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Responses and reverberations

Analysis vs. Ideology

In December’s “I Was Wrong, and So Are You,” the libertarian economist Daniel B. Klein retracted a swipe at the left, acknowledging that a 2010 study he had conducted did not prove that liberals have a poor grasp of economics, as he had originally claimed. Rather, he conceded, the study proved his own confirmation bias as a researcher.

As one of those who challenged Daniel Klein’s Wall Street Journal op-ed about the left’s alleged ignorance of economics, in a letter published in the same newspaper a few days later, I am pleased to see his retraction of his charges. But when Mr. Klein asks if he should have known better, the answer is an emphatic yes.

As I wrote in the letter, I initially thought the piece was a self-parody, so blindingly obvious was it that Mr. Klein had measured not knowledge of economics but ideology. (I came to my senses when I recalled which newspaper I was reading.) But his own ideology may still be blinding.

To take the most obvious example: he still believes that “agree” is objectively the incorrect response to the statement “Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited”—as if exploited were not a loaded word, and as if one cannot believe both that Third World workers are exploited and that they are better off with American companies in their country than without.

Ideology always demands a simple answer.

Barry Bennett
Instructor of Ethical Leadership and Decision-Making
Marylhurst University
Portland, Ore.

As I read Daniel B. Klein’s self-revealing apology for his prior polemical interpretation of the survey of “people’s real-world understanding of basic economic principles,” I was struck by the fact that he had overlooked the much larger implications of his missteps. As a professor of economics, he might rather consider that his field of study is much less than a scientific analysis of worldly reality and human behavior and much more like an organized ideology that rationalizes his underlying values.

Jeoffry B. Gordon
San Diego, Calif.

I can’t say I’m surprised. Pollsters have known for ages that if you slant questions just so, you can skew answers to match the results you want. Confirmation bias exists everywhere, true enough, but it exists rather glaringly in the world of partisan polling.

Still, I’m glad Klein wrote this up and published the retraction. It’s hard to admit when we’re wrong, and harder still to admit we’ve fooled ourselves.

E. D. Kain
Excerpt from a Forbes blog post

Daniel B. Klein replies:

This commentary is taken in good spirit, and I respond only to Jeoffry Gordon’s suggestion that my folly should tell me that my “field of study is much less than a scientific analysis … and much more like an organized ideology that rationalizes [my] underlying values.” Surveys show that most professional economists vote Democratic, and that upwards of 85 percent fall short of upholding what I would call a reasonably firm support for free-market policy positions. So whatever libertarian follies I perpetrate, they do not derive from professional economics.

Telling Anton’s Story

While covering the Libyan civil war last spring, Clare Morgana Gillis was seized by Muammar Qaddafi’s forces and held in captivity with two colleagues; a third, Anton Hammerl, was killed. In December, Gillis documented her ordeal for The Atlantic.

The moments of fear, the prolonged anxiety, and the inconvenience of Clare Gillis’s 45-day detention in Libya by pro-Qaddafi forces, several weeks of which were spent in the five-star Corinthian Hotel with full access to comfort and communications, are worthy of note. As she recounts, the widow of the South African photographer Anton Hammerl, upon learning of her husband’s death, implored Ms. Gillis to tell his story, as well as Ms. Gillis’s own. In the lengthy pages afforded to “What I Lost in Libya,” Ms. Gillis accomplished only the latter. It brings to mind Jon Krakauer’s writings of the 1996 Mount Everest climbing disaster, in which the loss of six climbers and two guides gave way to a tale of self. Although I read Ms. Gillis’s article several times, I still am puzzled as to what she lost.

Robert Leutheuser
Albuquerque, N.M.

Clare Morgana Gillis replies:

There is nothing I would like more than to be able to tell Anton’s story. Unfortunately, his body has not been located yet, and is likely in one of the mass graves that continue to be discovered, which contain hundreds and possibly thousands of missing Libyans. Currently, the National Transitional Council lacks funding and expertise to properly exhume such remains. There is also disagreement and confusion about which committee actually takes responsibility for dealing with these sites.

James Foley and I returned to the site of our capture in October and met with individuals who are involved with the efforts to reunite families with their missing, and met many capable and determined people who are dealing with a situation that is forensically demanding and bureaucratically messy. I will continue to monitor the progress of these committees until Anton’s family can lay him to rest properly.

The Waste of Walmart

In the December Atlantic, Orville Schell detailed how Walmart and China are setting environmental standards for 20,000 suppliers making thousands upon thousands of products for billions of consumers. Here, a Walmart employee praises the company’s green efforts but says it hasn’t gone far enough.

I have worked for Walmart for 15 years (I am a salaried member of management) and read with interest “How Walmart Is Changing China.” While I feel much better about the company since it has started making strides toward sustainability (we are required to recycle everything, including organic waste, at my store), there is still so much waste that it feels like no more than a drop in the ocean. We have been doing this for years, but I still see very few sustainable products for sale in the store.

Organic-product lines are a joke, as there is very little offered. Products made from recycled materials are equally hard to find. The amount of products thrown away at my store alone makes me sick, and I try to avoid thinking of it in terms of companywide waste. For example, though we do give food to the Salvation Army for distribution, we easily throw away enough to feed hundreds a year because it goes bad before we can sell it or donate it. The paper waste at individual stores is astronomical also.

Walmart is so big that any effort, however well-intentioned, is never enough. The last line in the story says it all: “It may nonetheless end up being very bad business for humankind.”

Name withheld at reader’s request

Revisiting Chinatown

As China rises, an American ethnic enclave may be on the decline. In “The End of Chinatown” (December), Bonnie Tsui explained why increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants are leaving the U.S. to return to China, lured by a more promising economy. One blogger challenged Tsui’s conclusions.

Immigration tracks the difference between U.S. % Real GDP Growth and Chinese % Real GDP Growth with uncanny precision. That makes sense: immigration varies with imbalances in economic opportunity. But that’s different from Tsui’s claim, which is that Chinese won’t leave China when their economy is growing so rapidly. The data shows that in a state where the U.S. economy is on track, even if it’s growing substantially more slowly than that of China, net immigration flows spike …

[The] foreign-born Chinese population in New York actually grew from 261,551 in 2000 to 348,474 in 2010, representing a 33% increase, almost exactly in line with the growth of the total Chinese population in New York …

That’s something you can tell just by walking around the edge of the neighborhood and noting the proliferation of Chinese signage far beyond historical Chinatown …

Chinatown hasn’t shrunk—it’s expanded its footprint, which has caused a spreading-out of its population.

Jeff Yang
Excerpt from an blog post

Bonnie Tsui replies:

Jeff Yang makes the point that changing economic conditions between China and the U.S. are a powerful driver of immigration patterns—something we agree upon entirely. As my article points out, immigration flows go both ways in the U.S., contrary to popular belief. If a weak labor market persists here, a real problem will confront new working-class immigrants who arrive looking for employment. And as the Chinese economic boom continues, more labor opportunities and higher wages will prove more attractive than before, presenting a pull in the other direction. Keeping in mind that people also immigrate for noneconomic reasons, what will happen if these pressures continue in full force?

Though the number of foreign-born Chinese in New York has continued to grow, it has been at a lower rate; a drop from a 60 percent growth rate to 33 percent in the last decade is not insignificant. More important, the basic composition of Chinese immigration is shifting, and those numbers include non-working-class Chinese. Wealthier immigrants are less likely to live in Chinatown, and don’t depend on the services it provides. Perhaps Yang and I simply differ in our definition of Chinatown. I refer specifically to the longtime enclaves and the blue-collar populations they have historically drawn, not the larger concentrations of wealthier immigrants who have much more freedom to choose where they reside.

Crime and Punishment

Mary A. Fischer laid out the financial cost of death row (“The Appeal of Death Row,” November). Here, a reader notes the cost to the prisoners themselves.

Prison conditions at California’s Pelican Bay facility may have led an inmate to request a death sentence because he hoped to be treated better during what could be a many-decades-long wait for (possible) execution, but the vast majority of the 3,190 men on America’s death rows do not enjoy anything like humane living conditions. A recent report published by the Center for Constitutional Rights surveyed prevalent policies such as 23 hours or more a day in cramped solitary confinement, extreme sensory deprivation, and “restricted access” to family visits, books, telephones, showers, and exercise. In 2009, the average wait on death row was 14 years. Predictably, these conditions result in staggering rates of mental illness and psychological deterioration. The center concludes that under international standards, they constitute torture, but one doesn’t have to go that far to find them as cruel as they are unnecessary.

Michael Meltsner
Boston, Mass.

Unveiling Islam

An Atlantic reader expresses concern about our December cover.

Twice in 2011, The Atlantic featured someone from a predominantly Muslim country with the face covered. The June cover was quite provocative in an innovative way, but I take issue with the appalling depiction on the December cover of Pakistan as embodied in a veiled, armed man. It panders to the most simplistic depictions of the “Islamist” terrorist and is offensive to a country of more than 177 million people. I was shocked when I received my copy of The Atlantic and was in disbelief that a publication that strives to portray a more liberal insight into world politics would abase itself to this level of negative stereotyping. As a respected journalistic body with the power to shape opinion, The Atlantic should strive to go beyond the ease of grabbing newsstand attention with yet another Orientalist portrayal of the Middle East as a place of terrorists and faceless automatons.

Marie-Christine Jutras
Sherwood Park, Wash.

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