October 14, 2000

Strakon Lights Up

The numbers game

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The numbers, the numbers — it's all, liyeeek, a very ungroovy flashback to the '60s, maaahn!

Al Gore reminds many of us of certain relentlessly obnoxious kids we had the misfortune to grow up with. The most common archetype we hear about is that of the grade-grinding classroom know-it-all. But as a bespectacled geeky type who spent a good part of his own school days waving his hand in the air to the indignation and frustration of his schoolmates, I have to stipulate that Gore reminds me of a more particular breed of cat.

Hearing him chant his numbers takes me back not to sixth grade but rather to my college days, when I was growing up intellectually in the individualist and anti-statist movement, first as an orthodox and then as a heterodox (i.e., anarchist) Randian. From time to time my confederates and I rented a table in the lobby of a campus building to flog Miss Rand's books and pamphlets or, later, some incendiary propaganda of our own devising. We also ran a Students of Objectivism group — and with an iron fist, I can tell you; but still, it was open to visitations by interlopers of whatever ideological kidney might be out there. And visitations there were.

I've had a little fun hereabouts with the "um" and "liyeeek" incoherence of the classic flower child, for whom New Left politics was a kind of sentimentality that rarely took a form any more rigorous than that found in the lyrics of the weepier folk song. Usually, the flower child stumbled up against us glowering Randians only by accident, and, if in his cannabic fog he was able to comprehend anything of what we were about, he pretty much confined himself to something along the lines of, "Liyeeek, I really feel, liyeeek, sorry for you, duuuude." The true New Leftist wasn't like that, though. In fact, the real New Left guys (they were always guys) who accosted us had a hard edge, and they were ready to rumble.

They tended to rumble by the numbers. There I was, ready and eager to use logic and talk in terms of principle and take the discourse back to axioms (if you've had a real conversation with a Randian, you know what I mean), while occasionally throwing in some evidence from history (given my historical bent), but once the New Leftist got started with his numbers, it was impossible to get an axiom in edgewise: "Don't you realize that, according to the famous Yale Hyperpoliticopsychodesic Index of 1965-6, 91.62 percent of the first through eighth percentiles of the 4,702 underprivileged families studied showed a standard deviation of 3.3 from the concatenated median results of the 1961 Cornell Combined Stochastic Deperception Instrument? It's right there in section 5, paragraph 9! Bottom of page 1163! What's more, 33.94 percent of the residual norm reflected an asymptotic curve, cross-cut by triple-alternated out-months, of 6.5 by 11. Think of it — 6.5 by 11! Now if you won't accept that  as conclusive evidence of the urgent need for socialism, then I don't know what you would accept!"

Used to drive me nuts. I couldn't talk that way, and I couldn't understand anyone who did. I had a better chance of understanding the notorious word-tangles of Rand's super-villain, Immanuel Kant. And since I had no clue about what the New Leftist was saying, I couldn't refute it. Now, whenever a Student of Objectivism found himself unable to readily refute the blatherings of whatever partisan of the anti-mind wandered into his bailiwick, the shock of the experience tended to wipe that characteristic glower right off his face, replacing it with a most un-Randian slack jaw and glazed eyes. Looking back to those occasions when I got badly spattered by a fusillade from the New Left's automatic number cannon, I'm afraid that my expression resembled the one so often worn by our modern, and cosmically un-Randian, George W. Befuddled after one of his canings at the hands of Professor Doctor Alberrrrt.

In my defensiveness and embarrassment, I used to grouse to my confederates that, for all I knew, my adversary had made it all up. That, in turn, made me feel a little ashamed of myself. You've got to show and expect good faith in these dealings, after all. And later when I got to know their mentality a little better, I concluded that some New Leftists probably did sit down and memorize all that garbage — in other words, that there was a lot of truth in the caricature of the hairy leftist curled up in a sleeping bag in the rat-infested basement of a socialist bookstore, poring over yellowed, crumbly back issues of Monthly Review by flashlight, while partisans of the Right were out swilling martinis, carving filet mignon, and coming on to their secretary. Rightists tended to understand that there was more to life than politics and ideology, even if they often replaced those concerns with the crummiest sort of careerism and self-indulgence. That was more human — "all too human," as it were — but it did make them less effective partisans than the leftists.

Well, look what happened. The more persistent of the old New Leftists aren't working for free in flyblown socialist bookstores these days, and they're not sleeping down in the basement among the spider webs. They're carving their own filet mignon (or broiled swordfish, at least) and doing a lot more than just coming on to their secretary.

They still love those confounded numbers, though.


Now, the young Al Gore couldn't have spent much time in any spider-webby basement. He's a cradle member of the power elite, born with a silver hammer-and-sickle in his mouth. But he's certainly learned to play the numbers game just the way the New Leftists played it. And whether or not they deliberately lied by the numbers, Gore positively makes a practice of it.

He's not very subtle, though, and that may doom him yet. There are enough non-leftist policy wonks around today who have learned to talk numbers, too, and they're pretty good at catching him out. (Many of them cut their teeth as junior functionaries during their own version of the 1960s — the Reagan years.) But here's something that non-leftists who play the numbers game — rightists and Cato-style "libertarians" both — had better remember. To discourse by the numbers is to speak the language of bureaucracy and of Power. And it is a style of discourse eternally haunted by deceit — even when the figures are accurate and the math, unlike Gore's, is impeccable.

Haunted by deceit? This is a good example of what I mean. A few years ago, during one of the periodic campaigns to raise the minimum wage, some "liberal" (i.e., socialist) group released a study conducted in the American Southwest showing what they claimed were innocuous results of the most recent minimum-wage increase. Never missing a cue, the leftist radio program "All Things Considered" triumphantly proferred the study as irrefutable evidence of the innocuousness of the minimum wage per se. But what the study purported to show and what it actually showed were two different things.

The study showed only that the unemployment rate among a certain cohort — "underprivileged" colored teenagers — had not risen in the period following the latest minimum-wage hike. But it did not show, and could not show, what would have happened in the absence of the hike. A free-market economist, looking at the results and indulging in some actual economic reasoning, could confidently declare that factors invisible to the study — overall improvements in the regional (or national) economy or a net out-migration of the disemployed, for instance — had compensated for the negative effect of the minimum-wage rise on marginal workers. He might even go on to suggest that in the absence of the minimum-wage hike the rate of employment among the marginal would not have remained stationary but would have improved. Alternatively, he might argue that rising wage rates had rendered even the new, higher minimum wage moot and economically nugatory.

Our free-market man would be so confident because of his understanding of the laws of human action, crystallized, in this case, in a demand curve showing that a rise in the price of labor reduces the demand for labor on the margin. A demand curve: now, that's a mathematical expression with some actual thinking behind it. The "All Things Considered" story exemplified the error Bastiat warned us against: taking into account only what is seen and ignoring what is unseen. In interpreting the minimum-wage study, the leftists looked only at some very visible numbers and blinded themselves, and attempted to blind their listeners, to factors that were invisible to the study.


I first saw the numbers game being practiced by the New Leftists, but they didn't invent it. The metastasis of bureaucratic and socialist-sociological habits of mind on these shores has made it sound less outré over the years, but deceitful arguing by the numbers actually has a long history. The Old Leftists relied on it shamelessly. For example, in The Red Decade,  Eugene Lyons recounts how the editors of The New Republic "published charts contrasting key economic indexes in America and in Russia, never questioning the doctored Soviet figures, never discounting for quality factors or for cost in life and substance, never alluding to the march of death and terror through the land." (2nd edition, p. 104) That was in the early '30s, as Stalin's state-induced famine was killing millions.

In 1932, one of the years of the Great Hunger, American writer Joseph Freeman published The Soviet Worker,  which Lyons describes as "an idyllic picture of life in Russia based wholly on official claims." The entire thing, Lyons writes, "rested on the assumption that every last statistic issued by Moscow was a scientifically checked fact, and on the even more egregious assumption that every Soviet ruble was worth 50 American cents, though its purchasing power (when there was anything to purchase) was between two and three cents." (p. 113)

The Old Leftists may not have been conscious of their lying: which is to say, one can lie to oneself at the same time one lies to others. In any case it seems that, whether they are conscious of lying or not, our modern leftists came by their dishonesty with numbers quite honestly. It's funny how habits of mind can leap across the generation gap. The New Leftists who are now Red Guards must despise their intellectual ancestors in some ways: the Old Leftists were meat-eaters, cigarette-smokers, and ridiculers of homosexuals who from time to time felt they had to display admiration for the slave-owners Washington and Jefferson. But both generations, Old Left and New, wound up speaking the same language of Power.

In the case of Gore Junior, it's quite possible that he didn't need to learn the numbers game from any bedraggled, spider-webby New Leftists at all, given the Gore family's intimate connections with the old Communist-capitalist tycoon Armand Hammer, who found his vocation in Soviet concessions and connections, and his avocation in Soviet apologetics.


In my time I've written one or two articles heavy with numbers — TLD veterans may particularly remember the statistics-bristling "A two-legged stool" from TLD 17 — but it always gave me a creepy feeling. One reason was that most of the numbers came straight from the Central Government, otherwise known as Heavy-Duty Lie Factory No. 1. I reported honestly, but I never knew for sure whether my figures were honest.

I do think we partisans of freedom can use numbers, though, so long as we remember that they're no substitute for thought, especially thought about human action. If we've got a statistical abstract open on one knee, it's a good idea to keep Mises or Rothbard open on the other.

October 14, 2000

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