Posted tagged ‘bad journalism’

The Love Song Of David Brooks, Or Who You Gonna Believe…

October 30, 2015

Bobo, or your own lyin’ eyes.

Amazingly enough, I’m not going all John Foster Dulles on Brooks’ latest grotesquerie:  all you need to know can be read in this brief passage:

At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable.  What matters is how a candidate signals priorities.

Umm. David.  We remember George Bush’s plans.  They signaled his priorities just fine…and he proceeded as promised to turn a robust budget surplus into the biggest upwards income redistribution in memory, along with deficits from here to Atlantis.

I had thought to fisk the whole damn column, which is full of low-hanging fruit.  But really why bother?  It’s all there in that don’t “get too worked up “by what alledged “wonks” actually say about the policies they wonkishly espouse.  Because it’s not like they mean it.

Except they do.

And once again we see:  David Brooks is a terrible public figure not because of his politics but because of his character, his willingness to be a loyal apparatchik transcribing whatever counts as pravda in that universe in which Republicans are the natural party of power.

Pieter_Brueghel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_Project

Or to put it another way: he both is and broadcasts a stupid person’s idea of what a smart conservative sounds like.

PS:  Krugthulu agrees.  What I like best about this is the absence of even a shred of collegial courtesy.

Which is as it should be.  If you’re going to opine in public, then it’s your job to do so by saying what you really think.

Image:  Pieter Breughel the Elder, Dutch Proverbs — The Topsy Turvy World. 1559.  I highly recommend checking out the image at the link.  The notes embedded in the picture explain it’s relevance here.  See, e.g. the roses before swine above.

 

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David Brooks Auditions For Graham Greene

January 30, 2015

 The Quiet American  is a marvelous book, or rather, it is one in which Greene’s utter disdain for the reckless incompetence of power gets a near perfect expression.  Take this snippet from near the end of the work:

Pyle said, “It’s awful.” He looked at the wet on his shoes and said in a sick voice, “What’s that?” “Blood,” I said. “Haven’t you ever seen it before?” He said, “I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister.” I don’t think he knew what he was saying. He was seeing a real war for the first time: he had punted down into Phat Diem in a kind of schoolboy dream, and anyway in his eyes soldiers didn’t count.

“You see what a drum of Diolacton can do,” I said, “in the wrong hands.” I forced him, with my hand on his shoulder, to look around. I said, “This is the hour when the place is always full of women and children-it’s the shopping hour. Why choose that of all hours?” He said weakly, “There was to have been a parade.” “And you hoped to catch a few colonels. But the parade was cancelled yesterday, Pyle.” “I didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know!” I pushed him into a patch of blood where a stretcher had lain. “You ought to be better informed.”

“I was out of town,” he said, looking down at his shoes. “They should have called it off.”

“And missed the fun?” I asked him. “Do you expect General The to lose his demonstration? This is better than a parade. Women and children are news, and soldiers aren’t, in a war. This will hit the world’s press. You’ve put General The on the map all right, Pyle. You’ve got the Third Force and National Democracy all over your right shoe. Go home to Phuong and tell her about your heroic deed-there are a few dozen less of her country people to worry about.”

A small fat priest scampered by, carrying something on a dish under a napkin. Pyle had been silent a long while, and I had nothing more to say. Indeed I had said too much. He looked white and beaten and ready to faint, and I thought, ‘What’s the good? he’ll always he innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. Ail you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.’

He said, “The wouldn’t have done this. I’m sure he wouldn’t. Somebody deceived him. The Communists…”

He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance…

Peter_Paul_Rubens_Massacre_of_the_Innocents

“Impregnable armoured by good intentions and ignorance.”  That is what will — or at least should be — engraved on David Brooks’ tombstone.  And I’m only giving him the props for his intent there out of whatever residual nil nisi bonum remains to me.

Why the vitriol, and memory of stupid wars, with the overwhelming weight of the violence reserved for far away others who don’t look like “us”?

Today’s column.

(more…)

Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Cite The Atlantic’s “Business and Economics Editor”: Further to the Megan McArdle is Always Wrong chronicles.

July 24, 2010

Update: Greetings to everyone coming here via TBogg, Susan of Texas, Eschaton and Brad DeLong — and my thanks to those good folks for the links.  A special thanks, of course, to Ms. McArdle herself, who tweeted this very post, apparently authored by “some idiot.” She has forgotten, I think, that here in Boston, that’s an epithet of glorious memory.  This idiot welcomes readers from wherever they come.

Though if I were just a little snarkier, I would add that being insulted by McArdle calls to my mind the experience of being attacked by the British Tory parliamentarian Sir Geoffrey Howe, as described by Roy Hattersley Denis Healey:  it is like being savaged by a dead sheep.

Update 2: Welcome everyone coming over from the GOS, Post Bourgie, Rortybomb, C&L, and Richard Eskow/HuffPo.  Rortybomb  and Eskow dramatically expand the takedown — reccommended.   I know I’m missing others  — for which I apologize; I’ve been a little swamped by the response to this one.

________________________________________________________________________________________

The old joke* about Richard Nixon asked “How can you tell when he’s lying?”

The answer:  “When his lips move.”

I’ve finally come to the conclusion that something similar must be said about Megan McArdle.  Perhaps lying is too harsh a word — but the serial errors that all fall on the side that supports her initial claims and that recur again and again in her work suggest to me that something other than mere intellectual sloth and sloppiness is the driver.

Ordinarily, such a record wouldn’t matter much, especially in journalism.  In theory, a series of clips as riddled with error as McArdle’s would end most careers in high prestige journalism.  Hot Air might still find a use for you, but The Atlantic?

But the problem is that McArdle is useful:  she advances an agenda — that which comforts the comfortable — and she does so with what I think is truly her original talent, the capacity not to notice the ridicule and ferociously dismissive debunking that she so often attracts.

Being able to be wrong in a form and fashion that aids the powerful, and possessing the ability not to mind a life that must be thus lived in willing embrace of error…now that’s a trick.

But it is one that does real damage to the republic, as the post that aroused this latest bout of McArdle-bashing demonstrates.  In it, McArdle seeks to discredit Elizabeth Warren as a potential leader of the new Consumer Finance Protection Agency to be set up under the just-passed financial reform bill.

To do so she tries to impugn both the quality and integrity of Warren’s scholarship, and she does so by a mix of her usual tricks — among them simple falsehoods;** highly redacted descriptions of what Warren and her (never mentioned) colleagues actually said;*** and descriptions of Warren’s work that are inflammatory — and clearly wrong, in ways she seems to hope no one will bother to check.****

You can see the footnotes for quick examples of these sins.  Here, I’ll confine myself to pointing out that in this post you find McArdle doing the respectable-society version of the same approach to argument  that Andy Breitbart has just showed us can have such potent effect.

To see what I mean, you have to follow through two steps: how McArdle constructs her picture of a feckless, partisan and dishonest Warren — and then how she generalizes from it.

Partly, McArdle relies on the strength of her platorm.  As “Business and Economics editor of The Atlantic” she routinely writes in assertions that we are to accept on her say -so.

(As an aside — this argument from authority is never that strong, and, as McArdle demonstrated very recently, can descend to pure, if unintended, comedy (go to Aimai’s comment at the bottom of Susan of Texas’s post), its flip side is that  different.  Everytime someone gets something thing wrong in a consequential way, the loss of trust should advance, ratcheting up with each such error detected, to the point where it becomes the safest default position to assume that someone — McArdle, for example — is always wrong till proven otherwise.)

But back to the anatomy of McArdle’s campaign. I’m going to focus on just one example where McArdle asks us to believe that her argument is strong and supported by the literature — without quite fessing up to what her supporting material actually says.  As part of her sustained campaign to deny the significance of medical bankruptcy in the US, she writes,

A pretty convincing paper argues that the single best predictor of bankruptcy is simply how much debt you’ve accumulated–not income, job loss, divorce, or what have you.  People who declare bankruptcy tend to have nicer stuff than others at the same income level.

The problem here is that the paper does not actually say quite what McArdle implies it does.  She’s mastered here the trick Sally Field played in Absence of Malice — she’s managed to come up with a sentence that is accurate…but not truthful.

In fact, should you actually take the trouble to read the cited study (by UC Davis finance prof, Ning Zhu) you will find material like this:  “households with medical conditions are twice more likely to file for bankruptcy (33.5 percent) than households that do not have medical conditions (14.8 percent)…;”

And this: “Having medical problems increases the households’ filing probability by 7.6 percent and one standard deviation of increase in employment tenure is associated with an increase of 9.2 percent in the filing probability. Such changes represent 48.40 and 58.60 percent deviation from the baseline probability….;”

And this “our results provide qualitative support for both the adverse event and the over-consumption/strategic filing explanations.”

To be fair Zhu concludes that overconsumption — spending too much on housing, cars and credit cards account for more of the total burden of bankruptcy than medical events, divorce or unemployment, as McArdle wrote.

But as McArdle completely failed to acknowledge, Zhu does so while using somewhat more stringent standard for counting medical expenses as a factor in bankruptcy than other scholars employed — as he explicitly acknowledges.  He concedes the continuing significance of medically -induced bankruptcy.  He acknowledges what he believes to be a weak underweighting of that factor (because some people pay for medical expenses on credit cards).  And he notes that a number of other studies, not limited to those co-authored by Warren, come to different conclusions.

In other words:  McArdle correctly describes one conclusion of this paper in a way that yields for its readers a false conclusion about what the paper itself actually says.  And look what that false impression implies:  if  medical bankruptcy is a trivial problem, society-wide, then Warren can be shown to be both a sloppy scholar and, as McArdle more or less explicitly says, a dishonest one as well.

And that leads me back to the thought that got me going on this post.  It seems to me that what we read in McArdle here is a genteel excursion into Andrew Breitbart territory.  Like the Big Hollywood thug, she misleads by contraction, by the omission of necessary context, by simply making stuff up when she thinks no one will check (again, see the footnotes for examples).  And like Breitbart, she does so here to achieve a more than on goal. The first is simply to damage Elizabeth Warren as an individual, to harm her career prospects.  Hence ad hominem stuff like this:

Her work gets so much attention because it comes from a Harvard professor.  And this isn’t Harvard caliber material–not even Harvard undergraduate.

Which neatly sets up this punch line:

..this woman is now under consideration to head a powerful new agency.  If this is how she evaluates data, then isn’t that going to hamper her in making good policy?

But there is a larger goal as well.  McCardle hasn’t given up, as the GOP hasn’t either, on the idea of simply undoing all that the Obama administration has managed to push past the outright lies and bad faith arguments of the right.  So here she does her bit for the cause, taking every attempt to sideswipe health reform:

Obviously, this was also held out as an argument for PPACA, [the health care reform bill] making an implicit promise to the American people which I believe to be false.

So Warren is the target, and there is no doubt that McArdle is trying by any means to discredit her to the public — but the larger ambition here is to discredit major reforms undertaken by the Obama administration in a kind of guilt by association. (See, e.g. the connection some GOP leaders are making between Shirley Sherrod and the negotiated settlement in the discrimination case brought by African American farmers and the USDA.)

McArdle is much more housebroken than many of her fellow travelers of course.  She knows which fork to use (or perhaps better, that particular ocean margin from which the right people secure their salt).  People who would not dream of taking Breitbart seriously still quote McArdle as a seemingly respectable source.

But she’s doing the same kind of work.

Caveat Lector.

And with that, I’m done with McArdle-world for the summer.  Just not worth suffering the Ceti Eel infections that result from too frequent a return to that particular planet.

(In German!  It sounds even more fun..)

*of the “hurts too much too laugh, but I’m too big to cry” variety.

**She cites as her first reason to disbelieve the most recent study in which Warren was one of four co-authors that the response rate to the study questionnair was, at 20%, too low to rule out sample bias.  In fact, as the authors report on the first page of the paper to which McArdle linked in an earlier post that their response rate was 46.5%.  Remember: the default position is that McArdle is Always Wrong.™

***E. g. McArdle rights writes that Warren and her colleagues “defined anyone with $1000 worth of medical bills as having a medical bankruptcy…”  This is how Himmelstein, Thorne, Warren, and Woolhandler actually described their criteria: “We developed two summary measures of medical bankruptcy. Under the rubric “Major Medical Bankruptcy” we included debtors who either (1) cited illness or injury as a specific reason for bankruptcy, or (2) reported uncovered medical bills exceeding $1,000 in the past years, or (3) lost at least two weeks of work-related income because of illness/injury, or (4) mortgaged a home to pay medical bills. Our more inclusive category, “Any Medical Bankruptcy,” included debtors who cited any of the above, or addiction, or uncontrolled gambling, or birth, or the death of a family member.”

That is: once again, what McArdle wrote was accurate inaccurate — but not true. Per commenter perspicio below, and in more detail from commenter Nylund.  Warren and her colleagues in the 2001 paper set $1,000 in uncovered medical bills as the threshold, one they raised to $5,000 in their 2007 study.  Big, big difference between a total bill, in part or entirely covered by insurance, and true out-of-pocket costs — and one which McArdle simply ignores.  Naughty, naughty.

****E.g. — she writes of Warren’s book, co-authored with Amelia Warren Tyagi, “that Warren simply fails to grapple with what her thesis suggests about the net benefits of the two-earner family.  ….. Warren kind of waves her hands and mumbles about social programs and more supportive work environments.  There is no possible solution outside of a more left-wing government.”

Except, of course, Warren does not say anything of the kind.  Instead, of the indebtedness trap that captures two income families, especially after divorce, the two authors write this stirring socialist slogan:  “If a family does not have the income to qualify for a loan at a reasonable rate they should not get that loan” (italics in the original; The Two Income Trap, p. 152.)

It is true that Warren and Tyagi suggest a number of possible policy changes to make the overall landscape of work, family and finance more equitable, from changes to the law on predatory lending to suggestions for child care subsidies.   But here’s their final thought, a rousing demand for Castro-esque intervention into the daily life American families:  “…families need to safeguard themselves” — which is followed by suggestions that range from switching to cheaper preschools and opting to buy or even rent houses smaller than those that put you at the edge of one’s financial capacity.

Warren and Tyagi argue, that is, that individuals should make defensive financial decisions to shield themselves from sudden catastrophic changes in their income.  Wouldn’t John (or Jane) Galt applaud?

Also, I have to say that in this context, this is the measure of McArdle’s character, her moral quality.  There is chutzpah here,  given how little tangible intellectual accomplishment as McArdle can muster to compare with Warren’s resume, and more when she speaks Warren’s mumbling or hand waving in the conext of a paragraph in which the ellipsis above fills in as follows: “Admittedly, I don’t quite know what to say either, but at least I can acknowledge that it’s a pretty powerful problem for the current family model.”

But while we can admire the bravado here, sort of, at bottom this is exactly the kind of petty character assassination that McArdle performs so well, and to such nasty purpose.  A mumbling, vague, imprecise Warren is obviously no one to run an important agency…and thus the post-long mission of character and career assassination is advanced.  Loathesome.

Image:  El Greco, “An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool” c. 1600.

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong…Health Insurance Reform/Great Depression edition

June 7, 2010

I’m trying (and failing – ed.) to learn how to go all Daniel Goldin on my blogging stylz these days (you know, “faster, better, cheaper” and all that), so let’s see if I can keep this latest bit of outrage at Megan McArdle’s willed incompetence short and to the point.

In this post she considers a broad claim…

I’ve been pretty skeptical of the Amity Shlaes argument that regulatory uncertainty was the major culprit in prolonging the Great Depression…

And then rejects her doubts…

Over time, however, in talking to banks and business people, I’ve become more convinced that it’s at least a minor problem…

In support of a conclusion that should make you go hmmm.

About that, more in a moment.  To slice and dice — of McArdle’s first statement,  she shoulda stood in bed.

The historical record is pretty clear (a) that Shlaes is a dishonest and incorrigible hack and the (b) the signal policy that slowed recovery from the great depression in this country (leave aside the global nature of the beast), was the decision to switch from stimulus measures to premature attempts to balance the budget in 1937.  (Something you can see graphically here, with a nice additional slam at Schlaes.)

On her second claim: this is the kind of reporting that has given Ms. McArdle so much of her notoriety to this point…in that, of course, whatever this post represents, it ain’t journalism.

There are certainly actual attempts to study regulation, and that subset of the field, the issue  of uncertainty in regulatory regimes.  If you’re interested in the subject, it takes very little time to find dozens of interesting threads to pull — I’ve just been reading this one on the paradox of prudential regulation [pdf] (i.e., because the cost of regulation is obvious and individual perceived but the benefits from successful regulatory systems are broadly dispersed and individual, it becomes hard to sustain support for such systems).*

But that’s not what McArdle has done here.  There isn’t even a shred of an attempt to suggest that she actually has mustered some real data here.  Instead, she’s talked to some folks she knows and they have told her they don’t like regulation.  They especially don’t like it if they sense that they might not be effectively in charge of the regulatory agencies that purport to govern their industries — which is how I translate “uncertainty” in this instance.

So, to this point, here’s the state of play:

McArdle invokes an often debunked partisan writer to suggest that one of her routinely disproved claims might actually be true. She says this seems to be so because we should trust her when she tells us that her unidentified sources in an industry that has just disastrously failed have told her so.

But never mind, because all this is preliminary to this stirring confirmation that regulatory uncertainty right now is causing businesses to shutter.   Her evidence?  This:

And this seems like a pretty clear cut case of death by regulation:  startup health insurer forced to shut down because of uncertainty surrounding health care reform.  According to the insurer, at least, they neither have the capital to handle the new requirements, nor have any prospect of raising it from the markets, where they’ve already tried and failed to get more investment.

She’s not even trying.

It’s almost not worth the effort to sneer at this.  McArdle’s link is to an article in a local Virginia business journal that, as McArdle indicates quotes the insurer to account for why that insurer is leaving business.  This isn’t journalism, this is stenography.

The whole story boils down to a complaint that an unspecified insurance model established two years ago (hence, in the last administration) may not in the future meet requirements specified by the new health insurance law, and that this is the reason this small insurer has been unable to raise capital.

There are two things to note here, beyond the simple sloth and meaninglessness of taking a failed businessman’s account of why the enterprise went bottom up at  face value.

One is that McArdle is playing a very slippery game here.  Remember:  she began by specifically calling out regulatory uncertainty, all the bad stuff that happens when a new administration starts changing things.  But this company is complaining not simply about lack of knowledge, but of the substance of the change itself:

“…the uncertainties in the regulatory climate coupled with new demands imposed by national healthcare reforms have made it challenging to sustain the level of sales required to remain viable over the long run.” (from James Slabaugh , executive vice president of nHealth.)

New demands, eh?  I’ll leave the reader to judge whether it is the fact that the new health care rules include provisions like prohibiting revocations of policies (rescission), or the like, or whether it is unspecified “uncertainty” that weighs more heavily here.

And while McArdle is careful to fudge just a bit — she refers to “new requirements” after all — she is really trying to have it both or maybe three ways.  Regulatory uncertainty is bad; regulation is bad; and the health care reform is bad…and because she knows these truths to be self evident, she needs do no actual reporting or research to prove her case or identify the specific root causes of the one actual business failure she tries to adduce as proof for these articles of faith.

This isn’t even a parody of journalism.  As I said above:  she’s not even trying with this stuff.

And one last thing, my second point:  it remains amazing to me how gutless and pathetic the glibertarian crowd becomes in the face of actual capitalism.

This insurance company had an approach (unspecified in the linked article) to providing insurance.  It’s approach did not survive a change of administrations, a change in the landscape of health care delivery and payment, the competition within the insurance market itself, and/or the problems that are face  undercapitalized companies at any moment — and especially in a period of disruption in the financial markets.

The company and its owners/managers made bets on certain expectations about the future.  Those bets didn’t pay off.  They go out of business.  I’ve run my own small business and I don’t wish that outcome on anyone…but it is a fact of life in the marketplace: some folks don’t grab the gold ring.

Sorry.

Try again.

I’m a screaming liberal, social-safety-net, environmentalist, birkenstock-wearing**, Berkeley, California born and raised, Kremlin-on-the-Charles educated, Massachusetts-pointy-headed-university type, yellow-dog Democrat, and I got no problem with that.  What’s McArdle’s excuse?

Wimp.

* It’s relevant here because it suggests just how McArdle’s sources may have in fact connived in the regulatory relaxation that permitted the reckless behaviors that lay behind the recent near-collapse of the financial system.

**Actually, I’ve never owned or even tried on a pair of Birkenstocks.  They look ugly and uncomfortable to me … but you got to ride with the stereotype that brung ya.

Image:  Wilhelm Maria Hubertus Leibl, “The Newspaper Reader,” 1881.

Stupid Reporter Tricks: NYTimes/Economics Writing Edition

December 9, 2008

You would think that there was little harm one could do on a mostly straight report on the emerging details of the Obama Adminstration’s stimulus plan.  But it turns out that Peter Baker and John M. Broder managed to find a way.

As I say, most of their article on the Obama plan to spend an enormous sum on public works was what it advertised itself:  a list of the projects that the new administration will fund in the hopes of achieving both short term job growth and long term return on capital improvements in things like transit and the electric grid, among much else.

But then they had to go do the obligatory reportorial “on the other hand,” seeking out a quote from an economist for that noted wellspring of intellectual rigor, the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI’s Mr. Viard obligingly offered up a bit of what he hoped would slip by as Econ 101 (or Ec. 10, for those who share my experience of that venerable course number as used at Cambridge Community College).  He said that…

…public works spending should not be authorized out of the “illusory hope of job gains or economic stabilization.”“If more money is spent on infrastructure, more workers will be employed in that sector,” Mr. Viard added. “In the long run, however, an increase in infrastructure spending requires a reduction in public or private spending for other goods and services. As a result, fewer workers are employed in other sectors of the economy.”

Sounds so simple, and so obviously right, doesn’t it?

Except, except, except…that there are two unstated assumptions here that render the quoted claim more or less nonesense

The first is that the economy is working so close to full capacity that effort in one sector needs must crowd out activity in another.  That is, at full or near employment, or so economists I consulted before writing this post told me, an aggressive public works program would indeed impose an added demand on labor (and other inputs) that could jostle other activities out of the way…but the notion that such expenditures merely rob Peter to pay Paul in a time of high and growing unemployment and a flight of capital from investment is, to put it kindly, misinformed.

For historical support for that statement, go back over the recent skirmishes over whether or not the New Deal worked.  See e.g. this and this, both from estimable Edge of the American West blog.

The other faulty assumption sneaks in there in that by-weasels much-loved phrase:  “In the long run.”

Not to belabor the Keynes connection, but, besides being the location in which we are all dead, the long run does display meaningful differences from the here-and-now. Yes — it is true that debt acquired now must be repaid in the future.  (Sort of–as historians of capitalism like Fernand Braudel have noted, the creation of a permanent, floating, tradeable government debt was one of the keys to Britain’s rise to economic dominance in the eighteenth century, and has played a significant role ever since.)

But the fact that economic conditions change over time does bear on the situation:  deficit spending to prevent disaster in a downturn can have, as mainstream economists have understood for a while, a signficant positive effect on future output (see the New Deal posts reference above).  Wild unfunded spending on stupid wars and transfer payments to the rich in a bubble-boom, not so much, but this isn’t a post about that.

In other words:  Viard’s disingenous argument that paying tomorrow for a hamburger today is a bad idea only works if you’ve already consumed enough Big Macs to make you sick.  That’s not the case right now, as most of us have grasped — which, among other reasons, is why we are not anticipating the inauguration of President John McCain.

Well and good:  so far all we know is that Viard is an ideologically blinkered guy doing what folks do who work for shops like the AEI — trying a little spin to influence the unwary.

But that’s my point.  If Viard wants either (a) to be as simpleminded as the above quote suggests, or (b) to be carefully, accurately deceptive in the way he frames an argument he knows to be weak (take your pick), that’s his look out.  What about the Times’s guys?

They are the ones at fault here.  They fell into the lazy reporter’s idea of  “balanced” journalism, where the conception of balance requires only that you transcribe a quote from somebody willing to say something opposed to the prior source’s quote.

This is a common enough trap in political reporting — reference any number of stories from the last twelve months.

But I think economics writing might be particularly at risk for sloppiness of this sort.  Economics is technical enough for the detailed analysis behind claims to be beyond most non-economist reporter/writers.  It is uncertain enough, incomplete enough as a discipline so that dissent and argument is not just plausible, it’s required.

But that still doesn’t mean you can just let any nonesense fly by.  Most reporters covering complex subjects — all science writing for example, most medical reporting and so on — know less about the technical issues within any particular story than their sources will.

(Peter Gammons is the one certain exception to this.  He knows more about his speciality, baseball, than all but a handful of those inside the clubhouses.  But the Commisioner, as Gammons is known, is a demi-god, and the rest of us aren’t.)

The solution is the same as it always is.  Get a reality check. Call someone.  I’m no journalist. (I was once, of the cub variety, but I haven’t committed serious reporting for decades). But I work at a place with a pretty good econ department, and it wasn’t hard to pick up the phone and the email cursor and ask a few people some questions.  Total time involved — about ten minutes to put the word out; return of answers within a couple of hours.  All deadline-friendly, in other words.

The rub of this all is that there are some very good econ reporters out there.  The Times employs one of the best of them in David Leonhardt. He would have known that Viard was blowing smoke.  That the two writers on this story did not would still have been o.k., if they had merely done what reporters used to do as a matter of course:  get a reality check.  Call someone who actually knows more than you do.  Just ask if the claim makes any kind of sense.

To put all this another way:  the two reporters on this story ought to have been alerted to their problem by the internal evidence of their own quote.  Viard’s statement, if true, is too obvious to have escaped smart people like Obama’s advisors — the Goulsbees and the Summers of the world.

If stimulus can’t work, if there is the kind of law-of-nature certainty that deficit spending defeats itself then, now, and always, then you would easily be able to find both economic-historical evidence and lots more heavyweight folks to say so than some guy flacking for a partisan “think” tank.  No?  Maybe, just maybe then, you’d think there was a problem here.

As a reporter for the “newspaper of record” you have to be able to run that simple minded a smell test.  If you can’t, or won’t?…well, to echo the master:

Why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

Image:   Bernarda Bryson Shahn, “A Mule and A Plow,” poster for the Resettlement Administration, c. 1935-1937.

Remind Me Again: Why Is David Brooks?

November 15, 2008

This is now very old business, at least as measured in blog-years, but David Brooks’ column the day of the elction set at least one new low, even for that genial crater in the right’s intellectual desert.

“A Date With Scarcity is a Brooks classic, one in which a truly impressive range of writerly faults and intellectual bad faith on display.

The tell comes early.  Consider the voice of the following:

The baby boomers, who entered adulthood promising a lifetime of activism, have been a politically undistinguished generation. They produced two presidents, neither of whom lived up to his potential. They remained consumed by the culture war that divided their generation. They pass their political supremacy today having squandered the fat years and the golden opportunities. Month by month, frustration has mounted. Americans are anxious about their private lives but absolutely disgusted by public leaders. So change is demanded.

Oh, those damned baby boomers, politically indistinguished; whose two Presidents — Clinton and Bush-the-self-made-son — are equivalent in their disappointment; whose quagmire of a culture war is somehow a fact of nature, and not a highly successful element in a 50 + 1 electoral strategy; that generation that must be at fault for the squandering of opportunity that has nothing to do with specific, identifiable policy positions championed by the party so recently in power.

And then the passive voice:  “Change is demanded.”

This is how you tell when a writer does not have the goods.  If Brooks actually had a body of real facts at his disposal, he wouldn’t need to play coy, and pretend we all know who he is talking about.  It is, of course, those darn Obamabots whose reaction to financial crisis is to be answered by change.

The bad faith of the writer permeates the rest of the piece.   He writes

Barack Obama is a child of a child of the 1960s. His mother was born only five years earlier than Hillary Clinton.

Obama’s mother was born in 1942.  I do not know of any person who pays attention who thinks that someone who was eighteen in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency is “a child of the 1960s.”  It’s typical Brooks.  He has one incredibly simple (simple-minded) mold into which he squeezes all manner of analysis, and by God he will push or pull whatever he needs to make it all fit.  Again, ask yourself why someone who knows the facts cannot bring himself to grasp them — or would rather mask them under the screen of the kind of construction that gives a date in the form “five years earlier than another event, year unspecified.”  Bad faith.  Lying by carefully constructed “accurate” falsehood.

Then there is the scribe of Bobo-land‘s penchant for meaningless pop-sociology.  Obama himself is a member of the post sixties generation, (a generalization so vapourous as to defy attempts to ridicule it), defined by Brooks as

…a generation of sunscreen and bicycle helmets, more anxious about parenthood than anything else.

As I said…impossible to parody: how can you belittle a claim that reads as its own reductio ad absurdem.  But hold the guffaws for a second and read it again.  What on earth is Brooks saying here?  That Barack Obama and those who voted for him shouldn’t put sunscreen on their kids?  That it makes sense to be an organ donor on your way to work* to demonstrate your lack of prudential caution?

More to the point, is he trying to argue that our predicament today derives somehow from the suggestion that the Obama family — and my own, with my eight year old son to think about, cannot hold at once, and distinguish between private and communal, public matters of concern?  (And if so, then with the corollary that our parents gave not a fig for their kids as they figured out how to chase the Nazis across Europe or the Communists out Hollywood.)

This is an example of someone who is clever — for Brooks is certainly that — but for whom reality has become so painful that he now chooses not to think.

Does he have any data to suggest that the people he describes are real?  Of course not — at least none on display.  Amazingly, though, the piece gets worse, Brooks analysis more unhinged.  He writes, for example, that Obama “has lived his entire adult life within a few miles of one or another of the country’s top 10 universities.”

Yeah.  So?  The same could be said of George Bush the elder, for example, or for a bunch of wiseguys with the middle name “the”** — the whole membership of the Winter Hill Gang of my own geographical locale spent their entire lives within a very few miles of  Harvard and my home institution of MIT (at least those portions not given over to enforced state-funded domiciles).

The fact that Obama has lived in big cities is somehow an indictment of … what, exactly?  That he is well educated, and hence somehow imperfectly prepared for contemporary challenges?  By this standard a candidate who took several years to make it through five institutions with a final degree in broadcast journalism might in fact be preferred to a Harvard Law Graduate turned constitutional law professor — but I submit that such an argument, implied or overt, tells you more about its utterer than its object.

And amazingly, Brooks plumbs yet new lows, (reminding me of the possibly apocryphal British armed services fitness report that stated something like “since his last review this officer has struck bottom and begun to dig.”)

Brooks writes, after noting that Obama’s upscale, educated cohort has supported him, and is now poised to become the ruling class (as if the well educated and wealthy across several fictitious “generations” don’t make up the ruling class now), that.

Raised in prosperity, favored by genetics, these young meritocrats will have to govern in a period when the demands on the nation’s wealth outstrip the supply.

What’s with this “favored by genetics” stuff?  Is Obama the President-elect because of his miracle brew of Kenyan and American genes?  My wife, daughter of the Mayflower (in potentia) on one side and Lithuanian Jew on the other — she is somehow favored above all others?  And so on.  Really, this is simply nonsense.  Literally.  What on earth does Brooks mean by his claim of a genetic glow over Obama supporters?  In fact what’s going on is a familiar enough, of course:  the simple-minded recourse to genetic determinism is what people do when they don’t have anything coherent to say about the actual group under scrutiny.

Finally, as this screed has gone on too long, so I’ll just note that Brooks finished his column with yet one more lie, a statement that only makes sense in the context of the narrative Brooks wants to be true, rather than the one that on the evidence is actually unfolding before us.  He writes that

We’re probably entering a period, in other words, in which smart young liberals meet a stone-cold scarcity that they do not seem to recognize or have a plan for.

Well, part of that sentence is true enough:  the smart folks now taking the reins from one of the most self-congratulatory stupid administrations in history will face enormous problems with constrained resources.  But does Brooks really mean to say that Obama, his circle, and much more broadly, his voters do not recognize the disaster we face?  Has he not noticed that there is a broad plan being proposed?  It may or many not work, but Obama has been clear for two months or more now (and really throughout the campaign) that there is a ton of work to be done to dig ourselves out of a mess created over many years of misrule.

Brooks has to know this.  He can read; he has ears to hear; he has watched what’s been going on this election season.  Yet he chooses not to credit the evidence of his own senses.  He is the columnist equivalent of the little child who thinks that the world can be made to conform to whatever he says it is.  In Brooks’ imagination, Obama and his supporters are not legitimate heirs to the establishment that ought to rule, no matter how incompetent they may been.  So it must be, because he thinks so.

Remind me again:  why does the New York Times bother with this stuff?  Or as Brad Delong is wont to say:  why, oh why can’t have a better press corps.

(And let me say — I don’t object to Brooks’s politics.  It’s the contempt for his audience on display in the because-I-said-so content-free arrogance of his writing.  There are conservative thinkers who actually pay attention to the real world who could make much better use of his real estate. Tyler Cowen comes to mind, for just one example — and the weekly dialogue that would result from his and Paul Krugman’s presence on the same page would be worth the price of admission.)

*a phrase used in my hearing by a former e.r. doc to describe those who ride two wheeled vehicles without helmets

**see, e.g. Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi.

Ambinder’s Follies, Redux

October 7, 2008

Ambinder had a true howler today, one not picked up, so far as I can find on a quick search, as it should have been.

In what he billed as “The Daily Racism Debate,” Ambinder chided Barney Frank for having the temerity to suggest that the GOP and its allies might have had a racist edge when they blamed lending under the Community Reinvestment Act for the collapse in the housing market, and hence for the global financial crisis that we now endure.

Here’s what Frank said:

“They get to take things out on poor people,” Frank said at a mortgage foreclosure symposium in Boston. “Let’s be honest: The fact that some of the poor people are black doesn’t hurt them either, from their standpoint. This is an effort, I believe, to appeal to a kind of anger in people.”

Here’s Ambinder’s considered take on this apparently offensive statement, fisked lightly:

Had it not been for the Community Reinvestment Act and the cheap mortgages provided by Fannie and Freddie, a lot of poor, black people wouldn’t have homes.

Quick sleight of hand notice here:  Freddie and Fannie got Bush administration to meet affordable housing goals by buying up subprime mortgages; far from being a consequence of CRA rules, the two F’s exposure to the riskiest class of loans was increased as a part of mendacious and incompetent administration’s attempt to avoid the messy business of housing the poor.

But a lot of poor white people wouldn’t have homes either. So it’s classist, more than racist, if it’, indeed, is motivated by prejudice at all.

This is, of course exactly what Frank said:  see above.  He noted that the fact that some poor people are black is a feature, not a bug, for a campaign now increasingly obviously playing the “not-like-us” card to a crowd primed to react to the blast of the race dog whistle.

At the same time, it might speak to the recklessness of Democratic policies, well intentioned or not.

Well it would, if the policies were in fact reckless; i.e. — a significant contributor to the financial crisis.  Except, of course, they were not, at least when grown-ups minded the store.  See below for more on this.

Many of people can’t afford their mortgages, and the entire country is paying a price.  Hence the anger, which crosscuts with latent racial/culture biases.

Yes, fine:  but why do all these people have mortgages that they cannot afford?  Well Irvine Renter can give you chapter and verse on the incentive structure that led some people through folly and or deceit to borrow way beyond their means.

But if you look for the underlying cause of the mortgage and financial meltdowns, don’t you think the decision to remove most regulation of the banking sector might have something to do with it?  How about the creation of an even more lightly regulated pseudo-banking industry?  And what about the decision  — written into law by McCain advisor and potential Treasury Secretary Phil Gramm —  to leave more or less wholly uncontrolled the trillions of dollars in the kind of derivative financial instruments Warren Buffet has more than once warned were “time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system.”

(This particular quote comes from the 2002 Berkshire Hathaway Chairman’s letter to shareholders.  2002!  That would be GOP controlled White House and, after Nov. both houses of Congress 2002, in case you were wondering.  This disaster was not a surprise to those paying attention).

Ambinder’s fellow Atlantic blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has written several posts on the leap on the right to what he calls, rightly, the “Blame the Negroes” escape hatch, well before Ambinder published his post.  The key one is here.   If Ambinder had troubled to read his colleague with care, he would have seen a discussion of one of the best available one-stop debunkings of the whole CRA-poor-folk-are-the-problem slander.

Here’s the key quote from Robert Gordon’s breakdown of the role of CRA in the crisis:

Most important, the lenders subject to CRA have engaged in less, not more, of the most dangerous lending. Janet Yellen, president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve, offers the killer statistic: Independent mortgage companies, which are not covered by CRA, made high-priced loans at more than twice the rate of the banks and thrifts. With this in mind, Yellen specifically rejects the “tendency to conflate the current problems in the sub-prime market with CRA-motivated lending.? CRA, Yellen says, “has increased the volume of responsible lending to low- and moderate-income households.” [italics added]

So let’s recap.  Ambinder says, in essence, that Frank was playing the race card when he accused the other side of playing the race card in the argument over who should take the blame for the financial mess.

But Frank was right about both aspects of the question in dispute:  first, the CRA is not materially at fault — to state otherwise is a lie, disproved on the numbers over the decades-long history of the act; as you can see detailed in the piece on the other end of the link above CRA governed institutions are less, not more, likely to have engaged in bad lending practices…

…and hence, second, GOPers and the McCain campaign itself, are in fact playing to the worst of our national psychoses, as, with their now famous wink, they blame the irresponsible poor, many of whom, as Frank noticed, just happen to be black, for taking and defaulting  on loans that — they alledge —  would not have been made hwere it not for the dasterdly CRA.

That is:  Ambinder’s chiding of Frank for telling the truth echoes, perhaps amplifies, the very wound that Frank is trying to excise from our body politic.

To echo the source on this kind of post, Brad DeLong, why oh why can’t we have a better press corps.

Image: Walker Evans, Bethlehem houses and steel mill. Pennsylvania, Nov. 1935.  This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs Division under the digital ID fsa.8c52905.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.