Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Read McArdle: Keep the Military Dumb edition, part one

Alright.  The title is, perhaps, a little hyperbolic.  But, channeling my inner McArdle, such is blogging.

This recent little gift from McArdle is not quite as disastrous as it could be, in fact…but I do want to pick up a little bit of the folly within because I think this post captures so much of what makes her such a bad and, in real ways, such a damaging participant in our public discourse. (You’ll find part two of this screed here.)

The short form, to enable those with day jobs to ignore the tome that follows, is that McArdle argues that “the obvious solution” to the problem that not all advanced degrees sought by serving members of the armed forces are as rigorous as they might be, is to end the practice of encouraging service members to seek such degrees.

That is, to this as to all other issues raised by interactions between the state and private institutions, McArdle already knows the answer:  government can’t do nuthin’ right.

But of course, her treatment of this issue is simplistic, second hand, ignorant of the actual complicated ground of real experience involved and largely wrong. But no matter:  Given the fundamental truth of government incapacity, there is no need, in the McArdle alternate universe, to test assumptions about the failures of public action and the necessary virtues of private endeavor.

I’ve been criticized before for dissing McArdle through arguments from authority, for suggesting that even in her area of supposed expertise, economics, McArdle has essentially no formal training.  Some may see the above as a reiteration of that argument.

But that’s not right.  It is true that McArdle doesn’t possess academic training in economics in any significant degree — but I and many others I know write about lots of things in which we were not professionally trained.  We do so, though, in the context of the practices of research and journalism: we report, we hit the library, we check facts, we call people.

My argument about McArdle is in fact one of negative authority:  given her unwillingness to expand her competence, it’s a pretty good default to assume that pretty much anything she says is false, unless it is corroborated three ways from zero.  In other words, it’s not that her qualifications are not sufficient to evoke trust in what she says; it is that she refuses to do that without which no amount of qualifications could justify such trust.

More broadly:  McArdle is not the real problem. She certainly commands an audience, but I don’t know that she’s genuinely influential.  She preaches to a choir, and for all her efforts to engage folks who actually do know what they’re talking about on policy, political economy, and so on, it doesn’t seem — to me at least — that she’s risen above the background pop poli-culture noise.

But even if I’m right in seeing her more as a court jester than a privy councilor, she’s a symptom.  (Very mixed metaphor alert — ed.)

So take the mountain of verbiage that follows as an attempt to illustrate what has happened to, say, the health care debate, in which the endlessly repeated lie that a publicly-run insurance plan is “socialism” had such impact.  In that debate, this claim did not need to be “proved” by anything remotely resembling actual evidence.  Rather, it was presented as an axiom that government action in the face of social problems is both illegitimate and ineffective.

So even though McArdle is not in fact worth the mountains of effort her errors evoke in those who would correct the record, it still seems to me important to point out that the way she and others achieve whatever influence they possess is both driven to error and is disastrous.  Constant vigilance and all that.

So here goes, much too much gnashing of teeth at her post on the problems in the system by which the Department of Defense attempts to educate in-service enlisted members and officers.

McArdle’s post was prompted by a piece by James Joyner in which he discusses whether or not military-funded higher education for its soldiers and officers is delivering on its various promises.

There is in fact something of a real story there: the Department of Defense has a significant pool of money to spend on tuition support for higher education for its uniformed personnel, and as Joyner says, incentives exist for soldiers and officers to seek such education.  Field grade officers need advanced degrees to enhance their chances for promotion to the upper ranks; senior NCOs and Warrant Officers need at least some post-high school education for their advancement; and many recruits, even those not planning extended military careers, seek useful education/training to give them a leg up on civilian life.

There are certainly flaws in Joyner’s post, however, mostly due to his selective reading from the main source of his post.  But at least he read that source and engaged it.  The divine Ms. M. M., commits the greater sin when she takes that misreading at face value, however, declining to interrogate the underlying story…and the results are not pretty.

She writes,

I get the impression that the primary market for diploma mill degrees is in various branches of the government.  The civil service system, the army, and various local departments like teachers, all automatically reward you with higher pay if you get a degree.  Since they don’t distinguish between the caliber of the schools, the obvious solution is to find the easiest course you can.  Undoubtedly this happens in private organizations too, but since the purpose of a degree in the private sector is signalling rather than box-checking, there is some incentive for gravitating towards higher-quality degrees.

Well, there is a carload of sly in there, so let’s break it down just a little.

I’m going to save the first for later — that “I get the impression” business — because that line is the key to so much of McArdle.

Instead, let’s pick up the thread at “diploma mill degrees.”  Here she picks up a phase Joyner also uses, and it is one that is designed to maximize the onus against the kinds of distance learning programs the uniformed military might undertake.  It is a tricky phrase.

For example:  there is no doubt that plenty in higher education would argue that the term covers an operation like one cited the article that evoked Joyner’s pice — the University of Phoenix, with its horde of students and array of programs and degrees/certificates and what not to sell them, all owned by a publicly traded corporation with a keen eye for the bottom line.

But the University of Phoenix, like all institutions that meet the US military’s requirements for general higher education service providers, is an accredited institution.*  Degree or diploma mills conventionally understood are unaccredited purveyors of meaningless credentials.  A diploma mill degree from any of these institutions would not provide any advantage to a military career, while accredited institutions, even ones you may not think terribly highly of, must provide some kind of instruction to go along with the credential.

In other words, you’ve already got a bit of a common McArdle trope here, that rhetorical sleight of hand deftly used to make a bad day worse.

That said, McArdle might argue, pointing to Joyner’s post and its examples, that this is a distinction without much of a difference, because students at places like the University of Phoenix and other, worse actors, aren’t getting any worthwhile education despite the fact of accreditation.

But either McArdle did not actually read the Bloomberg article by Daniel Golden that Joyner used, selectively, to underpin his personal take on military education — or she did and chose not to pay attention to those parts of the piece that contradict preconceived certainties.

There, she might have found that the issue Golden documents is the damage the profit motive does to the delivery of useful education to the military — and not, as she goes on to criticize, the notion of in-service higher education at all.

For as Golden documents, but McArdle does not appear to have grasped or even noticed, not-for-profit, government-funded educational institutions do a much better job.  But that’s a story that violates McArdle’s essential understanding (expressed in the quoted paragraph above) that nothing the public sector may set out to accomplish is as wonderful as what the private sector does without trying.

The moral:  If you don’t want to know, you won’t try to find out; and if you don’t, the likliest outcome is that what you write will be wrong.

Or to flip the point:  if you already know that profit maximization is the one true road to any desired end, then heaven forfend that you actually come to grips with the facts presented on the specific questions to whose answers your faith has already guided you.

And with that…on to part two!

*See, e.g.,this statement of the requirement from Army Regulation 621-5, most recently revised in September, 2009:  “Institutions offering ACES postsecondary programs will be accredited by national or regional accrediting agencies recognized by U.S. Department of Education (ED).”

Image:  Dosso Dossi, “Portrait of a Court Jester,” 16c.

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15 Comments on “Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Read McArdle: Keep the Military Dumb edition, part one”

  1. […] Albert Einstein’s Christmas Message: the Modern GOP Fail/Health Care Reform edition Friends Don’t Let Friends Read McArdle: Keep the Military Dumb edition, part one […]

  2. Downpuppy Says:

    Obviously, you’ve put massive work into taking apart something that McMegan tossed off in 5 minutes. She even admitted in comments that she wasn’t talking about Golden’s piece, and it was perfectly clear that she hadn’t read it.

    So thanks for the chance to see the source materials, & think a little about the whole profusion of credentials we wade through.

  3. lichanos Says:

    You’ve really got a thing about this gal. Okay, we all get obsessed now and then with jerks who tick us off…

    But what I find more interesting than taking down this blogger whom I never read and won’t read is this:

    So take the mountain of verbiage that follows as an attempt to illustrate what has happened to, say, the health care debate, in which the endlessly repeated lie that a publicly-run insurance plan is “socialism”

    For me the question is, why is there so little “push-back” against this sort of reasoning. I’m not asking why The Left, The Liberals, or some other group haven’t gotten their act together to smash the know-nothings – I want to understand why such pap passes for real argument. Has it always been so? Has the ratio of idiocy to sense changed? Is it inherent in an age of mass media that the weight should shift to demogoguery? I’m not sure. Is it this bad everywhere?

    Really my fundamental question is this: Why doesn’t reason get a better hearing. I honestly don’t believe people are stupid. I suspect that people don’t put much faith in bloggers like MM or their opponents. Sure, there are the nut cases in her choir, but how many are there?

    I find it weird that in a country in which 30 million are uninsured, in which people can lose their life savings and homes when they get ill, that people would be worried about “socialism” and a public plan? This bespeaks a tremendous vacuum in the realm of ideas – how did it get there? Is it peculiarly American?

    I heard someone say that America was founded twice: Once by religious fanatics, and once by Enlightenment Intellectuals. They’ve been battling since…

    • Jim Bales Says:

      Lichanos posts:
      Really my fundamental question is this: Why doesn’t reason get a better hearing. I honestly don’t believe people are stupid.

      People may not be stupid, but it seems that:
      1) They don’t like living with uncertainty. Sometimes reason does not give us clear answers, and (I believe) many people have difficulty living with that uncertainty.

      2) They do want to be entertained.
      Neil Postman wrote a prescient book in the early 1980’s, Amusing Ourselves to Death,which argues that the rise of electronic media is driving a social change as big as that driven by the invention of printing in the 15th century. It has, Postman argues, turned us into “a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment.” (p. 3 of the 1986 paperback edition)

      If Postman is right (and I find him most persuasive), then the reason that reason “doesn’t get a better hearing” is because “reason” is too often boring. We have been conditioned to change the channel if we are being bored, and if we can’t change the channel, simply stop paying attention.

      Over the 11 years I’ve taught at MIT, I find that our undergraduates tend to stop paying attention if they are bored, regardless of the education value of the material I am presenting, of the lab exercise they are performing, or the lab report they are writing.

      [Tom, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the need to be entertaining in the university classroom, and to have you compare that to your experience of the need to be entertaining in television production. My take is that our students have more tolerance for being bored than a TV audience, but that their tolerance is still rather limited.]

      I suspect that people don’t put much faith in bloggers like MM or their opponents. Sure, there are the nut cases in her choir, but how many are there?

      I have family in quite conservative parts of the rural south. In those regions, many people put significant faith in the likes of Limbaugh and Beck (who, for all of their violations of reason are most entertaining to their choirs). I don’t see why bloggers should be different. (I tend to put significant faith in those bloggers who I find to be rational and do their homework–such as our current host, Mr. Levenson. YMMV.)

      As to how big McArdle’s choir is, I cannot say, but it is an interesting question. Many of the comments to her posts are from the choir. Is their any assessment of the likely size of a blog’s following from the volume of comments it receives? If so, we might estimate the size of her choir.


      • Tom Says:

        Jim — I’ll gnaw on your questions and blog a reply. One note, relevant to yours and Lichanos’ take, came up last night in a conversation with blogospheric stalwart Aimai: there is a specific, though in my mind only partial efficient cause to account for the American public’s disdain for reason: a conscious decision, since at least the Reagan campaigns, on the part of the GOP leadership, to run against the idea of elites. The faux populism (see the orchestration of the selection of Palin comma Sarah, e.g. — not to mention Newt Gingrich’s apotheosis as a defender of tea party delusions against the “secular-socialist left” for a surrender to the notion that magical thinking works in governance) that we see in the GOP today has been a long time building. In the last three decades (more really — I remember Nixon and Agnew’s railing against elites as well) we’ve had a party that sees itself as the natural party of power do its damndest to teach Americans to see expertise as suspect. And they/we have learned.

        It’s a long history, and hence a problem with no quick solutions.

  4. lichanos Says:

    Jim Bales makes some interesting points. I share his interest in N. Postman, and I think his highlighting of the aversion to uncertainty and the love of entertainment (vide Pascal in my blog) are on target.

    …still, something is lacking. Some people are drawn to reason, investigation, criticism, etc. by temperament. They are a minority, I supsect. I have the sense that people are so willing to ignore reason in favor of divertissement, as Pascal calls it, because they can. We are so rich, so comfortable, that even the poor or better off than many in the rest of the world, materially speaking. This is a new situation in human history for the West and the world.

    Not that in the old days people were dying to get the true answers rather than the ideological pap that was foisted on them…but I get the feeling that things in our western world are remarkably stable. In the 18th and 19th century, you could see Europe as one big tinderbox, with the potential explosion coming from BELOW, not outside.

    Just musing, but the nature of things in our society seems business as usual and mysterious at the same time to me.

  5. lichanos Says:

    @J Bales:

    The Edgerton Center – Cool!!!

    • Jim Bales Says:

      Lichanos muses:
      [S]till, something is lacking. … I have the sense that people are so willing to ignore reason in favor of divertissement, as Pascal calls it, because they can.

      and brings up the important point that large swaths of our populace have the luxury of indulging “divertissement” because of our comparative wealth and abundance of leisure time.

      I wonder–if one were to assess over history the relative import of divertissement vs. reason among the leisured classes, would one find their relative weights varying over time? I am driven, in part, by Postman’s description of the crowds of thousands attending debates between Lincoln & Douglas in the 1850’s. People would stand for hours listening to the un-amplified voices of two men, speaking in complex sentences about the nuances of the political issues of the day. Such behavior is inconceivable in today’s world.

      How much of the change is due to our increased wealth and leisure time compared to our great-grand-parents, and how much is due to the shifts Postman wrote of? I would give more weight to the shits in the media, simply because the printed work is not as compelling as video/TV/movies. To get a comparable diversion 150 years ago required a theatrical production (even an impromptu one in a frontier town), lacking the on-demand availability of electronic media.


      PS — many thanks for you kind comment — I am fortunate to have the position I do, teaching Doc Edgerton’s strobe class! -jb

  6. Barry Says:

    lichanos Says:

    “You’ve really got a thing about this gal. Okay, we all get obsessed now and then with jerks who tick us off…”

    I’ve noticed this pattern among defenders of McArdle – they complain about people picking on her. A very old school journalistic belief, that the audience is supposed to be quiet and not be heard.

    Megan had her defenders when she was an ordinary blogger (‘she’s just a blogger’), when she was a blogger for the Atlantic (‘she’s just a blogger’), when she was writing articles for the Atlantic (‘she’s just a blogger’), and will have as she rise through the ranks of the punditariat.

    In the end, I’ve seen remarkably little criticism of her that’s personal or sexist, just people pointing out that Teh Chicago MBA seems to have a poor grasp of numbers, logic and economics, whenever it suits her.

    • lichanos Says:

      Barry –

      I’ve noticed this pattern among defenders of McArdle…

      In no way am I defender of McArdle. Just wondering why TL spends so much time on her…

      • Barry Says:

        One reason is as I’ve said – she’s a rising (albeit low-level) person in the MSM.

        In addition, a reason that I’m interested is that she’s an example of seeing how the MSM’s punditry is reproduced. Most of the columnist one encounters are middle-aged if not old, and they write like they were born old. With Megan we get a chance to watch somebody join the corrupt MSM punditry circles.

    • Tom Says:

      Per Lichanos — I understood him in the sense he describes below. Why spend so much time on someone who doesn’t really deserve the attention.

      Per Barry — yes indeed, because it is perhaps the only way to deal with such folks: early and often. (Not to mention the fascination in watching someone work so hard to avoid any contamination of experience.)

  7. […] Inverse Square illustrates yet again why people such as myself have stopped paying for The Atlantic: an institution which gives a platform to Megan McArdle is doing a grave disservice to our nation. […]

  8. lichanos Says:

    …a conscious decision, since at least the Reagan campaigns, on the part of the GOP leadership, to run against the idea of elites.

    Good point – a brilliant tactical move on the part of the GOP, I think. Very effective.

    …[the notion that] magical thinking works…

    Yep, there’s the nub of it. I think that’s a very deeply rooted human pre-disposition. Who knows, perhaps you could gin up an argument that there was a selection advantage to it? Is that the newest Darwin-God-gene meme I hear about?

    Rousseau[?] said that he who leans on Reason leans on a reed for support. In a strange way, it’s true. The forces arrayed for intellectual conflict put it at a disadvantage, it would seem.

  9. […] Dumb edition”, Thomas Levenson, the Inverse Square Blog, 28 December 2009 — Parts One and Two.  (no excerpt […]

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