Archive for July 2010

Self Aggrandizement Alert: Newton and the Counterfeiter’s UK Paperback is out, Critics Don’t Quail in Horror

July 29, 2010

Just got my box of paperbacks from Faber, and I have to say, I love the cover — best of the four versions to date:

The book has been well received, especially in the British press — the Sunday Times was pleased enough with it to name it on its best-books-of-the-year list, as did the Library Journal and New York magazine over here.

And now it can be bought in Britain again (Faber had a bit of an inventory control problem with the hardcover, which has been unavailable for some months.  Heck, at least I can say I sold out the British Isles…;)

And a few folks have been kind enough to re-notice the work. Via Faber’s eternally vigilant publicity folks, I learn of these props:

‘Entertaining … Levenson has a good eye for the colourful details that bring 17th-century London to life in all its grimy glory: Newton and the Counterfeiter weaves together the history of the money and a biography of one of our greatest scientists in a readable romp.’ Observer

‘Wonderful book.’ Sunday Times

Should any of this move  you to more curiosity, you can check out the work at your local bookstore, (I hope), or online at the usual suspects:  AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at, Books Etc., and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store, the Barnes and Noble store (Not sure if it’s available yet at Apple’s ibook store, but I’ll check and update.)

Self promotion (at least thus nakedly) now at an end.  As you were.

How Hard Are Fractions, Really: Elizabeth Warren Scares Her/Megan McArdle Is Always Wrong Chronicles, Cont’d.

July 28, 2010

Update: some edits to make the post read like someone without a grudge against English syntax wrote this post. Nothing substantive — a couple of cuts, a couple of verbs supplied to verbless “sentences.”

I guess I just can’t quit that Ms. McArdle.

I vowed to give myself a break from looking at the work of someone who seems to me to be trying to live up to fitness report number 12 on this list (or perhaps, better, number 4…oh hell, actually, a whole bunch of them).*

But then I read on, and I can’t help myself.

In my last post on this subject, I compared elements of her hatchet job on Warren to the techniques Andrew Breitbart uses in his war on progressives, Obama, and random African Americans who drift into his sights.

This time, it’s a little different:  McArdle is here simply trying to confuse the issue, apparently in the hopes that each bit of noise and nonsense that she can generate around Elizabeth Warren will damage her chances to become the first director of the he new Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  It’s an example of what I’ve called in the past McArdle’s monkey-in-the-zoo approach, in which she flings anything that comes to hand against the wall and hopes some fraction of it will stick..

To recap McArdle has promised the world a second part to that first post that attracted much uncomplimentary attention, but, as Susan of Texas notes it’s been a while.  In the meantime, she has outsourced the task, excerpting a Wall St. Journal op-ed of some years ago, which she presents under the title, “More Weird Metrics for Elizabeth Warren.”

What is so weird to McArdle?

Expressing tax liabilities as percentages of income.

No, really.

As in:  a single-earner family with an income of $38,700 facing a tax burden that claims 24% of that total.

As in: a two-earner family with earnings of $67,800 facing a tax burden of 33%.

Stating tax bills in this manner is apparently a dreadful sin, a willingness to mislead or a confusion about the underlying data.

Or so says the WSJ item’s author, Todd Zywicki, who in the passage quoted by McArdle complains that Elizabeth Warren and her co-author Amelia Warren Tyagi express certain items in raw dollar terms — $5,140 on car expenses for the single earner example, for example, vs. $8,000 in the two income family — but state tax liabilities only as percentages.

To Zywicki, this amounts to an obvious attempt to confound “an “apples to apples” comparison of all expenses.”

He corrects this, in his mind, by performing what he seems to regard as the utterly impenetrable magic act of performing two calculations:  .24*38,700 and .33*67,800, to yield dollar figures for the tax bills the two families in these examples owed.**

But beyond this en passant swipe at the eternal mystery that is the Wall St. Journal op-ed operation, our real concern here is McArdle.

She too, apparently, finds expressing a quantity as percentage of another, specified quantity, somehow suspect, a “weird metric.”

More, she regards this example as somehow dispositive of a systematic misuse of data, a demonstration of either Warren’s incompetence or her dishonesty.  McArdle writes,

Does it matter if we have a regulator who can use data consistently?  A lot of commenters seem angry that I would suggest it might.  As for me, I don’t know which is worse:  the notion that Elizabeth Warren understood what she was doing, or the notion that she didn’t.

My question would be, were I the publisher of The Atlantic, does it matter if we have an economics writer who can, apparently, neither read nor count?

Now that’s harsh, and I know it, but look at what happens if you read Warren’s and Tyagi’s examples in good faith, with a view to understanding what they are actually trying to say.

Well, long ago I wrote about the importance of such simple calculations as percentages to raw data in the context of Iraq War casualties.

The point there was that doing so allowed one to make comparisons across disparate bodies of data or historical examples.  If you want to understand the implications of  600,000 casualties among Iraqis, it helps to express that as a percentage of the population affected, which then allows you to compare it to, say, the deaths suffered by combatant nations in World War I or the American Civil War.  Thinking about the comparisons those enabled provided the frame for the moral of that post:  that the application of even veryy simple arithmetical/mathematical ideas to the raw experience of the world can prove enormously useful.

So, what might persuade Warren and Tyagi to present housing expenses or car costs as dollar numbers but  tax burdens as percentages?

Well, if I were to guess, it would be to make a point central to their larger argument:  that there are systematic increases in costs that accompany the increase in earnings in as you move from one income to two — but that different kinds of cost increases behave differently, have different scales of impact on the outcome for a two-earner family.

That is — increase in car costs like most family expenditures are basically linear:  if you go from one car to two, you pay a bit more in payments, insurance, and maintence, and that’s it.  If you take on a larger mortgage, the same applies and so on.  As Zywicki notes, apparently with some sense of being deceived, this results in such costs consuming a smaller percentage of the gross family income for two-earner households compared with single earner ones.***

Update:   note commenter Jim Bales analysis below.  Zwicki’s sins are worse than what I, in my haste to get this up, fully recognized; Jim does the due diligence.

But I think every sentient American knows that taxes don’t behave like housing or car payments.

In fact, I find it hard to believe –absurd, in fact — that McArdle, of all people, a self proclaimed libertarian, doesn’t grok the point Warren and Tyagi are trying to make as clearly as possible by using an expression for the tax burden faced by their two families in percentages.

After all, the book is about the two income trap.  And one of critical elements of that trap, as we all know, is that marginal tax rates go up at higher income levels.  This is, of course, something that McArdle has written about –notoriously quite recently, in her “calculatorgate” post.

In fact, in every context but the one in which she attacks Warren, McArdle grasps the implications of a progressive income tax, and she should, of course, given the fact, noted above, that every American who has ever looked at a tax table recognizes that the last dollar of income above minimum thresholds is taxed at a higher rate, a higher percentage than is the first.

So, quite the contrary to the charges leveled against them by Zwicki and McArdle:  Warren and Tyagi weren’t obscuring a fact that anyone — probably even McArdle’s calculator! — could obtain in seconds from the raw data they povided in full.  Rather, they were making the point that their own argument required in the best form they could — which, I meekly say, as the writer of this and that myself, is the essential core of an author’s job.

And that argument, the one that Warren and Tyagi developed across a couple of hundred pages, turned on explicating the fact that two incomes do not bring wealth proportional to the effort expended to acquire them.

Which is what would be understood, pretty clearly, I believe, by any reader unburdened by a willed desire not to get it.  How hard is to grasp that marginal tax rates in progressive taxation systems — which are generally pretty well expressed as percentages — act as a drag on the aspirations of two earner families?

This is not a raving radical position.

I believe I’ve heard some conservatives lament this very fact.

All of which is to say that there was nothing “weird’ about Warren and Tyagi’s metrics– unless asking a reader to do a quick bit of mental arithmetic (what’s one quarter of 39K vs. one third of 68) is somehow a malicious act by authors bent on deceit.

That McArdle might find that task daunting I find plausible, barely, given her recent trouble with long division.

But really, I know that she’s perfectly capable of handling fractions.  This is pretty clearly a case of willful misreading to a malicious end,  a baffle with bullsh*t moment.

So, with that,  I’m left here with is her own question, again rephrased for those in charge at The Atlantic. Does it matter if your “Business and Economics Editor” cannot consistently grasp the simplest of calculations, the most elementary of analyses?  Is it worse that McArdle understands what she is doing, or that she doesn’t?

*My personal favorite has always been number 2, but that’s just me.

**…Then, seemingly oblivious of the hilarity that thus ensues, Zywicki converts a number of the other quantities into percentages to make comparisons of the relative weight of different expenses possess in the two family’s budgets.  Seriously.  Oh well.  That was long ago, in a country far, far away, and besides, the kvetch is dead.

***He seems to think Warren and Tyagi are concealing this fact, as if it is beyond the ken for someone to notice that $8,000 is a smaller chunk of around 68K than roughly $5,200 is of $39,000. Truly, this just isn’t that hard.

Images:  Jan Massys, “At the Tax Collector,” 1539

The title pages to two arithmetic texts published in Germany in 1514

My Contribution to Closing the Enthusiasm Gap this Fall + Some Link Love

July 28, 2010

You’ve all heard, no doubt, that the big advantage the GOP + its tinfoil auxiliaries have this fall is the reported greater enthusiasm for such goals as repealing the non-existent-but-zombie-death-panels than that felt on the Democratic side for, among much else, preventing the return to power of those that got us into our current fix.

Well, there’s lots to do about that, and what follows won’t help much.  But it won’t hurt, either.  Enjoy:

Now, some links for edification, amusement, and perhaps action.  (Don’t miss the one above — Sen. “Diaper” Dave Vitter is a source of never ending wonder.

And in partial response to Vitter’s astonishing fail, check out Atul Gawande’s latest on end-of-life care (and the consequences of the absence of such care). I plan to blog on this a little later, but don’t wait on l’il old me.   The article is essential reading.

I’ve been meaning to tout this for a while but again, as a partial response to Vitter, to the ongoing Jeremy Lord “lynchgate” fiasco, and to a whole range of shenanigans too miserable to recall here (enthusiasm gap, remember) check out Batocchio’s elegant The Five Circles of Conservative Hell.

This is a little self-aggrandizing, given how Jennifer Ouellette begins her analysis, but she’s got a lovely takedown of Amazon anonymous reviewers of science books up at Cocktail Party Physics.

Henry Farrell’s got me salivating over a novel about, among other things, the birth of linear programming.

I’m a few days behind in my reading (days?–ed.), but I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight Kathy Olmsted’s lovely reminiscence about Daniel Schorr.  It’s not the memories that stand out, in fact, as it is the critical assessment of the state of journalism, especially on TV.  Not to give it away, but there are only two cohorts:  Schorr and not-Schorr, and one is vastly different, and better, than the other.

And what would the sultry days of summer without an official celebration of Sex Week.  Carl Zimmer is on the case.

More grimly, Ed Yong, who continues to do so much work that I suspect him of being a collective of at least three symbionts occupying the same meat envelope, writes of the dangers to phytoplankton from a warming ocean.  This is fate-of-the-planet stuff.  Which is why, of course, we should return the party of global warming denialists/defeatists to power.

And with that eternal return of the same (thanks, Freddy!), I’m done for now.

That’ll do for now.

A Little Mud Slinging (Zoology Section) Whilst Working on the Next Burst of Outrage.

July 27, 2010

The soundtrack from my youth:

Much that was obscure about my personality defects is now explained, no doubt.

See y’all tomorrow.

On the lessons Joseph Goebbels taught us: The Right Wing, The Big Lie, and the American Spectator’s latest on the Sherrod Case…

July 26, 2010

(In passing:   many thanks to all who came by this blog over the last couple of days.  Come on back, y’ hear)

Jeremy Lord has received a lot of attention for his post at the American Spectator in which he attempts to set the record straight about Shirley Sherrod and her family’s history with the horror of race-based murder.  (I learned of it first at TPM, via Yglesias, then at Balloon Juice, and then started writing this; I’m sure that the story is all over the blogoverse by now.)

Here, I want to add just one thought about what a little historical resonance may tell us about the character and more importantly the aims of elements of the American right.

But first, the context:

Lord titles his piece “Sherrod Story False.”

Why does he say that of Shirley Sherrod’s telling of the death of her relative Bobby Hall?

Not because Hall wasn’t murdered.  Not because the murder did not take place while he was under arrest.  Not that he wasn’t killed by the three law enforcement officers in whose power he lay.

The facts are not in dispute — not even by Lord, who yet calls Sherrod’s account of them false.  The Supreme Court decision in the case summarized the acknowledge sequence of events:

Robert Hall, then about 30 years old, was in his home late on the night of January 29-30, 1943.  Three local law enforcement officers — Sherriff Claude Screws of Baker County, Georgia, one of his special deputies and a police officer came to his house to arrest him for the alleged theft of a tire.

The officers handcuffed Hall, and put him in a car.  They drove to the local courthouse, and then…well here is Justice Douglas’s account of what happened next:

As Hall alighted from the car at the courthouse square, the three petitioners began beating him with their fists and with a solid-bar blackjack about eight inches long and weighing two pounds. They claimed Hall had reached for a gun and had used insulting language as he alighted from the car. But after Hall, still handcuffed, had been knocked to the ground, they continued to beat him from fifteen to thirty minutes until he was unconscious. Hall was then dragged feet first through the courthouse yard into the jail and thrown upon the floor, dying. An ambulance was called, and Hall was removed to a hospital, where he died within the hour and without regaining consciousness. There was evidence that Screws held a grudge against Hall, and had threatened to “get” him.

No one disputes this telling of the events.  Lord doesn’t.  He details them in his post.  (No linky because I don’t give traffic to such wretched stuff.  If you want to read it in all it’s gory detail, it’s easy enough to find.)

So why does he write this:

Plain as day, Ms. Sherrod says that Bobby Hall, a Sherrod relative, was lynched. As she puts it, describing the actions of the 1940s-era Sheriff Claude Screws: “Claude Screws lynched a black man.”

This is not true. It did not happen.”

Again:  Lord acknowledges the murder, but still says that Sherrod lied when she said this:

Claude Screws lynched a black man. And this was at the beginning of the 40s. And the strange thing back then was an all-white federal jury convicted him not of murder but of depriving Bobby Hall — and I should say that Bobby Hall was a relative — depriving him of his civil rights..

And where is this lie?

Well, Lord writes, it’s here:

…the Supreme Court of the United States, with the basic facts of the case agreed to by all nine Justices in Screws vs. the U.S. Government, says not one word about Bobby Hall being lynched. Why? Because it never happened.


To Lord, being beaten to death by law enforcement while in custody and restrained is not a lynching.

And with that, Lord contemns Sherrod:

It’s also possible that she knew the truth and chose to embellish it, changing a brutal and fatal beating to a lynching. Anyone who has lived in the American South (as my family once did) and is familiar with American history knows well the dread behind stories of lynch mobs and the Klan. What difference is there between a savage murder by fist and blackjack — and by dangling rope? Obviously, in the practical sense, none. But in the heyday — a very long time — of the Klan, there were frequent (and failed) attempts to pass federal anti-lynching laws. None to pass federal “anti-black jack” or “anti-fisticuffs” laws. Lynching had a peculiar, one is tempted to say grotesque, solitary status as part of the romantic image of the Klan, of the crazed racist. The image stirred by the image of the noosed rope in the hands of a racist lynch mob was, to say the least, frighteningly chilling. Did Ms. Sherrod deliberately concoct this story in search of a piece of that ugly romance to add “glamour” to a family story that is gut-wrenchingly horrendous already?

I wanted to quote that at length so that I could not be accused of selective editing. There are no ellipses there.  It’s what Lord wrote, the full statement of his thesis.  Read it, and, I think, weep for an America so clearly unable yet to get its own history.

This is what Lord says: Hall wasn’t taken to the nearest tree, bound by a noose around his neck, and hauled up to dangle from the nearest convenient branch.  And so he wasn’t lynched, and Sherrod lied.  To claim that any other race-terror murder, any other gathering in the night, ignored, abetted, or perpetrated by white law enforcement is a lynching is to play the race card, to claim extraordinary suffering where only ordinary misery exists.

There are only two problems with this…I don’t really know what to call it actually?  Argument?–no.  Analysis?–not hardly. Rhetorical vomit? Bile? Execrescence?…take your pick. They are are complete moral bankruptcy…and the fact that as a matter of law, Lord is simply wrong.

The moral void is I think too obvious to belabor.

So let Lord wallow in his own emptiness; the fact is that he is wrong in his attempt to draw a distinction in law.

Here is how the South Carolina Criminal Code defines the crime in a representative example of state anti-lynching provisions:

The Elements of the Crime:

1.  That a person’s death resulted from the violence inflicted upon him by a mob and

2. That the accused was a member of that mob

(A mob is defined as “an assemblage of two or more persons, without color of law, gathered togethre for the premediatid purpose of commiting violence upon another.”

Strangely, I see no mention of hanging, of trees, of strange fruit in here (nor in Title 18, sec. 241 of the US code, which addresses lynching from a civil rights law angle), just as they somehow fail to specify tire irons or chains, or fire or whatever.  Extrajudicial killings by a mob are lynchings.  That’s it. The particular means by which any given victim is done to death is irrelevant:  it is the mob and the murder that defines the crime.

Well, duh.

Lord may or may not actually believe what he wrote.  If he does he is, as indicated above, a moral imbecile.  If he doesn’t, he’s worse.

In either case, this is an example of the kind of rhetorical deceit that would have made the patron saint of political thuggery-by-deception proud. Joseph Goebbels famously said “Propaganda has nothing to do with the truth.”

By this measure, of course, Lord’s post is a triumph.  It takes someone already the victim of an artful and astonishingly effective hatchet job, pursues one of the most awful incidents in her family history, and tells the world that her accurate account of her relative’s murder is false — and disqualifies her from public regard.  Slick, evil, and just what Dr. Joe would have recognized as the political manipulator’s stock in trade.

I’m not trying to Godwinize myself here.  Rather I want to draw one thread out of this admittedly loaded comparison.

At no time up to the end of 1933 did the Nazi party command a majority allegiance within the German electorate.  They did, however, create a powerful climate of opinion in which their recognizably crazy and fringe politics came to be seen as reasonable and a plausible element in national governance.

At no time did the old right elite among the German political classes intend to deliver real or lasting power to the Hitler and his crew. Notoriously, the failed former German Chancellor Fritz von Papen, after persuading President Hindenburg to invite Hitler to lead a coalition government in which von Papen would serve as Vice Chancellor, crowed “We’ve captured him!”

As we know, it didn’t quite work out that way.

History does not repeat itself precisely, of course (though the famous tragedy-farce sequence seems to pop up from time to time).

But it seems to me to be incredibly dangerous to try to climb back into power on the backs of narratives known to be false.  This is exactly what the leaders of the GOP are doing now, I think, and I want to speak directly to them, and their useful idiots like Lord — be careful what you wish for.

Such attempts never turn out well, and for those who seem to think that there might be advantage to be gained from a “by-any-means-necessary” approach to political combat (perhaps among them, that former Reaganaut, Lord) it might be worth remembering this.  In the case of Germany in the 30s, much wishful thinking turned out very badly indeed not just for the obvious victims of Nazi violence — but for most Germans, including those of von Papen’s class and circle.

Images:  James Joseph Jacques Tissot, “Jesus Wept,” before 1894.

Mobbing the Tories,” US War of Independence era cartoon.

Video wonderfulness of the Day: Jane Austen…Blood, Guts, No Corsets Edition

July 24, 2010

Via the often imitated, never equalled Jen Luc Piquant (nom de blog of this Author), this reinterpretation of my most re-read novelist:

See.  I still love you.

Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Cite The Atlantic’s “Business and Economics Editor”: Further to the Megan McArdle is Always Wrong chronicles.

July 24, 2010

Update: Greetings to everyone coming here via TBogg, Susan of Texas, Eschaton and Brad DeLong — and my thanks to those good folks for the links.  A special thanks, of course, to Ms. McArdle herself, who tweeted this very post, apparently authored by “some idiot.” She has forgotten, I think, that here in Boston, that’s an epithet of glorious memory.  This idiot welcomes readers from wherever they come.

Though if I were just a little snarkier, I would add that being insulted by McArdle calls to my mind the experience of being attacked by the British Tory parliamentarian Sir Geoffrey Howe, as described by Roy Hattersley Denis Healey:  it is like being savaged by a dead sheep.

Update 2: Welcome everyone coming over from the GOS, Post Bourgie, Rortybomb, C&L, and Richard Eskow/HuffPo.  Rortybomb  and Eskow dramatically expand the takedown — reccommended.   I know I’m missing others  – for which I apologize; I’ve been a little swamped by the response to this one.


The old joke* about Richard Nixon asked “How can you tell when he’s lying?”

The answer:  “When his lips move.”

I’ve finally come to the conclusion that something similar must be said about Megan McArdle.  Perhaps lying is too harsh a word — but the serial errors that all fall on the side that supports her initial claims and that recur again and again in her work suggest to me that something other than mere intellectual sloth and sloppiness is the driver.

Ordinarily, such a record wouldn’t matter much, especially in journalism.  In theory, a series of clips as riddled with error as McArdle’s would end most careers in high prestige journalism.  Hot Air might still find a use for you, but The Atlantic?

But the problem is that McArdle is useful:  she advances an agenda — that which comforts the comfortable — and she does so with what I think is truly her original talent, the capacity not to notice the ridicule and ferociously dismissive debunking that she so often attracts.

Being able to be wrong in a form and fashion that aids the powerful, and possessing the ability not to mind a life that must be thus lived in willing embrace of error…now that’s a trick.

But it is one that does real damage to the republic, as the post that aroused this latest bout of McArdle-bashing demonstrates.  In it, McArdle seeks to discredit Elizabeth Warren as a potential leader of the new Consumer Finance Protection Agency to be set up under the just-passed financial reform bill.

To do so she tries to impugn both the quality and integrity of Warren’s scholarship, and she does so by a mix of her usual tricks — among them simple falsehoods;** highly redacted descriptions of what Warren and her (never mentioned) colleagues actually said;*** and descriptions of Warren’s work that are inflammatory — and clearly wrong, in ways she seems to hope no one will bother to check.****

You can see the footnotes for quick examples of these sins.  Here, I’ll confine myself to pointing out that in this post you find McArdle doing the respectable-society version of the same approach to argument  that Andy Breitbart has just showed us can have such potent effect.

To see what I mean, you have to follow through two steps: how McArdle constructs her picture of a feckless, partisan and dishonest Warren — and then how she generalizes from it.

Partly, McArdle relies on the strength of her platorm.  As “Business and Economics editor of The Atlantic” she routinely writes in assertions that we are to accept on her say -so.

(As an aside — this argument from authority is never that strong, and, as McArdle demonstrated very recently, can descend to pure, if unintended, comedy (go to Aimai’s comment at the bottom of Susan of Texas’s post), its flip side is that  different.  Everytime someone gets something thing wrong in a consequential way, the loss of trust should advance, ratcheting up with each such error detected, to the point where it becomes the safest default position to assume that someone — McArdle, for example — is always wrong till proven otherwise.)

But back to the anatomy of McArdle’s campaign. I’m going to focus on just one example where McArdle asks us to believe that her argument is strong and supported by the literature — without quite fessing up to what her supporting material actually says.  As part of her sustained campaign to deny the significance of medical bankruptcy in the US, she writes,

A pretty convincing paper argues that the single best predictor of bankruptcy is simply how much debt you’ve accumulated–not income, job loss, divorce, or what have you.  People who declare bankruptcy tend to have nicer stuff than others at the same income level.

The problem here is that the paper does not actually say quite what McArdle implies it does.  She’s mastered here the trick Sally Field played in Absence of Malice — she’s managed to come up with a sentence that is accurate…but not truthful.

In fact, should you actually take the trouble to read the cited study (by UC Davis finance prof, Ning Zhu) you will find material like this:  “households with medical conditions are twice more likely to file for bankruptcy (33.5 percent) than households that do not have medical conditions (14.8 percent)…;”

And this: “Having medical problems increases the households’ filing probability by 7.6 percent and one standard deviation of increase in employment tenure is associated with an increase of 9.2 percent in the filing probability. Such changes represent 48.40 and 58.60 percent deviation from the baseline probability….;”

And this “our results provide qualitative support for both the adverse event and the over-consumption/strategic filing explanations.”

To be fair Zhu concludes that overconsumption — spending too much on housing, cars and credit cards account for more of the total burden of bankruptcy than medical events, divorce or unemployment, as McArdle wrote.

But as McArdle completely failed to acknowledge, Zhu does so while using somewhat more stringent standard for counting medical expenses as a factor in bankruptcy than other scholars employed — as he explicitly acknowledges.  He concedes the continuing significance of medically -induced bankruptcy.  He acknowledges what he believes to be a weak underweighting of that factor (because some people pay for medical expenses on credit cards).  And he notes that a number of other studies, not limited to those co-authored by Warren, come to different conclusions.

In other words:  McArdle correctly describes one conclusion of this paper in a way that yields for its readers a false conclusion about what the paper itself actually says.  And look what that false impression implies:  if  medical bankruptcy is a trivial problem, society-wide, then Warren can be shown to be both a sloppy scholar and, as McArdle more or less explicitly says, a dishonest one as well.

And that leads me back to the thought that got me going on this post.  It seems to me that what we read in McArdle here is a genteel excursion into Andrew Breitbart territory.  Like the Big Hollywood thug, she misleads by contraction, by the omission of necessary context, by simply making stuff up when she thinks no one will check (again, see the footnotes for examples).  And like Breitbart, she does so here to achieve a more than on goal. The first is simply to damage Elizabeth Warren as an individual, to harm her career prospects.  Hence ad hominem stuff like this:

Her work gets so much attention because it comes from a Harvard professor.  And this isn’t Harvard caliber material–not even Harvard undergraduate.

Which neatly sets up this punch line:

..this woman is now under consideration to head a powerful new agency.  If this is how she evaluates data, then isn’t that going to hamper her in making good policy?

But there is a larger goal as well.  McCardle hasn’t given up, as the GOP hasn’t either, on the idea of simply undoing all that the Obama administration has managed to push past the outright lies and bad faith arguments of the right.  So here she does her bit for the cause, taking every attempt to sideswipe health reform:

Obviously, this was also held out as an argument for PPACA, [the health care reform bill] making an implicit promise to the American people which I believe to be false.

So Warren is the target, and there is no doubt that McArdle is trying by any means to discredit her to the public — but the larger ambition here is to discredit major reforms undertaken by the Obama administration in a kind of guilt by association. (See, e.g. the connection some GOP leaders are making between Shirley Sherrod and the negotiated settlement in the discrimination case brought by African American farmers and the USDA.)

McArdle is much more housebroken than many of her fellow travelers of course.  She knows which fork to use (or perhaps better, that particular ocean margin from which the right people secure their salt).  People who would not dream of taking Breitbart seriously still quote McArdle as a seemingly respectable source.

But she’s doing the same kind of work.

Caveat Lector.

And with that, I’m done with McArdle-world for the summer.  Just not worth suffering the Ceti Eel infections that result from too frequent a return to that particular planet.

(In German!  It sounds even more fun..)

*of the “hurts too much too laugh, but I’m too big to cry” variety.

**She cites as her first reason to disbelieve the most recent study in which Warren was one of four co-authors that the response rate to the study questionnair was, at 20%, too low to rule out sample bias.  In fact, as the authors report on the first page of the paper to which McArdle linked in an earlier post that their response rate was 46.5%.  Remember: the default position is that McArdle is Always Wrong.™

***E. g. McArdle rights writes that Warren and her colleagues “defined anyone with $1000 worth of medical bills as having a medical bankruptcy…”  This is how Himmelstein, Thorne, Warren, and Woolhandler actually described their criteria: “We developed two summary measures of medical bankruptcy. Under the rubric “Major Medical Bankruptcy” we included debtors who either (1) cited illness or injury as a specific reason for bankruptcy, or (2) reported uncovered medical bills exceeding $1,000 in the past years, or (3) lost at least two weeks of work-related income because of illness/injury, or (4) mortgaged a home to pay medical bills. Our more inclusive category, “Any Medical Bankruptcy,” included debtors who cited any of the above, or addiction, or uncontrolled gambling, or birth, or the death of a family member.”

That is: once again, what McArdle wrote was accurate inaccurate — but not true. Per commenter perspicio below, and in more detail from commenter Nylund.  Warren and her colleagues in the 2001 paper set $1,000 in uncovered medical bills as the threshold, one they raised to $5,000 in their 2007 study.  Big, big difference between a total bill, in part or entirely covered by insurance, and true out-of-pocket costs — and one which McArdle simply ignores.  Naughty, naughty.

****E.g. — she writes of Warren’s book, co-authored with Amelia Warren Tyagi, “that Warren simply fails to grapple with what her thesis suggests about the net benefits of the two-earner family.  ….. Warren kind of waves her hands and mumbles about social programs and more supportive work environments.  There is no possible solution outside of a more left-wing government.”

Except, of course, Warren does not say anything of the kind.  Instead, of the indebtedness trap that captures two income families, especially after divorce, the two authors write this stirring socialist slogan:  “If a family does not have the income to qualify for a loan at a reasonable rate they should not get that loan” (italics in the original; The Two Income Trap, p. 152.)

It is true that Warren and Tyagi suggest a number of possible policy changes to make the overall landscape of work, family and finance more equitable, from changes to the law on predatory lending to suggestions for child care subsidies.   But here’s their final thought, a rousing demand for Castro-esque intervention into the daily life American families:  “…families need to safeguard themselves” — which is followed by suggestions that range from switching to cheaper preschools and opting to buy or even rent houses smaller than those that put you at the edge of one’s financial capacity.

Warren and Tyagi argue, that is, that individuals should make defensive financial decisions to shield themselves from sudden catastrophic changes in their income.  Wouldn’t John (or Jane) Galt applaud?

Also, I have to say that in this context, this is the measure of McArdle’s character, her moral quality.  There is chutzpah here,  given how little tangible intellectual accomplishment as McArdle can muster to compare with Warren’s resume, and more when she speaks Warren’s mumbling or hand waving in the conext of a paragraph in which the ellipsis above fills in as follows: “Admittedly, I don’t quite know what to say either, but at least I can acknowledge that it’s a pretty powerful problem for the current family model.”

But while we can admire the bravado here, sort of, at bottom this is exactly the kind of petty character assassination that McArdle performs so well, and to such nasty purpose.  A mumbling, vague, imprecise Warren is obviously no one to run an important agency…and thus the post-long mission of character and career assassination is advanced.  Loathesome.

Image:  El Greco, “An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool” c. 1600.

Megan McArdle is Even More Always Wrong Than Usual: Arithmetic is Hard/Mostly Outsourced edition

July 22, 2010

By now most everyone who cares (a swiftly dwindling number, I hope) has heard of Megan McArdle’s spectacular meltdown when confronted by arithmetical and analytical errors of the most damning sort.

By far the best account of this comes in a spectacular fisking of McArdle by her own commenters, as organized by the invaluable (and stronger-stomached-than-I) Susan of Texas over at The Hunting of The Snark.

I’m not going to bother linking to McArdle herself. Why reward her with even the mote of traffic that might come her way, when SoT provides the complete text with commentary.  A veritable Talmud of McArdle.(I’m not sure I can really get my head around that concept–ed.)

In short form:  Ms McArdle can’t count, and she can’t think either — but those errors of argument are rather more strategic than they appear.  (She can’t deal with criticism either, which leads to much hilarity in this instance.*

So, to begin with, McArdle mistakes $250 for $25, and then uses the lower number as her estimate of how much money could flow to each American if taxes on the wealthiest were allowed to return to the levels experienced in the last epoch of budget surplus and sustained job creation and economic growth.**

She then went on to make an claim in large part based on that error: that the stimulus effect of choosing to recapture foregone revenue from the rich would be tiny, given that $25 buys no more than “one pizza dinner per person.”

Now, you can get the full takedown on the serial sins of fact and logic that McArdle made at Susan of Texas’s place.  Here, I just want to add two thoughts.

For one, McArdle’s first order claim — that redistributing to the population at large the money that is now earmarked for tax cuts for the rich will have no effect because the sums involved are trivial — allows her to ignore the reality of class and economic life as it is lived by most Americans.

In fact, as the upper-middle-class McArdle chooses not to know, the difference between a $100 supplement to income for a family of four and $1,000 boost is potentially life-changing, especially at the economic margin.

That’s roughly one month mortgage payment or better at median house prices right now.***

That’s one more month of high-deductible health insurance for the family in my home state of Massachusetts.

That’s the food budget for about a month and a half.

You get the idea.

More broadly, the real failure lies with her claim that one basically can’t figure out whether or not spending money on unemployment insurance is good for the economy (and not simply struggling individuals) as compared with retaining the current tax structure.  She writes:

it assumes that the rather optimistic estimates of Mark Zandi about the size of the stimulus multiplier are correct. Estimating stimulus multipliers is incredibly difficult when you try to do it at the macro level (how much spending equals how much extra GDP), and even more difficult when you try to figure out whether food stamps are better than a jobs program–the examples are fewer, and the amounts are smaller, making it hard to pick up direct effects.

I.e., you can’t figure out what a given policy will do (according to McArdle, ex cathedra)…and worse — even if there were a discernable impact, it wouldn’t matter. Why not?  Because the measures of success are meaningless:

It also assumes that any measured increase in GDP measures some improvement in human welfare. It is trivially true that if you increase one component of a measured variable, that variable will get bigger. It’s much harder to know that any particular increase in GDP represents a real change in human welfare, or merely moving chess pieces around the board.

Now that last statement is simply nonsense, as stalwart McArdle commenter Zosima pointed out. measures may be imperfect for all kinds of reasons, but that doesn’t mean that they are devoid of meaning.

But McArdle, I think, doesn’t really care if she’s wrong or risible.  Her real goal is to advance the notion that government action informed by reason and empirical knowledge is impossible.

Hence the value (for her) in repeating stuff like this.  This isn’t about the stimulus, in other words, or appropriate tax policy.  It’s about the impossiblity of governance.

In that light, the key fact to remember is that McArdle’s lapses of reasoning and fact are features, not bugs.   Remember the mission as declared by her home institution: “TheAtlantic – shaping the national debate on the most critical issues of our times, from politics, business, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture.”

McArdle is indeed trying to shape the debate, to constrain what might be possible in the exercise of government power.  Mere logic, paltry fact may not be permitted to get in the way.  She is Always Wrong™ — by design.

*Here I shamelessly steal from Susan, uber smart serial commenter Aimai’s summary dismissal of the divine Ms MM on McArdle’s comment thread:

Hm, lets see if the site lets me post. Can I ask whether this long, incoherent and off point attack by Megan on poster zosina is, in fact, by Megan? I mean, look–for one thing the “Megan” in this post claims to be the child of academics when the real Megan, as far as I know, is the child of a former public employee turned lobbyist and a realtor. Second of all the real Megan presumably grasps that “being the child of academics” doesn’t actually amount to an argument. No, really it doesn’t. Actually, and for real, I’m the child of a Nobel Prize winner and for kicks I’ll add I’m a third generation Harvardite. So what? This really, really, really, never comes up in academic arguments which are actually won and lost not by some kind of bizarre blood test but by concrete arguments. The “you are tedious and lack charm” argument is also one that I have yet to see adduced in a respectable discussion. Certainly, on the basis of the evidence from this thread, its hard to tell which of the two of you, the “megan” poster and the zosina poster is the younger. If I didn’t know that the real Megan is 37 I’d have had to award this avatar the palm for most juvenile approach to intellectual discussion. Finally, I have yet to see the imaginary comments “Megan” refute any of Zosina’s points. If this thread “Megan” isn’t the real Megan I think the real Megan might want to step in and clean up the comments by deleting her. But if she is the real Megan I think the Atlantic might want to step in and jerk the blog entirely. This is a positively craptacular piece of incoherent special pleading on Megan’s part, from the first post to the comment thread. Really, its shameful. And you don’t have to be the “child of academics” to know that.


**McArdle later tried to excuse herself by noting that her calculator could not handle the millions – billions quantities in the division.  To which I respond that it one of the skills we train our students in at the MIT Science Writing Program is that of estimation, and the honing of a nose for suspect numbers.  I would have thought that someone so inordinately proud of her role as “Business and Economic Editor of The Atlantic” would have cultivated the same.  If she hasn’t, then I would respectfully suggest that this is just one more piece of evidence that she is unqualified for the position she now holds.  I mean, dude — was it so hard to reconfigure the 75 billion/.3 billion raw number into 750/3?  There.  That wasn’t so hard.

***That statement is based on the following calculation:  take the median price for a new home as of Q1 2010, subtract 10 percent for a down payment and come up with a mortgage balance of $195,000 (give or take a buck).  At the current 30 year mortgage rate of 5.36%, you get a principal and interest payment of $1090 and a couple of cents.)

Image:  Francisco de Goya “Old people eating soup,” 1819-23

Tasty Blog Bits/What Good Young Journalists Can Do In The Right Kind of MSM

July 21, 2010

I’ve long been a fan of the High Country News, not least because they’ve given good work to some of the wonderful students at the best science writing program in the country (I’m supposed to say that, which doesn’t make it untrue).

But these lines from a post reminded me of what makes HCN such bright spot in my MSM reading these days

If natural gas was going to try and pick me up at a bar, the encounter would likely go like this:

Gas: “I’m low-carbon, cute, and widely available.”

Me: “You’re not that cute.”

That’s from a post by HCN Social Network Editor Stephanie Page Ogburn on the marvelously named The Goat Blog, and it is just a treat of journalistic writing in the context of old+new media.

Smart, funny, instantly engaging and all that you need to read on to get a nuanced reaction, backed up by actual real data, to the prospect of natural gas as a bridge fuel from the high to low carbon emission energy system I devoutly hope my son will see.

It can be done; journalism is not dead — and the seeds of its next incarnation can be found, often, far, far from the Bos-Wash corridor.

Image:  Filippo Palazzi, “Hay Car Attacked by Goats,” 1857

Sitting Republican Senators Who Voted to “Raise” Taxes for Next Year

July 21, 2010

I started this post yesterday, put it aside to listen to some very loud, very find jazz last night, and got up this morning to find that Paul Krugman got there first (as usual).

But just to amplify the point:

As you listen to Republican officeholders and their co-conspirators  complain that allowing the middle-to-rich-redistributive Bush tax cuts to lapse on schedule amounts to an Obama/Democratic tax increase, please remember those current members of the Grand Old Party’s delegation in the United States Senate who voted in favor of this “increase.”

They are:

Lamar Alexander, TN

Robert Bennett, UT

Kit Bond, MO

Sam Brownback, KS

Jim Bunning, KY

Saxby Chambliss, GA

Thad Cochran, MS

Susan Collins, ME

John Coryn, TX

Mike Crapo, ID

John Ensign, NV

Mike Enzi, WY

Lindsay Graham, NC

Chuck Grassley, IA

Judd Gregg, NH

Orrin Hatch, UT

Kay Bailey Hutchinson, TX

Jim Inhofe, OK

Jon Kyl, AZ

Richard Lugar, IN

Mitch McConnell, KY

Lisa Murkowski, AK

Pat Roberts, KS

Jeff Sessions, AL

Richard Shelby, AL

Olympia Snowe, ME

Arlen Spector then R, now D-PA

George Voinovich, OH

Twenty eight of the 50 “aye” votes on H.R. 2, the Bush tax death warrant on the Federal budget, remain in the US Senate.  27 of them are still Republicans, including all six of the current Republican leadership team. You will hear repeatedly over the next few days and weeks from them about the horrors of “increasing taxes” in a recession — and how once again it is the Democratic party seeking to worsen the tax burden Americans must bear.

But never forget:  each one of them voted for a bill that said very clearly that the Bush era tax reductions were temporary, by law set to expire this year.  Not one Democrat then, and only one new Democrat, Arlen Spector, voted for that tax “increase.”  The Republicans did.  Every last one of them sitting in the Senate that year.  It’s their fault, and their responsibility.

Of course, as Ezra Klein points out, the real issue is that the GOP then was doing what the GOP does a lot these days.  Lying about what they are doing, lying about fiscal matters, lying about the implications and the consequences of their actions.  There was never any intention to allow these taxes to lapse.  The expiration date made it into the bill to reduce the apparent cost of this enormous transfer of wealth from the American middle and working classes to the rich. If the tax rate changes had been made permanent, the pricetag would –might — have been too much even for the habitual economical recklessness that defines the contemporary Republican party.

There was an assumption hidden within all that, of course, which was that the GOP was on its way to building a lasting majority, however precarious it may have been in that 50-50 divided Senate.  But it didn’t work out that way, in large part because the Republican elite has shown itself to be hugely successful as an opposition force, but a disaster as a governing body. So now faced with the blunt fact that the exact bill they voted for is in fact the law of the land, they do the only thing they know how to do:  pretend it didn’t turn out as badly as it did, and blame the Democrats for trying to address the reality of the situation.

Makes for great Fox soundbites and Serious People™ appearances on NPR.  But to get there you have to lie, distort your own complicity, and, along the way, double down on a policy whose failure is obvious now even to some of its former architects.

All this is a long winded way of saying that the deceptive GOP debating tactics on the fate of the Bush tax cuts is just one more reminder of why these people cannot be trusted with actual power, certainly no more of it than they already abuse.

Image:  Marinus Claesz van Reymerswaele, “Two Tax Collectors,” c. 1540


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