Friday, April 26, 2013

Gun nuts crazier than previously believed

I was just re-reading my Newton post from last December, and I had to laugh when I got to item #3:
3. The "armed bystanders could have stopped it" argument should be gone for good. Unless you want to arm schoolteachers. More than that, the mere existence of children should remind us that not every potential target can be hardened.
The schoolteacher point was so ridiculous that I deemed it self-refuting. I guess the five months of Serious Debate about this proposal--and attempts to actually implement it in some states!--should teach me a lesson. Particularly, that there is no pro-gun policy too insane for the depraved, stupid gun lobby.

The Bush tax cuts made the stimulus worse. Blame the Democrats.

On his blog, 4:17 A.M. alum South of the 49th makes the case that the Bush tax cuts didn't measurably impair the nation's ability to respond to the financial crisis and recession with stimulus spending.  His point is simple enough:
A number of commentators claim that the Bush tax cuts hampered our ability to respond to the 2008 financial crisis with appropriate fiscal stimulus ... This could be true for two reasons, both of which seem unsupported: 1) the accumulated debt could have created economic barriers to more fiscal stimulus; or 2) the accumulated debt could have created political barriers to more fiscal stimulus.
Possibility one, he argues, is clearly contradicted by the bond market, where interest rates on American government debt are historically low, indicating that the nation could easily borrow and spend significantly more without seeing major negative consequences.  Fair enough, and I agree.

Possibility two is where things get a little more complicated.  Sot49th (I should probably figure out a better shorthand than this) goes into considerable historical detail making his point, but the gist of the argument is that none of the key negotiations over stimulus spending seem to have been measurably impacted by America's absolute level of debt.  The Republicans adopted an anti-spending stance as part of a concerted strategy to oppose Obama, rather than the other way around; the moderate Senators who cut hundreds of billions out of the stimulus bill were attempting to bolster their centrist credentials rather than making anything resembling a coherent policy decision; and in any case, the recession would have produced quite a large deficit by reducing revenue and increasing entitlement expenditures.

(The post also argues that the leverage created by the expiring tax cuts ultimately benefited stimulus proponents, because Obama could demand fiscal concessions for their extension.  That's an excellent point, but so particular to the political context of 2010 that there's almost no way to compare it to a counterfactual in which there had been no tax cuts at all.)

So far, so good.  I can't deny that in any conceivable scenario, Republicans and self-declared centrists would have groused about the debt and deficit. But I still suspect the tax cuts have undermined the country's ability to fiscally respond to the recession, albeit in a broader, fuzzier way than is immediately obvious--and in a way that leaves Democrats shouldering a lot of the blame.

The underlying problem is here is that the Bush tax cuts made the deficit a major issue, before the aftermath of the recession made it the major issue.  Democrats, eager to hit Bush however they could, attacked his deficit, and Republicans, eager to distance themselves from Bush however they could, decided that apparent nonchalance about the deficit betrayed the President as a faux conservative.

Then the financial crisis came, and suddenly advocates of fiscal stimulus were in an awkward position.  Many of them were Democrats who had, only months before, been lambasting Bush's mishandling of the nation's finances.  Their opponents, by contrast, were emboldened: the recession, they said, only reinforced the need to cut spending and get the deficit under control.  Small wonder that so many legislators wasted so much time desperately, quixotically searching for "deficit-neutral stimulus."  Perhaps the debate over stimulus spending was never going to turn out well, but the Bush tax cuts ensured that it started in a bad place and got worse from there.

Of course, even if the tax cuts ultimately worsened legislative outcomes in this way, these effects can't really be laid at Bush's feet.  Instead, the problem is political opportunism and economic illiteracy on the left.  It's okay, we have plenty of other stuff to blame Bush for. UPDATE: South of the 49th says I'm being too hard on Democrats, reminding me that cutting spending in good times while raising it in bad times, far from being incoherent, is actually the correct application of Keynesian principles. This is true, although the anti-Bush rhetoric was usually implicitly premised on the assumption that all debt is bad, rather than currently macroeconomically inappropriate. It's that assumption that's haunted us to this day.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Social networks in a crisis, or, why we shouldn't fear rumors

I don't have much to add about the Boston marathon bombing itself that isn't being said better elsewhere. It's sad and disturbing and I hope the authorities can get to the bottom of it quickly.

But I do want to comment on one small part of the reaction to the bombing; specifically, the reaction on Twitter. As you might expect, the earliest reports were accompanied by an explosion of Twitter activity. As you may not have suspected, a huge portion of this early response consisted of Twitter personalities cautioning others not to spread misinformation and chiding anyone who appeared to be tweeting unconfirmed reports.

It's true that social media outlets like Twitter are very frequently a hotbed of misinformation in a crisis. A fake or mistaken report can spread like wildfire. It would be generous to say that Twitter is only 99% echo chamber; there are simply very few obstacles preventing any information in circulation, regardless of truth or falsity, from reaching millions of people, if retweeters deem it sufficiently newsworthy. Caution is always advised when reading Twitter, advice that goes double in a crisis.

But social networks are hardly alone in being easily duped. One only has to think back to Newtown to see staid news outlets struggling to sort between rumor and reality, and failing badly. On 9/11, it was widely reported that the State Department had been bombed; social networks as we know them did not even exist.

You might say this indicates that all news outlets, whether crowdsourced or centralized, should exercise similar degrees of caution, checking rumors before reporting them. I think this would be an error. Traditional outlets specialize in factchecking rumor, and so they should factcheck diligently. Twitter specializes in something else altogether: gathering vast quantities of information very quickly, and disseminating it broadly. In doing so, it might serve as a vector for misinformation, but it can also function a powerful sieve for accuracy. Twitter rumors explode, but within ten, twenty, or thirty minutes, generate denials or rebuttals, which explode in an equally uninhibited fashion. The reason rumor can outpace verification in traditional media is that the latter is tied to old-fashioned factchecking process that takes time; on Twitter, both truth and falsehood are equally fleet-footed.

This is pretty much Twitter's comparative advantage over traditional sources. It's an advantage that would disappear, however, if everyone on Twitter passively refused to retweet anything that had not yet been confirmed by CNN or the NYT. In fact, doing so would transform social media into nothing more than a shadow of the old media establishment. Why read it at all, when you could get the same information by turning on the TV?

So I wish the old media would worry a little less about Twitter's capacity to spread rumors, and more about confirming the ones that crop up. Today is a strong case study: some of the things reported on Twitter turned out to be true (so far), others false (so far). Some things--e.g., the confusion over a fire at the UMass library--appear to have reflected genuine confusion among authorities. But because I was following along online, and didn't ignore every tweet that lacked official confirmation, I knew the basic shape of events long before a TV viewer would have. Ultimately, we'll probably all know exactly what happened; widespread participation in the organic process of fact discovery only speeds that moment.