Daily Archives: December 2, 2009

Reflecting on Climategate, Tyler Cowen has come up with this:

Good vs. evil thinking causes us to lower our value of a person’s opinion, or dismiss it altogether, if we find out that person has behaved badly.  We no longer wish to affiliate with those people and furthermore we feel epistemically justified in dismissing them.

Sometimes this tendency will lead us to intellectual mistakes.

Take Climategate.  One response is: 1. “These people behaved dishonorably.  I will lower my trust in their opinions.”

Another response, not entirely out of the ballpark, is: 2. “These people behaved dishonorably.  They must have thought this issue was really important, worth risking their scientific reputations for.  I will revise upward my estimate of the seriousness of the problem.”

I am not saying that #2 is correct, I am only saying that #2 deserves more than p = 0.  Yet I have not seen anyone raise the possibility of #2.  It very much goes against the grain of good vs. evil thinking:  Who thinks in terms of: “They are evil, therefore they are more likely to be right.”

Hum. Concerning whether #2 is in or out of the ballpark, the nature of the dishonourable behaviour would seem to be relevant. If they lied about the evidence (which they deny, of course) and are found out, then people will be less inclined to trust what they say about the evidence, regardless of their motives. That would seem to be that.

Leaving the realm of epistemic speculation, what many climate scientists do actually say is that the Climategate correspondents were true to their justified conviction about the larger picture, and did not want to confuse the public with their little local difficulty with tree-rings, or whatever. Some are happy to go even further than that, and tell you, on or off the record, that the main thing is to get the public scared enough to act. Exaggerate for the public good. Propaganda becomes the responsible scientist’s duty. Whatever it takes, including cooking the books. A question to keep Tyler entertained would be: is that dishonourable behaviour?

Still reeling over what is in those emails, I can’t say that question interests me much. Once scientists set out to mislead the public, they can no longer expect to be trusted. End of story.

Obama’s speech at West Point. Steve Coll, The New Yorker

Obama was confusing. John Dickerson, Slate.

Obama is wrong. Tom Friedman, NYT. Love that headline.

Obama is right. David Ignatius, Washington Post. But:

Obama thinks that setting deadlines will force the Afghans to get their act together at last. That strikes me as the most dubious premise of his strategy. He is telling his adversary that he will start leaving on a certain date, and telling his ally to be ready to take over then, or else. That’s the weak link in an otherwise admirable decision — the idea that we strengthen our hand by announcing in advance that we plan to fold it.

That’s quite a weak link, that weak link.

An anaemic recovery. James Hamilton, Econbrowser.

A new ebook from Vox–The great trade collapse: what caused it and what does it mean?–is the latest in a very impressive series of rapidly compiled symposiums on current economic issues. The introduction by editor Richard Baldwin gives an excellent, concise overview. I especially recommend Simon Evenett’s chapter on crisis-era protectionism, which corrects the view that governments have by and large learned the lessons of the Great Depression, and have avoided damaging trade-policy responses to the slump. Things have been quiet so far as tariffs are concerned, but there are more way to export your unemployment than raising tariffs.

- Since taking their pledge to eschew protectionism, G20 governments have together implemented 179 measures that harm foreign trade, investments, workers, and intellectual property.

- On average, every other day a G20 government has broken the pledge [to eschew protectionism for a year] made in Washington DC last November.

Obama’s speech on Afghanistan failed to measure up. Under pressure on other issues–Jeremiah Wright and health care come to mind–he has risen to the challenge and given powerful, moving addresses that touched people and retrieved the situation. Going into his much anticipated address at West Point on Tuesday, he was again under pressure. His commanders had told him they needed more men or else the US mission would fail, and (improperly) had put that assessment before the public. But popular support for the war has slumped. Quite a dilemma. Obama tried to have it both ways: he gave the generals another 30,000 soldiers, almost as many as they had asked for, but told the country (and anybody else who might have been listening) that disengagement would begin in just 18 months.

At its centre, in other words, the speech contradicted itself. You cannot argue, as he tried to, that (a) this is a war America must win to safeguard its own security, and (b) whether the US is winning or not, the troops will start to come home in 2011. If they can start to come home in 18 months regardless, why not start to bring them home now?

That was not the only contradiction. We are against “nation building” (again). But as well as creating the country’s own security forces out of next to nothing, we want a civilian surge to build capacity and foster development. Run that by me once more.

Things could certainly change for the better in 18 months. I wouldn’t bet on it–but it’s possible. This is a big extra commitment. Another 30,000 soldiers, plus whatever can be prised out of feckless NATO allies, will make a big difference.

On balance I think he is right to commit the extra forces. And I’m not saying it’s wrong to aim to succeed, according to some definition we could argue about, within 18 months, and hope to start withdrawing at that stage. By the way, it’s also not wrong to be concerned about the costs of escalation, as Obama said he was. Explaining why he had decided against an open-ended commitment, he said the cost would not be “reasonable”. (Strange word to choose, but let that pass.) Ideally he would have said why it would not be reasonable, though that would have been tricky after his account of what the US had at stake in all this.

But it sure makes no sense to announce this accelerated schedule to the enemy, or mention that a weakened United States cannot afford to fight for long. In a war, those are not good messages to send, either to the enemy or your own people.

You might argue that since the electorate is now so sceptical, he had to offer them reassurance regardless, then let the Taliban draw their own conclusions. I think the speech failed on that score too, because the contradiction made what he said so unpersuasive. Mostly, I think the president will have confused people. We’ll see what the polls say, but I’ll be surprised if he gets the kind of bounce we saw in September, when he addressed the nation on health care.

He is being criticised for the lack of detail in the speech. That I think is wrong. This was not the time to lay out his detailed strategy–though one certainly hopes there is one, after all these months of agonising, and he gave no sign of it.

People may have expected too much from the speech because the wait had pumped up expectations–which he failed to satisfy, either with a compelling argument, or even with much sign that the protracted analysis had told him anything he didn’t already know. The reference to “no option before me” to send more troops before next year, meaning that the months of talking had caused no delay, was a mistake. It sounded passive. No option before him? He’s the president. If he had wanted such an option, why did he not insist?

In fact I thought the whole speech was surprisingly unconfident. To be sure, the test of the strategy is not this speech but what happens on the ground. Maybe they have it right. As the details emerge, it will be easier to see. But tonight I felt Obama failed to express the clarity and resolve a commander in chief needs to at such a time. He did not rally the country behind this policy.

Time to withdraw quantitative easing. Charles Goodhart, FT. An article requiring further careful consideration (after Obama’s speech on Afghanistan). I want to know what Jim Hamilton makes of this. By the way, everything Goodhart writes is worthy of careful consideration. That has been my view for roughly 35 years, and the man has never let me down. I am on my third copy of “Money, Information, and Uncertainty“. The first two fell to pieces through frequent handling, and the third is looking very battered.

A related news story, on the facing page of the FT. Fed takes first steps in exit strategy. Michael Mackenzie.

Remarkable photographs from Afghanistan. David Guttenfelder, Denver Post. (Thanks A&L.)

The climate science isn’t settled. Richard Lindzen, WSJ. Now with improved credibility.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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