Archive for the ‘bad writing’ category

Yeah — Ross Douthat Is Still Bluffing

February 9, 2014

The Grey Lady has a problem.

It needs, or thinks it does, a clear, articulate, analytically sophisticated conservative voice on its op-ed team.  David Brooks is tasked with handling most of that load, with the results we’ve discussed here many times, but Ross Douthat was the right-wing wunderkind poached from The Atlantic who was supposed to be the conservative model of the new generation of precocious opinion journalists that bubbled up during those halcyon days of the early to mid-2000s blogging boom.

Guillaume_Budé_by_Jean_Clouet

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Consider today’s column.  I’m not going to do go full metal fisk on the piece.  Douthat tries to persuade his audience that the CBO report — the one that showed that the ACA works as intended,  liberating workers from jobs they perform only to hang onto health benefits — is actually testimony to how liberal government denies the dignity of work.  You can read the thing for yucks if you like that kind of up-is-down talk.

Here, I want to get to is the basic dishonesty not just of one argument in one column, but of Douthat’s method as deployed here.

The test was to click on each link in the piece, and see if Douthat’s claimed sources actually supported whatever he invoked them for.  Spoiler alert:  almost to a one, they did not.

Link number 1 is actually OK.  Douthat invokes a Keynes essay, and that essay appears at the end of the intertube he lays down, making the prediction Douthat says it does.

What comes next, though, ain’t so pretty:

…well-educated professionals — inspired by rising pay and status-obsessed competition — often work longer hours than they did a few decades ago…

This link takes you not to an original study but to a summary of others’ work posted at the National Bureau of Economic Research.  If Douthat had checked behind that summary he would have found that the picture of socially climbing workers taking on ever more hours over time isn’t exactly right:

these figures show that (a) the incidence of long work hours fell in the recessions of 1983, 1992 and 2002; and (b) that long work hours rose sharply in the 1980s, more slowly in the 1990s, and –as in the Census data– declined somewhat between 2000 and 2006.

That messier, hence less convenient picture is just the appetizer for the real misinterpretations to come.  Douthat claims that money and status drive folks to work long hours.  But the NBER summary at his link asserts,

Studies suggest that perceived job insecurity has risen substantially among highly educated workers.

Aha! Not virtue but necessity keeps people on the job nights and weekends.  From the underlying paper:

We find that two group characteristics — a rising level of within-group earnings inequality (at fixed hours) and a falling (or more slowly growing) level of mean earnings at ‘standard’ (40) hours– are associated with increases in the share of workers usually supplying 50 or more hours per week.
IOW, even for better educated/salaried workers, long hours are a response to a decline in or threat to earning power at normal so much  a status thing, and not exactly a rising pay story either.
It gets worse when Douthat finishes his sentence with an implied indictment of lower-paid labor.  He writes:

…while poorer Americans, especially poorer men, are increasingly disconnected from the labor force entirely.

Adriaen_van_Ostade_-_Peasants_in_a_Tavern

Once again, the linked piece doesn’t say quite what Douthat claims.  It does have a political tinge — its author cites Charles Murray admiringly, which is always a tell — but the analysis is plain enough:

…a big factor is that – partly due to globalization and technology – the wages of less-skilled, less-educated men have been falling. Simply put, that makes them less willing to get off the couch, particularly if finding a job demands running a gauntlet of on-line applications or requires a move or a long commute or surrendering government benefits.  The surest way to put the most employable of these men back to work would be a stronger economy in which jobs were more plentiful and employers couldn’t be so picky about filling openings. [emphasis added]

So it turns out that Douthat’s disaffected workers aren’t merely and passively disconnected.  They’re barred by actual conditions in the real world from finding work.  A better economy would lower that bar and see re-entry into the labor force.  To be fair, Douthat does note that rising inequality has an explanatory role to play in what he claims are two trends. But the links he provide to support his attempt at social analysis confirm essentially nothing of his interpretation.

Onwards!

Next up, Douthat engages the CBO report itself:

The Congressional Budget Office had always predicted that the new health care law’s mix of direct benefits and indirect incentives would encourage some people to cut their hours or leave their jobs outright. But its latest report revised the estimate substantially upward, predicting that by 2021, the equivalent of 2.3 million full-time workers — most of them low-wage — could disappear from the American economy.

Yet again, Douthat links not to the report itself, but to a Washington Post article summarizing and in part spinning that document.  And it turns out that Douthat’s “full time workers” disappearing number is not quite right.  Here’s what the CBO actually reported, (p. 127)

Because some people will reduce the amount of hours they work rather than stopping work altogether, the number who will choose to leave employment because of the ACA in 2024 is likely to be substantially less than 2.5 million. At the same time, more than 2.5 million people are likely to reduce the amount of labor they choose to supply to some degree because of the ACA, even though many of them will not leave the labor force entirely.
I’ll admit that’s a relatively minor error on Douthat’s part (though the rhetorical torque he applies with the word “disappeared” puts it into the realm of bad faith to me).   But more important, note that Douthat didn’t delve into the actual CBO report itself, at least not enough to grasp any nuance — relying instead on the Post article’s own flawed account.
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IOW:  sometimes the little mistakes are the most revealing.  You can’t argue with folks who don’t know what they’re talking about.  Those of us trying to understand health care in America by reading the country’s newspaper of record should have the confidence that what they find there is based on best attempts to identify actual facts.  Douthat does not encourage such confidence.
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Please proceed, columnist!
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Next, we have Douthat’s attempt to claim that there really is a better, conservative alternative to Obamacare.
the design of Obamacare … makes the work disincentive much more substantial than it would be under, say, a conservative alternative that offers everyone a flat credit to buy a catastrophic plan.
I think he’s trying to say that giving everyone health insurance that almost never insures would trap more people in the jobs they’d need to mitigate the risk of everyday mishaps, but that’s for another argument. I could also  take issue with the notion that the document he links is an actual alternative, and not some cobbled together bit of hand-waving and familiar right wing talking points on health care.  But there’s no doubt that at the point we’re still  the territory of op-ed privilege.
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But here’s the real problem — and it’s one Douthat could very well have slid past all but the most careful of editors.  In the next paragraph he writes:
One of the studies used to model the consequences of Obamacare, for instance, found a strong work disincentive while looking at a population of childless, able-bodied, mostly working-class adults

That sounds like a good serious pundit doing his homework and digging into the academic research on his topic.  But if you click that link, it won’t take you to any study — not even a Heritage parody of social science.  Instead, it returns you right to the doorstop of the “alternative” proposal Douthat invoked in the prior graf.  There’s nothing else there at all, and certainly nothing any neutral observer would recognize as actual inquiry.  This is just a lie-by-citation.

Believe it or not, the beat goes on.  Douthat bloviates on his own dime for a few paragraphs before coming up with this :

On the left, there’s a growing tendency toward both pessimism and utopianism — with doubts about the compatibility of capitalism and democracy, and skepticism about the possibility for true equality of opportunity, feeding a renewed interest in 1970s-era ideas like a universal basic income.

There are two classic blunders: The most famous is  never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well known is never, ever, trust Ross Douthat when he tells you what “the left” is thinking.

The first link takes you not to a critique of capitalism by, say, Joe Biden or even the House Progressive caucus, but to a lengthy and fascinating New York Times account of a book by a French economist that has yet to appear in English.  It’s an important piece of work, I hear, but hardly evidence of a growing American political tendency.

The second brings you to an interview with the author of another book yet to be released –  by Gregory Clark, an economic historian at Davis who has been arguing for some years for a biologically heritable account of economic outcomes.

There’s lots of people who argue with Clark’s work.  But for this discussion the question isn’t whether his brand of biological economics is bonkers or worse.  For this argument it is, does Clark speak from or for anything that could remotely be called the left?

The answer is no: he is one economist controversial within his own field, whose views, if they have any political stamp, have been much more eagerly received by latter day eugenicists than by any recognizable wing of, say, the Democratic Party.

Again: Douthat is a pundit.  He gets to be stupid on the Times’ dime.

But he shouldn’t get to claim authority he doesn’t have — the intellectual buttresses of knowledge he hasn’t actually worked to acquire or analytical effort he hasn’t put in.  Every single link in this piece but the one that just takes to Keynes is flawed, often deeply so, in the sense of supporting the superstructure Douthat wants to erect on top of his claims of erudition.  At best, he’s bibliography-padding, attempting to baffle his readers (and, I think, his editors) with the appearance of someone who does the hard work of thinking.  At worst, he’s misappropriating others’ labor to his own ends.

Echoing Gandhi’s apocryphal jibe:  were I asked what I think about right wing public intellection, I’d reply, “I think it would be a good idea.”

Images: Jean Clouet, Portrait of Guillaume Budé, c. 1536.

Adriaen van Ostade, Carousing peasants in a tavern, c. 1635

 

What Else Is Wrong With Bill Keller’s Cancer-Shaming

January 18, 2014

By now, just about everyone has weighed in on the Kellerdammerung, the his and hers columns striving to cancer-shame of Lisa Bonchek Adams — criticism for the sin of not doing cancer the “right way.”  Beyond what’s been written on our home turf, I’d point you to this and this and this and this and this and this roundup or more recent scorn– and especially this, from The New York Times‘ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan. (For a contrary view, check out longtime friend-of-the-blog TBogg, who doesn’t think the Kellers’ sins, if any, should have earned the ire of the ‘net mob.)

Sullivan’s piece is so interesting because it is (ISTM, at least), as direct a condemnation of Bill Keller’s column as one could expect from within the organization he used to lead.  She writes:

In this case, I’ll go so far as to say that there are issues here of tone and sensitivity. For example, when Ms. Adams has made it so abundantly clear in her own work that she objects to the use of fighting metaphors in describing experiences with cancer, it was regrettable to use them throughout a column about her, starting with the first sentence. It suggests that Mr. Keller didn’t make a full effort to understand the point of view of the person he’s writing about on the very big and public stage that is The Times. And although I haven’t read all of Ms. Adams’s writing, readers are complaining about other examples of this disconnect. The Times should consider publishing some opposing points of view, possibly in the form of an Op-Ed column from a contributor.

In addition, Mr. Keller’s views here fall within what journalists would call “fair comment” only to the extent that they are based on facts.

Whap!

I know that to an outsider (like me) it might have been nice if Sullivan had gone all chapter and verse on the many flaws in Keller’s piece, but I can tell you with real certainty that within the building, that last line kills.  A humiliation, very public, and immediately understood by Keller and every one of his former subordinates.*

At this point, a bit of housekeeping:  I’m not going to engage Emma Keller’s column at all; it’s been taken down, and the essential point — if you feel uncomfortable at someone else’s presence and material on social media, don’t f**king read it. Unfollow.  Take the blog off your RSS feed.  There.  Was that so hard?  (See also the Guardian’s official explanation for why the piece vanished from the site.)

I’m not even going to try to parse the rich vein of fail Bill Keller manages to mine.  The undertone (not very under-, actually) of “won’t this irksome woman please shut up” is ugly enough.

Smierc_Tomasza_Becketa

The conflation of an “incurable” diagnosis with an asserted fate of imminent death is intellectual sleight of hand of the least honorable stripe.  The factual errors in Keller’s account, noted by Sullivan above, are troubling as hell.  The implication, that there is one “right” way to engage cancer, and that Adams was failing in her obligation to meet death with due deference, is both wretched as a direct comment on a single life, not just wrong, but cruel — and, of course, makes it much harder to get to what Keller claims is his point, that the modern American medicine does end-of-life poorly.  There’s a lot to talk about there, to be sure — but Keller doesn’t actually get to that, so busily does he scold Adams for failing to conform to his expectations.  (You may take from this that I don’t agree with TBogg and Soonergrunt that Keller was more awkward than awful.)

But all of that and more has been amply discussed already.  What I want to add at this point is a gloss on something Times’ Public Editor Sullivan wrote:

As a columnist, Mr. Keller – by definition – has a great deal of free rein. As I’ve written before, Times opinion editors very rarely intrude on that process by steering a writer away from a topic or killing a column before it runs. It’s a columnist’s job, in short, to have an opinion and to speak it freely. That’s as it should be.

A line often attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York senator, makes this point well: “You’re entitled to your own opinion; you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

And therein lies the nub:  (many) opinion columns and columnists are accurate but wrong. Factual mistakes are bad (and they are legion), but the deeper problem is the distortion field of isolating facts from the patterns that give them meaning.

That is:  Keller’s largest failings in his column weren’t his point-by-point errors, the kinds of things that can be addressed by simple corrections.  They were rather lapses of reporting and analysis.  He asserted rather than established that Lisa Adams was (a) dying and (b) “fighting” her disease — and but what was worse, used those two obvious misreadings of Adams own work to make unsupported claims about the American approach to end-of-life.  He gets to do that move, according to Sullivan, because it’s his job to have an opinion.

And so it is — but still, what should Keller know and be able to state about, say, where the US goes astray in end-of-life care?  What does he need to do beyond get excited by (to be charitable here) a misreading of his source?

Well, paraphrasing Henri Poincare here, it falls to the thinker to decide which facts are worthy of inclusion into the argument — which is to say that facts gain meaning and their connection to truth or falsity, by the structure of argument we build around them.

Leonardo_Anatomy_of_the_Neck,_c._1515

Keller was a crap journalist who arrived at an unsupported conclusion not because he got how long Lisa Adams had endured stage 4 cancer wrong, but because the nuggets of fact he deployed — both the ones he got right and the other ones — were already lodged in a flawed argument, that the specific experience of his father in law adequately frames any circumstance in which one faces an incurable illness.

There’s lots more one could ask, and then pick apart. But the point isn’t that Keller did a hack job, though he did. It’s that these kinds of issues are the stuff of elite opinion “journalism.” It’s how you get a David Brooks column on inequality that conflates arguments about the 1 % and the 5 %.  It’s how you get the Washington Post op-ed page more or less in its full glory (sic!).  The problem lies with the assumption that facts are discrete — quanta of reality.  The ones that go wrong can be corrected, and as for the rest, they can be organized anyway an opinion holder chooses to no ill effect.And that’s where editors need to intervene.  Not to tell Keller he can’t write about end of life, or Bobo about income inequality, or Douthat about lady bits, or Will about climate change or Rubin about anything.  But they have to do so in a way that stands the test not merely of simple accuracy, but of robustness.  How easy is it to knock the piece to shreds?  Too easy?  Get me rewrite!

Ultimately, while it’s great that Sullivan publicly eviscerated someone who, not that long ago, ran the Grey Lady (no longer) of 43rd St….she still gives too much license she gives not just Keller but the whole stable on the back pages of her paper. I get to joke that David Brooks is always wrong — but I’m not nearly as far off as I should be.

So, yeah, I’m pretty appalled that the Kellers both thought that shouting at a cancer patient was a clever way to frame something deeper they thought they were saying — but I’m at least as depressed that the system of journalism in which they are both embedded both enables and rewards such crap.

*I also love that Sullivan managed to get an elegantly sly slam on both BoBo and Dowd into her stiletto work on Keller:

I don’t make a practice of commenting on whether I agree with columnists, or if I like their columns in general or on a particular day, whether it’s David Brooks on pot-smoking or Maureen Dowd on Chris Christie.

Softly, softly…

Images:  Tommaso Dolabella, Martyrdom of Thomas Becket, 1627

Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomy of the Neck, c. 1515

My Review of Megan McCardle’s Upcoming Opus (Further to the Megan McCardle Is Always Wrong chronicles)

January 13, 2014

I learned — or rather was horribly brought to recall, after having labored hard to unknow the hideous realization, that Megan McArdle is coming out with a book on how failure propels success. (Sic!)  This grim fact was brought to my attention by a co-blogger at Balloon Juice, DPM (Dread Pirate Mistermix), and to my horror, my many enablers in DPM’s thread have noted that news of McArdle’s upcoming volume might be “worth” reviewing.  One even suggested a basic format.
First:  you all are horrible people, wishing upon me or anyone the evils of (a) reading McArdle at book-length and (b) spending the time it would take to disembowel the work honorably.

Second: I’ve already completed my review, along the precise lines recommended within the Balloon Juice comment thread:

Please suggest other one line/haiku McArdle reviews; it’s a rich vein of snark I’m offering here.

David Brooks Agonistes, Outsourced to Mr. Charles Pierce

December 17, 2013

I was going to go all, “Look! David Brooks has written an inadvertent autobiography” in this, his latest and perhaps strangest column.

There are some in the Twitterverse who think that the piece, titled “The Thought Leader,” is actually triple-secret irony, with Brooks — that famously introspective savant — fully aware of the self-parody/indictment.

Me? I think Brooks has the self-knowledge of a capybara, and that he is (or was, until this morning’s point-and-laugh-fest) blissfully, almost heroically gifted with false consciousness, of such total potency as to blind him to the utter vacuum that lies at the core of his life and work.  It takes a special sort of man to surf past salad bars at Applebees to a self-appointed role as the always-wrong philosopher king of American public discourse.

Thomas_Eakins_-_The_Thinker,_Portrait_of_Louis_N._Kenton

Anyway, despite the end of term slough of despond/mountain of unchecked papers on which I descend/ascend,* I was all set to do a line by line fisking — until I reflected that in this vale of tears we are yet blessed by the FSM with the existence of Charles Pierce.

He does not disappoint.  Admittedly Brooks’ catastrophe of a column is an astonishingly target rich environment — but Pierce rises to the challenge of swatting each and every offering.

For example: here’s Brooks’ lede:

Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: The Thought Leader.

If that’s Brooks’ serve, see in awe Pierce’s return, an untouchable backhand down the line:

Actually, most little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wishing they weren’t slaves, and wishing they weren’t chasing sheep across a rocky hillside, and hoping they wouldn’t be dead of cholera before they were 15. In Renaissance Florence, they dreamed of not catching the Black Plague. Brooks seems to believe antiquity was populated entirely by over-educated spalpeens. Who was left to herd the goats, I ask you.  And something can’t be both a phrase and a paragon, not even If You Capitalize It. Any little boy or girl in ancient Athens could have told you that.

It goes on from there.  It’s not pretty.   Read the whole thing.  Then lie back and grin.

*Just to show I can butcher metaphors with the best of them…

Image: Thomas Eakin, The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton, 1900.

Pink Himalayan Calculator Problems, Part (n)

January 10, 2013

Further to DougJ’s catch over at Balloon Juice this morning:  last night I actually found myself reading (why, oh why, dear FSM?) the McArdle post in question, a bit of fappery in which she paraded her above-the-fray disdain for the idea that the Obama administration might take action to clean up a mess the Republican rump plans to deposit on his lawn.  (No linky ’cause I’m not in the business of giving any hint of value to McArdle’s employers/enablers.)

It’s really a sad effort, in which McArdle attempts to complete a ~1,600 word piece on the failure of governance implied by a discussion of a platinum coin on the US balance sheet without implicating anyone other than President Obama.  She does make a couple of nods in the direction of “both sides do it” faux-balance, chiding the Republicans for their role in the last debt-ceiling debacle and noting that the GOP side of the aisle seems even less prepared for the consequences of actually blocking the measure this time around.

But those are head fakes.  She reserves the full blast of McArdle scorn (as always, queue Denis Healey’s “savaged by a dead sheep” line here) for Obama in particular and the Democrats in general (whodathunkit!).  Her chief complaint: Obama’s election campaign went pitiably small (an argument that relies on ignoring most of what Obama discussed on the trail), and that he and his party simply ignore the “fact” of federal over-spending.

I’m not going to do my usual obsessive 4,000 word fisk on all the failings of fact and logic that permeate this, as so many of McArdle’s effusions.  Life is too short; I’m on (self-imposed) deadline; and frankly, the slow erosion of McArdle’s career makes the task less pressing, at least to me.  The Daily Beast ain’t The Atlantic, and while the site itself may still command more traffic her old home (I’m not sure of that, but it was true a while back) you can see the impact the difference in audience makes.  I actually waded into the comment thread on the post in question (the shallow end — didn’t have the stomach or the time for the deep dive) and there were plenty there heading for Red State territory.

Agostino_Carracci_-_Hairy_Harry,_Mad_Peter_and_Tiny_Amon_-_WGA4398

There’s no doubt in my mind that McArdle is unlikely ever to want for a reasonably well-paying gig; she’s pretty well situated on the Wingnut Welfare railroad.  But there is a big difference between those who intone their harmonies inside the Wurlitzer and those who play out a bit, and it seems to me that she’s heading the wrong way on that particular arc.  Could be wrong, of course, and constant vigilance and all that.  But really, there are bigger fish to fry (looking at you, BoBo, et al.).

So, in the interest of everyone’s time, let me here just take note of the fact that McArdle’s calculator is performing as well as ever.  Her post’s coffee-spray-on-the-screen moment came on reading this gem:

For a while, Democrats could pride themselves on being the reasonable ones. Now they, too, are choosing words over math.  “We don’t have a spending problem,” President Obama apparently blithely told the Speaker of the House.  Which is technically true . . . if we’re willing to raise the government’s tax take to north of 50% of Gross Domestic Product. [ellipsis in the original]

Err.

Just to dot the “i”s: 2011 GDP?

$14,991,300,000,000.  Call it $15 trillion. (via the World Bank.)

2011 federal spending?

$3,598,000,000,000.  Call it $3.6 trillion. (Via the CBO.)

Now, I don’t know about y’all, but I’m not sure I even need to pull out my slide rule to see that 50% of $15 trillion is $7.5 trillion.  And I can probably get by without digging up a working model of a Curta to confirm that $3.6<$7.5.

But perhaps I should do the calculation anyway.  Using the rounded numbers, it seems that federal spending in fiscal 2011 amounted to ~ 24% of GDP.  Or, for those of you keeping score, right in the range  Bernard discussed yesterday.

All of which is to speak the obvious; McArdle’s number is simply bullshit.

I actually have no idea what she was thinking there; it really is one of the least well hidden secrets in US budget discussions that the feds spend a bit under one quarter of GDP.  That’s a number that’s been out there a lot, not least in the context of not-exactly-obscure proposals like the Ryan “Path to Prosperity”* budget plan, which called for long-term government spending to fall to 19% of GDP.

Just to belabor the point:  getting this proportion scaled right is not rocket science — it’s just part of the assumed knowledge of anyone talking US fiscal stuff.  Which is to say that anyone can, of course, screw up and type a number in error.  But then, if you’re numerate at all, you get that tingle that tells you there’s something just off — and you fix it.

Which leaves me with the usual McArdle conundrum:  is she simply so tone-deaf quantitatively that she really didn’t catch the absurdity of the claim?  Or is she so reckless a polemicist that she did, and didn’t care?

One last thought.  Back when McArdle was securely perched at The Atlantic, I often ended these rants by pointing out that her work colored the output of the whole site.  Sometimes I called out the writers I did (and do) admire there to make that criticism more pointed.  The same obtains today:  McArdle’s work is a measure of The Daily Beast.  If they choose to publish her, they own whatever good she may produce — and all the bad, with every bit of reputational and credibility damage that may result. In which context, whatever your feelings about Andrew Sullivan, I’ll say this:  he’s not stupid about his career.  It’s not (or not just) the manner of his leaving Tina’s playpen; it’s the fact of that abandon-ship that, to me, speaks volumes.

*Doublespeak alert

Image:  Agostino Carracci, Hairy Harry, Mad Peter and Tiny Amon, between 1598 and 1600.  I have used this before, but it really seems to fit here.

Better Press Corps (Time edition)/Odds and Ends.

October 3, 2012

A couple of things.

As Zander points out, Ta-Nehisi Coates has already gutted  Tucker Carlson.  In my view, the prematurely bow-tied young fogey has finally and irrevocably crossed the SchwarzDrudgechild boundary.  He has descended into a region where the ordinary laws of space and time break down.  He will experience nothing but an infinite loop of right-wing fantasy world affirmation, while those of us safely beyond the event horizon will enjoy the blessed tranquility of something approximating real life.

Not going to bother with FdB either, who (a) never claimed to be a journalist and hence doesn’t belong in this post and (b) whose latest effort to troll this and other blogs seems to me simply sad.  Mistermix deals with that last and oddly jumbled cry for help more gently than I would, and I think it best just to leave it lie, but for this:  in the past, I’ve achieved world-competitive pinnacles of high dudgeon when right wing folks assert as facts claims like : “Bloggers are insecure, as a species. I find that if you scratch at the perfectly calculated pose of preemptive superiority, you find people who are unable to look you in the face while they tell you you’re wrong.”  This is McArdle-worthy — akin to her habit  of saying her (unnamed) liberal friends are all (x).  Freddy is better than that by far, usually.  Here’s hoping he finds a better analytical groove soon.

Nope, the reason I’m chiming up when I should be doing almost anything else is to deal with the latest bit of truthiness from Time’s website, a Michael Scherer bit of wisdom on lying in politics telling us…wait for it…that both sides do it.

Most of the article is a rehash of stuff a lot of folks have already been covering about the role of party affiliation (and leader-influence) on whether or not mere factual argument penetrates somebody’s body of assumptions and agreed narratives.  Nothing wrong with that, for the most part, other than it’s old enough to grow whiskers.

But as he attempts to find equivalence Scherer surrenders to his default village instinct (an example of the pathology he goes on to describe, perhaps?)  He offers one notable Romney lie — the claim regularly repeated that Obama’s administration has gutted welfare-to-work rules, and he says, almost bluntly enough to satisfy even partisan me, that “The ad was unmistakably deceptive.” (It was false, and not merely misleading, but still, this is a pretty clear evaluation.”

But then he goes on to put forward two alleged Obama falsehoods.  Here’s the first:

“Nobody accused Mr. Romney of being a felon,” he said. In fact, one of the President’s senior strategists, Stephanie Cutter, told reporters a month earlier that Romney was misrepresenting himself either to the American people or to securities regulators—“which is a felony,” she said.  Cutter’s was a conditional accusation but an accusation nonetheless.

So, on the one hand you have a piece of information publicly and widely disseminated that is false (the welfare/work stuff) and on the other you have someone saying that if Romney did (x) that’s a felony, and thus Obama lied when he said that his folks hadn’t called Romney a felon.  I’m not going into the weeds of parsing how what Obama said is in fact accurate (if politically clever in the mode of the great and vicious LBJ).  But if you can’t see the consequential difference in the two statements you’re in the wrong line of work.

But the really egregious statement comes a little later:

One of the most galling Obama deceptions, embedded in two television ads, asserts that Romney backed a bill outlawing “all abortion even in cases of rape and incest.” This is not true. Romney has consistently maintained, since becoming a pro-life politician in 2005, that he supports exceptions for rape and incest and to protect the life of the mother.

“This is not true.”

Sure you want to pick that hill to die on Michael?

Consider:

In March of 2012, Romney explained to radio host Tommy Tucker that his current positions were the same as “the last time.” He offered the same to Sean Hannity in a November 2011 interview: “I have the same positions today I had four years ago where you know I’m a conservative guy.”

…From an Aug. 8, 2007 ABC News article:

Appearing Monday on “Good Morning America,” Romney was asked by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos if he supports the Republican Party’s 2004 platform on abortion rights, which states, “We support a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution and we endorse legislation to make it clear that the 14th Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”
Romney replied, “You know, I do support the Republican platform, and I support that being part of the Republican platform and I’m pro-life.”

…Here’s a post from Peter J. Smith at LifeSiteNews:

Romney made the choice to abandon his earlier rejection of the human life amendment as he poured money and energy into winning the Ames caucus in Iowa, where Republican voters run strongly social conservative.
“I do support the Republican platform and I do support that big part of the Republican platform, and I am pro-life,” Romney said during an August 6 Republican debate, when asked whether he affirmed the human life amendment, a key part of the 2004 Republican pro-life platform that was written by his pro-life advisor James Bopp,Jr..

The human life amendment intends to change the US Constitution by expanding 14th Amendment protections – such as due process and equal protection clauses – to include unborn children. Such an amendment would ban abortions nationwide and repeal the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

I have a suggestion.   Michael?  Anytime you feel tempted to use the words “consistent” and “Romney” in the same sentence, lie down until the feeling passes.

In that vein, I should note that Jason Linkins, the HuffPo writer who assembled the record quoted just above also dug up this bit of High Romneyism:

However the Associated Press reports that Romney later qualified his support for a human life amendment. According to the AP, Romney said his advisor Bopp had told him “there are a wide range of possible human life amendments” ranging from a total ban on abortion to an amendment that let states make the decision. On top of that, getting both houses of Congress and 38 out of 50 states to support a constitutional amendment, Bopp told him, “is just not realistic.”

What does Romney really think about abortion?  Who the f**k knows.  If I were to guess I’d say his deepest wish is that talk of abortion would go away — he’s running for office for Pete’s sake.  But Romney’s waffle doesn’t get Scherer off the hook:  He claimed the Obama campaign lied because Romney has since 2005 maintained a single and clearly articulated position on an issue — but that statement is easily and clearly shown to be that which drops from the south end of a north facing horse.

To steal the phrase from Brad DeLong, why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

Image:  Giovanni Bellini, Four Allegories: Falsehood (or Wisdom), c. 1490.

As Long As We’re Cataloguing Intellectual Failure On The Right: Heeeere’s Davey!

October 2, 2012

So, Megan McArdle spits the bit in her inimitable (thank FSM!) style, and George Will adds complaining about not being able to say N*clang! like the black kids do to his list of analytical and moral failures, when along comes David Brooks to remind us that he is a truly dreadful author of fiction.

Charles Pierce has gone medieval on today’s column soon enough, and work continues to do a tap dance on my butt (in these shoes, I’m guessing), so I’ll keep my fisking as telegraphic as possible.  Which is hard, as the fecking hopeless Brooks has outdone himself this time. [ETA:  I failed at this even more conspicuously than usual.  You have been warned.]

What Brooks offers is his fantasy of the real Mitt Romney, along with the speech that David Brooks is somehow convinced would save the nation that this goateed Romney could deliver at the debate tomorrow.

Let’s view the carnage.  Brooks begins:

I’d like to say that I wish everybody could have known my father, George Romney. He was a great public servant and I’ve always tried to live up to his example.

Uhno.  And that doesn’t even begin to get into the racist dog-whistling by the son that his father, on the evidence, would never have tolerated.

I’m a nonideological guy running in an ideological age, and I’ve been pretending to be more of an ideologue than I really am. I’m a sophisticated guy running in a populist moment. I’ve ended up dumbing myself down.

Easy for you to say, Mitt…er David. And at first glance a hard claim to engage, much less refute.  How do you know what’s in someone’s heart, when all you have to go on is what they say and do?  Except that we do have some indications of the private Romney’s real character.  The essential significance of the “47%” speech is that in both text and delivery it offers a glimpse of what Romney says among his peers and when he believes he can unburden himself outside the glare of public notice.  And just as a reminder, this is what the actual, flesh-and-blood (probably) RomneyBot said:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.. [via]

There’s nothing of sophistication there — no understanding either of the tax code or of the human experience of the old and the young, those in uniformed service and those with disabilities and no cash for a dancing horse to aid them in their difficulties.  Then there’s a metric tonne of ideology to compensate for that willed — I assume — ignorance: no-income tax = mooching and looting victims.  Right wing commitment to claims not in evidence doesn’t get more distilled than that.

Onward!

 It hasn’t even worked. I’m behind. So I’ve decided to run the last month of this campaign as myself.

I do not believe the dear FSM loves me enough to make this true.

Or rather, as Brooks is loathe to admit, there’s been plenty of talk out of Boston [Warning! Politico link] about the problem with the client already.  And, you know, there’s a truth about presidenting.  It’s hard, and micromanagers fail.  If you haven’t already, go read Michael Lewis’ piece on what Obama actually does with his time — and then having done so, come back and tell me whether a CEO type used to deference to any damn stupid idea is really the right choice for the job.

With that, Brooks/Goateed Romney go onto substance. Or, as I like to call it, “substance:”

The next president is going to face some wicked problems. The first is the “fiscal cliff.” The next president is going to have to forge a grand compromise on the budget. President Obama has tried and failed to do this over the past four years. There’s no reason to think he’d do any better over the next four.

Errrr.  Whatever you feel about the terms of the various proposed grand compromises (I think they suck, and that they miss the crucial point that it’s the policy, stupid, but that’s for another post), there’s this published just yesterday in the very newspaper for which Mr. Brooks sucks his thumb.  More on point, the two concepts — the fiscal cliff and some large budget deal are not necessarily paired; there is no need either in law or in principle to forge a giant deal to confront the specific questions of taxes and savings coming up on deadline. Brooks knows this, I’m sure, but chooses not to engage it because he is wholly committed to the demand that the US transfer more money to the best off at the expense of the old, the sick and the poor, no matter how many times the failure of the economic claims for such a transfer have been batted back into his face.

Forward!

He’s failed, first, because he’s just not a very good negotiator. …

Which, of course, is why his administration has been the most legislatively successful in memory, despite sustained and unpatriotic opposition by a party that has values power over country.

Furthermore, he’s too insular. …

See above.

The second reason there’s been no budget compromise is that Republicans have been too rigid, refusing to put revenue on the table. I’ve been part of the problem. But, globally, the nations that successfully trim debt have raised $1 in new revenue for every $3 in spending cuts. I will bring Republicans around to that position. There’s no way President Obama can do that.

This is, of course, just wankery.  Even worse, it ignores the basic arithmetic of the largest public commitment the Romney-Ryan campaign has made, to pare tax rates below the Bush tax cut levels, to be offset by closing unspecified loopholes — a proposal that, as President Clinton famously pointed out, fails the test of arithmetic.

Let me just jump on this one again:  The Romney budget proposal if taken at face value must blow up the deficit, blow up government, or raise taxes on middle-earners — or some combination of all three.  Brooks has to know this — I’m pretty sure he can count to five (trillion), and that’s really all this one takes, for that is the amount of lost revenue from the top line of the Romney-Ryan tax plan that will go on the deficit that has to come from somewhere.  That Brooks knows this and still pumps out this garbage is a measure of the ethical and moral quality of the man.  Just sayin.

Or, the shorter:  if you think Republicans cut tax rates and raise revenues, you haven’t been paying attention for over thirty years.  Truly, we’ve been there, we’ve done that, we’ve got the T-shirt, and we can smell bullshit when folks like Brooks are kind enough to dump a trainload of the stuff on our doorstep, thank you very much.

Oh dear FSM, there’s more:

The second wicked problem the next president will face is sluggish growth. I assume you know that everything President Obama and I have been saying on this subject has been total garbage. Presidents and governors don’t “create jobs.” We don’t have the ability to “grow the economy.” There’s no magic lever.

Instead, an administration makes a thousand small decisions, each of which subtly adds to or detracts from a positive growth environment.

Dude, if I were writing propaganda in this day and age, I’d avoid references that recall “a thousand points of light” even in passing.  Just saying.

The Obama administration, which is either hostile to or aloof from business, has made a thousand tax, regulatory and spending decisions that are biased away from growth and biased toward other priorities.

And those would be?  Look, it is asking a lot of a putative public “intellectual,” but it is worth remembering (and I know this sounds like a broken record) what an abandonment of the principle of public regulation left us with in late 2008.  Banksters may not like financial regulation — but there is ample evidence (dating back to 1720, btw) that you damn well need it if you don’t like global financial collapse every few years.

More to the point, recent history is a pretty good guide here.  It’s a very flawed instrument, but the fact that the stock market consistently, over many, many years, does better under Democratic administrations that Republican ones is a signal that business may grumble, but does not actually suffer under greater scrutiny.  The reverse, in fact, which surprises no one who understands the concept of “market failure” — whose numbers seem not to include Mr. Brooks.

American competitiveness has fallen in each of the past four years, according to the World Economic Forum. Medical device makers, for example, are being chased overseas. The economy in 2012 is worse than the economy in 2011. That’s inexcusable.

This chart, please.  Also, too, if you look at the cited report (but not linked–always a Brooks tell) you find that the US is now ranked fifth internationally for competitiveness, behind such economic heavyweights as Switzerland, Singapore, Sweden and Finland.  Yup.  Brooks is a hack, but this is particularly hacktackular.

Also: please note that the leading reason cited for the US’s lagging behind these engines of the global economy is  that “the business community continues to be critical of public and private institutions…”  which raises at least the hint that perhaps GOP intransigence on things like the debt ceiling may have taken a toll. But I digress…

My administration will be a little more biased toward growth. It’ll treat businesses with more respect. There will be no magic recovery, but gradually the animal spirits will revive.

Ahh! The confidence fairy! It’s worked so well in Britain.

Seriously — this has gone beyond embarrassing to the point of an insult to Brooks’ readers.  We should vote for Romney because Mitt of all people will unleash the beast within us?  Implausible (and actually kind of icky) sexual innuendo aside — does anyone over at the Times remember what happened the last time we let the animal spirits run free?  Again, global financial disaster anyone.  Words fail me (and a good thing too, considering the heroic length of this screed).

The third big problem is Medicare and rising health care costs, which are bankrupting this country. Let me tell you the brutal truth. Nobody knows how to reduce health care inflation….

This is basically wrong.  Bluntly:  other countries get better outcomes for much less.  Their costs have been rising, to be sure, but there is no doubt that there are plenty of models out there that would reduce US medical costs in ways that would make the phrase “bankrupting the country” simply bullshit.  That there are possibly intractable political obstacles to emulating any other model or cherrypicking from several might be true.  But if so, that’s in part because compromised members of the media use the platforms of great influence to obscure the basic international facts of medical care.  One more thing:  following up on a recent slowing of medical cost inflation in Massachusetts (with its Romneycare prototype of the national system) we now have an ongoing attempt to capture some of the insights that have allowed other countries to contain costs here in the home of the bean and the cod.  We are not so ignorant as the writing of David Brooks would leave us.

The first, included in Obamacare, is to have an Independent Payment Advisory Board find efficiencies and impose price controls. The problem is that that leaves the painful cost-cutting decisions in Washington, where Congress rules.

This is simply incoherent.  An independent board is not of necessity a pawn of Congress, which is why the Republican party has tried so hard to limit the power of IPAB.

Congress wrote provisions in the health care law that have already gutted the power of the advisory board. The current law allows Congress to make “cuts” on paper and then undo them with subsequent legislation. That’s what Congress always does.

Which is why you raise the bar to Congressional attempts to reduce the independence of the board, rather than lower it.

The second approach, favored by me, is to scrap the perverse fee-for-service incentives and use a more market-based approach. I think there’s ample evidence that this could work, but, to be honest, some serious health economists disagree.

Evidence like this.

Again, I cannot help but believe that Brooks knows about the Medicare Advantage experiment in market-competition vs. single payer (Medicare) deliver of health services.  Health care is famously an example of a market prone to failure, and it should have come as no surprise that the program did not achieve the fantasies of those for whom the words “free market” are as potent an incantation in this worls as Expecto Patronum! would be.  Brooks is such a deluded creature, but still, the numbers aren’t even close.  That he writes this stuff is, again, a measure of his essential intellectual contempt for his audience.

Almost done… I promise

I’m willing to pursue any experiment, from any political direction, that lowers costs and saves Medicare.

No.  A vouchers are not insurance; the choice of Ryan shows what votes in the House have already confirmed:  the GOP approach to health care has nothing to do with cost containment and everything to do with shifting costs from the entire nation to the individuals confronting the need for care, many of whom will, most likely, be priced out of critical segments of the health care delivery system.  Whatever else Romney proposes, it is not “saving” Medicare

Democrats are campaigning as the party that will fight to the death to preserve the Medicare status quo. If they win, the lesson will be: Never Touch Medicare. No Democrat or Republican will dare reform the system, and we will go bankrupt.

No.  See above. Democrats, including those in my and Mitt Romney’s home state (sort-of, in his case) are currently touching medical care delivery in ways that do carry risk.  We can count, unlike our Laffable GOP friends.  The difference is we actually attempt to construct policy to do something about the numbers.

All right.  I’m done.  So much for telegraphy.  Did I mention how much I loathe the condescension of David Brooks?  It’s not the assumption that we’re dumb enough to buy this that gets me in the end, though.  It’s that he continues to use his very bully pulpit to advance ideas he has to know are based on bullshit that if enacted would harm so very many people.  I do not wish physical harm on him.  A year or two in a Trappist monastery would satisfy me just fine.

Images: Anthony van Dyke, Portrait of a Commander in Armour, with a Red Scarf,  before 1641.

Johann Heinrich Füssli, detail from The Fairy Queen Titania, 1793-1794.

Send In The Clowns

August 22, 2012

I’m late to the Ferguson party, partly because I’ve been travelling, and partly because I can’t easily get past my initial reaction:  it’s Ferguson, dudes.  Of course he’s a hack, someone who’s been trading on attitude and an accent since he arrived on these shores (and before, of course). But I want to pile on just a little bit, for a reason that I hope will become clear a little later on in this post. (And, as I look at the blog, later still.)

Still, just to refresh everyone’s memory after a couple of days of Akin folly, Ferguson attempted in the pages of Newsweek to disguise a polemic as an argument for Obama’s replacement by his preferred Ryan-Romney ticket. (Note — I’m not making an error in the order there.  Again, wait for it below.)  He lists a series of alleged policy failures and promises, now much debunked — Ezra Klein’s  more-in-sorrow flensing may be the best place to start, but Fallows, whom John linked, and Krugman, and Delong, and …. hell, perhaps most devastatingly Andrew Sullivan* have managed to shred whatever remains of Ferguson’s reputation.  It all gets worse in the “defense” Ferguson (no linky) has vomited up across the Newsweek/Daily Beast site, in which the angry not-so-young man Niall “demolishes” folks like DeLong by complaining that the UC professor hasn’t written his book fast enough for his taste. (See Fallows for a round-up of the derision the belligerant Scot’s second bite at the apple has earned.)

But all of Ferguson’s wind and wheeze can’t mask the underlying reality: he wrote a deliberately deceptive piece and his attempt at defense merely has us pondering which of these British officer fitness reports best applies to him.  I’m partial to number 12 (obvious, really), but on reflection, I think I’d go with 5.  Number 2 ain’t bad either.

But I digress.

Here I just want to look at one key point.  And that is that Ferguson, sorry as he is, is literally the best the Right has got when it comes to intellectual credibility.  So it’s worth looking at what now represents the gold standard of rigorous thought on the right.

Ferguson actually starts from a perfectly acceptable premise:  the economy sucks, and the Obama administration has not accomplished as much as Candidate Obama had hoped and predicted.  What Ferguson does with that premise is what has been so thoroughly demolished by just about everyone, so I’ll pass over most of what he wrote in silence.  Here, I just want to turn to his one affirmative argument:

Now Obama is going head-to-head with his nemesis: a politician who believes more in content than in form, more in reform than in rhetoric. In the past days much has been written about Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s choice of running mate. I know, like, and admire Paul Ryan. For me, the point about him is simple. He is one of only a handful of politicians in Washington who is truly sincere [italics in the original] about addressing this country’s fiscal crisis.

Note that Ferguson has Obama confronting Paul Ryan, not the emasculated and irrelevant Romney.**  And note too Ferguson here signs on to the favorite lie of the right-wing commentariat.  Let me illustrate.

What do you call a person who’s budgetary plan increases the federal deficit by $2.6 trillion over its first ten years?  Bonus question:  what do you call that person who has proposed such a fiscal Molotov cocktail in order to provide the richest among us with a tax cut?  Double Jeopardy round:  what do you call such a person who does so despite a rich trove of academic work demonstrating that the US is well below the revenue-maximizing top tax rate even keeping the current baroque tax code?***

If you are a member of the reality based community, one who retains honor enough to allow words their common meaning and actual data their sway over even cherished contrary preconceptions, then you would say that if that man claimed to be a serious fiscal thinker he was at best delusional, and much more likely a simple liar. A thief of sense.

OTOH, if you’re Niall Ferguson, you call that man, Paul Ryan, “sincere.”

On reflection, if Niall were right, that would be worse, certainly for Ryan (sincere buffoons are still risible), and, as it turns out, for Niall himself.  What does it say about a “historian” who so ignores the easily accessible world to spin a fantasy of saviors on their white steeds, ready to defend us from the usurper in the White House?

Nothin’ good.****

One more thing, really, the buried lede (or lead, if that’s how you roll) for this whole post.  Ferguson himself is just the insult to honest sex-workers that DennisG’s post describes.  The real insight we gain from his massive embarassment is what it tells us about the state of Republican intellectualism.  And what should scare you is that Niall is truly the best they’ve got.  Here’s The New Yorker’s John Cassidy thinking along the these lines:

Where are the real conservative intellectuals these days? Surely there must be some, but sometimes it seems like all the right has to offer is a soap-box mountebank like Ryan, a trio of embittered Supreme Court Justices, and a few gnarled old Washington fixtures like Bill Kristol, George Will, and Charles Krauthammer. Given this vacuum, it’s relatively easy for an energetic and disputatious blow-in like Ferguson to emerge as one of Obama’s most visible, if not exactly persuasive, critics.

Chew on that for a second.  What Cassidy is almost saying (though he doesn’t go all the way there, perhaps because he is very much still part of the inside-looking-out wing of modern American journalism) is that modern conservatism in America is simply a failure.  It’s wrong.  It doesn’t connect to the real world.  Its axioms are false and its prescriptions are disastrous, from Niall Ferguson’s unrequited demand that the US behave like a proper empire to the Ryan fantasy that lasting prosperity can be built on growing income inequality — and the earnest claim by so many over there that ours is the nation in which the error of extending the franchise to women can be in part rolled back by denying every double-X agency in their own persons.
It’s all a disaster; wrong, bad for the country, bad for the world, a ticket to Rome, c. 476 CE.

As for the party of the first part?  Pity Ferguson’s students.  And pity the nation that ever takes this hollow man seriously.

*When you’ve lost Sullivan:

As for Iraq, Niall says the exit was premature. It was negotiated by Bush. Maliki didn’t want us there any more. Niall thinks we should occupy a country with all the massive expense that entails – against its will? Seriously? And it’s Obama who is unserious on the debt?

** Does anyone besides me see a longer term problem developing for team Elephant in the steady rasp of that dull saw rowing away on Romney’s nether parts?  The press isn’t even bothering to ask him anymore — it’s what Ryan thinks that matters.  Akin gives him the classic one-finger salute and he has to say “please sir, may I have another.” Ann Romney, poor dear, gets trotted out to reassure a doubting America that he really isn’t a Red Lector from planet ten.  (Still don’t know what’s up with the watermelon.)  And…you get the point.  I’ve never seen anything like this. Is there going to be a recognizable homunculus to vote for come November?

**See e.g., Berkeley economist Emanuel Saenz’s comment in this survey:

Based on best estimates and even with current tax code, US top rate is still significantly below revenue maximizing tax rate

****I get the argument that DennisG channels from Stephen Marche that Ferguson makes much more as a monkey-boy for hedge fund MOTUs, but I do think that Ferguson actually cares a great deal about status; he derives enormous satisfaction from his persona as a credentialed wise man.  It hurts when folks he wants to defer to him instead disdain him.  It doesn’t kill; stacks of Benjamins do staunch the wounds.  But it does sting.

Images:  Alfred Dedreux, Pug Dog in an Armchair, 1853.

Hieronymous Bosch, Cutting the Stone, (alternate title: Extraction of the Stone of Folly), before 1516.  (I know I’ve used it before, but it works here…)

Q: Iz Tom Friedman Learning?

July 25, 2012

A:  No.

When last we checked in on the moustache of wisdom, we learned the real reason we should start a war with Iraq.

One would have thought that would be the end of Tom Friedman as someone anyone could take seriously.  Hell, it should have been the start of the time people spat on the sidewalk as he passed them by.

But, of course, because we have been so well and benevolently led by our elites, Tom of the Married Fortune and Unmerited Influence continues to opine about the sacrifice and loss others should undertake in the service of his worldview.

Exhibit A:

And Iraq was such a bitter experience for America that we prefer never to speak of it again. But Iraq is relevant here. The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics. My gut tells me that Syria will require the same to have the same chance.

 

A little fisking seems in order.

And Iraq was such a bitter experience for America that we prefer never to speak of it again.

You don’t.  We do.  Why? 

Because adults (and lots of children, in fact) understand that the best way to avoid repeating colossal f*ck ups is to try to understand what went wrong.  You know, talk about how we got into that war (lookin’ at you, little Tommie) how we planned for the post-combat phase (lookin’ at you George W. Bush and all your feckless minions) understanding the full weight of the losses incurred both by the US and the Iraqis we sought to liberate from oppression (in the best but certainly not an exclusive reading of our mission).  It would be useful to have some real inquiry into what fighting that war on those justifications did to the US, both in terms of human and material loss, and in terms of the damage done to our polity and society.  We used to be able to say that torture was everywhere and always illegal. Not anymore, bro…..Hell you get the idea.

Tom Friedman has an obvious motive to cry silence on the Iraq war; otherwise, his unblemished record of wrong — and of abject moral failure — would continue to get trotted out for a look-see.  As here.

The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops.

Counterfactual not in evidence. “The only reason?”  Could sanctions have worked?  Could a Libya style involvement have been possible.  What about creating an independent Kurdistan in the north and starting from there?  I’m not saying any of these things would work, or even were plausibly good ideas at the time — but the “only reason” trope exists only to crush the possibility of argument over a claim that can’t be tested.  Gutless reasoning in other words.

And then there is the carefully worded phrase “any chance for a decent outcome.”

Begs the question, don’t it? How much of a chance do you need for a war of choice to have been justified on any interest calculation?  And what are those chances anyway?  From Friedman’s own employer:

BAGHDAD — Al Qaeda in Iraq carried out one of the most coordinated and baldly sectarian series of attacks in years on Monday, aiming for Shiite targets with car bombs, checkpoint ambushes, and assaults on a military base and police officers in their homes in an offensive that its leadership appeared to equate with the Sunni-led uprising in neighboring Syria.

The offensive, coming in the early days of Ramadan, the monthlong religious rite of fasting by day and feasting by night, was without precedent over the past few years, at least in the sheer number of attacks, spread over so many locations in a third of Iraq’s 18 provinces, from north to south.

It raised new concerns about the government’s ability to contain the violence, six months after the last American troops left the country following more than eight years of occupation and civil war that upended Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led minority power base and empowered Iraq’s long-repressed Shiite majority.

“I think Al Qaeda in Iraq made a big joke of the government and the Iraqi security forces,” said Khalid Fadel, a military analyst and former instructor at the Iraqi Military College. “They were so clear that they were going to launch attacks during Ramadan, and the government said that they have information of about 30 terrorist groups entering the country, but still the security forces are unable to prevent the attacks.”

Look.  Maybe Friedman is right for once, though nothing in past performance suggests that I should count on anything but the triumph of hope over experience.  It would indeed be great if all that price paid in Iraq by all parties did create a foundation for peaceful social and public life in that country. (Though again, it’s important to remember Friedman’s classic mission creep.  Success is here defined not as t meeting our own pre-conflict objectives, the ambition to assert a Pax Americana in the Middle East and in the prevention of terrorist attacks, but rather by our i serving some grand missionary role to bring democracy to the great unwashed.)  But  in the face of the ongoing civil strife In Iraq, it’s simple counterfactual folly to argue that the US intervention in Iraq can be held up as successful.

Onwards!…and a little detour.

Check out this phrase:

America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife

It’s possible to be a bad writer and a good thinker, though that’s a trick that’s harder than it looks.  But it continues to amaze me just how brutal an abuser of the English language is Tom Friedman.  Think of  all the richness of imagery and allusion of which the language is capable, and wonder at the epithet “that well armed midwife.”  It’s going to take some time before I can get the image of the US as a woman bending over the baby Jesus’s birthing table (see above), M-16 at her hip.  Shakespeare wept!

Wait! There’s more.  Friedman characterizes the US in Iraq as

reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides

WTF?  Were we ever trusted by any side?  This is just wishful rewriting of the actual skein of conflict in Iraq.  Pure nonsense.  This is Friedman telling himself what he wants — really has — to believe in  order not to see an imbecile with blood on his hands everytime he looks in a mirror.

And now to Fisk’s end:

My gut tells me that Syria will require the same to have the same chance.

Your gut?  Your F*cking Gut! Jesus, Mary and the mule, dude, only connect the dots for once in your life!

Your gut…

…is the least reliable organ of sense since Tatiana beheld Bottom.

No one — and I mean absolutely no human being with a capacity for reason above that of a ficus — cares about your indigestion.  If you don’t have anything better to base your opinion on, Shut. The. Hell. Up.

To be fair to a man who still sports the least convincing porn ‘stache in public life, Friedman in this column does admit that American intervention in Syria isn’t going to happen.  He concees, several paragraphs below the one dissected above that Iraq is not IRL a satisfactorily emerging democracy.  And he even recognizes that the situation in Syria is beyond our control, and unlikely to meet our desires.

But such moments of hungover clarity don’t count for much with me in a column so soaked with nostalgia for the time when the Friedmans of our governing class could tell the world to “suck on this,” and the US would send in the troops  in the service of middle-aged men’s fantasies.

Channeling my inner Brad DeLong:  why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

Image:  Lorenzo Lotto, The Birth of Jesus, 1527-28.

Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer, 1617.

 

 

David Brooks Is Always Wrong-Yeshiva Bocher edition

February 19, 2012

David Brooks is the plausible half of the Times’ con-op pair; Douthat, to be sneered at later, is the best known for not being as overtly, epically awful as William Kristol.  (Talk about the subtle bigotry of low expectations.)

Brooks’ trick, the one he’s mastered as his inferiors on the Right bloviating bench have not, is to present sentences that seem to imply great learning, whilst never falling into the temptation to make specific claims of fact that can be shown to be wrong.  It’s an important skill, and it fools lots of people who should know better.  Not so long ago, I was talking with a reporter from the Great Grey Lady herself — a good one, a real journalist covering a difficult beat and doing it well. Douthat, my interlocuter agreed, was an embarassment.  But Brooks.  Now there was someone, said my companion, who even if you disagreed with him, always managed to surprise you.

Well, I suppose, but not in a good way.

After I recovered from blowing bourbon though my nose, I put it to the room that the problem was that Brooks arrived not at unanticipated conclusions, but at pre-determined ones, to which he gave unmerited weight by grabbing the lustre of some intellectual antecedent or another whether or not that purported authority actually bore on the case at hand.

He does some variation on this gimmick over and over again.  It can be an appeal to anonymous “culture” — as in this catastrophe of a column — or it can be a more direct invocation of some exceptionally learned, and often obscure source.

So it is with Brooks now infamous  column on Jeremy Lin, basketball and Jewish Modern Orthodoxy.

Brooks of course has taken plenty of hits for his astonishing display of cluelessness about big time sports in general, basketball in particular, and the nature of the point guard position in fine detail. Charlie Pierce’s take down is vintage, but folks both here and many other places have had their way with the last-kid-picked-for-dodgeball poster child that is our David.  I agree with everything said in such pieces; it takes a willed choice to write so badly, so wrongly about something as broadly understood and loved as basketball.

But I think that all those snarktacular take downs stopped short.  Brooks is probably not as utterly dumb about this stuff as he appears to be in the first three quarters of the column; rather, as always with this sorry excuse for a public thinker, there’s a specific goal in mind.  You have to look carefully, because he tries to disguise the tell in such a way you won’t notice the bad faith that underlies what he presents as a self-evident conclusion.

So, in this column, the goal isn’t to make any kind of point about basketball, or the nature of sport, or even about what actually goes into superlative performance in any human endeavor.  The real end of Brooks’ barrage of high-toned word salad* comes late, almost buried in a gush of seemingly deeply pondered thought:

Much of the anger that arises when religion mixes with sport or with politics comes from people who want to deny that this contradiction exists and who want to live in a world in which there is only one morality, one set of qualities and where everything is easy, untragic and clean. Life and religion are more complicated than that.

Translated: it’s OK for the bishops to meddle with your lady parts because they are really engaging the tragic tension between ambition and self-abnegation.  Don’t get angry, because, damn it, this moral balancing is hard.

Of course, had Brooks simply said that we should not resist the injection of one view of religious obligation into the discourse of civil society, it would have been much easier just to say what many have recently hammered home:  it’s not religious conscience that’s the problem; it’s the assertion of one person’s religious views (biases, delusions) at the expense of others’ ethical, moral, and or faith-derived perspectives.

So, what Brooks has to do here, slyly, is to assert a universal, inarguable property of moral thinking that could trump any picayune sectarian objection that, say, my interpretation of Jewish tradition would prohibit state-sponsored rape.  He does so with the rhetorical gimmick outlined above.  Lin, he tells us, is caught between his desire to excel as a basketball player, which Lin sees as self-glorifying, and the ability to direct the greater glory to the divine.  That tension, Brooks tells us, lies between “two moral universes” that are not reconciliable.

And here is where he rolls out his big gun, a suitably impressive sounding, but (outside certain circles) almost wholly unknown really smart guy:

Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures.

A couple of things to note here.  First, check out the very clever way in which Brooks appropriates to  himself the mantle of the wise man.  “Our best teacher,” he writes, to introduce Rabbi Soloveitchik, who is indeed a major figure in the construction of the Modern Orthodox view of Jewish life and faith.  The implication is clear.  Brooks himself has tilled these fields, has spent all the needed long hours in the study hall to master his Torah and his Talmud, the commentaries and the responsa — and from all this has distilled the labor of centuries to an essence captured by this one writer, hitherto utterly unknown to most of his readership.  It’s a lovely bit of sleight of hand: Soloveitchik’s asserted authority confers greater weight on Brooks himself in his role as the judge of the “best” source on matters of moral complexity.  How fortunate we are to have humble David as our guide!

The second feature to notice is that Brooks, in what appears to be his SOP, seems to hope that no one will actually go read the (outside Jewish Orthodox circles) reasonably obscure works he references.  You will note that links to the two essays Brooks singles out are strangely missing.  One might infer that such works — religious meditations by an orthodox Rabbi who died almost a decade ago (aeons in internet years!) could only be found in tattered volumes found in stacks to which most folks will never gain access.  Or one might wonder about the possibility of bad faith.

Bet on door number two.

Just to do what Mr. Brooks would not:  here’s the link (PDF) to “The Lonely Man of Faith,” and here’s one for “Majesty and Humility.

So what happens should you actually dive into that work?

Well — let’s look at what Brooks says he gets from his august teacher:

First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.In The Lonely Man of Faith and Majesty and Humility, he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

Soloveitchik plays off the text that humans are products of God’s breath and the dust of the Earth, and these two natures have different moral qualities, which he calls the morality of majesty and the morality of humility. They exist in creative tension with each other and the religious person shuttles between them, feeling lonely and slightly out of place in both experiences.

A couple of thing.  For one, it’s  “The Lonely Man…”  that engages the story of the two Adams. The other essay does draw a dichotomy based on two notions of the first man’s creation, but it draws on a rabbinical tradition to pick out two aspects of religious experience which Soloveitchik deploys to a distinct interpretative end — an astonishingly moving one when the essay shifts from a larger argument to an account of Soloveitchik’s search for some communion with the divine at the point of his wife’s death.

But really, all that’s trivial compared to the real sin Brooks commits here.  That would be — and I’m sure this comes as no surprise — that he simply gets it wrong.  What Brooks says about Soloveitchik’s teaching is not what can be found in the writing cited.  Look above:  Brooks claims that the  man of faith suffers loneliness because he must move between an active role building the world and the passive one of an observer humbled by the glory of God’s creation.  Here’s what the rabbi actually concludes:

Modern Adam the second, as soon as he finishes translating religion into the cultural vernacular, and begins to talk the “foreign” language of faith, finds himself lonely, forsaken, misunderstood, at times even ridiculed by Adam the first, by hinself. When the hour of estrangement strikes, the ordeal of man of faith begins and he starts his withdrawal from society, from Adam the first—be he an outsider, be he himself. He returns, like Moses of old, to his solitary hiding and to the abode of loneliness. Yes, the loneliness of contemporary man of faith is of a special kind. He experiences not only ontological loneliness but also social isolation, whenever he dares to deliver the genuine faith-kerygma. This is both the destiny and the human historical situation of the man who keeps a rendezvous with eternity, and who, in spite of everything, continues tenaciously to bring the message of faith to majestic man. (“The Lonely Man of Faith,” p. 65)

So, to Soloveitchik, a person engaged in this world, Adam the First, is demonic (his word) in his quest to succeed.  Adam the Second is lonely, but not because he has a dual allegiance, not because he flits between a sense of work and success in this world and a contemplative life of prayer and surrender.  Rather, he suffers solitude — or embraces it — because the men and women of the world pay him insufficient heed.

That’s Soloveitchik’s view.  I think it suffers from a conclusion derived from assumptions not in evidence, but that’s not the point.  It is, rather, that Brooks distorts what his source plainly writes to bend that thinker’s ends to his own.  This is the most basic form of intellectual dishonesty, an attempt to bolster a bad argument by laying claim to the authority but not the actual sense of a mind greater than one’s own.  It is Brooks’ stock in trade.

And this takes us back to the end to which Brooks hoped to turn this bit of fakery.  Remember, we face an irreducible contradiction.  We must, he beseeches us, concede that the two goals of mastery — really authority over our own bodies, agency — and that of surrender, of devotion to something beyond ourselves are “irreconciliable” — which means we must at times defer to one side or the other.  And that, he says, is what those who object to religion’s intervening into politics don’t get, but should.

Which is to say — sometimes you have to let the bishops mess with your body, or your desire to have sexytime without intending to enjoy babytime.  That’s the price of living with the incompatibility of agency and surrender to established (moral) authority.

You can see why Brooks might not want to say that plain.

More simply:  Expressed clearly Brooks’ conclusion does not follow from his premise:  a this-world focus does not preclude a rich moral life, nor does it bar the recognition that life is tragic, that man (and woman) born of woman is bound to die.  Those who oppose the injection of particular religious views into politics are unable to see complexity in life?  Really?  In what corner of the multiverse?

And that’s why you get all the wind and the flapping of authorial buttocks in this piece: Soloveitchik is this week’s victim of David’s friendly fire, just a name to be propped up to obscure the fatuousness of the underlying argument.  No orthodox anything me, but the old Rabbi deserves better, and Brooks should, but won’t, be ashamed of himself.

I’ll give him this, though:  he’s good.  You do have to work to find the con in his work.  But it’s always there.

So, in conclusion, let me simply say to Mr. Brooks (having finally exhausted any last reserve of politesse)…

…F**k you.  With an oxidized farm implement.

*Think of Brooks as the rocket, goat cheese, and heirloom pear end of the spectrum of the baffle-with-bullshit crowd.

Images:  Rembrandt van Rijn, The Old Rabbi, 1642

Pedro Berruguete, Burning the Heretics (Auto da fé), c. 1500

Eugène Delacroix, The Barque of Dante (Divine Comedy, Inferno, 8) ,1822.

Jacob Jordaens, Suzanna and the Elders, before 1678.


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