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PEG has something to say about science. I’m going to let Adam Ozimek say what needs saying about certain more easily refuted parts of the piece; but I’m going to actually focus on where I, well, kind of agree. Well, maybe agree is the wrong word. Let’s try empathize.
This Mother Jones piece crowed about the fact that ‘science-denying’ creationists were attacking portrayals of the Big Bang in Cosmos just as “[a] major new scientific discovery,…has now provided ‘smoking gun’ evidence for ‘inflation,’ a crucial component of our understanding of the stunning happenings just after the Big Bang.” What was this ‘smoking gun’ evidence?
Using a special telescope to examine the cosmic microwave background radiation (which has been dubbed the “afterglow” of the Big Bang), researchers at the South Pole detected “direct evidence” of the previously theoretical gravitational waves that are believed to have originated in the Big Bang and caused an incredibly sudden and dramatic inflation of the universe.
So, people who believe the universe is seven orders of magnitude younger than it actually is in spite of all already-existing scientific evidence because it conflicts with their theology are supposed to be pwned because a mysterious and complex gizmo they haven’t seen, located on the most remote part of the planet, was looking at something they don’t understand and found evidence they don’t understand of a phenomenon they don’t understand linked to a theory of the consequences of that thing they don’t believe happened. Yep. That’ll do it.
Think about it – have you seen that telescope? Do you know what it does? How it works? How can you be sure it’s working properly? What is its actual output – some sort of numbers on a computer? What do those numbers mean? How do you know that? Can you interpret them? How do they fit into the theoretical construct that leads you to believe this particular stream of telescope output corroborates the Big Bang? Do you really understand this?
I don’t think you do. And that’s fine. Most of us don’t understand most things. I probably understand fewer things than most. But one thing I definitely understand is that human beings are alive, if we’re lucky, for just over 700,000 hours, more like 525,000 as an adult, more like 350,000 as an awake adult, of which you’ll spend at least a fifth working and then you have kids and illnesses and hobbies and suddenly you’re out of time to understand complex matters of cosmological theory and telescope construction.
The point is that at some point to believe just about anything in which you are not a seasoned expert you have to trust other humans. And how you decide which other humans to trust isn’t something you can determine by corroborating everything they say, because that’s circular. It’s decided by a whole host of factors, but the point is that it is extremely rational to decide to trust or distrust certain sources as a matter of course.
Yet we resist that, for reasons that are both rational and thoughtful as well as those that are reflexive to elite culture. Watch Joe Weisenthal struggle with it in this convo:
@TPCarney and if today you’re still worried about inflation – but for the wrong reasons – then that still shouldn’t be taken seriously.
— Joseph Weisenthal (@TheStalwart) December 28, 2013
I’ve thought a lot about that short exchange since it happened nearly a year ago, because it so neatly captures the tension between our valuing ideas and open-mindedness and the relentless logic of using sources as filters. Many people who think that hyperinflation is JUST AROUND THE BEND and who have repeatedly warned of hyperinflation over the last decade have many useful and valuable insights; but their vocal and insistent warnings about imminent hyperinflation have also been extremely wrong in a very discrediting way. In the opposite vein, if you did trust the hyperinflationistas, why would you trust a debunking of them from, of all people, Paul Krugman?
In the end, we are all bound not by the objective veracity of the information and the merit of the ideas we hope to adjudicate, but by who we trust to convey and explain ideas and information to us. We trust science, fundamentally, because we trust people who trust science. And once that trust is broken, it can be very, very hard to restore.
And remember that discovery of gravitational waves and the Big Bang? Well, it was wrong. Probably.
Depends who you trust.
So Ashok and I sparred a bit on Twitter re: the meaning and effect of taxation and spending (and probably pestered the heck out of James Pethokoukis and Joe Weisenthal in the process). I’m not sure how to embed Twitter conversations (if anyone knows how, I’m all ears), but the long-and-short of it is that the actualities of taxes and spending are weirdly different from the optics.
The trick is to remember that every policy change is a change from some baseline. So, from whatever the baseline currently is, there is no fundamental or economic difference between:
1) Cutting taxes by X on some activity, and
2) Spending X subsidizing that activity
assuming that they are both funded identically (though identical tax hikes, spending cuts, or debt incursions).
Now, in practice, there will be differences. Scott Sumner’s thought experiment about the society that taxes 100% of GDP by taxing 100% of income then writing welfare checks equal to taxed income demonstrates that, since we would expect that society really would look different than the one that taxed nothing at all (if only because such a program would have some overhead). But those differences would be based in behavioral economics, not classical or neoclassical economics.
And the same in real-world examples. There would definitely be differences between these two alternative scenarios:
1) A 2% payroll tax cut (debt-funded).
2) A check mailed to every American for the exact same amount (debt-funded).
But those differences would be instutional, not economics (the check-cashing industry, for example, would obviously prefer the second policy to the first). But there’s no reaosn to think they would "crowd out" (or for that matter, "crowd in") different activities.
The real point is, as Matt Yglesias says, the tax share of GDP is a very poor to think about the “size of government.”