Staying on the Right Level

May 23, 2009

Something that I definitely do too often is accuse people of not making any sense. It’s neither very specific nor very convincing, so whenever I say it, I regret saying it. One example of a person who I have claimed doesn’t make sense was Elizabeth Warren, a law professor who is also apparently the chairman of the committee that oversees TARP funds.

Here is Elizabeth Warren talking to Adam Davidson on the Planet Money podcast #40 (thanks to Thomas for the link):

EW: The American middle class is under assault. They are getting the wrong end of a great big financial deal, overall. This is a generational shift. I’m not talking about TARP, I’m not talking about anything else. 

[..]

EW: We can’t do anything about the American family until this crisis is over? This crisis will not be over until the American family begins to recover. This crisis does not exist independently…

AD: But that’s your crisis. That’s, that’s a…

EW: No, it is not my crisis. That is America’s crisis. If people cannot pay their credit card bills. If they cannot pay their mortgages…

AD: But you are not in the mainstream of views on this issue. You are n-.. you are…

EW: What? That if they can’t pay their credit card bills, the banks are gonna do fine? I — well whose, who are you looking at?

AD: The… you can–

EW: Who says a bank is gonna survive if the Amer- Who is not worried about the fact that Bank of America’s default rate has now bumped over 10%. That’s at least the latest data I saw. So the idea that somehow we are going to fix the banks and then next year, next decade, we are going to start worrying about the American family it just doesn’t make any sense, the pieces don’t add up.

Elizabeth Warren makes sense, but her point of view is extremely wrong. More wrong than most people who are wrong.

Here’s why: she has a mental model of reality that she believes in so strongly, she thinks that its parts are actually real and manipulable objects. On Overcoming Bias, they’d say that she is mistaking features of her map for the actual territory.

A slideshow on this subject gives the great example of a 2-D cross-sectional depiction of a human digestive system, which shows a tube running from the mouth, down all the way through a human body to the anus. The space alien asks: So how do humans keep from falling apart, since there is this huge gap between the two halves of their body? The alien doesn’t realize that the drawing, while accurate, isn’t reality. We don’t and shouldn’t worry about keeping the halves of our body together.

To jump slightly via analogy, this is pretty much why I have stopped bothering about what “government” does or what would happen under “anarchy.” Looking at Eastern Europe, Africa, Russia, China, and the United States, it’s clear that how a society functions is a product of a huge number of factors. The concept of “government” can actually be somewhat informative about many of these factors, but it is improper to think of government as a low-level factor in this. Describing a country as a “democracy” is a shorthand and imprecise way of describing many of its low-level features. But you don’t get a change in the situation on the ground by changing the government.

And so we come to Elizabeth Warren, and Thomas, who agrees with her. I am convinced that they are mistaken about what are the manipulable features of a society. “The middle class” is not a territory-level phenomenon, it is a feature of the map you use to interpret the territory. Thus, talk about helping “the middle class” sounds good but doesn’t have any consequences in the real world. Thomas said that in the argument featured on Planet Money, it is as if they are speaking different languages, and I think the reason for that feeling of disconnect is because Elizabeth Warren isn’t talking about anything real. 

So, she doesn’t actually make no sense but she’s wrong in a really fundamental way. As I’ve been typing this, I’ve been trying to think of an analogy, and I finally came up with it.

Elizabeth Warren’s car breaks down, and she takes it to the shop. The mechanic says that her engine is broken, and she needs a new engine. Elizabeth Warren insists that you can’t worry about fixing the engine because what she really needs is a working car. To which the mechanic says, “Huh? I’m proposing this repair which will cause you to have a working car, but  ‘a working car’ is a description of that object, not an object in itself. I can’t give you ‘a working car,’ because there is no object that is ‘a working car’ in the sense that you mean it.” This causes Elizabeth Warren to cry, because I’m sexist. But hey, the mechanic is a woman, so you’re sexist, too.

I’m done with this for now. As usual, I’m not very happy with these ramblings. I feel like I’m correct, but unless I think through what I’m trying to say properly, it’s going to be hard to know. I do strongly sense that I’m right, even though I haven’t proved it at this point. So, when I have occasion to think about this subject again, I’m going to make such a convincing argument that it will make your head swim (spin?).

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2 Responses to “Staying on the Right Level”

  1. Thomas Says:

    Do I agree with Elizabeth Warren?

    I have no way of knowing this based on the interview, because Adam doesn’t really give her a chance to explain what her point of view actually is. She ends up spouting vagaries (like the bewildered car owner that you portray) and Adam doesn’t tease out specific ideas or policy alternatives like a good interviewer might try to do. As I suggested last night, this is because Planet Money is all about explaining financial and business orthodoxy (albeit with a liberal bent) rather than challenging it.
    Given that the show’s on NPR, this is not a surprise — nor does it lessen the high quality of the show.

    I *do* think that Elizabeth Warren (may have been) gesturing at several side effects of our current model of corporate capitalism: the vast public suffering caused by the hollowing out of the US economy, the degradation of public goods (roads, schools, water supply, etc.) and the decline of labor as a political force. Anyone in the mainstream media who tries to think about these things as being related to one another and possibly also to high finance (rather than simply as fodder for the human interest pieces you hear on NPR) draws my interest.

    Unfortunately, she didn’t really provide an analysis so I can’t say whether I agree with her or not.


  2. True! AD alleged that the whole interview was two hours long, so I don’t know why the only part they played was the argument. It wasn’t a good interview, and in that respect, I have to side with you.

    That EW would probably be wrong if she got a chance to elaborate on her views, this I also believe, but I suppose I have to admit there’s not enough information to tell. And the necessity of crony capitalism, which seems to be the dominant point of view represented on Planet Money, is wrong as well.


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