Event the good villagers get it wrong: Hendrik Hertzberg, Al Franken, George Will and why doesn’t anyone pay attention to science edition

Alright, so my title logorrhea is getting a little out of hand, but consider this, mostly just fine post celebrating the elevation of a real policy wonk to the US Senate.

In his New Yorker blog Hendrik Hertzberg writes, accurately,

The Senate was originally envisioned as a chamber of notables. Its members were supposed to be persons of accomplishment, capable of independent thought, often bringing with them national reputations and national—or, at least, not hopelessly parochial—outlooks. Al Franken, unlike the overwhelming majority of his new colleagues, is such a person. I don’t doubt that he will assiduously look after the interests of Minnesota, but he has spent many years thinking and writing about weightier questions than the need for lake subsidies and cheese price supports. His books, despite their diverting titles (“Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot” and the like), are substantial works of research and analysis. The fact that they, like he, are also funny should be counted in their, and his, favor.

He also discloses his friendship with Franken, and goes on to dream of a GOP counterpart to our newest senator, someone who is knowledgable, well read and honest.  He writes:

We would be better off as a country if more senators were cut from the Franken cloth, even if the ideological balance remains unchanged. Must we have right-wing senators who, rather than admit that there are problems that tax cuts and “free markets” can’t solve, would have the icecaps melt, the seas boil, and the coasts drown? Very well, then, but let them be conservatives whose brain waves are not completely flat and who have spent their professional lives doing something worthier than flattering local realtors, hating the life of the intellect on principle, and regurgitating Heritage Foundation talking points. George F. Wills, please, not James M. Inhofes.

Uh.  Can’t be done.  You can’t have senators who deny global warming and genuflect before the altars of tax cuts and notionally free markets whose brains are, if not dead, then capable of meaningful thought.  This is an attempt at false equivalence in the worst sense:  Hertzberg has to posit a counterfactual before he can even begin to spin his bizarre fantasy.

This is a bit of Village nonesense, in other words, and the tell is the invocation of Serious Liberal’s Worthy Conservative, Mr. George Will.  In fact, any attempt to suggest that Will is the intellectual equal of Franken does that smart and accomplished man a deep insult.

That is:  Will may once have been a serious person.  He is not anymore.  Two good recent examples, one directly on Hertzberg’s point.  Will, of course, was the object of much scorn for his massive fail on global warming recently.  In order to advance his meretricious point, he quote mined a study to present an inaccurate claim on the state of a proxy indicator for climate change.  Confronted repeatedly on the falseness of his claim, both Will and his editors declined to correct, asserting, in essence a “teach the controversy” defense as a rationale for publishing and repeating untrue statements on matters of fact and policy in the pages of the WaPo.

Will has also recently managed to step in it, no surprise here, on health care.  Here, Will reflexively defends a so-called free market in health care, for which he is rightly slapped down by people who actually know something about markets.  Here’s Krugman, and here’s DeLong, mostly taking aim at Greg Mankiw, but sideswiping Will along the way.

To boil down those actually expert opinions to the thematic nutshell of this blog:  Will failed to understand a very slightly technical point that requires at least an appreciation for the form of a quantitative problem.  Ec 1 (or Ec 10 as it was at my alma mater, in a less number friendly corner of Our Fair City than the one in which I now ply my trade) emphasizes those economic ideas that can be explained with a minimum of math — really the arithmatic  with which a good primary school education provides you.

But the application of economic ideas to the overwhelming majority of real world situations requires more.  More math certainly:  thinking about change over time means you need the calculus, and really, given the complexity of the circumstances, a real understanding of differential equations.  The math can go very wonky from there — in my temporary role sitting on one of the panels overseeing tenure and promotion cases for a number of departments at MIT, including Economics, I encountered a couple of cases that had the very distinguished head of that department confessing that the theoretical abstraction of the math in those folks’ work was beyond him.  Way beyond me, needless to say.

But the point isn’t to make a peacock-tail display of math chops.  The real issue is that there is a body of thought that informs specific claims or predictions about real world outcomes.  And as both DeLong and Krugman emphasize, that comes from the other critical faculty for a scientist or social scientist:  the ability to analyze a problem in ways that allow you to apply the appropriate methods and mathematics to its solution.  And here, as both point out, Will’s basic fault was his refusal to recognize what both sophisticated healthcare economics research and everyday experience reveal:  the “market” in healthcare services bears essentially zero resemblance to the Ec 1 myth of the market as a perfect price-setting mechanism.  Hence, if you want to analyze the likely outcomes of a change in the healthcare system,  you need to set up that analysis with the specific properties of the actual economic exchanges taking place in the delivery and rationing of health care now.

Why does Will not acknowledge what is both very old news to the profession and the fodder of heart-rending anecdotal stories in the papers day after day?

Because he is exactly the kind of policy-ignorant, dishonest hack that Hertzberg dismisses as brain-dead flatterers who hate the life of the intellect.  Hertzberg seems to celebrate Will because the latter dresses up his regurgitation of approved talking points in thesaurus-derived polysyllables, and because Will has mastered that kulturkampf jiujitsu of seeming one of those who do in fact value hard thinking, all the while doing his damndest to dismiss the endeavor whenever it offends his certainties.

It’s long past time to kill this reflex.  Demonstrated skill in tying a bow tie and the ability to craft 800 word screeds adorned by the jewels of research assisted quote mining do not, in themselves denote a worthy adversary.

Treating Will today as a serious, independent minded intellectual warrior  — whatever he was, if ever he were such, in the past — is mere habit, born of long familiarity and the Village (and human) tendency not to sh*t on those you know.

But it will not do now.  I think Hertzberg is mostly one of the really good guys, a smart, experienced and usually very thoughtful observer.  But he blew this one.  Comparing Will to Franken is an insult to the junior senator from Minnesota…and more it obscures the deeper pathology of the right just now.

That is:  as long as the alledged best thinkers of those on that side are given a pass that lets them off from the hard work of actually understanding what they are talking about before they speak, then the rest of us will continue to have to fight through walls of fantasy before even beginning to address the very real, very deep problems that now face us.  And that’s both too much useless labor and a genuinely deadly waste of time.

Images:  Franz Hals, “Buffoon playing a lute,” 163-1624.

How to tie a bow tie.

Explore posts in the same categories: Economic follies, Journalism and its discontents, MSM nonsense, political follies, Republican follies, ridicule

2 Comments on “Event the good villagers get it wrong: Hendrik Hertzberg, Al Franken, George Will and why doesn’t anyone pay attention to science edition”


  1. […] post: Event the good villagers get it wrong: Hendrik Hertzberg, Al Franken, George Will and why doesn’t … Tags: daniel-foster, earn-profitably, hendrik, hosting-news, not-hopelessly, often-bringing, […]

  2. Spiv Says:

    First off: Car Talk ++. I was introduced to that fantastic show by the ripe age of maybe 5, and still tune in when I can.

    Second, I think Hertzberg was jumping at a desire for equivalence. And I understand the desire for balance in the system. The problem is, as you pointed out, that trying to pit things against each other on equal ground just for the sake of balance does not make the equation work necessarily. Part of the current republican message is a laundry list of things which have been proven ineffective or wrong (global warming denial, tax cuts, research investment cuts, etc). It requires some level of interpersonal conflict to be able to do the research and still hold those values.

    Which isn’t to say a person can’t hold conflicting premises of thought. A good model of this, I think, would be Asa Gray. Unfortunately dead for six score, but a fantastic intellect who was well able to see the interpersonal issues related to Darwin’s theories and still argue both for, and against the principles of evolution.

    That is to say we as parties have differing visions of what we want the world to look like when the smoke clears. Some desire equality, technological progress, and a better educated society to live in. Others value the warmth of the church community, and a simplification of life in general. Both are, or should be, talking about quality of life for its constituents. Unfortunately only one side seems to be thinking things through.

    With all that in mind I would never advocate that only qualified intellectuals be allowed to hold congressional office. By way of the same principles of voting that were outlined in various Federal Papers essays, drawing that line is to discount the will of the people. I do, however, feel that many of these principles are completely against the majority, and that we’ve allowed brilliant marketing to supersede the people’s will.


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