Posted tagged ‘Nonsense’

In the Integer-Based Community

June 21, 2011

I’ll give that unnamed Bush staffer credit.*  It is possible to create an alternate reality — if only for a time — given the willing complicity of all those watching (and transmitting) the useful fantasies of the powerful.  Just look at the success the Koch brothers’ subsidiary political arm, aka the GOP et al. have had in persuading so many that wealth transfers to the rich are the solution to all ills.

Hence the significance Bruce Bartlett’s entry today in The New York Times Economix Blog, in which the former Reagan, Bush I, Ron Paul and Jack Kemp policy advisor writes that, in essence, the entire Republican presidential field is lying about taxes to the American people.

He doesn’t quite put it that way — but he comes pretty close:

For years, Republicans have [said] …over and over again that taxes in the United States are exceptionally high and the primary obstacle to growth, and that a huge tax cut would do more to raise growth than any other policy.

For example, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has proposed reducing the top statutory income tax rate on individuals to 25 percent and abolishing the taxation of interest, dividends and capital gains. The Tax Policy Center estimates that this plan would reduce federal revenues by $8 trillion over the next decade.

Governor Pawlenty contends that unprecedented growth will result — to such an extent that there will actually be no revenue loss at all.

I am not picking on Governor Pawlenty; all of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination support similar policies, and not one has criticized him for making outlandish claims.

Yup — that’s as card-carrying a conservative (per commenter wvng below) stalwart as you can get, stating as fact (which it is) that the fundamental Republican position on tax policy is “outlandish.”


Now this is, or ought to be obvious.

Bartlett here is actually responding to critics of an earlier post in which he made the following points:

The economic importance of statutory tax rates is blown far out of proportion by Republicans looking for ways to make taxes look high when they are quite low. And they almost never note that the statutory tax rate applies only to the last dollar earned or that the effective tax rate is substantially lower even for the richest taxpayers and largest corporations because of tax exclusions, deductions, credits and the 15 percent top rate on dividends and capital gains.

The many adjustments to income permitted by the tax code, plus alternative tax rates on the largest sources of income of the wealthy, explain why the average federal income tax rate on the 400 richest people in America was 18.11 percent in 2008, according to the Internal Revenue Service, down from 26.38 percent when these data were first calculated in 1992. Among the top 400, 7.5 percent had an average tax rate of less than 10 percent, 25 percent paid between 10 and 15 percent, and 28 percent paid between 15 and 20 percent.

The truth of the matter is that federal taxes in the United States are very low. There is no reason to believe that reducing them further will do anything to raise growth or reduce unemployment.

Remember, this is just propaganda from  your typical liberal conservative economist with longstanding ties to reliably anti-tax members of the Republican party.  Also, note, that along the way in that post Bartlett called out the conservative punditocracy as, again, liars:

Stephen Moore of The Wall Street Journal recently asserted that Democrats were trying to raise the top income tax rate to 62 percent from 35 percent. But most of the difference between these two rates is the payroll tax and state taxes that are already in existence. The rest consists largely of assuming tax increases that no one has formally proposed and that would be politically impossible to enact at the present time.

Ryan Chittum, in Columbia Journalism Review, responded with a commentary that called the Moore analysis “deeply disingenuous.”

Nevertheless, one routinely hears variations of the Moore argument from conservative commentators. By contrast, one almost never hears that total revenues are at their lowest level in two or three generations as a share of G.D.P. or that corporate tax revenues as a share of G.D.P. are the lowest among all major countries.

This is what apparantly appalled Bartlett’s readers, and this is what prompted him to … well, not defend himself, but to double down on the key point:

A typical middle-class family, on the other hand, is paying less in federal taxes than it has since 1967. Its marginal rate is also down substantially since it peaked in 1982 at 31.7 percent. The well-to-do family, too, has seen its average and marginal tax rates decline substantially.

Of course, these data do not prove that taxes are not too high. That is a subjective judgment related to issues of fairness and the value that people assign to the government benefits they receive in return. Many in the Tea Party talk as if the value of government is zero; consequently, they would probably complain about any tax level above zero.

Nevertheless, it is clear that federal taxes have not been rising and are, at least in historical terms, lower for most taxpayers than they have been since the 1960s.

There is a famous line from the history of mathematics:  “God made the integers.  All else is the work of man.”

That quote has had plenty of glosses, but let me appropriate it here to describe what Bartlett has just done.  We have real numbers about taxes.  We know what they are, and Bartlett in both of the cited posts provides handy historical references to allow any reader to trace the trajectory of those numbers.  They are facts, chunks of experience quantified, and they have autonomy:  Moore’s claim that a 35% rate is really a 62% rate is not a matter of interpretation; it’s just wrong.

But, of course — as Moore’s sin illustrates — what we do with such numbers,  the calculations we perform, the conclusions we draw from them, the interpretations we derive or force on them, why, all those are down to us.  It’s no god’s nor FSM’s fault when we turn the actual knowledge we have into fashion accessories cloaking choices too ugly to pass unadorned.

That’s what Bartlett, seemingly now irrevocably committed to the reality — or perhaps, better —  the integer-based community, is actually saying here.  To reiterate:  a leading conservative policy thinker and economist has just demonstrated that the entire Republican presidential field is talking nonsense about fundamental economic policy.  The implication couldn’t be more clear:  if these views gain direct power over US policy, WASF, even more than usual.

The question, which so far answers itself, is whether or not the media as a whole, and not just some (albeit prominent) blog-contributor, will pick up on this theme, and present the choice in 2012 as that between destructive fantasy and reality.

I live in hope, but not in expectation.

Bartlett himself demonstrates why.  This is the very last line of his post:

Those who assert that taxes are rising or are at confiscatory levels simply do not know what they are talking about.

That may be true of some — but people like Pawlenty or Romney or Gingrich, any of them, really, have no such excuse.  Pawlenty governed a state for two terms.  Romney, we are told, is a smart money man.  You get the point.  They do know what they are talking about, and they choose to divorce themselves from the facts.

These are not potential Presidents.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

*Said to be Karl Rove.

Images:  Vincent van Gogh, The Corridor at the Asylum, 1889.

Martina Schettina, Fibonacci’s Dream, 2008.

When You Hit Bottom, Stop Digging…or McArdle’s Kitchen Chronicles redux.

February 28, 2011

Fair warning:  This is way too long and fundamentally way too trivial to bother with.  Given all the urgent stuff going on in the world, Megan McArdle hardly deserves anyone’s attention.  I’m just posting this to clear my hard drive and brain of a bit of unfinished business. Plus I think I promised several times to post on Megan McArdle’s response to my post on the serial factual errors in her writing on the history of innovation as seen in the American kitchen.

So by all means, walk on by if you’ve had enough McArdle (I have, and won’t be going to that well again for a while) — but if you want some smack talking and the odd bit of fact, jump the jump and join me.

First, just to catch up with the action:   I’ve had prior occasion to think of this list of officers’ fitness reports in the context of the writer in question.  The title of this post refers to the twelfth item on that tally, but many others apply, I think. Pick your favorites in the comment thread.

In her response, McArdle was particularly stung, I believe (because of her link to it), by a Wall Street Journal blog’s summary of the Krugman-Cowen-McArdle-Levenson sequence.

Thus provoked, she was then moved  to produce an 2,300 word justification of her claims, on which mastication I will now comment.  (That noun chosen because being attacked by McArdle always reminds me of Denis Healey’s marvelous description of being attacked in debate by the Tory politician Sir Geoffrey Howe: it is “like being savaged by a dead sheep.”)

I’ve got to say I am a bit resentful here.  I’m the one supposed to stupify my antagonists with posts rivaling War and Peace for length if in no other aesthetic category, and here she comes stealing onto my patch.*

Ah well.

McArdle begins well, at least for the case I’m trying to argue, setting out on her journey of redemption with perhaps the most revealing and humiliating sentence I’ve read on any blog:

“It’s certainly possible that I got something wrong in that post; I am of course not a historian of kitchens.”

There’s a perhaps even more self-diminishing line that follows: “But neither is Mr. Levenson, and I can’t plead guilty to the offenses I am charged of based on his evidence.”

I like to think that I’ve left seventh grade far behind me, and so see no need for comment here — beyond that we are dealing with someone who really needs to think some more about the argument from authority.

Once she gets past that reflex of pique, she answers my criticisms with three basic types of deflection.


First, she tries to shift between categories of existence, availability and penetration to suggest that whatever actually occurred, the specific appliances she cites weren’t really part of the 50s landscape. This is nonsense, as I’ll detail a bit below.

Second, she tries a bit of indirection suggesting that some of my examples of her errors aren’t really that significant, because, in essence she knows better.

Third she uses what is perhaps her most powerful (and often used) trick when cornered.  She declares that she was talking about something else that whatever it was she clearly got wrong — and when seen in light of that other issue, everything she said becomes both correct and humiliatingly more insightful than whatever her critics might have argued — or, as she wrote, it surprised her that “someone who teaches science writing at MIT is so unfamiliar with the containerization revolution that he can mistake “container” for “refrigerated.”  It was ever thus:  when cornered, she resorts to the ad hominem, hoping that the insult will distract from the failed argument behind it.

On tactic number one: McArdle had originally claimed that  50s kitchens did not contain, “electric drip coffee brewers, stand mixers, blenders, food processors, or crock pots.” I countered by documenting the history of stand mixers (sold to the public in 1918, widely disseminated in cheaper models through the 20s and 30s); blenders (invented in the twenties, sold in mass quantities in the 30s) and of electric coffee makers, common since the thirties.


In response to this impressive record of error, McArdle complains I should have understood that what she meant was not that the 50s kitchen lacked this or that, but that it did not possess versions of these inventions that would have been acceptable to one Megan McArdle:

I thought it was obvious why I was specifying drip coffeemakers:  at least for people from my generation, percolated coffee tastes horrible. I do not think of percolators as drip coffee equivalents, I think of them as something close to crime against humanity.

Note at least three things:  first and least, she’s simply trying to baffle with bullsh*t, replying to a claim unmade.  As it happened, as examples of pre-1950 electric coffee makers, I offered not percolaters, but the vacuum coffee maker, a very different technology that the steampunk caffeinistas among us rate highly.  These were indeed generally available in the thirties and are still prized.

Second, and really all in all, recall that the theme of all this is innovation.  The question she herself raised was whether or not there were in the fifties the means to automate a common kitchen task, brewing up a cup of coffee?

Well, yes, there were, as she in fact admits.  Which is what she hopes to keep you from noticing when she decides to wrangle over whether she would actually drink such brew.

Which leads me to this:  it did give me pleasure to read the sentence above, because in a sense it captures all you ever need to know about McArdle.  She decides the facts worth knowing by a simple criterion: do they meet her exquisite standards.

Percolators? Get me The Hague on line one!

Moving on: for an example of the next of McArdle’s favorite tricks to hide her failings, check out this attempt to persuade the reader that she may have been wrong … but not really:

As for the rest, my understanding is that the stand mixer was not widely dispersed in American households until the early 1960s; the stand mixer invented in 1919 was commercial grade; the home versions appeared in the 1930s and sold well, but were somewhat derailed by the dearth of consumer production during World War II.   Of course, if anyone has data better than I was able to find, I am open to correction.

Again, errors, minor, but still there:  according to the Kitchenaid company the commercial stand mixer was first produced (not invented) in 1915, and the first home models were sold in 1919. Perhaps McArdle may asssert that by “commercial grade” she means “home,” but I think a reasonable person would find that disengenuous at best.

She admits, though that mixers sold well — Sunbeam, makers of cheaper models than Kitchenaid, topped 1 million sold before World War II.  But, argues McArdle, she’s still right, despite all this, writing that “some of this, however, may simply be an argument about what constitutes ‘common.'”

I didn’t think she loved Bill Clinton so much that she’d expropriate his “defintion of ‘is'” defense so readily.

She goes through a similar exercise for the blender, and then concludes that after all, maybe she and I were both right:   “I lean towards requiring some amount of broad diffusion, [of appliances] but I can see the argument for the other side–indeed, that’s what I was getting at in the post, that the definition of a “1950s kitchen” is tricky.

Well, I guess.


Just to be as blunt as possible:  by “common” or “broad diffusion” she seems to mean whatever number is just a little bit higher than those actually use in the 1950s.  That’s a child’s bob and weave, not an argument from anyone who wishes to be taken seriously.

Oy.  This will never end, will it — which is, of course, McArdle’s true genius.  She throws up such an endless spray of word salad that actually pulling apart each and every one of her distortions, errors, and outright lies takes much longer than anyone wants to either write or read.  So I’ll just give the slightest of glosses on the third attempt McArdle makes to defend herself, in her discussion of the emergence of container shipping.

As noted above, she does so in a way that emphasizes her mock horror that a professor at MIT should mistake refrigeration for containerization– which would indeed have been a simpleton’s error had it been made.

But the problem is that the discussion was, in McArdle’s own framing, about whether or not people in the 50s had access to fresh produce:

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?

McArdle’s gaming the question here of course, asserting her assumptions as the answer:  fresh produce in her telling could only arrive on American tables through her triad of trade (which, I guess, could only have happened post 1960, to the great surprise of the United Fruit Company and Dole), air travel (fresh fish was delivered by air to Moscow in 1945!) and containers, a genuinely post 1960 innovation, (one that I actually witnessed transforming my home town; I was a child when San Francisco’s docks died and the upstart Port of Oakland’s container terminal came to dominate freight traffic to the Bay Area).

But if you were to make the mistake of taking McArdle’s question more seriously than she herself does, then what we want to know is what innovations were most important in delivering fresh food to distant markets.  And there, the answer you find again and again in histories of food was rolling refrigeration, which, as I gabbled on at length last time, is a development that has a history in the US dating to before the Civil War.  Last time, I talked of meat — but just in case you were wondering, the first American shipment of fresh produce — strawberries –rode the rails of the Illinois Central in 1867, which is a factoid that makes this quote from McArdle at once pathetic and telling:

When my mother was growing up, it was  theoretically possible to buy fresh strawberries or asparagus in December, shipped in a refrigerated boxcar from a hothouse or maybe California.  But I doubt the grocers in her small town would have stocked them, and if they did, my grandparents, who were solidly middle class but whose memories of the Great Depression died hard, would never have dreamed of buying them…

Yup.  We’re back to that again. This or that is unpossible because I or mine can’t imagine it.

And so on and on.   There’s more, but I’m done.  There isn’t time in the day to fisk out every last bit of nonsense showering forth from McArdle’s keyboard.

So I’ll just leave you with one last thought.

As in my earlier post, let me explicitly call out The Atlantic. For all that there are good people doing good work over there — for one example, have you seen the folks posting at Fallow’s blog lately?  They’re going great guns — the bottom line is this:

A major media operation resembles an old fashioned World War II convoy, at least in one respect:  just as those gaggles of vessels traversing the North Atlantic couldn’t travel faster than the slowest ship, over time, publications can’t be seen as more reliable than their least trustworthy writer.

Just sayin.

*Perhaps it’s because the indictment hit just a little too close to home, and she has opted for one of the traditional tactics of those in peril with the truth: “When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law.  When both are against you, attack the plaintiff.”

Images:  Georg Flegel, Pantry by Candlelight, c. 1630-1635.

Ivana Kobilca, Coffee Drinker 1888.

Willem Frederik van Royen, The Carrot, 1699.

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.

No More Sexy Time For Poor Ireland — or Ross Douthat Discovers His Inner De Valera

November 22, 2010

This is just a  (sort of) quick hit before returning to the Brooksalypse I’ve promised here more than once, but I thought today’s Douthat ejaculation deserved just a bit of slicing and dicing in its own right.

For those of you with the good sense to save your neurons and avoid baby Bobo’s deep thoughts, here’s a shorter:

“I don’t know anything about Ireland that John Wayne didn’t teach me, but this poor island sold it’s good Catholic  soul for a mess of pottage served in MacMansions.  Once Ireland got the pill and Irish women stopped being permanently pregnant, the country went sex-and-cash crazy, but then all that nasty fun had to come to a halt.

Why, precisely?  Well, apparently the beast-with-two backs is kind of to blame for bankster thievery, not to mention that pride (wealth) goeth before a fall.  Oh, and Europe is a bad idea too. Plus, modernity sucks.”

Not kidding. That’s really about it.  Before I go to town on Douthat just a little bit, can I ask what on earth the Times was/is thinking when it hired this guy?


I mean really – this is Brooks without the sophistication, and I say that, sadly, with a straight face. (I’ll admit, a competition between these two on most subjects, but especially economics, resembles a wine tasting featuring Ripple vs. Mad Dog).


Douthat begins  his piece by describing the insight he gets from driving from Dublin to Ireland’s west coast and discovering that there are new houses built next to traditional villages.  He really does invoke The Quiet Man, and says, apparently sincerely, that,

…it’s as if there were only two eras in Irish history: the Middle Ages and the housing bubble.

Which suggests, I guess, he doesn’t think that several centuries of British colonial rule have anything to do with Ireland, early or late.


Seriously, “my taxi driver explained it all to me” meme is simply pathetic.  (And no, it doesn’t get better if you are the one behind the wheel.  It’s worse, obviously, as you only have the echo chamber of your own head to ratify your sudden, deep insight into a country, history and culture not your own.)


Whatever the Times paid for this column, Douthat stole.*


But even though Douthat discredits himself from the first lines of this piece, what fascinates – and horrifies – here is the relentlessness with which Baby Bobo wills the Irish story into the same morality tale he always wants to tell, terrified as he is of coupling bodies and the exercise of human reason.

I’m not going to fisk the entire piece here – this is just too silly a piece to warrant such effort.  But a couple of examples will show just how fraudulent are any Douthat claims to public intellection.

He writes:

Progressives and secularists suggested that Ireland was thriving because it had finally escaped the Catholic Church’s repressive grip, which kept horizons narrow and families large, and limited female economic opportunity. (An academic paper on this theme, “Contraception and the Celtic Tiger,” earned the Malcolm Gladwell treatment in the pages of The New Yorker.)

Well, that’s one lasting benefit of the last few decades of Irish cultural evolution.

But in fact, this is just a piece  of careful misdirection.  The “theme” that Gladwell discussed was not the cap on female opportunity that comes with large families – though certainly, child-rearing constrains access to the paid-work economy.


Rather, the point made in both Gladwell’s treatment and the underlying paper is that the reduction in family size altered Ireland’s  dependency ratio.

That is: when there is  a reduction in the proportion of the population, old and young, that cannot work, the output of those who can must support fewer people, resulting in more wealth per person.  As Gladwell’s sources, David Bloom and David Canning put it in another paper,

This boost in the growth rate coincides closely with the falling dependency rate in Ireland. Thus, the raw data are consistent with the view that demographic change contributed to Ireland’s economic surge in the 1990s.

Nothing there about what Douthat rails against as “a reminder that the waning of a powerful religious tradition can breed decadence as well as liberation.”  It ain’t the sexy time that his dreaded secularists identified when they looked at actual data – it was just a quick look at who was supporting whom.


Just to check the score here at halftime:  Douthat argues that abandoning rigid fidelity to the Irish Catholic hierarchy and thus releasing Irish women into non-traditional roles is somehow to blame for Ireland’s current financial troubles.

Not only is this nonsense on its own terms — Ireland’s crisis has its roots in very specific banking and real-estate transactions, not in a somehow overly feminized work force — Douthat simply misconstrues the data he attempts to cite.  You can argue that he was dumb and/or ignorant in doing so, or you can argue that he’s smart enough to recognize the sleight of hand he attempts here.  Neither conclusion speaks well, either for him or his employer.


The rest of Douthat’s blather is of much the same level of sophistication.  Love of money is a sin, and, says Douthat “utopians of capitalism” need remember “that the biggest booms can produce the biggest busts, and that debt and ruin always shadow prosperity and growth.”

This means exactly what?

To begin with, it’s wrong on its face.  Debt and ruin do not always shadow prosperity. Or rather, debt is not in and of itself a measure of nearness to ruin; it is rather, an essential tool in the construction of growth, which like any tool, can be turned to purposes well or ill.

But the larger implication here is what at once silly and malign.  Is Douthat telling us that capitalism dooms us to suffer impoverishment in cyclical lockstep with encounters with wealth?

Tell that to this chart.  Busts are enormously painful.  They are also blips in the larger historical time-line.  Economic growth due to iscientific and technological inquiry, industrialization and capitalism, is one of the single greatest generators of human well-being ever.  Probably the greatest, full stop.

That the transformation of the material conditions of existence carries an abundance of costs and complications is a given.  That there are losers and winners, ditto.  That the epithet “free” market is a cartoon, an abstraction and a bludgeon wielded by the politically vicious, understood.  But to wail pathetically about “debt and ruin” stalking prosperity and growth is both nonsense and, by implication, murderous.   Dearth and misery are what you get when you don’t achieved prosperity.

And this is Douthat’s high point of analytical precision.  He goes on to writes that

The Irish experience should be a reminder that the waning of a powerful religious tradition can breed decadence as well as liberation…

…by which I take him to argue that the very partial rejection of the Irish church hierarchy is to blame for failures of Ireland’s small banking and speculative elite.


There are at least two fundamental errors here.  One is the absolute and false dichotomy:  Ireland must choose either unstable wealth (and sex-for-fun) or abject poverty and the consolation of religion.


Is that really all there is?  Just off the top of my head, I might suggest that the Irish try some modest banking regulation just to see if they could dodge the need to hand back all those contraceptives and tie Irish womanhood back to the kitchen and the crib.  Just a thought….

And notice that Douthat slyly conflates “decadence” with klepto-captialism.  But if he does that, he has to explain why godless Scandinavia isn’t being bailed out along with the still quite Catholic Irish Republic.  Despite his wishing it to be so, there is little evidence, if any, for Douthat’s persistent belief that accepting the greater wisdom of Benedict and his hierarchs actually produces better outcomes of health, wealth and happiness than cheerful godlessness.  He might wish it were so, but the experience of billions is against him.

Believe it or not, it gets worse.  Douthat actually says that

….the Irish government’s hat-in-hand pilgrimages to Brussels have vindicated every nationalist who feared that economic union would eventually mean political subjugation. The yoke of the European Union is lighter than the yoke of the British Empire, but Ireland has returned to a kind of vassal status all the same.

Oh my FSM, what grotesquely self-confident ignorance lies there.


To get just a glimpse of the morally bankrupt cynicism behind that statement, check out this chart. It documents the depopulation of Ireland in the wake of the Great Famine.  There is an ongoing argument whether the colonial power’s role in that disaster was one of active genocide or malign neglect, but anyone who conflates membership in an economic union and superstate-compact with the full and often murderously oppressive weight of imperial rule is laboring to deceive.

Which returns me to my original question.  I know some folks at the Times. They aren’t stupid.  They can read.  They have to recognize that Douthat is not just a hack, but an ignorant and obvious one.  The Quiet Man! for FSM’s sake!

So I guess I’m wondering if he’s at the Great Grey Lady (no longer) of 43rd St. because he’s legitimately the best right-wing pundit they could find – which says volumes one way…

…or if this isn’t some 11 dimensional chess on the part of the “liberal” New York Times to allow the right wing to self-immolate weekly on their pages.

I’m betting on door number one, myself.

*This is what I mean about Brooks being more sophisticated than Douthat.  He disguises the utter paucity of his actual knowledge much more gracefully.  In the column I promise I’ll get around to skewering – and soon – Bobo begins by writing of “the psychologists, artists and moral philosophers I know.”  Now that’s a nice touch.  Just as unverifiable as Douthat’s driving impressions, but so much more authoritative, invoking both access to and membership in an elite.  This is what distinguishes  the bumbling apprentice from the old pro.

Images:  Judith Leyser, “The Proposition,” 1631.

and, inevitably,

Vincent van Gogh, “The Potato Eaters,” 1885.

(Cross Posted at Balloon Juice)

Is Fox News, News? No…A proof.

October 26, 2009

…well, not formally so, but I think what follows could well fall into the bounds of an argument constructed to the requirements of informal discourse — and what could be more devoid of formality than this here blog?

The proposition, that Fox News is not a real news organization has been put forth, forcefully, by members of the Obama administration.  It has been disputed, vehemently, by Fox employees and network supporters — including some who should definitely know better.

Some might say that the nature of those defenses confirms the original proposition:  to compare a public statement that a given media organization is biased is obviously not the same thing as constructed and concealing an enemies list of people and organizations targeted for disruption and retribution.*

The former is a “we report, you decide” moment; the second is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes.  Further support for this kind of dispositive dismissal of Fox’s defense comes from a couple of very recent media tempests, most notably the false claim that Fox was singled out for exclusion from an administration media event, credulously picked up by other media outlets.

But all of this is inferential.  After all, it’s just possible, I suppose, that Fox’s pattern of talking points – driven coverage slanted in favor of one party and against the current administration is simply the result of meticulous news gathering producing the patterns presented as news on Fox.

So, given that a theme of this blog is that the point of understanding a bit about science is to help one think about what’s going on around us, I decided to see if I could find some empirical measures to test the claim that Fox is not truly a news gathering institution.

So, in my ongoing tribute to Warner Wolf, let’s go to the videotape (or teh Google, as we now all bow to the sovereign of  the intertubes).

How can we determine whether or not Fox is a news organization?  Let’s try a version of the what in arithmetic would be called the transitive property.  If we can agree on the notion that some other entity nominally comparable to Fox or two are real news services, then we can see how well Fox matches up with them.  If Fox and its competitors are recognizably similar as institutions, then we can say that just as if a = b and b= c, then a= c, Fox is a real news enterprise.  If not, not.**

So let’s see, shall we?

According to’s latest review of the state of cable news, (from which most of the figures below have been drawn, unless othewise linked) Fox lags behind CNN and ahead of MSNBC in the raw calculation of budget for news — though with the major caveat that MSNBC uses the news-gathering apparatus of its sister organization, NBC News as its major source of journalism.  In what follows I’ll focus on the CNN vs. Fox comparison almost exclusively.

CNN had in 2008 the highest budget of the cable nets, coming in at 686 million and change.

Fox’s total was 521 million and change:  notably less, but still substantial.

CNN’s staff totaled about 4,000 last year.

Fox’s US staff was 1200, and while I could not readily find Fox’s overseas’ totals, these matter less than one might imagine, for reasons to be explained below.

For  a broad comparison, NBC News’ staffing total, as of the most recent round of cuts, is somewhere in the neighborhood, probably slightly below 6,000.

So:  in budget terms Fox is a competitor, though not the leader, but it’s staffing totals hint at a different story. Remember that news gathering is a labor intensive business — you need producers and associate producer/reporters to actually find out stuff that can make it on air — and the fact that Fox has one third the numbers of its rival CNN is suggestive.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the suggestion becomes a little more solid.

Back at, the budget totals get broken down into two broad categories: programming and general/administration.  These aren’t terribly informative categories, but let’s just look at the breakdown.

Fox spends 2/3rds of its budget on programming, about 316 million, leaving only 156 million for everything else.

CNN flips that ratio, almost, spending 273 million on programming and 380 million on G/A.***

Why does this matter?  Because, while it is difficult — impossible really — to get into the weeds of either CNN or Fox’s detailed spending priorities with this kind of top level numbers, broadly speaking, programming is not news gathering.

What it certainly covers is the cost of the on-air talent and the production of the stuff you see on screen.  And the disparity in spending totals and staffing priorities reflected in the CNN vs. Fox comparison reveals both a lingering effect of the history of each network, and the blunt fact that Fox is in at least one crucial way different from CNN.

The  history:  CNN as it was first conceived and executed by Ted Turner and his team followed the strategy of emphasizing the brand and the product and not personalities.  No one anchor or on-air personality was supposed to be seen as the face of the network; no one was to have the power of a Chronkite or a Jennings.

That’s changed, somewhat, obviously, with a prime time lineup including the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Lou Dobbs, and Larry King.  These, however loathesome (and yes, I’m looking at you, Lou), are stars and are paid accordingly, costs attributed to the programming in CNN’s cost structure.

But the daytime lineup and the bulk of the news programming (as opposed to the talk/opining side of CNN), is not so personality driven, and the cost of on-air talent follows that relative (and deliberate) lack of star power. From 9-4 on weekdays, the net offers programming under a single title — “CNN Newsroom” — with multiple hosts, and a corresponding and house-culturally appropriate emphasis on the brand and the activity.  Follow that up with three more hours of “The Situation Room” and precede it by three hours of “American Morning” and you get the idea.

Fox, by contrast, emphasizes its on air talent throughout its schedule.  Fox shows with the names of the hosts attached start at 1 p.m. and continue with reruns through till the 6 a.m. debut of “Fox and Friends.”  It’s signature hosts command formidable salaries.  Bill O’Reilly, for example, is estimated to take in an approximate 10 million dollars a year under his latest Fox contract.

Whatever you think of O’Reilly, that is not an outlandish number by the outlandish standards of media star salaries.  Contrast that with Jay Leno’s reported numbers at the end of his Tonight Show run: a cool 27 million; or perhaps a more direct comparison would be to Katie Couric’s salary of approximately 15 million.

But if O’Reilly’s take-home and that of his fellow Fox headliners is in line with the prices networks are willing to pay for ratings success and advertiser interest, such sums still put an enormous amount of pressure on the total budget for a news operation.  Something has to give.

Just as one last illustration of the point.  When NBC recently cut about 5 percent of its news division staff — 300 people, it tried to whack those least likely to affect its capacity to gather news.  Dateline, a magazine program, got hammered — but the rest of the news division was to be left mostly alone.  Expensive talent was let go to preserve producer jobs — and those producers are the front line journalists in TV news.

At Fox, by contrast, its budget priorities emphasize on-air vs the nuts and bolts of actually gathering news.  This is where those staffing numbers begin to take shape.  Why, with  70% of the budget does Fox only deploy on the order of 1/3 the staff CNN does?

Answer number one is what is already obvious in the disparity in the programming expenditures of the two nets: Fox has a more expansive on-air operation than CNN does.  It relies on stars, and it has a very high standard (in cable terms) of production values on set — another expensive programming choice.

And the corollary of that is that the actual work of finding the news counts for less…with the confirmation coming directly from one of the few available direct measures of new gathering capacity, the number of bureaus a network supports.

Fox has been increasing its bureau coverage — as of 2008, it maintained 17 bureaus, up from 12 in 2007.

CNN, by contrast, staffs 46 bureaus, up ten from 2007.

Crucially, Fox maintains a risible international presence:  just six overseas offices with none in Latin America or Africa, just one in Asia — and that Hong Kong, and not Beijing or Tokyo,or Delhi, or Islamabad –only one in the Middle East (Jerusalem, and not Baghdad or Tehran), to accompany the usual suspects in Europe — London, Paris, Rome and Moscow.


Even little, last place MSNBC does better, and CNN completely rolls up the pretender:  five bureaus in Latin America, seven in Europe, including Istanbul, which geographically straddles the line between that continent and Asia, six in the Middle East…and you get the picture.

So, to wind this up.  Is Fox News a news organization with sizzle?  Or is it sizzle in drag as a journalistic operation.

And the answer is that with some exceptions, (I’m looking at you, Shep Smith) Fox is not a news producing organization.  I wouldn’t call it talk radio either, pace the President.

Rather, Fox News is best understood as an entertainment service.  The way it spends its money is the way that entertainment divisions of networks parcel out the bucks.

They pay for high-profile, highly rated on-air talent.  They dress up that talent in the sets that look like a news operation — but then, so does Jon Stewart, so does Stephen Colbert, (hell, so did Lou Grant).  They do hire some folks to dig up stories, and they broadcast their work in the quietest moments of the day…but that’s a relatively low cost trick to apply the costuming of news to an operation designed mostly to engage the emotions of their audience, and not to inform them — which is, of course, the classic dividing line (honored often in the breach, to be sure) between entertainment and news.

But when it gets down to where they actually put the bulk of its resources, Fox News behaves strikingly different from  CNN and broadcast network news divisions.

They don’t put in the hours, the dollars or the people to do what they claim to do.  They decide (what to cover)…but they do not report, at least with nothing like the level of effortof their competitors.

So, to the proposition that Fox News is not a news organization: it has been shown that Fox News differs substantially from CNN in its journalistic efforts.

As CNN generally regarded is a news organization, then the fact that Fox does not compare with its rival demonstrates that it is not a conventional journalistic operation.

That which to be proved has been demonstrated…or more briefly …


Update: There is, of course, a reason that Fox has opted for the entertainment model over the news organization approach.  It works.

*Just in case you were wondering about what that distinction means in practice:  Obama and his aides say they take extra precautions when dealing with Fox, viewing them as an advocacy outlet for their political opponents.  Nixon’s men wanted to unleash the IRS (and CIA-trained burglers) on those that offended them.  What part of that difference is hard to understand.

**And yes, I do understand that applying the transitive property to objects like news operations, putative or otherwise, contains pitfalls not found in arithmetic.  Just havin’ some fun, y’all; don’t get too literal on me here.

***These numbers don’t match the above totals because they reflect the original budget plans for 2008, and the totals above reflect actual expenditures; I don’t have access to the updated breakdown, but the points that follow track the decision making of the networks, and these budget intentions contain the decision makers priorities.

Image: Norman Rockwell, “Fact & Fiction,” cover illustration for  Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, vol. 124, no. 3201, 11 January 1917

Does the string “Michael Kinsley” correspond to a sentient being? I think not…

July 10, 2009

…and here’s the evidence, from “Michael Kinsley’s” presumably machine-generated column in today’s Washington Post:

The fiscal stimulus was, of necessity, a numbingly huge number, and almost nobody has said it was unneeded or not urgent or too big.

Well, no….unless you include the entire Congressional Republican delegation, Fox News, the radio wasteland that is right-wing talk, not to mention those millions thousands of devotees of a sexual practice illegal in Georgia until quite recently.

So — where on earth did Kinsley…I’m sorry, that’s “Kinsley” get his claim?  Or this one:

As several conservative commentators have pointed out, Obama has pulled a sleight of hand in which the items on his agenda long before the economic emergency — items such as health-care reform — have taken on a sense of great urgency merely from their association with truly urgent measures like the stimulus package.

Leave aside whether or not conservative commentators can be trusted to characterize accurately anything Obama has done (easy answer:  they can’t), last time I checked, American health care was in crisis, with almost 50 million uninsured, costs steadily rising to clearly unsustainable pressure, businesses in dire trouble because of legacy health care obligations, and for all that cash, medical care and outcomes no better than, and by many measures clearly worse than those of other nations, despite enormously greater per capita outlays.

So, unless your definition of urgency requires a gun to your head with the hammer cocked, to believe that dealing with a problem that has grown steadily worse, is unsustainable in cost, and is killing people before their time is not urgent requires a certain Olympian disdain for grubby reality that I just can’t muster.

Not to mention that the charge of sleight of hand is simply false.  Here’s the top-level promise on health care as articulated at, the website used during the transition between the November 4 and January 20.  It’s listed as number three on the agenda for the new administration, after responding to the economic crisis and ending the war in Iraq.  It is not conflated with anything; it is presented as a top priority in its own terms — which is how it was offered up during the campaign as well.

In other words, “Kinsley” seems to be complaining that an urgent national problem identified before another urgent concern somehow be down graded because all we can handle is one crisis at a time.  Well, sorry, fella, that ain’t the way it works.  If there is a crisis in health care in the US — and there is, one that has both life-and-death consequences for individuals and long term destructive potential for the economy– then we don’t get to give it up because it’s just too tiring for the delicate souls in WaPo land to keep up.

To channel my man Brad DeLong…why oh why…….?

Image:  Giovanni Bellini and Vecellio Tiziano (Titian) “The Feast of the Gods,” 1514-1515.