Archive for the ‘bad writing’ category

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.


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]


Just to dot the “i”s: 2011 GDP?

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

2011 federal spending?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Doublespeak alert

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

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

October 3, 2012

A couple of things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the really egregious statement comes a little later:

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

“This is not true.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2, 2012

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

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

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

Let’s view the carnage.  Brooks begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Furthermore, he’s too insular. …

See above.

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

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

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

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

Oh dear FSM, there’s more:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence like this.

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

Almost done… I promise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Send In The Clowns

August 22, 2012

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothin’ good.****

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

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

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

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

*When you’ve lost Sullivan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Iz Tom Friedman Learning?

July 25, 2012

A:  No.

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

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

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

Exhibit A:

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


A little fisking seems in order.

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

You don’t.  We do.  Why? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards!…and a little detour.

Check out this phrase:

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

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

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

reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides

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

And now to Fisk’s end:

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

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

Your gut…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



David Brooks Is Always Wrong-Yeshiva Bocher edition

February 19, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bet on door number two.

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

So what happens should you actually dive into that work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images:  Rembrandt van Rijn, The Old Rabbi, 1642

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

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

Jacob Jordaens, Suzanna and the Elders, before 1678.

The Evil That Men Do

January 28, 2012

Charles Murray is pimping a new book, alas. TBogg and Roy have already taken a couple of whacks at the most risible bits of his latest attempt to promote the natural order of things.

It’s hard to see this one making much of a splash, outside the usual quarters.  In it, Murray looks specifically at pale America, and he argues that white folks here divide along class lines. That’s a phenomenon he sees separating the effete, smart, rich folks living in enclaves unclear on the concept of real Amerigeist (See! Ha! You knew I was one of those, didn’t you!), and the Nascar loving, not-so-smart, Applebee eating (truly — see the two posts linked above), meth sucking (I made that up) folks who don’t have passports that let them into Prospect Park or SoMa.

Leaving aside that David Brooks already botched this one, albeit in more facile prose, Murray’s key move is to declare that whatever else may construct class in America, it ain’t income, or more precisely, income inequality.

Which is of course what this always outcome-oriented writer needs to say.

His public-intellectual career, vapid though it may seem anywhere actual rigor is demanded,* turns on finding some kind of essentialist reason to preserve current social hierarchies and racial privilege. Here, abandoning a genetic tack, he can be seen to perform one of David Brooks patented’ double backflips, to land on what he claims are deeply rooted differences in culture.

The cleverness there is that such arguments evoke the kinds of responses most likely to be palatable to his and our overlords.  Or, in the words of one reviewer — a more famous man than Murray, yet equally certain of assumptions not in evidence — the authoritative prescription for the Republic runs like this:

What the country needs is not an even larger federal government but a kind of civic Great Awakening–a return to the republic’s original foundations of family, vocation, community, and faith.

That’s from Niall Ferguson, whose review captures the bad faith that runs through Murray’s enterprise — really, one of the original that runs through the whole right-wing culturedammerung.Usefully, Ferguson’s gloss on Murray’s prose strips it down to the essential poverty of its argument.

That is: it may gratify our Galtian masters to be told that just a bit more church and keeping one’s privates in their proper place is all that is needed to render the US governable by the governing class.  But no one committed to actually studying society as it lives on the ground of contemporary America could argue that “community” for example is simply a unitary value to be trotted out at as needed.  The word is as vulnerable as are the real people involved to such realities as 8+% unemployment, gutted town and school budgets and so on — the actual material framework of community in which families, you know, live.  I’ll grant you lots of factors at play, but cash is definitely a huge one, despite Ferguson’s ritual endorsement of Murray’s claim:

Murray is dismissive of the standard liberal prescription of higher taxes on the rich and higher spending on the poor.

Sorry, folks.  It’s simply hard to construct community when you can’t keep street lights on.**

Yet more egregiously, see what’s missing in Ferguson’s deft opposition:  the middle class, for whom as much as for the poor it kind of matters to be able to drive to work on streets without sinkholes, depend on cops on the beat, find a book or two in the library and so on.

More deeply, if I took Ferguson seriously as a public writer at this point in the diminishment of his intellectual career (as opposed to the upper-middle-brow blockblusterer role he’s embraced with equal gusto and skill), I’d go into a bit more detail about the shocking ahistoricity on display.

Just to give the merest hint of what’s missing — only one, small example out of a universe of them — a historian actually interested in the practice of the craft might stop to think about what happens to community when the average radius of daily travel changes by orders of magnitude in the time lapsed from when John Adams strode his Quincy farm.  Or what the change in the cost and capacity of medicine to intervene in illness and dying from that day to this might do to the way families act, or how we parse the roles of government vs. individual autonomy and responsibility.

To restate the point my father spent a professional life thinking about:  it’s not just what is said that matters, the bare words someone might utter about liberty, for example, or about the exceptionalism of the American experiment.   The “when” is key, the particular context of thought and historical moment.  You have to ask to what other ideas, emotions, social facts those words speak each time you hear them.  The concept of American exceptionalism in 1783 had a specific sharp tang: George Washington was to be our President, not our king.

Now?  The meaning and feeling of that same language has shifted enormously.

And so it is with Murray’s and Ferguson’s constructed nostalgia.  I’ve learned not to psychoanalyze at a distance, so I won’t speculate on what it is about the pleasures of contrarianism that seems not just to capture clever young folks like Ferguson (and his Oxford undergraduate friend, Andrew Sullivan) — but to freeze them for a very long time.  As John Rogers pointed out long ago, some escape such youthful folly, and some don’t.

But none of this is what truly gets my goat here.  Rather,  it’s this:

Quite unjustly, that book [The Bell Curve] was anathematized as “racist” because it pointed out that, on average, African-Americans had lower IQ scores than white Americans.

I understand  on a technical level why Ferguson might feel compelled to write this.  The Bell Curve is Murray’s claim to authority as an observer of America.  If it falls, the residue of Murray’s intellectual capital evaporates as well.  Unfortunately, The Bell Curve is one of the most thoroughly eviscerated books in recent memory. (See Cosma Shalizi’s take down of the whole race-IQ-outcomes for just one, very sharp example.)

In that context, Ferguson does what he has to do in quite cleverly sliding by what Murray and his co-author Richard J. Herrnstein were actually on about.  The root claim in their book wasn’t a statement about the raw results of certain tests; rather, it was what such scores mean — their claim that the numbers they selected revealed something both real and relevant to social outcomes.

This is what anathematized the book.  Not that it said that African-Americans scored as they did on a particular test, but that it claimed, in the teeth of much evidence, that such data captures an essential quality of African-American mental capacity that has real world consequences.  There are facts and there are interpretations, and while there were problems with both in the Murray/Herrnstein account, this assertion of meaning was what mattered.

Which meas that you don’t have to go to all the finer grained methodological critique of Murray and Herrnstein — their use of what are essentially achievement tests as proxies for IQ tests, for just one of many available examples — to see how Ferguson is playing an old trick here.  If you can’t deal with the argument your antagonists actually made, then…What the hell! Run up a straw man, something the other guys didn’t say…and put both boots in.

The hollowness thus implied would be sad — tragic, really — if what Ferguson actually wrote weren’t so bloody corrosive. It’s 2012, goddamn it.  Someday soon — as in many yesterdays ago — we’ve got to get past these quasi-scientific glosses on what is the same damn justification slave-owners offered for holding some people as property: that those slaves were in irreducibly essential ways less than their white masters.

Ferguson here sets that day back once more.

For shame.

*I.e., not The Daily Dish

**Old story, I know, but still a good one.

Images:  Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Two Acrobats, 1932-33.

Titian, Charles V With Dog, 1532-33.

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.


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.


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.

By The Way, David Brooks Is Still Always Wrong

November 13, 2011

I know this is already long since fishwrap, but amidst the many disembowelings of David Brooks discovery that he has always been at war with Eurasia   always  loved Mittens, I have to rage, rage, at the relentless, endless, fetishization of the deepest, most degrading fantasy of the right.  No, not that one.  Nor that one either.  Nor this.

No it’s the almost touching faith evinced by Mr. Brooks and the entire GOP presidential field in the existence of a free market in health care.  So, just to flagellate a truly dead horse, let’s take a look at one specific passage from Our Lady of Perpetual Broderism’s Romney tongue-bath:

True Medicare reform replaces the fee-for-service system with premium support. Government gives people money, rising slowly over time, to shop around for their own private insurance plans. The system would reward efficiency and quality, not just quantity. Competition between providers would unleash a wave of innovation.

The only problem is that the marketplace for health care that exists in the world real people inhabit bears little or no resemblance to Brooks’ pleasant vision of informed consumers, with full information in hand, shopping around for the perfect combination of benefits and price they need — not just now, but through the life (and death) cycle all of us endure.


That is: most evocations of the free market in just about anything call up spherical cows, simplified (and dangerously convincing) models of what actually happens in the world.  But to imagine a genuine Ec. 101 free market in health care — and to praise someone as “serious” for building policy on the assumed reality of such delusion — that takes real effort, a true commitment to avoid knowing inconvenient facts.

At least, so says such a DFH as Daniel McFadden.  That would be the 2000 Nobel laureate in economics who has taught at such dens of raving lefty lunacy as USC, UC Berkley, and (ahem) MIT.  And that would be the same fellow who has spent quite a bit of time analyzing the notion of consumer driven health care.  Here’s what he had to say in 2008 in a working paper co-authored with Joachim Winter and Florian Heiss:

Most, but not all, consumers are able to make health care choices consistent with their self-interest, even in the face of novel, complex, ambiguous alternatives. However, certain predictable irrationalities appear – excessive discounting of future health risks, and too much concentration on dimensions that allow easy comparisons, such as current cost and immediate net benefit. Some consumers are inattentive, particularly when prior choices or circumstances identify a default “Status quo” alternative.

These behavioral shortcomings imply that some degree of paternalism is essential if Consumer Directed Health Care is to allocate resources satisfactorily. Health care markets need to be regulated to keep out bad, deceptive products, particularly those that offer “teaser” current benefits but poor longer-run benefits. Consumers need good comparative information on products, and they need to have this information brought to their attention. Consumers appear to underestimate the probabilities of future health events, [or] anticipate the resulting disutility, and as a result they systematically underspend on preventative or chronic care. Socially optimality will require that these services be subsidized, or choices regarding them be framed, to induce desired levels of utilization.

[From the second paper listed on McFadden’s website, linked above: “Consumer-Directed Health Care: Can Consumers Look After Themselves?” pp. 19-20]

Note what McFadden et al. do not say.  They don’t say market mechanisms can’t work.

They do say that human beings display predictable behavior that makes it impossible to rely on an unregulated market to deliver health care.  They point out that those irrationalities fall most heavily in the area of guessing what you or I might need some years down the road…i.e. when we are likely to need good care the most.*

Hence, the need for what the authors above call “paternalism,” and what I would term the normal function of the concept of universal insurance — mandated if necessary under the particular policy choice — against risks all members of a society face.

McFadden and his colleagues are hardly the only ones who get this.  This paper is exemplary, not determinative.  And again, it’s not that these writers represent some radical wing of anti-classical economics clinging to the margins of the profession.  In fact, McFadden and his co-authors display some familiar, reflexive thinking.  I’d argue with the Nobel laureate in his offhand dismissal of a different approach, what he terms “a government single payer/single provider program.”

Partly, the difficulty I have with the expert here is that single payer is not the same as single provider.  Conflating the two allows one to damn one with the flaws of the other — which is hardly cricket in a serious policy discussion.  And when anyone — even a distinguished fellow like McFadden — says that he “believes” the problems of such a system will be the same as for private plans, then I become an honorary Missourian: “Show me.”

But that’s an aside.  The core point is that even folks with a deep institutional and disciplinary engagement with the idea of markets understand that you can’t run health care on the principle that the customer knows best.  We don’t — we can’t, really.  And that’s why Romney, and Ryan, and all the other GOPsters trying to transfer risk to the American people and profits to American insurers are never, ever “serious.”

Which is just another long way round to repeating the obvious. David Brooks is always wrong.  He kind of has to be, given how he has dedicated his career to the notion that Republicans belong in power, no matter what.

*Brooks — like the GOP candidates — might argue at this point that they never have contemplated an unregulated private market in health care.  Which may be accurate, but not true (to channel my inner Sally Field).  That is — the degree of regulation in the market to which all calls to repeal Obamacare would return us was the one in which a host of problems along the lines McFadden et al. point out, and many more besides.  More broadly — even if you take the GOP as sincere in its stated principles, they oppose “paternalism” in individual decisions.  Which means they oppose exactly what is needed in the delivery of health care.

Images:  Edouard Manet, The Dead Bullfighter, 1864-1865

Pompeo Batoni, Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty, c. 1746

The Political Folly of the Middle

November 12, 2011

Jim Bales here, with my thanks to Tom for the loan of his soapbox.

Megan McArdle has a new post up at The Atlantic, entitled “The Financial Folly of Fairness” that makes some important points, including:

The solution to the problem [of the Great Depression] turned out to be throwing money at it: going off the gold standard, devaluing, and guaranteeing everyone’s bank accounts. Oh, yes, there was moral hazard. There still is. What there aren’t, is bank runs that wipe out peoples’ life savings overnight, or an unemployment rate of 25%.

One can name dozens of examples of things that violate our sense of fairness and obligation, and thereby make us all richer, from limited liability to bankruptcy.

The “just world” described above is not some bourgeois paradise; it is the western world during the Great Depression. It was not a better world for everybody; it wasn’t even a better world for anybody that I can think of. After it had finished punishing people who made stupid decisions, it went on to wreak brutal vengeance on a lot of people who had been quietly minding their own business.

Sadly, she then tries to position this as steering between the Scylla of the Left and the Charibdys of the Right. She tries to contrast herself with most people (who are of one of the two extremes), claiming that they “may believe the part of it that supports some larger “fairness” agenda they’re committed to. But their support is almost always piecemeal: try getting a liberal who loves easy bankruptcy to give a second chance to bankers who made a few stupid money decisions, or convincing conservatives …” [Emphasis in the original]

Now, if anything constitutes giving a second chance to bankers who made many massively stupid money decisions, it is TARP. TARP didn’t just give banks a second chance; it gave bankers a second chance by leaving the leadership and ownership of participating banks in the hands of those whose actions caused the crisis.

If Ms McArdle is correct in characterizing liberals as unwilling to “give a second chance to bankers who made a few stupid money decisions”, then TARP must have passed with overwhelming Republican support and despite determined Democratic opposition.*

The final vote on TARP? In the House 73% of Democrats voted for the bill compared to 46% of Republicans. In the Senate 80% of Democrats voted for the bill compared to 69% of Republicans.

So, when the chips were down, liberals quite literally gave a second chance to bankers despite their massively stupid money decisions, decisions that damaged our economy and put millions out of work. Utterly unfair, but necessary, as the liberals recognized!

Ms McArdle does us all a service in reminding us to place the well being of our people ahead of our desire for fairness. However, she does us a disservice in pretending that there are two extreme views in our discourse.

For, in addition to the “folly of fairness” there is the “folly of the middle” — the belief that the safe course is the always the one between left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican. In today’s America, one can embrace the middle only by twisting oneself into a pretzel. One must simply believe that liberals would never give a second chance to bankers who made stupid money decision, and not actually look at the evidence.

In today’s America, there is only one extreme view of import, the view embraced by the Republican Party. This is the belief that defeating Obama in 2012 is “the single most important thing we want to achieve”, far more important than creating jobs for those who wish to work but cannot find employment.

The moderate position in today’s America is the Democratic position. Today’s Democratic party has been — and is even now — striving to protect “people who had been quietly minding their own business” from having “brutal vengeance” wrecked upon them. They are not succeeding because of the consistent and systematic obstruction of the Republican Party.

It is not enough to reject the “folly of fairness”. We must also reject the “folly of the middle”. The two parties are not cut from the same cloth, and we cannot pretend otherwise.


Jim Bales

[*] One might claim that Democrat is not synonymous with “liberal”. I will simply note that Democrats in White House and Congress are actually in a position to change people’s lives, while the extreme liberals who might otherwise fit Ms McArdle’s description lack that power. To ignoring Democrats while fretting about the out-of-power hyper-liberals is another contortion required to embrace the folly of the middle.

Image:  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Folies Bergere: The Brothers Marco, c. 1895