I was reading this piece from Michael Hiltzik of the L.A. Times, and I was struck by something intriguing.

The debate over the deficit is quite revealing about the speaker: What they choose to omit is every bit as important as what they emphasize.

Consider these two short paragraphs:

“As Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution observes, the current government deficit is the result of an enormous tax cut mostly for the wealthy, of paying for two wars by credit card, of the Great Recession, and of spending to address that recession . . .

Medicare’s ills are entwined with our national system of healthcare — how it’s used and how it’s distributed. You’re not going to make a dent in the problem unless you change the underlying system.”

No single factor is responsible for the deficit — quite a few different ones helped to cause it.

When I was out promoting BN, I constantly ran into this issue. It seemed that everyone tried to use the financial crisis and market collapse as proof of their pet issue. It wasn’t a combination of things, it was _______ [Insert Pet Peeve].  If you believed these folks, the crisis was caused by Acorn, or the CRA, or Fannie Mae, the poor, regulations, Unions, going off the Gold Standard, minorities, high taxes, deficits, and of course, the Federal Reserve. The Democrats blamed the Republicans, and the Republicans blamed the Democrats.

I never could tell if it was naked opportunism or merely selective perception.

The takeaway is this that whenever you hear some pundit pontificating on some event, think about their ‘blame emphasis’. Their omissions are quite revealing about their bias.


The Crisis Was Caused by [Insert Pet Peeve Here] (January 26th, 2011)

A moral alternative for curing Medicare’s ills
Michael Hiltzik
LATimes, June 5, 2011   

Category: Bailout Nation, Psychology, Really, really bad calls

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

20 Responses to “What Does ‘Blame Emphasis’ Reveal?”

  1. Liminal Hack says:

    Yeah its all about narratives, historical narratives mostly. Science does this as well, not just economics and politics.

    If you look at total debt since the end of the war, its an almost perfect exponential, with a tiny plateau at the end representing the last few years. This has happened regardless of interest rates or policy differences, or wars, in this same time period.

    Ergo, it seems reasonable to assume that the variables in the equation that has determined that exponential and produce the unequivocal total debt story are essentially independent of all the above factors. Given that the curve starts its upwards trace right after the war and never stops or deviates much from the basic exponential path, it seems sensible to assume the causal factors were in place before the start of the war, or at least right after it.

    My experience is that this analysis is almost universally seen as ‘crankish’ or ‘wonkish’, because it makes it almost impossible to assign any overall blame to individual persons and specific events.

  2. MattD says:

    Our cafeteria style media onlyworsens our tendency to value breadth over depth. I think there’s an illusion — an ill wind out there– that if we see the same cause cited by different sources but expressed using different words, we convince ourselves we’ve considered other viewpoints. Comfort food in the worst way.

  3. Petey Wheatstraw says:

    The single factor responsible for our deficit is that our net payables exceed our net income (net worth has been taken off the table).

    That the difference is, for political reasons, allocated on a cost-plus basis to those already in control of the vast majority of our current and future money supplies, and with no feedback loop due to our inappropriate taxation scheme (a double win for those in the cat bird seat ), there is no way, and no plan, to settle the imbalance.

    The system will be exploited until there’s not a penny’s worth of value left to loot.

  4. Petey,

    given that Post, you may care for http://c4ss.org/content/5580

    The Great Domain of Cost-Plus: The Waste Production Economy
    Posted by Brad Spangler on Dec 29, 2010 in Studies

  5. ubnutsagain says:

    BR’s remark is absolutely true …

    “The takeaway is this that whenever you hear some pundit pontificating on some event, think about their ‘blame emphasis’. Their omissions are quite revealing about their bias.”

    Keep that in mind the next time you read an AP/NYT/WaPo/et al generated article or opinion piece blaming adverse weather events on CO2- sourced causes.

    All the myriad causes of warming in recent decades are far from being scientifically understood by either proponents or those who disagree, yet we have so-called “scientists” claiming their computer climate models can predict climate’s future while placing the blame on mankind’s generation/release of CO2.

    “Omissions”, indeed!

  6. Transor Z says:

    Barry, I think you can filter out a lot of noise by sticking to your guns and insisting that any dialogue along these lines be data-driven.

    For example, Medicare. Was there a little Trojan horse action going on there with the passage of the Medicare Modernization Act in 2003? Voila, now it’s broken. Go figure.

    The psychology seems to be that when you’re “kitchen sinking” causation in setting public policy, the burden of proof required to get an item included in the list is relaxed in direct proportion to the number of purported causes.

    The next thing you know, “the causes are SO complex” and no one is to blame because everyone is to blame.

  7. Petey Wheatstraw says:

    Thanks, MEH


    Way to open a can of worms/whoop ass.

    You conflate scientific opinion with media/political opinion.

    Currently, there is a consensus opinion within the scientific field of study known as climatology, that global warming is real and man-made. This consensus of opinion is based firmly on the scientific method and the process of peer review. In cases where contrary scientific evidence is available its credibility seems more easily shot down by peer review and data than is the case for most mainstream science. In fact, many of the often touted contrary opinions given by “scientists” are by those specializing far outside the field of climatology. There is no conspiracy by any powerful group of climate scientists to manipulate their research to further their political goals. There is, however, ample political reason for industry to do so.

    Do me a favor, and answer this question without googling it (a guess would be okay):

    How many pounds of CO2 are created by burning 1 gallon of gasoline?

    There is only one answer, and it’s based on science.

  8. RW says:

    As Nietzche once observed, “If everybody is guilty, then no one is guilty.”

    Attempting to avoid argument by asserting, “both sides did it,” is not merely a cop out it is also a fallacy: (a) If “both sides did it” then there is a cause common to both that explains why and (b) there are more than two sides so which of the unnamed entities has the power and the will to move the others and what levers did they use?

    Once identified, weakening the strength of those levers is the primary task.

    It is possible that will involve removing the levers from the dead hands of those who wield them but since that usually results in someone else seizing those levers (old boss, new boss) it is better to focus on the tools rather than the hand even if severing that hand below the neckline would bring a (momentary) pleasure.

  9. [...] to the mentally deranged criminal who acts to get attention.  Barry’s post this morning on blame emphasis certainly rhymed with my drive-time [...]

  10. RW says:

    OT (but no worse than ubnutsagain’s comment): it looks like Paul Krugman wins today’s intertubes at http://tinyurl.com/3h77xpj

    “Is it just me, or is there a remarkable absence of D-Day related stories in today’s news? Maybe editors are too busy saving Ryan’s privatization.”

  11. DeDude says:

    I think you touched on that before. A lot of time people have ideologies and opinions to begin with, and then they sort of fit events into those narratives. Sometimes it is a deliberate distortion and sometimes it is that peoples ideology distort their perception of reality.

    The other thing is that simple minds like simple explanations. The complex realities of multivariable models and interconnected networks of causes and effects do not fit well into a 30 second campaign commercial. Even those who may be capable of understanding complex realities are often willing to sacrifice true understanding, for easy understanding and “certainty”.

  12. Liminal Hack says:

    DeDude – exactly. Einstein has a number of memorable quotes which are relevant:

    “Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.”
    “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
    “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.”
    “Sometimes one pays most for the things one gets for nothing.”
    “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
    “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”

  13. wannabe says:

    Hmmm. Here’s some data on this post.

    Example made of biased doofus = 1 Democrat/Liberal.
    Laundry list of commonly used canards = 100% Republican/Libertarian.

    Acorn = Republican (Housing)
    CRA = Republican (Housing)
    Fannie Mae = Republican (Housing)
    the poor = Acorn/CRA (Housing)
    regulations = Republican
    Unions = Republican/Libertarian
    going off the Gold Standard
    minorities = Acorn/CRA (Housing)
    high taxes = Republican
    deficits = Libertarian
    Federal Reserve = Ron Paul (Ultra Libertarian) (Housing)

    I’m not really aware of anyone who actually has blamed “the poor” or “minorities” for the housing crisis but I have seen that accusation used by Democrats as a tool to demonize Republicans and Libertarians as racists (the modern equivalent of “witch”, IMO) for bringing up the CRA, Fannie Mae and Acorn.

    The mistake these republicans make is singling out any one element of Federal Housing policy as a single cause of the crisis and opening themselves to this particular attack.

    ZIRP was the critical demand driver on both sides of the credit-driven housing bubble (for housing and MBS by international institutional investors desperate for yield).

    ZIRP was also part of Federal Housing policy, propping up the economy after 9/11 and during the oughts on the back of the housing market. While unregulated derivatives markets were a damage multiplier there would have been no damage to multiply without a housing bubble driven by ALL THE ELEMENTS of Federal Housing policy, once CRA had proven itself to be a profitable endeavor, SUBPRIME made more sense then ever. None of these things created the problem by themselves, they merely contributed to the problem that was predominantly caused by Federal and Federal Reserve policy.

    Perhaps we also need to pay attention to an author’s “absolution emphasis”. There seems to be alot of absolution of Federal Housing policy in that list of republican canards. Do you really contend that overall Federal Housing policy (to include ZIRP) was not the root cause of the credit bubble that nearly destroyed us? Without ZIRP would we have had a credit bubble AT ALL? Was (is?) ZIRP so popular because of the wide-spread bipartisan consensus (delusion?) that home ownership was and always would be a universal good in all cases?

    I think people understand this simple truth and this understanding largely explains the traction that any one of these individual canards have maintained. That’s what democrats like to call “fake, but accurate.”

  14. NeutralObserver says:

    It seems to me that you have pointed out another aspect of confirmation bias. It is part of the human condition and wringing our hands over it won’t help. Our expectations are too high for our fellow human beings and ourselves. We are deeply flawed so we need to put stops in place to help us avoid following our worst inclinations.

    So we are stuck in a world where either everyones’ ox is gored or no one’s is. The morass in which we find ourselves is just too enormous to tackle all at once or by one or the other side. We need to borrow from engineering science and break this problem down into more manageable bites, prosecute some fraud, redistribute the stolen assets to their original owners, and move on to the next bite. I think this basically means that we need to start at the state and local level until enough momentum is established in a new direction while making sure that everyone’s sacred cow gets some austerity.

  15. mgkurilla says:

    This is indicative of our society evolving to a short term perspective for everything. Government operates on a 2 year election cycle and corporations operate in 3 month blocks. Housing (was until 2006) functioning with a time frame suitable for flipping. the stock market gyrates up and down with every new data point that will be forgotten with every later one.

    There is no longer any sense of decision making that allows for short term pain or even mild disruption in order to generate long term benefits. If it doesn’t return immediate benefits, we regard the action as having failed. Look at the waste of time negotiations for a Greek bailout consumes since their only purpose is stop the immediate rise in bond yields, while refusing to take the painful substantive solution that will put the problem behind them.

    As such, there is no long term perspective or planning that goes on and when the lack thereof becomes manifest, we engage in useless window dressing of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

  16. Liminal Hack says:

    Well mgkurilla, that kind of living in the moment is what historians and social anthropologists think it must have been like to be an ancient greek or persian. Essentially their experience is thought to have involved a similar kind of reflexivity that we find today, and have had less sense of the passage of time and thus make less effort to record events and to plan for the future.

    I think if you connect everyone together with high bandwidth links and flood every node with vast quantities of information then the outcome will be similar to that prior age, at least until the human mind is more intrinsically capable of filtering the weight of input.

    Therefore as you say, what will be will be as we will collectively let it all hang out. Might be just what we need, to stop measuring everything and trying to plan everything.

  17. ubnutsagain says:

    @ Petey Wheatstraw: Thanks. Your expressed views prove my point very nicely.

    As for that little matter of manipulated research, perhaps you can explain how Michael Mann arrived at his “hockey stick” presentation of global temperatures over the last 1,000 years, a presentation that found its way into the official UNIPCC reports representing consensus climate opinion within the scientific field. And then there are the email-expressed behaviors of numerous “consensus scientists” affiliated with, and/or communicating with, the University of East Anglia, as they clearly explain how they selectively managed the peer review process, among other disturbing comments.

    My observation above reflects my agnostic view of the matter, which view is that no-one really knows. That view is based upon 50 years as a pilot observing weather patterns and events in order to safely deliver my neck and the necks of my passengers to our desired destinations. Climate is the net cumulative result over a sustained period of time of untold numbers of individual and highly complex weather events. While scientific research on the matter is essential, at this point in time neither those of the consensus opinion nor those with skeptical views have anywhere near sufficient information to “blame”, with certainty, anthropomorphic generated CO2 as the causative factor of global warming.

  18. davecjohnson says:

    I’m not sure I agree. I’ve heard a lot of Democrats blaming Clinton/Rubin in part for the financial collapse. Of course much of the blame goes to the Bush deregulation and lack of enforcement of remaining regulations… just like under Reagan we had the S&L crisis. But in the 90′s, even after the S&L crisis Clinton helped with the deregulation.

  19. [...] with Barry Ritholtz – it’s a case study of confirmation bias in action. If you are predisposed against X, [...]