Category Archives: Robert Samuelson

It’s a start

This is one of the dumbest ad hominem arguments I’ve seen in a major newspaper for quite a while:

>My younger son calls the Toyota Prius a “hippie car,” and he has a point. Not that Prius drivers are hippies. Toyota says that typical buyers are 54 and have incomes of $99,800; 81 percent are college graduates. But, like hippies, they’re making a loud lifestyle statement: We’re saving the planet; what are you doing?

>This helps explain why the Prius so outsells the rival Honda Civic Hybrid. Both have similar base prices, about $22,000, and fuel economy (Prius, 60 miles per gallon city/51 highway; Civic, 49 mpg city/51 highway). But Prius sales in the first half of 2007 totaled 94,503, nearly equal to all of 2006. Civic sales were only 17,141, up 7.4 percent from 2006. The Prius’s advantage is its distinct design, which announces its owners as environmentally virtuous. It’s a fashion statement. Meanwhile, the Civic hybrid can’t be distinguished by appearance from the polluting, gas-guzzling mob.

The dumb thing is that Samuelson doesn’t even disagree with the idea of cutting greenhouse gas emissions (he’s not a George Will global warming denier). Later in the piece he argues that very drastic things ought to be done:

>But we’ve got to start somewhere, right? Okay, here’s what Congress should do: (a) gradually increase fuel economy standards for new vehicles by at least 15 miles per gallon; (b) raise the gasoline tax over the same period by $1 to $2 a gallon to strengthen the demand for fuel-efficient vehicles and curb driving; (c) eliminate tax subsidies (mainly the mortgage interest rate deduction) for housing, which push Americans toward ever-bigger homes. (Note: If you move to a home 25 percent larger and then increase energy efficiency 25 percent, you don’t save energy.)

Samuelson’s problem is that actions such as driving a Prius are not adequate by themselves to curb the accumulation of greenhouse gases. He uses his son’s hippie comment (why are people beating up on hippies now?) to impugn the motives of people who advocate measures that are partial or inadequate. They only do so because it’s fashionable. They don’t really want to curb global warming because they don’t wish for the hard things.

There doesn’t, however, seem to be any reason to think that. At least none that Samuelson offers. And it’s probably the case that no one thinks such measures (driving a Prius vs. a Honda Hybrid) are adequate in the first place. But just because such individual actions are inadequate by themselves, doesn’t mean they and the people who do them are shallow and worthless.

Freedom of speech

Whenever a constitutional matter comes before the public, people are fond of citing the relevant amendment, as if the words alone will resolve the conflict so many legal minds have failed to understand. This is a favorite tactic of George Will, especially when it comes to McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform. He will say, very slowly, that “Congress-shall-make-no-law. . . It’s as a plain as day, only a communist moron could not see that.” Today’s version of that argument comes from Robert Samuelson. True to the tradition, he writes:

>”Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

>The Fourth of July is an apt moment to reflect on one of the great underreported stories of our time: the rise of speech regulation. Glance at the First Amendment, but do not think it still applies. Large bodies of political speech are now governed by laws, agency regulations, court decisions and lawyerly interpretations. Speech has become unfree.

>This does not mean that we don’t have vigorous debate or that most points of view aren’t represented. But in and around elections, what can be said, by whom and under what circumstances, is now a tangled web of legal qualifications — all justified as campaign finance “reform.”

>As proof, consider the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life Inc. Don’t try to understand it; you won’t. That’s the point. What’s permissible or impermissible speech is now murky. Plain political speech has mushroomed into many subcategories — “issue speech,” “electioneering communications,” “express advocacy” and “nonexpress advocacy,” among others. Different legal standards apply.

He goes on to point out (correctly, we imagine) some of the myriad practical difficulties of regulating “political” speech according to the parameters of McCain-Feingold. Indeed, McCain-Feingold may be a dumb law.

But it’s not dumb because of some obvious contradiction with the first amendment or because it confuses what was not confused before. A quick glance at constitutional history will reveal many cases in which the notion of “speech” has been expanded (or contracted) either in virtue of its content, its location, or more fundamentally, the person or entity doing the speaking. Simple, seemingly absolute rules such as the amendments to the Constitution, invite all sorts of challenges and raise all sorts of legitimate questions about what, where, when, why, and who.

Obscenity anyone? Is that speech? How come it can be regulated?

So, while the McCain-Feingold law may–I say may–have been sloppily written. It’s not wrong simply because it abridges political speech. Whatever is left of the integrity of our political process deserves more mature consideration than this.

The two Gores

The war on Al Gore is really the specialty of the Daily Howler, but with all deference to Bob Somerby, let me take a stab at it today. The old war on Gore involved the claim that he had a kind of pathological obsession with becoming President of the United States. On this theme, the New York Times’ Healy and Leibovich:

>For Mr. Gore, who calls himself a “recovering politician,” returning to Capitol Hill is akin to a recovering alcoholic returning to a neighborhood bar.

That gratuitous aside puts the whole idea of testifying before Congress back in the old light of Al Gore will do or say anything to become President. But that’s par for the course, and has been amply demonstrated by the above sources.

Luckily we still have Al Gore to kick around. And, like Charles Krauthammer, we can question his grip on reality. So in today’s Post Robert Samuelson writes:

>Global warming has gone Hollywood, literally and figuratively. The script is plain. As Gore says, solutions are at hand. We can switch to renewable fuels and embrace energy-saving technologies, once the dark forces of doubt are defeated. It’s smart and caring people against the stupid and selfish. Sooner or later, Americans will discover that this Hollywood version of global warming (largely mirrored in the media) is mostly make-believe.

And the rest of the op-ed is filled with claims about our extensive use of coal and its contribution to greenhouse gases and so forth. Kudos to Samuelson for not doubting the science of global warming like his colleague, George Will. But like George Will, Samuelson is guilty of confusing the Hollywood story on global warming–necessarily fantastical–with actual probable policy recommendations offered by experts. On any charitable interpretation of what Al Gore is saying, one can’t draw the conclusion that a magic wand will make the whole thing go away. But one can conclude, as has Gore, that there is a major obstacle to progress of any kind on the issue–the will to implement policies aimed at clean and renewable sources of energy.

This is where the new script meets the old one. Isn’t Al Gore some kind of political addict who thrives on the complexity of policy making (rather than simple-minded Texas bromides about the good and the evil)? At least Samuelson didn’t stick to that script.

Samuelson, redux

Robert Samuelson argues that although judged by “objective” measures (i.e. tests) the U.S. lags many other countries in science and math education, we succeed through our “informal learning system.” This informal learning system redresses some of the failures of our high schools. Evidence for this claim is a study that shows older americans are less deficient in literacy and math than younger americans. Samuelson begins by pointing out this strange phenomenon in comparative international test scores.

>Today’s young Americans sometimes do well on these international tests, but U.S. rankings drop as students get older. Here’s a 2003 study of 15-year-olds in 39 countries: In math, 23 countries did better; in science, 18. Or consider a 2003 study of adults 16 to 65 in six advanced nations: Americans ranked fifth in both literacy and math.

Samuelson attributes this improvment to the “informal learning system.” A notion that is so broadly defined as to include presumably anything that might contribute to learning. Further, it isn’t clear why “community colleges et al.” are better described as “informal” than “formal.” Certainly “self-help” books fall into the informal category.

>The American learning system is more complex. It’s mostly post-high school and, aside from traditional colleges and universities, includes the following: community colleges; for-profit institutes and colleges; adult extension courses; online and computer-based courses; formal and informal job training; self-help books.

But the centerpiece he talks about in his column seems to be the formal parts of the “informal learning system” (community colleges and Univeristy of Phoenix’s internet courses are singled out) He seems to suggest that they have an large impact on the math and literacy scores of older americans. Whether this is true or not, Samuelson doesn’t provide any evidence. At this point his argument seems to be that there must be some explanation for the test scores cited above. The explanation cannot be formal learning system, therefore it must lie somewhere in the “non-formal” learning system. If this latter notion is defined broadly enough, then this seems to be a reasonable argument. But regretably in order to be a reasonable argument it must lack any real explanatory power. Samuelson is essentially claiming that the explanation for the learning that the test scores above suggest is that learning occurs somehow.

But all of this argument seems completely unconnected from the points that Samuelson draws at the conclusion. First of all he identifies two undoubted “virtues” of the american system:

>First, it provides second chances. It tries to teach people when they’re motivated to learn — which isn’t always when they’re in high school or starting college.

>[Second] The American learning system accommodates people’s ambitions and energies — when they emerge — and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.

As was pointed out by my colleague, a more natural inference than praising our “informal learning system” might be to demand improvement of these defects.

His conclusion involves a curious shift of topic–one smells herring.

>But the American learning system partially explains how a society of certified dummies consistently outperforms the test scores. Workers and companies develop new skills as the economy evolves. The knowledge that is favored (specialized and geared to specific jobs) often doesn’t show up on international comparisons that involve general reading and math skills.

But very little evidence has been given to show that the “informal learning system” should be credited with this, or that it does in fact “partially explain” our national success in “production.” Further, the phenomenon from which Samuelson starts is precisely the age connected change in scores on “international comparisons that involve reading and math skills.” Now , however, he has shifted the topic to the vocational skills that Americans acquire informally. The argument presupposes a connection between the two, which he here, in the last sentence (above), denies. Finally, there seem to be many other possible explanations for our “productivity advantage.” The connection between vocational learning acquired “informally” and increased productivity needs to be argued.

There may be more than some truth in Samuelson’s account of the “informal learning system.” But whether it is there would require tighter argument than we are given here. I’m not sure that his argument is entirely fallacious–perhaps it is better described as a little “loose.” If I were to identify fallacious tendencies they would lie somewhere between Ignoratio Elenchi and Red Herring. As an argument for the explanation of the disparity between our test scores and our productivity, it seems weak.

Failure has failed

According to many reputable experts, the American education system, of which I am a part, is failing. Students leave high school unprepared for college level work. I’ve seen many examples of that. What to do?

Robert Samuelson, a very infrequent subject here at The Non Sequitur gives some qualified endorsement to adult re-education. Community colleges and for-profit online colleges pick up where high schools and colleges fail.

>Up to a point, you can complain that this system is hugely wasteful. We’re often teaching kids in college what they should have learned in high school — and in graduate school what they might have learned in college. Some of the enthusiasm for more degrees is crass credentialism. Some trade schools prey cynically on students’ hopes and spawn disappointment. But these legitimate objections miss the larger point: The American learning system accommodates people’s ambitions and energies — when they emerge — and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.

>In Charlotte, about 70 percent of the recent high school graduates at Central Piedmont Community College need remedial work in English or math. Zeiss thinks his college often succeeds where high schools fail. Why? High school graduates “go out in the world and see they have no skills,” he says. “They’re more motivated.” The mixing of older and younger students also helps; the older students are more serious and focused.

We’re not going to poo-poo education of any sort, but we’re confused by the reasoning in the second paragraph (the part that’s highlighted). The conclusion Samuelson ought to draw–or at least ought to stress–is that our high schools ought to be fixed without interposed delay. That stupid ugly reality forces some kids and adults to fix it themselves with repeat or remedial education is evidence of that fact, not a serious alternative.

Logically impossible?

Strong words from Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post today:

We’ve arrived at this juncture because it’s logically impossible both to honor the First Amendment and to regulate campaign finance effectively. We can do one or the other — but not both. Unfortunately, Congress and the Supreme Court won’t admit the choice. The result is the worst of both worlds. We gut the First Amendment and don’t effectively regulate campaign finance.

A round square, a married bachelor, and an explicit contradiction are logically impossible. It must be something about the definition of bachelor (an unmarried man) that makes it logically impossible for one to be married. The same, unfortunately for Mr. Samuelson, is not the case with campaign finance and speech. One might notice first of all that these are of entirely different categories–speech and money. Second, one might also notice that certain types of speech are regulated under the First Amendment–yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is the most famous example. Libel and slander, with their consequent penalties, also fall under the heading of “regulated” speech. Complete ownership of the airwaves, or their domination by the government in power, are also regulated. Now none of this means that it is not difficult to balance free speech and campaign finance, it means merely that it is not logically impossible.