Posted tagged ‘propaganda’

David Brooks Single-Handedly Solves the Fertilizer Shortage

May 3, 2013

Today’s BoBo column is useful, very useful indeed.

It’s one of his nominally apolitical efforts, and as such, parsing its intellectual flaws and frauds yields a helpful guide to the ways Brooks puts his thumb on the scale of everything he writes.  A column like this one helps expose his genius for bullshit without the confusing (to some) aura of partisan argument.

Brooks here presents what seems to be  a humble (sic) precis of responses he received to questions posed in an earlier column in an exercise of what he termed “crowd sourced sociology.”

That Brooks might not be the best suited to launch such an effort could be seen in the first of those queries:

A generation after the feminist revolution, are women still, on average, less confident than men?


Someone with some methodological insight might see the problem in the way that question is phrased…and I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

But it’s really today’s column that captures BoBo’s skill of finding always and only the conclusion he seeks in any alleged analysis of the alleged data.   His key trick:  there’s always a turn, a sudden shift in the unstated assumptions of the piece that allows Brooks to assert a claim unsupported by the actual body of information he possesses.  Let’s see that in action here, from this beginning

I’ve read through a mountain of responses, and my first reaction is awe at the diversity of the human experience. I went looking for patterns in this survey…

But it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends. The essays were highly idiosyncratic, and I don’t want to impose a false order on them that isn’t there.

Fair enough.

But wait!  It’s BoBo, after all.  Who needs an understanding of the data when there’s an anecdote that dovetails with his preconceptions:

One of the calmest letters came from Carol Collier, who works at Covenant College.

One of the drums BoBo has been banging lately is the (in his view) value of acceptance of a body of received belief.  He’s been writing about modern Jewish orthodoxy, but he’s asserted more than once the importance of revealed religion as a source of stable selves.  So it’s no surprise what kind of reader would win his accolade:

She wrote: “As a believer in Jesus Christ, I see myself as redeemed, forgiven and covered in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I believe that this is how God sees me, all the time and without exception. I believe that his smile and delight in me is unwavering. This view of myself is quite simple yet with profound implications. It allows me to accept criticism without self-condemnation and to accept affirmations without exalting myself. This is the ideal view of myself that I am always working at. It is a struggle, but a good one.”

Just to be clear, my issue isn’t with Ms. Collier; she believes what she believes and she feels what she feels, and, as T. J. Luhrman has been writing a lot lately, that experience is itself both a subjective reality and a data point.

No, what gets my goat is the all-too-predictable-use Brooks makes of Collier’s account:

I’ll try to harvest more social trends later.

Say what!? (BTW — there is no ellipsis there. That sentence follows directly from the quote.)

Let’s review.  At the top of his column Brooks tells us that “it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends.”  Now, we learn that not only has he shown us (at least) one trend, there will be more to come!  Impressive.

So what is this trend?  Bobo reveals his discovery:

But, in the meantime, I’m struck by how hard it is to have the right stable mix of self-confidence and self-criticism without some external moral framework or publicly defined life calling.

D’0h.  Of course — BoBo’s Kulturkampf never rests.  We need to behave properly, as our faith teaches us, as the manners of our mythical ancestors would have us, as the non-sexually-abusing members of Brooklyn Orthodox communities may be claimed to act.

A confession, here.  Remember how I said above that this was an apolitical column.  There is actually no such thing in Brooks’ repertory.  It’s all political, which is why he creates his cultural and sociological fictions.  This column is a foundational one, a way to slip in a claim of reality — that enjoying a good life, possessing the crucial human skills of balance, depend on specific allegiances that Brooks can then assert must inform whatever specific political claim he wants to make.

Another thing:  Brooks offers in this pair of columns — the questionnaire and now this “results” piece — a veneer of  science-yness, the trappings of surveys and analysis that (he suggests) give his interpretations the disinterested authority of a mere reporter of fact.  What you actually see here, of course, is that Brooks either has no clue what goes into the construction of an observation or experiment a scientist would recognize as meaningful — or he does, but doesn’t care.  Let’s go to his conclusion to see that dishonesty in full flower:

If it’s just self-appraisal — one piece of your unstable self judging another unstable piece — it’s subjectivity all the way down.

So. To review again.  BoBo  says there are no trends or patterns he can see in his responses.  He then quotes a single reply and asserts that it captures one fact — presumably that of the connection of religious commitment to the possession of certain qualities of personality.  And then he states, with no reference to any of his data, (ex cathedra, as it were) that another way of knowing one’s self is invalid.

The scientific follies are so many, and so many of them are obvious, it’s exhausting to try and list them all. Just to suggest one — no where does BoBo suggest that he might have to deal with a selection bias in the population of his readers who choose to reply to him.  Given that he’s written often about the satisfactions of an externally constrained religious life, that might be a problem — but it is not one that seems to trouble him.

But the fact that his “study” is worthless as actual knowledge is both obvious and besides the point, his point.  Look one more time at that last sentence.  Notice the double sleight of hand there?

It’s not just the untethered nature of the assertion — our David telling us that self appraisal is suspect — but  this too:  it’s an answer to a question no one asked.*  He began by wondering how men and women compare for self-confidence; now he’s shifted to an assertion about the sources of his respondents self-judgment.  Not the same question at all.  (There’s the added problem of the subjectivity of religious experience as well, but to ask BoBo to do the very hard work of thinking about  about that is like asking a donkey to keep watch for angels.  It’s been reported to happen, but very, very rarely.)  All of his column is unconnected to this final point; it’s there just for atmosphere, to give this unsupported, culturally and politically freighted claim the aura of reality.  It’s pure propaganda.  This is David Brooks.

Enough.  I’ve wasted another perfectly good hour foaming at Brooks many sins.  Here’s the shorter: he always plays a rigged game.  The only reason to read him is to play “spot the bullshit.”

To add:  what bugs me from my particular bailiwick as a science writer is that he has so little knowledge of, or perhaps respect for, what actually goes into the very hard work of deriving actual understanding from the exceptional complexity of material reality — including the extraordinary tangle of human experience.  There are lots of way science is losing some of its cultural capital right now, some self-inflicted.  But nonsense like this sure doesn’t help.

Image:  Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portraits of Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony and his wife Katharina von Mecklenburg, 1514.

The Political Folly of the Middle

November 12, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jim Bales

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

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

On the Pernicious Myth of the Free Market

September 7, 2010

So: let’s begin the experiment in how quickly I can rebuild blog traffic after a summer’s neglect, shall we?

A week or so ago, there was a Twitter flurry on the subject of phrases some of us would like to see banned from science writing, stimulated by  the annoyingly prolific Carl Zimmer‘s list of such sins.  (His fault you’re a sloth? — ed.)  Some very good ones there, this being my favorite (for obvious reasons):

Breakthrough (unless you are covering Principia Mathematica)

But the list of writerly shortcuts we should all avoid made me think of the phrase that gets my goat every time I hear it — which means that I am goatless a lot of the time.  For that phrase is “the free market.”

I twittered my disdain for that term, noting in 140 characters or less that “free markets” as imagined do not exist in nature, and that hence, at best, they are the analogue to the physicists’ herd of spherical cows.

In fact, as friend of Inverse Square Ian Preston pointed out to me, that analogy is wrong — or at best, only a bit right.  The bit that’s right is that there is a spherical-cowlike idea that economists make use of all the time.  Where physicists simplify something like a shape to make a calculation or a proof-of-concept argument a little easier, economists will assume circumstances in which markets behave exactly as we were taught in our versions of Ec 10:  there is perfect competition, perfect information available to all parties and so on.  Such markets are spherical…goats, perhaps, just to keep the field clear for physicsts contemplating falling bovines.

What they are not is “free” markets, at least not in the sense that term is used in popular discourse.  Remember:  when a physicist says “consider a spherical cow” you and she know that you have just entered the realm of the imagination. When some right-radical* propagandist uses the term “free market” you also know what is being advanced:  the notion that these drastic simplifications actually exist in the wild, and that any deviation from an absolutely unfettered market structure represents both a practical and a moral ill.

But, of course, there are no such creatures roaming the savannah.

Rather, as both economists and less rarified people who actually pay attention to the distortions in just about every market have recognized, all kinds of things in the real world make markets less than perfect, “unfree.”  Assymetric information is one buzzword, regulatory capture is another phenomenon, various kinds of externalities apply other distortions to transactions, governments can intervene to increase or decrease the efficacy of market mechanisms…and so it goes.

The point, obvious to all but those willing themselves to believe in Adam Smith as the tooth fairy, is that his invisible hand is not placing dollars under virtuously self-interested pillows unbuffeted by all kinds of forces.  Instead, the phrase “free market” is primarily  propaganda, an attempt to perpetuate the big lie that  there necessarily cannot be any better outcome than the one that transfers the most wealth and power to those who already have seized so much of it in the last years and decades.

That’s where Ian stepped in, both to echo my thought and to extend it (and perhaps, just a bit, to attempt to insulate his profession from the worst of what radical right hacks are trying to do in the name of modern economics).   As he wrote in email he has kindly given me permission to publish…

Saw your tweet on “free markets” and completely agree but I think you’re only halfway to the truth.  The real spherical cow is the “competitive market.”  “Free market” strikes me as a phrase you hardly ever hear mainstream economists use in an academic context.  (You do hear “free trade” but I think there’s a different political resonance to that phrase).   There are plenty of reasons to link efficiency with idealised competition but “competitive markets” don’t make for such good right wing rhetoric as “free markets” and any fool can see that freeing particular markets up is often neither necessary nor sufficient for making them competitive.

Now why should you listen to Ian, even if you don’t to me?  Perhaps because he is, in fact, a real economist and a very good one.  As such, on being asked if he would let me disseminate his note above, he did what conscientious thinkers are supposed to do.  He tested his own conclusions:

Since you’re thinking of basing a blog post on it, I thought it’d be a good idea to check that I’m not talking nonsense.  I put the phrases  “free market” and “competitive market” into Google Scholar, linking them to particular economic journals.  The former does seem to be typically less common and particularly so the more theoretical or technical the journal to which the search is linked – see the attached table.  “Free market” does appear to occur in technical phrases like “free market equilibrium,” which does have a ring of familiarity, so you can’t really say it is never used in that way but I suspect it is most often coming up in phrases like “free market policies”.  There’s some evidence there anyway for my casual impression that “free market” is more often useful as rhetoric or as a description of a particular kind of policy whereas “competitive market” is the more precise and useful analytical simplification – the spherical cow, in other words.

At the bottom, in an attempt to put an upper bound on the ratio, I have added the results of a similar search linking to one of the journals associated with the non-mainstream Austrian school.  I admit that I have never even looked at this journal but the results show the sort of heterodox economists who evidently do find it useful to talk about the “free market” – the sort of people who mistrust mathematical modelling, mistrust econometrics and mistrust any attempt by government to override the price mechanism.

Here’s the chart:

The moral of all this: (a) when someone uses the phrase “free market” in political discourse, hang on to your wallet.  And (b) fight the con that such people are trying to run on you — us, everyone.  What we need, again, as a practical matter as much as and before any moral considerations, are competitive markets, fair markets.  One thing that recent experience has reaffirmed is that you can’t have a prayer of getting such at least sort-of-level playing fields (and hence, genuinely efficient allocators of capital and maximizers of desire) without explicit government regulation of market behavior.

Here this sermon endeth.  Less abstract stuff to come.  Happy first-day-of-school (at least for father and son in the Levenson household) to all.

*Another one of my pet peeves is the term “conservative” — which, IMHO, is in American politics a spinner’s term to describe people and views who are neither conservative in the formal sense of the term, nor connected to history in any way that resembles what traditionalists assert as the wellspring of their views.  They are instead authoritarian (hence the right) and willing to do enormous damage to the polity to achieve authoritarian power — the radical part.

Image:  Henri Rousseau, “Combat between the tiger and the buffalo,” after 1891.

If you thought popular writing about science has problems…

July 29, 2008

Try economics — and you could do worse for a wince and chuckle than read this helpfully edited version of the “I got mine jack” school of what the post’s writer calls glibertarian economics.

It’s always nice after a dealing with crap in one’s own area to see the silliness play out next door.

Don’t miss the comments either.