Sunday, February 10, 2013

Everybody needs a hobby

[Obviously this post is not going up "later today" as I said it would in my previous post - from Thursday. On the other hand, it's not the post I intended to put up, either, so perhaps that balances things out. That post crashed and burned but I am going to re-work it and get it up, well, I was going to promise a specific date but we've just seen how well that works so I'll just say "soon". Or perhaps "eventually". In the meantime,something a little lighter. ]

I wander over to the Naked Capitalism blog every several months to look for cute animal pictures. I download them, put them in folders, and use them as screen savers. It drives my husband nuts.

Occasionally while I'm over there I think I should be reading some of the posts. After all, they have great cute animal pictures; surely that means they're the kind of people worth reading. I find, though, that when I try to read the posts I either don't understand them or, if I do understand them, their tone is so unpleasant I would be inclined to distrust what they're saying even if they told me that the sun rose in the east.

During my last foray (which netted some wonderful pictures), I ran across a couple of posts referencing Megan McArdle, both in a negative way. Since I usually find McArdle's writing interesting and helpful, my initial reaction was to assume the writer had an ax to grind and ignore what was being said. However, I do at least try to keep an open mind so I read them.

One of the posts was entitled "Project S.H.A.M.E.: Megan McArdle, a Covert Republican Party Activist Trained by the Billionaire Koch Brothers". The introduction read:

We are delighted to post the latest offering of Project S.H.A.M.E., a media transparency initiative led by Yasha Levine and Mark Ames.

The article lists bullet points that it claims are "The recovered history of Megan McArdle". The first several items had nothing to do with "the Billionaire Koch Brothers" but then came pay dirt: three items tying McArdle to the "right-wing Institute for Humane Studies, headed by Charles Koch since the 1960's". The first two revealed that McArdle had "received journalism training" from the Institute and had "returned to her Koch alma mater as a guest lecturer and instructor". (So far as I can tell, the "journalism training" is some kind of Internship Program .) Third was this item:

In a sign of just how close and trusted McArdle is to the Kochs, in October 2011, she was chosen to emcee Charles Koch’s 50th Anniversary gala celebration of his flagship libertarian think-tank, the Institute for Humane Studies, featuring Charles Koch as the keynote speaker and guest of honor. McArdle and Koch were joined by hundreds of leading GOP donors and activists. An IHS newsletter wrote of her performance: “Emcee Megan McArdle wove a humorous narrative through the program.” The IHS attempted to hide McArdle’s involvement, scrubbing her name from the dinner announcement page.

The link supporting the "scrubbing claim" goes to an Evernote page which provides links to copies of two announcements of the event:

Original announcement (accessed Sept 2011)
Scrubbed announcement no longer lists Megan McArdle as emcee (accessed after event took place)

I checked the two announcements and, yes, the first one lists McArdle and the second one doesn't. However, the second announcement has not only "scrubbed" McArdle; it has also "scrubbed" everyone else listed on the program. The original announcement contains this listing:

Remarks - Charles G. Koch, Koch Industries, Inc. & IHS Chairman
Tribute - Walter E. Williams, George Mason University
Stories - A Parade of IHS Alumni
Emcee - Megan McArdle, The Atlantic

That entire section is gone from the "scrubbed" announcement which contains this notice:


Apparently the Institute not only wanted to hide Megan McArdle's involvement in this event; they also wanted to hide Charles Koch's involvement as well as that of their own alumni and Mr. Williams. The writers of the piece do not explain why this was important to IHS.*

I have to admit that after that I didn't pay much attention to the rest of the points but one other caught my eye:

In 2008, McArdle argued that the recession had a silver lining for liberals and the 99%, claiming the economic downturn would reduce wealth inequality because it hurt the rich more than middle- and lower-income Americans: “Recessions are bad for everyone, but they’re worse for the wealthy.” In fact, wealth inequality has substantially worsened since then.

As anyone who has ever read McArdle can probably guess, this claim cherry-picks the quoted post. Still, while cherry-picking the writing of someone you're attacking is not quite right, it is so common on the Internet as to be hardly worth mentioning.

More interesting to me is the link backing up the "wealth inequality has substantially worsened" claim. That link goes to a Naked Capitalism post , published in April 2012 and entitled, "Growth of Income Inequality is Worse Under Obama than Bush". The embedded graph shows that for the period from 2009 to 2010:

Average Income Real Growth was +2.3%
Top 1% Incomes Real Growth was +11.6%
Bottom 99% Incomes Real Growth was +0.2%%
Fraction of total growth (or loss) captured by top 1% was +93%

Based on those numbers, inequality did substantially worsen from 2009 to 2010. However, the chart also shows that for the period from 2007 to 2009:

Average Income Real Growth was -17.4%
Top 1% Incomes Real Growth was -36.3%
Bottom 99% Incomes Real Growth was -11.6%
Fraction of total growth (or loss) captured by top 1% was -49%

In other words, from 2007-2009 (which I believe includes the 2008 during which McArdle wrote her post) the rich took a bigger hit than anyone else - just as McArdle claimed they were and would.

Of course, none of this is substantively important. The writeup was clearly an amateurish hatchet job, pure and simple, and those are a dime a dozen in blogs. If someone finds McArdle an interesting and generally sensible writer, he or she will continue to do so. If someone doesn't, then the claims of this piece won't be examined closely and it will simply provide a gratifying rush of confirmation basis.

But while the substance is uninteresting, the form in general fascinates me for a couple of reasons. First, and most simply, it's another entry in the Category I never got around to setting up called "Always click on the links". It still amazes me that people provide links to support their claims when those links do nothing of the kind. Perhaps the sheer flood of information means that most people don't click on the links most of the time and so the writer knows he can claim whatever he wants about what is on the other end of that link. But that brings me to the other aspect that fascinates me: is the writer knowingly providing a backup link that doesn't back up his claims, or does he truly read what's at the link as supporting his contentions?

So I wonder about what goes on in the minds of the people who write these types of pieces. How could the authors of the piece on McArdle not notice that all the names in the program had been removed from the Institute announcement? Or, if they did notice it, how can they find some conspiracy relating just to one person in that fact? How can they not notice that the link they cite as proof McArdle was wrong in 2008 in fact says just what she was saying at that time?

I understand despising someone - even someone you've never met. I understand vendettas and righteousness and being absolutely certain you are right and someone else is wrong. Believe me, I understand all that. I even understand, in an excess of bile, saying something untrue about the hated person. It's reprehensible but sometimes emotions overcome us. But writing is a lengthy process, requiring thought and consideration. What process goes on that makes it possible to write something untrue about someone you want to discredit? Is it a calculated move, designed to harm an enemy, without consideration of truth or falsehood - the ends justify the means? Is it that the writer can tell himself he's not actually being dishonest: the things he describes did kind of happen and if his choice of words implies something more than what's there, well, that's not really lying? Or is it that the writers of these types of articles truly do not see what is right in front of them? I don't know. It's very strange to me.

Beyond that, I simply find it sad that a site with such great cute animal pictures would re-post something like this. On the bright side, it does mean I can stop feeling I should be reading posts at Naked Capitalism. On the not so bright side, I worry I should re-examine my attachment to cute animal pictures.



* As this was about to go to press, I read this at Instapundit:


I think whether you read the linked post from the NPR Ombudsman as admitting to "scrubbing" or as explaining why this wasn't scrubbing in the sense of "attempting to conceal" depends on your politics and your opinion of NPR (which may well be the same thing).

I read the explanation from NPR as "not scrubbing" as did the person making the original complaint (see the first comment, the third and fourth points). Therefore, if I wanted to highlight this incident, I would have referred to the Howard Bryant's comment rather than to NPR. Or, if I wanted to praise NPR, I would describe the incident as "NPR removes a gratuitous swipe at a civil rights organization".

1 comment:

Grim said...

It requires fairly substantial mental discipline to put historical events in their proper order. This is why history books are often so dry to read: there's a grand narrative to be told, but to tell it right requires getting a host of little details in exactly the right order. If you can't be sure about the order, you then need to take a few minutes to explain what the possible orders are, and what it means to choose one of the several possibilities as a favorite.

So they aren't doing economics with good historiography, and that weakens the account substantially. But at least they aren't writing celebrity profiles. :)