Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Saturday, February 8, 2014

An Examination Of The Mechanisms of Success Through Failure

On an earlier comment I attempted to discern the reasoning behind Megan McArdle's new book, Why Being Wrong Means I Am Better Than People Who Were Right, using the famous Underpants Gnome Theory as my template.

1.McArdle reiterates Warren is sloppy with data, basically ignoring the multitude of corrections. She will write another post describing that sloppiness and of how Warren's mistrust (of what? who?) manifests itself in paternalism. The rest is silence.  
So this is Step 2:  
1. Declare your argument is not destroyed and smouldering in a heap of broken glass and twisted metal.  
2. Promise that you will respond to your critics at a later date, perhaps in the sweet bye-and-bye.  
3. In the future link to debunked posts as proof of your argument.  
That's pretty much it.  
For her book we'll see more analysis no doubt.  
1. Admit failure.  
2. Declare that the analysis of failure leads to success.  
3. Declare success without any analysis of failure.  
Not that she did not try.
 1. Admit that her predictions were wrong and her reasoning was wrong. 
2. State that one must find out why one was wrong.  
3. Claim people who were wrong are now wiser.
In her post The Art Of Explanation, we see McArdle did indeed raise explaining to a high art. She also explained a question I have often asked; why should we listen to the people who were wrong instead of the people who were right?

It's very simple, as Megan McArdle tells us. People who were right for the right reasons only think they were right for the right reasons. They were not. Since they were not, they will not look for the right reasons. People who were wrong will look for the right reasons because they were disastrously wrong.
Slate's What I got Wrong series on the five-year anniversary of the Iraq War, and similar efforts from other media outlets, have triggered a fair amount of irritation, especially among those who opposed it. Says Timothy Noah:
Why should you waste your time, at this late date, ingesting the opinions of people who were wrong about Iraq? Wouldn't you benefit more from considering the views of people who were right? Five years after this terrible war began, it remains true that respectable mainstream discussion about its lessons is nearly exclusively confined to people who supported the war, even though that same mainstream acknowledges, for the most part, that the war was a mistake. That's true of Slate's symposium, and it was true of a similar symposium that appeared March 16 on the New York Times' op-ed pages. The people who opposed U.S. entry into the Iraq war, it would appear, are insufficiently "serious" to explain why they were right.
I heard a fair amount of that this weekend. But I think it's seriously misguided. The universe being a complicated place, you can usually tell multiple stories from the same pieces of evidence. We learn by gambling on what we think the best answer is, and seeing how it turns out. Most of us know that we have learned more about the world, and ourselves, from failing than from success. Success can be accidental; failure is definite.  
Failure tells us exactly what doesn't work.
There is no way to find solutions to problems. The universe is too complicated. The only way to make a choice or decision is to guess. If you are wrong you will be able gain in wisdom by examining the point of failure and determining the causes, so you are able to make better decisions in the future. Although those decisions are also complicated and nobody knows and choices must be made by guesswork.
Failure tells us more than success because success is usually a matter of a whole system.
Although failure is also systemic, as McArdle has told us many times.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a well-respected journalist who doesn't cover financial matters. She was pushing me for the culprit behind this mess, and was unsatisfied when I pointed out that there were a lot of good reasons to make most of these bad decisions. Ultimately she cried in frustration, "but somebody must have done it!" This is how we approach the problem: we want villains, guilt, punishment. But when systems fail, they usually fail systemically. If one person, even Alan Greenspan, could bring down the entire edifice, then we'd be in massive trouble, so we should be grateful that it isn't the case.
When you don't want someone to look into the causes of the recent massive economic crises you tell your readers that failure is systemic and too complicated to understand and nobody should be prosecuted for economic crimes. When you want to sell a book called The Up Side Of Down: Why Failing Well Is The Key To Success, you claim success is systemic and too difficult to understand, so we are forced to learn from failure.
And as development economists have proven over and over and over again, those complex webs of interactions are impossible to tease apart into one or two concrete actions. Things can fail, on the other hand, at a single point. And even when they fail in multiple ways, those ways are usually more obvious than the emergent interactions that produced a success.
McArdle goes on to reduce all emergent interactions with Iraq to two neocon bits of propaganda. This is a central feature in McArdle's inability to learn (and therefore teach others to learn) from failure. She starts reasoning from propaganda, not facts. McArdle knew nothing about Iraq and didn't care to learn. She knew a lot about propaganda and how to get hits. A female warblogger in 2001 was money in the bank.

When McArdle went to Penn, she stated, she was liberal because her friends were liberal. She became much more conservative after 9/11 and conservative warbloggers were all the rage. Koch-fed training and ample Koch-fed jobs made her libertarian. No doubt when she succeeds in failing her way to tv punditry she will sink easily into a comfortable stolid conservative ideology like the rest of them.

So Megan McArdle did not make a choice between two bad outcomes. She decided that we were forced to choose between two bad options that would both harm Iraqis. She ignored any information that conflicted with her ideology. She misapplied lessons from history, not taking the time and effort to figure out if they applied to the current situation. And she admitted that she did not think about the effect her decisions would make on Iraqis.

McArdle is considered an intellectual on the right. As Mark Kleiman said:
There’s something about Megan McArdle that drives some of my fellow Blue-team pundits crazy. She’s way smarter, way saner, far more nuanced in her thinking, and a much better writer than most of her Red-team colleagues. She doesn’t fawn on the rich or despise the poor. Her ideas about how to deal with failure fit no ideological mold, and imply policy positions that won’t make her any friends at Cato. But the Rage Against the McArdle seems to run deep in Left Blogistan.
Incidentally,  the Cato Institute will be hosting a forum for McArdle's new book on Feb. 24 in the Hayek Auditorium.

Remember, we examine failure to learn but you cannot learn from failure and you cannot make a decision based on the facts, which are too numerous to tease out.
At the decision point where we decided to go into Iraq, there were two hypotheses we could have tested:  
1) Something terrible will happen if we leave Saddam in power  
2) We can depose Saddam and leave the world a better place We chose to test hypothesis number two. So far, it looks like a dud.
Unlike our bombs.
Since it failed, the more interesting question is not what did you get right, but what did you get wrong.
McArdle has given her reasons for being wrong. She said that she failed to think like Saddam Hussein (and who can blame her?). She also underestimated the time and expense of the war because she had contemplated invading Iraq using the lessons we learned through the successful invasion of Japan and Germany.
a) I overlooked the fact that Japan and Germany were both stable bourgeois nations with solid industrial bases long before we got into the act.  
b) I overlooked the fact that we completely destroyed this nations before occupying and reconstructing them.
Sadly, we are forced to ask ourselves if McArdle has indeed learned how to succeed through failure. We did a rather thorough job of destroying Iraq, we just never bothered to build it up again. McArdle tells us that the reason Iraq wasn't rebuilt was the culture of corruption in Iraq and onerous Iraqi government rules and regulations. McArdle simply claimed that while Iraq might have its difficulties it was being rebuilt, as a rising invasion lifts all boats.
Since the invasion, I think it's pretty clear that living standards have risen (quality of life, which would include the heightened risk of violence, and also the lesser risk of being tortured by your awful authoritarian regime, is a little harder to assess). Access to electricity has improved pretty dramatically, as their government and ours have started to repair Iraq's crumbling infrastructure (though this has been uneven--Baghdad, which used to get 24 hours a day of electricity, now has to share with the rest of the country, so their service level has dropped, making the residents very angry). The sorts of consumer goods that require electricity have also risen substantially, as the lifting of sanctions has made it easier to bring these things into the country. Other basic needs such as potable water, adequate fuel, trash collection, fire service, and so on are also being better filled. Meanwhile, of course, higher oil prices are making the country richer--and since the government employs about half the country's workers, and many more Iraqis receive basic income support from the state, this has translated into a better standard of living for Iraqis.
Because McArdle's thinking begins and ends with ideology, she will never learn from failure.
The people who were right can (and will) rewrite their memories of what they believed to show themselves in the most attractive light; they will come to honestly believe that they were more prescient than they were.
Fortunately many people wrote up their reasons on that thing called the internet and they are still there, prescient as ever. Unlike Jane Galt's archives, which are thoroughly erased.
This is not some attack on people who were against the war: I was wrong, they were right. But everyone does this with almost everything--indeed, not rewriting memory in this way is so rare that there's a clinical term for it. We call it "major depression". They will also quite possibly simply be wrong about how they got it right; correct analysis often operates at a subconscious as well as a conscious level.
You may have been right but not as right as you thought you were or for the same reasons.
The people who failed will also do this. But unlike the people who were right, there is a central fact stopping them from flattering themselves too much: things are blowing up in Iraq and people are dying. Thus they will have to look for some coherent explanation. To be sure, many of those explanations are wan and self-serving--"I trusted too much." But others of them aren't. And the honest ones are vastly more interesting than listening to a parade of people say "Well, obviously, I'm a genius, and also, not mean."
Honest propagandists are vastly more interesting than those mean, stuck-up right people.

Ideology and money rule their world but a lonely, resentful child rules their hearts.


Mr. Wonderful said...

Susan, it must have cost you a fortune in Valium to be able to read and comment on Megan's latest.

I know we quote Orwell all the time, about everything, but you can't get a more literal example of FAILURE IS SUCCESS than this. He may not have written those words but they're consistent with all the other WAR IS PEACE-type propaganda pearls he wrote about.

What you didn't touch on, though, was Megan's (apparent) disinclination to dwell on the consequences of such wrongness: the death of 100,000 Iraqis and 4,000+ Americans, tens of thousands injured and maimed, two million displaced...

Leave it to Megan to think of the Iraq fiasco as one that yielded, mainly, those who were right, those who were wrong, and the beneficiaries of an increase in the price of oil.

And then to commend those who were wrong.

Unsalted Sinner said...

Even when she's wrong, she's right! And she's wrong a lot, so she is obviously always right.

Downpuppy said...

Susan, when the book finally is printed, Please don't read it! Because that's not the McArdle way:

MCARDLE: What we have to do is disclose. It's perfectly legal for a dealership to sell me a car I'm not going to like or that's too expensive for me. It's not legal for them to sell me a car that's not what they represented it as.

And we set certain legal minimum standards and that's what happened here. At least, John Losera and all the devils who are here argues that he actually has gone through these documents and says that a lot of these things were disclosed. That in fact Goldman laid out in very lengthy detail all of the ways in which this could go wrong. I haven't read the disclosure documents personally.
TAIBBI: I have.

MCARDLE: There are two competing versions of the story.

VELSHI: Matt, you've read them?

TAIBBI: Well, I've read all the documents in this report and I've also talked to some of the principals in this entire story. I definitely know some of the client that is Goldman was talking about were completely blindsided by the fact that, for instance.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

But unlike the people who were right, there is a central fact stopping them from flattering themselves too much: things are blowing up in Iraq and people are dying.

Funny, I've seen no signs of remorse from the likes of Fred Hiatt and Bill Kristol.

Susan of Texas said...

Mr. Wonderful, I need to do a post on failure of empathy because it's the first and most important failure.

And another on the video with Chait, since it discusses her assessment of Obamacare as a failure. Oddly enough, we can tell Obamacare will be a failure before the fact instead of waiting until it fails and determining why.

Anonymous said...

Maginot Line warning - Don't let the concern for the book distract you from a real and present danger: she's doing a book tour. Some time soon you may tune into CSPAN 2 or 3 and there will be McMegan blasting out failure on the 48-inch screen, wearing clothes that don't fit, hair that is - oh, god!, and lecturing in a who-can-know? tone and pose.

I saw her on a CPAN 6 or more years ago. 20 second that are seared into my mind. I think that even then "who can possibly know" was her theme. She was just awful in every way. Forget about the remote control, I'm keeping a brick nearby.

anonymous J Edgar

Anonymous said...

TAIBBI: Goldman actually in that deal even said affirmatively that their interests were aligned with the client because they had a $6 million stake in that same deal. But they didn’t disclose they had a $2 billion bet against the deal.

VELSHI: Megan?

MCARDLE: Look, inherently someone who is selling you an asset is going short that asset, right?

Anonymous said...

above from:

Anonymous said...

It's sad, but this recent post lost all its comments when he switched commenting systems would have enjoyed it. One commenter called out Kleiman for accusing someone of being sexist against Megan when he wasn't in the least, and he never responded when people followed up asking him to point where it was sexist.

fish said...

I heard a fair amount of that this weekend. But I think it's seriously misguided. The universe being a complicated place, you can usually tell multiple stories from the same pieces of evidence. We learn by gambling on what we think the best answer is, and seeing how it turns out. Most of us know that we have learned more about the world, and ourselves, from failing than from success. Success can be accidental; failure is definite.

Setting aside the mendaciousness of its author, this line of argument isn't even consistent. What if the people Noah were talking about had made many mistakes in their youth and now speak from a position of mistake generated enlightenment? Isn't this just then an argument for listening to people that have specific, relevant experience? Yet she uses it as an argument to disregard specific, relevant experience.