12 Jan 2010

Jim Manzi’s Share of My Esteem Has Grown, While Econogeeks’ Has Fallen

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It’s Jim Manzi vs. the geeconosphere! (For new readers, geeconosphere is my term for the geek economics blogosphere.) As you know if you have seen my over-the-top blog posts (which it occurred to me may freak Manzi out if he doesn’t get my “blog humor”), I am a big fan of Jim Manzi. He is connected with National Review so I’m guessing he and I don’t see eye to eye on foreign policy, but his writings on climate change are simply top notch. In particular, the thing that’s so great about Manzi is that he is really on top of his data, and he is incredibly anal and intellectually honest in response to his critics.

That’s why I was so disappointed when Tyler Cowen chickened out and let Matt Yglesias bully him into declaring that Manzi was wrong in his recent comments about Europe. If you want to get into this (it’s not some minor thing that interests me; it’s a huge brouhaha for the econ bloggers) you should start here with Manzi’s original piece, where he said:

From 1980 through today, America’s share of global output has been constant at about 21%. Europe’s share, meanwhile, has been collapsing in the face of global competition — going from a little less than 40% of global production in the 1970s to about 25% today. Opting for social democracy instead of innovative capitalism, Europe has ceded this share to China (predominantly), India, and the rest of the developing world.

Now that paragraph has caused leftist bloggers to unleash hell on poor Jim. For the initial, very courteous and sharp criticism, see Jonathan Chait at TNR. Chait raises at least two good points that made me initially think, “Hmm, Jim’s got some ‘splaining to do.” Specifically, Chait pointed out that Manzi weirdly compares the US from 1980 till now, while he compares Europe from “the 1970s” until now, and also that he focuses on total GDP rather than per capita.

And guess what? Jim did a great job ‘splaining. He didn’t pull a bait and switch, or call Chait a pinko, or say, “Oh well, once you factor in the costs of the Cold War, my point stands.” No, in this response, Jim goes through point by point and shows that if you adjust the comparisons in the way Chait wants, the same result holds. And he also gives a very plausible reason for whole total GDP is the relevant comparison for the point he was making. (He also notes that the level of per capita GDP is way higher in the US, so again it’s not clear how he was supposed to be misleading everyone.)

So naturally Paul Krugman weighs in and just embarrasses himself. Manzi responds here, pointing out that Krugman never emailed Manzi so he (Krugman) couldn’t possibly know what “data source” Manzi had used (and which was the source for Krugman claiming Manzi botched his calculation). Really, if you are busy and want to devote just five minutes, read Krugman’s rip and Manzi’s response, complete with pointing you to the actual cells in the spreadsheet. Classic. Also note that as of Tuesday afternoon, Krugman hasn’t updated his post to reflect Manzi’s response. I’m sure he’ll get right on that.

Like I said up top, what really bothered me in all this was how Tyler Cowen folded and came out and said, “Manzi was wrong” because Matt Yglesias double dog dared him. Now don’t get me wrong, this is a very nuanced debate and there are all sorts of ways you could try to come up with the proper calculation to make the point Manzi was trying to make. But that’s why you can’t definitively say, “Manzi was wrong”!!

What’s especially ironic is that these arbiters of truth and accuracy themselves are muddled and/or agnostic on this issue. In the very same post where Yglesias is mad that Tyler doesn’t come out and explicitly pass judgment on Manzi the Liar (or Arithmetic Fool), Yglesias says:

It’s very true that it’s hard to conceive of an apples-to-apples comparison of American policy to European policy. I don’t even know how you would specify a hypothetical that properly captures the impact of linguistic diversity on Europe.

And then in the very same post where Tyler folds and says, “Manzi was wrong,” Tyler starts off by (to his credit) conceding that a commenter showed two of Tyler’s earlier “thoughts on all this” contradicted each other!!

Everyone got that? Jim Manzi, who is hands down the most documented, intellectually honest, and precise pseudo-famous blogger I have ever encountered, makes a claim about Europe and the United States. A critic points out some ambiguities in the specific way Manzi originally defended his point, and Manzi very calmly defended himself on each of the criticisms.

Then Tyler brings up a bunch of general observations on the mess, two of which contradict each other. Matt Yglesias admits that he can’t even think of a proper way to measure what it was that Manzi was trying to measure. Paul Krugman just makes stuff up and doesn’t post a correction when Manzi busts him on it.

And now the conventional geeconosphere (=geek economics blogosphere) wisdom is, “Jim Manzi is a right-wing blowhard who makes up facts to support his preconceptions.” Let me be clear, I have NOT read Manzi’s original piece, because it’s way too long and (I suspect) way too chest-pounding for my liking. All I’m doing in this post is refereeing the accusations against Jim’s integrity.

Welcome to the geeconosphere, Jim.

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