Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Friday, September 9, 2011

Rationalizing and Ratiocination

Heh. Ms. "rules for thee but not for me" tells us that we mustn't succumb to the temptation of rationalizing when attempting to understand economic events.

Words to Live By
Business Sep 9 2011, 8:26 AM ET 22
Wise advice from Arnold Kling:

What I would suggest is that any time you get the urge to provide an economic interpretation of asset price movements, lie down until the feeling goes away.

The context:

Back to Krugman. He makes three points. One is that the profession should have recognized the housing bubble for what it was. The problem is that you are tempted to explain asset prices, not to cry "bubble." Just the other day, Krugman himself gave in to that temptation regarding gold. In fact, his rationale for high gold prices is the same as my rationale for high house prices--low real interest rates.
The problem is not in our economics stars--it is in ourselves. As Robert Heinlein once wrote, "Man is not a rational animal--he is a rationalizing animal." We are constantly trying to make the universe make sense. That facility leads us to come up with plausible explanations even when the actual correct response is a slack-jawed "WTF?"
Well, Megan McArdle has certainly mastered the slack-jawed ignorance and refusal to examine failure--which is rather odd as she is an official expert on failure. As always, McArdle cherry-picks her data to her support her theories, when she bothers using data at all. It does not seem to occur to her that you cannot form a theory without data because the theory is an explanation of that data. McArdle has always said that she makes theoretical, not practical, arguments but has no idea how to argue. She tries to substitute verbosity, anecdotal evidence and jargon for data, reason and and theorem but fails abysmally.

But McArdle has not been the only lazy thinker. All too often I use terms such as "talentless hack" or "tool of the ruling elite" without taking the time to elaborate the basis for my complaint in detail. I, too, should take the time to examine exactly what my words mean and justify them with facts.

Megan McArdle does not think. Her brains exist only to fill in the empty space between her ears and such automatic functions as breathing, eating, and swiping her credit card. She does not read or interpret data, she reads others' interpretation of data and assumes the interpretation and data are both correct if they match her preconceived notions.

my mother suggested something that I hadn't thought of: the only reason that she was raised in that picture-perfect specimen of Americana was that the Great Depression had prevented my grandfather from leaving. He was an ambitious man--he worked his way up from a poor dirt farm, through a five-year stint delivering groceries, and into the ownership of a successful gas station. In ordinary times, he would have left town to seek his fortunes somewhere bigger (like my great-grandmother's cousin, Frank Gannett, who left a nearby town to go to Cornell and eventually founded the eponymous newspaper chain.)

But you don't pick up and move to a distant city when unemployment is running at 25%; my grandfather, born in 1915, came of age during the deepest part of the Great Depression. He stayed home where he had family who could help him find a job, and take care of him if things didn't work out. By the time the Great Depression really ended, he had a fledgeling business and a family. He wasn't going anywhere. Neither were the other men of his generation, who had carved out spots for themselves in the local economy. They sustained the prosperity of the town for a couple of decades beyond where it should have lasted. And I suspect that outside of the Dust Bowl, that's a pretty common story.

McArdle does not start by saying, "Hmmm, it seems that the Depression kept people home who would have otherwise moved away. Let's find out if that's true." McArdle also does not try to think of any evidence that might contradict her "theory," such as the very well-know phenomenon of men riding the rails across the country looking for work. In McArdle's head, smart, ambitious people go to her hometown, New York, or some other big city. Her grandfather was smart and ambitious, therefore something must have prevented him from leaving, such as the Depression. At this point the obvious thing to do is to read some history.

Here's an article titled:

Migration: The Theme of the Great Depression.
By Judy Busk
People moved: to find jobs, sometimes to find food, and then they moved again, and sometimes again. Some returned home to live with relatives when the search for work ended with disappointment. Some moved because businesses went bankrupt, some moved because they couldn't pay their rent, some moved because they heard a rumor that it was better "there." The United States was a nation on the move, the automobile became the vehicle of migration. For some, remaining stationary was an option as they lived simply on their small farms, raising the food needed to sustain their families.

In his classic novel of the Great Depression, John Steinbeck described the highway leading to California:

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there.

"From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight."

There is, of course, a great deal more information on migration during the Depression, enough to make anyone pause to reassess her theory. If she had, it might have occurred to her that success might have different meanings for different people and her grandfather might have preferred to live a small town life, despite its lack of bistros and gastropubs. But McArdle doesn't think.

Others do, however, and a commenter swiftly pointed out how McArdle's post about her grandfather was an example of someone rationalizing economic events. McArdle responded:

McMegan 3 hours ago in reply to Tony Comstock

I think I was pretty open about the fact that this was a just so story, no?

Liberals seemed to have gotten miffed because it included an observation--common among my parents generation who worked for various agencies--that the quality of civil service lifers had gone down. Yet the people who made this observation were themselves liberals, and moreover, the same people who got mad at me would probably receive very well a complaint from, say, Mark Kleiman that investment banking and Big Law were siphoning away talent that should be in public service. Which is exactly the same observation. :)

At any rate, the decline is a stylized fact. The cause is what's in question. The consensus among the people who witnessed the changeover was that it was the Great Depression. Maybe that's not right, but my understanding is that they pretty much got it from the horse's mouth.

"The decline is a stylized fact." A stylized fact "is often a broad generalization that summarizes some complicated statistical calculations, which although essentially true may have inaccuracies in the detail." McArdle assumes her anecdote is a fact, thereby eliminating the necessity of doing all that boring fact-checking and reading. A stylized fact is not something that McArdle feels in her gut based on her personal experiences, but McArdle obviously disagrees about that small point, and so another internet tradition is born.

This is where and when, if not why, McArdle is so often wrong. The why is more complicated. Suffice it to say that McArdle has no journalism training, very little curiosity, and is not held to high standards and ethics. McArdle thinks her ideological opponents just disagree with her point of view and become irate when they cannot get their own way. She expects people to be unable to overcome bias. It does not occur to her that some people use facts and reason to make a decision because she does not use facts and reason to make decisions.


Downpuppy said...

Blood in the water on that post. She doubles down in comments with nonsense about the draft age & a bunch of other stuff.

But nobody touched on the obvious differences between gold prices - completely arbitrary - and housing prices - tied to affordability & rental values.

atat said...

"[...]the very well-know phenomenon of men riding the rails across the country looking for work.

Those people did not exist, because her grandfather was not one of them.

Just as nobody in the '50s owned an electric blender, because her mother didn't own one.

And nobody cares about blah-blah-blah, because none of McArdle's friends care about it. And on and on and on...

cynic said...

Oh, I had some serious fun with her on this. She put in a throwaway line about how her (at that time) 12-year-old mother could safely carry the weekly take cash 'often in 5 figures' to a nearby bank. I called her on the BS: it was mathematically improbable for a gas station in the 50's to sell enough gas to generate over 10 in weekly sales.

Much hilarity ensued - until it became clear that her granddad was pulling in about 22k annually in 1950 - about 10 times the average income at that time. Her whole premise that her granddad was just this ordinary guy who stayed in this poor Western NY town while others sought their fortune elsewhere fell apart.

She did her usual trick - of moving on.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

McArdle thinks her ideological opponents just disagree with her point of view and become irate when they cannot get their own way.

Projection, as usual.

atat said...

"it was mathematically improbable for a gas station in the 50's to sell enough gas to generate over 10 in weekly sales."

At this point, it's probably better to just assume that she's off by a factor of 10 on every number she throws out.

Anatole David said...

Ideological blinders+Innumeracy=Petitio Principii Pastiche

She throws a bone to the SciFilibertarians with the Heinlein twaddle.

And cribs Shakespeare's stars
(Edmund in "King Lear")

I stayed a little longer to watch Winnie the Pooh dance--love Downpuppy's avi--a weakness sweet to indulge

Mr.Wonderful said...

Well, this is what you can expect from a soi-disant intellectual who quotes Robert Heinlein.

Ken Houghton said...

But, cynic, when she says "five figures" she means $100.01."

atat said...

Calculators in the '50s had more zeros.

Nate said...

She's always been this way. I used to read her back when she was Jane Galt and she considered anecdotes plenty convincing then too, thank you very much.

I remember in particular, "Prius don't get better gas mileage because my boyfriend drove one and told me so," and, "Union workers are lazy and shiftless, because this one time I worked on a project in New York associated with a union."

Thank God I can just go to sites now that tear her apart and mock her as she so richly deserves.

Substance McGravitas said...

Jesus Christ. It's a Jonah Goldberg level of idiocy on that one.

atat said...

Ha, I just read through the gas station comments. I love how she argues her way out of the original point she was attempting to make, yet doesn't seem to realize it. My favorite detail is that her father, who was apparently making 10 times the average wage, used his 12-year-old daughter as his bank courier.

atat said...

Whoops, father = grandfather.

Syz said...

How does one "work their way up" from delivering groceries to owning a gas station in 5 years?

Megan is confabulating a tale of heroic entrepreneurship, probably to hide her grifter roots.

Landru said...

Appropos of nothing substantial, the title of this post would also have been a very fine Blackadder episode title.

Emily said...

I was wondering why the grandfather had his daughter take the cash to the near-by bank only once a week. That doesn't seem like a very good business practice.

Anonymous said...

She seems to be misremembering stories from the time of her great, great, great time x grandfather who must have been Genghis Khan because the story of the naked virgin carrying bars of gold from the gas station to the bank dates back at least that far.

Reading even Susan's clips of Megan is enough to induce a kind of dizzy nausea--that woman literally can't tell a straight story about anything. Anything.

Also, my great grandfather, whose family had worked its way up from peddler to owning a store lost it in the depression--he was saved by a government job at the Mint.

Just thought I'd put that out there for no particular reason.


Anonymous said...

Anyone notice who's not in this comment thread defending Jane "I can't use a calculator / anecdotes=data" Galt?


Susan of Texas said...

My grandfather was a Dust Bowl Okie who migrated to Arizona and then California.

Anonymous said...

Susan, did you read Egan's "The Worst Hard Time?" I think its a great book. Plus, I love the short lived series "Carnevale" which takes place during the dust bowl. And yes, I noticed he-who-must-not-be named wasn't around defending she who can't be defended.


Myles said...

I think she does make an interesting observation in the sense that civil service among the talented is often a result of relative deprivation.

This is actually a fairly well-documented phenomenon in imperial British and Commonwealth histories. The bright colonial kid who is not disposed to far-flung business or commercial ventures often had very little recourse to opportunity than to join up with the imperial project in some shape or form. It was, in any case, very difficult to get a quality scientific education in the colonies until very late into the Empire.

I was reading a book about (then Lieutenant) James FitzGibbon, the daring British hero of the War of 1812, who joined up from Ireland because he had basically no other opportunity.

When transposed into the American context, this would likely have meant that a lot of very capable people went into, or at least was involved in, local government, because there was, until quite late, no imperial project to be a part of. Indeed, American history is full of brilliant parochial politicians who hit it big, especially in the period from Jackson up to the Second World War.

It was, in a sense, the interstate highway system which finally changed that part of American sociological history. With a navigable national road system, one simply packed all one's belongings in the trunk and kept driving until one got to where the opportunities were. All parts of one's life is now with one in the car.

(No part of the my family is American, but when my grandfather left home he didn't have enough to eat. He never really ever went back.)

Batocchio said...

This is where and when, if not why, McArdle is so often wrong. The why is more complicated. Suffice it to say that McArdle has no journalism training, very little curiosity, and is not held to high standards and ethics. McArdle thinks her ideological opponents just disagree with her point of view and become irate when they cannot get their own way. She expects people to be unable to overcome bias. It does not occur to her that some people use facts and reason to make a decision because she does not use facts and reason to make decisions.

There's much truth in this. The last point leaps out at me, though. Yes, there's her inability to play those exotic games, empiricism, research, supported argument, critical thinking... Basically, she often sounds (like Jonah Goldberg) like a slightly-bookish but not truly reflective teenager who did fairly well in high school where she could bullshit her way through. When she was called smart, it made her feel proud, and she bought her own hype. Basically, she was the perfect teen acolyte of Ayn Rand.

Then she went to college, and at least in some classes, the bullshit didn't play anymore. The same type of people who now shred her on blogs or in her own comment threads were her teachers and classmates, McMegan was no longer the "smartest" kid, and when it came to reasoned, supportable discourse, she just couldn't compete. She was exposed. Some kids and young adults work through this sort of thing, gain some humility, study harder, get a bit of that true scholar bug, and turn out quite well. Not McMegan. Such a path would entail destroying her cherished (and false) self-image. Besides, she's always been obsessed with status and privilege, not merit – but like most libertarians, she mistakes the former for the latter.

I think it's this glibertarian narcissistic smugness that's really key. (It often presents as arrogance, but there's deep insecurity underneath.) McMegan is convinced, against considerable evidence, that she is brilliant. (Nick Gillespie and the rest of the Reason crew are the same way.) She is lazy, true, but she really does believe that because she is so brilliant, surely reality must support her views. Oh, she can't be bothered to research any matter at more than a cursory level (if even that), but she can bullshit every article or post just as she's done for every project since she was a teenager. She refuses to recognize any more substantive way to approach issues, and the idea that other people aren't bullshitters is to her some mix of truly foreign and utterly terrifying. It's imperative that she convinces herself of her own brilliance, over and over again. Her self-esteem demands it. As with all modern conservatives, McMegan grants herself the privilege of righteously condemning others while simultaneously disavowing herself of any responsibility for anything she says or does. "Such is blogging." She's actually quite similar to a religious right-wing zealot, just with a different set of dogma.

Susan of Texas said...

Sorry, folks, Myles was caught in the spam filter.

Susan of Texas said...

Saying that smart people don't go into civil service anymore is like saying smart women don't become teachers anymore. Women might have more options now but many still want to combine family and career and teaching is a good profession in those cases. Even if you're smart. Also, just because you are smart doesn't mean you have opportunity. You might have no family backing, money for a good college, or connections to get a good job. McArdle tells herself she is succeeding in a meritocracy but her own success gives lie to that thought. There are millions of smart people who are underutilized and thousands promoted beyond their capacity.

This ties into Botacchio's point; McArdle had a good education so assumes she is knowledgeable although she has admitted she coasted through school and had poor grades. Her school told her she was one of the ruling class and successful people always think they are born leaders, no matter how they became successful or how little successful they became.

But these people do know deep down that they are bullshitting as Botacchio says. When someone corrects McArdle she fights back hard and mean. It hurts her image of herself to be corrected. Yet she also knows that it doesn't matter if she's wrong, as long as she's wrong in the right way.

Lurking Canadian said...

Susan, are you sorry he was stuck or sorry he escaped?

KWillow said...

...McArdle thinks her ideological opponents just disagree with her point of view and become irate when they cannot get their own way.

She is a dumb person convinced that she's brilliant. She doesn't need to do research, listen to Experts, or use proven facts in her arguments (dubious anecdotes are fine), because her vastly superior intellect grasps "truths" others are too dim and slow to recognize.

Therefore, she can sneer at logical counter-arguments, mock proven experts such as Paul Krugman, and claim expertise in subjects she's obviously terrible at (like cooking). Because her dazzling intellect understands what mere plodding fact & Figure-gatherers can never perceive. People who mock her are envious.

Very adolescent attitude.