Posted tagged ‘Elizabeth Warren’

November 7, 2012

I’m still grinning ear to ear.

My voice is hoarse from all last night’s howling at the moon with 1000+ of my suddenly dearest friends (MA Democrats do know how to party….).  All day I’ve failed to recover (old man!) from the resulting 3:30 a.m. bedtime, followed by that all-to-familiar 6:45 alarm that begins the process of getting Blessed Increase off to school.

But by damn, I’m still smiling huge.

What’s more, sometime last night — after the fourth scotch I think, or maybe the first bourbon I had to follow those wee drams — it came to me:  years of GOP obstruction had one limpidly clear consequence last night.

A while back, the Senate had a choice:  entertain the nomination of a grandmotherly law professor to serve as the first head of a novel Consumer Finance Protection Bureau — or to send Elizabeth Warren packing as part of a larger campaign to prevent that new body ever taking action.

We all know what happened:  the Senate’s Republicans told President Obama they would never confirm Warren (or anyone) for the job.  The recess appointment that followed provoked controversy enough, and whether by her choice or Obama’s, the administration decided not to toss gasoline on the flames by placing Warren at the head of the agency she had (with others) built.

Instead, she was told to pack up her marbles and go home, with the GOP celebrating her return to the safely (they thought) isolated groves of academe.   As it happens, Warren made her way back to the  Massachusetts just as our accidental senator, Scott Brown was showing all the signs of being a lock to extend the wild ride he’d begun by defeating the single worst political candidate for whom it’s been my misfortune to volunteer.*

Sure, there were other Democrats already aiming at Brown, at least a some of them good people who, I’m sure, would make solid legislators.  But to be blunt:  they were second and third tier candidates.  Brown had a ton of money, and — as the actual race that followed demonstrated — no worries at all about being able to attract much, much more.  He had the image stuff down:  he was a good guy with the truck who managed to (seem to) be as independent of his party as every Massachusetts Republican needs to be.  He was nice looking (if you like that sort of look), well known and mostly liked state-wide, with a campaign organization already in place that non of the Democrats in the race could begin to match.

Yes, this is a Democratic state, and yes, it was a Presidential year — but no one with a finger in the wind thought that Brown was seriously at risk.  The tell:  not one of the ten Democrats from Massachusetts serving in the House  chose to risk their safe seats for a run at the upper chamber.

Enter Elizabeth Warren.  She arrived preceded by at least some fame.  She proved able to draw money as no other MA Democrat this year could have.  And she turned out to be a genuinely talented campaigner.  She wasn’t perfect — but as a rookie from out of town in a state that has historically been deeply unfriendly to women chasing the top jobs, she started out good, learned fast, and became truly impressive by the end of the race.  She hit all the notes, playing beautifully to the better angels of our natures, while, as her  scorched earth counterattack on Brown’s unbelievably feckless asbestos attacks demonstrated — she managed to  master all the necessary lessons of the gut-punch school of Massachusetts politics.

And yesterday, she won.  Decisively.  The invincible Senator Brown ended the night as roadkill squashed by a juggernaut no mere pickup could dodge.

Counterfactuals are never certain — but I can’t come up with a scenario that has Brown falling to anyone in the original list of Democrats seeking to oppose him.

I can’t see Elizabeth Warren running if she were in her first year or so shepherding a new agency she’d worked so long and so hard to establish.

If the minority in the Senate had merely behaved as virtually every prior caucus of both parties had done, allowing the confirmation relatively routinely of a qualified executive branch nominee, I can’t see anything but re-election and a full six year term for the Republican who took Ted Kennedy’s seat.

And yet, on the 50th anniversary of Ted’s first senatorial election victory Warren and not the incumbent  will be heading back to Washington.

All because the Republicans made a decision to oppose literally everything the President proposed.  I’m not saying that they could have anticipated the consequences that flowed from the decision to try to end every Obama initiative in failure…but there are indeed outcomes that flow from their actions.  What caused once  sure-things like Akin and Mourdock to fall was more explicit, more obvious, clearly the result of the long process of radicalization that has wrecked the Republican party.  But don’t let the self-destruction of the crazies fool you.  They and Brown all lost for overlapping reasons — and the biggest of them is that the GOP has doubled down on the belief that if they wreck the country they will be rewarded with power.  Brown can be seen as collateral damage — or perhaps a victim of Republican friendly fire.

He won’t be the last one.

In the meantime, I get pleasure every time remember this: all those GOP senators who swore never to permit Warren anywhere near actual power have got a problem.

Q:  What do you call that nice lady from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?

A:  Senator.

May they choke on the lesson.

*Losing is no fun, and those last few days of working when you know that the face of the campaign simply never grasped the basics of the job — those final shifts really, really suck.

Image:  Francisco de Goya, Incendio, fuego de noche, 1793.

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

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.


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