Hornswaggler | The culture, the humor, a bit of the sports, not so much the politics, and the workplace distraction

Hornswaggle is an alternate spelling of hornswoggle, an archaic word that means to bamboozle or hoodwink. I take my pronunciation from the late Harvey Korman in "Blazing Saddles" --

"I want rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, conmen, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists!"

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Hide the children! The amygdala is coming!

David Brooks columns usually break down into four major categories:

1) Making shit up: Patio Man used to go to the salad bar at Applebee's, but in this new economic paradigm, where social leveraging has broken down in the face of what I call the Blooming Onion Paradox, he stayed home and wondered why capital markets, usually so efficient, had failed to meet his needs. The problem, he suspected, actually lay with the inherent limitations of government.

2) Concern trolling: I'm going to keep an eye on President Obama. Every time he has the courage to resist the demands of angry liberal bloggers, or fulfills his promise to negotiate in good faith with Republicans, I'm going to lick my pencil and put a little check in the "plus" column of my ledger.

3) Writing something irrelevant, or indulging one of his pet social theories, because he either has nothing better to do or isn't equipped to tackle a complex issue.

4) Actually making sense.

If I could make a pie chart of how frequently he engages in each of these modes, I would break it down like this:

1) 30 percent of the time
2) 20 percent
3) 25 percent
4) 10 percent
5) The remaining 15 percent would be "other"

Today's column, in which he imagines a worst-case scenario for the outcome of Obama's stimulus and Treasury policies, is sort of a combination of 1 and 3.

Let's quickly run down the errors.

The column begins with a major fallacy:

Between 1990 and 2007, the total mortgage debt held by Americans rose from $2.5 trillion to $10.5 trillion. This rise was part of a societal credit bubble that burst in 2008. To cushion the pain of that collapse, federal authorities decided to replace private debt with public debt.

So he sets up the column by implying that the economic CPR the administration is attempting was made necessary, not by the collapse on Wall Street, but because American homeowners took on too many bad mortgages. While Americans were and remain overextended, that's not the main reason why we're in this mess, and anyone with a brain knows it. If it weren't for the bungling and insane risk-taking on Wall Street, we'd be looking at a recession, not Dust Bowl 2.0.

Then Brooks throws in a quote from de Tocqueville. This is a standard Brooksian tactic: citing a 19th-century scholar to make it seem like he's educated and know what he's talking about. (Does he have a volume of de Tocqueville's collected works on his desk that he opens at random, when the need arises, and selects the first applicable passage he finds? This is how I imagine it.)

In discussing how Obama formulated his plan, Brooks says that
"(e)conomists produced models that assumed that government could efficiently spend huge amounts of money, and these models were accepted."

But this misses the point entirely. The question isn't whether the government can allocate money more or less efficiently than private entities. The issue is that private entities are unable or unwilling to spend. In that case, given the circumstances, and regardless of its relative efficiency in allocating capital, the government is forced to spend.

Then he makes up an unnecessary term for how Obama and congressional Democrats, in Brooks' vision of the future, came up with economic policy: "Split Level Technocratic Liberalism."

Onward, to the best part of the column, where Brooks analyzes how, despite the administration's efforts, consumers remained pessimistic:

Cognitive scientists distinguish between normal risk-assessment decisions, which activate the reward-prediction regions of the brain, and decisions made amid extreme uncertainty, which generate activity in the amygdala.

The amygdala! Of course. I should have known the nation's ills would all come down to the amygdala.

I don't have time to look this up, but I'm willing to bet that Brooks has this wrong, simply because the smart money is always on Brooks making something up or, in an attempt to pass himself off as a professor of sociology, mangling or misrepresenting a scientific subject. That's just how the Brookster do's it, baby!

The horrifying rise of the American amygdala has severe consequences, Brooks continues. For instance, Obama won't be able to destroy Social Security "tackle entitlement debt." Gee, that's too bad.

And then he ends the column with perhaps the dullest kicker I've ever seen:

The nation had essentially bet its future on economic models with primitive views of human behavior. The government had tried to change social psychology using the equivalent of leeches and bleeding. Rather than blame themselves, Americans directed their anger toward policy makers and experts who based estimates of human psychology on mathematical equations.

Whoo! That's top-shelf columnisting. Thank you, David, for this sterling contribution to the discussion.

.: posted by hornswaggler 9:36 AM

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