Wonkery or Wankery?

by Henry Farrell on December 22, 2005

“Kevin Drum”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2005_12/007834.php reads this Washington Monthly “article”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0601.wallace-wells.html on Kos, and says that we need more wonkishness in the leftwing blogosphere. “Duncan Black”:http://atrios.blogspot.com/2005_12_18_atrios_archive.html#113528562485802439 disagrees.

bq. there’s just little point in detail-oriented grand policy proposals when Bush and Republicans are in office. Just about everything their side offers up involves tax cuts, corporate pork, or cuts to programs that help keep granny from freezing to death in winter. The rest are complete disasters for obvious reason, like the Medicare drug plan, and there’s really not much to discuss. If our team actually had some power we could be debating the merits of various universal health care proposals, or considering just how large a minimum wage increase might be appropriate, or various other wonky things.

I think this misses the point. Not only is a certain amount of wonkishness on the left a good thing in itself, but it can be an important political weapon. Looking back to the Social Security debate, left-of-center blogs played a real role in helping to torpedo Republican proposals – but it wasn’t only the Cossacks (or even Josh Marshall’s information-gathering campaign to separate the sheep from the goats) that did the trick. Wonkish critiques of the bogus figures and rationales that the administration was floating helped shift the public debate from one about a purportedly necessary and inevitable reform, to one about a political ploy that looked like backfiring. More to the point – one of the reasons that Republicans seem to have a dealers’ edge in politics these days is that the terms of debate have been shaped by right-wing talking points emanating from the AEI, Heritage etc. A politically savvy wonkishness is an essential part of the long campaign to claw back some of this lost ground. You can make a pretty good case that the Democratic party, and the left more generally, has done a lousy job in connecting wonkish proposals together into a coherent political agenda for change, but it seems to me that that’s a different argument altogether.

Class dismissed

by Henry Farrell on December 22, 2005

I “blogged”:https://crookedtimber.org/2005/12/12/not-in-kansas-anymore/ Larry Bartels’ take-no-prisoners “critique”:http://www.princeton.edu/%7ebartels/kansas.pdf of Thomas Frank last week; now Frank has come back with an “equally frank rejoinder”:http://www.tcfrank.com/dismissd.pdf. It seems to me that Frank’s riposte to Bartels on the issue of how to define the white working class strikes home, although some of his other jabs miss the target. Since the definitional question is key to Bartels’ critique, it looks to me as if Franks comes out ahead (unless Bartels comes back with a more convincing justification). Still, I find some of Frank’s apologia unconvincing. He’s absolutely right to say that working class conservatism is still important, even if it isn’t a majority phenomenon – but there is a tendency (which Frank is by no means immune to) to generalize from the particular and to draw big conclusions on the basis of limited and somewhat impressionistic information. National survey data is imperfect – but it can serve as a very useful corrective to these tendencies, and it’s unfortunate that more pundits don’t use it (or at least acknowledge more directly the limits of the kinds of information that they do refer to).

(via Rick Perlstein)

Update “Matt Yglesias”:http://yglesias.tpmcafe.com/story/2005/12/23/10559/462 is blegging social scientists to crunch NES data for a different measure of the ‘real’ working class.

A Word from the Nerds

by Kieran Healy on December 22, 2005

John “Hannibal” Stokes at “Ars Technica”:http://arstechnica.com has some “interesting speculation”:http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20051220-5808.html/ on what the new technology behind the NSA “wiretap abuse”:http://news.com.com/Bush+lets+U.S.+spy+on+callers+without+courts/2100-1028_3-5998178.html?tag=st.num scandal might be. Because he knows a lot about computers, he’s also in a position to explain to the likes of “Richard Posner”:https://crookedtimber.org/2005/12/21/posner-forgets-himself/ one of the (several) things that’s wrong with “computer-automated mass surveillance:”:http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20051220-5813.htm

Just imagine, for a moment, that 0.1% of all the calls that go through this system score hits. Now let’s suppose the system processes 2 million calls a day. That’s still 2,000 calls a day that the feds will want to eavesdrop on—a very high number, and still much higher than any courts could possibly oversee. Furthermore, only a miniscule fraction of the overall total of 2 million calls per day on only a few days of each month will contain any information of genuine interest to the feds…

… Here’s where the real problem with this scheme lies: the odds that a particular terrorist’s phone call will rate enough hits to sound an alarm are not primarily dependent on factors that we have control over, like the amount of processing power and brain power that we throw at the task, but on factors that we have no control over, like how good that terrorist is at hiding the content of his communication from the feds. …

As the TSA, with its strip-searching of people’s elderly grandparents, “abundantly proves”:http://news.com.com/Theres+no+getting+off+that+no-fly+list/2100-7350_3-5996897.html every holiday season, blunt instruments and scorched earth tactics are of dubious value in catching genuine bad actors. … All you need to beat such surveillance tools is patience and know-how. This is true for face recognition, it’s true for biometrics, it’s true for RFID, and it’s true for every other high-volume automated technique for catching bad guys. …

Targeted human intelligence has always been and will always be the best way to sort the sharks from the guppies … Government money invested in much less intrusive and much less defense contractor-friendly programs like training more Arabists and developing more “human assets” in the field will be orders of magnitude more effective than mass surveillance could ever be. … any engineer or computer scientist worth his or her salt will tell you that an intelligent, targeted, low-tech approach beats a brute-force high-tech approach every time.

There is no high-tech substitute for human intelligence gathering. … In the end, brute force security techniques are not only corrosive to democratic values but they’re also bad for national security. They waste massive resources that could be spent more effectively elsewhere, and they give governments and countries a false sense of security that a savvy enemy can exploit to devastating effect.

In short: don’t be seduced by technology. Computers are extremely powerful tools, but this isn’t the movies. Think of the last time you had to deal with the confluence of state bureaucracy and computer-based record-keeping — at the DMV, say, or at tax time, or at the local University’s Registrar’s office. Did it strike you as a ruthlessly efficient, accurate, and purpose-driven system?

Dr Who bleeped

by Chris Bertram on December 22, 2005

Presumably aiming for a universal classification, the producers of “Dr Who: The Beginning”:http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000C6EMTC/junius-21 boxed set of DVDs bleeped out some bad language, with perverse consequences:

bq. Basically, it was a mistake by the BBFC. We had bleeped the word “bastard” in one of the comedy sketches and they believed that what they could hear was an inadequately bleeped “fucker”. They can’t reverse decisions, even if the error is theirs ….

An ‘inadequately bleeped “fucker”‘ gets you a 12 rating, apparently. (via “GagWatch”:http://www.pulpmovies.com/gagwatch/2005/12/no-obligation-to-accuracy/ )

Domestic surveillance UK-style

by Chris Bertram on December 22, 2005

Much of the blogosphere, including this bit, is getting excited about the US government’s surveillance of its citizens and whether Bush has acted outside the law. I have to say, though, that what we British have to put up with exceeds the worst imaginings of the most paranoid US libertarian. The latest plan, “as summarized in the Independent”:http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/transport/article334686.ece :

bq. Britain is to become the first country in the world where the movements of all vehicles on the roads are recorded. A new national surveillance system will hold the records for at least two years.

bq. Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years.

Read the whole scary thing, notice that MI5 will have access to all the data, and wonder whether the information will be used to expose the extramarital affairs of inconvenient politicians, or similar.

Covering the Beatles

by Chris Bertram on December 22, 2005

Here’s a pointer to a piece of music that’s generating a lot a chatter here in the UK but which isn’t commercially available yet. I’ve listened a couple of times and I’m not entirely sure what I think (except that it is unusual enough to be worth a blog post). The song in question is Wyckham Porteous’s cover of the Beatles’ Please Please Me: very slowed down, semi-spoken, country-style arrangement (steel guitar). Bob Harris has been playing it on BBC Radio 2, as have Mark Lamarr and Jonathan Ross. It is currently available via the “Listen Again feature of Bob Harris’s Friday Show”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/shows/bobharrisfriday/ , but you need to use the +5 and +15 features of the BBC Radio Player to scroll through to about 1h 17 or so (you can use the “music played list”:http://www.lkmusic.net/playlists/playlist.asp?f16122005 on Harris’s website to help you find the right place). Porteous’s own website is “here”:http://www.wyckhamporteous.org/ .