Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Argument By Assertion

I know it's in here somewhere....

The most interesting thing about this post by Megan McArdle is not what she thinks, it is how she thinks. McArdle has frequently said that nobody can know anything ever, which must make the decision-making process quite difficult. But as McArdle is also an expert on failure--its causes, its cures, and its frequent occurrence in her life--it would be useful to watch her work her way through an intellectual problem.

Dan Drezner notes that pundits have been predicting the twilight of American power for at least half a century:

Twenty-two years ago, in a refreshingly clear-sighted article for Foreign Affairs, Harvard's Samuel P. Huntington noted that the theme of "America's decline" had in fact been a constant in American culture and politics since at least the late 1950s. It had come, he wrote, in several distinct waves: in reaction to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik; to the Vietnam War; to the oil shock of 1973; to Soviet aggression in the late 1970s; and to the general unease that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Since Huntington wrote, we can add at least two more waves: in reaction to 9/11, and to the current "Great Recession."....

What the long history of American "declinism" -- as opposed to America's actual possible decline -- suggests is that these anxieties have an existence of their own that is quite distinct from the actual geopolitical position of our country; that they arise as much from something deeply rooted in the collective psyche of our chattering classes as from sober political and economic analyses.

For whatever reason, it is clear that for more than half a century, many of America's leading commentators have had a powerful impulse consistently to see the United States as a weak, "bred out" basket case that will fall to stronger rivals as inevitably as Rome fell to the barbarians, or France to Henry V at Agincourt.

On the foreign policy front, selective U.S. retrenchment doesn't imply terminal decline so much as a temporary realignment to ensure that American power and interest are matched up going forward.

While we do not pretend to know enough about geopolitics to assess Drezner's facts, we do know that people usually do not realign out of strength. Empires that have overextended their influence beyond their means to maintain it must realign. We also instinctively mistrust any argument that strokes the ego of the person making the argument. The only reason the right sees the left as weaker is because the left must be weaker for the the right to be stronger than everyone else.

Speaking of weak links, let's get back to McArdle:

Drezner is talking about geopolitical power, but he might as well have been talking about economic power; at least since the 1970s, we've been hearing that America was just about to have its lunch eaten by some emerging power. In the 1970s it was the Arabs; in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was the Japanese and the Germans; and after a brief bout of optimism, the Chinese became our betes noires. Each time, the narrative was largely the same: American market capitalism was a failure. The competitive model rendered us incapable of long term planning. We allowed corporate loose cannons to seduce our consumers into bad choices and disrupt our markets, rather than sensibly regulating them. The American consumer was greedy, lazy, and selfish, interested only in sating himself with an endless parade of consumer gimcrackery. Meanwhile, our competition were masters of central planning, manipulating everything from their currency to the American psyche. Eventually, this saturnalia of selfishness and sensation-seeking would have to end as the Huns master technocrats finished conquering the decadent remnants of a once-great nation.

So McArdle's biggest argument for her belief in American Exceptionalism to the inevitable collapse of every Empire ever built by man is that it hasn't happened yet, so it isn't going to happen now?

This is not to deny that American capitalists made some colossal mistakes, driven by a combination of greed and stupidity. Nor that we are in for some hard economic times. And of course, the little boy who cried wolf was right--eventually. American dominance is not going to last forever, after all, and there's no particular reason that we couldn't be living at the moment when our power finally wanes.

McArdle acknowledges the arguments against her points, but by simply stating them she seems to think she is refuting them. (We have seen this strange mental blip before). Argument by assertion is a quick and easy way of supporting one's argument, but simply stating something, even in italics, is not the most effective way of winning an argument. It would be very nice if McArdle gave some sort of proof of her assertions that the American Empire is still going strong. Perhaps McArdle labors under the mistaken idea that it is impossible to find such information; if so she should learn to use something called a "Google," which will point her to articles such as this one, which uses evidence to support its conclusions. McArdle might want to try that some time, for the novelty if nothing else.
But it's worth remembering that the other declinists were powerfully convinced of their own argument. The human brain is programmed to look for what is new, and what is dangerous. That means that we're prone to ignore all the strengths of the American economy that are still there: the dynamism, the willingness to take risks, the immense flexibility to change and invent and grow. Instead, we focus on what has gone wrong. And since something has usually gone wrong--badly wrong, in our current situation--the narrative of decline is usually the best fit for the facts that loom largest in our imaginations.

It's funny that McArdle should mention the financial industry's willingness to take risks and create new, innovative financial products as its greatest strengths, considering that those factors were instrumental in bringing us to this point in the narrative of decline. By stating that the market's biggest mistakes were the market's biggest strengths, McArdle can (and will) continue to argue that the financial industry was not an agent in its own failures, and therefore it should not be changed.

But those are not all the facts, and if you're tempted to make confident pronouncements on the future of American power--economic or geopolitical--its worth reading all the commentators in the past who were equally confident,and absolutely wrong.

Nobody can know anything ever because all commentary is equal and there is no way of assessing accuracy, such as facts, numbers, charts, logic or experience. Those who were right were right for the wrong reason and those who were wrong must be permitted to continue on their path of success through failure. And, most important of all, our American financial system is successful just as it is, and it always will be. Until it isn't.


Anonymous said...

Is she under the impression that the "Arabs" and the Japanese weren't, actually, capitalist? Does she think they were running planned economies? Also, I've been thinking about this recently, although Megan likes to throw in dates, names, and numbers her argument really always boils down to feelings. I'm not surprised that words like "balance of trade" and "rate of savings" and inflation, debt, etc...don't actually figure in this discussion of hers. Because its going to turn out that no one can know anything--except that experts from the "other side"--even if they are fictitious, are always wrong.


Susan of Texas said...

McArdle is being very boring right now. She should be fighting to eradicate social security or championing puppy mills or something. But no, it's nothing but strawmen and empty arguments and libertarian bonding experiences.

KWillow said...

Agincourt was a battle, it had nothing to do with an Empire failing or falling. She just throws that in to her little essay as a way of saying "I'm educated!" Pffft.

fish said...

Well she is from a family of academics...

Mr. Wonderful said...

So, to sum up:

1. Predictions of decline have been common in the past. They have more or less been proven to be inaccurate.
2. Predictions of decline are common now, because the human brain operates by noting dangers.
3. The people making today's predictions really agree with themselves, but then, so did the people making yesterday's inaccurate predictions.
4. Of course, today's predictions could be proven correct, because our largest financial institutions made some colossal mistakes.
5. But maybe they won't be proven correct, because it is the genius of our system to encourage creativity and take risks, although the colossal mistakes themselves were examples of creativity and risk-taking.
6. Therefore, something bad either will or will not happen, and people will have predicted it or not predicted it, due to the human brain.

Did I miss anything?

Anonymous said...

My kids are in school with a family named "D'agincourt" and I complimented them on the name but, since they are french, they pointed out the whole thing was a bit of a sore point, really.


Anonymous said...

Susan, she may still be working on Pt. 2 of her Warren takedown, and it's just draining her of all energy.

We still haven't heard an update on the house yet, have we?


Lurking Canadian said...

Does she think they were running planned economies?

In the case of Japan, at least, it was not uncommon in the Eighties to see the claim that Japan's success was due to MITI, thus proving that having a national industrial policy was necessary for success in the technological age. I remember one author (I don't remember who it was) called Japan "the only communist country that works". I am not competent to analyze the accuracy of this claim, or McArdle's.

nate said...

Actually, by most measures everything we feared about Japan has come to pass. I mean, is she familiar with a couple of companies known as Toyota and GM?

Also, the latest Boeing plane is almost entirely made up of Japanese parts. You could also take a look at their vertical dominance of the photo etching necessary for modern chip manufacturing. Yeah, they've been in an economic decline, but they actually manufacture shit, unlike us.

Oh, wait, I forgot McMegan's raison d'etre is to be full of shit. Carry on, then.

"Did you kill her?"
"Look, mate, I know you've been out of the evil game for awhile, but we do still kill people, you know. It's sort of our raison d'etre."

Anonymous said...

its (sic) worth reading all the commentators in the past who were equally confident,and absolutely wrong

That's the way I look at all those pundits & fools (but I repeat myself) who supported the Iraq war -- including McArdle, who, if memory serves, wrote after the fact that sure, she was wrong, but not really because the people who were right were right for the wrong reasons. Or something like that.

Every time I read this woman, I do think of decline: the decline of thought, the decline of a once-great magazine, the decline of education.

Anonymous said...

Worst part is that Serious People still link to her as an expert. At least Delong realized she was full of shit, though I vaguely recall in the early 2000's that he'd link to her for whatever reason.
Probably Glenn, Sully, Ezra or Matt linking to her.

Anonymous said...

Downpuppy said...

I challenge anyone to figure out what Megan was trying to say with her unemployment post.

Susan of Texas said...

Wait until you see the next one. It seems that the horrible mortgage situation isn't so bad after all! And here I thought it was a god-awful mess after reading Yves Smith.

Tommykey said...

The thing with declines of great powers is that they tend to take a long time. That is why people can be decrying our decline for decades because the process is ongoing.

For the United States, one can make an argument that militarily we have been in decline since the Korean War. Since World War Two, we have not been very successful in our overseas military campaigns in imposing outcomes favorable to us (unless you count the small ones like Grenada).

With Korea, while we managed to preserve the South as an independent entity, the North is as defiant as ever.

In Vietnam, we could not even preserve the independence of South Vietnam, despite dropping more bombs on the enemy than we did in all of World War Two.

With Gulf War One, while we did succeed in ejecting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, we left him in power and stood idly by while he crushed rebellions in Kurdistan and the southern marshes.

In Somalia, we pretty much left with our tail between our legs after the Blackhawk Down episode.

With Gulf War Two, we were unable to amass the coalition that we had in Gulf War One. Turkey, a NATO member, would not even allow us to use their country as a staging base to invade Iraq from the north. While we did succeed in toppling Saddam Hussein, the loss of life and the financial costs were far greater than the war boosters claimed. The outcome of the war, while probably the best we could realistically hope for, clearly fell far short of what it's supporters sought.

And while the war in Afghanistan is still a work in progress, it demonstrates the limits of what American military power can achieve.

What seems clear though is that we have not been successful in achieving our goals militarily for the last six decades. And now we're financially strapped and cannot afford another large scale military commitment on the scale of Iraq or Afghanistan. And you know what, the rest of the world knows that too.

Downpuppy said...

Have the comments become so bad that Megan won't touch them, or has she been told how stupid she looks when she enters them?

Somethings happening here. What it is aint exactly clear.

Honkfest comes to town tomorrow! Every band geek in the world that grew up radicalized hits Somerville.

Susan of Texas said...

McArdle's written a lot of posts recently, which is strange.

satch said...

Am I late to the party? Well, anyway... The thing that struck me as I read Dan Drezner's indictment of pundits warning of America's decline was that, in damn near all the cases, it was right wing pundits who were wailing about the decline, and pointing out what needed to be done to reverse that decline.. The launch of Sputnik... WE HAVE TO NUKE THEM COMMIES AFORE THEY PUT NUCULAR WARHEADS ON THE NEXT ONE!!! The Vietnam War...THE DOMINOES ARE FALLING! ATTACK-ATTACK! The oil shock... GOD DAMN AYRABS NEEDA BE SHOWN THEIR PLACE! Soviet aggression in the 70's... NUKE 'EM BEFORE THEY NUKE US! 9/11... well, do I really need to go on about THAT one? Being wrong is nothing new to these guys, or Megan, for that matter.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that it isn't he Arabs or the Japanese or Chinese or whoever that sunk us this time--it was ourselves. Just like in 1929. And for the same reasons.

And that's why Megan is likely wrong. We're better at destroying ourselves than any foreign power could be. Not because of "capitalism," but because of our belief that capitalism should operate WITHOUT ANY RESTRAINTS AT ALL. Never mind that we have had plenty of opportunities to see what a dangerous philosophy this is.