Ah, Trolls! What Would We Do Without Them?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Dorf on Law post earlier this week, published on the morning of the mid-term elections, I wrote: "A truly inane conventional wisdom will surely have congealed among the commentariat by about 10pm this evening.  If that conventional wisdom turns out to be inane in an interesting way, I might comment on it in a future post."  Well, there has been a lot of congealing, but nothing very interesting.

The only notably weird assertion that I saw was a New York Times story in which the reporter claimed that the Republicans won by "handl[ing] the extremists" in the party.  Weird within weird, one of the examples of the party establishment's supposed successes was getting Cory Gardner, "one of the party’s strongest candidates this election," into the Colorado senate race.  Apparently, handling "extremists" does not mean abandoning people with a record of extreme views, or even abandoning people who continue to say embarrassing things.  It only means finding someone who is not attack-ad-fodder crazy.  But the media's continued insistence on ignoring the extremism of the Republican establishment is old news.  Nothing much more to say about the election right now.

My new Verdict column was published this morning.  Given that the title is, "The Great Denial: Anti-Government Ideologues Fight a Losing Battle Against Reality," I have to say that the stock photo that the Verdict staff found for the column was brilliant.  Even if you do not want to read the column, click on the link.  You'll thank me.  Here, I want to describe part of the inspiration for that column.

I have no doubt that columnists at every publication receive emails from "trolls," the self-important internet types who want to start an argument, but who really do not want to listen or learn.  Over time, we learn to ignore their emails and postings on comment boards.  Sometimes, that is easy, such as an angry email that I once received, in response to a Verdict column, that began, "Seriously, bitch?" and then ranted for a few paragraphs.

The more tempting trolls are the ones who make it sound like they might be open to discussion.  Especially because my full-time job is teaching, I think it is important to try to engage with people who are genuinely interested in discussing and learning, especially because they sometimes teach me important things, too.  Even so, there are certain markers that begin to become familiar.  One is the accusation that I have merely defeated a straw man, but I have not seriously engaged with the real, unbeatable argument in which the troll fervently believes.  Because these messages almost always simply repeat the argument that I have just written about, I have occasionally been tempted to respond: "I don't think 'straw man' means what you think it means."  But that would merely instigate a pointless exchange that would waste time and raise my blood pressure.

Even after all these years, however, I am occasionally fooled.  But at least I am able to make lemonade out of lemons.  Allow me to explain.

A couple of days ago, in response to my Verdict column from last week, I received an email from someone I had never met or heard of.  He wrote:
Prof. Buchanan:
You wrote that "It has become clear over the last generation, however, that economic growth does not guarantee improvements in the living standards of the bulk of our citizens" but this runs counter to the scholarly research. For example, Nobel laureate Robert William Fogel wrote that "In every measure that we have bearing on standard of living, such as real income, homelessness, life expectancy, and height, the gains of the lower classes have been far greater than those experienced by the population as a whole, whose overall standard of living has also improved." Were you mistaken?
 (He did sign the email, but there is no reason to reproduce that here.)

I really should have known,  The pompous appeal to authority (not just Robert Fogel, but "Nobel laureate Robert William Fogel") was the first clue.  And "Were you mistaken?" certainly suggested trolling, though not dispositively.  Most importantly, it was obvious that the possible troll was mischaracterizing Fogel's argument, because the statement that I had made is (as I explained in today's "lemonade" Verdict column) about as incontrovertible as a statistical claim could be.

Despite my sense that this emailer really would turn out to be a troll, I ventured the following response: "Professor Fogel's research refers to the economic history of capitalist countries from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  The correlation that he is describing used to be true, but it stopped being true in the US from about 1981 onward."  Why did I bother?  Here is the response:
Prof. Buchanan:
I believe that you have misremembered Fogel's work. His quote comes from the section of his book headed by "The Remarkable Reduction in Inequality during the Twentieth Century." Moreover, Fogel does not stand alone he is in the mainstream of economic research. See: Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms and Angus Deaton's The Great Escape to name just two more books that contend that you are wrong about lower or stagnant standards of living among the poor since 1981. Do you now see your error?
Tempted as I was to write something snarky in response, I controlled myself and did not reply.  But as I was writing today's Verdict column, which at one point referred to claims from the right that inequality is not really getting worse, I googled the Fogel quote from the troll's first email. The troll receives minimal credit for quoting a source without editing, but that is all.  The quote comes from Fogel's 2004 book The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100: Europe, America, and the Third World.  Hmmm.  The title certainly suggests that this is a work of long-term history.

And here is the sentence preceding the quoted passage: "The twentieth century contrasts sharply with the record of the previous two centuries."  The following paragraph talks about a measure of inequality called the Gini coefficient, which falls when inequality is reduced.  Fogel notes that England's Gini coefficient fell through the twentieth century, until "1973, when it bottomed out, not only in Britain but also in the United State and other rich nations."  The following paragraph discusses life expectancy in Britain from 1875 onward.

OK, so it was satisfying (but hardly surprising) to find this evidence of the naked intellectual dishonesty of my troll.  Even so, other than having learned that some guy is willing to lie in an email, and then to deny lying when called on it, what can we learn from this episode?  Two thoughts.

First, I have always thought that what trolls choose to write is interesting, in its way, because it is never only one troll who believes this stuff.  In the old days before email, congressional staffs apparently had a simple rule, which was that every letter from a constituent represented 5000 people with the same view.  If this guy is quoting "Nobel laureate Robert William Fogel" out of context, then one can bet that the right-wing blogs are full of conspiracy theories about how the government's statistics about income inequality are a big lie.  That was certainly true of the "governments didn't really engage in austerity" nonsense, which I discuss again in today's Verdict column.

Second, and more sadly, it actually briefly occurred to me that Fogel might now be writing Fox-friendly stuff.  He is a Chicago-school economist, and there are certainly plenty of examples of right-wing economists (from Chicago and elsewhere, especially Harvard) who are willing to say anything at all for political effect.  For example, another Chicago economist actually argued that Keynesians should like what Bernard Madoff did, because it probably increased spending.  And then there is the "2.5 million lost jobs" claim from yet another Chicagoan.
Before tracking down the book, therefore, I tried to imagine how someone as smart as Fogel might try to distort reality, and make the quoted claims about post 1980 America (not 1700-1973 England).  Would he say that poorer people might possibly get better medical treatment today, or that having iPhones and refrigerators meant that all is well?  What kind of distortion could he invent?

Fortunately, Fogel was not guilty of any of that, which is good.  That it even seemed possible that he might be guilty, however, says very bad things about the times in which we live.
The Great Dnial: Anti-Government Ideologues Fight a Losing Battle Against Reality - See more at: http://verdict.justia.com/2014/11/06/great-denial-anti-government-ideologues-fight-losing-battle-reality#sthash.0KENcNby.dpuf
The Great Denial: Anti-Government Ideologues Fight a Losing Battle Against Reality - See more at: http://verdict.justia.com/2014/11/06/great-denial-anti-government-ideologues-fight-losing-battle-reality#sthash.0KENcNby.dpuf
The Great Denial: Anti-Government Ideologues Fight a Losing Battle Against Reality - See more at: http://verdict.justia.com/2014/11/06/great-denial-anti-government-ideologues-fight-losing-battle-reality#sthash.0KENcNby.dpuf