ratios and growth are both continuous measures. We can do a simple scatterplot and see if there’s any evidence that would suggest that the two things are related.
To me, this is a pretty fuzzy result. Though the loess curve (an interpolation method to illustrate trend) suggest that there is *some* decline in growth overall, I’d still ding any intro stats student for trying to suggest that there’s any relationship at all. There is no way that RR, both trained PhD’s and likely having the help of a paid research assistant, didn’t produce such a plot.
Noting that the loess curve drops past approximately 120%, I calculated the median growth for each country represented. Only 7 countries have had debt to GDP ratios greater than 120% in the past 60+ years: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the UK and the United States. Out of these only two had (median) negative growth: Belgium (-.69%, effectively zero) and the United States (-10.94%), which has only had a debt to GDP greater than 120% one time. All other countries has positive growth under high debt, even beleaguered Japan. New Zealand can even claim a strong 9.8% growth under high debt. The US, then, is a major outlier, possibly bringing the entire curve down.
As this doesn’t fit their story, RR’s solution was to categorize debt to GDP ratios into five rough classifications, and calculate the mean growth within each group. This is a common trick to extract results from bad data. It’s highly tempting for researchers (and epidemiologists do it far too often), but a bad idea to present it without all the caveats and warnings that should go with it.
I’m not surprised that ideologues such as RR would be so keen to produce the result they did. After all, they published the popular economics work “This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly” where they try to suggest that budget policy of the US in 2013 should somehow be informed by the economy of 14th century Spain.
I am, however, surprised that reviewers let this pass. If I would have been a reviewer, I would have:
1) pointed out the problems of categorization, where data doesn’t require it
2) noted that categorizing the data (or even plotting it) tears out temporal correlation. For example, one data point from 2008 (stimulus) may be put in the high debt category, but another from 2007 (crash) in the low debt category. While budgets of one year may have little to do with the budget of another, the economy of one year is likely related to the economy of the previous year.
3) questioned the causal mechanisms behind debt and growth. This is obviously a deep question for economists (and not epidemiologists), but of particular import. When does the economy start to react to debt? I’m pretty sure that there is a lag effect as spending bills tend to space disbursements over the course of the fiscal year.
The RR debacle should be a lesson, not only to economists, but to all scientists. While we may always be under pressure to produce results and hope that those results fit and support whatever position we take, shoddy methods don’t get us off the hook. In RR’s case, I would call this fabrication. A good many studies are merely guilty of wishful thinking, but the chance always exists that someone will come out of the woodwork and expose our flaws. After all, that’s what science is all about.
“Monsanto Protection Act”: Liberal Outrage or Herd Behavior?
First, there is no such thing as a “Monsanto Protection Act” anymore than there is any such thing as “Obamacare.” This is a term created by the item’s opponents to rile up opposition, rather than foster critical analysis. I think that Liberals should be well aware of the political problems associated with demonizing and reductionist labeling of things they don’t like.
Second, though Presidents can veto any bill that comes across his desk, the veto of appropriations bills are rare, and have often been overridden by Congress in the past. It may be a shock to liberals, but Presidents aren’t kings. Conservatives often don’t seem to understand the three branches of Government. Liberals often appear to understand it even less.
Third, there was hardly “no debate.” A Google search will reveal that discussions of this particular item go back at least to June of 2012 and the “Famer’s Assurance Provision” as it is correctly known is part of another Ag Appropriations bill which passed last year. Anyone who tells you this is new, is either lying, or doesn’t know what they are talking about. (Even Snopes took this on.)
Fourth, there is no evidence (that I’m aware of) that GMO’s, which are already in our food supply, are having deleterious effects on human health or the environment. There have been some studies on mouse models that I know of, but it appears that no one can really agree on what a “GMO” really is. Until we can nail that down, and have more informed discussion of which GMOs are “bad” and which are “good”, I don’t think that screaming about GMO’s is any more productive than poorly informed discussion of complex issues such as climate change.
I’m not trying to suggest that there are no effects of “GMOs” whatever they may be. I am saying that lefties are accepting that there are broad effects without question and are relying on less-than-scientific and politically motivated sources such as Salon and the Huffington Post to inform them. That’s a very, very dangerous position to take.
Fifth, I think we should all know by now that rightists use issues like this to weaken Democratic Presidencies. I was of the opinion that much of the furor over controversial portions of the 2012 NDAA bill was stoked by right wingers hoping for a Achilles heel in the 2012 Obama campaign. When we buy into this type of sensationalist reporting without examining the evidence, we play right into their hands.
Sixth, well, I had a sixth, but lost it. But back to GMO’s: It’s interesting that discussions of GMO’s in Sub-Saharan Africa are opposite of what we hear in the US. People view the American and European opposition to GMOs, some of which have the potential to increase food yield while minimizing inputs, as an infringement on developing countries’ rights of self determination. It’s easy to dismiss their concerns as uninformed. However, people and policy makers in developing countries face competing issues of immediate economic needs and broad environmental concerns. Lots of things seem obvious to us, but then we have most of our basic needs already met.
I mean this not as a defense of the Farmer’s Assurance Provision or anything else having to do with GMO’s (so chill out). The endless (and perhaps deserved) vilification of Monsanto has reached a point where examination of the facts is secondary to screaming like a blithering idiot. To me, this is dangerous. When we reduce ourselves to merely accepting positions without criticism, we allow ourselves to be manipulated by just about anything. Not everyone has the time to read all that is required to create a truly informed and reasoned opinion on all subjects, I realize. Striving toward obtaining as much information as is reasonable, however, and acting critically should be a priority for everyone, however.
Liberals are the smart ones. We can do better.
Right Wing Internet Memes: Please, sir, don’t confuse me with the facts
Last night, I received the graphic to the left from a conservative friend of mine. It took me while to decide whether it was worth blogging about. After waking up this morning and finding that I was STILL thinking about, I caved.
Right wingers seem to spread these graphics around like mad. In my experience, left wingers send out simplified graphics, too, but the subject matter is somewhat more diverse (Monsanto is a common theme, however).
Originally, I had written a point by point criticism of this one graphic, but the post got so long as to be unreadable. That’s the problem with trying to respond to these type of messages: your day quickly disappears. It’s like trying to stop flooding in New Orleans by throwing handfuls of sand at the levy.
Political discourse in the United States has reached a tipping point of reductionism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current set of Republican political campaigns. Strategies center on simplifying issues, and where reductionism and simplification don’t work, candidates will just make up their own reality. Voters have shown time and again that facts do not matter. Vilification of perceived enemies, in this case college students, teachers, academics and liberals is, sadly, de rigueur.
Sadly, America no longer embraces that which it should be the most proud of, namely, our Universities. It is our very best offering to the world, unmatched in scale by any country on the entire planet. Yes, excellent universities exist outside the US, but there is no country which can match the sheer number of excellent schools that the United States has.
At one time, going to college was a badge of honor, particularly for the working class and the poor. I fear that this current trend of anti-intellectualism will continue, and what was once a pathway for the otherwise marginalized to become engaged citizens (of any political bent), will become a badge of suspicion.
If we are to be derided as “Marxists” let it be. I’ve read Marx. I doubt that the creator of this graphic, nor the individuals spreading it have taken the time.
Akin and the Mysteries of Reproduction
Senatorial Candidate Akin’s recent claims that doctors informed him of a magical mechanism by which women can prevent successful insemination were completely unsurprising. The public, particularly in an election season, have little time for detailed analysis of claims and evidence supporting said claims, preferring passionate leaders who make grand assertions. After all, religion makes a cottage industry out of it. Americans don’t much care about the story, but they love a good performer.
Akin’s fantastical claims may be unsurprising, but equally disturbing, particularly to a person who makes his living collecting data and methodically testing claims.
I like his idea, though. The logical outcome of Akin’s claim is that arguments over birth control are moot. Women have the mechanism to stop reproduction. We no longer need pharmaceutical birth control and abortion. Perhaps the ladies are just lazy.
Fantastic notions of the mysteries of reproduction, are not new. For example, Edward Clarke, a 19th century Harvard professor, once claimed that providing education to women would result in enlarged brains, thus atrophying the entire reproductive system.
No doubt, people believed him, though the notion strikes on as utterly preposterous in 2012. Perhaps he based this on his own erectile problems? Who knows. Regardless, he wrote a book on it, and his shoddy claims were used to argue for denying women higher education and the right to vote. Mr. Clarke would fit in well with today’s Republican Party.
Yesterday, I wrote on the shrinking population of full time, properly compensated faculty in the US academy. I would conjecture that this is to the absolute delight of anti-intellectualists everywhere, who view data and scrutiny as a threat the the future of the Republic.
Socrates was killed for asking questions. One of Pol Pot’s first targets was the educated elite. Here in the US, I can’t foresee policy which calls for the killing of the educated, but I do see our political culture gradually marginalizing us.
Will Teach for Food: Beggar Faculty in American Academia
As I near the end of my graduate career, I’m filled with anxiety over jobs and money. If an article on Al Jazeera is any indication, those anxieties are entirely founded.
More than 65 percent of all teaching faculty (in terms of credits taught) at American institutions are part time, short term contract workers who are poorly paid and offered little or no benefits at all. Even as tuitions have skyrocketed, full time, fairly compensated job prospects in academia are drying up.
My academic career began when I started teaching math part time at Jackson Community College. Though I was happy to have the opportunity at the time, I worked more than 20 hours a week per course, and was paid the measly sum of $1100 a semester for a 3 credit class. Even if I taught full time for all three semesters (isn’t that a trimester?), I couldn’t reasonably break $14,000 a year, well below the poverty level. Part time instructors had no union representation at the time. We fought for it, but were blocked by both administration (who saw us as an expense) and the current faculty union (who saw us as a threat). I’m not sure what the situation is now.
Eventually, I quit. The poor compensation just wasn’t worth the time put in. Worse, despite poor wages, the school became increasingly intrusive on course design, reporting, management and even whether what we could say in the class room.
There is a direct correlation between freedom on the job and payment. Poorly paid people have little freedom and little respect, well paid people have all the freedom and respect they could ever want. This clearly has vast implications for academic faculty.
The world likes to think that academics live a life of opulence and guaranteed employment. The truth is, that in 2012 most do not. Academics are going the way of just about all employment sectors. Services, even in public institutions, are becoming widely privatized, and the ability of workers to band together and demand improvements in working conditions and compensation undermined. Employer based benefits are disappearing, and compensation is falling. Anti-intellectuals should be rejoicing.
I worry that in 10 years, every university will be taught by robots managing watered down and expensive online courses, geared to giving anybody a fake degree. Academics in the United States is something to be very, very proud of, though the future is very suspect.
South African Secrecy Law Threatens Free Press
The South African Parliament has approved the passage of the “Protection of State Information Bill,” which detractors have called the “South African Secrecy Law.” Its proponents and the ANC maintain that the law is necessary to prevent government employees from leaking important state secrets. Critics view the law as an egregious affront to a free press because it could be hand whistle blowers a draconian sentence of 25 years in prison.
South African human rights leaders such as Bishop Desmond Tutu have vocally come out against the passage of the law, calling it a violation of freedom and a threat to democracy. Amnesty International’s office in South Africa has called the passage of the law a “dark day for freedom.” Business leaders have even criticized the law, stating that it is likely bad for business.South African newspapers have already reacted with outrage. The Mail and Guardian newspaper printed an edition last week where most of the articles were blackened out in a manner similar to that under apartheid. Journalists and press freedom supporters all over South Africa have taken to the streets to protest the law.
The greatest controversy is not over the move to protect state secrets, but the lack of a public interest provision which would protect journalists and citizens from publicly revealing cases of government corruption. A whistle blower expose’ of a corrupt weapons deal, where defense contract Thyssen-Krupp made improper ANC donations to secure the sale of several large naval carriers, would be a punishable offense under the new law.
Attempts to curtail a free press to protect the shady dealings of politicians is not a new phenomenon, of course. The rise of such heavy handed policy in post-apartheid South Africa, which can proudly boast of one of the most progressive constitutions on the planet, is not only sad, but also troubling. Politicians and the powerful state elite in other Sub-Saharan countries will no doubt be emboldened by the effort.
Last year, Bingu wa Mutharika and the DPP, the president and ruling party of Malawi, introduced and passed a a consitutional amendment sharply curtailing press freedom. Section 46 of the Penal Code now states: “If the minister has reasonable grounds to believe that the publication or importation of any publication would be contrary to the public interest, he may, by order published in the ‘Gazette’, prohibit the publication or importation of such publication.”
They have since routinely harassed newspaper unsympathetic to the increasingly autocratic Mutharika and had journalists arrested and beaten. DPP supporters have detained academics who speak out against the failing Malawian government. In the most recent riots this past June, DPP thugs were there not only to incite violence, but to intimidate those opposed to the present government, by brandishing machetes and beating demonstrators.
Conservative Intimidation Against Free Thought at the University of Michigan
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy Funding, a well funded conservative think tank based in Midland, Michigan has filed a series of requests for emails from University of Michigan Faculty, which reference contain words such as “Scott Walker,” “Wisconsin,” “Madison” and “Maddow.”
Aside from the obvious right wing slant of the center, a little searching will reveal that their financially endowed staff receives their livelihood from such charitable entities as Exxon, Chase, the Dow Family and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, started by former John Birch Society stalwart Harry Bradley along with the Koch Brothers.
The graphic to the left is from their website, which is absurd when you realize that most of their staff make more than $100K per year, just to run a website that, in the end, is no different from any of the blogs I read, whose writers get absolutely NOTHING. To top it off, I seriously doubt that they really care about anybody in any food bank line anywhere. In fact, I would assume that they would consider the poor an unemployed a drag on society. Whose side are these assholes on?
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation offers that “the overall objective of the Bradley Foundation, however, is to return the U.S. — and the world — to the days before governments began to regulate Big Business, before corporations were forced to make concessions to an organized labor force. In other words, laissez-faire capitalism: capitalism with the gloves off. To further this objective, Bradley supports the organizations and individuals that promote the deregulation of business, the rollback of virtually all social welfare programs, and the privatization of government services. “
I think it should be pretty clear what this group is about.
They claim that their FOIA requests are innocuous, but they obviously are not. Quoted from the Detroit News, “Some of the characterization was that we were attempting to stifle academic freedom, or to stifle the political biases of professors,” Braun said. “The fact that they have political opinions is not a big secret. The fact that they are using public resources to behave more like a political action committee than a teaching and research university (was the reason for the FOIA requests).
Wow, apparently politics are out at Universities now, unless of course academics preach the word of John Birch.
Of course the Mackinac Center is entitled to the FOIA requests, as any citizen is, but the goals of this group are clear. They feel that they are finally on the cusp of realizing their goals of total control over the US economy, dismantling things like child labor laws, occupational safety regulations, and the abolition of slavery. It’s obvious, that these new robber barons are scared shitless that the academic establishment will call them out for what they are and seek to intimidate public workers into silence.
Pol Pot did this. Mao did this. Mugabe did this. Kim Jong Il did this. McCarthy even did this. Intimidation of academics is nothing new. On the surface FOIA requests are fairly innocuous, but is this really the path anyone wants the country to go down? Let them request, let them slander, let them speak their minds, but let’s not hope that the academic establishment, or all free thinking Americans, ever fear of biting back against corporate sponsored intimidation. Let’s not be like NPR, who didn’t stick up for what was right at the time they should have.
When we become afraid, then truly all is lost.
Academic Freedom: R.I.P.
The Wisconsin Republican Party was so threatened by a recent blog post and NY Times op-ed from University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon, that they filed to recieve copies of all of Cronon’s emails. Cronon detailed connections between the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the present Republican administration in Wisconsin, who seek to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, and ultimately reduce them to the status of poorly paid interns.
ALEC receives funding from a wide range of shady groups including the American Nuclear Energy Council, the American Petroleum Institute, Coors Brewing Company, Texaco, Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, VISA, Exxon Mobil, the National Rifle Association, Amway, and, of course, the infamous Koch Brothers.One would assume, of course, that upon recieving the emails, smear professionals will scan the entire data base for scandalous tibdits that, when taken out of context, will ruin Cronon’s credibility. The results of this Republican led data mining experiment will be used to generate a case to fire him as a state employee or, at the very least, publicly make his life completely miserable and unlivable.
Cronon is like anyone who might read this blog. Given that many associated with this blog are at least in some way connected to either academic institutions or free thought and expression, I believe that we all have much to worry about.
Cronon’s recent experience reminds me of the recent arrest of political science professor, Dr. Blessings Chinsinga of Chancellor College in Zomba, Malawi. Dr. Chinsinga, referring to the at that time recent political uprisings in Egypt, pointed out that Malawi’s ongoing problems with fuel shortages, food insecurity and the lack of foreign exchange could one day prompt similar uprisings in his country. Word reached the office of President Bingu wa Mutharika, who had Dr. Chinsinga arrested at his home, detained and questioned for hours.
The state has little to no legal grounds on which to prosecute Dr. Chinsinga. However, his arrest and detention are clearly intended to intimidate, defame and publicly humiliate a potential critic of an political group determined to hold on to power.
Rather than sow the seeds of true democracy, Mr. Mutharika and the Wisconsin Republican Party have sowed the seeds of totalitarianism, taking points directly from the playbooks of Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. Those three are certainly extreme examples. It is doubtful that the WRP will send Cronon for reeducation, nor have Cronon killed. However, the precedent is already there. Given the ugly, extreme and polarizing nature of modern day American politics, if intimidation of public citizens is to be accepted as fair political game, then it is only a matter of time before intimidation turns to true retaliation.
In contrast to the United States, faculty at Chancellor have gone on strike to protest Dr. Chinsinga’s detention. Malawian students have taken to the streets to demonstrate in favor of academic freedom and the public expression of criticism and independent thought. Students at Chancellor College have endured violent repression by police, multiple riots have ensued and arrests plentiful. To my knowledge, American students, like many Americans, are disturbingly quiet on the subject of political suppression of written dissent.
Frances Piven, Social Welfare and Gun Waving Internet Maniacs
The right is apparently getting the guns out for a little known, 78 year old political science professor from City University of New York, Frances Piven. Apparently, Beck and his cloud of gun waving fanatics don’t believe that the First Amendment guarantees the right to free political speech, and are calling for Dr. Piven to be, at best, tried for treason, and, at worst, shot on sight. The almost impossible to comprehend graphic on the left should provide an indication as to the comedy of their claims.
Hearing that the right has a new academic boogyman, I am of course eager to learn as much about this person as possible.
Most of Beck’s vitriol stems from a 1966 article “A Strategy to End Poverty“, published in the liberal magazine, the Nation, outlining a plan to free America’s poor from oppressive welfare systems that do little to raise their standard of living, and more to keep them poor. The article and plan were mostly aimed at the Democratic Party at the time, with the hope that action could induce the Party to provide more benefits for the poor. Along the way, Piven hoped that they would at least get some help for people who need it. She called for education programs to assist individuals in filling out the daunting welfare forms to maximize efficiency amongst applicants and to insure that the groups that welfare are targeted at, have representation in welfare offices.
I can corroborate Piven’s claims as to the backwardness of welfare. I was on food stamps in the early 90’s and was amazed at a) how much work and savvy it took to maintain the benefits and b) how the system would immediately punish recipients for trying to escape poverty. This was during the first Bush admin, and well after Reagan era budget cuts.
If a welfare recipient made a dollar above $800 in a calendar month, he or she would lose $400 a month in food stamp benefits. If one went to university, one was barred from receiving benefits. Recipients were therefore required to be in a GED program or to not be in school at all, basically insuring that a poor family would remain poor for the rest of their lives.
Forms were dauntingly complex and reams of documentation were required to prove eligibility. The semi-literate, those living unstable lives and the homeless were effectively shut out of the process. Welfare workers and policy makers systematically withheld information from potential recipients. Policy makers consequently marginalized the very populations they were thought to be helping. Your only hope was to find a welfare worker that was willing to subvert the system and provide you with help and benefits.
She advocates a national minimum income in the text, which is where Beck and his batshit followers likely go ballistic and start hoarding Glock 9’s. Rightist seeking to discredit her have repeatedly pointed out that she has indicated that marginalized groups as the victims of violence often were required to use violence to achieve their own ends. Despite rightist protestations, I cannot find any place where she suggests using violence, but she does often put out that, in reality, it often is. You can check out the video below and decide for yourself.
Piven is hardly an enemy of democracy, despite Beck’s obsessive claims. In the introduction to “Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America ,” which I just skimmed through, she rightfully points out that what we have in America is not a democracy, but more like “authoritarian populist regimes in Southeast Asia and Latin America” that do not represent the interests of the people, but rather the interests of a small and powerful group. I somehow recall Tea Partiers making similar statements. It’s an interesting book. I doubt that many of her critics have actually read it.
Piven wrote a great history of how she came to be the right’s enemy number one. Apparently, a Republican activist from Michigan posed as an interested student, went to her apartment in NY, filmed an interview with her for an hour, and then cut out the damning portions and posted it on the internet.
Check out the comments: