Something about this time of year brings out the cranks. Last year at this time, Lubos Motl (along with a few others, some just confused, others just pure trolls) was disputing the simple but surprising answer to a little probability puzzle. (See first here, then here, then here, then here, then here, and finally, for an enlightening coda, here — and then for one more afterthought, here, with approximately 1000 comments altogether).
This was a tricky puzzle and of course you don’t have to be a crank to get it wrong. But the cranks distinguish themselves by a) repeating exactly the same arguments over and over and over and over and over, while ignoring the fact that those arguments have been clearly refuted; b) reacting with outrage when it’s suggested that if they make an argument with multiple implications, they don’t get to pick and choose which implications to accept; c) dismissing the relevance of definitive counterexamples (e.g. “You’ve made an argument that appears to apply to a country of any size. Let’s see if your argument works for a country with only one family.” “That’s totally beside the point! I never assumed the country had only one family!”), d) rejecting all arguments by analogy by observing that the analogy is imperfect, even when the imperfections of the analogy have no bearing on the argument; e) constantly changing the subject so as to deflect attention from arguments they can’t answer; f) constantly changing their definitions midstream so that everything they’ve been saying, even when it is self-contadictory, becomes true by definition; g) discerning a conspiracy when multiple people take the time to simplify the arguments in the (always vain) hope of penetrating the crank’s thick skull; h) substituting mockery for discourse; and i) repeating the same arguments over and over and over and over, while ignoring the fact that those arguments have been clearly refuted.
This year, instead of a small cadre of cranks, we’ve been visited by a single crank, one Yoram Bauman, who’s cluttered up a long comment thread with repeated instances of behaviors a) through i). It’s not just the flimsiness of his arguments that makes Yoram a crank; it’s the way he repeats those arguments while completely ignoring every objection, or, on those rare occasions when he takes note of those objections, dismissing them as coming from an “echo chamber”. It’s his habit of making two arguments that directly contradict each other within a single paragraph, and then getting miffed when someone points that out. It’s his substitution of mockery for debate. (Note to future commenters: It’s okay, now and then, to adopt a mocking tone when you’ve demolished someone’s argument. It’s not okay to adopt a mocking tone by way of ignoring an argument.) Above all, it’s his intense and total disdain for the process of intellectual discourse, as if this were all just a game and getting things right doesn’t matter.
Well, of course, this is just an online discussion, and whether we get things right probably doesn’t matter very much in the grand scheme of things. But most of us are here because we take pleasure in trying to understand something. Yoram’s entire purpose here seems to be to undermine that pleasure with his clownish (and possibly feigned) stupidity. He’s the guy at the party who pisses on the table for attention and then, when everyone edges away at the same time, accuses them of sheeplike subservience to social norms.
Enough of that! While the year was bookended by cranks, it was filled with other lively discussions worth remembering.
Here were the most-commented-upon posts of 2011:
- First, the rationality test that led off the year.
- Then, with close to 500 comments in all, there was The Man Who Can’t Be Taxed, with followups here and here and here. In retrospect I wish I’d written this one a little differently to put more emphasis on the main point: If you want to understand the burden of a tax (or of any other government policy), you must follow the goods and not the money. I illustrated this with the example of a man who hoards financial assets, but (by hypothesis) never consumes above a subsistence level, never plans to consume above a subsistence level, and has no heirs. Then if the government funds a spending program by taxing this man, the burden of the tax must fall on someone else, because government spending consumes physical resources, and he has no physical resources to sacrifice. It’s the same point I made in our end-of-the-year Christmas fable, and if you don’t think it’s a point worth making, just check out how confused some of the commenters on Bob Murphy’s blog seem to be. One writes (re Ebenezer Scrooge) that if Scrooge consumes goods, he deprives others of the use of those goods (correct!) whereas if Scrooge hoards money, he deprives others of the use of that money (false, because taking money out of circulation changes the price level and increases the value of everyone else’s money, so they lose nothing). At one level, this is basic monetary theory, but at an even deeper level, it’s just basic arithmetic. What matters are the goods we consume, and those are what you need to track. Many a poorly trained policy analyst has gone astray by losing sight of this simple truth.
- Another big thread began here, where I caught Paul Krugman in a whopping howler. (Followups are here and here.) Because he is not a crank, Krugman acknowledged the logic and backed off his argument, though he did so in a rather churlish tone.
- Then there was the thread where I trumpeted my ignorance of Keynesian business cycle theory and asked for help in understanding what seemed to me to be a difficult theoretical point. Over the course of two more posts (here and here), I figured out where I’d gone wrong. It now all seems blindingly obvious. In my defense, I initially (before the first post) consulted several very good macroeconomists, who seemed to be as confused as I was.
- A big thread that might have been bigger was Econ 101 for the Supercommittee, where many commenters (including the ever thoughtful and provocative Bob Murphy) took issue with aspects of my post, but, due to my travel schedule, I was mostly unable to respond. I expect that if I’d been online that week, the 136 comments might easily have grown to 300 or so. I regret missing out on that discussion because a lot of smart commenters jumped in, and I wish we could have hashed out the issues. Maybe I’ll raise the same issues again soon, and hope that all those smart commenters are willing to come back for another round.
Speaking of commenters, you guys are great. For the most part you do an amazing job of staying on topic, and when you stray it’s usually because you’ve got something tangential but interesting to say. You engage with each others’ arguments. You are merciless when you think I’m wrong, supportive when you think I’m right (though sometimes you point out that I could have been clearer), and incisive in either case. I am not aware of any other blogger who is blessed with such a great cadre of regular and occasional commenters. I’ll try my best to keep you entertained this year.