A BASIC LACK OF SKILL: Drums along the NAEP scores!


Epilogue—Krugman and Lyons and Drum oh my! What real discussions look like: Don’t get us wrong! Almost surely, you will never see a real discussion of your nation’s NAEP scores.

The NAEP is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the widely-ballyhooed “gold standard” of American educational testing. As we have noted for years, everybody swears by the NAEP—every “educational reporter” and “educational expert.” And no one ever tells the public what the NAEP scores show!

This is a deeply irrational state of affairs. That said, it typifies the way your society "discusses" major issues.

In this morning’s New York Times, Paul Krugman sketches the way this gong show works. Krugman isn’t writing about educational policy; he’s writing about international economics and finance. But in the remarkable passages we will post, he describes the way the western world pretends to conduct its most important discussions of these seminal topics.

“Let’s start with the creation of the euro,” Krugman writes:
KRUGMAN (11/21/11): If you think that this was a project driven by careful calculation of costs and benefits, you have been misinformed.

The truth is that Europe’s march toward a common currency was, from the beginning, a dubious project on any objective economic analysis...

So why did those “technocrats” push so hard for the euro, disregarding many warnings from economists? Partly it was the dream of European unification, which the Continent’s elite found so alluring that its members waved away practical objections. And partly it was a leap of economic faith, the hope—driven by the will to believe, despite vast evidence to the contrary—that everything would work out as long as nations practiced the Victorian virtues of price stability and fiscal prudence.

Sad to say, things did not work out as promised. But rather than adjusting to reality, those supposed technocrats just doubled down—insisting, for example, that Greece could avoid default through savage austerity, when anyone who actually did the math knew better.
In that passage, Krugman describes a remarkable state of affairs. According to Krugman, the architects of European policy haven’t made their key decisions through “careful calculation of costs and benefits,” through “objective economic analysis.” Instead, these pseudo-experts have chased after a dream, taking ill-advised leaps of faith in situations where “anyone who actually did the math knew better.”

According to Krugman, our most important policy makers are, at their core, hapless faith-healers. As he continues, he continues to describe the intellectual processes put on display by these non-rational players.

Simply put, these major European elites aren’t rational players—and at the end of the following passage, Krugman offers a very important description. He describes the way our own “intellectual leaders” have persistently behaved in the past several decades, across a wide array of major subject areas:
KRUGMAN (continuing directly): Let me single out in particular the European Central Bank (E.C.B.), which is supposed to be the ultimate technocratic institution, and which has been especially notable for taking refuge in fantasy as things go wrong...

And now, with Europe in crisis—a crisis that can’t be contained unless the E.C.B. steps in to stop the vicious circle of financial collapse—its leaders still cling to the notion that price stability cures all ills. Last week Mario Draghi, the E.C.B.’s new president, declared that “anchoring inflation expectations” is “the major contribution we can make in support of sustainable growth, employment creation and financial stability.”

This is an utterly fantastic claim to make at a time when expected European inflation is, if anything, too low, and what’s roiling the markets is fear of more or less immediate financial collapse. And it’s more like a religious proclamation than a technocratic assessment.

Just to be clear, this is not an anti-European rant, since we have our own pseudo-technocrats warping the policy debate. In particular, allegedly nonpartisan groups of “experts”—the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the Concord Coalition, and so on—have been all too successful at hijacking the economic policy debate, shifting its focus from jobs to deficits.

Real technocrats would have asked why this makes sense at a time when the unemployment rate is 9 percent and the interest rate on U.S. debt is only 2 percent. But like the E.C.B., our fiscal scolds have their story about what’s important, and they’re sticking to it no matter what the data say.
According to Krugman, here’s what happens in our own country: Here in America, our alleged experts “have their story” about these important budget matters. And they’re sticking to their story “no matter what the data say.”

This is the pattern we have described, for the past dozen years, among our malfunctioning “press corps” elites. Here is the process we’ve often described:

The children adopt a preferred group narrative, then stick to that story no matter what. Facts are reported, disappeared, massaged or invented in order to to keep their group story going. We’ve called this process novelization, and please understand:

This is the way your failing culture actually works.

It’s surprising to see this culture in action; its practices fly in the face of everything we’ve been told in the west for the past 2500 years. Man [sic] is the rational animal! Aristotle is commonly said to have said it, and everyone else has agreed to believe it.

Man [sic] is the rational animal! It’s a wonderfully self-flattering portrait—and it’s massively bogus. Rationality plays little role in our society’s public discussions. This brings us back to the non-discussion discussion of those “gold standard” test scores.

Everybody swears by the NAEP—and no one says what the NAEP scores show! This nonsensical situation could only obtain in the world Krugman describes—a world in which pseudo-elites adopt a Preferred Group Story, then “stick to it no matter what the data say.”

No one ever discusses those NAEP scores—but this past weekend, two writers did! Over the weekend, two major liberal writers discussed the kinds of points we have been making about these scores for years.

First, Gene Lyons wrote this piece at Salon. Two days later, Kevin Drum reacted to Lyons’ piece at his Mother Jones blog. Drum also commented on some of the claims we’ve often made about those NAEP scores. Crackers! This is what a discussion would look like if we lived in a world where real discussions were actually held about the most important subjects—and if we lived in a world where white liberals cared about black kids.

Alas! We don’t live in a rational culture—and white liberals don’t seem to care about black kids. For those reasons, you will probably never see a real discussion of NAEP scores. But over the weekend, you started to see what such a discussion would look like if it ever occurred. First, one major writer discussed those scores. And then, another jumped in!

Tomorrow, we’ll offer three or four basic points about a few of the things Drum said in his post. We think Drum tends to underplay the progress indicated by those scores, though none of us will ever really know until that imagined discussion breaks out.

There is little reason to think that will happen. Tomorrow, let’s imagine all the people doing that sensible thing.

Tomorrow: Three or four clarifications

An update as we post: Yikes! We see that Kevin has already made one of the technical adjustments we had in mind in this later follow-up post. (He cites results from the “Main NAEP” study as well as from the NAEP’s “Long Term Trend” study.) He says he is responding to complaints from “several commenters.”

This is what a discussion looks like. In our world, they rarely exist.


  1. The insurance companies I worked for do pretty much live in rational world. As an actuary, I literally did the math. I also persuaded top management not to ignore the math. In one case, the CEO booked my figures, even though booking my calculations led to his being fired.

    I think my experience was fairly typical of private industry. Sure, some private companies falsify their results. But, Enron is the exception. Furthermore, the management of Enron went to prison.

    OTOH it's routine for government not to do the math (or to ignore the math.) Why should they do the math? If they get caught, there's no punishment. Also, as Bob points out, pundits don't get punished for failure to do the math.

    The same is true of companies protected by crony capitalism, like Solydra and Fannie Mae. Their managements didn't go to jail. On the contrary. Even though they spectacularly failed to heed the math, their managements got large bonuses -- tens of millions of dollars in the case of Fannie Mae!

  2. Yes, David.

    Thank goodness, in private industry, management doesn't walk away with huge bonuses while presiding over failure. [/sarcasm]

    Are you actually human?

  3. You got it, Anonymous. My assertion is that this sort of thing is much more common in companies that are in bed with the government like the two I mentioned.

    Another company near me that's not well-managed, but which pays high executive salaries, is Pacific Gas & Electricity. They've been granted a monopoly by the government.

    Then there Vivian Schiller, the f*ckup CEO of National Public Radio, whose hijinks finally managed to get her fired. She was paid $450,000 per year with a $125,000 bonus.

    OTOH I've been with two truly private companies that had periods where they were doing badly. Managements in both were fired.

  4. Well then, case proven.

    Unless facts matter.

    In which case, anecdotes such as you've provided would be irrelevant. We would need to treat seriously not just the companies you've "been with," but the real world.

    In that world, we are all aware that companies of serious size and impact on the global economy or environment have distributed large bonuses at times when their performance was disastrous. It's a truism, and it's true.

    Your "private" "market" hobbyhorse is a failure.

    The world has noticed.

  5. Another example is AIG. It paid out generous management bonuses after the government bailed it out. Had the government not gotten into bed with AIG, the company would likely have gone into some form of bankruptcy and no bonuses would have been paid

  6. Another gift based on crony capitalism:

    Obama's Labor Department Approves Deal Giving Ex-Solyndra Staff $13,000 Each In Federal Aid

    The Labor Department today announced that it had approved Trade Adjustment Assistance for the former employees of the bankrupt solar panel maker Solyndra.

    That means all of the firm’s 1,100 ex-employees are eligible for federal aid packages, including job retraining and income assistance. The department has valued packages at about $13,000 a head.

    Taxpayers will have to cough up yet another $14.3 million as a result of Solyndra’s bankruptcy. They are already on the hook for $528 million in federal loan guarantees to the company that are unlikely to ever be paid back.

    My daughter worked for an internet startup company that went bankrupt owing her two weeks salary. She didn't get a gift of $13,000.

  7. Amounts matter, David. Solyndra, your anecdote du jour, is a rounding error if we want to discuss matters of substance. But you know that.

    With regard to AIG of course it should be obvious that the extent of government involvement in banking hardly begins with "getting into bed" in the form of bailouts, David.

    Your market ideology apparently demands that the banking system should have been destroyed in 2008. Okay, you're in the minority with that view. But it's hardly a thoroughgoing anti-government-intrusion position anyway.

    You ought also to oppose the idea of a government central bank setting rates in the first instance. And perhaps you do oppose that. But again, that does qualify as an insane, minority position. One that is fairly characterized belonging to the religion of market fundamentalism.

    The idea that markets would solve all our problems if only they were finally and fully free of all government intrusion, is your religion -- we get that.

    But the sane 99% have moved on from that kindergarten view.

    We know your markets have failed us.