Posted tagged ‘McArdle’

Put Bloomberg View on the Publication Suicide Watch List

June 18, 2013

Presented (almost) without comment:

Washington, D.C.-based writer for Newsweek/Daily Beast and blogger Megan McArdle is joining the ranks of Bloomberg View, where she will be a columnist covering the economy, business, politics and national affairs.

Cleopatra_with_the_Asp_(1630);_Reni,_Guido

I’m beginning to wonder if Bloomberg View is an experiment in machine-editing, ’cause I just can’t believe a sentient being would make the decision justified by this quote:

“Megan is an extraordinary writer and thinker,” said David Shipley, Executive Editor of Bloomberg View in a morning statement. “Few people have done a better job chronicling the economic, corporate and technological disruptions of the last decade. She’s going to make a lot of readers — those who have followed her for years and those who will discover her at Bloomberg — smarter and happier. We’re thrilled that she’s joining the team.”

Good luck with that.  If Bloomberg readers can count, I just don’t think “happineness” will be the correct emotional descriptor.

I did have another thought:  I’m wondering if McArdle’s finely honed survival skills are in play, in which case we may be getting a leading indicator on the prospects for our Beastly friends.

Reference your favorite McArdle howlers below.  Mine is this one ,brought into new relief by too many tragic events over the intervening years.

Image:  Guido Reni, Cleopatra with the Asp, c. 1630

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.

McArdle Mini-Me Follies, Real Estate Economics Division

May 25, 2012

Blogger’s note: You’ll find below that I use an anonymous source to support my attempt to dissect Someone [who] is wrong on the Internet.™  As always, anonymous sources are only as trustworthy as the writer who deploys them.  You have been warned.  (BTW — I do know that it’s cheating to do even minimal reporting on a blog post.  Sue me.)

Dr. Manhattan is one of the McArdle guests feeding the wire whilst that blog’s proprietor is preparing what will no doubt be a never-before equalled work of economic and/or culinary erudition. His is the nom de blog of someone described as “a lawyer…who represents, among others, clients in the investment industry” — a connection that may prove significant below.

Up for dissection today: his post titled “A Modest Proposal” in which he promotes the idea of killing what he alleges to be the lead culprit in the crash of 2007-8:  Mortgage Backed Securities.

What’s fishy here?  Well — lots.

I’m not going to go full metal blogpocalypse on this, in part because life is too short, and in part because Dr. Manhattan gets props in my book for having written clearly and unequivocally against the vaccine-autism claimed link on his (now dead) personal blog — from the perspective of a parent of an autistic child.  That kind of writing in that community takes courage, so this brush with the McArdle empire will be as free of my usual attitude in that direction as I can make it

That said, here’s the passage that set me wondering about this post:

…killing MBS will likely kill the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage with no prepayment penalty, which, in the words of Raj Date, “does not flourish in the state of nature.”  And right now very few people can get one of those anyway, which is not a coincidence.

Hmmmm.

One of the benefits of hanging out at a place like MIT is that there is almost always someone around who actually knows stuff on just about any subject you’d care to check…and so it is with the economics of real estate.  I dropped a line to a colleague up the street, and got confirmation of the obvious:  the 30 without a pre-payment penalty (the clause that makes refinancing mortgages so straightforward) significantly predates the rise of mortgage backed securities (by decades).  Such mortgages start to appear in the 30s; MBS start to become significant in the marketplace after 1970.  That the end of the latter would kill the former is, as we say, an assumption not in evidence.

Oh well.  And that “very few people can get one…” claim.  I’m filing this in the life-is-too-short category to check fully, so I’ll just note that (a) 30 year mortgages remain by far the most common housing loan out there — roughly three quarters of all mortgages as of the most recent Census report (2011, on 2009 data).

Also, being as I’m someone refinancing for the third time a loan first taken out in 2009, I can in my anecdotage* attest that the no-prepayment-penalty mortgage is both alive and trivially easy to obtain.  (At least in my market, it remains the default option.)

What bothers me about this passage is just the garden variety flaw behind so much glibertarian and/or right econ blogging:  what they know** requires no actual data to confirm.  This is kind of what you’d expect at a McArdle-branded blog:  that which ought to be true need not be checked.

But the tricky bit is that plausibility is all; the moment the reader’s willing suspension slips  — then you read everything else in the piece with attenae quivering.  Hence, I was ready when I took a second look at this gem:

 CDOs and credit default swaps don’t kill financial systems, mortgages kill financial systems.

Uh.  No.

As it happens, I’m not operating out of my usual sea of ignorance on this point, as my current project involves a deep dive into the first debt-for-equity swap in financial history.  The key fact most often ignored from that early period of finance is that though plenty went wrong, usually in ways that, frankly, aren’t materially different from the ways folks game and/or fail to grasp the system now, the core financial act of abstracting things into numbers is an enormously useful trick.  It is, truly, an engine of wealth.  See, e.g. Adam Smith, chapter IV of Book I of Wealth of Nations on the importance of a medium of exchange; currency is just the first step in the process by which finance mediates transactions.

In that vein, mortgage backed securities are like any tool; you can build a house with a hammer; you can also crush a harp seal’s skull.  It is all a matter of the user and the constraints that user’s society places on the deployment of such tools.  As my correspondent at MIT put it, there are three clear points of vulnerability inherent in the process of packaging individual mortgages into a big clump:

1). Originators do not have skin in the game and may try to pass off bad loans as good.
2). Rating agencies are paid by the pool creators rather than the investors (who are unknown at the stage when ratings must occur).
3). Special servicing needs a better business model. (TL: I.e., those who handle troubled or in-foreclosure mortgages need to do it right, which isn’t happening)

All of these are known flaws.  All of them are subject to regulatory responses.  My interlocutor again:

Until the 100 year flood #3 was never problematic. As for #1 and #2 as long as F&F were functioning as a public entity they monitored and disciplined originators and rating agencies with bad records. 800 lb gorillas can do that.  So a huge monopsonistic mortgage conduit actually overcame the intrinsic problems with MBS – and in my view should simply be turned into a non-profit public utility!

The alternative to MBS is to return to individual loan underwriting, retention and servicing.  We could certainly choose to say hello to all that, but at a cost — not a trivial one — that in the end would make the price of money for housing detectably higher.

This isn’t a terrifically complicated idea:  from its emergence in the 18th century, the bond market has lowered the cost of capital applied to all kinds of stuff in the real world, beginning, more or less, with the British Empire.  (See, for example, the brief essay buried about 2/3rds of the way through Volume II of Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism, which gave me my first glimpse of the role of liquid capital markets and Britan’s rise to world-power.

All of which is to say that the derangement of the mortgage market in the United States was indeed a major and growing problem through the ‘oughts, compounded by an ideological commitment that prevented regulation everyone with an economics IQ higher than a plant’s understood to be necessary.  But even if the collapse of the housing market provided the spark for global financial disaster, the fuel for that inferno came not from the securities constructed directly out of home loans, but from their derivatives.  And as it is in derivatives that a whale’s share of the money can be made (at least until the music stops) those on Wall St. resisted and still resist not just regulation of those instruments, but any real discussion of their significance.

But here’s the blunt reality of modern finance: the scale of the derivatives market vastly exceeds that of the real economy that underlies it.  The leverage — the number of dollars at risk  in excess of the value of the real assets from which such bets are derived — is what makes for catastrophe.  Dr. Manhattan’s airy confidence, as quoted above, that ” CDOs and credit default swaps don’t kill financial systems,” is more than wrong.  To the extent that it reflects accurately what folks on Wall St. actually believe, it’s terrifying.

Or, as my MIT wise man says, more gently:

Not sure your writer fully understands how CDO and CDS markets work, and how counter party risk is basically unmeasurable – making them horribly subject to a systemic meltdown.

I’m betting none of this comes as a surprise to anyone reading this; reality based communities tend to be able to count on both fingers and toes.  And I guess I’ve committed my usual sin of John Foster Dulles-ing what was, after all, a throwaway of a line and a thought.

But I do think it important to try to push over and over again one basic point: financial markets are essential; they fund real lives.  They are also prone to failure in ways that are unsurprising, and are, at least in part, subject to constraint by design.  To pretend that failure is at once impossible and inevitable, just one of those things (like cancer) that attends the messy business of being alive, is merely to ratify the transfer of wealth from most of us to those with their paws on the capital spigots.

Dr. Manhattan might say that he is merely directing our attention to the root cause of our ills — but it is to me notable that the instrument he wants to do away with is the one that lowers the cost of a mortgage to you and me, and those he wants leave untouched are what buys as 2008.

If it were McArdle herself who had written this, I’d add snark here.  But as I said up top, Dr. Manhattan is someone who has earned some benefit of the doubt.  He may simply have gotten this one wrong, which is a state that comes to us all; me certainly.  So I’ll leave it here….

Over to you all.

*Credit for that coinage (at least in my first hearing) to the king of the three dot columnists, the gone but by no means forgotten Herb Caen .

**In the Mark Twain sense of knowledge.

Images:  Frans Snyders, The Fishmonger, first half of the 17th century.

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770.

While the Cat’s Away…

April 10, 2012

She who is always wrong™ may want to check on what her September April call-ups are doing.  Here’s Adam Ozimek in McArdle’s space pointing out four things just about all economists agree upon, and among them he lists the virtues of the stimulus:

Economists may differ on whether the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was worth the cost overall, but they are in solid agreement that as of the end of 2010 it lowered the unemployment rate. Very few disagreed with or were uncertain about this. In contrast, a significant number questioned whether the recovery act was worth the cost. Importantly, in the space for comments, Stanford’s Pete Klenow emphasized what Scott Sumner and others would say is the central issue: “how much was it offset by less aggressive (than otherwise) unconventional monetary policy?” But even stimulus skeptics should keep their criticisms in perspective: economists strongly reject the idea that stimulus is to blame for our economic woes.

In addition, economists strongly agree that the bank bailouts also lowered the unemployment rate. Of course as Austen Goolsbee commented: “the fact it was necessary doesn’t mean we should be happy about it.”

McArdle, canny as she is, has been careful not to go too far into the weeds on this one.

She doesn’t seem to have said that stimulus as a concept could only fail — as some notables (cough-cough, Mitt) on her side of the aisle have done and continue to do.  But she has consistently said that only a Platonic ideal of a stimulus had a hope, and that any real world attempt is a waste of time.  (Bonus question for those who follow that link.  Spot and name the dire distortion of the history that lies behind her carefully tweezered quote from Paul Krugman.)

BTW: here’s what Krugman actually had to say about the stimulus in 2010:

The good news from the new GDP report is that the fiscal stimulus seems to be working just about the way a sensible Keynesian approach says it should. The bad news from the new GDP report is that the fiscal stimulus seems to be working just about the way a sensible Keynesian approach says it should.

Josh Bivens at EPI has a good overview of the evidence that the stimulus is working. As he says,

“A serious look at the evidence argues that this debate should be closed: ARRA has played a starring role in pushing the        economy into positive growth.”

And here’s Krugman this spring:

On the policy side, major new stimulus may not be in the cards — but there is a real divide in the US between modest stimulus proposals that have some chance of getting implemented and major austerity moves that also have some chance of being implemented. The difference between those two policy variants could be the difference between unemployment below 7 percent two years from now and unemployment back above 9 percent. So this argument has real short-term policy relevance.

So much for McArdle’s bravura, data-less claim that

…we have had two major cases that massively favored Keynesian economics [the New Deal and the Obama stimulus] but Keynesian politics failed both times.

And as for her conclusion that

…at some level, there’s no point in spending a lot of time designing policies which can’t be enacted in any conceivable democratic polity.

…well, if by “any conceivable democratic polity” you mean one in which one of two major political parties had decided to transform itself into an authoritarian cult, then yes — the GOP, using the procedural rules of the US Senate, certainly limited what was possible.  It requires a heroic act of willed blindness to the elephant in the room, though, to see that outcome as an inescable, sadly necessary cost of democracy.

But just on the merits of this one guest post, I’d say that McArdle runs a serious risk if her audience gets used to even occasional economically literate commentary.  Perhaps even that Amen Chorus might notice a lack of couture bedecking the empress.

Image:  Henri Rousseau, The Equatorial Jungle, 1909

Megan McArdle Orders the Burlwood Dash For Her Tumbrel

December 4, 2011

Blogger’s Note: Zandar (apologies…) and Asiangrrl goaded me into diving once more into the swamp that is Megan McArdle’s prose.  But this is it.  There’s real and much more interesting work to be done out there, good stuff to read and (I hope) write.  And it’s clear that I can’t do what folks like TBogg and DougJ have mastered — the precision strike, 300 words and out, that leave the divine Ms. MM’s latest smoking in the ruins.  There’s no “I can handle just one more toke” self-delusion available to me.

So I’m quitting. Cold turkey.

This is the last McArdle post for at least six months — and I’ve empowered my colleague, Seth Mnookin, to tase me if I slip.

Also:  to steal Cosma Shalizi’s customary phrase, here is an attention conservation notice.  What follows is about 2,700 words vivisecting a 1,000 word or so book review.  It’s John Foster Dulles-scale overkill. It’s just me lancing a boil.  That’s all.  Read it at your own pleasure — but don’t come complaining to me that you’ll never get those minutes back.  We cool?

_______________________

My uncle, the ex RA officer, once told me the grim term-of-art British soldiers adapted to describe IRA bomb-makers inept enough to blow themselves up.  They had scored, it was said, an own-goal.

So it is, (without bloodshed, thankfully) that we must read the latest from our favorite Marie Antoinette re-enactor, Megan McArdle, writing in last weekend’s Wall St. Journal.  (And yes, I know DougJ got here first, along with all you would expect from the Balloon Juice commentariat, but what good is snark without oversnark, I say.  Charlie Pierce too.  (Update: and, of course, the invaluable Susan of Texas.)  Well, say I, a feast is as good as enough, is it not.?

Just to recap:  last Saturday, McArdle wrote what was ostensibly a book review that devolved rapidly into a celebration of McArdle’s own purchasing habits and the particular form of her pursuit of happiness.

There’s a lot that could be said about the miserably parched self-and-world view that informs that defense, but the rest of the column is equally egregious, so, in my usual succinct fashion, I decided to have a whack at it:

McArdle begins by announcing that she has bought herself a $1,500 food processor/cooking robot, a Buck Rodgers gadget called a Thermomix. This machine’s claim to fame is that it combines a chopper/grinder/stirrer function with a precision scale and a heating element.  Toss stuff into its mixer bowl in the right order and in what the machine tells you are the right amounts, press some buttons in the correct sequence, and standardized results accrue.

Now, contrary to the outrage in DougJ’s thread, I’m going to say up front that I have no problem with McArdle lusting after this, buying one — it’s her money to blow, after all — and concluding that this kind of automated cooking satisfies her urges.  I’ve dumped most of my sideways snark on this question to the footnote, for anyone that cares.*

No, what gets me, pretty much as always with this writer’s stuff, is her ferocious disregard for basic craft, and what I think is the essential bargain journalists make with their readers.

So, to begin, here she is, ex cathedra, on the book nominally under review, James Roberts’ Shiny Objects:

It’s a thorough survey of both academic research on consumerism and basic finance advice. Still, I first ran into an argument I hadn’t seen before somewhere around page 200…

We have a familiar McArdle rhetorical cheat here.  “I first ran into an argument I hadn’t seen before around page 200…” as if her familiarity with this literature is itself somehow dispositive.  I’ll give you that she’s not quite saying the arguments are wrong, but it is a purely uncheckable diminuition of her antagonist’s authority.

Next:

And well before then Mr. Roberts had fallen into some of the terrible habits of the genre. Though less openly contemptuous of the spendthrift masses than many of his fellow scolds, he still exudes that particular sanctimonious anti-materialism so often found among modestly remunerated professors and journalists.

Oh, snap!  It’s a measure of McArdle’s particular qualities that she manages to transform whatever publication chooses to admit her to its space into that privileged corner of the school steps where the Mean Girls live.

I mean, seriously:  working at jobs we like for money less than that the 1 % can command so warps the character as to turn us unfortunate journalists and professors into hypocritical scolds.  Damn.  I’m short on my month’s quota of vituperation and visible displays of hair-shirt couture.

Of course, this is (a) simple pre-emption:  “I’m not a culinary snob, wielding cash to distract as I chase the lives of my betters.  You’re the snob!  So there!”

And (b) it’s nonsense.  Professors and journalists are not badly paid by any reasonable standard. Roberts himself is a professor of marketing at Baylor, and as of the 2009 mean salary for such faculty was $138,000.   That’s not Prada and hot and cold running Dom rich, but it’s not bad coin by anyone’s standards, and applied to the cost of living in Robert’s Waco, Texas, that’s a sum that will set you up very nicely indeed.

All this is crushing flies with a jack-hammer, I know, but the point is, I think, pretty damn obvious:  McArdle hasn’t or won’t do the work to test the question on the table: whether or not money buys you happiness.  So she throws monkey faeces at the wall instead.

To continue:

Here are some of the things that upset him and that “document our preoccupation with status consumption”: Lucky Jeans, bling, Hummers, iPhones, 52-inch plasma televisions, purebred lapdogs, McMansions, expensive rims for your tires, couture, Gulfstream jets and Abercrombie & Fitch. This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as “these people,” usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio. As with most such books, considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions.

I’ve long noted that McArdle has, to put it kindly, some reading comprehension problems; they are manifest again it this paragraph. She writes down a series of items.  Note that she does not quote — somehow she’s culled this set of items from what could be a single passage, or might be half the book, which would affect the interpretation of what Roberts was actually saying.

Now look at the key claim:  “This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as “these people,” usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio.”

Do you see a pattern of consumption in that catalogue?  Iphones and McMansions — just points on a single cultural and aspirational continuum, right?  a Gulfstream falls uniquely onto the same folks’ bucket lists as Abercrombie and Fitch products?  This is a set of cultural markers that clearly distinguishes Limbaugh dittoheads from those who shop at Murray’s Sturgeon?

What’s actually going on here is McArdle distorting what Roberts is trying to say, even  within her own skewed presentation of his case, in order to transform that serious argument into a spitball fight about class and privilege.  But everybody wants something on that list, and many of us want a lot of it, which is what I understand Roberts to be saying:  the pressure to consume affects us all, no matter what we got or where we live.  Oh — and I’d have to say — it’s pretty bold, to put the nicest spin on it, for a Manhattan-bred, beltway insider like McArdle to lecture a guy living in Waco about what ordinary Americans want.

Really, McArdle’s rush to contemn her neighbors for the class snobbery she imagines she hears (make the lambs stop screaming!) sounds to my suspicious ears to be something that has crossed the writer’s mind.  There’s just a little too much specific desire in that “bling…plasma…rims” catalogue for me to trust her claim as to who spoke such slurs and who listened.  And as for that ” considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions,” I bet Roberts didn’t mention $1,500 food choppers either.

Onward!

Consider the matter of status competition. Mr. Roberts, like so many before him, argues that conspicuous consumption is an unhappy zero-sum game. But this is of course true of most forms of competition: Most academics I know can rank-order everyone in the room at a professional conference with the speed and precision of a courtier at Versailles.

Oh yeah?  McArdle must know a particularly miserable set of academics, which, now that I think on it, is not that farfetched.  All I can say is that at the conferences I attend, McArdle’s kind of high school (yes, that again) attention to who among us are the kewl kats is not the defining dynamic of the meetings.

Of course, the real stupidity here, beyond the “trust-me” bullsh*t inherent in the “most academics I know” approach to reporting, is the idea that academic exchange is merely the arena in which status competition plays out.  This is the shorthand response, but academics are members of a professional community.  They go to conferences to communicate results.   There is competition, and you notice the Nobels in the room and so on.  But most academics understand that better work by anyone raises the status of the entire group as well as of the individuals involved.  Success in physics or  geochronology or the study of counterfeiting and late 17th century finance (a plug, here, in case you were wondering (Kindle edition too!) is not  a zero-sum game.  That McArdle thinks it is explains much.

Any competition, from looks to money to academic credentialing, both consumes a lot of resources and makes many of the participants feel bad about themselves.

No.  See above.  For a beautiful account of the meaning of competing, and not just the competition, check out what is in my opinion the single best book about a sporting event ever written in America, John McPhee’s Levels of the Game.

Actually, I have to say that to say that this passage from McArdle actually made me feel a ghost of pity for her.  Such a direct glimpse into the poverty of her soul!  Setting aside all else:  what a drag it would be to be her!  (Apologies, Bobby D.)

There’s more — I’ve only covered the first half of a two-book review.  I just don’t have the strength to go through that latter half, beyond noting that it took me all of a couple of moments to find that in trashing his book she makes one claim that is simply at odds with what Rutgers economic historian James Livingston, actually says. It’s not “rich savers,” as she has it, whom Livingston charges with inflating bubbles.  Rather, he argues, “corporate profits …[are] just restless sums of surplus capital, ready to flood speculative markets at home and abroad.”  I have little doubt that similar problems obtain with the balance of her review, but there comes a point where even I can take no more.

So one last thought, really an explanation about why it is McArdle so gets under my skin.

That would be because she so diminishes the craft I have spent decades learning and now teach:  how to write about matters of fact; how to be a journalist.  I’ve detailed some, (by no means all) of the kinds of errors of argument and interpretation in this one little fish-wrap piece that make a mockery of the notion of a bargain of honesty with one’s readers.  But I’ve left till now the tic that McArdle displays over and over again that tells you that she simply can’t be trusted.  And that would be her near-constant invocation of strangely generic sources.

Journalists often use anonymous sources, and it’s always an issue.  But good journalists provide enough of the context of anonymity to give the reader a chance to gauge how likely it is that Mr. X actually said what he is reported to have done, and that Ms. Y is actually knowledgeable enough to be a sufficient authority for whatever the reporter asserts.  The guy inside Philip Morris who’s identified only as a Big Tobacco insider — that’s someone who’s need for anonymity the reader understands, and if he says that the tobacco companies knew about the smoking-cancer connection since the fifties — and oh, by the way, here are the shopping bags full of documents — then you know what you’re dealing with.

But those “neighbors” whom, presumably, McArdle engaged in friendly conversation, no doubt hiding her overflowing disdain with all the subtlety and grace for which she is so well known…I don’t think so.

Rather, whenever you read the broad cultural pronouncements of our Village betters, remember this:  the local taxi driver, the “concerned Democrat,” any of Megan McArdle’s usefully clueless liberal “friends”…they don’t exist.  Not in any meaningful sense, at any rate, and any actual journalist knows this, as does any competent editor.

And in the end, that’s why I’ve got to quit this beat for a while — a long time I hope.  McArdle has disproportionate influence, or at least, a much bigger megaphone than her own merits could command.  But in the end, she’s just not that interesting.  There are better things in life to do than to spend precious moment, much less hours, contemplating the train wreck that passes for her body of work.

Oh — and one more thing.  Whilst I’ll defend to the death McArdle’s right to spend her cash on any damn gadget she wants (see the footnote immediately below), that doesn’t mean I won’t snicker at it.  And yup, a $1,500 kitchen robot is pretty much an après moi, le déluge kind of item.

Me, I’d rather Occupy My Kitchen, and dine (as last night) on roast capon with a pasta-and-sausage stuffing, squash and cippoline onions, sides, and an almond and pear tart, home made.  Did I mention that in bamboozling my beloved into marrying me, I gained a former pro chef as a roommate?  I believe I did.

*Go to it, I say.  I don’t even think that McArdle’s appreciation for what the machine can do is as hopelessly misconceived as her examples suggest. While making a béchamel sauce hardly requires such an investment, still I can see the convenience, and in the right context, some real value of such a device.

That would be in a professional kitchen, where the goal of uniform repetition is paramount.  Once you work out the recipe for something you want your restaurant to add to its menu, a machine that automates the process of turning out consistent results every time has an obvious value.  For the home cook?  Well, Nathan Myhrvold has one, and if you are his kind of cook, one fascinated by the application of technology and precision measurement/regulation to cooking (and with the budget to sustain your fancy), then fine.

If you’re McArdle, less compelled by molecular gastronomy than the kind of kitchen olympics that leads one to write a  phrase like “…perfect hollandaise and flawless béchamel can be produced in minutes with virtually no effort,” then clearly, this kind of robot can help mask any flaws in your basic kitchen technique. And, hell, take her word for it that the gizmo is fast and convenient, and that those qualities enable her to make food she likes more often than she previously could.  As McArdle perfectly correctly says — that’s a boon, for her.

There is a price to be paid, it seems to me:  a tedious leveling of one’s cooking.  Once the robot gets going, all you can do is accept the price of automation:  you get consistent results, but you can only experiment by rerunning the whole process — making the same dish again — for each change that might seem desirable.  When you cook by more pedestrian methods, you dip and intervene.  All in all, it’s a perfect device to turn the ambitious but not-terribly-talented home cook’s kitchen into an amateur version of the sort of restaurant Calvin Trillin marvelously dubbed the Maison de la Casa House.  But all in all, if you’ve got the money and you want the crutch — hell, why not?

Images: Joachim Wtewael, Kitchen Scene, 1605.

Jean Clouet (attr.), Charles IX of France with racket,  1552.

Bartholomeus van Bassen, The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, c. 1620-30.

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong™: Occupy Wall St./Income Inequality division

November 2, 2011

I have neither the patience nor the time to wade through the divine Ms. MM’s effusion on the class snobbery at the heart of the Occupy Wall St. movement. (Via Edoroso)

It’s the usual McArdle — self regarding (I was a crappy student who went into the punditing racket because I loved it! And I’m better than you because of that!*); chock full of unsourced or supported claims that, as ever with this writer, are too-good-to-check;** and, frankly too wearisome a barge-load of flabby writing to want to wallow in long enough to do the full fisking that it probably deserves.

So to keep it short (as long as you ignore the footnotes)…let’s just look at one exemplary bit of McArdle drawing on her deep knowledge of the data making sh*t up:

Similarly, in the 1990s, when I worked with a lot of mostly blue-collar and first-generation college grads (with a fair sprinkling of Ivy Leaguers, to be sure), I didn’t hear nearly so much about the rich and how greedy they were–even though in the late 1990s, income inequality was almost certainly worse than it is right now.
That would be this income inequality.  Here is a handy chart:
My 53 year old eyes may not be all that acute, but from where I squint at the screen, it sure looks like the share of US income going to the top one percent is higher now than it was in the late nineties.  If you want to see the data in tabular form, mouse on over here.
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In other words — income inequality was piss poor in the 1990s, but it is in fact worse now.
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Which means, as ever, recall the Levenson corollary to DeLong’s law:
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1.  Megan McArdle is always wrong.
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2.  If your analysis leads you to conclude Megan McArdle is right, refer to rule 1.
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*Really.  In her own words:
“here’s the difference between me and the outraged lower-upper-middle-class: I chose it.  I decided to have terrible grades and major in English, and then job hop in New York before settling down as an IT consultant. “

**Here’s McCardle on the profile of the archetypal OWS supporter, and the thought process that led him/her to camp out in a manner calculated to offend his/her betters:

Probably they should not have sunk tens of thousands of dollars into acquiring a BFA.¹  But these mistakes didn’t usually used to be crippling.  They were a drag, as you paid off those huge student loans with your tiny little income…²
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Unfortunately their choices became utterly, horrifyingly disastrous just at the moment when we had a terrible financial crisis that spiked our unemployment rate up to 10%.  We can argue about exactly who is at fault and to what extent, and how much longer our public sector spending would have been sustainable without the financial crisis.   But whether or not you think their reaction is empirically correct, it certainly isn’t surprising.  To them it looks like a bunch of greedy, stupid bankers stole the jobs that they were entitled to. [Italics added.]
Well, isn’t that special.
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Actually, it’s the usual McArdle switcheroo, a bit of clumsy rhetorical sleight of hand she hopes you won’t notice.  It’s not that the bankers — who are demonstrably greedy and stupid (as in, catastrophic failures at the core jobs of managing risk and allocating capital) — hold jobs that might go to others.  It is that their greed and incapacity destroyed the financial underpinnings of the rest of the economy, so that jobs the US used to create at fairly robust levels no longer appear.  IOW, the OWS critique of the finance crowd is that what they did screwed the rest of us — and that critique is correct, however much Mean Girl in Chief McArdle wants to distract us with the idea that the greedy old Social Security and Medicare receipients and the stimulus in response to the bankster-led crisis is actually the problem.  We’ll argue later about who to blame, she says, but for now let’s not fall prey to childish insults to the poor banking sectors.
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Working this out is really not that hard — unless one is trying to make sure that no one actually pays attention to what happens and who is to blame when a handful of the most richly compensated members of a society f*ck up their one job, whilst looting the till.  But reality is a stubborn thing, and the greed and incompetence of the bankers is by now well documented, including,  for just one example, this pretty blunt piece from the archives of McArdle’s own employer.
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         ¹Number of bachelors degrees awarded in the US in 2008-9: 1,601,368.  Number of such degrees in the fine arts: 89,140 (classified in these statistics as visual and performing arts, but matching the profile of the BFA degree).  Whatever else they are, (talented and monomaniacal, sez one married to a holder of an MFA), fine-arts graduates are unlikely to dominate the revolution, just on the numbers.
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McArdle’s sneer at the arts is even sillier, in fact, when you actually look at the difference between a BFA and a BA.  The BFA curriculum, which typically demands studio and/or practice courses as well as more traditional classroom inquiry is classified as a professional rather than a liberal arts curriculum.  The folks who sign up for a painting BFA know they want to paint, and have some idea (usually a pretty good one) as to what that means — and they have an understanding of the working life they will enter.
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McArdle might have been rhetorically better off dissing her own chosen undergraduate field of English literature — except that there are plenty of people who actually understand what a literature degree is supposed to do, which is not to guarantee an income, but to give you intellectual resources you can apply in the professional setting of your choice.  But imagining that people she disdains might actually have an autonomous inner life is beyond her vapid inability to grasp the fact that the world is not simply what she thinks it ought to be.
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          ²The data here are a bit more complicated than they might at first appear — but a simplified picture is still a pretty good indicator of what’s going on.  And that would be that it’s not that students a generation ago made the same mistakes but were bailed out by the Bush casino economy.
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In this study that looked at the period from 1993 to 2006, you see both an increase in the amount of debt and a shift in the mix of students graduating with high debt loads, with the debt burden in constant dollars rising sharply over those years for every quartile in the study.  All of which is to say that it isn’t that recent grads somehow made the same mistake their elders did and got burned; actual changes in the way the US invests in and builds human capital left them more vulnerable than their predecessors.
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Image: Anonymous,  Kitchen Interior with the Parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus, c. 1610

“Precedent? Megan McArdle keeps using that word …”

October 15, 2011

Jim Bales here, and my thanks to Tom for the loan of the soap box!

Ms McArdle has a piece in which she claims that the Republican obstructionism in Congress to the Obama Administration has a precedent in Democratic obstructionism in Congress to the Hoover Administration.

Sadly, Ms McArdle presents no evidence to support her assertion.

The closest she comes to evidence is quoting Prof. David Kennedy, of Stanford’s History Department, as saying:

“Hoover also faced a very obstructionist Democratic Congress–they understood, as these guys do today, that if they just go in the middle of the road and refused to move, that would benefit them at the next election.  And it paid off.”

Unfortunately, Ms McArdle gives us no information as to how Prof. Kennedy knows that the motives of the Democrats in the 71st and 72nd Congresses (1929-1933) were the same as the motives set forth by Republican Mitch McConnell:

The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”

Think about it. Retaking the White House is more important to the Senate’s most senior Republican than, say, reducing unemployment, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, clothing the in needy, etc. All pale in comparison to putting a Republican in the White House, and so Mr. McConnell has obstructed them all.

Now, is the good Senate Minority Leader true to his word? Well, since Ms McArdle couldn’t take the time to substantiate her assertions (or tell us how Prof. Kennedy substantiates of his assertions), we will have to do a bit of her homework for her.

A simple measure of obstructionism in the Senate is the number of cloture motions introduced over the two years of a particular Congress. (If one does not consider this a measure of obstructionism, then one needs to explain how filibustering is not obstruction.)

As the Republican leader in the Senate, McConnell’s obstructionism in the 111th Congress (2009-10) led to a mere 136 cloture motions. So far (as of Oct. 12) the 112th Congress has had 32 cloture motions.

This level of obstructionism is, according to Ms McArdle, “quite precedented“. In fact, she claims that the precedent can be found in the 71st and 72nd Congresses (1929-31 and 1931-33).

Just how obstructionist were those anti-Hoover Democrats? In the 71st Congress there was precisely one (1) motion for cloture. Such motions skyrocketed in the 72nd Congress, when those dastardly Democrats forced two (2) of them.

If precedent means what the rest of us think it means*, Ms McArdle is claiming that forcing a motion for cloture three times over four years is precedent for forcing 136 such motions over two years (and 168 such motions in less than three). On the other hand, maybe precedent actually means whatever it is she thinks it means.

Vizzini Lives!

[*] Precedent (n): ” An act in the past which may be used as an example to help decide the outcome of similar instances in the future.” Source: Wiktionary

Image:  Jane Sutherland, The Obstruction on Box Hill, 1883.

Why, Knock Me Down With a Feather: Megan McArdle is Still Always Wrong, Climate Science Edition

September 5, 2011

Warning:  This post is way too long.  I mean, really.  You have been warned.

I’ve been off the McArdle beat for a while.  I find I need to take breaks if I’m to have any hope of (a) retaining sanity in the face of unanswerable questions implicit in our current media ecosystem, and (b) getting work that actually matters to me done that would otherwise be derailed by overloaded outrage circuits tripped by reading McArdle’s…musings are, I guess, the kindest way to describe them.

But a BJ commenter (name now lost to a hyperactive “delete” finger on my email…sorry) pointed me to this bit on climate science from a week or two ago, and it’s been sticking in my craw ever since.  In it, she quotes at length from a post at the Volokh Conspiracy by Jonathan Adler, an environmental law specialist with a libertarian and wingnut-thinktank background.

The post McArdle endorses is Adler’s defense of Chris Christie against charges of being soft on global warming.  Adler denounces the GOP fundamentalism that damns to the 9th circle those Republicans with the temerity to hold such views. His fear, he writes, is that such orthodoxy will lock that party into “anti-science know-nothingism” (his phrase).  To which I would reply, “ya think?” — or rather, “that train long since left the station, pilgrim.”

There’s plenty to argue with in Adler’s formulation of Christie’s alleged connection to the reality based community — but this post is about McArdle’s follies, not any intellectual sins Adler may have committed.

And follies there are in plenty when McArdle decides to amplify Adler’s plaint about pre-Copernicans in the GOP.  Why don’t we take a look?

McArdle begins her gloss in classic form:

I don’t think that science denialism is the exclusive province of the GOP, but it’s extremely disappointing whenever either side does it.

Both sides do it!  Who could have predicted such a claim?  And who could have anticipated that McArdle would offer no examples of denialism by any mainstream Democrat?

Did I miss the part where President Obama asserted that the Apollo missions were faked, Tranquility Base rather existing only on a Hollywood backlot?  While I was off the grid for a couple of weeks in August, did Chuck Schumer suddenly announce that Democrats must all sign a pledge asserting that π = 3?

Come on, oh Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic:  inquiring minds want to know what Democrats’ sins you think compare to a near-unanimous denial of the reality of climate change and the theory of evolution by natural selection by the current slate of candidates for the GOP nomination to serve as President of the United States?  Anything?

Onwards!

As longtime readers known, I have been extremely critical of the attitude that some climate scientists seem to have developed towards dissent, and what you might call the PR aspect of their work.

I beg  your pardon. It is not the climate science crowd that has been out using state power  in an attempt to crush all opposition.  Rather, climate scientists have faced real and consequential assaults, from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s witch hunting to the real damage done by all those who piled on to the Breitbart/O’Keefe-style selective quoting from stolen emails in what was called the “Climategate” non-scandal.  Did anyone notice that every inquiry into this false controversy has come up with…nothing?

All of which is to say that there are indeed views that are being shouted down by a contemptuous opposition incapable of accepting anything that contradicts their cherished worldview — and those authoritarian assaults on reasoned debate come from the so called “skeptic” crowd.

The still deeper problem, of course, is that those ideologically committed to the view that global warming is a hoax have themselves mastered modern PR, so that, with the connivance of an incompetent or malicious media (to which faction does McArdle belong…or could this this a case of a nonexcluded middle?–ed.), junk routinely reaches the public as fact.* [much more detail at the footnote]

But to the matter at hand, McArdle’s engaged in classic misdirection.  The researcher’s job is to do the best science that he or she can.  A real journalist would then attempt to understand and explain to a broad audience what the results from such work now suggest.  Here’s McArdle’s attempt:

Nonetheless, I am quite convinced that the planet is warming,

Why thank you, Ms. McArdle.  Your judgment is just what’s been needed to set all this to rest.

and fairly convinced that human beings play a role in this.

Well, that settles it, doesn’t it?

In fact, this one sentence captures much of why McArdle is (or ought to be) such an embarrassment to her employer.  Bluntly, McArdle lacks the capacity to have an opinion on this matter.

That’s the core issue, really, at least for me, in my guise as a science writer and teacher of the skill.  The study of climate and climate change involves a large number of disciplines and sub-disciplines: physics, chemistry, oceanograpy, atmospheric studies, statistics, computer science and much, much more.  It turns on detailed and complex investigations of the interaction between domains each of which are demanding enough to reward a life’s study:  just think about what needs to be worked out about the connections between the biosphere, the atmosphere, the liquid ocean and that part of the global water supply trapped in ice, and so on through most of the modern science curriculum.

Every single specialty involved takes the better part of a decade of specialized training to master to the point where you can run your own lab.  Working the interdisciplinary trick takes groups of people working for quite a while just to be sure they understand each other.  Climate science in its modern form dates really only back to the late seventies or early eighties, when the scientific community began to recognize the vital importance of making sense of what people were finding out across what had been quite distinct fields — or perhaps it is more accurate to say that this turning point came when both the knowledge and the instruments needed to make key observations reached a critical point.

That is:  you can say with a lot of truth that modern climate science dates from the moment when sufficiently powerful computers emerged to run the first plausible three-d models, and when satellites that could do fine-grained remote sensing first started delivering data.  That would be, as it happens, somewhere around the late seventies to the mid 1980s. (You can read a bit more about this in my first book Ice Time [terrible title!], now long out of print, but available for sums reaching as low as … one cent, and glossed very nicely here by Eric Roston, who examines that now 20+ year old book from a perspective informed by what we’ve learned since.)

So it’s a young science, and a difficult one, demanding  a lot of time and training and strong collaborations to produce useful work.  That means there really are some opinions that are much better than others, and even within science, some opinions that are genuinely worthless, as they are come from folks who literally don’t know what they are talking about.  These folks are dangerous for reporters, because naive (or bad-faith) journalists will see a real scientific qualification attached to some name, and hear lots of cool sounding difficult words that sound very much like technical stuff, and can then conclude whatever he or she wants to, believing him or herself to be informed by Science!

So what’s a responsible journalist to do?  Well — take the time.  Go to meetings.  Talk to lots of scientists.  Read constantly.  Check what you write with people who are actually doing the kind of work that bears on the question. Pay attention to those who make a lot of what look like mistakes; if the same kinds of errors get repeated after correction, then you have found someone not playing straight.  (The argument from negative authority is much more robust than its reciprocal.)

Then take more time.

There is a reason that the really good journalists covering this story are people like Andy Revkin, who published his first book on climate change months before my mine came out in 1989.  Or folks like Mike Lemonick, who has covered this area for Time magazine and others for almost as long.  Or Elizabeth Kolbert, who spent years turning herself into a competent — and better! — interrogator of this field after an earlier career spent on other beats; or Eric Roston, mentioned above, who spent three years working through a biography of carbon to present a from-the-ground-up account of (among much else) why virtually everyone capable of holding an informed view recognizes the reality of anthropogenic global warming; or any of the many honorable others who actually have devoted themselves to mastering this beat.  This kind of science coverage takes sustained effort, which is why you could have counted me among this group twenty years ago, but not now:  I’ve shifted my focus several times since those years in the ’80s when I was consumed by the real excitement of what this new science could do.

All that to say that Megan McArdle literally doesn’t know how much she doesn’t know.  She lacks any of the apparatus to make a meaningful statement on this subject.  A good journalist recognizes when they’re out of their depth, and they shut up, or get help.  McArdle does neither — or rather, when she seeks validation for her pre-digested thoughts (“I’m…fairly convinced!” — by all that the FSM deems holy!) — she does so from precisely the kind of folks who reveal just what McArdle herself is really on about:

(When you’ve got Reason’s Ron Bailey, Cato’s Patrick Michaels, and Jonathan Adler, you’ve convinced me).

Umm, no.

These are pundits who — to be fair — have spent a fair bit effort on this issue.  They are thus not as uninformed as McArdle herself — but they are advocates for a particular view of human agency and autonomy, and not actual experts on the detailed progress of climate science.  They may get as far as the IPCC reports, and plenty of the toilet paper produced by the skeptic propaganda machine, (see, as always, Oreskes and Conway’s vital Merchants of Doubt for the gory details).  But even the environmental law expertise that Adler may bring to bear is not the same thing as engagement with the beat, nor any substitute for actual technical competence.

Even were one to grant to these three the standing that McArdle does, she still fails of her basic responsibility as a journalist.  It’s not just that spinners aren’t even secondary sources.  McArdle is utterly unqualified to have an opinion of her own because, by her own admission she has outsourced her brain on this issue and that she hasn’t and won’t do the actual work needed to have even a beginner’s grasp of this story.  Caveat lector

And still — by Blackbeard’s ghost! — there’s more:

I reserve the right to be skeptical about particular claims about effect…

McArdle can, of course, be skeptical about anything at all.  The question is whether anyone with intelligence to outrank a ficus should give any credence to such concerns.  Remember: she’s already told you that she has no personal competence in this field

…(particularly when those claims come via people who implausibly insist that every major effect will be negative)

Ah yes.  Al Gore is fat.  Except, of course, climate science as a field does not so insist.

Take, for example, the extensive discussion of climate feedbacks in what amounts to a manifesto for what real climate researchers should do (and are now doing), the 2003 National Academy of Sciences report Understanding Climate Change FeedbacksThere the nation’s top scientific institution lays out a meticulous account of the major feedbacks and the necessary research program needed to understand what impact, positive or negative, each such process may have.  Or you could look to the most recent IPCC analysis, the nearest thing that exists to a consensus document reviewing the current state of knowledge about climate change — exactly the people whose willingness to entertain contrary results McArdle here disdains.  In the FAQ [largish PDF] that accompanies the main report, you will find, among much else, this statement:

Additional important feedback mechanisms involve clouds. Clouds are effective at absorbing infrared radiation and therefore exert a large greenhouse effect, thus warming the Earth. Clouds are also effective at reflecting away incoming solar radiation, thus cooling the Earth. A change in almost any aspect of clouds, such as their type, location, water content, cloud altitude, particle size and shape, or lifetimes, affects the degree to which clouds warm or cool the Earth. Some changes amplify warming while others diminish it. [Italics added] Much research is in progress to better understand how clouds change in response to climate warming, and how these changes affect climate through various feedback mechanisms.

Of course, McArdle is not trying to engage in principled argument here.  She may not know or perhaps she simply does not care about the actual practice of climate scientists.  But the truth is there to be found, easily recovered with minimal effort, that the global climate change research community has a record extending back decades of trying to figure out the interlocking positive and negative feedback mechanisms that shape climate change.

Ah — but I’m missing McArdle’s point here.  Really, we should read this as a tell, the reveal of the con she’s been running all this long while.  She’s already shown her intellectual generosity by grandly conceding that anthropogenic climate change is real.  Now, she gets to go all “even-the-liberal-New Republic” on us and tell us why that concession doesn’t matter.  See, e.g., her very next line:

and, of course, of ludicrous worries that global warming will cause aliens to destroy us.

Nothing to see here, move along.

Nothing, that is except for an almost textbook example of dishonest writing.  These ludicrous worries that do not exist serve nicely to suggest that those concerned about the actual consequences of global warming are keeping company with folks whose fillings serve as antennae tuned to Alpha Centauri.  This is one way to fight a political action when the facts are against you:  ridicule your opponents for stuff they never said.

But generally, I think global warming is happening, and even that we should probably do something about that, though I’m flexible on “something.”

I.e. we should do nothing.

See above — once you’ve said that those who worry about severe consequences of global warming are delusional, you’ve kind of undercut any call to action. And, just to add a stray thought:  given my corollary to DeLong’s law, that McArdle is always wrong, and when you think she’s right, refer to statement one, I might start to question the reality of global warming myself, were it not for the fact that the rest of this piece so clearly demonstrates that she does not accept the actual meaning of that view.

However. Even if you disagree, it is reprehensible to have a litmus test around empirical matters of fact. (I’m not a fan of litmus tests in general, but I suppose it’s fair enough to say “If you want marginal tax rates of 70% on the wealthy, you don’t belong in today’s GOP”).

Gotta move on sometime, so I won’t whale on this, except to note the implied litmus test to which McArdle submitted herself above:  climate change only becomes real to her when ideological soul-mates say it is so.  Heaven forfend she take the word of someone who actually knows something about the subject.  Nope.  It had to wait for some pundit with whom she already agreed before she could make the concession.

What these Republicans are doing to people like Chris Christie is no better than what Harvard did to Larry Summers when he suggested that it was possible that women had a different IQ distribution than men.

Oh, this zombie lie.

Not to beat a truly dead horse, but for those of us who actually have some proximity to Harvard, and, as it happens, who know some of the women on its faculty, it’s important to note that Summers survived that flap by about a year, during which a number of other incidents occurred that cast doubt on his competence.

For example, his disastrous management of Harvard’s finances would only become obvious in 2008-9, but in the year between his statements about women and IQ and his resignation, he lost significant support among the actual decision makers at Harvard (i.e., not its Arts and Sciences faculty)  over the handling of the Andrei Shleifer case.  Shleifer, an economist on Harvard’s faculty and was found to have committed insider trading while working on a Harvard-led project aiding the privatization of Russia’s post-Soviet economy.  The settlement of the Shleifer case cost the university $26.5 million — and while Summers had recused himself from anything to do with the case, its outcome represented a major blow to his standing at Harvard.

There were in fact a number of other contributing factors that led the only folks with a vote (again, not the faculty) to ease Summers out.  Just a hint — if you look at how Harvard is actually run, it becomes notable that the deans of Harvard’s various schools did not leap to Summers’ defense in his time of need.  All of which is to say that the assertion that Harvard tossed out its president just because he said something ill-informed about women fails on even the most cursory inquiry.  But even such minimal curiosity is what McArdle, as I’ve come to expect, will not pursue, if there’s a risk she might find out something that contradicts a cherished fable.

And still there’s more!

Facts are not good or bad; they are correct or incorrect.

Snicker. (And not in a PoMo way.)

And a policy based on hysterical refusal to consider all possible facts is neither good, nor correct.

In that case, someone with the initials MM has a lot of ‘splainin to do about just about every claim current GOP candidates are making about the role lower taxes on the wealthy have on economic growth.  Just sayin’.

If someone is wrong about the facts, you should explain to them, calmly and concisely, why they are wrong. If it’s really that obvious, it shouldn’t be hard to convince them.

Uh.  I just can’t.  The snark writes itself — and I’ll let everyone here enjoy their individual takes on what one should say here.  That’s why the good FSM created comment threads.

When people start trying to expel heretics because of disagreements over facts, it suggests that they suspect–even know–that the facts are not on their side. Which is, frankly, what I tend to think is happening here. If open argument is going to force your ideology to confront uncomfortable facts, you create a closed circle that the facts can’t penetrate.

Still can’t stop giggling.  Have at it.

If the circle is big enough, the geocentric universe gets a few hundred more years before the defensive perimeter cracks.

What?

Message to McArdle:  the Catholic Church has indeed survived that anti-science episode.**  But the geocentric universe lasted exactly…well I guess not zero years, but pretty nearly so after the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632.  Geocentrism and the broader disassembling of classical astronomy had, of course, already largely been undone by the early 1600s, at least among the community of the learned.  The conventional sequence — from Copernicus, with his still artificially circular orbits, to Kepler’s fitting of the correct elliptical shapes to the paths traced by the planets (and the mathematical advances captured in his three descriptive laws, to Galileo’s observations of the Jovian system, with its moons orbiting a central body in a strikingly clear model of a the kind of heavenly motion Copernicus advanced, published in 1610 — created a broad basr on which to support the fundamental claim of heliocentrism.  By the 1630s, the Inquisition could condemn, but minds living in those expanding parts of Europe no longer subject to Rome’s authority could and did ignore any assertion of pontifical judgment about scientific fact — a development that did precisely the kind of damage to the cause of religion that Galileo himself had anticipated in his letter to the Medici Grand Duchess Christina in 1615.

Or to put all this another way:  the current closed GOP circle is as unlikely as the Vatican’s was ever to be big enough. The U.S. may suffer — greatly — if we ignore basic facts.  We may, likely will, do great harm to others. But those nations and cultures that don’t listen to the McArdles of the world, and all their kin?  Well, like Isaac Newton’s England, I expect they’ll do fine, even if we languish under President Perry in predicaments of our own making.

Why so long on what was obviously a rhetorical grace(less) note?  Because it is a microcosm of the McArdle approach to her life’s work.  This invocation of Galileo’s trial is ignorant of basic facts, false in its implication, historically obtuse and hell, just plain stupid (not to mention kind of meaningless).  I guess it sounded kind of clever to McArdle, which meant, on the evidence, that she didn’t pause to ask if the example made sense.  It didn’t, and it doesn’t, and should be taken as the warning it is:  you can’t take any claim McArdle makes as valid until thrice checked.

Of course, that also means a few hundred years invested in building an institution that cannot survive in a heliocentric solar system.

Uh.  Last I looked Pope Benedict still held sway within Vatican City, honored by Catholics the world round.  Even the ramifications of a transnational conspiracy to cover up acts of sexual violence against children seems set to do more than temporary damage to the institution.  That fact may or may not fill you with pleasure/relief/loathing…but the notion that somehow the contemporary Catholic Church is paying the price for Galileo’s fate is simply phaffing on McArdle’s part — beneath notice except as a further instance of a seemingly incurable lack of rigor in her work.

Maybe the skeptics are right and AGW is minor, or not happening at all. But on the off chance that they’re wrong,

Uh…”off chance…” Not going to rehearse all that’s gone before, but just to say, one more time:  virtually every scientist with actual knowledge of the data, the underlying methods, and the theory of climate science have been saying for some time that AGW is real and consequential.  McArdle may not like that conclusion; she nonetheless has no standing to dismiss it.

the GOP needs to be the sort of pluralistic body that can survive and thrive on a steady diet of accurate data–no matter what those data say.

I agree.  I also think that this is where the whole post reveals itself as a smoke screen to confuse others in the media into the view that a fictional GOP that could thrive on data actually exists.

If enough GOP-identified pundits say a few nice things about positions they simultaneously dismiss (a standard trick within David Brooks’ playbook, of course, and much of McArdle’s raison d’etre) then the useful idiots they count as colleagues can write that once in power a Republican president and congress might not be entirely batshit crazy.  That we have plenty of evidence that this view is false (2001-2009; GOP governors/legislators/the Boehner-Cantor led house since 2010) can be ignored, as long as the Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic reassures her friends that there really are some Republicans with whom you could have a chat and a drink.

That, as I read it, is really the point of a post like this…

…Enough.  Almost five thousand words on a tossed off bit of nonsense by someone whose work is, frankly, trivial, no matter how much influence it may have within a couple of corners of the Village.

I guess I explode into these periodic rants not so much because anything McArdle actually writes is so much more egregious than hundreds of effusions spurting daily from those carbuncles on the body politic that make up the right-blogosphere.  Rather, it’s that she does so under the cloak of, and at an institution venerable within a craft I hold dear, that of serious, reasoned, public journalism.  This post really is bizarrely too long, so I’m not going to expand on a point I’ve made before.  But the particular form of intellectual dishonesty with which McArdle plies her trade does damage to the country — and less consequentially, but probably more severely to all those directly associated with her work at The Atlantic.

*Case in point:  over the couple of weeks I’ve been picking away at this post, this story has bubbled up.  I believe John linked to it — but the gist is that a journal editor resigned when it became clear that some climate denialist “scientists” snuck a junk paper past the peer review process of  the journal Remote Sensing.  That paper repeated previously debunked claims that satellite data contradict model results, fail to account for the impact of clouds on the radiative balance of the earth, and thus overstate the risk of warming.  The editor resigned because it became very clear on reflection that this paper should have been flagged by what was clearly a flawed peer review.  On the level of basic craft, the paper failed to meet the most elementary requirements of a scientific claim:  “no statistical significance of results, error bars or uncertainties are given either in the figures or discussed in the text. As to the content — the core claims of the paper are simply wrong, and they are so in elementary ways, rendered meaningless by errors of both method and an actual grasp of the range of observational data:

Overall, the argument made in all of these papers to support the conjecture that clouds are forcing the climate (rather than a feedback) is extremely weak. What they do is show some data, then they show a very simple model with some free parameters that they tweak until they fit the data. They then conclude that their model is right. However, if the underlying model is wrong, then the agreement between the model and data proves nothing.

I am working on a paper that will show that, if you look carefully at the magnitudes of the individual terms of their model, the model is obviously wrong. In fact, if [University of Alabama at Huntsville's Roy] Spencer were right, then clouds would be a major cause of El Niño cycles—which we know is not correct. Talk to any ENSO expert and tell them that clouds cause ENSO and they’ll laugh, at you.

Why would someone nominally a science commit such serial and serious errors?   Spencer himself tells us.  He is the author of a number of interesting works — including one flawed study withdrawn for plagiarism, among other sins, and this latest fiasco — but the actual content of his stuff doesn’t matter.  Rather, it is crucial only that Spencer can call himself a scientist, and can be termed as such by the echo chamber right-wing media that takes fatally flawed “research” and retails it to a public as the real deal.  Which is exactly what Spencer says he wants to achieve:

“I would wager that my job has helped save our economy from the economic ravages of out-of-control environmental extremism. I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.”

Well, fine, if you are lobbyist, an advocate, or a Know-Nothing GOP candidate for president.  But if you call yourself a scientist and purport to take part in the common enterprise that is the advance of human knowledge…with that statement you’ve just declared yourself an enemy of whole endeavor.  You can’t serve two masters, both your ideological commitment and nature.  You have to choose — and Spencer clearly has, opting to put out propaganda contradicted by the testimony of nature in order to defend views that comfort the comfortable.

This is just one example — but it’s why climate scientists don’t have a lot of sympathy for “dissenters” who are in fact propaganda hacks –self admitted in this case.  Rather, they have to work overtime in never-really-successful attempts to counter the real damage done by pieces like this both to science and to any kind of real deliberation on the proper policy to adopt in the face of AGW.  We surely need a better media.

**Yes, I’m aware that McArdle would probably claim that she was merely saying the Catholic Church itself retained its geocentric views for centuries– but that’s both not exactly true (plenty of folks within the church understood and accepted the advance of knowledge on this question, whatever dogma decreed) and not on point to the suggestion she then tries to make, that such myopia produced an institution that is having trouble surviving now.

Images:   William Blake, The Ancient of Days (God the Geometer),1794

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Alchemist, 1558 (Engraved by Philipp Galle)

John Barnard Whittaker, Comedy and Tragedy, c. 1883.

Pieter de Bloot, Tavern Interior1630s.

Savaged By A Dead Sheep

April 22, 2011

That would be James Fallows, suffering the blistering assault of one Megan McArdle over this piece, the one John lauded here.

The reference to the deceased quadraped is one I’ve had occasion to return to more than once — it comes from the ferocious Labour Party debater and then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey, describing the experience of oratorical combat with the his successor in that post, the Tory Sir Geoffrey Howe.  It may well be too kind when applied to the Business and Economic Editor of the Atlantic.

Seriously:  Fallows is a seasoned and deeply knowledgeable reporter, one who actually does what folks used to do with more frequency — study, seek real sources, talk to lots of folks, master a literature, stay with a story over decades and all the rest of the things real journalists of the first rank actually do.

McArdle…

…is McArdle.

A contest of wit, literary skill, and especially knowledge and or wisdom is no fair fight…except for this:

Fallows is not one for ‘tube wars.  I’ve read his stuff for a long, long time, and he says his piece and then almost always moves on to the next issue.  If you check out his blog since he wrote on the piece that has offended McArdle you’ll see a great piece putting GOP Sen. Inhofe’s disastrously dangerous flying and “safety-is-for-little-people” attitude in proper context; an analysis of the non-event of the Michelle Obama waved-off landing, memories of Tim Hethering and the like.  I can’t imagine that it pleases him when McArdle calls him colleague before attempting to dress him down, but life is short, and people with actual talent have better things to do with their time.

Which leaves it to me to take note of a post that once again demonstrates the axiom:  Megan McArdle Is Always Wrong™.

In this case, I rather think she knows she’s wrong — or rather she has to argue an obviously false case.  I say has to, because for all her grand title, her function at The Atlantic seems to be to come up with some argument-like word string that provides cover for known failures of policy, argument, and ideas.

The give away starts with her first substantive paragraph.  She writes:

…they [Standard and Poor's] do spend a great deal of time analyzing government finances, much more than James or I do.

Ahhh…the argument from authority again, one of McArdle’s favorites.

The question, as Fallows pointed out, is not whether S & P analyzes government or private financial instruments.  Here’s Fallows:

S&P knows nothing more about U.S. budget prospects than you or I do. [Italics his.  Bold mine.]

I’m sure you can catch the trick McArdle hopes to play here.  Fallows said nothing about anything technical to do with US government bond market operations.  He’s arguing that S & P is making a judgment that they are ill-prepared to make, on the politics of the budget.

McArdle’s assertion that the rating agencies are expert at the task of rating debt is itself a stretch — she could, perhaps, take a look at a real financial journalist’s account of the rating agencies incompetence and intellectual weakness, say, in Chapter 6 of Gillian Test’s excellent Fool’s Gold. Michael Lewis in The Big Shorthas some choice stuff on the agencies’ sheer bland ignorance of the instruments they were supposed to rate of, among others, S & P — see, e.g. the material in Chapter 7.  She could also take a look at the comments by Warren Buffett in his 2008 letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, among other venues.

But the deeper issue is that McArdle is trying to slip in an assertion that all S & P was doing was expressing its ordinary business judgment.  They are not; as Fallows points out — along with plenty of others, including S & P itself:

“we see the path to agreement as challenging because the gap between the parties remains wide.”

No financial judgment there — just one more political prognostication.

No wonder, then, that McArdle speeds hastily by her ham-fisted opening gambit.  Full tilt, she heads to a marvelous bit of disengenousness:

You make think that their opinion is crap, in which case you should say so–[Gee -- thanks MM! -- ed.] but I cannot understand why we’d quibble with the format in which that opinion is issued.  S&P has been issuing these sorts of things for a long time, and I don’t think it would make much difference if they started doing so in blog form.

This is a display of verbal dexterity along the lines of the old joke — it was used in Calvin and Hobbes, but waaaay predates that cultural icon — about the little boy on the first day of kindergarten who spends the whole day in hope after his new teacher says, “Sit here for the present.”

“What?  No gift, after I sat there the whole *&%!# day!”

Recall what Fallows wrote:

To repeat Clive Crook’s point, S&P knows nothing more about U.S. budget prospects than you or I do. They’re saying they have an opinion on the state of Congressional-White house dealings on the budget. Fine. Go on a talk show or start a blog.

Let me channel my inner McArdle here:

“Oh.  You’re not complaining that S & P musn’t  publish their reports in an easily updated, web-published format?

This is sarcasm?

Oh.  I see.  My bad….”

Really.  I don’t have a lot of respect for McArdle’s capacity for argument at the best of times, but this is pathetic, even for her.

Next up, a tasty dish of word salad:

Moreover, their opinion does actually matter, since previous rounds of financial regulation have embedded financial agency ratings deep in the structure of our financial markets.

This is a usual bit of McArdle sleight of hand.  Fallows says the S & P opinion is worthless, and wonders why the news media got so hot and bothered.

Oh no! says McArdle:  that damn fact that the financial markets deal in risk means that ratings decisions do matter (not to mention, as she doesn’t, that the quality of those decisions matters even more.)  But to continue:

If James or I scream that the US debt picture is unsustainable, we will not move markets.  If S&P downgrades US debt, this will trigger a sell-off, even if the people selling disagree with their assessment.

Well, this  is (a) bait and switch and (b) subject to a little empirical investigation:  did this statement of opinion have that result?

To (a):  A downgrade of US debt would indeed have a notable effect.  But that’s not what the S&P did, of course.  US government debt is still rated AAA.  Were that to change…big news.  But a warning that some folks in the S&P offices don’t like the way Eric Cantor is eying Tim Geithner?…not so much.

To (b):  How much not so much?

Not at all, in fact.

In the wake of the announcement by the ratings agency, the market for long term (ten year) US government debt actually went up — as revealed in this chart, posted at the site of someone who actually knows a little bit of economics.

But what about that terrifying drop in the equity markets on Monday?  The NYSE closed 140 points down from Friday’s close (though up roughly 60 from a trough met in the immediate aftermath of what Fallows correctly termed hysteria at the S&P release.  It went Back up another 65 yesterday; up just a whisker under 6% for since Jan. 1; up more than 10% over the last twelve months.  Oh, and as of Thursday afternoon, the market had a third day in a row of gains, to the point that stock market indexes are up to peaks not seen since June, 2008 — well above the point where it was before S&P opened its big yap.

In other words: McArdle simply gets this one wrong.

(BTW:  If she were to say that well, the S&P didn’t downgrade US debt, so technically, she’s not in error, see point (a) above. This would be McArdle wanting it both ways:  S&P opinions are meaningful, unless they are not.  Taking her at the implication she wants us to draw:  the S&P opinion in this instance is more important than anything Fallows might say — well, the markets disagree, and by that judgment, McArdle’s assertion fails the test of reality.  Q.E.D.)

Just about all the rest of McArdle’s post engages with Jame Galbraith, an economist whom Fallows quotes.  Galbraith makes the point that unless the Republicans misjudge the speed of the oncoming train, the US simply won’t default — because “It controls the “means of production” for the dollars to pay off those bonds.” Galbraith adds:

If you’re worried about inflation, fine. But that’s a different matter, with a lot of other variables that count for more than S&P’s feelings.

McArdle, predictably, regards this thought with horror.  First she indulges in a little history.

Inflation was a good way to ease the burden of our World War II borrowing–once the war was over.

It’s true that there were three years of significant inflation from 1946-48.  But McArdle, no economist, is no historian either.  Competent approaches to historical argument include looking for more than the convenient monocausal explanation that makes the point you don’t want anyone to examine too closely.

What else may have had an impact on the total debt, and on the debt-to-GDP ratio?

Well, two obvious factors are a dramatic drop in government spending made possible by the end of the Second World War (down 40% in 1946) , and a sustained record of economic growth.*  Tax rates (much, much higher then) also had something to do with a key fact:  after the war, the US ran a budget surplus debt declined as proportion of GDP [Thanks to a kind reader for the correction) in 36 of the next 47 years.

All of which is to say that the actual history of US government obligations is intimately bound up with stories of national expenditure and  budgeting, but above all, with the power of economic growth (plus a reasonably progressive tax code) to rein in any momentary expansion of the standing debt.  Not that McArdle can stop to think about these or all the more finer-grained analyses of what happened back then, as that would limit the possibility of this kind of snark:

But it is not a good way to ease the burden of an increasingly expensive entitlement program that shows no signs of winding down.

This is code for Medicare and Medicaid and/or Obama’s health care reform.   We’ve discussed elsewhere McArdle’s unwillingness to countenance even the stray thought that any cost cutting measure will actually work, so chalk this up to her “I’m not listening….” debate tactic.

Moving on:

Especially since these days, the debt markets are much more efficient than they were in 1948; information about the money supply is transmitted very quickly to potential buyers of our bonds.  You can pull all sorts of tricks to force bondholders to eat some losses on the money they lent you–but you can’t pull them over and over.  America was able to wriggle its way out of a substantial portion of its WWII debts in large part because it was otherwise pretty fiscally sound.

Wriggle out of?…See above. This is pure word salad, to be sure, but at its core, such as it is, it’s making the same claim as above:  markets will price US bonds to the level of risk that these incredibly modern, efficient institutions can now readily perceive — which is why  (recall) the S & P announcement was so momentous, and Fallows was wrong to scoff.

Well then, (a) if the bond market is that efficient what produced the catastrophic collapse of the commercial bond market, oh, all of two years ago or so?  As, among others, Michael Lewis has pointed out over and over again, transparency has never been a feature of especially the more arcane corners of the market in debt….

and (b) more precisely  on point to the topic at hand, if the bond markets are so efficient these days, why is the interest of US government debt historically low and has been for some time ?

And as long as we are talking history, it’s worth remembering that government bonds have traded in a very stable fashion for a long time; the creation of a reasonably clear and calm government debt market was one of the great achievements of British finance in the 18th century — see among much else in the significant literature on this point, Fernand Braudel’s brief essay in the second volume of Civilization and Capitalism on his view that this was the foundation of British imperial wealth and power. The US inherited both that financial technology and ultimately the power that the British were able to finance through such fiscal innovation.  Not everything important has happened in Megan McArdle’s life time.  Just sayin.

No matter, like honey badger, McArdle don’t care:

You can argue that a small amount of inflation is preferable to the alternatives, distributing the pain very broadly in order to avoid the intense dislocations of a sudden shock.  I might even agree with someone who argued this. But small amounts of inflation are not going to rid us of $10 trillion in debt.

Perhaps not, though I don’t believe anyone has argued that it would.

In any event,  (a) we don’t need to get rid of $10 trillion in debt.  Historically, we’ve prospered just fine at debt levels that hang at 40% of GDP.

To put that into current numbers:  the CIA estimates 2010 US GDP at $14.72 trillion.  40% would be about $5.9 trillion.  That leaves $4 trillion for McArdle to get rid of; or rather, less or zero if we assume that the US economy will actually continue to grow over time.

This is actually kind of important, so please forgive a digression into a wholly artificial, but illustrative bit of arithmetic:

If we assume a balanced budget (i.e. no net surplus or deficit over a period of years, whatever the ups and downs of individual cycles — which was the US norm for decades after WW II, and the last few of the Clinton years — a time so recent that even young McArdle may recall it), an annual growth rate of 3% would double the size of the US economy in 24 years.**

A small amount of inflation would accelerate that quite nicely (or capture additions to the debt produced by a budget net out of balance over time), as would a rise in tax rates from historical troughs — but I’m not arguing here that this trivial calculation is the reason to dismiss McArdle from any grown-up conversation about policy and the economy.

Rather, what this little exercise tells us is that one should pay no attention to McArdle because she isn’t honest.  No discussion of debt trends that fails at least to nod at the implications of long term economic growth is even remotely useful.  To put it another way:  by her choice of what to ignore, McArdle ensures that she is talking nonsense throughout this passage.

But really — she has only our best interests at heart.  By concentrating only on the debt, she gets to tell us why we have to take our medicine:

And the pain of large amounts of inflation is extremely painful–arguably, more so, not less so, than technical default…

Again, this is misdirection.  You get the equivalent of default through inflation when the rate is so high as to make debt instruments effectively worthless; such events are termed hyperinflations.

The disastrous economic and political implications of hyperinflaton are indeed well known.  So, while it’s true that high conventional inflation can be deeply unpleasant (I’m old enough to remember the seventies), at least in the American experience, such inflation neither amounted to a debt default, nor did its effects resemble those suffered by  Weimar Germany, for example in 1922 and 1923.

If McArdle wants to argue that the US is currently on a path towards such hyperinflation — or the worse such event that took place in Hungary, or recent experience in Zimbabwe, and so on — then she needs to come up with some evidence that current US fiscal and monetary policy is meaningfully akin to the circumstances that attended such bursts of extraordinary declines in the value of national currencies.

She has not — and once more, as lots of folks point out to her at regular intervals, there are no signals from those with the most skin in the game that such an event is in the offing.

Enough.  I admit.  There is something in McArdle’s smug disengenousness that gets my goat on a deep level, and the consequence, as you’ve seen above, just ain’t pretty.

So I’ll shut up now, but for two parting shots.

First:  Jim Fallows is the real deal, a journalist and analyst of great out-there-in-the-world experience. He’s someone who is always worth reading:  you learn something when you do.  He has to suffer the indignity of being called — and being — Megan McArdle’s colleague at The Atlantic. But the fact that their paychecks come from the same bank account does not make them equivalent.  Fallows has earned what he knows through years of effort and accomplishment; McArdle knows what she knows with great certainty and gusto — but she’s the poster child for Mark Twain’s famous jibe.  There is no comparison — as I hope the above has sufficiently demonstrated.

Second:  When confronted by yet another example of error and flat out bad argument by Megan McArdle the question always arises:  is she dumb or deceitful?

Now I concede that she might be both a dessert topping and a floor wax.  But really, while McArdle may be many things, stupid ain’t one of them.

If you called her lazy, incurious, insecure or what have you, I’d probably agree — but I think she knows exactly what she is doing in her writing.  She is a court singer, writing lays in praise of those who toss her scraps.  I’m not really sure how much damage she can do at this point.  I’d like to think that the schtick is growing old, and that her audience, large as it is, is now made up almost entirely of the choir to whom she preaches.

But maybe not.  Hence posts like these.

(Also, too — writing this has kept me from going medieval on her truly delightful cooking video.  I’m saving that for a special treat….;)

(And another thing:  if you’ve read this far, you might want to check out a much shorter and quite lovely take down of another McArdle folly by James Bales, directly below this white whale.

*Economic output in constant dollars dropped from 1945-1946, edged down a little more in 1947, and then embarked on a steady path of growth for decades.

**I’m using here the rule of thumb known as the rule of 72.  It has the canonical virtue of having many divisors — which is what dictated my arbitrary choice of a 3% annual GDP growth rate.  Makes the sums come out more easily, even though it may be a shade high.  But the answer is the same if you use a 2.5% growth rate and calculate assuming continuous compounding, in which case you could employ the rule of 70, which slightly understates the rate at which such compounding occurs.

Images:  Hans Memling, The Last Judgment Tryptich (open), 1467-71

Albert Anker, The Crèche, 1890

Mizerák István, Sweeping the pengő inflation banknotes after the introduction of the forint in August 1946

Francisco de Goya, Riña a garrotazos, 1819-23

The McArdle Chronicles redux: How to Argue in Bad Faith: An Example

April 21, 2011

Again, I’m the messenger.  My MIT colleague Jim Bales has taken up my slack in covering the gift that keeps on giving, Megan McArdle.

Enjoy — it’s a good one

TL

Jim Bales here – my thanks to Tom for letting me borrow his soap box. The words that follow are mine, and not his.

So, Megan McArdle has a post in which she asserts that:

“[T]he federal income tax is now very progressive; it collects most of its revenue from people at the top.”

Commenter mmh53b noted:

“When I was a lad … progressivity was not based on the percentage of tax revenue collected from the top, but rather the marginal tax rate.”

The lesson on arguing in bad faith can be found in Ms McArdle’s reply:

‘In this context, the question is: how dependent are tax revenues on high incomes? Because the more dependent they are on high incomes, the more they swing from peak to trough. This has, contra your belief, always been a definition that characterizes a system as “progressive” rather than “regressive”.’

Wow – sucks to be commenter mmh53b, doesn’t it? After all, what mmh53b had always considered to be the definition of a progressive tax is now simply their belief, a belief contra-ed by Ms McArdle with a definition. In fact, Ms McArdle insists that her definition has always been a definition, and thus it is the only definition she will allow for the term “progressive” tax.

Does anyone support poor mmh53b? No one of any importance. Just:

Wikipedia: A progressive tax is a tax by which the tax rate increases as the taxable base amount increases

The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary: Progressive, increasing in rate as the base increases, with the example, “a progressive tax” (definition 4b)

The Encyclopaedia Britannica: [P]rogressive tax, tax that imposes a larger burden (relative to resources) on those who are richer

The Oxford English Dictionary: The only definition to use the word “tax” (2d), reads: Of a tax or taxation: increasing gradually according to ability to pay; increasing as a proportion of the sum taxed as that sum increases. (As to Ms McArdle’s “always”, the first usage cited was in 1792 by Tom Paine.)

Well, it appears that the “a definition” that Ms McArdle prefers is sufficiently rare so as to have been overlooked by the both Britannica and the OED. It certainly seems that “progressive tax” has always meant what commenter mmh53b has thought it meant. Perhaps Ms McArdle, in her capacity as Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic is using in it a narrow, technical sense? Perhaps economists never use “progressive tax” in its common (and well-nigh eternal) meaning of higher tax rates on higher incomes?

Thanks to Google Books we can quickly check a few Economics textbooks.

The Shrill One (Dr. Robin Wells) and her spouse (some fellow named Krugman) write in their tome Macroeconomics (p. 192) An individual in a higher income bracket pays a higher income tax rate in a progressive tax system like ours. Then again, they are shrill. What do they know?

Now, Robert Samuelson, he was an economist! He’ll get this one right! In his Economics he wrote (page 390, caption to Figure 16-4) Taxes are progressive if they take a larger fraction of income as income rises. Well, maybe Samuelson wasn’t such a good economist, since he didn’t know the “a definition” that Ms McArdle insists was “always” in place.

I know — Professor (and chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors) Greg Mankiw will get it right! In his Principle of Economics Mankiw defines a Progressive Tax (p. 255) as a tax for which high-income taxpayers pay a larger fraction of their income than do low-income taxpayers. Oops.

And so we are left with three simple choices.

1)     All of these people, from Tom Paine through Robert Samuelson all the way to Greg Mankiw, are wrong and Ms McArdle is right.

2)     Ms McArdle, the Business and Economics Editor for The Atlantic, is utterly ignorant of the meaning of an economic concept as basic as a progressive tax.

3)     Ms McArdle will make shit up rather than acknowledge that one of her critics was right.

My money is on 3), hence the title of this post. Why? Because her evasiveness was utterly unnecessary. She need only have said, “Why yes, mmh35b, you are correct. A progressive tax system has higher tax rates on higher incomes. As a result, the tax revenues come disproportionately from the wealthy, whose income is more volatile than the less wealthy. Furthermore, that volatility causes tax revenues to go down when the economy tanks, which is when governments have increased need for that revenue.” Of course, had she done so she would have acknowledged that she was sloppy in her choice of words in her original post, and that her critic had caught her out. So, rather than admit the small error and turn it into a chance to advance her cause, she chose to try to shut down mmh35b instead. And that is arguing in bad faith.

PS – A Counter Example

In contrast to Ms McArdle, consider the actions of Mr. Louis Martinelli (ht Abi Southerland at Making Light). After working for many years with the National Organization for Marriage to deny same-sex couples the right to civil unions (much less full marriage), Mr. Martinelli has come out in support of full marriage equality and issued an retraction of his past words and deeds that he now considers to be wrong. In particular, notice in the latter link how Mr. Martinelli holds fast to those elements of his prior statements that he still considers true, yet acknowledges and retracts those elements that were false, irrelevant, or simply hurtful.

One need not agree with Mr. Martinelli completely to recognize that he is striving to argue in good faith. One need not disagree with Ms McArdle completely to recognize that arguing in good faith is not important to her.

Image: Jan Massys, At the Tax Collector, 1539


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