Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Virtues Of Selfishness

How do they do it? How do ordinary Americans, raised on Tom Joad and Frank Capra and the Golden Rule, turn their backs on their fellow man? How do they manage to talk themselves out of compassion and loving kindness? Let's ask Megan McArdle.

Policy choices are often framed for us as a choice between compassion and something else--selfishness, moralism, rigid rule-following.

Our elite, the ones telling us "make everyone [else] hurt", know what they are supposed to be doing. No matter our religion or lack of religion, we know we are supposed to control our tendencies to selfishness, to try to be good, moral people, to follow certain long traditions of caring and sharing. Damaged people, however, know this but don't feel this.

Many people never develop empathy for others; they are too taken up with their own suffering, real and perceived. They are, legitimately, angry and resentful at the lack of love and attention they received as a child. They were never shown sympathy and their feelings were ignored or trampled on or mocked, and now they are unable to think or feel beyond their persecution, resentment, and anger, directed at anybody but the real culprits. The parents will never be blamed because the grown child still hopes that one day he will finally receive their unconditional love. He never admit that his parents were not able to love him and he will spend the rest of his life looking for this unconditional love from something or someone else.

But when you take into account systemic effects, the "obvious" compassionate choice--the one that our hearts urgently impel us towards--often isn't so obviously the best one.

Most people instinctively realize that if someone wants something very much, you can manipulate them by promising to fulfill their wishes or frightening them by telling them that they'll never get what they want. If you do not care about the damage you cause, you can easily find a way to use people's needs and fears against them. In the above quote Megan McArdle tells us to ignore their feelings of compassion, our empathy, because something bad might happen. "Systemic effects" beyond our control keep us from realizing our error of compassion, and we are helpless before them.

North Korea's public food distribution broke down in the nineties, and ever since then, the nation has careened between beggary and starvation. Other governments, meanwhile, have glumly faced two unappetizing choices: donate food which will be diverted to prop up the regime, or allow even more North Koreans to starve. [snipped quote]

The US ceased to give aid two years ago, and I can't say the government is wrong. I can't say the government is right, either--as I once heard a former emerging market government official say about his work, "the choice always seemed to be between the horrible and the disastrous, and it was never obvious which was better." There's no question that any food aid helps prop up the regime, ensuring that the semi-starvation of huge swathes of North Korea's population will continue. On the other hand, if we don't deliver it, even more people will go hungry right now.


North Korea had a bad harvest this year, but the problem isn't their bad harvest--it's a political and economic system that leaves the country forever one harvest away from utter disaster.

The obvious answer is to feed them. Ideology does not come before hungry people. But Korea is far away and it's relatively easy to ignore hungry Koreans, and if you can chip away at people's sympathy bit by bit, you eventually will be able to get them to ignore American hunger. Especially if you claim that we don't have any.

There are other types of suffering, of course, and McArdle addresses those appeals as well. James Joyner discusses the travails of being a rich NBA player, and McArdle jumps at the chance to undermine compassion again.

I think this tension [between NBA players and management] is at the heart of a lot of conservative and libertarian qualms about unions, exemplified by the difficulty with teachers' unions.

Ah, conflation of two unlike things--how I've missed you. We are not likely to have sympathy for rich athletes so McArdle compares them to teachers. Of course she is lying about the cause of conservative qualms; conservatives don't want unions to exist because unions don't support conservatives.

Union boosters tend to view the conflict between management and labor as a straightforward argument about who gets what share of the profits.

Labor gets a share of the profits, not a wage? Who would have know that working in a plant gave you part ownership? Or perhaps McArdle wants to imply that workers are greedy people who just want more money for nothing.

But there's also often a real conflict between productivity and what the workers want.

The workers are supposed to support their own rights and the owners are supposed to support theirs. McArdle thinks that is unfair; the workers should be as concerned about corporate profits as management. Any push-back on management power is a danger to profits and must not be allowed.

I can easily sympathize with fifty year old dockworkers who don't want to be turfed out of high-paying jobs that they counted on.


I can't sympathize with a union that fights to keep exactly as many jobs at exactly the same pay forever, even after the owners offer to pension off the displaced current workers at full pay.

If she is talking about a specific incident she doesn't clue us into which one. It's a common tactic for McArdle; she will try to find some outlier case of abuse and claim that it proves her entire case. If she is talking about the Wisconsin teachers' union, she is lying. Rick Ungar at Forbes:

If you are reluctant to believe that this is a coordinated attack, consider this-

This afternoon, Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Workers Union, sent a message to the Governor’s office agreeing to the cuts to pension & welfare benefits sought by Walker in his bill. The governor’s response was “nothing doing.” He wants the whole kit and kaboodle – the end of the collective bargaining rights of the public unions.

As noted in my earlier post, this is, indeed, the first shot in the final battle to end unionism in America.

Finally, adding insult to injury, McArdle says:

If unions had been doing this sort of thing in 1810, we'd all still be working in cotton mills and dying at 45.

Now, that just makes me laugh. Unions gave us humane working conditions, a living wage and dignity, instead of living like pigs in slums while working for the rich. But we are supposed to think that people in union members have become slothful and greedy and no longer deserve a union. McArdle ignores the fact that union members fought, killed and destroyed property before forcing the rich to concede to their demands. Now we're supposed to be horrified when someone falsely claims that unions want too much money?

When the workers are rich, we can talk about this tension without one side or another throwing epithets.

In other words, never.

But when the workers are middle class, the tempers rise. Unfortunately, that's where it actually matters.

Because the middle class is nothing but a bunch greedy pigs who are always trying to take money from the poor, helpless, obscenely wealthy.

Don't you feel much better about management, now that you know how selfish and greedy all those middle class teachers are? You think of them as one of you, middle class, middle-aged and educated, like the nice lady who lives next door and works in her garden on the weekends, but really they are rich and greedy, like basketball players, not deserving, like a dockworker. You might think you feel sympathy towards them but you should not, because you'll just be supporting a dangerous regime. Teachers unions are just like totalitarianism, an insupportable system that is trying to destroy the American Way of Life. In other words:

John Holbo challenged me in a former post to say what I would think about the various proposals, or a putative single payer [health care] system, if it worked just the way progressives think it will. I thought I had, but I'll do it again. The answer is that I would be against it because I don't believe in taking money from the rich to subsidize the middle class--I don't think that people whose basic needs are taken care of have any distributional claim on people with more money, even though it is perfectly fair to ask the wealthy to pay more for goods that are broadly publicly enjoyed.

The middle class is not the rich, and McArdle is only interested in the rights of the rich. That is the world that McArdle grew up in and that is the group that claims all her sympathy and allegiance. But McArdle's claim on the elite is very tenuous; she has enough education and money to live on its fringes but not enough to feel secure in its acceptance. So like a high school girl that picks on slightly less popular girls to be part of the in-group, McArdle carefully chips away at the image and ego of the middle class, to separate herself as far as possible from that lower station and establish herself more firmly as one of the elite.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Less Historical Megan

Shorter Megan McArdle: Affinity to democracy is just not in the Greek character.

Less Knowledgeable Megan

Shorter Megan McArdle: No, I've never heard of loss leaders. Why do you ask?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Separated At Birth?

Item 1:

Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi said yesterday that he would rather “die as a martyr” than relinquish the reins of power in the face of massive protests. While Qaddafi’s grip on the capital Tripoli has tightened, vowing to track down and kill demonstrators “house by house,” the eastern half of Libya “was slipping beyond his control.” A Guardian reporter in Libya says there is a “mass defection of the military here.”

Item 2:

Jeffrey Cox is a deputy attorney general for the state of Indiana, and he has some strong views about the protests in Wisconsin. In response to a Mother Jones tweet this weekend reporting that riot police might be used to clear protestors from the capitol building in Madison, Cox tweeted back: “Use live ammunition”:

Cox remained steadfast in his position that the protestors should be killed when confronted on Twitter by Mother Jones’ Adam Weinstein, writing that “against thugs physically threatening legally-elected state legislators & governor? You’re damn right I advocate deadly force.” (There have been no reports that the protestors have physically threatened any elected officials).

Tell us some more about liberal fascism, Jonah Goldberg.

It's For Your Own Good

A productive worker is a happy worker!

Megan McArdle wants you to know that your American dream of a house, a job and a family is nothing but a fantasy.

I do not understand why the sight of government workers losing the ability to collectively bargain for benefits, or automatically deduct wages from paychecks, triggers all this stirring rhetoric about fighting on the streets of Wisconsin to preserve the last vestiges of a gauzily idealized world in which everyone had three squares, a split level, and a defined benefit pension.

Three meals a day? Pipe dream! A snug little home of your own? Smoke and mirrors! A pension? Pie in the sky!

To start with, there is really no such thing as "paid" vacation; your employer is paying you for the work you've done, not for spending a week on the beach in Cabo. You're just spreading a slightly higher average hourly wage over a longer period, so it seems like you're taking a lower wage in exchange for more days off. Moreover, these days off often have an additional cost to employers--there are efficiency losses because you're not around to coordinate with other employees, and they may have to hire a substitute, who is unlikely to be as productive as the worker that they are temporarily replacing.

Does nobody think of the powerless employers, who experience losses of productivity when workers take time off to rest? Why do employees need to have vacations anyway? What's more important, the kids' yearly visit to granny or increasing productivity and therefor profits for business? And don't get McArdle started on work rules!

Similarly, work rules that reduce productivity mean that more employees must be hired at extra cost. Grievance procedures require costly prophylactic administration (extensively documenting potential complaints), very costly mediation procedures, and often mean keeping workers on at full pay, while also paying a replacement, while the dispute is resolved. As Steven Brill has documented, in the case of teachers, this can be very lengthy and expensive. Making teachers hard to discipline or fire is emphatically not free.

Why should the workers have any say in their work conditions? Do you have any idea how much money corporations lose when workers go home instead of working 12-hour shifts? When children are forbidden from helping out their families by quitting school at 14? When safety rules are in place that slow down the productivity of factories and refineries?

We know this, of course, in our own lives. Imagine that your auto mechanic, handyman, or landscaper proposed to work for you under the same kind of elaborate rules as Wisconsin teachers. Would you assume that your costs for repairs and maintenance would remain the same after you signed onto the new system? Of course not. You'd have to take days off work to deal with the handyman every time there was a dispute about his hours, hire a substitute mechanic while also paying the Toyota dealership in cases of incompetence, and one imagines that productivity might suffer in at least some areas once your employees realized how hard it was to terminate their services--or do without them.

You have money, right? How would you like to have less money? That would be awful! How would you like your servants and tradesmen to have safety rules you have to follow? Just think about how much better your life is now, when you can cheat the maid or gardener by underpaying their hours and there's nothing they can do about it. And don't get McArdle started on Toyota's incompetence! They can't even fix a car correctly! We are not sure how removing any checks or balances on the power of the Toyota corporation will make their mechanics better instead of worse, but McArdle must have a point in there somewhere, and that point is that workers' rights cost corporations money!

Fortunately for corporations, McArdle is sure that people don't want any power. Just as she was sure that The People Have Spoken and Obama's giveaway to health insurance companies would never pass, McArdle is sure that The People reject anything that will prevent corporations from increasing productivity.

When I spoke to conservative and libertarian journalists during health care reform, they were at least a little worried as to how public opinion would land. But not this time. They're all unanimous, and very confident that the unions are going to lose: polls show that the public doesn't particularly like the unions, the doctors' notes are a huge black eye, and parents in Wisconsin are livid.

All of McArdle's friends agree that Wisconsin parents are livid. Even the union parents, no doubt. And if you want proof of this simple fact, just ask them next time they get together for drinks. They'll do a gut check, which is all the proof this country girl needs.

And taxes! Why are the unions fighting against eliminating taxes for corporations when corporate taxes are so low that they don't do any good anyway!

Clearly, Ezra and I look at the same situation and see two different things. In the most recent quarter for which the Census has data, corporate income taxes provided about $9.2 billion worth of revenue to all 50 states. This is less than 20% of New York State's Medicaid bill. It is also about 3% of the overall tax revenue collected by the states. This goes up to about 4.5% in the second quarter of the year, which includes April 15th, but overall, it is not a very significant source of revenue.

Speaking of health care, you know what will happen if we don't destroy unions? We'll destroy health care! If corporations pay their workers a good wage and benefits, they'll have less money to pay taxes (when they actually pay taxes). And who will have to pay for health care then? That's right, poor people!

Sales and gross receipts tax are much more significant--about $72 billion, or a quarter of the total tax take. But general gross receipts taxes are used in only a minority of states; most of that is sales tax revenue. And sales taxes are generally assumed to ultimately be borne by the consumers, not corporations.


If we neither cut reimbursements, nor services, then the fight is between unions and taxpayers, most of whom are not corporations, or even particularly rich. Obviously, Ezra and I have different distributional priorities. But I still don't see how public sector unions (or quasi-private-sector unions like 1199, whose bread-and-butter is reimbursed by Medicare and Medicaid) can be seen as acting as a check on corporate power. Like most other groups, most of their activity is simply directed at making themselves as well off as possible.

And so Megan McArdle has proven that if you give workers the power to get better pay and working conditions, you are actually harming workers, and the best thing to do in this instance--indeed, in all instances--is to let the corporations do whatever they want without any protest or attempt to stop them whatsoever.

By giving up your rights you are only helping yourself in the long run.

My god, don't these Democrats ever think through a problem???

Here is some testimony in an 1832 hearing on factory conditions.

Evidence Given Before the Sadler Committee
[Parliamentary Papers, 1831-1832, vol. XV. pp. 44, 95-97, 115, 195, 197, 339, 341-342.]
Joshua Drake, called in; and Examined.
You say you would prefer moderate labour and lower wages; are you pretty comfortable upon your present wages? --I have no wages, but two days a week at present; but when I am working at some jobs we can make a little, and at others we do very poorly.
When a child gets 3s. a week, does that go much towards its subsistence? --No, it will not keep it as it should do.

When they got 6s. or 7s. when they were pieceners, if they reduced the hours of labor, would they not get less? — They would get a halfpenny a day less, but I would rather have less wages and less work.

Do you receive any parish assistance? — No.

Why do you allow your children to go to work at those places where they are ill-treated or over-worked? — Necessity compels a man that has children to let them work.

Then you would not allow your children to go to those factories under the present system, if it was not from necessity? — No.

Supposing there was a law passed to limit the hours of labour to eight hours a day, or something of that sort, of course you are aware that a manufacturer could not afford to pay them the same wages? — No, I do not suppose that they would, but at the same time I would rather have it, and I believe that it would bring me into employ; and if I lost 5d. a day from my children's work, and I got half-a-crown myself, it would be better.

How would it get you into employ? — By finding more employment at the machines, and work being more regularly spread abroad, and divided amongst the people at large. One man is now regularly turned off into the street, whilst another man is running day and night.

You mean to say, that if the manufacturers were to limit the hours of labour, they would employ more people? — Yes.

Mr. Matthew Crabtree, called in; and Examined.
What age are you? — Twenty-two.
What is your occupation? — A blanket manufacturer.

Have you ever been employed in a factory? — Yes.

At what age did you first go to work in one? — Eight.

How long did you continue in that occupation? — Four years.

Will you state the hours of labour at the period when you first went to the factory, in ordinary times? — From 6 in the morning to 8 at night.

Fourteen hours? — Yes.

With what intervals for refreshment and rest? — An hour at noon.

When trade was brisk what were your hours? — From 5 in the morning to 9 in the evening.

Sixteen hours? — Yes.

With what intervals at dinner? — An hour.

How far did you live from the mill? — About two miles.

Was there any time allowed for you to get your breakfast in the mill? — No.

Did you take it before you left your home? — Generally.

During those long hours of labour could you be punctual; how did you awake? — I seldom did awake spontaneously; I was most generally awoke or lifted out of bed, sometimes asleep, by my parents.

Were you always in time? — No.

What was the consequence if you had been too late? — I was most commonly beaten.

Severely? — Very severely, I thought.

In those mills is chastisement towards the latter part of the day going on perpetually? — Perpetually.

So that you can hardly be in a mill without hearing constant crying? — Never an hour, I believe.

Do you think that if the overlooker were naturally a humane person it would still be found necessary for him to beat the children, in order to keep up their attention and vigilance at the termination of those extraordinary days of labour? — Yes; the machine turns off a regular quantity of cardings, and of course, they must keep as regularly to their work the whole of the day; they must keep with the machine, and therefore however humane the slubber may be, as he must keep up with the machine or be found fault with, he spurs the children to keep up also by various means but that which he commonly resorts to is to strap them when they become drowsy.

At the time when you were beaten for not keeping up with your work, were you anxious to have done it if you possibly could? — Yes; the dread of being beaten if we could not keep up with our work was a sufficient impulse to keep us to it if we could.

When you got home at night after this labour, did you feel much fatigued? — Very much so.

Had you any time to be with your parents, and to receive instruction from them? — No.

What did you do? — All that we did when we got home was to get the little bit of supper that was provided for us and go to bed immediately. If the supper had not been ready directly, we should have gone to sleep while it was preparing.

Did you not, as a child, feel it a very grievous hardship to be roused so soon in the morning? — I did.

Were the rest of the children similarly circumstanced? — Yes, all of them; but they were not all of them so far from their work as I was.

And if you had been too late you were under the apprehension of being cruelly beaten? — I generally was beaten when I happened to be too late; and when I got up in the morning the apprehension of that was so great, that I used to run, and cry all the way as I went to the mill.

Mr. John Hall, called in; and Examined.
Will you describe to the Committee the position in which the children stand to piece in a worsted mill, as it may serve to explain the number and severity of those cases of distortion which occur? — At the top to the spindle there is a fly goes across, and the child takes hold of the fly by the ball of his left hand, and he throws the left shoulder up and the right knee inward; he has the thread to get with the right hand, and he has to stoop his head down to see what he is doing; they throw the right knee inward in that way, and all the children I have seen, that bend in the right knee. I knew a family, the whole of whom were bent outwards as a family complaint, and one of those boys was sent to a worsted-mill, and first he became straight in his right knee, and then he became crooked in it the other way.
Elizabeth Bentley, called in; and Examined.
What age are you? — Twenty-three.
Where do you live? — At Leeds.

What time did you begin to work at a factory? — When I was six years old.

At whose factory did you work? — Mr. Busk's.

What kind of mill is it? — Flax-mill.

What was your business in that mill? — I was a little doffer.

What were your hours of labour in that mill? — From 5 in the morning till 9 at night, when they were thronged.

For how long a time together have you worked that excessive length of time? — For about half a year.

What were your usual hours when you were not so thronged? — From 6 in the morning till 7 at night.

What time was allowed for your meals? — Forty minutes at noon.

Had you any time to get your breakfast or drinking? — No, we got it as we could.

And when your work was bad, you had hardly any time to eat it at all? — No; we were obliged to leave it or take it home, and when we did not take it, the overlooker took it, and gave it to his pigs.

Do you consider doffing a laborious employment? — Yes.

Explain what it is you had to do? — When the frames are full, they have to stop the frames, and take the flyers off, and take the full bobbins off, and carry them to the roller; and then put empty ones on, and set the frame going again.

Does that keep you constantly on your feet? — Yes, there are so many frames, and they run so quick.

Your labour is very excessive? — Yes; you have not time for any thing.

Suppose you flagged a little, or were too late, what would they do? — Strap us.

Are they in the habit of strapping those who are last in doffing? — Yes.

Constantly? — Yes.

Girls as well as boys? — Yes.

Have you ever been strapped? — Yes.

Severely? — Yes.

Could you eat your food well in that factory? — No, indeed I had not much to eat, and the little I had I could not eat it, my appetite was so poor, and being covered with dust; and it was no use to take it home, I could not eat it, and the overlooker took it, and gave it to the pigs.

You are speaking of the breakfast? — Yes.

How far had you to go for dinner? — We could not go home to dinner.

Where did you dine? — In the mill.

Did you live far from the mill? — Yes, two miles.

Had you a clock? — No, we had not.

Supposing you had not been in time enough in the morning at these mills, what would have been the consequence? — We should have been quartered.

What do you mean by that? — If we were a quarter of an hour too late, they would take off half an hour; we only got a penny an hour, and they would take a halfpenny more.

The fine was much more considerable than the loss of time? — Yes.

Were you also beaten for being too late? — No, I was never beaten myself, I have seen the boys beaten for being too late.

Were you generally there in time? — Yes; my mother had been up at 4 o'clock in the morning, and at 2 o'clock in the morning; the colliers used to go to their work about 3 or 4 o'clock, and when she heard them stirring she has got up out of her warm bed, and gone out and asked them the time; and I have sometimes been at Hunslet Car at 2 o'clock in the morning, when it was streaming down with rain, and we have had to stay until the mill was opened.

Peter Smart, called in; and Examined.
You say you were locked up night and day? — Yes.

Do the children ever attempt to run away? — Very often.

Were they pusued and brought back again? — Yes, the overseer pursued them, and brought them back.

Did you ever attempt to run away? — Yes, I ran away twice.

And you were brought back? — Yes; and I was sent up to the master's loft, and thrashed with a whip for running away.

Were you bound to this man? — Yes, for six years.

By whom were you bound? — My mother got 15s. for the six years.

Do you know whether the children were, in point of fact, compelled to stop during the whole time for which they were engaged? — Yes, they were.

By law? — I cannot say by law; but they were compelled by the master; I never saw any law used there but the law of their own hands.

To what mill did you next go? — To Mr. Webster's, at Battus Den, within eleven miles of Dundee.

In what situation did you act there? — I acted as overseer.

At 17 years of age? — Yes.

Did you inflict the same punishment that you yourself had experienced? — I went as an overseer; not as a slave, but as a slave-driver.

What were the hours of labour in that mill? — My master told me that I had to produce a certain quantity of yarn; the hours were at that time fourteen; I said that I was not able to produce the quantity of yarn that was required; I told him if he took the timepiece out of the mill I would produce that quantity, and after that time I found no difficulty in producing the quantity.

How long have you worked per day in order to produce the quantity your master required? — I have wrought nineteen hours.

Was this a water-mill? — Yes, water and steam both.

To what time have you worked? — I have seen the mill going till it was past 12 o'clock on the Saturday night.

So that the mill was still working on the Sabbath morning? — Yes.

Were the workmen paid by the piece, or by the day? — No, all had stated wages.

Did not that almost compel you to use great severity to the hands then under you? — Yes; I was compelled often to beat them, in order to get them to attend to their work, from their being over-wrought.

Were not the children exceedingly fatigued at that time? — Yes, exceedingly fatigued.

Were the children bound in the same way in that mill? — No; they were bound from one year's end to another, for twelve months.

Did you keep the hands locked up in the same way in that mill? — Yes, we locked up the mill; but we did not lock the bothy.

Did you find that the children were unable to pursue their labour properly to that extent? — Yes; they have been brought to that condition, that I have gone and fetched up the doctor to them, to see what was the matter with them, and to know whether they were able to rise or not able to rise; they were not at all able to rise; we have had great difficulty in getting them up.

When that was the case, how long have they been in bed, generally speaking? — Perhaps not above four or five hours in their beds. William Cobbett (1763-1835), after a long career as a publicist, entered the Reformed Parliament in 1833 and at once took part in the debate on the bill Lord Althorpe had introduced as a result of the Sadler Committee's report. [my bold]


But Megan McArdle says that workers' rights decrease productivity and therefore profit for corporations, so we don't need unions, who are just greedy bastards who want to take the bread out of the mouth of starving corporations.

Please, won't someone think of the billionaires?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

You've Convinced Me

Morning posts! Awesome!

How Powerful are the Wisconsin Public Unions?
By Megan McArdle, the nicest, smartest, most popular girl on the entire West Side, no matter what Courtney and Paige said in gym

I've seen some version of this argument on half the liberal blogs I read:

Why bust the unions? As I said, it has nothing to do with helping Wisconsin deal with its current fiscal crisis. Nor is it likely to help the state's budget prospects even in the long run: contrary to what you may have heard, public-sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are paid somewhat less than private-sector workers with comparable qualifications, so there's not much room for further pay squeezes. So it's not about the budget; it's about the power

There's just one problem with this: if the union hasn't managed to secure anything in the way of extra wages, benefits, or other concessions for the workers--if it is really true that all these things are close to the minimum required simply to attract workers--then who cares whether the union survives or not? What "power" is being taken away?

That might just be the most dishonest argument I have ever seen in my life. After writing a long, long post about how unions have bled the taxpayer dry, after complaining about raises and teachers' pensions and health benefits and days off thanks to those evil unions, McArdle's is now going to pretend that none of those benefits exist?

This argument is supposed to work? This playground taunt, this "Oh, yeah? If you're so smart why aren't you president?" retort, is supposed to be an intellectual argument?

Wait--maybe I should give McArdle the benefit of the doubt. She did, after all, go to the right schools and grow up in the right neighborhood. Maybe she's learned and grown, having admitted to past mistakes such as supporting war and economic ruin.

Trust your elite, my friends! They only have your best interests at heart and they're really smart!


saminbrooklyn 1 hour ago
Umm, perhaps the union exists to prevent the gap with the private sector from being even larger.

McMegan 1 hour ago in reply to saminbrooklyn
But if it could get larger, then it isn't true that it won't save any money to weaken the union.

Weakening the union being the goal here. We must save money in these difficult times, so it's best to keep taxes low for the very wealthiest and corporations, while forcing the middle class to take pay cuts. And to be sure that they take those pay cuts, let's get rid of their union.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Oh no--Matthew Yglesias is thinking again.

Bad Ideas

Chris Hayes tweeted yesterday “Hard at moments of maximum polarization to retain an open mind and not demonize ideological foes. It’s Power we stand against, not people.”

It’s a nice sentiment. But I think it also reflects a widespread tendency in political dialogue to underrate the idea that actual mistakes and bad ideas are a source of political problems.

No. Greedy people screw over the poor and middle class to grab more money. Whatever happens after that is someone else's problem. The shadow banking system wasn't a "mistake." Busting unions isn't a "bad idea." It's the powerful screwing over the powerless.

It gets easy to think that the broad public’s ignorance is irremediable and the elites on “the other side” are either hopelessly corrupt or else hopelessly stupid.

The broad public doesn't want to know anything because that will interfere with their elite worship and possible (nay, probable!) future as a billionaire.

But if I think about myself, I think I’m constantly improving my own understanding of politics and policy.

Every day and every way, he's getting better and better!

Does that mean I was hopelessly corrupt or hopelessly stupid 18 months ago?


I don’t think I was. So why should anyone else be any different? It’s always possible to improve my own understanding and so I hope other people’s understanding can and will be improved too.

I'm elite. I'm wonderful. So surely the other elite who are just like me are wonderful too!

Meanwhile, sixty years ago most adults hadn’t finished high school while even today a large share of adults can’t read which is going to be a large barrier to both the formation and the expression of sound political ideas. But these are remediable problems, just as I could (and should! and will!) obtain actual information about what Swedish labor unions do instead of speculating as I do in the post below this one.

Ah, speculation. The elite substitution for research. Why look up something when you already know all the answers due to your elite education, or can easily be corrected and therefore grow in wisdom.

It's not that they control our country, our lives, our children's lives. It's that they are so stupidly self-congratulatory while they do it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Reminder

In view of Megan McArdle's recent comments about the laziness of teachers, I would like to point out Tom Levenson's recent post about her research problems. Mr. Levenson explains how McArdle links to a paper that disproves her own theory, namely that the nasty liberal academia is biased against conservatives and won't hire them.

We are left with two options: either McArdle read the paper and knew it disproved her theory and is a big, fat, lying liar who deserves to lose any credibility she might once have had, or she was too lazy to read the paper and had no idea that it refuted her entire thesis, thus making her look like an utter fool.

ADDED: In the past I have refrained from correcting her many spelling mistakes or criticizing her writing style. It seemed petty in view of the importance of her attacks on working people. I'll correct that error in the future. A person who is too lazy to click on spell-check deserves to have her errors pointed out.

Showdown At The Atlantic

The circus at The Atlantic is rapidly blowing up into the national issue of the moment, thanks in no small part to Megan McArdle and of course the Koch Brothers, the group that grew out the Koch's desire to end any curb on their power, which seems to be playing a prominent role in building up McArdle's career.

On one level, this is extraordinarily odd--is it really McArdle's job to be taking sides between corporations and her job as a journalist? But in another way, it's logical, even necessary. The mass media is where some of the hardest choices about who will suffer so corporations can enrich themselves have to be made. And thanks to a confluence of factors--Bush's wars, Bush's tax cuts, Bush's base's shadow banking system, crashing revenue thanks to Wall Street elite--those choices have to be made now. The Atlantic was facing a multi-million-dollar shortfall over the past years. Megan McArdle's money was going to have to come from corporations.

The pundits on both sides are teeing up the outrage. The right turns on the outrage that anyone would criticize anyone with wealth and power. The left fires back that The Atlantic's journalistic pretenses are just a sideshow, and that the real problem is the millions they are raking in from corporate-paid salons and other advertising.

I'm not outraged by either side. Of course Megan McArdle wants more money, health care benefits, and better pension, and do as little as possible in return. One of the prime attractions of working for The Atlantic is that you can almost never be fired, no matter how often you are wrong or how serious the damage from your lies and evasions. (See: Katherine Sibelius and Elizabeth Warren*.) Naturally, McArdle is going to fiercely resist having this taken away after having given a year or two to her career based on this assumption.

On the other hand, of course the masses want someone to tell them the truth. I am, as a matter of policy, against lying, so I agree that The Atlantic should not have spent $120 thousand per year, give or take, on Megan McArdle. But the actual targets--ambitious middle class white collar workers--are not prima facie morally inferior to corporate workers. In fact, on average, they're the same people. Overall, as a matter of policy, I would prefer to spend money on those workers than their bosses, but the workers themselves seem to prefer to see their bosses enriched at their expense.

To the conservatives I would have to ask the same question: is it good policy to tie your own hands? On that question, I don't know the answer.

On the one hand, telling your workers that you're trying to shaft them is not the best way to attract and retain the best workers; it seems that corporate workers will be at a competitive disadvantage with their bosses. On the other hand, the workers don't seem to care as long as they can shaft someone poorer than themselves.

So I have my doubts as to whether the current system does much to attract and retain the best journalists, which means that the corporations can hardly make it much worse. Indeed, you can make a fairly compelling argument that journalists' wages are not set so much on the basis of their ethics, impartially and craftsmanship as how much corporate welfare they can muster. In which case the current system probably helps restrain the left from putting pressure on corporate power. There are legitimate reasons that The Atlantic seeks to avoid certain questions.

Of course, there are also legitimate drawbacks, such as the devaluing of all journalists. Over the long haul, these mechanisms break down one way or another--in the case of The Atlantic, I'd bet that eventually there will be a shortage of reputable journalists that will need to be rectified by even bigger salaries.

But until then, is it somehow morally wrong for The Atlantic to change the rules under which journalism operates? It's incoherent even as a question. The right thinks that corporations are the entity which is supposed to set those terms--and it's no more outrageous for Mr. and Mrs. McArdle to favor the Koch brothers and corporations than it was for Bradley to favor a constituency which has further enriched him.

*Don't bother looking for Part II of McArdle's attack; she chickened out and never wrote it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


As you might know, I was a teacher during my brief but interesting professional life. Let me tell you one little story from those years.

When I was a long-term substitute, before I had my first job, I had a student who fancied himself far, far above the maddening crowd of ordinary folk, including both his fellow students and his teachers. (I often found students in wealthy schools who expressed amazement that their teachers didn't just wander in off the street to teach them; they were raised on the adage that those who can't do, teach, and they are surprised that teachers have a university degree.) This boy refused to get into a study group with two Black students because, "They'll bring down my grade." His mother was a psychiatrist and the class was psychology; of course he would ace the test! He came from a family of academics who were intellectually intimidating! It would have embarrassed the other kids if I insisted so I left him alone in his superior glory. When the boy got a C on the test, I merely pointed out that it was a pity he didn't study with the other kids.

I'll bet you anything that boy is a libertarian now.

Which brings us back to our favorite example of emotional, ethical, and mathematical dysfunction, Megan McArdle. Miss Megan doesn't think much of teachers either.

Sandra Tsing-Loh is shocked and hurt that Obama sends his daughters to an expensive private school rather than the local public schools.

In Obama's defense, the public schools in Chicago are terrible. My parents struggled with the same decision--my father worked for a Democratic city administration at the time, and they had both ideological and political reasons to want me to go to public school. But the catastrophic condition of New York's public schools at the time was too much for them, and at considerable personal sacrifice they ended up putting me in private school.

Naturally, if the local schools are bad you have to send you children to one of the most expensive school in the country, the Riverdale Country School, which charged Mr. and Mrs. McArdle $38,000 a year to educated their precious princess.

Riverdale, too, knows that it needs to keep parents happy and test scores high. The New York City public school system, on the other hand, mostly has to get butts in seats, because that's how they get their money. It's not that the teachers don't want to teach kids; it's that they don't have to. And as anyone who's ever tried to write a novel in their spare time knows, anything onerous that you don't have to do generally runs afoul of other priorities.

And just as McArdle knew that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction because she would have had weapons of mass destruction if she were a dictator, teachers must be lazy because if Megan McArdle were a teacher she would have been lazy. After all, since she was a lazy student, all students are lazy.

A Berkely student says the Berkely sex class scandal is a temptest in a teapot, and that the activities which purported to be part of the class were actually extracurriculars organized by certain students.

Well, personally, I wasn't as offended by the sexual activity as by the elevation of dorm-room bull sessions to coursework. Perusing the list of courses offered in the same program that gave us male sexuality, I was flabbergasted by the crap that was masquerading as academic activity.

Don't get me wrong, I know that undergrads love these [easy] classes. I too took Human Sexuality, along with a number of other fluffy courses designed primarily to allow me to get an A for staring dreamily out the window and occasionally dashing off a paper that mirrored the most trivial philosophical discoveries of whatever Beat poet or PoMo deconstructionist had formed the professor's intellectual framework. However, the fact that most undergraduates would like to spend their four years getting as little for their parents' money as possible, does not mean that the university is obligated to abet them in this pursuit. If University administrators had a spine, students would have to organize their own trips to strip clubs instead of getting their instructor to do it for them.
Which proves that teachers don't really want to work.

The only thing teachers have a financial incentive to do under this system is keep their butts in the teacher's chair, and acquire useless degrees from programs that mostly teach students how to sit through long and pointless classes.

Masters and doctorate degrees are pointless when teachers get them. MBAs, however, instantly make you an expert on economics.

Because they are so lazy, teachers like having unions that let them get away with being so lazy.

Unions also give teachers power to resist changes that make their jobs less fun. I think the teachers genuinely believe that these changes are bad; but I also think that they strenuously resist learning anything to the contrary. There is really good evidence for the benefits of direct instruction in teaching disadvantaged children. But direct instruction moves the teacher into being more of a technician and less of a creative professional. Ian Ayers talks about this in Supercrunchers, giving the example of bank loan officers, which used to be a skilled, prestigious jobs, and are now almost a clerical role. Doctors and teachers are resisting an attempt to do similar things to their jobs through, respectively, evidence based medicine and direct instruction.

Those awful teachers, all they want to do is sit around and have fun instead of work. But not all teachers are lazy; McArdle has repeatedly praised elite Ivy League teachers in Teach for America. She just thinks the, ummm, "urban" teachers are lazy.

I should probably clarify that I'm talking about twenty, maybe thirty failing urban school districts/agglomerations in the United States. I could care less whether Scarsdale has a powerful teacher's union that negotiates triannual ten month paid leave in Hawaii. And the problem in rural areas is not the teacher's unions, it's the geographic fact of no possible competition, and often the net outmigration of educated people who might make good teachers.

But in those urban areas, the teacher's unions are a big honking problem. This is not some crazy right wing opinion about unions in general; it is a specific problem with public employee unions. The cops and firefighters have their own issues, about which I will happily wax lyrical some other day, but in the end most of them boil down to getting paid ridiculous amounts of money to do no work. If the laziest ten percent of New York's teachers spent all day drinking coffee and doing "literature review", this would be a fiscal problem, but not a desperate one. The problem is, we stick the teacher's union's problems in our classrooms.

My god, but those "urban" teacher are lazy!

In DC, nothing worked at all; the schools were doing more babysitting than teaching. (We can argue about why the problems existed--but if 8% of your eighth graders are reading at grade level, I think we can agree that the system is not performing its allegedly core mission of educating the city's children).

Those Who Can't Teach Steven Brill's new article on the teacher's union in New York City is absolutely savage. With good reason. About 5% of the teachers in the system seem to be hanging out on the payroll, doing nothing, either because they were made redundant at their old school and no other principal wants them, or because they are spending several years awaiting a hearing on charges of incompetence and misconduct.

On the other side, you have an equally bureaucratic union, and a set of job protection rules that make it virtually impossible to fire anyone for poor performance, or reward them for good. I don't think anyone who has actually gone through the school system thinks that length of service is a good measure of teaching effectiveness, but that's how they're paid--seniority, and accumulation of usually thoroughly worthless educational credentials. And unless they start molesting their charges, it's basically impossible to fire them.

Education credentials are "thoroughly useless."

I. don't. Care. About. The. Teachers.
I don't dislike them. Nor do I like them. I don't care whether they are, or are not, represented by a union. I think they should be paid more, not because they're lovely, special people, but because I hope that would let us attract and retain a higher caliber of teacher.

I care about educating the kids. Once we have done that, we can turn to arguments about the teachers. Until then, paeans to what great people public school teachers are are just completely irrelevant. The janitors are probably great guys too, but the school is not there for their benefit. If it made the kids better off to fire them all tomorow, I'd happily sign the order to do so. I mean, I'd feel bad for them. But not enough to keep them employed at the expense of educating the kids.

Nor am I interested in vouchers because I'm trying to prove a point. If the public schools in inner cities were managing to educate more than a handful of the students, this would be somewhere on my list of priorities around "privatizing the post office". The existence of public schools qua public schools simply doesn't interest me. The only goal I am interested in discussing is educating the kids. Any other goals, people, or ideology attached to the school system are stunningly uninteresting until that primary purpose has been met.

She cares so much about inner city schoolchildren. Just as much as she cares about the "urban" poor.

A merit pay system can work in one of two ways. It can benchmark teachers against the average, and reward the people who achieve the most improvement. Or it can set some minimum standard and give a bonus to any teacher who bests that standard. (You could set three tiers, or what have you, but the concept is basically the same).

In my opinion, the first system is probably going to best maximize productivity (though this is an interesting discussion for another blog post). But it would never pass a union vote, because the majority of teachers wouldn't benefit from it, and those who did would have to work harder. The second system might pass. But the union would make heroic efforts to water down the benchmarks until the majority of their members were receiving at least some "bonus" pay.

But compare either system to what now exists in our nation's schools. Every single teacher can stay on for years unless they do something direly wrong. Every single teacher can get a useless education degree, which basically requires a pulse. They have a system that spreads benefits absolutely evenly among all their members.

I know I'm shocked and appalled at the idea of someone being allowed to be wrong day after day, year after year, after getting a useless degree. The only thing worse would be to find out that she gets around $200,000 a year in wingnut welfare to do it.

How would any alternative gather majority support from the union members? I mean, you can add on resistance to change, which I think is significant. But even if they were picking a new system from scratch, the seniority + degrees system is clearly going to satisfy many more members than either of the merit pay alternatives. It would probably be the majority choice no matter what. And of course, over time, teacher's unions select for the sort of people who prefer this arrangement to competitive merit pay for one reason or another.

Unions are set up to minimize frictions and maximize benefits for the bottom 55%. That's how they work everywhere--in schools, and out. That's how they have to work. No amount of cajoling, no number of white papers, is going to change that.

Those damn Democratic unions, that insists that teacher can be lazy and never get fired! Except they can, which McArdle surely knows, as DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee fired 241 teachers last year. Perhaps McArdle means that not enough lazy teachers are fired every year to suit her exacting standards of professional excellence?

But this is all nothing but preamble. Let's move on to McArdle's latest exercise in teacher, union, and Democrat bashing.

The circus in Wisconsin is rapidly blowing up into the national issue of the moment, thanks in no small part to President Obama and of course Organizing for America, the group that grew out of his 2008 campaign, which seems to be playing a prominent role in building up the protests.

When tea-baggers protest they are fine Americans, even when they harass a sick man. When teachers do it it is a circus, no doubt because teachers are nothing but clowns to McArdle. And the entire idea of supporting one's political bases seems to be utterly unknown to her. No doubt the Republicans slobbered all over Wall Street bankers because the latter were geniuses who contributed so much to our nation's well-being.

On one level, this is extraordinarily odd--is it really the president's job to be taking sides in a dispute between Wisconsin's elected government and its state employees? But in another way, it's logical, even necessary. State governments are where some of the hardest choices about taxes and spending have to be made. And thanks to a confluence of factors--ObamaCare rules that keep states from cutting Medicaid spending, poorly thought-out pension obligations that are now coming due, crashing revenue thanks to the recession, and in all but one states, a balanced budget requirement--those choices have to be made now.

Yes, it's all the fault of Obamacare and pensions, not a financial system that lied, cheated, securitized and stole their way to our--not their--ruin. How on earth did we ever let unions get more powerful than Wall Street?

Wisconsin is facing a $3.6 billion shortfall over the next two years. The money is going to have to come from somewhere.

Why is Wisconsin facing this shortfall?

Wisconsin's new Republican governor has framed his assault on public worker's collective bargaining rights as a needed measure of fiscal austerity during tough times.

The reality is radically different. Unlike true austerity measures -- service rollbacks, furloughs, and other temporary measures that cause pain but save money -- rolling back worker's bargaining rights by itself saves almost nothing on its own. But Walker's doing it anyhow, to knock down a barrier and allow him to cut state employee benefits immediately.

Mad In Madison: Wisconsin Workers Protest Against Governor's Budget Proposals
Furthermore, this broadside comes less than a month after the state's fiscal bureau -- the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office -- concluded that Wisconsin isn't even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office.

"Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control," says Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future -- a public interest think tank. "He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts... so he could rush through these other changes."

Ezra Klein:

The governor called a special session of the legislature and signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues (among other things). The new legislation was not offset, and it helped turn a surplus into a deficit [see update at end of post]. As Brian Beutler writes, "public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda."

But even that's not the full story here. Public employees aren't being asked to make a one-time payment into the state's coffers. Rather, Walker is proposing to sharply curtail their right to bargain collectively. A cyclical downturn that isn't their fault, plus an unexpected reversal in Wisconsin's budget picture that wasn't their doing, is being used to permanently end their ability to sit across the table from their employer and negotiate what their health insurance should look like.

That's how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public-employee unions, a group much-loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular. And note that not all public-employee unions are covered by Walker's proposal: the more conservative public-safety unions -- notably police and firefighters, many of whom endorsed Walker -- are exempt.

But in Megan McArdle's hands, a union-busting governor becomes the helpless victim of lazy teachers who just don't want to lose any of their ill-gotten gains.

The pundits on both sides are teeing up the outrage. The right turns on the outrage that teachers are leaving students untaught in order to protest fairly modest requirements that they contribute to their health care and pension obligations. The left fires back that the cuts are just a sideshow, and that the real problem is the other provisions in the bill, which restrict collective bargaining to wages, rather than benefits, and state that pay increases cannot exceed the CPI without a public referendum. The New York Times angrily complains that the GOP is declaring a spending emergency after blowing a hole in the budget with a series of tax breaks for individuals and businesses.

I'm not outraged by either side. Of course the teachers would like to be paid more, contribute less to their pensions and health care, and be able to collectively bargain for their benefits. One of the prime attractions of a career in K-12 teaching is that you can almost never be fired, and you have a powerful union that spends a lot of time lobbying the legislature. Naturally, they are going to fiercely resist having this taken away after many of them have given a decade or two to a career based on this assumption.

McArdle has repeated the lie that teachers cannot be fired endless times. It's a major basis for her claim that unions are destroying America's schools. McArdle ignores the fact that many states don't have teacher unions and seems to think that because New York City hasn't fired all its bad teachers, teachers' unions prevent any teacher from being fired.

On the other hand, of course the legislature needs to balance what the teachers want with the other needs of the state. I am, as a matter of policy, against special tax breaks, so I agree that Wisconsin should not have spent $120 million on them.

But now that it has, let's take away some of the teachers' bargaining rights!

But the actual targets--businesses that hire new employees, businesses that relocate to the state, and health savings accounts--are not prima facie morally inferior to allowing teachers to collectively bargain higher pensions and health benefits. In fact, on average, they're targeted towards groups that are worse off than the teachers--the unemployed, and people with high medical costs.

It's too bad that those tax cuts don't actually help a lot of busineses. You might almost think that they were an excuse to bust unions.

Overall, as a matter of policy, I would prefer to spend money on those people than on teachers who are fairly well paid for the number of days they work.

"For the number of days they work." That's pretty rich coming from someone who refuses to blog on the weekends and doesn't put up any posts until far into the afternoon.

To the conservatives I would have to ask the same question: is it good policy to tie the hands of politicians in seeking to attract and retain teachers? On that question, I don't know the answer.

On the one hand, freezing your salary bumps at CPI doesn't seem like a great way to attract and retain the best workers; it seems like Wisconsin school districts will be at a competitive disadvantage with other industries and states. On the other hand, those things are already collectively bargained, and bumping the wages of an entire class of people in order to attract a few more workers does not seem to be a very efficient way to go--indeed, it's the basis of all those monopsony models of labor market failure.

This is the same woman who told us that Wall Street thieves had to receive huge bonuses for losing billions or they would go Galt.

So I have my doubts as to whether the current system does much to attract and retain the best workers, which means that the new rules can hardly make it much worse. Indeed, you can make a fairly compelling argument that teachers wages are not set so much on the basis of what's needed to get the workers, as how much political muscle the teachers can muster.

That's why a typical Wisconsin teacher makes about $45,000/year. Her political power. Incidentally, that's about the same as a Texas teacher, who doesn't have a union.

In case I didn't mention it before, Megan McArdle makes six figures a year.

In which case the proposed rules will probably help restrain the bad political incentives that put pressure on the state budget. There are legitimate reasons that politicians to seek to tie their own hands on certain questions.

Of course, there are also legitimate drawbacks, as the state of California illustrates. Over the long haul, these mechanisms break down one way or another--in the case of Wisconsin, I'd bet that eventually there will be a shortage of math and science teachers that will need to be rectified by legislative intervention.

But until then, is it somehow morally wrong for the Wisconsin legislature to change the rules under which it will bargain with its employees? It's incoherent even as a question. The legislature is the entity which is supposed to set those terms--and it's no more outrageous for the GOP to favor small businessmen and the self-employed than it was for Democrats to favor a constituency which has become (as we now see) a de facto arm of the Democratic Party.

If you bust unions you remove a source of money and power for Democrats. If you have to demonize teachers to do this, well, it's just the cost of business. Walker takes Koch brothers money (via TBogg) and attempts to eliminate any curb on power. So does Mr. Megan McArdle, P. Suderman. They have become (as we now see) a de facto arm of the Koch Political Party. And they will not rest until we are choking on Koch pollution and working for third-world Koch wages, while the Megan McArdles of the world grow rich in their service.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Less Idle Megan

Shorter Megan McArdle:

No Substitute For Saving: If you wanted money in your old age you should have saved.

How to Get Serious About the Budget: If we don't eliminate Social Security now we'll just have to eliminate it later, only harder.

The Political Failure of Keynesian Economics: We'll never be able to stimulate the economy so end Social Security.

The Ever-More-Desperate Health Care Budget Gimmicks: Thanks to Obamacare we'll have to cut Medicare.

Time to Get Serious About the Deficit: Enact austerity or we'll end up in the poorhouse.

Own a Second Home in New York? Prepare for a Higher Tax Bill: How dare they raise taxes on the rich?

The elite sure are getting their money's worth.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Let My Stimulus Go

One day an Egyptian Pharaoh had a dream. It greatly disturbed him so his servants sent for Joseph to interpret the dream. The servant, Joseph, told Pharaoh that Egypt would have seven years of plenty and then seven years of famine, and Pharaoh should save up a reserve of grain during the good years to feed the people during the later years of famine. Pharaoh did as Joseph suggested and saved Egypt from starvation.

And why was Joseph able to pull off this miracle? Because Megan McArdle had not yet been born.

When people like Paul Krugman say that almost $900 billion in stimulus didn't work because it wasn't big enough, you have to wonder if an adequate Keynesian stimulus is even possible. Could any government anywhere borrow 15% of GDP or more to spend on temporary measures with the blessing of their citizens? For that matter, would the markets lend the money without ratcheting up interest rates? Can an extra 15% of GDP be spent without showing sharply diminishing returns--meaning that you'd need even more spending to generate the effects you want?

Today Alex Tabarrok looks at the history and concludes that even if Keynesian economics works in theory, Keynesian politics fails in practice--at least in a Democracy....

Can you just imagine McArdle in Ancient Egypt?

Joseph: And now let Pharaoh look for discerning and wise commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance, to store up the grain to be kept in the cities for food. This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine.

Pharaoh: Not bad, Joseph, not bad. Let's---

A tiny cough is heard.

Megan McArdle: *Ahem*

Pharaoh: My advisor spoke?

McArdle: Far be it from me to disparage the advice of my esteemed colleague, but could any government anywhere borrow 15% of GDP or more to spend on temporary measures with the blessing of their citizens?

Joseph: Great Pharaoh, if we do not save the grain many peasants will starve 7 years hence.

McArdle: The peasants won't be happy if they get less grain right now, will they? If you take away some of their grain now they'll stop working altogether! I have a papyrus right here that proves that 78% of peasants would rather have real grain now than hypothetical grain in the future.

Joseph: I would like to see that papyrus.

McArdle: It's behind a paywall and you wouldn't understand it anyway, as you have not gone to the University of the North Kingdom and therefore are not a real advisor.

Pharaoh: Advisor McArdle, do you not think that saving grain is a good idea? It will prevent starvation. What part of that plan is in error?

McArdle: Well, while the plan seems to work in theory it will never work in practice because there is no will to save the grain.

Joseph: Pharaoh need only make the decree and the grain will be saved. Nothing keeps us from enacting this plan but the will to do so.

McArdle: Exactly! There is no will to save the grain!

Joseph: But--if the Pharaoh declared the grain to be saved, it will be saved. I understand not this argument from my colleague.

McArdle: Enacting Joseph's solution will prevent us from finding other solutions to this intractable problem.

Joseph: You answered me not.

McArdle: It is theft to take people's grain. They worked hard for that grain and now you're going to take it away from them?

Joseph: The peasants will understand and in time will rejoice at the wisdom and foresight of their Pharaoh when he is able to feed his people in their time of need.

McArdle: Oh, well, if all you care about is being elected Most Popular Pharaoh, then by all means, start a food riot and see how much grain you'll save then.

Pharaoh: My head doth hurt.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Children Of A Corporate God


When Megan McArdle releases forth a torrent of words to cover up one of her many, many egregious* journalistic crimes and misdemeanors we always know that there was a trigger. She so notorious for lying, so often and in so many ways, shades and depths, that the mere presence of someone correcting her is not enough; she will only respond to a criticism that affects her image of herself as a brilliant elite thinker. The fog of illness made me miss it the first time but today I noticed that McArdle linked to a Wall Street Journal article discussing Kitchengate in her response to Mr. Levenson. The WSJ is one of the most important information sources of the social set she most worships and most wished to join--the financial elite of Wall Street.

Christopher Shea:

To what degree are technological progress and improvements in economic well-being slowing down? Both Tyler Cowen and Paul Krugman have pointed to the American kitchen in the course of arguing that economic change was far greater in the first half of the 20th century than since....Megan McArdle is having none of it[.]...

Who would have thought the kitchen would be such a flashpoint? Yet at this point, things were just simmering. They boiled over when Thomas Levenson, of Inverse Square, leapt in to rebut McArdle point by point, with a post featuring some excellent kitchen-related illustrations[.]

My goodness, how embarrassing. How utterly, thoroughly humiliating it must have been to know that the swell chaps you went to the Booth School with back in the day all witnessed your failure when they clicked open their WSJ bookmark while eating breakfast in their $90,000 kitchens or their corner offices. That your father saw the article, as well as his friends and co-workers. And how you felt just the tiniest frisson of fear that the life-long facade of elitism you fought so hard to attain and have worn like an exoskeleton ever since could actually crack and crumble to dust.

McArdle's entire career rests on her elite image. It is the source of her authority over the rabble and her toehold in the financial industry, which she would not otherwise have as a woman, a failure in the business world, and a non-academic. It is also the source of her self-esteem, which means she is compulsed to defend it.

During McArdle's defense motives are impugned, capitals are locked, accusations of shrillness are made, and many goalposts make a long, arduous trip so McArdle might stand before them, triumphant. The chance that she based her entire post on the illustrations in her 1950 Betty Crocker Cookbook is buried under statistics, odes to modern commerce, and boarding school invective. But McArdle's image is wounded, so her commenters gather around their queen bee, feed her ego, groom her, and protect her from invaders.

It's not about kitchens or the deficit, or even truth or lies. It's about who can get away with lying. That's worth a lot of money to a corporation and money means social status and all its trappings.

But only for as long as you can hold on to it.

*(I just love that word)

Sunday, February 13, 2011


The amazing thing about Kitchengate, Megan McArdle's fact-free foray into kitchen history and corporate worship, is how it reveals the utter disregard so many people have for facts and truth. We already know that they are not and never have been anything but an impediment to McArdle's crusade to support wealthy corporations over poor individuals, but it's jarring to see so many commenters blindly support error for the sheer joy of ganging up on their tribe's enemies. We have been marinating in a stew of fear, war-lust, corruption and greed for so long that people's brains are pickled. They don't even care what the truth is anymore.

As for McArdle, she's licking her wounds with yet another post about those mean, prejudiced people in academia, who don't even want to discuss an alternate reality. There's not much anyone can do about the collective self-delusion in this country except continue to tell the truth, as brutally and often as necessary. It's not about fighting and winning anymore. We lost that battle a long, long time ago. It's about who we are.

We are rational, enlightened creatures and we will not live a lie.

Friday, February 11, 2011


I've been ill-might be back today, maybe tomorrow.

Wow--McArdle managed to write an article and post about business problems in Iraq without once mentioning Bush's Heritage Foundation legacy pledges that screwed up the post-invasion. She mentions housing seizures but not her much-loved bankruptcy bill and how it's forcing people into bankruptcy. And she has a spasm over the Huffpo/AOL merger. Strangely, now mergers are bad. She also tries to say something about conflict of interest in the Supreme Court, but as she does not think conflict of interest is a bad thing, the results are bit confusing. Finally, she defends Wall-Mart.

I don't know which was worse--reading this or passing kidney stones. At least the kidney stones are gone. McArdle's still here.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Little McArdle Is A Dangerous Thing

Let's pick the M&Ms out of the trail mix, so to speak. There's no need to listen to all the blather.

Harper's Publisher Turns Down $50,000 in Donations: Heh, this post is great. McArdle is incredulous that Harper's turned down corporate money because it always has strings attached. First of all, turning down money is the greatest heresy possible in McArdleland. Second, what's the big deal with selling out? Duh, money!

The rich men who pour millions into magazines are buying control. (And, in the case of our illustrious owner, eventual profitability). As a non-profit there's nothing stopping Harpers' from raising funds . . . except that it's embarrassing for McArthur to go begging for alms, and doing so would eventually create demands that he share some power with the people giving donations. It will not do Harper's any good to raise a few hundred thousand from outside sources, and lose McArthur's millions as ownership becomes less rewarding.

Notice how McArdle pretends that she was hired by an eccentric multi-millionaire who turned a profit due to his courage and pluck and the excellence of his Megan McArdles, not from whoring his venerable magazine out via expensive "salons." And note her swipe at McArthur, as if he would be begging for money instead of selling ad space. She really doesn't miss a trick. She must have been a barrel of laughs in high school as she sharpened her claws on her less popular classmates, honing the talents she now employs so skillfully. She didn't become this good without a lot of practice.

There are a couple of posts about meth and regulation of cold medicines; McArdle thinks that all regulations should be eradicated if any are onerous. The system might merely be improved, but for McArdle it's all or nothing. Another post criticises the SEC; it regulates, therefore it is a target.

Finally, we are informed that it's a good thing that the middle class has turned to pawn shops for money as it loses access to credit.

Is it necessarily a bad thing that pawnshops are replacing credit cards? One could argue both ways--if people can't pay the pawnshop, they lose their stuff. On the other hand, the interest rates are competitive, and certainly better than payday loans, for which even nonprofits charge interest rates in the range of 300% to cover the transaction costs and the risk of default. And having a pawnshop sell your stuff doesn't, as far as I know, put a ding on your credit history.

Of course, many people would argue that the clients of these lenders would be better off not borrowing money at all. My take on the research is that this is true--for a minority of the customers. Most of the customers are better off, because they've avoided an emergency like a broken car, an overdraft fee, or an eviction, that would have put them in much worse straits than the loan. Most of the people who take these loans seem to be pretty severely credit constrained, so there aren't really better credit options for them.

It would, of course, be much nicer if people never got into those situations. But you cannot will such a world into place by banning one of the symptoms of financial insecurity.

It's wishful thinking to imagine a world where the financial industry hasn't driven the economy into a ditch, forcing middle-class America to liquidate their way of life. Yet many of these same Americans knowingly voted for anyone who would tell them that God loves them best and they are the smartest, kindest, most special people in the entire history of mankind. They will continue to vote against their interests, each and every one of them, until they are forced by circumstances to suffer directly from their politicians' actions.

And even then they'll still blame liberals.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Rules Of The Game

Reading Megan McArdle's recent post on the history of kitchens gave me a whole new appreciation for her job. (Be sure to read Tom Levenson's take on the same post; he is more thorough than I.) McArdle's post was so chock-full of easily refutable errors that it gave me an epiphany--McArdle's job is not to give the right an intellectual basis for its knee-jerk support for the financial industry. McArdle's only job requirement is to simply praise the financial industry and attempt to destroy the reputation of anyone who might threaten its continuing rape of the taxpayer. Evidence, logic, and facts are utterly unnecessary. McArdle could post Dr. Seuss rhymes, and as long as they supported capitalism and elitism her editors and owner would not care in the slightest. Megan McArdle exists solely to sing a constant hymn of praise to money and power.

The Ivy-Bellied Sneeches

With apologies to the late Dr. Seuss

Now, the Ivy-Belly Sneetches had bellies with green.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had no ivy to be seen.
Those leaves weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.

But, because they had green, all the Ivy-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
And, whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking.

When the Ivy-Belly children went out to get work,
Could a Plain Belly get in? No, not even to lurk.
You only could work if your bellies had green
And the Plain-Belly children had none that could be seen.

When the Ivy-Belly Sneetches had Aspen conventions
Or job fairs or internships or fellowship mentions,
They never invited the Plain-Belly Sneetches
They left them out cold, without an exception.
They kept them away. Never let them come near.
And that’s how they treated them year after year.

Then ONE day, it seems while the Plain-Belly Sneetches
Were moping and doping alone on the beaches,
Just sitting there wishing their bellies had green,
A stranger zipped up in a well-known magazine!

“My friends”, she announced in a voice clear and clean,
“My name is McMegan McMonkey McBean.
And I’ve heard of Your troubles. I’ve heard you’re unhappy.
But I can fix that, I’m the Fix-It-Up Chappie.

I’ve come here to help you.
I have what you need.
And my prices are low. And I work with great speed.
And my work is one hundred per cent guaranteed!”

Then, quickly, McMegan McMonkey McBean
Put together a very peculiar machine.
And she said, “You want ivy like a Ivy-Belly Sneetch?
My friends, you can have them for a subscription each!”

“Just pay me your money and hop right aboard!”
So they clambered inside. Then the big blog machine roared.
And it klonked. And it bonked. And it jerked. And it berked.
And it bopped them about. But the thing really worked!
When the Sneetches popped out, they had ivy that's green!
They actually did. The best ivy they'd seen!

Then they yelled at the ones who had green at the start,
“We’re still the best Sneetches and they are the worst.
But now, how in the world will we know”, they all frowned,
“If which kind is what, or the other way round?”

Then up came McMegan with a very sly wink.
And she said, “Things are not quite as bad as you think.

So you don’t know who’s who. That is perfectly true.
But come with me, friends. Do you know what I’ll do?
I’ll make you, again, the best Sneetches on the beaches.
And all it will cost you is ten dollars eaches.”

“Belly ivies are no longer in style”, said McBean.
“What you need is a trip through my Ivy-Off Machine.
This tea-party contraption will take OFF your green
so you won’t look like Sneetches whose green can be seen.”
And that handy machine working very precisely
Removed all the ivy from their tummies quite nicely.

Then, with snoots in the air, they paraded about.
And they opened their beaks and they let out a shout,
“We know who is who! Now there Isn’t a doubt.
The best kind of Sneetches are Sneetches without!”

Then, of course, those with ivy got all frightfully mad.
To be wearing the green was now frightfully bad.
Then, of course, old McMegan McMonkey McBean
invited THEM into her Ivy-Off Machine.

Then, of course from THEN on, as you probably guess,
Things really got into a horrible mess.

All the rest of that day, on those wild screaming beaches,
The Fix-It-Up Chappie kept fixing up Sneetches.
Off again! On again! In again! Out again!
Through the machines they raced round and about again,

Changing their ivy every minute or two. They kept paying money.
They kept running through until neither the Plain nor the Ivy-Bellies knew
Whether this one was that one or that one was this one. Or which one
Was what one or what one was who.

Then, when every last cent of their money was spent,
The Fix-It-Up Chappie packed up. And she went.
And she laughed as she drove In her car up the beach,
“They never will learn. No. You can’t Teach a Sneetch!”

McBean was quite right, I’m so sorry to say.
The Sneetches thought they quite smart on that day.
The day they decided there were some "best" Sneetches.
And their kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
From that day, all the Sneetches fought who was the best
'Cause they wanted the jobs some withheld from the rest.

Blog Amnesty Weekend

I will be adding blogs to the blogroll this weekend in honor of Blog Amnesty Day, so feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

Never Give Up, Never Surrender

Recognizing their incendiary error, House GOP lawmakers removed the term “forcible rape” from the anti-abortion No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. Chief sponsor Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) decided to change the term because it was being “misconstrued” and now the bill — which would permanently bar federal funds for abortions — will allow exceptions in all rape cases.

Good. Now that we know that the right doesn't really believe that every life is sacred we can demand that all women get federal funds for abortion. The right is damned if they do and damned if they don't and we should us that against them, because that's what they get for assuming that they can force other people to follow their own religious beliefs. Just because they want a Christian Sharia doesn't mean we have to give it to them.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Research and Development

No, this woman is not using a dishwasher because it has not been invented yet.

Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen discuss the lack of technological innovation in kitchens over the last 50 or so years and McArdle doesn't agree; why, just look at all the labor-saving appliances that she has!

I'm not sure I know what it means to cook in a 1950s-era kitchen. I've lived in a kitchen that was installed in 1953, and still had the original refrigerator. But was it really a 1953 kitchen? Everything else had been repaired many times over, because neither appliances nor cabinetry often last for fifty years of hard use.

For that matter, how should we define what a 1953 kitchen was? Is it a kitchen with anything that had been invented by the time? Or is it a kitchen with the things that an average income family could afford? Surely it must matter not merely that something existed, but that it was cheap enough to become widespread?

If she had read the source material that she is supposedly commenting on she would understand what the gentlemen are talking about. In the first half of the last century we went from chopping wood and cutting ice to electrical grids and natural gas lines. Since then there have not been any major technological advances that would have a similar breakthrough change in the way we do housework. I still use electricity and gas to heat and cool, even if my electrical and gas appliances are better than the early models. The closest we come to a revolution in cooking is the microwave oven, which uses microwaves to heat instead of gas or electricity, but it is still an electrical appliance. And it was invented in 1946, although it wasn't developed and put on the market until 1967.

But the articles give McArdle an excuse to talk about herself, her new house, and her kitchen appliances, so she's off to the races!

As it happens, my kitchen--a galley kitchen in an urban apartment--was probably typical of 1953 in terms of major appliances (a stove and a refrigerator) and cupboard space. And yet, in some of the most important respects, it still wasn't a 1953 kitchen. 1953 kitchens did not have electric drip coffee brewers, stand mixers, blenders, food processors, or crock pots.

Yes, they did.

1. A "Morissharp Pencil Sharpener" made by the Ben F. Morris Company of Los Angeles (all bakelite case) for more about this (including the Patent Diagram) see our page on Waterfall Furniture
2. An immersion heater for boiling water in a cup without recourse to a teapot
3. An Egg Poacher -- scroll on down just a few lines to see hundreds of them
4. A bakelite slide projector
5. An ultra-violet "Gro-lamp" to keep your plants happy indoors
6. A Farfisi "Clavinette Pianorgan" -- a very cheap, cheesy electronic piano/accordion that became the backbone of reggae music. ( The Farfisa "Pianorgan" series of chord/reed organs as well as the larger uprights were made in the mid-to-late 50's by the famous Scandalli accordion company. The founders of "Farfisa" were Silvio Scandalli and Settimio Soprani back in the late 40's. The name "Farfisa" stands for FAbbriche Riunite di FISArmoniche (The United Accordion factories).)
7. A Detecto "bugeye" Scale, so named for the magnification lens that enabled the scale to be read without bending over. (More details on our Knicknacks Page)
8. A very early airless paint sprayer
9. An Ice crusher
10. A Waring Blender - scroll down on this page to learn more
11. A very early electric insect trap or "bug zapper"
12. A personal coffee grinder
13. A very early home espresso machine (see our Coffee page for more detail)
14. A foot vibrator, the grandfather of today's "shiatsu" massagers
15. A shoe polisher (the staple of every executive washroom)
16. A window fan
17. (a) and (b) Intercom receiver units
18. An electric plate warmer, similar to an electric blanket
19. An ice cream maker
20. A home tanning light

That photo is from 1959, but the Sumbeam mixer "was first marketed in 1930." A housewife wouldn't have a food processor but it is not a major technological innovation anyway--it was based on "an elaborate industrial blender." Blenders were invented in 1922. Rationing ended in 1954 so perhaps that date would be a better starting point, but electric mixers and coffee percolators were available. And my Chambers stove from the 1940s has a heat-retention system and a well with pot inserts to do slow cooking while the stove was off, using retained heat. But McArdle seems to think that minor technological innovations are the same as a new electrical grid.

I used at least one of these, and often two or more, every day. Saran Wrap, aluminum foil, and tupperware were novelty products; my 1950 Betty Crocker picture cookbook contains instructions for storing food using waxed paper and damp towels, because that's how the majority of housewives did it. The book also assumes that its readers will cream butter and sugar by hand for cakes, percolate or boil their coffee, beat egg whites with a rotary beater, and so forth. Anyone who has attempted to beat egg whites by hand can attest that the transition to electrically-assisted baking is not a small improvement. (Men, who tend not to bake as much as women, may be prone to overlook this.)

Again, mixers existed in the '50s. Saran was invented in 1933 and developed as Saran Wrap in 1956. Aluminum foil began rolling off factory lines in 1910. Tupperware was introduced in 1946 and "its popularity exploded in the early 1950s." And none are major technological advances in housework. What is she babbling about?

My pots and pans are also vastly higher quality--aside from the privileged few who could afford copper, most Americans were cooking on thin, low-quality stainless steel and aluminum pans that deformed easily and had hot spots.

I thought they cooked with cast iron, the way older women still do sometimes in the South. And pots are not a major technological advance either.

While I'm obviously an outlier--a guest at my birthday party this weekend gaped and said "What do you do with all those pans on your wall?" most Americans still have substantially better quality cookware than they used to. Nonstick is a major innovation, even if it has degraded the quality of pan-searing.

It's still just a pan on an electric or gas stove, but if mindless consumerism makes her happy, then she should go for it.

McArdle blathers on about free trade, shipping and air conditioners, but continuously manages to miss the point. She does, however, get her own point across: This is the best of all possible times in the best of all possible worlds. And she is the luckiest goddam pundit in the world to be paid to write this.

ADDED: McArdle tweets:

asymmetricinfo Megan McArdle
Yes, I just spent virtually all day researching the history of kitchen appliances.
31 Jan Favorite Retweet Reply
I am, for once, speechless.