Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Quotable Megan McArdle

Megan McArdle in a FIRE speech:
Of course I get the people who write into me and say how dare you say this.  Do you understand how hurtful this was to me?  And some of them are really funny.  Do you understand how hurtful it was to me to say that the minimum wage should not be raised?  It is like well I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings, but I cannot really plan around that.  You seem to have very delicate feelings – next week why croissants are bad.

McArdle hysterically defending herself from people who pointed out her lack of intellectual or moral capacity:

 Judging from the behaviour of most of the doves in public discourse... the most important thing for them seems to be exacting revenge on the hawks and declaring that the doves are now forever their moral and intellectual superiors, even though their nasty public invective ensures that the next time around, the hawks will be exactly as unwilling to listen to them as they were last time. Julian's commenters are certainly doing their best to put me in this camp.

But since I really do believe that better future decisions are more important than my umbrage at petty interpersonal exchanges, I am fighting to supress that urge. Among other strategies for analysing my decisionmaking, I look to the ways in which the dovish decisionmaking process worked better than mine, so that I can emulate those ways. And to me, I'm sorry if this hurts your tender little feelings, but as far as I can tell, it wasn't that much better. What many, or even most, of the doves had was an instinctive antipathy to American military action that is so closely bundled with a zillion other ideological predispositions, some of which to me seem practically self-evidently wrong, that I can't find a decisionmaking process to even analyse; the grounds for opposing the war shifted even as the opposition didn't. Let me make it thoroughly clear: the same shitty decisionmaking was evident on the side of the hawks. But trading one set of questionable propositions for another is not an improvement in decisionmaking; it's playing some sort of metaphysical Monty Hall game. And playing it badly. [my bold]

McArdle explaining how fighting economic inequality is just envy, and raising taxes is like throwing acid on a beautiful woman's face.

While I am much more sanguine than most libertarians about redistributing material wealth from the richer to the poorer (though by the standards of the rest of America, I am still a hard-hearted materialist lout), I cannot believe in this sort of redistribution--"cutting down the tall poppies", as I believe the Australians call it. Perhaps a little thought experiment will explain why. 
Beauty, like wealth, is relative--it benefits its possessor only insofar as they are lovelier than the women, or handsomer than the men, around them. Presumably, if we disfigured all the good looking actors in Hollywood, and the models in New York, and . . . well, heck, let's slash the faces of everyone who's better looking than I am. I am younger and slimmer than the average American, and have good teeth, long thick hair, and all the other accoutrements of an upper-middle-class upbringing. So we know that this would bring happiness to far more Americans than it would distress. We dont have to turn them into quasimodo--just make them no more good looking than I am. Just think how happy America could be made if Cindy Crawford had saddlebags and a squint.

But wait! Americans could be made even happier if Cindy Crawford and her ilk had acid poured on their faces to turn them into a twisted mass of scars, and were inflated a hundred pounds or so apiece through gavage. Physical pain could be alleviated by judicious application of modern painkilling technology, providing a huge psychic boost to everyone else at only a mild psychic cost (at least according to Daniel Gilbert) to the pulchritudinous elites.

Of course, to judge from our mass-market journalism, Americans actively enjoy watching young, pretty people suffer. Why else to we spend so much time talking about celebrity divorces, Kirstie Alley's weight gain, and grisly murders of attractive young white girls? So perhaps we should let them suffer--in fact, we should probably film it, so that Americans could download every tear, moan, and horrified scream at their new appearance.

The nice thing about the last strategy is that it doesn't require government intervention--free lance beauty socialists could give the rest of America a big boost in net happiness with every jar of acid they toss.

All right, so we're not going to do this.

But why is this so much more horrifying than the idea of taking the fruits of people's labours--most of which were gotten fairly honesty, by dint of hard work and delayed gratification (even if those efforts got a big boost from education etc.) Is it that beauty is somehow more worthy than wealth? The pursuit of wealth has allowed the masses to escape, as Robert Fogel noted, "From hunger and premature death". The pursuit of beauty has brought us jogging . . . and Slim-fast and six-inch-heels and toupees and expensively educated surgeons who spend their days sucking fat out of their clients' thighs.

Or is it that the body is more sacred than the wallet? Do not most of today's wealthy make their money by presenting their body at work for many hours a day, and labouring with their minds, which are far more sacred to any rational person than their limbs or cheeks?

No, I think the reason that we recoil is that it is repulsive to make people suffer just because others enjoy it. And it is horifying to give free reign to our worst impulses through the power of the state. The quest for autonomy, the thirst for knowlege, the desire to live a cleaner, healthier, richer life, free of hunger and want . . . these are the sorts of values we want our government to express and empower. Envy is not.

McArdle scolding people who make up data:

I think one of the biggest problems facing economists, and to some degree other social scientists, is the feeling that if you're just a little bit willing to fudge facts, you could do a great deal of good. If you'd torture the numbers just a little--not even torture, really, just waterboarding and a few stress positions--you could convince people to do what you know, deep in your heart, is the right thing. If you produce numbers showing that tax cuts increase tax revenue, or the minimum wage increases jobs, or GDP doubles for every 10% increase in the salaries of economists--why, you ccould do a whole world of good.

The subtler version of this is confirmation bias: to a libertarian analyst, papers showing that taxation causes people to stop working make perfect intuitive sense, while papers suggesting that stiff environmental legislation saves lives and money set off a pulse-racing, heart-pounding determination to discover just where the author went wrong. That liberal blogger to whom I referred earlier is a person of integrity and charm, and I have no doubt that they are trying to evaluate the data honestly--but I also have no doubt that they were heavily predisposed to believe the studies showing gay adoptions are good. I pause again to reiterate that this is not a vice more distributed on one side of the political spectrum or the other; it is a human vice, and no one struggles with it more mightily than I.
My humble suggestion is that it would do the blogosphere, and our blood pressure, a world of good if we didn't try so hard. I happen to think that extremely heavy progressive taxation has economic costs to those on the bottom of the income distribution that far outweigh its benefits. (Just to be clear, I do not think that taxation in the US currently fits this description; the problem with our tax code is that it's ludicrously complex, not that it's progressive.) It's nice that this is so. But I would be against very heavy taxation even if it made GDP grow, because I have a fundamental moral problem with compelling anyone to spend more of their time earning income for the state than they do for themselves. A willingness to state that firmly should give me some freedom to approach the study of tax policy without a burning need to make the numbers support my opinions.

There are many questions in economics which yield absolute answers (at least, they could): how interest rates work, whether asset markets are efficient, whether you should buy a lottery ticket*. There are some policies, such as hyperinflation and rent control, that pretty much all economists agree are a bad idea. But most of the questions that people want economics to answer cannot be resolved by building a better dataset, or improving our formula. Economics can give us tools to assess the effects of all sorts of policies, from legalising abortion to distributing free lunches. But it cannot tell us whether the costs outweigh the benefits. Nor can psychology, sociology, or what have you. It's riskier to argue the values than the numbers . . . but safer for all of us in the long run.

McArdle and Stuart Buck, in an article in the DC Examiner, on innumerate journalists:

When we wrote this up on our blogs, many conservative readers attributed the misleading figures to liberal media bias. But it is more likely ignorance than malice. Every year, scores of fledgling journalists pour out of liberal arts programs. Though many will need to pick through mountains of statistics in search of the truth, few have been taught the skills to do it.
They quickly become victims of advocacy groups pushing skewed statistics. Through ignorance, they may also start manufacturing their own flawed numbers. Since number-crunching beats (such as business and finance) are generally viewed as a tedious waystation en route to more interesting beats, few are enthusiastic about developing these skills. And their editors may not be in any position to help them.

The problem is compounded by the fact that journalists who do know how to read a balance sheet, run a regression, or analyze economic data, can generally get a job that pays a lot more than journalism. Some stay in the field out of love for their work (journalism is a really great job), but in our experience some of the best flee to greener pastures.

Even worse, as mathematician John Allen Paulos is fond of pointing out, Americans are often too innumerate to analyze statistics printed in the newspaper. America’s schools haven’t given its citizens any more ability than its journalists to analyze the information that floods our lives. We would call it a case of the blind leading the blind, but the comparison is inappropriate. Blind people know they can’t see.


Salty said...

"But why is this so much more horrifying than the idea of taking the fruits of people's labours--most of which were gotten fairly honesty, by dint of hard work and delayed gratification (even if those efforts got a big boost from education etc.) Is it that beauty is somehow more worthy than wealth?"

A halfway-decent dodge, here McArdle slips it past the unwary that the rich earned their wealth. However, in her own analogy, the wealth (beauty) was inherited. That's some grade-C propaganda right there!

Now, my suggestion would have been not to, you know, equate wealth and beauty lest the audience notice this. What strikes me is that McArdle doesn't even seem to have realized she made this flub. She's too dumb to realize she messed up royally.

(Note: I am also not saying that the rich did earn their wealth: they largely don't no matter how many hours they work. It just wasn't central to my point.)

Susan of Texas said...

Internal logic is for losers!

Ufotofu9 said...

Wait, this is real? Did she really compare economic equality to pouring acid on hot people's faces? That's internally inconsistent on the face of it.

Wealth is accumulated through work, sure to a point, just as looks can be attributed to exercise, But the two don't follow--it's a poor metaphor. Mega wealth is accumulated not through hard work but through Rent Seeking, being born wealthy, etc.

I used to hear arguments from conservatives in college about how Liberalism is like taking my B in Biology class and giving 10 points of it to a D student, giving us both a C. Unfair, right? Sure, but grades are not zero sum: My B doesn't effect the D student. Well, Meghan seems to be falling for that logical fallacy