Not to Scottish pubs, I write in the Guardian's Comment is free, where a survey says patronage is down 10 percent since a smoking ban went into effect. But if you wondered where all the anti-smoking fascists have gone, check out the commenters.
It is shocking to discover just how much of the debate over politics and policy rests on semi-arbitrary government standards for measuring things. For example, if you believe the Consumer Price Index speaks with absolute authority, then you will believe obviously absurd things, like the idea that real wages have stagnated. Virginia Postrel has a nice short essay in Forbes [free reg. req.] on this aspect of the mismeasurement of economic progress. If Bureau of Labor Statistics true-believers are right, then
... you have to wonder who's buying all those flat-screen TVs, serving precooked rotisserie chicken for dinner or organizing their closets with Elfa systems. "Anybody who thinks things are getting worse should go to Best Buy and notice the type of people who go to Best Buy," says economist Robert J. Gordon of Northwestern University.
Gordon is the author of a much-cited study showing that from 1966 to 2001 real income kept up with productivity gains for only the top 10% of earners. What the pessimists who tout his study don't say is that, while Gordon does find that inequality is increasing, he's convinced that the picture of middle-class stagnation is false.
"The median person has had steadily improving standards of living," he says. But real incomes have been understated. The problem lies in how the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the cost of living.
Similarly, the American Enterprise Institute's Nicolas Eberstadt has a terrific essay on the bizarre and inaccurate method by which the government calculates the poverty rate in the new Policy Review. Eberstadt shows that the official poverty statistics often get things backwards, indicating that poverty is getting worse when it is in fact getting better according to a number of other noncontroversial measures of economic well-being:
The official poverty rate is incapable of representing what it was devised to portray: namely, a constant level of absolute need in American society. The biases and flaws in the poverty rate are so severe that it has depicted a great period of general improvements in living standards — three decades from 1973 onward — as a time of increasing prevalence of absolute poverty. We would discard a statistical measure that claimed life expectancy was falling during a time of ever-increasing longevity, or one that asserted our national finances were balanced in a period of rising budget deficits.
Journalists unfortunately tend to take government numbers as gospel, and therefore end up communicating to the public a badly distorted picture of the state of our economy and society. And far too often intellectually savvy commentators who ought to know better repair to government statistics as if they are pure data, untainted by systematic methodological bias. However, far from a neutral picture of empirical economic reality, we get a funhouse mirror. I don't think there is any intentional bias in these measurement methods. But there sure is ideological resistance to replacing them with more empirically adequate measures. Things really are getting better all the time, but "reality-based" economic measures might get in the way of some people's pet policies. And we can't have that! I think we'll eventually get better official methods for measuring real income and poverty, but not without a fight.
Since the topic of the day seems to be right-wing anger at insufficiently panicky intelligence assessments on Iran, it might be worth looking at how bad U.S. intelligence on Iran is--and in which direction it's been wrong.
Anthony Cordesman and Khalid al-Rodhan have helpfully assembled a catalog of intelligence community predictions about Iran's nuclear weapons program in their excellent book, Iran's Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Real and Potential Threat. Here are just a few assessments:
"Late 1991: In congressional reports and CIA assessments, the United States estimates that there is a 'high degree of certainty that the government of Iran has acquired all or virtually all of the components required for the construction of two to three nuclear weapons.' A February 1992 report by the U.S. House of Representatives suggests that these two or three nuclear weapons will be operational between February and April 1992."
"February 24, 1993: CIA director James Woolsey says that Iran is still 8 to 10 years away from being able to produce its own nuclear weapon, but with assistance from abroad it could become a nuclear power earlier."
"January 1995: The director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, John Holum, testifies that Iran could have the bomb by 2003."
"January 5, 1995: U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry says that Iran may be less than five years from building an atomic bomb, although 'how soon...depends how they go about getting it.'"
"April 29, 1996: Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres says 'he believes that in four years, they [Iran] may reach nuclear weapons.'"
"October 21, 1998: General Anthony Zinni, head of U.S. Central Command, says Iran could have the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons within five years. 'If I were a betting man,' he said, 'I would say they are on track within five years, they would have the capability.'"
"January 17, 2000: A new CIA assessment on Iran's nuclear capabilities says that the CIA cannot rule out the possibility that Iran may possess nuclear weapons. The assessment is based on the CIA's admission that it cannot monitor Iran's nuclear activities with any precision and hence cannot exclude the prospect that Iran may have nuclear weapons."
It goes on for four pages like that, with some realistic predictions sprinkled in for good measure. But I think we can all agree that we are severely underestimating Iran's capability. Just like we have been since 1991, when they were just a year away from a bomb.
It's interesting to see Michael Rubin, the former CPA staffer alleged to be the author of a pro-regime change Pentagon memo on Iran, lamenting the decision to allow pragmatic former president of Iran Mohammed Khatami to come to Washington to speak.
In protest, Rubin points to Khatami's odious remarks in 2000 about Israel and argues that "If Khatami really cared about a dialogue of civilizations, he would go to Jerusalem, not Washington."
Actually, though, if Khatami--the closest thing to a moderate anywhere near the levers of power in Iran--wanted to completely destroy any chance of having any influence in Iran ever again, the first thing he would do is take Michael Rubin's advice.
Neoconservative grumbling about diplomacy is nothing new, but this tone has become increasingly common. Regarding Syria, Iran, anywhere, if diplomacy can't provide a slam-dunk, total, and complete resolution of all the issues, then it's held out as a worthless exercise in jaw-jawing.
To some extent the point is well-taken: Diplomacy can be difficult, and can fail, and it always produces temporary, imperfect solutions. But that's the point: all foreign policies produce temporary, imperfect solutions. Crusading in search of silver bullets puts us in predicaments like those of Iraq.
In the course of pooh-poohing talks with the Syrians, for example, we're regaled with tales of how past dialogues have failed to wean them away from their client Hezbollah, and how the Assad regime is still, well, nasty. Since Iran hasn't agreed to capitulate before even coming to the negotiating table, the supposed uselessness of diplomacy is demonstrated.
But the point isn't to hold diplomacy out as the way to magically eliminate foreign policy problems. There is no way to eliminate problems in foreign affairs entirely. But diplomacy is a tool for managing crises, and for finding limited areas to cooperate or compromise.
By setting the standard for diplomacy so high as to demand a nice, neat, tied-up-with-a-ribbon solution in order to prove success, neoconservatives are framing the debate such that diplomacy is always a sure-fire "failure." That's harmful, because it misconstrues the choices and unnecessarily limits our options.
For more on the failure of the "we don't do diplomacy" policy, see John Judis' TNR piece from yesterday.
Wired News reporter Annalee Newitz has compiled a "top ten" list of privacy debacles.
It's easy to quibble with the results, but I was delighted to see "The Creation of the Social Security Number" at #1. Our national identifier has used its government backing to push aside all others and enable government and corporate surveillance on a scale that would never have occurred under natural conditions.
In Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood, I discuss how the uniform identification system we've built around the Social Security Number is insecure for individuals, making information about them too readily available to governments, corporations, and crooks.
The fix is nothing so ham-handed as banning uses of Social Security Numbers. Rather, it will be necessary to remake our identification systems so that they are diverse and competitive, and thus solicitous of individuals' interests.