Posted tagged ‘McArdle’

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

September 5, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

McArdle begins her gloss in classic form:

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

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

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

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

Onwards!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that settles it, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then take more time.

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

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

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

Umm, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing to see here, move along.

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

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

I.e. we should do nothing.

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

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

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

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

Oh, this zombie lie.

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

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

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

And still there’s more!

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

Snicker. (And not in a PoMo way.)

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

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

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

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

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

Still can’t stop giggling.  Have at it.

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

What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pieter de Bloot, Tavern Interior1630s.

Savaged By A Dead Sheep

April 22, 2011

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

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

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

McArdle…

…is McArdle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No financial judgment there — just one more political prognostication.

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

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

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

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

Recall what Fallows wrote:

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

Let me channel my inner McArdle here:

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

This is sarcasm?

Oh.  I see.  My bad….”

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

Next up, a tasty dish of word salad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

To (b):  How much not so much?

Not at all, in fact.

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

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

In other words: McArdle simply gets this one wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But maybe not.  Hence posts like these.

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Anker, The Crèche, 1890

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

Francisco de Goya, Riña a garrotazos, 1819-23

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

April 21, 2011

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

Enjoy — it’s a good one

TL

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

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

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

Commenter mmh53b noted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so we are left with three simple choices.

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

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

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

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

PS – A Counter Example

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

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

Image: Jan Massys, At the Tax Collector, 1539

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong: Reading Papers Is Hard edition.

February 16, 2011

(BTW: Apologies in advance for the length of this screed.  You can always think Playboy and/or wherever it was my junior senator offered his cheesecake and “read” it for the pix. 😉

I know that Megan McArdle is a bagatelle in the supermarket of awful opened by the current (and hopefully temporary) right wing ascendancy.  But even if there’s nothing she does that rises to the consequence of our recent theme, for example, in which the forced-birth, pro-rape party continues to advance its claims, she still finds her own ways to damage the Republic.  So please excuse yet another detour into the eternal sunshine of the McArdle mind.

DougJ has already written about her latest — how to describe it? — special attempt to bolster the long standing conservative attack alleging bias against conservatives in the academy.*

I’m completely down with his take on the matter, unsurprisingly, but here I want to add the dimension of McArdle’s continuing failure to attain minimal standards of journalistic competence.  (I’ve got some unfinished business on this btw, given her recent squib of rage at being called out on errors in kitchen history.  If boredom with the company of McArdle’s prose and the day job don’t overwhelm me, I’ll post on that in a couple of days.)  Here, I’m want to pound on the way McArdle misleads her readers on what is clearly a more consequential subject.


That would be her use of citations to scholarly literature that, if read, would reveal profound differences between what she says the research reveals and what in fact you find should you read the stuff yourself.

So, consider this from McArdle:

One of the things the legacy of racism has taught us is just how good dominant groups are at constructing narratives that justify their dominance.  Somehow, the problem is never them.  It’s always the out group.  Maybe the out group has some special characteristic that makes them not want to be admitted to the circle–blacks are happy-go-lucky and don’t want the responsibility of management, women wouldn’t deign to sully themselves in commerce, Jews are too interested in money to want to attend Harvard or go into public service.  These explanations always oddly ignore the fact that many members of the out-group are complaining about being excluded.
More troubling is that these volitional arguments are almost always combined with denigration: the out group is stupid, greedy, mean, violent, overemotional, corrupt . . . whatever. As indeed these arguments are when they’re deployed against conservatives in my comment threads.  In fact, it seems clear to me that many commenters have taken the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia as vindication of their beliefs–if conservatives can’t make it in academia, that proves that conservatives are not smart, and liberal ideas must be better.  This is possible, of course.  It’s also possible that academics are validating their own bias by systematically excluding those who disagree with them.
So while in theory, it’s true that you can’t simply reason from disparity to bias, I have to say that when you’ve identified a statistical disparity, and the members of the in-group immediately rush to assure you that this isn’t because of bias, but because the people they’ve excluded are all a bunch of raging assholes with lukewarm IQ’s . . . well, I confess, discrimination starts sounding pretty plausible.
When that group of people is assuring you that the reason conservatives can’t be in charge is that they do not have open minds . . . when the speed and sloppiness of their argument make it quite clear that they rejected the very possibility of discrimination without giving it even a second’s serious thought . . . well, I confess, it starts sounding very plausible.  More plausible than I, who had previously leaned heavily on things like affinity bias to explain the skew, would have thought.
Moreover, what evidence we have does not particularly support many of the alternative theories. For example, the liberal skew is strongest at elite universities.  This is not consistent with the notion that education is turning all the conservatives into liberals, or that they’re not interested in becoming professors.  I’d say it’s more consistent with the possibility that they’re disproportionately having a hard time getting hired, or retained.

I quote at length to avoid McArdle’s common dodge when caught in hackery that crucial context has been omitted that would reveal her ultimate wisdom.

So, here’s how I gloss the above, trying to ignore the “I never (emotionally) escaped seventh grade” affect of the passage.

She is saying that the dominance of liberals over conservatives in the academy is a fact.  Liberal academics and their defenders assert that mere numerical disparities do not require an explanation of bias or discrimination, but those who discriminate always say that.  Thus, because her commenters have told her that conservatives are excluded because they are stupid, this serves to confirm that liberal academics are simply educated versions of common or garden-variety bigots.  And because, in McArdle’s version her critics only make the worst arguments, this in turn makes the charge of active discrimination “very plausible.”

I leave to the commenters a full dissection of the problems of “research” and interpretation based on the ways in which McArdle presents her critics’ perspectives.  I’ll just say here one of the fundamental lessons we try to teach in our journalism segments of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing is that when presenting views in dispute, the writer has the obligation to present opposing arguments in their strongest possible light.  This does not seem to be a part of the journalistic toolkit with which McArdle is familiar.

But all that aside, look to that last paragraph:  “what evidence we have does not particularly support many of the alternative theories (to bias).”

The “evidence” at that link is a study by two social scientists, Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, titled “The Social and Political Views of American Professors,” distributed in 2007.  A reasonable person would, I think, interpret McArdle’s cite of this paper as claiming that Gross and Simmons’ research supports her statement that the most plausible explanation for the ratio of liberals to conservatives in the academy is bias.

I’m guessing folks know what’s coming next:

What happens when some unruly types (as they have done before) actually read the research in question — in this case a 70 page, 25,000 word article?

I’ve now read the whole damn piece.  I won’t burden you with every last quote I pulled (I stopped at about 2,500 words of excerpts) but it’s there if anyone wants to call me on it.  Here, I’ll try to keep  it down to a dull roar of passages that should have given McArdle pause.

So:  does the paper McArdle relies on for her claims of bias state that the academy is clearly overwhelmingly liberal?

No:

Where other recent studies have characterized the American college and university faculty as not simply extremely liberal, but nearly uniformly so (Klein and Stern 2004-5; Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte 2005; Tobin and Weinberg 2006), we show that while conservatives, Republicans, and Republican voters are rare within the faculty ranks, on many issues there are as many professors who hold center/center-left views as there are those who cleave to more liberal positions, while the age distribution indicates that, in terms of their overall political orientation, professors are becoming more moderate over time, and less radical. [page 3]

What does academic faculty actually look like?:

Collapsing the data accordingly to a three point scale, we find that 44.1 percent of respondents can be classified as liberals, 46.6 percent as moderates, and 9.2 percent as conservatives.  Such a recoding thus reveals a moderate bloc that – while consisting of more liberal- than conservative-leaning moderates – is nevertheless equal in size to the liberal bloc. [p. 27]

Well, maybe that just reflects an aging, embattled cohort of moderation losing ground to ivy-covered radicals.  Or maybe not:

Table 4 shows that the youngest age cohort – those professors aged 26-35 – contains the highest percentage of moderates, and the lowest percentage of liberals.  Self-described liberals are most common within the ranks of those professors aged 50-64, who were teenagers or young adults in the 1960s, while the largest number of conservatives is to be found among professors aged 65 and older (though the age differences in terms of the number of conservatives are small, problematizing Alan Wolfe’s [1994:290] assertion that “the cultural war in the universities is a generational war.”)  These findings with regard to age provide further support for the idea that in recent years the trend has been toward increasing moderatism. [p. 29]

Is there nonetheless a monolithic culture of opinion in the classroom or on tenure review boards?

What overall conclusion can be drawn from our analysis of the attitudes items? What we wish to emphasize is simply that there is more attitudinal complexity and heterogeneity in the professorial population than second wave researchers have attended to.  It seems to us unlikely that a simplistic notion like “groupthink” – more of a political slur than a robust social-scientific concept – can do very much to help explain the specific configurations and distributions of attitudes our survey reveals. [p. 61]

Finally, is bias really the one best explanation social scientists see to explain the political landscape of American universities?    As discussed in Neil Gross’s paper with Ethan Fosse “Why Are Professors Liberal” (2010 — link at Gross’s webpage), the answer is again (guess!)…No:

For example, Woessner and Kelly-Woessner (2009) find that twice as many liberal as conservative college students aspire to complete a doctorate.  In interviews, Binder (2009) finds that conservative students at a major public university regard faculty members disparagingly and do not seek to emulate them in any way. Ecklund (forthcoming), studying the religiosity of academic scientists at elite schools, finds that high levels of religious skepticism result not from professional socialization, but from the greater tendency of religious skeptics to become scientists, a finding that echoes Finkelstein’s (1984) earlier review of the evidence. Gross and Simmons (2006), analyzing public opinion data, find that conservatism, Republican Party affiliation, and evangelical identity are associated with less confidence in higher education and diminished evaluations of the occupational prestige of professors. [p. 50]

There’s lots more, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now.  But I think y’all get the idea:

There is,  contra McArdle, plenty of research out there on academic political attitudes.  That which she invokes, does not conform to the myth she wishes to advance here.  The specific paper she cites explicitly contradicts the thrust of her argument.

In other words, McArdle has chosen to deceive her readers.

That is, the issue here is not that she got simple, quanta of “fact” wrong.**  She advances few in this particular post, preferring instead to remain safely behind the deniability afforded by putting words in the mouths of anonymous interlocutors.  Here it is a matter of false reporting, claiming that research with which she asserts personally familiarity supports her case when, by any reasonable reading, it does not.

Such intellectual dishonesty has to be named and shamed. First and most important, of  course, because McArdle here advanced an attack whose aim is to discredit what academics have to say.  The existence of an even marginal voice independent of the right wing consensus is both a threat and emotionally intolerable.

Thus, I’d guess, McArdle’s “mean-girl” slashes against critics of her original post on this subject.  If it is liberals who are the racist scum here, no need to listen to any actual evidence they might advance on this or any matter.  And as for McArdle, so for the broader right-wing attack on independent expertise and the exercise of reason.

This is, of course, disastrous for a working democracy.

And its not good for The Atlantic either.  I suppose I shouldn’t care, but I do.  In the great scheme of things, the fate of that masthead may not matter much, but each time McArdle  misleads her readers to advance her cause it cuts away at the foundation of trust a reader may have in anything published there.

And when you get flurries of reports of bad journalism — think the latest Friedersdorf craptacular — it gets harder and harder to avoid the thought that the operation as a whole is losing its way.  There are great people who work there — I’ve named some of my favorites before, and I’m not going to keep calling out folks who are trying to produce good work in what must be an often difficult situation.

But the bottom line doesn’t change:  obvious, overt bad craft costs any publication something.  It may take a while for the rot to show, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t griping away at the foundation.  And while it’s none of my business, really, The Atlantic has given me enormous pleasure and food for thought over many years.  I’d hate to see it go the way of The New Republic.

*Here’s my recent take on what launched this latest salvo.  There is a deep history to all this, of course, with one possible start date coming with McCarthy, and another with the Nixon-Agnew attack on knowldege.  But this latest round is an offshoot of the culture wars, and in “scholarly” — sic — form dates back  a couple of decades, and has been pushed by the usual suspects, as reported in the study much referenced above:

It was in this context that a new wave of faculty studies appeared.  Where earlier studies had been thoughtful social scientific investigations, the new studies were closer to thinly disguised works of political advocacy intended to back up the charge of “liberal bias” in academe.  The first to appear and grab headlines – columnist John Tierney devoted an entire New York Times piece to it (Tierney 2004) – involved two interrelated inquiries led by economist Daniel Klein that were initially published in Academic Questions, the journal of the conservative National Association of Scholars.

**Well, she does, a bit.  According to the Gross and Simmons paper, elite universities are slightly less the hotbeds of liberalism that four year liberal arts colleges are, contra her assertion following her cite of this paper.  But the numbers are pretty close, and that claim is published elsewhere, so I’m not going to bang that drum this time.

[Cross posted at Balloon Juice]

Images:  Margret Hofheinz-Döring/Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen, Women Talking in the Rain, 1963.

Pierre-August Renoir, Madame Monet Reading Le Figaro, 1872.

Paul Gaugin, Eve–Bretonne. (An alternate version of this scene is titled Eve–Don’t Listen to the Liar), 1889

Conservative Science: Yur Doon It Rong

February 11, 2011

DougJ and Tim F. have both weighed in on the John TierneyMegan McCardle “Why are universities so mean to conservatives?” whimper. DougJ is at once gobsmacked and confirmed in his view of the cluelessness of the “argument” advanced, while Tim F. sees much less here than meets his perhaps-jaundiced eye.

Me?  I can’t quite agree with Tim’s sense of the pithlessness of this latest attempt to demand equal treatment for principled young earthers amongst the ravings of all those Foucoultvian mathmeticians.*

I’m more with DougJ, as to me, Tierney and McArdle are firing one more shot at the whole idea of authoritative knowledge as a source of influence in civil society.  Partly, this is just self interest: the more folks like McArdle can devalue the status of expert knowledge, the less they have to fear of correction by those who, in fact, both know and understand more than they do.

But beyond the goal of reducing personal embarrassment, the more that the independent authority of scholars and scientists can be diminished, the easier it becomes for ever more risible statements to take on the status of holy writ.  After all, we all know that progressive taxes infallibly drive away the rich…Right?

That said (and there’s more to be done with a detailed fisking of both Tiernery and McCardle, which I may yet attempt) here I just want to point out that Tierney undercuts the entire farrago with one injudicious anecdote.

His source, Jonathan Haidt, a U. VA social psychologist, made the central claim that Tierney takes up and McArdle then amplifies.  Haidt claims that  the political orientation of the members of his field is so overwhelmingly liberal that only discrimination can account for that distribution.  His proof?  A show of hands at a conference.**  Other than that, the only other Haidt evidence Tierney references comes from an email from an allegedly victimized student:

“I consider myself very middle-of-the-road politically: a social liberal but fiscal conservative. Nonetheless, I avoid the topic of politics around work,” one student wrote. “Given what I’ve read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, therefore, go unpublished. Although I think I could make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base, and would be excited to do so, I will not.”

O. K. class.  What does this complainant get wrong?

I’ll give you a hint.  Look again at this sentence:

Given what I’ve read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, therefore, go unpublished.

That is: this student says that he or she is “certain” that her/his results would break consensus, and hence, inevitably, would languish in conspiratorially enforced obscurity.

Uh, kid.  Listen up:  When you already know what your research will reveal, what does that tell you?

It ain’t research.

You have no knowledge to “contribute to the knowledge base” if the conclusions you propose to add to our collective store of human wisdom is what you already know by some process other than the “research” you propose.

Note that Haidt’s anonymous disappointed  ideologue tells us of his/her intention to respond to her/his field’s stunning lack of awe at this proposal by picking up his/her marbles and going home.

Which is another way of saying that this student found it impossible to do the actual hard work of science:  construct testable hypotheses, and experiments in which the results may in fact confound your expectations.   If you won’t do that, you can’t make it science … and Hey, Presto! another conservative is discriminated against.

Errr…

This is, of course, exactly the problem we face in trying to get our political discourse to respond to what we do actually know about the world.

So, to cycle back to the beginning of this post, I agree with Tim that the overt attack on the “liberal” academy has faded a bit since the haute crazoid days of 2002 and 2003.

But this drip, drip, drip of suggestion that somehow everything we know or discover about the world is tinged by partisan contingency does enormous damage, more so by far, IMHO, than any transparent direct assault on the academy

All of which is why it remains vital to remind folks over and over again that one big reason modern American conservatives have such trouble in so much of the academy is because reality possesses that well known liberal bias.

*No, really.  Here’s McCardle, verbatim: “No, I’m not saying you have to hire a Young Earth Creationist to be a biology professor, but I don’t see why it should matter in a professor of Mathematics or Sociology.”  That she doesn’t see the problem here is a precise representation of why conservatives of the McArdle stripe have a hard time in the academy.  The notion that bodies of knowledge contain worldviews doesn’t seem to penetrate her consciousness.  In plain language:  it’s really hard to do empirical research or construct complicated proofs in a wide range of fields if you have a deep commitment to something that denies a mountain of physical evidence and logical argument.  By way of analogy:  you slouch your whole life (towards Bethlehem?) it becomes increasingly difficult to stand up straight.  Same things go with habits of mind.

The shorter:  you can’t hide the crazy forever, and when it emerges, it makes your colleagues (justifiably) nervous about anything you say.

**Yup, really.  I might guess that Haidt has done some real research on this point, but Tierney doesn’t let one know.   All he draws upon is Haidt’s account of his own speech.  Which, in journalistic terms, is the tell.  Tierney misleading (one might say, actually deceptively) cites some studies, but at no point does anyone but Haidt speak, and  no time does either Tierney or his subject offer anything but assertions.  Which is to say –this isn’t journalism; as a bit of advocacy (that’s the polite word) it would be properly situated at the Corner, and not The New York Times.

Images:  Raphael, School of Athens, 1505.

Paul Cézanne, Harlequin, 1888-1890

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong (Again!): Kitchen History Edition

February 4, 2011

There are those who think the least snark directed Megan McArdle’s way is a waste of time — that her Our Lady of Perpetual Error persona is a considered ploy to grab enough attention to make it worth her masters’ while to retain her as Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic. (Yes, the sound you just heard was Emerson spinning in his grave.)

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Me, I’m actually sympathetic to that view, for all the joy I’ve taken in McArdle gigging over the last few years.  It would be better for both the body politic and the culture at large if McArdle’s fifteen minutes simply dwindled to their inevitable end. Certainly, I’m not helping every time some new howler evokes a bloggy response.

But the problem is that her quarter of an hour is not yet over, and McArdle is still The Atlantic’s most prominent economics blogger, and she continues to weigh in on a whole raft of stuff about which she willfully knows nothing, all in order to advance an agenda that has only one item:  to comfort the comfortable.

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So, despite the truth that each time someone points out she’s made another howler it only adds to her profile, I think there is a duty to do so. Once upon a time, in organizations that saw themselves as doing real journalism for audiences with an understanding of the term,  errors actually mattered.  Anyone starting out would get a chance or two, or even three.  But when gastritis broke your calculator once too often, you’d seek a new line of work.  You’d go become a shill, perhaps — a time honored retreat into expense account heaven for plenty of hacks who couldn’t hack the hard work of actually getting stuff right … or for whom, as in McArdle’s case, getting things wrong is a feature and not a bug.  That this hasn’t happened here is a problem for McArdle’s colleagues, I think, or it ought to be…about which a little more below.

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So what’s today’s problem post?  Nothing overtly political actually, which in some ways makes the case of McArdle’s unfitness for her claimed role yet more clear.   In her post, “The Economics of Kitchens,” she attempts to engage an ongoing discussion between Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen on the pace of innovation.  Krugman and Cowen point out that there isn’t a whole lot new in kitchens today compared with those of sixty years ago.  Not so, says McArdle.  Rather, we live now in culinary paradise compared to those bad old days:

1953 kitchens did not have electric drip coffee brewers, stand mixers, blenders, food processors, or crock pots….

Err, no.  I’ll give McArdle this.  Electric drip coffee makers do first appear in the 1970s.  The electric vacuum coffee maker was, however, a common appliance and a very competitive marketplace. Not to mention that it was a technology that offered such incredibly cool options as the Faberware Coffee Robot:

Stand mixers in the 1950s?  Oh, you mean the standing mixer invented in 1908 by Herbert Johnson, sold to commercial bakers in 1915, and released for the home as the KitchenAid Food Preparer in…wait for it…1919?  Sunbeam released its cheaper alternative in the ’30s, and in 1954, (that kitchen of the 50s thing again) one could actually purchase a KitchenAid in a color other than white.

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Blenders? Same story. The blender was invented in 1922 first as a tool for soda counters, and the iconic Waring Blender hit the market in 1937.  By 1954, one million had been sold. As a sidenote, the Vitamix Corporation introduced a competitor to the Waring machine, and in 1949 sold it with the aid of a thirty minute broadcast on a brand new medium:  WEWS TV in Cleveland, in what is thought to be the first ever direct response ad.

You get the idea.  In the list above, food processors and slow cookers are in fact inventions that have their roots in the sixties and their commercial release in the early 70s.  Give McArdle that — but the point to take away from this is that in a list of five statements of fact, McArdle gets two wrong unequivocally, is deceptive in a third case (there were no automatic drip coffeemakers, but automatic makers using other brewing methods were readily available) and right only in two cases.  .400 may be fabulous in baseball.  In journalism, it wouldn’t even propel you to the Cape Cod League.

Then there’s this:

…aside from the privileged few who could afford copper, most Americans were cooking on thin, low-quality stainless steel and aluminum pans that deformed easily…

McArdle knows this how?  It’s a pretty bald declaration that would have come as a shock to a company like Lodge (founded 1896) or Wagner (founded 1891).  And if you want to think about the availability of high-end cookware aimed at more regular folks, what about the company born of a trip to Paris in 1952, on which Chuck Williams first encountered “classic French cooking equipment like omelet pans and souffle molds whose quality I’d never seen in the U.S.” Williams opened his first store in 1956 in the then very ordinary small-town farming community of Sonoma, California.  Williams-Sonoma proved to have legs, I believe.

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Again, the point isn’t that one store in Sonoma in 1956 = sauciers for everyone.  It is that McArdle has neither knowledge nor diligence enough to investigate even this really elementary question of fact:   whether or not Americans in the ’50s cooked in lots of different kinds of pots.

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And how about this:

I don’t believe that they have gone without fresh produce for six to eight months at a time, as my mother did in her childhood–and was told to be grateful for the frozen vegetables which hadn’t been available when her mother was young…Is the shift to flash frozen produce greater, or less great, than the shift from flash frozen to the fresh produce made possible by falling trade barriers, rising air travel, and the advent of container shipping?

There’s a lot wrong with this little passage, but here, let me just point out that McArdle is simply wrong in what she implies here about the history of the transport of refrigerated food.  The earliest prototype of a mechanically cooled railroad car received a US patent in 1880.  It certainly did take a long time for that to yield practical diesel-powered refrigeration on rails, but the use of natural ice for refrigerating specially designed rail cars — “reefers” dates back to the mid 19th century.  By the early 1880s, the Swift company were using ice-cooled cars to deliver 3,000 carcasses a week from the midwest to Boston.  When ice production on industrial scale took off around the turn of the twentieth century, refrigeration on rails became so pervasive that 183,000 reefer cars were on US rails by 1930.

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All of which is to say that the delivery of fresh food to locations distant from production is something that has evolved over the last century and a half — and is not simply, or even mostly, the result of falling trade barriers, air transport or containers.

Or, in other words, McArdle — again — knows not whereof she speaks.

Of course, this being a piece by McArdle, it is not possessed merely of  factual howlers.  Misused citations also do their duty.

For one:  McArdle writes that you can tell Americans in the ’50s ate badly by looking to the sources:

It shows in the cookbooks.  The Betty Crocker is full of economizing tips: ways to stretch ground beef by adding Wheaties; noodle and rice rings that artfully disguise the fact that there isn’t much protein to go around; “one egg” cakes praised for being economical.  This was not a handout for welfare recipients; it was expected that the average housewife would be anxiously counting the cost of the eggs and milk used in her baked goods, and looking for ways to stretch out even cheap cuts of meat at the end of the month.

A couple of things here:  cookbooks published in the late ’40s and early ’50s often retained some of the traces of WW II rationing; they are very useful documents for the social history of that era, but they are not wholly reliable guides to the cooking practices of the post-rationing world.

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More to the point of method and intellectual honesty, there’s the question of whether or not a 50s era “average housewife” text is that different from later, similar works.  I checked my ’75 edition of The Joy of Cooking, a perhaps slightly more upmarket cookbook than the Betty Crocker, and I find that when you get to the ground meat section, for example, there is a section on stretching animal proteins with starches, how you flavor such mixtures and so on. (And I’m not even going to go into the wealth of “improving” cookbooks that were also the rage in the ’50s, and that would give the lie to McArdle’s suggestion that those benighted days were wholly nasty, brutish, and full of hamburger helpers.  I’ve got a classic double-volume edition of the Gourmet cookbook from that period that shows that would be pink-Himalayan saltanistas would have had plenty of guidance.)

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And finally, this: it wouldn’t be a McArdle piece in all its glory without a bit of gratuitious viciousness to the poor:

Now, I’m sure there are still people in this country who worry about the price of adding an extra egg to their cakes–but they are not the average, or even close to the average.

Current percentage of Americans in poverty?  As of 2009, 14.3% nationwide, according the US Census Bureau. Almost exactly the same proportion — %14.7 — American households suffered food insecurity according to the Department of Agriculture.

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That is to say, those who might weigh the price of eggs may not be not average — but more than one out of every eight Americans had a moment recently when they might have thought twice and thrice about cracking that last shell  — or rather, had no cake at all to ponder.

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This, of course, is the point to which McArdle was tending this whole time.  Even here, in a seemingly weightless post about cooking and memory,  McArdle is still working her one consistent vein of propaganda:  We live now at the apex of history, in the best of all possible worlds and hence would alter the existing power structure at our own great risk … and BTW f*ck the poor.  Same old, same old, in other words and just as dishonestly advanced as in the more obviously political of her work.  Which makes it more dangerous, I think, not less.

Oh well.  I could and probably should have got to this point in the story much sooner.  But all the overkill above is actually aimed at anyone who still takes McArdle seriously on any score — and it is especially intended to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about the damage she does by association to anyone and any institution that claims to be serious about journalism.  That she still survives — hell, holds a prominent position at The Atlantic — casts a shadow, fairly or not, over the work of the genuinely thoughtful real journalists who still publish there, folks like James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates along with many others.

As they care for their reputation, they must wince at the collateral damage inflicted every time McArdle hits the “publish” button.

Images: “Coffee Robot” Original 1938 hang tag.
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Diego Velasquez, Old Woman Frying Eggs, 1618
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Pieter Claesz Tafel mit Hummer, Silberkanne, großem Berkemeyer, Früchteschale, Violine und Büchern, 1641.

On the Nature of Truth: A Quick Bit of McArdle Gigging.

January 7, 2011

Belatedly cross-posted from Balloon Juice.

I shouldn’t get sucked in — I mean, I’ve got a ton of work to get done before the next semester brings its apocalypse with it.  Dealing with Megan McArdle is just a poor investment of scarce time and attention…and yet….Oh the temptation!

Perhaps there is a middle way.

I’ll try. I just won’t let myself go all John Foster Dulles on McArdle’s recent attempt to show that she knows more about journalism than an actual journalist, and more about constitutional law than a constitutional law professor.   Suffice it to say that hilarity ensues.*

Here I’m just going to look at a single little paragraph that contains one of McArdle’s standard party tricks.  She asks:

…surely we can agree that it’s an open moral and political question as to whether it’s acceptable to respond to moral hazard problems with coercive comprehensive regimes?  Maybe before you answer that, you’ll want to contemplate the gnarly moral hazard problems attached to many social insurance schemes

Look at the skeleton of her “reasoning” (sic — ed.):

(a)  There are moral hazards associated with social insurance

(b)  Some of those moral hazards are “gnarly” — i.e. too complex to confront. (I think that’s what she means.)

(c)  Coercive comprehensive regimes are the tool used to respond to such moral hazards.

(d) That’s a bad thing.

There are a couple of problems here.

First, yes, there are indeed moral hazard issues associated with social insurance schemes.**  (Moral hazard, by the way, as defined by  one of McArdle’s favorite people, Paul Krugman, is “…any situation in which one person makes the decision about how much risk to take, while someone else bears the cost if things go badly.”)

Unfortunately, the paper to whose abstract she links is not primarily concerned with what most people think of as the core moral hazard associated with providing pensions to old folk.  It does address an important phenomenon. Published in 2005 by three University of Minnesota economists, Michelle Boldrin, Mariacristina De Nardi and Larry E. Jones, it argues that a bit more than half of the drop in fertility observed in Europe and America from the 1920s forward can be attributed to the emergence of old-age pension systems.

A couple of things here:  first of all, this change in fertility is not exactly an unintended outcome.  Because large families are associated with poverty (especially in recent studies of developing nations), fertility reduction can be seen not as a tangled trap for pension systems but as a sought-after policy result.

Still, there are consequences to reductions in family size.   Dependency ratios change — how many active workers are available to support each retiree.  So pension schemes could be said to suffer a burden of moral hazard, if in fact you treat fertility decisions as an unanticipated externality that unfairly shifts the costs of aging onto society, (as opposed to understanding them as a goal, or at least a useful secondary outcome of the policy). But in the real world, the fact that competing social (and economic) goods come into play is not exactly a shock.  We do or as a society can choose to care about poverty, population, and old – age security all at once. That responses to such various concerns interact is not particularly surprising, and if there are externalities involved it is hardly “gnarly,” as in intractable.  There is, after all, a difference between complicated  and impossible.

But the real point is that this sonorous utterance of a scary sounding term — ooooh, “moral hazard” —  and this very authoritative seeming invocation of the economics literature have little or nothing to do with what McArdle’s is talking about here, the “coercive” individual mandate in health care reform.  Here’s how an economist friend of mine explains the matter:

There are two sorts of asymmetric information problems that undermine social insurance – moral hazard (if you can’t tell whether being poor is the result of bad luck or of lack of effort then insuring against it will reduce the effort people put into avoiding it) and adverse selection (if you can’t distinguish those who have higher and lower risk of falling into poverty then the greater attraction of voluntary insurance to those at highest risk drives costs up and undermines efficient design of insurance schemes).  I bring this up because compulsion is usually thought of as a response necessitated by the latter problem not the former.

In the context of health care reform, this translates into having to find a way to keep people from gaming the system — waiting until they are sick, or at least until they’ve hit a high-risk stage of their lives, before forking over their ducats.  The response, and it’s not gnarly, nor complicated, nor a mystery to most folks who lack the extra sophistication of the Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic, is to make people pay for insurance before they “need” it.

So again, why thunder on about moral hazard or invoke a paper on fertility and pensions as a prop to a complaint about a government mandate?   Most likely, IMHO, is that McArdle is just trying to overawe her audience into ignoring the flaws in her argument.  I believe the technical term for this is “baffle them with bullshit.”  (Heaven forfend!  Could such a thing be?–ed.)  (Yes — TL)

The moral of this story:  McArdle employs her grand platform to one end, and one only:  to comfort the comfortable.  In her long running campaign to return to the status quo ante for health care in the US, she’s willing to sacrifice economic advantage, fiscal prudence, and any other inconvenient facts that get in her way.  Her success is predicated on presenting the appearance of authority while spamming out so much economics-sounding stuff that it is weary work to catch up to all the errors more subtle than her inability to catch order-of-magnitude mistakes in her arithmetic.  That’s how she rolls…and it’s why, tedious as it is, she needs to be called out on such stuff as often as possible.

*I have to say I feel for James Fallows, whose post sparked McArdle into verbiage.  You know how Click and Clack have this running gag about how Scott Simon (or whoever) spits their soup when they hear the Tappet Brothers say “this is NPR.”  That’s how I’d feel in Fallow’s shoes were I to hear McArdle refer to me as “my colleague.”

**For example, old age pensions — social security — shifts some of the risk of old age from the individual to society as a whole.  In that case, some people may choose to work and save less than they otherwise would have, because they would know that they no longer need to pay for  their entire retirement.

If/when people make that choice, the total output of an economy/society would go down—and that would increase the relative cost of the social insurance scheme, a cost which would be born by others than those who alter their behavior in this way.   (Of course, enabling folks not to work till they drop is not necessarily an undesirable example of moral hazard at work.  It could, just maybe, form a desired goal, a policy-outcome explicitly sought with benefits both moral/social and economic that devolve not just on individuals, but on any society that gets to see its older members as anything other than failing members of the labor force.)

Either way, of course, this is not all that “gnarly” a concept, pace McArdle.

There are well-known policy responses to this particular concern. For example, you address the incentives to slack-off created by social welfare programs by making sure that the benefits they provide are floors, not ceilings:  keep the benefits low enough so that they serve as insurance, and not a total income replacement — which is exactly what Social Security does.  As of the November 2010 monthly report, the average benefit for retired workers was $1,079.  I don’t care where you live in this greatest country evah of ours, $13K a year is not going to lard your table with T-bones and caviar.

Contrast that  with what we’ve come to know and love through our experience of recent events — for example — in which the banksters  shifted the risk of highly leveraged bets on real estate from themselves to the taxpayer.  Crucially, risks that ultimately fell to the taxpayers under a “too big to fail” notion were concealed in various ways, so that we (unknowing) ended up bearing the weight of the collapse of 2008 et seq.  Now that’s how you do moral hazard.

Images:  John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, with a shout out to my hometown Museum of Fine Arts, in which I look at this several times a year.

Vincent van Gogh, Ward in the Hospital in Arles, 1889.