The most frustrating Vox article ever


The internet has made everybody audible. And, as a result, anybody can become a victim of a pitchfork-wielding mob, if you happen to say something online that the mob wants silenced. Nowhere has this reality been clearer than in the backlash against nascent feminism on Twitter.

This is the opening premise of a new Vox article on the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM), which is the most quotable thing I’ve ever read. (That is not necessarily a compliment.)

The author, Emmett Rensin, ventures into Chicago suburbia to talk to ‘Max’ - a young mid-20's man who views himself as a Men’s Rights Activist. We are taken into his world and explore his views on feminism, religion, and the world as he perceives it. I found the whole experience very painful, for two reasons:

First, I am no defender of the “Men’s Rights Activists” (MRA), who often take serious issues - such as paternal rights and domestic violence against men - and use them as a jumping-off point to threaten women online or to justify sites like this as good for the movement.

Max is no villain, but rather an immature guy who is defined more by his struggle to discover his beliefs than by any particular belief he holds at the time: Max is an MRA, but kinda not (he prefers to think of himself as a ‘humanist’). Max agrees with the MRM philosophy, but not with the radicals. Max tweets mean things at feminists, but does not condone threats or violence. Max is wishy-washy and says silly things a lot. Max isn't likeable. He's a one-note caricature. And it's a long article...

The other problem with the article comes down to the author's narration; his narrow view of gender issues makes the article painfully ironic.  Rensin gives the allusion of trying to get to the heart of what motivates men like Max to engage with the MRM, but quite obviously wants to make sure we hate Max. After all, Max lives in a ethnically homogenous area:

When I met him, Max lived in the River North neighbourhood of Chicago. River North is — at 70 percent white in a city where the white population is 32 percent and declining — one of the few places one can live in the Chicago where it is still possible to avoid even a vague awareness of the city's racial and cultural dynamics.

And he is privileged:

Max is remarkably unassuming in appearance, handsome enough and normally tall; equally imaginable in board shorts and a snapback as he is in the sort of graduation suit one wears to a first post-collegiate interview downtown.

And he is disconnected from reality:

For all his derision toward the "professional victimhood" of feminists, there's something a little less than sarcastic in Max's own sense of oppression. Hard-pressed as the social justice left is to admit any advantage, the West these last decades has seen the rhetorical value of victimized stance. The irresistible cudgel of "I am oppressed and this is my experience and you cannot speak to it because you do not know" is valid enough, of course, especially in those cases where ordinary enculturation does not provide natural empathy toward some suspect class. But it is a seductive cudgel, too, especially alluring when it can be claimed without any of the lived experience that makes marginalization a lonely-making sort of suffering. American Christians are "persecuted" now; men are the ones being "squelched" by feminism; white Americans are the victims of "reverse racism." The "victim card" is a child of the ‘70s, and 40 years out who wouldn't use it, no matter how disconnected from reality?

It’s this last paragraph that really gets me - "professional victimhood". A spot-on observation from Rensin, that stops short one step too soon.

It is indeed ridiculous to push the idea that men are oppressed in western society. While grievances over the role of the father, forced-masculinity and male-targeted abuse are all important and legitimate discussion points, they are part of a much wider discussion about how gender roles are dictated in society and don't add up to conclude that men's rights are the most vulnerable and abused rights in 2015.

But are women oppressed? Just as the author questions whether men are really being "squelched" by feminists or whether American Christians are really being "persecuted" by atheists or non-believers, isn't it also time to ask whether women should still be able to claim professional victimhood in the western world?

I'd say they can, when it comes to violence - particularly domestic abuse and rape. But that isn't what 'professional feminists' are talking about. They seem much more concerned with the gender pay gap (which doesn't actually exist for young women working in the UK) and iconic t-shirts (which are...iconic) than they are with issues that actually harm and oppress women. Too often, feminists are relying on victimhood to promote their policies, making little-to-no effort to address the real, forced victimhood created through violence.

It's hard to embrace modern feminism when it's leaders are defining it as pro-victimisation. Many men and women want nothing to do with that.

As our least-favourite caricature notes:

My mom says she's a feminist. And I guess in the way my mom means it, I still am. But she doesn't know how it is now. For her, feminism means ‘everybody is equal', but if you said that now, these social justice warriors on Tumblr would call you a sexist and garbage and tell you to die. But I didn't realize that at first. I thought feminist meant ‘women should be able to vote and have jobs', which I'm obviously cool with.

I'm cool with that too, Max. I'm cool with that too.

Voxplainer on Scott Sumner & market monetarism

I have to admit that I usually dislike Vox. The twitter parody account Vaux News gets it kinda right in my opinion—they manage to turn anything into a centre-left talking point—and from the very beginning traded on their supposedly neutral image to write unbelievably loaded "explainer" articles in many areas. They have also written complete nonsense. But they have some really smart and talented authors, and one of those is Timothy B. Lee, who has just written an explainer of all things market monetarism, Prof. Scott Sumner, and nominal GDP targeting. Blog readers may remember that only a few weeks ago Scott gave a barnstorming Adam Smith Lecture (see it on youtube here). Readers may also know that I am rather obsessed with this particular issue myself.*

So I'm extremely happy to say that the article is great. Some excerpts:

Market monetarism builds on monetarism, a school of thought that emerged in the 20th century. Its most famous advocate was Nobel prize winner Milton Friedman. Market monetarists and classic monetarists agree that monetary policy is extremely powerful. Friedman famously argued that excessively tight monetary policy caused the Great Depression. Sumner makes the same argument about the Great Recession. Market monetarists have borrowed many monetarist ideas and see themselves as heirs to the monetarist tradition.

But Sumner placed a much greater emphasis than Friedman on the importance of market expectations — the "market" part of market monetarism. Friedman thought central banks should expand the money supply at a pre-determined rate and do little else. In contrast, Sumner and other market monetarists argue that the Fed should set a target for long-term growth of national output and commit to do whatever it takes to keep the economy on that trajectory. In Sumner's view, what a central bank says about its future actions is just as important as what it does.


In 2011, the concept of nominal GDP targeting attracted a wave of influential endorsements:

Michael Woodford, a widely respected monetary economist who wrote a leading monetary economics textbook, endorsed NGDP targeting at a monetary policy conference in September.

The next month, Christina Romer wrote a New York Times op-ed calling for the Fed to "begin targeting the path of nominal gross domestic product." Romer is widely respected in the economics profession and chaired President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors during the first two years of his administration.

Also in October, Jan Hatzius, the chief economist of Goldman Sachs, endorsed NGDP targeting. He wrote that the effectiveness of the policy "depends critically on the credibility of the Fed's commitment" — a key part of Sumner's argument.

But read the whole thing, as they say.

*[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16]

Politics makes us 'stupid' because the world is complex

Ezra Klein has launched his new site, Vox.com, with an essay on ‘how politics makes us stupid’.

The piece is provocative, and Klein uses some interesting examples. Most striking is the study that shows that people’s maths skills get worse when the problem they’re dealing with has a political element and goes against their political instincts. (Klein seems to have slightly misunderstood the study he’s written about, but his basic point stands.)

The basic claim is that people engage in ‘motivated reasoning’ when they think about politics – in other words, they think in order to justify what they already believe, not in order to discover the truth. This, he suggests, is because the politically-engaged people get more loyalty to their ‘tribe’ than they lose by being wrong.

This ‘identity-protective cognition’, as he calls it, makes sense – a pundit who decides that the other side is right about some particular political issue (Klein uses global warming as an example) has a lot to lose in terms of status within the group they’re part of, and little to gain by being right.

Klein says that this has become worse as political parties have become more ideologically uniform and ideological ecosystems, like think tanks, blogs, media, more expansive. Not only is there the external cost of being wrong, but admitting to yourself that you’ve been wrong for a long time is quite difficult too, especially if you’re politically engaged and some of your sense of self is tied up with your beliefs. You could call this ‘rational ignorance’.

Even though that might seem plausible, I think he is assuming too much and is wrong about some of the phenomena he identifies. I’d like to suggest an alternative understanding of political ignorance that, I think, explains more and assumes less.

I think Klein’s fundamental error is to assume that the truth – or, at least, his mode of truth-seeking – is obvious. Basically, he starts off from the position that most people could reasonably see the light if they wanted to. If that’s right, then it could follow that incentive to disbelieve the truth. And “identity-protective cognition” is an interesting way of understanding that.

But suppose truth is not obvious – that we’re ignorant not because we want to be but because, in Keynes’s words, “we simply do not know!”. In contrast to the rational ignorance Klein is discussing, this kind of ignorance comes about because life is complex. The existence of this kind of ignorance is what allows people to disagree without either being willfully ‘dumb’.

To demonstrate his case, Klein uses examples of ideological dogmatism that are based on rejection of the hard sciences. Here he is assuming that a reasonable default position must be to believe in the usefulness of science, so anyone who deviates from that by disbelieving some scientific point must have an incentive to do so. But if they are simply unaware of the fact that science is usually a good way of learning things, them ignoring scientific consensus is simply a mistake.

Klein may see it as being obvious that science is great. But he has probably spent a lot more time thinking about it than most people – for many, rightly or wrongly, the jury is still out on science, as a great man once said. Error, not group loyalty, may be a simpler explanation for people’s refusal to accept what seems to be a well-established truth.

If the truth is difficult to determine, people who have an interest in politics need some way of sorting the truth from the information they can access. Since there is a huge amount of conflicting data and theory in nearly every area of policy (whether garbage or not), people need some way of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

That’s where an ideology comes in. An ideology, I suggest, is a type of ‘web of belief’ that allows people to use what they already believe to be true to sort relevant and true new information from irrelevant and untrue information. As Jeffrey Friedman puts it, ideology “provides pegs on which to hang the political facts of which non-ideologues tend to be so shockingly ignorant”.

This fits with the fact that ideologues are usually a lot more informed than non-ideologues, an important fact that, so far as I can tell, Klein ignores.

Klein’s view is that political ideology ‘makes us stupid’, but ‘closed-minded’ is probably a more accurate term. The vast majority of the public is shockingly ignorant of basic political facts, with the informational 'elite' also happening to be the more closed-minded. The alternative to closed-mindedness may simply be to be extremely uninformed.

This matters because the things Klein blames for politics making us stupid – ‘gerrymandering, big money, and congressional dysfunction’ – are mostly irrelevant if the view I’ve outlined here is correct. In a complex world where the truth is hard to discover, even the purest politics would make us stupid.

This implies a much more fundamental problem with the democratic process than Klein suggests. The trade-off between ignorance and dogmatism may be unavoidable in politics, making a well-functioning deliberative democracy virtually impossible to achieve. This may imply that less cognitively-demanding ways of making decisions, like markets, may be even more valuable than we realise.