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Smart People Saying Dumb Things

Posted By Barry Ritholtz On October 18, 2008 @ 1:00 pm In Bailouts,Credit,Data Analysis,Politics | Comments Disabled

Megan McArdle & Dan Drezner [1] discuss who deserves the blame for the current credit crisis. (video below). What is fascinating to me about this discussion is how in an attempt to assess political blame, they each completely miss the underlying issue as to what actually occurred.

The goal is not to get as close as possible to some objective reality, (around here, we call that "The Truth"), but rather, to assess or avoid culpability amongst partisans.

To wit:

Megan McArdle: "Don’t underestimate how contingent history is — Had Al Gore been elected in 2000, the Republicans would be arguing that this was problem of too much regulation, not too little. Who ever happened to be in charge gets blamed. " 

Dan Drezner: "The moral of this dialogue is that libertarians will rue
the day that Bush won. In terms of economic ideology is that Gore would
have gotten the blame instead of Bush."

This is political, opinion driven debate. It is empty and foolish rhetoric that generates heat but no light. As opposed to a discussion driven by, oh, I don’t know, let’s say "facts and data?" 

It contributes nothing of value in terms of identifying what actually happened. The focus is not on what went wrong, and what can we do to fix it. Rather, its how the party in charge takes the blame, and therefore the acceptance level of their ideology goes down.

Imagine after a jumbo jet goes down, and someone from the FAA said
"We won’t bother looking for the black box, we don’t play the blame
game around here." They would be fired immediately, and then tarred and feathered by the victims families.

Intelligent societies seek to asses blame not for political reasons, but to avoid
future jets from tumbling out of the sky again. In the current situation, we
want to know why this happened, what errors were made, and how we can
avoid it in the future.

There is also an element of cognitive dissonance to the discussion. Rather than look at the factual pattern of changes to the regulatory environment (see these comments in The Economist [2]), it was merely a coincidence of the party in power getting the blame. Why do I suspect that if Al Gore was President, these two would not
be discussing the mere coincidence of which party had the White House?

This is a similar approach that has given us one of the dumbest phrases
in the English language: "The Blame Game." (as in "well, I am not going
to play the blame game).

My beef is not political, its evidentiary: There are no facts shown, no
regulatory historical record  dissected, no comprehension of what actually occurred — just how to duck resposibility.

This is why I hate ideologues, politics, and even political discussions of ideology — it leads to smart people saying dumb things. Cognitive dissonance will do that to you.


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URL to article: http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2008/10/smart-people-saying-dumb-things/

URLs in this post:

[1] Megan McArdle & Dan Drezner: http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/15159?in=38:06&out=43:03

[2] The Economist: http://www.economist.com/debate/index.cfm?action=article&debate_id=14&story_id=12411022

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