Saucers of Mud

April 26, 2008

Another Neologism

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 2:47 pm

I propose that things like what happens in comments 59 to 61 be called “warts man” arguments.

Basically, Lizardbreath says that the point of a joke is that it’s very wrong for people to mistake Pareto-optimal outcomes (where you can’t make anyone better off without making someone else worse off) with just or fair outcomes. puzzled effectively responds that this is a straw man: “The first thing any teacher says after introducing the concept is that Pareto efficient is not necessarily desirable.” To which LB responds, it is not a straw man; many people will claim that “whoever has an initial right is unimportant because if someone else wants it more they can make a deal,” based on the Coase Theorem, which in fact tells us only that if this sort of bargaining is allowed the outcome reached will be Pareto optimal. Meaning that it is unimportant only if the difference between Pareto optimal outcomes is unimportant; namely, if you mistake Pareto optimal outcomes for just or fair outcomes.

And she is right that this claim is made. Here is Ronald Coase himself, answering the question how he explains his theorem to people:

It deals with questions of liability. Whether someone is liable or not liable for damages that he creates, in a regime of zero transaction costs, the result would be the same. Now, you can expand that to say that it doesn’t matter who owns what; in a private enterprise system, the same results would occur. [emphasis added]

And you can find this sort of thing all over. So what we have is basically the opposite of a straw man (hence “warts,” “straw” spelled backward), an argument that is claimed to be a straw man but which in fact lots of people do make.

This seems like an especially fine example because apparently it’s acknowledged up front that the argument is bad, but people use it anyway. Which, in my crotchety opinion, is pretty common with public policy applications of economics; you have theories that depend on idealizing assumptions, that everyone acknowledges depend on idealizing assumptions, and that then people apply to the real world even though the idealizing assumptions don’t hold. (cf.; this post and its comments also worth reading.)

Other fine examples of warts man arguments come from various retrospective attempts to defend the Bush Administration’s conduct in the run-up to the Iraq war, where various people claimed quite angrily that Bush never said Saddam was an imminent threat or never tried to portray Saddam as linked with Al Qaeda. But the economics ones are nicer because they’re more honest.

BTW, though I think this phenomenon really deserves a name, I’m not sure “warts man” is the right one (unlike my other neologism “Crapstone” which, I concur with the commenters, is perfect.)

April 24, 2008

Purgatory: Usage Note

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 12:45 pm

Charlie Cook writes:

As long as Clinton is winning, she can’t quit. But even in victory, she isn’t getting any closer to securing the nomination. This political purgatory will continue if she manages to win Indiana but loses North Carolina—hard to drop out but harder to see winning the nomination.

The use of “purgatory” is interesting here. I know what he means — but when I read the Purgatorio it struck me that Purgatory was an essentially happy place. Everyone is suffering in the moment, but they all know that they will get to heaven in the end. And even if my interpretation/memory is eccentric about how happy Purgatory is, it still is the case that souls in Purgatory are bound for heaven.

And that’s the opposite of Clinton’s situation. Things are going well for her now, but she has very little chance at a happy ending to the nomination contest. Her situation is more like that of Sisyphus, striving for a goal he won’t achieve, or maybe of the souls in Limbo, who are denied heaven even though they haven’t done anything wrong. If anyone’s in political purgatory now, it would seem to be Obama, who has been undergoing something of a (ridiculous) trial by fire about Jeremiah Wright and the “bitter” comments, but who will almost certainly wind up the nominee — perhaps strengthened by his trials.

Anyway, I’m curious how “purgatory” came to mean what Cook uses it to mean; did it just shift over from Limbo? Is it that it’s an in-between place? Or is that it’s come to mean any place of suffering, whether or not you attain heaven in the end? But it strikes me that what Cook means to say in a way is that Clinton is stuck in a loop, and that’s not what Purgatory is about; the thing about Purgatory is that it comes to an end.

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