Friday, May 3, 2013

Sacred Cows in all fields...let's not obsess about certainty, rather embrace mystery

The story of a single grad student, while working on an assignment might turn the western world's economic practice on its ear, while news-making in many ways, is important for some ways not mentiong in the piece from the Toronto Star below that documents the story.
First, there is an intellectual "church" that worships at the altar of austerity, including both Rogoff and Reinhart from Harvard, the European Union, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the U.K. and, not surprisingly, the Tea Party and the Republican party generally in the United States. Canada's government too has deep roots in this political/economic position, as do most of the business and corporate leaders of the western world, especially given their contempt for any government interference in their rampant and unbridled pursuit of profit, to feed their greed. Similar "chuch" positions exist in the U.S. around the retention of assault weapons, the resistance to background checks, the resistance to banning large magazines of 30-plus rounds of if those positions were declared as pontifical "dogma-and-doctrine" some faux pontiff (read Reinhart and Rogoff in the case of austerity, read the NRA in the case of guns.)
A similar "church" exists in the U.S. around the use of military power around the world, for whatever potential or miraged or real threat the country might face. In this case, the pontiff is perceived to be the Pentagon, the largest military machine in world history, when the facts are that it if often the Joint Chiefs who express the greatest caution to the White House prior to any military action. They know, after all, what it takes to conduct those missions, costs in both lives and treasure.
In the medical field, there have been many similar "churches" for and against the consumption of peanut butter, for example, or milk products, or red meat, or specific prescription drugs for which insufficient clinical trials have been conducted to know with some degree of confidence whether their consumption is worth the risk.
In parenting, and in school philosophy and operation, there have been many "churches" over the decades and centuries. Sparta, for example, condoned only the most austere and militaristic development of its young people, while Athens preferred a more relaxed and more humane approach.
Dewey wanted children to "experience" their learning, as does the Montessori model, while Waldorf practices a curricular integration arranged thematically. Research apparently demonstrates that Waldorf graduates perform exceptionally when they reach university, given their confidence and willingness to question and engage with the instructor and the other members of their class, as they have been doing for their elementary and secondary years.
Now, of course, technology reigns supreme in all  "western schools" given the demands of the marketplace for "tech-savy" employees in all enterprises.
It is also much more difficult to "poke holes" in the mathematical calculations of any specific school design and delivery system, given that none are based exclusively on a reduction to numerical precision. Although there is a tsunami of public opinion attempting to justify the reduction of education to "performance objectives" on objective testing devices that can only be skewed in the direction of the culture and world view of the designer(s) of the test. Politicians, however, being simple-minded and fixated on the next election want "numbers" to prove that their decision was "right" on No Child Left Behind, or Race to the Top, or some other equally glib and uncomplicated description of the program that is designed as another silver bullet to "fix the schools" as if another "bullet prescription" would work.
It is our collective obsession with the "silver bullet" and the instant solution to the most complicated of problems that generates a culture, both in the entertainment and in the political classes, that elevates a twenty-eight-year-old grad student to celebrity status.
Paul Krugmann will want to recruit him to study for his doctorate at Princeton, now that he and his professor have attained a degree of recognition for their collaborative deconstructing of the work of Reinhart and Rogoff.
But, there will be other "deconstructions" of other "church beliefs" in all other fields, including within the relgious world, that will in effect decompose many of the current sacred cows, just as this grad student has apparently done to one paper of Reinhart and Rogoff.
In fact, it is our addiction to sacred cows, when everything else seems like complete chaos, as if the world is one giant volcano erupting unceremoniously and rebelliously, without notice, all around us, and we try in vain to cling to those sacred cows as if they were "God-sent" manna and we were all pilgrims wandering in some ancient desert, starved and slacked.
Going to church, after all, is not an exercise in clinging to sacred cows, of whatever sort, as if they were life-preservers for those cast overboard in a sea of doubt. Going to church, rather, is about searching for some kind of meaningful connection, relationship and "one-ness" with a presence whose magnitude and magnificience and ubiquity cannot be grasped. And that exercise, if it is to be even marginally consummated, will be fraught with uncertainty, doubt, more searching and more and more awe and amazement at the design of both the universe and each creature within that universe....and not barnacled over with fossils of sacred cows whose creation and preservation depends and always has depended on our frightened little existences, amid the amazing world that is turbulently tumbling, as described in the lyrics of The Windmills of your Mind:
Like a circle in a spiral

Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain
Or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that's turning
Running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes of it's face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space

And while those lyrics depict a male-female relationship, there is a quality of confusion, and discombulation and disorientation that has engulfed us all, every single person currently dwelling on the planet, seemingly pushing us closer to some kind of "talisman" of  certitude, something in which we can believe, no matter our politics, our religion, our ethnicity, our geography or our culture.
And we dare not look to the media for road maps, and we dare not look to the entertainment or the political industries for road maps...and we dare not look to the academic world of theorists or mathematicians, for the road maps we seek...
Rather we might begin to look within, to the deep silent streams of both consciousness and unconsciousness for some help in coming to terms with the uncertainties that confound each of us...
while continuing to read, to ask questions, to confront the thoughts and the writings of others, as a normal part of healthy, engaged citizenship with others from all corners of the globe in a similar some distant and perhaps even mystical unity...never to be fully grasped or experienced...thankfully

Thomas Herndon: How a lone grad student became a media sensation by blowing a hole in austerity’s ‘bible’

U.S. grad student becomes superstar overnight by poking a hole in austerity

By Tanya Talaga, Toronto Star, May 3, 2013
Grad student Thomas Herndon is a wanted man.

European media outlets are after him. He’s been profiled by New York magazine, the Washington Post and featured on MSNBC. New York Times Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman is singing his praises and Stephen Colbert referred to him as the “grad student who had fiscal conservatives’ panties in an economic bunch.”
Herndon became an instant celebrity in the nerdy world of global economics almost overnight when he found some whopping errors in a paper that is often referenced as the “bible” for austerity. His findings are causing influential thinkers, conservative politicians and bankers to rethink harsh economic policies imposed on some of Europe’s most indebted and struggling states.
With all the attention, Herndon can barely get his homework done.
“The media response has been tremendous, and a tad overwhelming. It’s been hard to get all my work done for the semester,” Herndon said in an email.
The 28-year-old University of Massachusetts Amherst student turned the world of global finance on its head last month when he published an academic paper, along with professors Bob Pollin and Michael Ash, ripping a massive hole through one of the top pro-austerity arguments championed by two Harvard University professors, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.
While studying the data used by Reinhart and Rogoff, Herndon kept discovering mistakes. He repeatedly told Pollin, his professor, that he was having trouble with the assignment and he couldn’t seem to replicate the findings. Herndon thought there could be some big errors in the Harvard work.
“You know, I’ve heard this before from students. It is fairly common,” laughed Pollin from his UMass office in Amherst. “But he kept coming back with the same answer. Eventually, we believed him.”
What the U Mass team found stunned them. They uncovered coding errors, “selective exclusion” of data — including figures from Canada that showed the country had both high debt and high growth levels from 1946 to 1950 — and a problematic weighting of statistics that led to “serious errors that inaccurately represent the relationship between public debt and GDP growth among 20 advanced economies.”
Their paper has set off shock waves.
To say that the theories contained in Reinhart and Rogoff’s “Growth in a Time of Debt” were a pillar of the global austerity policy push would be an understatement. Essentially, they outlined that once a country’s debt reaches 90 per cent of its gross domestic product, long-term growth is unsustainable and dips negative. To remedy that, pro-austerity believers say a country must slash its deficit by imposing deep cuts to government spending in order to achieve job growth.
Austerity policies are currently used in the United Kingdom, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Each of those economies suffered immense blows after the financial meltdown in 2008.
And, in each of those countries, it is fair to say that austerity has not been a blazing success — witness the violent riots in Athens with youth unemployment hovering at 50 per cent; excessive macroeconomic imbalances in Spain; and the slashing of council government budgets in Britain that are cutting so deep, even the bishops are pleading for mercy.
George Osborne, the U.K.’s finance minister, has championed Rogoff and Reinhart’s theories, even including them in major speeches. Paul Ryan, the U.S. Congressman and 2012 vice-presidential candidate, leaned on the Harvard work for his Path to Prosperity budget.
Pollin confessed he had no idea exactly how influential the Reinhart and Rogoff work was until Mike Mike Konczal of the non-profit Roosevelt Institute blogged about the UMass critique on April 16. The issue exploded online.
Since then, Reinhart and Rogoff have shot back, writing rebuttals in both the New York Times and London’s Financial Times.
The UMass crew may not have sought the brouhaha, but they now find themselves in the spotlight of one of this century’s most important economic arguments.
Herndon is taking it all in stride. “I am very honoured to be able to contribute to the discussion about controversial austerity policies, and to help renew the debate.”
The more seasoned Pollin is a little more pragmatic. Yes, Rogoff and Reinhart presented their initial findings in a clear and concise way and should be commended for that, he said. “The problem is when you do that, you have to be right. But their research didn’t hold up. It collapsed. This is just a bad paper.”

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