Sunday, May 18, 2014

Short Cuts

Other people’s narratives can be tricky stuff to handle
The narrative arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward expropriation.

— Yours Truly

Scene: Two weeks ago, Your Faithful Bloggist took exception to two paragraphs buried deep within a review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century by prolific economist Tyler Cowen. Said economist objected to my exception, dismissing it, in large part, as indicative of faulty framing of the underlying issue. Said YFB replied shortly thereafter, dismissing Cowen’s dismissal in turn as a bull-headed, tone deaf, and lazily written mischaracterization of my remarks. To date, Herr Doktor Cowen has declined to respond.

Conclusion: It seems whatever small brick Tyler Cowen thought my essay contributed to the structure of his meta-narrative of sociocultural reaction to Thomas Piketty’s work was ultimately unimportant enough to him that it does not bother him I have taken it back. Given that he willfully misinterpreted or mischaracterized it as a brick in the first place, I cannot say I am displeased.

Corollary: The practice of verbal judo—in which one attempts to redirect the force and power of one’s opponent’s words against him—requires dexterity with words, and such skill is not necessarily related to the intellectual prowess or force of ideas behind them.
Also: Don’t mess with a messer.
Also also: If Martin Wolf can’t intimidate me, there’s no way in hell Tyler Cowen can.

Scene: This past week, the incestuous echo chamber that is journalism was roiled by the unexpected firing of Jill Abramson, the Executive Editor of The New York Times. Imagine rolling a flash bang grenade into a warehouse full of 100,000 mockingbirds and your mind’s ear just might hear a pale imitation of the uproar, cacophony, and panic this has caused among the professional scrivening class. Of course, a hundred thousand theories and stories are blooming around this event, approximately 100,000 of which take the form of “What the Firing of Jill Abramson Really Means.” This, for instance, is a timely example.

Conclusion: Notwithstanding the force of any or all of these narratives—entrenched sexism, the personal and managerial flaws of Ms Abramson herself, or the vicious effects of third generation nepotism on the executive suite of the newspaper of record, all of which are plausible as contributing factors—getting somewhat lost in the kerfuffle seems to be the ineluctable fact that success or failure in the executive ranks of large corporate organizations is driven in large measure by politics. And politics, as we all know, is a simmering melange of personality, prejudice, path dependency, and conflicting issues of greater or lesser substance which intersect and interact in highly specific and often unexpected ways depending on the circumstances at hand. Very rarely can they be interpreted correctly by outsiders and, if truth be told, as often as not they remain opaque to insiders too. Therefore, the hubris of outside pundits opining on the real (primary) reason anything happens at the top of any large organization is laughable. Having been party to such organizations over the course of my own career, I can testify that power moves usually happen in response to a combination of multiple such factors, and it is the height of folly, even in retrospect, to assign superior weight to any one of them.

Corollary: Sorry to puncture your balloons, Single Issue Commentators, but when it comes to organizational dynamics you’re mostly full of shit.
Also: Oversimplifying complex phenomena to promote your hobby horse doesn’t fool anybody who matters, and it sure doesn’t help your agenda.

Scene: Also this past week, a widely followed and respected pseudonymous commentator on issues of municipal finance, financial markets, and other things on Twitter outed herself. She did this, in her words, because reporters from fixed income finance rag The Bond Buyer had apparently pieced together her real identity from various sources and were calling widely across the close knit municipal finance community trying to confirm it. This of course led to many of these people—many of whom knew her by her nom de plume Bond Girl (or @munilass) on Twitter but did not know her in real life—flooding her office with phone calls and emails warning her of The Bond Buyer’s actions. In order to keep control of her own narrative as much as she could, she announced her own identity on Twitter and began deleting her old tweets. Five minutes later, by her account, reporters from Bloomberg called to interview her for an article which ignored her authority and stature in the market in favor of gossip and personal innuendo. This episode has apparently created widespread disgust within the muni and markets communities against both Bond Buyer and Bloomberg, and has led several market participants to swear off acting as sources for either publication in the future. It did not help that Bloomberg subsequently attempted to smooth things over by publishing a humorous take on their reveal which turned Bond Girl into a sex object. More than a few people wondered openly whether Bloomberg would have “apologized” to a man in such a fashion.

Conclusion: I mean really, people, I admit I have a dog in this fight,1,2 but what the fuck? What newspaper worth its pretensions to being a source of industry news, knowledge, and analysis undermines a known industry expert and potentially puts her career at risk in order to titillate readers with trivia they will forget in 48 hours? What public benefit did this serve? Bond Girl was highly respected (if not always agreed with) for her insightful, informed, forceful opinions and analysis which she published on Twitter (and, for a long time, on a blog also) as well as a fun and interesting personality. In addition, she spent countless hours helping reporters from Bond Buyer, Bloomberg, and elsewhere by acting as an unpaid and uncredited source of information and analysis in the muni finance market. Call me crazy, but this seems like a very expensive bridge to burn for a very small bonfire.

Corollary: Burning sources for no good reason strikes me as a very stupid way to run a newsroom. I thought that’s why editors make the big bucks: for editorial judgment.
Also: Don’t shit where you eat.

Epilogue: We all have our bullshit stories to tell. Most of the time, the primary and only audience we have for them is ourselves. Sometimes, however, somebody or other will try to expropriate your story and replace it or recast it as their bullshit story, for reasons of their own. While this may not strictly be the narrative fallacy as commonly understood, it certainly is fallacious.

It’s your story. Don’t let the bastards take it from you.

1 I have explained my own rationale for maintaing a pseudonymous profile online and why—contra many non-pseudonymous bloviators—I believe pseudonymous commenters can add real value to public discourse elsewhere at length. However, I am under no illusion that I am safe from being outed at any time in the future. I have left enough clues, intentional and unintentional, over the course of my seven plus years online that someone in possession of one or two key facts about me in real life should be able to triangulate me to this identity. I am sure it will happen at some point down the line, if it has not already. I can only hope, however, that when it does the person in question will realize the trivial fact of my real identity will add virtually nothing good, bad, or even interesting to people’s understanding of me and will keep it secret to themselves. If they do not, well, then I will have to rely on discovering their home address and my knowledge of ancient ninja assassination techniques to extract suitable revenge.
2 The fact that I consider Bond Girl to be a friend is, of course, irrelevant to my argument. It is, however, highly relevant to me.

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