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.)



  1. “Look, it’s not a strawman if someone actually holds that position. It’s not my fault it’s dumb.”

    Comment by Cala — April 26, 2008 @ 10:04 pm

  2. Oooh, that is good, or at least it’s something that really needs a name. I’ve certainly been on the wrong side of it: I’ll find myself arguing “No one’s saying [X],” and then embarrassedly look back and realize that someone nominally on my side of the argument was saying exactly [X]. A gentle way of saying “I believe that’s a wartsman argument” would be very useful.

    Comment by LizardBreath — April 27, 2008 @ 10:59 am

  3. Say, doesn’t this belong on your Opinionatrey blog?

    Comment by Matt's mom — April 28, 2008 @ 4:50 pm

  4. But you don’t understand, Matt. The current situation, in which people do not understand that “Pareto optimality” is not synonymous with “the best of all possible worlds achievable under market conditions,” is itself Pareto optimal. You can’t change the outcome without throwing a host of econo-bloggers out of work.

    Comment by Ben — April 29, 2008 @ 12:04 am

  5. Whoa, some serious wartsmanning by McCain.

    Comment by matt w — April 30, 2008 @ 10:18 am

  6. Off the main point, but on the “imminent threat” example, the quotes at that link struck me as lame support for the attribution. They show that the administration mostly avoided that magic formulation, though spokesmen did occasionally assent to questions in which reporters used it. Whether the over-repeated mantra “imminent threat” is a fair paraphrase of the claims they were making does not strike me as obvious; see the discussion of the issue here:

    Comment by Anders Weinstein — May 1, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

  7. I find the Ben Fritz column crushingly unconvincing. His argument is basically only that the Administration officials mostly avoided the magic word “imminent”; but his argument mostly rests on the claim that the National Security Strategy does not apply the concept of “imminent threat” to alleged hostile WMD states. This seems at odds with the plain meaning of the words “adapt the concept of imminent threat,” which means redefining what imminent threats are. That’s why Daniel Drezner thought that it wasn’t a complete fabrication to say that Bush had said there was an imminent threat — all the times Bush officials spoke of Iraq as a hostile WMD state are in line with the new definition.

    And Fritz’s evidence that Bush denied that Iraq was an imminent threat is almost all non sequiturs. Not saying that Iraq is an imminent threat isn’t saying that Iraq isn’t an imminent threat; does Fritz really think that saying “The conduct of the Iraqi regime is a threat to the authority of the United Nations, and a threat to peace” is “specifically argu[ing[ that Iraq was an enemy for which the concept of ‘imminent threat’ [is] insufficient”? How is that specific? (Further quotes from that speech, the only one of the links in Fritz’s paragraph that survive: “Today, we turn to the urgent duty of protecting other lives, without illusion and without fear”; “n one place — in one regime — we find all these dangers, in their most lethal and aggressive forms, exactly the kind of aggressive threat the United Nations was born to confront”; “Saddam Hussein’s regime is a grave and gathering danger”; all directly in line with the new definition of “imminent threat.”)

    Pretty much all Fritz has is an unconvincing reading of the National Security Strategy, and one example from the State of the Union — but the claim is that Bush never said Iraq was an imminent threat, not that he once suggested it wasn’t. So I think this is still a fine case of a wartsman.

    Comment by matt w — May 1, 2008 @ 8:42 pm

  8. Hmm, I’d say having to rely on the Drezner point confirms my claim that the fairness of the paraphrase is not obvious!

    As I see it, the administration argued there was a present risk that justified preemption without waiting to learn if there was an imminent threat as traditionally understood (IT_1). That explains why they never once used the phrase “imminent threat” in any considered formulation. Instead, that phrase only comes up when they mock it as the wrong standard to apply for action on terror risks. I don’t go so far as to say they denied Iraq was an IT_1, only that their argument was agnostic on that.

    I’m not so confident there is a plain meaning of “adapting a concept”, but I guess you can say with Drezner that they felt Iraq fell under what “imminent threat” ought to mean according to them. Certainly they argued there was an uncertain present risk which made it urgent to take preemptive action, in view of the magnitude of the potential harm (IT_2). I would certainly never say the attribution is a “complete fabrication” since the semantic issues strike me as so murky.

    The bottom line for me is that the users of the “imminent threat” attribution are so hell-bent on a tendentious paraphrase in terms the administration seemed to scrupulously avoid and explicitly mocked. Why is that? Why not use direct quotation? (A damning enough case could be made that way, after all) What rhetorical advantage are they trying to gain? I think it can only be that they are relying on the audience understanding the phrase as IT_1, because that was wholly unsupported by evidence.

    For that reason, while I don’t want to say the attribution is a complete strawman (it has some basis), I do judge it to be inaccurate and unfair as commonly deployed.

    Comment by Anders Weinstein — May 5, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

  9. You guys are arguing over whether or not the administration negligently missed an opportunity to lie.

    Comment by Ben — May 8, 2008 @ 3:25 am

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