Tag Archives: science

Tyler Cowen links to a brief, frank symposium on the economics of climate change. Many of the responses, particularly from Lomborg and Tabarrok are fascinating. But, unfortunately, there are a few big myths about the economics of climate change that seem so obviously true but are dangerously false. Take Otaviano Canuto, Senior Advisor to the World Bank, for example:

The economist’s solution to climate change can be summarized in a single statement: “get the prices right!” This means taxing fossil fuels proportionately to the amount of carbon they release, in order to correct the problem that corresponding negative spillovers of their use are not reflected in their market prices. Incentives in favor of more climate-friendly technological innovations would also be reinforced. Subsidies to these innovations, as well as to avoid deforestation would also help, as potential benefits of these mitigating factors would in turn become appropriately embedded in their reduced costs.

First of all, one would imagine that the World Bank could put its money where its mouth is and stop flying its officials in first class on taxpayer dime. Second of all, “taxing fossil fuels proportionately to the amount of carbon they release” is only enough under the assumption that the revenues will be spent on undoing the damage of the initial emission. (There are a few exceptions to this which I’ll get to later). If Canuto noted this as a start he would be on sound economic footing, but like so many in this debate he misses a nuance in the way externalities work.

To see why imagine the effect of a $25/ton tax on carbon. We know this would increase gas prices by just over 25 cents. If $25 was the “spillover cost” of carbon, the climate would be robust to large increases in drilling efficiency. But let’s say there’s a breakthrough in refinery technology and a substantial increase in available petrol, putting a strong downward pressure on costs such that the tax becomes a majority of the price itself. Would the carbon tax be enough in this case? Well, it depends what you’re doing with it. A good, if brute, measure of spillover may be the cost of recapture. Therefore, the tax is enough if and only if the government is spending the money on a large scale recapture program undoing the ills of the initial emission. Otherwise, the decrease in costs of production would increase supply and hence emissions beyond a sustainable level.

It is always useful to consider various parametric limits in assessing the validity of one’s claim. In doing so we discover hidden assumptions that never make their way to public consciousness. Textbook economics is tricky. Whether a spillover is intimately connected with your definition of social costs and the implications for your revenue thereof.

Of course, this assumes that the socially optimal level of carbon is effectively zero. In fact, there is a carrying capacity and the optimal level, economically speaking, probably exceeds this carrying capacity. The initial capacity emerges from the Earth’s innate ability to absorb emissions along with uncertainty that more is always worse. That the optimal capacity exceeds this level is a result of a positive discount rate along with the fact that future generations – due to improvements in technology – will be richer than us. Therefore, under perfect generational smoothing, we endow our children with superior technology and a shittier earth.

But neither of these change the fundamental premise that pricing carbon “at its cost” will hardly ever be enough (unless, as other more intuitive commenters noted, green technology becomes competitive in its own right). For one, the last sentence in the previous paragraph should make uncomfortable your moral sensibilities – for axiomatic reasons. More importantly, the economic models that are needed to quantify such ambiguous statements are really crappy.

As Robin Harding writes in the Financial Timeseconomic models of climate change fail the limit test with flying colors. Standard models suggest output would only be reduced by half for warming over twenty degrees Celsius in magnitude. To get some perspective, the rest of the academic community is freaking out about an increase of two degrees. Therefore, by the rule of seventy, our kids will be better off than us if the Earth warms twenty degrees and we grow at a measly 2% a year. You would be right to laugh.

Of all the answers that actually say something of substance, Larry Summers has the one that I find most practically challenging. I think he misjudges the political landscape of the United States. Cap-and-trade failed in 2009 – truly a “moment of great opportunity” – not because of deep forces against its passage but primarily because the Obama administration decided socialized healthcare was its priority and secondarily because of the Massachusetts mistake that is Scott Walker. Permit trading has something a carbon tax does not. That is, it’s not a tax. In America, that gets you very far. It’s why second best alternatives like banning incandescent bulbs or regulating fuel efficiency work, but simple taxes do not.

But I think he misses one more thing. Practically, we are more likely to have a system that both subsidizes and taxes carbon before we have one that does neither. Yes, we should phase out fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks. This is a bit like the problem with sugar subsidies. Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action is a must-read for this. Oil subsidies have very low average costs but remarkable concentrated benefits that make “big energy” a powerful lobby in both parties. Big energy will also loose more from a repeal of our most inefficient subsidies than it will from a broad based carbon tax. Therefore, one is distinctively easier to fight. In fact, big business in general may yield to a carbon tax if they know a larger decrease in subsidies is not immediately to follow. Poor Americans loose out on this one but it is hard to argue that subsidy without tax is better than subsidy with tax.

Therefore while Summers is unimpeachable in his economic logic, public choice concerns dominate. Here’s to the second best.

Permit trading has many benefits a tariff does not. For one, we are far better at estimating the effect of carbon than calculating its price (and, as noted above, we would not use the revenues from a carbon tax appropriately to begin with). But more importantly, it isn’t a tax, and it isn’t as “leaky”. A relatively important component of a broad carbon tax at the level we need it (probably around $100 to the ton) is subsidizing the poor. Under a carbon tax, this ends up undoing part of the tax and is counterproductive. On the other hand, under a permit trading system, the government can guarantee a fixed number of permits to each household from its initial “stock” which would simply increase the cost of luxury carbon.

But ultimately, economists need to step up on climate change. It is more than a textbook example of externalities and far more nuanced than many simple accounts make it to be. It is also far more harmful than many of their models suggest (consider the limits). Economic logic sometimes fails. It was, if I recall, Larry Summers who prevailed over Gore and Browner, convincing Bill Clinton not to follow a more aggressive reduction in carbon emissions wary of economic consequences. (Not a criticism of Summers – just one of his decisions).

Lomborg makes a lot of sense in the snippet of the linked symposium. Subsidizing basic research and hoping for the best is our only real option. But, in general, he doesn’t acknowledge scientific realities that clash with his optimism and occasional myopia. Indeed, climate change hurts the poor more than anyone and, when the water runs dry, probably more than anything else he worries about. But, even within his economic frame, an ideal, international, permit trading system would be the most beneficial. Think about what would happen if each of us were limited to some level of carbon output. The west would need far more than this limit, and poor Africans would need far less. Money is going to flow in one direction and, given the need for carbon in the west, would be enough to replace the inefficient foreign aid already in place. An international carbon marketplace is the ideal cash transfer – something economists should be killing for.

I believe in economics and, indeed, the value of economists. They are unfortunately neglected in important policy decisions which – independent of any political affiliation – may be cited as a cause for much hardship over the past thirty years. But if an astroid was about to crash into New York City, we wouldn’t ask economists to create a poorly-founded model of its costs. We would tell NASA to do whatever it can to save us. Economists need to stop telling us what the program for change should be, but rather identify the most efficient means of implementing a program scientists already deem necessary. Otherwise we’ll end up with nonsense like CAFE standards and Cash-for-Clunkers. Otherwise, we’ll end up with an absolute mess of leftism that is Greenpeace and organic, anti-GMO activism claim climate change for its own. Now that is scary.

Tyler Cowen does. Surprisingly, I think I agree. But with a few, important, caveats.

My first reaction to the rapidly falling deficit was disappointment that we hadn’t done more. I, after all, have been arguing that we need more short-term stimulus, now. And in the spirit of DeLong and Summers (2012), I even believed our tight policies were self-defeating.

Now, there’s no reason to believe this is not the case. We can’t, after all, test against a non-existent counterfactual. But the Keynesian reaction to recent numbers exposes a certain illogic with regard to falsifiability.

If I think austerity today is self-defeating – and I did – then my measure of bad policy should have been an above trend deficit update; that is we’re doing worse than we thought. But, evidently, my measure of bad policy has been a below trend deficit update. Full faith in the idea of self-defeating austerity and my reaction to the deficit numbers are logically inconsistent.

This is probably my fault. I’m not saying all Keynesians thought the same, but it is quite easy to think so. Either I didn’t believe what I thought I did, or held logically inconsistent priors. Perhaps a mix of both.

However, as I said, there are some big caveats. DeLong and Summers have a fairly solid theory of self-financing stimuli. An important part of the argument is existence of hysteresis effects, wherein labor shocks are permanent (and we see this with the horrible long-term employment situation and crappy Beveridge Curve).

Here’s a crucial point. At the margin, perhaps austerity doesn’t increase deficits. The healthy position right now meant our stimulus was eminently sustainable. It means DeLong and Summers are probably right in the idea of it all. That is, deficits aren’t that much higher than they might have been.

I don’t think the CBO has the capacity to measure this in any effective manner. A weaker labor force will have costs that we may not even realize at the moment. To be fair, the mathematics behind the argument also assume something we cannot know – a flip side of the same coin.

A stipulation is that a lot of the good news is coming from a flattening healthcare cost curve, that a healthier long run aggregate supply. This is entirely divorced from Keynesian theory, and hence can’t be used by austerians.

Ultimately, this is a question of meta-rationality. I’m not willing to update my beliefs about austerity, at least not with this news. We needed more, and we needed it for longer. But I do cede that my beliefs and reaction thereof were internally inconsistent. Further, the argument for self-financing may not be as strong as we once thought it might be. And even if it is, it seems very difficult to falsify.

The idea of self-defeating austerity seems so natural to me, now. But I now have to decide whether I think the deficit is bad news, I do, or whether I maintain my old beliefs. But ultimately, I think the spirit of DeLong and Summers is vindicated. To the same extent austerity didn’t cause deficits, our stimulus packages didn’t send long-term deficits through the roof. That means we’ve tolerated unemployment and bad growth for no particular reason.  More to come soon: this is an important conversation.

Tyler Cowen and Mark Thoma take us to Karl Smith on social risk:

Yet, lets imagine a simple model where we have two sources of risk. There is background you cannot avoid. And, there is personal risk that you create by through your own choices.

Policy makers have since Thomas Hobbes been attempting to drive down background risk. They have [sic] larger been successful. As a result our lives are getting more and more stable.

As that happens, however, folks are going to tend to take on more personal risk. There is a tradeoff between risk and reward. As you face less background risk, for which you not rewarded it makes sense to go for more personal risk for which you are rewarded.

When I take on more personal risk, however, it bleeds over slightly into everyone else’s background risk. People depend on me. If I take risks and lose so big that I debilitate myself then my family and my friends will surely suffer. But, so will my employer, my creditor and the businesses who count on me as a regular. When I go down, they go down.

So, putting it all back together and we come up with something of a risk floor, if you will.

Smith is arguing, effectively, that any attempts to manage background risk – incessant war, say – will (after a point) be offset by an increase in personal risk which, on the aggregate, drives background risk back to the initial condition. In other words, we’re always slouching towards an inescapable equilibrium.

But the delineation between social and personal risk is not so clear. Take the example of America being a big hedge fund – lower rates have driven America to sell bonds and invest in equity, earning a pretty penny from investments abroad. By any standard model, this is risky behavior, but is it social or personal? And, if the former, unlike the social risk in Smith’s model, rents from foreign assets do have benefits. Let’s ignore modern public choice theory and assume that governmental choice to do this is the simple aggregation of risky personal preferences. Fine.

We can’t make the distinction so clearly in other examples. Let’s say a culture is particularly risk-averse. They will tolerate – given decreased background risk – increased social risk, but only up to a point. In other words, there is an absolute risk ceiling. Depending on where this ceiling falls, decreases in background risk will always result in lower long-term interest rates.

This brings up an important point that Smith ignores, that risk and associated uncertainty by itself is a cost. Classical behavioralism tells us that most people would rather be given $1,000 unconditionally than $2,500 on a coin toss. This means there is a cost associated with risk and hence even at the margin decreases in background risk do not ipso facto imply higher personal risk.

It is also important to note that, to the extent that risk creates wealth, increases in individual risk do not imply so on the aggregate. Let’s assume that education means a richer and more productive society. Perhaps decreases in background risk make a family more willing to undertake a student loan (or just save less and pay directly) to fund a college degree.

In the near-term, this would be reflected in higher rates as the supply of loanable funds shrinks on the margin. Smith would be vindicated. But not really. Eventually, the college degree would more than pay for itself, not just in immediate earning power, but also the greater likelihood descendent will attend college – a geometric scaling.

If you don’t believe in the value of college education, think about the stock market. When Americans invest, money is allocated to the worthiest initiatives allowing Apple and Google to thrive, and forcing crappy companies like Hostess to fail. Buying equity is definitely a “riskier” personal choice than is buying bonds, but in the aggregate it generates wealth and makes us all richer. And deep equity markets make it less risky to start a company. If everyone was all about debt, I’d be scared as hell to found a startup. Equity reduces the risk vis-a-vis the producer.

Of course, as we get richer (either from the stock market or education) on the margin we save more and have stabler jobs which decreases risk, both at the personal level as well as the aggregate on the loanable funds market.

Let’s say income is exogenous to a family. Standard economic theory (rightly) suggests that the marginal propensity to save scales directly with income. But background risk decreases with higher incomes. As I move into the $30-50k range I probably don’t need to worry that my kids will have food on the table. As I move into the $60-70k range (if I’m smart) I probably don’t need to worry about my retirement. As I move into the $70-90k range I probably don’t need to worry about college fees. But at $20k I’ll be really worried about the big risks.

Basically, every marginal dollar I receive is “freer”. If Smith was right, I’d just spend more. But I don’t. Of course, income isn’t a exogenous like a storm, but it really captures the idea of “background” risk. (Wars won’t matter much with enough money). If I was rich in ancient times, I didn’t need to worry about much. Today, many more people would be considered “rich”. Hence overall risk in the aggregate is lower, reflected in cheap money.

This reminds me, in some sense, of the paradox of thrift. A simplistic argument for thrift in hard times forgets that my consumption is your income and that systemic reduction of personal consumption will decrease saving in the aggregate. This, of course, is at the bedrock of the argument against austerity – fiscal or monetary – in hard times. But one form of risk doesn’t fluidly shift between the too. In fact, the argument makes a pretty strong assumption that movement in risk is precisely linear: that a unit increase in personal risk has proportional decrease in social risk. However, it is entirely possible that the risks I pursue with my increased freedom don’t have any bearing on real, social risk, or that even if it does it may never move linearly with background factors.

Now let’s take the idea of reduced background risk to its logical conclusion. If we lived in the uber-welfare state, that provided for education, retirement, unemployment, what have you. They would, basically, invest it all in stocks, right? Lets take a look at Europe which should have higher direct stock ownership rates than America. But it doesn’t, lets see ownership trends across the world:

  • 50% of Americans 
  • 20% of Swiss
  • 22% of  British
  • 16% of Germans

So clearly, decreased background risk is not the answer. Indeed, in the early 2000s, aggregate risk across Europe fell as the cost of capital of Eurozone nations converged to a historic low.

I understand there are caveats to all my points. Of course Europeans are poorer and have less disposable income than Americans which, by my own suggestion, implies a higher “risk”. But this is covered by the government, and the delta doesn’t warrant the huge differences in ownership we see.

Whatever be the case, I do think that Smith’s theory is handcuffed by reality. While the idea of a “risk equilibrium” is attractive, it just doesn’t make sense. Indeed, if the marginal decrease in background risk, at one point, equals the marginal increase in personal risk – and the relationship is continuous (economists hate broken functions, after all) the logical conclusion of a world without background risk would be rampant personal risk taking. That just doesn’t happen.

Finally, we can’t “over solve” the problem as Karl claims. I highly doubt that personal risk is linear on background risk, but even if it is, it comes with a benefit as he suggested. Background risk like wars and government default (both of which are basically solved with democratic electorates who own sufficiently distributed government debt) are never good. There is no upside.

My theory isn’t nearly as clean, and I definitely haven’t mathematized it. It’s anecdotal. And it’s not scientific. But I seriously doubt it’s as simple as he claims!

Addendum: It’s important to note that after a point, real interest rates can only be so low, somewhat like the zero lower bound. We can tolerate negative nominal rates for only ridiculously short periods of time because of obvious arbitrage. Similarly (functionally, if not structurally), lower real rates require a certain level of inflation, which society may tolerate for only so long. Indeed, as inflation is a tax on capital, there is a limit to where long-term rates can fall.

Noah Smith has a post about why macroeconomics doesn’t work (well):

1.  There are a number […] “heterodox” schools of thought, [which] claim that macro’s relative uselessness is based on an obviously faulty theoretical framework, and that all we have to do to get better macro is to use different kinds of theories – philosophical “praxeology”, or chaotic systems of nonlinear ODEs, etc. I’m not saying those theories are wrong, but you should realize that they are all just alternative theories, not alternative empirics. The weakness of macro empirics means that we’re going to be just as unable to pick between these funky alternatives as we are now unable to pick between various neoclassical DSGE models.

2. Macroeconomists should try to stop overselling their results. Just matching some of the moments of aggregate time series is way too low of a bar. [It is important] when models are rejected by statistical tests […] When models have low out-of-sample forecasting power, that is important. These things should be noted and reported. Plausibility is not good enough. We need to fight against the urge to pretend we understand things that we don’t understand.

3. To get better macro we need better micro. The fact that we haven’t fond any “laws of macroeconomics” need not deter us; as many others have noted, with good understanding of the behavior of individual agents, we can simulate hypothetical macroeconomies and try to do economic “weather forecasting”. We can also discard a whole slew of macro theories and models whose assumptions don’t fit the facts of microeconomics. This itself is a very difficult project, but there are a lot of smart decision theorists, game theorists, and experimentalists working on this, so I’m hopeful that we can make some real progress there. (But again, beware of people saying “All we need to do is agent-based modeling.” Without microfoundations we can believe in, any aggregation mechanism will just be garbage-in, garbage-out.)

This led to a very interesting Twitter discussion:

Ashok Rao ‏Personally, I’d frame it that modern theory is fundamentally deductive in nature whereas the marcoeconomy is inductive/Bayesian.

Noah Smith ‏I think that’s a wrong way of seeing things. Real science involves an iterative process of induction and deduction.

Ashok Rao ‏But your claim also assumes there’s something “fundamental” about the economy in the sense of a real science. Is there?

Noah Smith Maybe. There’s real science in earthquakes but we can’t predict them at all. 

Ashok Rao ‏Hm. So there are systemic laws. But can these not be “understood” only through induction? As in the economy as machine learning.

Noah Smith Maybe!

Ashok Rao As long as we agree that there is a lot of doubt! 🙂

This conversation is at the very heart of my discomfort with much of modern economics, and I’ve been wanting to blog about this for a while, so now is as good a time as ever to dive right into it. Before I go on, I want to clarify that it seems like Noah and I have a very different understanding of what inductive is (or at least should be):

Ashok Rao ‏Yes but the 3 ‘main’ equlibria frameworks (general, classical game theory, and rational expectations) are all deductive. Right?

Noah Smith ‏No, you can easily make a Walrasian equilibrium happen in a lab, it’s very robust under certain conditions!

Of course, to the extent that empirical creations in the lab or double auctions are inductive Noah is right. But the macroeconomics behind this is principally deductive. By this I mean mathematicians economists have employed mathematics (the major premise) to a set of assumptions (the minor premises) to infer a conclusion. Ultimately, the theory is a grand syllogism, and highly deductive in nature. Further, the comparison to earthquakes doesn’t sit well with me. Physicists have very good microfoundations about how the earth works, and they’re not in perpetual motion. Scientists might fail at the aggregation of these bits of knowledge, but economics has a much more inherent flaw.

This is precisely the reason classical game theoretic approaches work only in “small lab settings” and that the Walrasian equilibrium holds only under “certain conditions”. That they do granted the right assumptions is tautological. Indeed, mathematics is internally consistent and hence in a concocted economy (the double auction) specific deductive models have to hold.

But by induction, I don’t mean experimental confirmation tempered by statistical reasoning. W. Brian Arthur at the PARC puts it better than anyone else:

This ongoing materialization of exploratory actions causes an always-present Brownian motion within the economy. The economy is permanently in disruptive motion as agents explore, learn, and adapt. These disruptions, as we will see, can get magnified into larger phenomena. 

If economists want to import one idea from physics, it should be Brownian motion:

One way to model this is to suppose economic agents form individual beliefs (possibly several) or hypotheses—internal models—about the situation they are in and continually update these, which means they constantly adapt or discard and replace the actions or strategies based on these as they explore. They proceed in other words by induction  

The best way I can imagine this idea is a “Bayesian machine”, if you will. While classical game theory, rational expectations, and competitive (Walrasian) theory might have inductive verification, Arthur is suggesting that the economy is inherently inductive.

The catch here is that for something that is at its heart inductive, there is not deductive verification. This is why many such as myself are skeptical of the mathematical models that dominate economics as they cannot either explain or verify anything. Often criticized, is the unrealistic nature of rational expectations. But in a real economy, I not only know that I’m not rational, but I also know that fellow agents are irrational too. This means I have subjective preferences, but also have subjective preferences about other people’s subjective preferences. These two degrees of subjectivity make many economic assumptions not just wrong, but impossible. (Think the epistemological difference between is not and can not be). 

This is why I disagree with Noah. While in  specific circumstances – equilibrium is a sub-class of non-equilibrium, after all – deductive engines work, macroeconomics has failed because the economy is inductive. At every moment in time there is a constant ferment, a change in attitude and belief. Standard economics holds that we all have one, perfectly rational prior. Induction holds that we all have pretty crappy priors that are constantly updated not only by economic outcomes, but also political and institutional motion.

Talk to goldbugs (actually, avoid it if you can). They’ll tell you about how they fear a government-Jewish orchestrated New World Order meant to line the pockets of rich bankers at the cost of the worker, by debasing our currency. Every economic indicator tells you they are wrong.

In a deductive model, it is impossible to accommodate for such people. If we modify a standard DSGE to tolerate such granularity it becomes intractable. A computer scientist would think about this as a machine learning problem. While there are a handful for which analytical solutions might work, the driving theme behind modern data mining and machine learning projects, even as simple as classification problems, is the flexibility of statistical computer science.

But the problem with induction is that, well, it’s not deduction. A well-formed syllogism guarantees its inference. Very much like the sum of two and two has to be four. On the other hand, induction is fuzzy and unclear. You can’t prove any sweeping laws and ideas with inductive reasoning, as Karl Popper has brilliantly argued. Indeed, inductive thinking is fragile against “black swan” events.

These aren’t real limitations, though. In the economists’ imagination theory trumps empirics. For the same reason, running large simulations on supercomputers is hardly as appealing as theorizing Walrasian economists. Proving things is really fun (if you’re smart enough).

But just as natural evolution doesn’t lend itself to equilibrium analysis, economists cannot believe that the fundamental structure of the economy is static. It is constantly reborn in updated preferences, political upheaval, and institutional ferment. Human minds and mathematics can never model this. But a supercomputer might help.

What do I mean by at it? Oh… well… blowing a lot of hot air in service of a myth, presumably to create hype around her brand. Last time it was The End of America comparing the modern United States to Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Germany based on ten, arbitrarily defined “steps”. Even the loony liberals at Rotten Tomatoes couldn’t rate it more than a 6/10. Today, it’s Is Pornography Driving Men Crazy.

Let’s start with her argument, basically captured by this paragraph:

There is an increasing body of scientific evidence to support this idea. Six years ago, I wrote an essay called “The Porn Myth,” which pointed out that therapists and sexual counselors were anecdotally connecting the rise in pornography consumption among young men with an increase in impotence and premature ejaculation among the same population. These were healthy young men who had no organic or psychological pathology that would disrupt normal sexual function.

Okay, so, as a member of modern society, I presume Naomi has access to a tool near and dear to all of us, Google. And, after reading her claim to “evidence”, I can’t believe she spent more than a few minutes selectively searching for proof (based on my prior that she possesses a slightly above-average level of intelligence and Googling skills). I say “claim” because there isn’t a single link to the papers to which she refers, absurd for a Project Syndicate link. Indeed, her argument hides behind the veracity of said “researchers”.

So, I spent two minutes Googling terms like “porn cause no harm”, “porn good”, “porn research evidence” – testimony to my value as a groundbreaking researcher and found real evidence to this effect:

  • The New Scientist: Porn: Good for us? As would be expected of such a publication, this article is peppered with high-quality references, links, limitations, questions and, most importantly, doubt – a characteristic Naomi ignores with gay abandon…
  • In terms of the use of pornography by sex offenders, the police sometimes suggest that a high percentage of sex offenders are found to have used pornography. This is meaningless, since most men have at some time used pornography. Looking closer, Michael Goldstein and Harold Kant found that rapists were more likely than nonrapists in the prison population to have been punished for looking at pornography while a youngster, while other research has shown that incarcerated nonrapists had seen more pornography, and seen it at an earlier age, than rapists. What does correlate highly with sex offense is a strict, repressive religious upbringing. Richard Green too has reported that both rapists and child molesters use less pornography than a control group of “normal” males.

Okay, okay, I’ll stop – you get my point! I can use Google to my will to derive basically any result I want (which is basically all she did, there’s no new insight – positive or normative – in her piece). Unlike Naomi, however, I’ve taken the time to link my sources and, now, will take the time to express quite a bit of doubt regarding the message of the above studies. Indeed, I fully appreciate the suspicion of degrading pornography in the age of technology where rough sex is available at the click of my button. I’ve been far more aggressive about regulating aspects of pornography than many other liberals would be, and I do believe that traditional institutions of sex and marriage are probably for the better. No, I don’t think pornography “desensitizes men” and causes rape. But hey, don’t I live in Communist Russia, or something?

Overwhelming evidence not only from scientists, but also sociologists, feminists, and investigative journalists seems to vindicate this belief.

Even assuming everything Naomi says is true, her logic is… well… non-existent. Here’s how she starts:

It is hard to ignore how many highly visible men in recent years (indeed, months) have behaved in sexually self-destructive ways. Some powerful men have long been sexually voracious; unlike today, though, they were far more discreet and generally used much better judgment in order to cover their tracks […] so many of the men caught up in sex-tinged scandals of late have exposed themselves – sometimes literally – through their own willing embrace of text messages, Twitter, and other indiscreet media.

What is driving this weirdly disinhibited decision-making? Could the widespread availability and consumption of pornography in recent years actually be rewiring the male brain, affecting men’s judgment about sex and causing them to have more difficulty controlling their impulses?

Okay, so basically, Naomi is blames Anthony Weiner boxer’s on porn. Somehow, the degrading, sexual effects of pornography are manifest in the benign, if irresponsibly communicated, sexual practices of powerful men. Huh? Is she saying that irresponsible “sexting” is a phenomenon not from the preponderance of modern technology but the evil, dark, con of Man?

Has she even read the love letters between famous lovers in the pre-Internet era? The beautiful erotica that lines ancient Indian caves? The Kama Sutra which is probably far more “rough” than Naomi might expect… (warning: it has biting)

Her conclusion is a little more palatable, though not insightful:

This is not to say that they are not responsible for their behavior. But I would argue that it is a different kind of responsibility: the responsibility to understand the powerfully addictive potential of pornography use, and to seek counseling and medication if the addiction starts to affect one’s spouse, family, professional life, or judgment.

By now, there is an effective and detailed model for weaning porn-addicted men and restoring them to a more balanced mental state, one less at the mercy of their compulsions. Understanding how pornography affects the brain and wreaks havoc on male virility permits people to make better-informed choices – rather than engage in pointless self-loathing or reactive collective judgments – in a world that has become more and more addictively hardcore.

Marital sex therapy is already a huge industry, formally, in the West. And, I would venture, it’s a pretty big informal process among friends elsewhere. The titular claim ascribes a certain causality to pornography that is entirely irrelevant from her conclusion. That pornography is “powerfully addictive” is yet to be proven. That modern sexual practices are a result thereof, even more so.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, I believe there is a lot of room for improvement in how we deal with the porn industry. That much of it is available free just seems blatantly unfair to the actresses porn stars. That only by referendum in 2013 were condoms required, too. Porn is an industry that is often-cited to be a “quick escape” for young girls in debt. Selling yourself should be a choice, not a necessity from poverty.

This is an argument for stronger social insurance and a more evolved attitude towards marginalized members of society. However, just as she did for The End of America, Naomi has shifted the sphere of debate from that which is actually important (Dick Cheney’s curtailment of civil liberties… marginalized, young, girls) to pure, senseless hype (America as Communist Russia… Weiner’s weiner on the World Wide Web a result of porn).

This does no justice to her compatriots who, too, want a better society without the evils of the Bush administration or exploited girls. But when our journalists derive all authority and profit from generating hype, what else can we expect?