Asymmetrical Information

by Henry Farrell on June 17, 2006

“Megan McArdle”: has a go at me for “criticizing the _Economist_”: in my last post. Fair enough that she should want to stick up for her employer, but her argument seems to me to be (a) an attempt to duck the issue, and (b) preposterous.

bq. Note that The Economist, whose reporters extensively research and fact check their claims, is automatically full of [expletive deleted]. A New York TImes columnist who turns in 700 words twice a week consisting, in this case, apparently largely of reprinting the press releases of the Smithfield plant union organisers, is an unimpeachable source. Opinion columnists: reliable fonts of disimpassioned analysis. Reporters who spend weeks working on a story: partisan hacks. … This is not to slam opinion columnists, who I often enjoy. But having written reported stories, and opinion columns, I know that the standards for the latter are a tad more loose. No one ever challenges an opinion columnist to be balanced, fair, or even defend his facts, unless they’re of the “The Holocaust never happened!” variety. Reported pieces, on the other hand, get checked down to the spelling of the names, and then gleefully interrogated by editors and other reporters who disagree with you. When I see an opinion piece, I know that all the inconvenient facts have been left out so they won’t annoy the reader. When I read a reported piece, for all the complaining about the MSM in the blogosphere, I know that the editors and the writer are at least nominally interested in the truth, not the conclusion–at least provided that they work at a mainstream paper, and not one of the money-losing political mags where the editors have to keep the donors happy.

This is an argument from authority, a kind of argument with which Ms. McArdle has a “rather unhappy history”: More to the point – it’s a bogus argument from authority. McArdle’s claim is that newspaper reporters are more authoritative than op-ed writers, because they don’t leave out “all the inconvenient facts,” and because they’re “at least nominally interested in the truth, not the conclusion.” Now this is a claim that I’m prepared to buy, up to a point, with newspapers that maintain a clear separation between editorial content and reportage. The _Wall Street Journal_, for example, does some first rate economic reporting, even if its editorial pages are a cesspit. But as a defence of _The Economist_, it isn’t even laughable; it’s pitiable. _The Economist_ has never sought to disguise the fact that it’s a magazine with a strong pro-free market agenda, which pervades not only its editorial content, but its reporting. It doesn’t try to present both sides of the question and never has; its reportage is shot through with opinionated assertions and undefended value judgments about the need for “reform” of lamentably social-democratic West European countries, to marketize the education system &c&c&c. Nor does it tend to report developments which might call its preferred policy stances into question with any great degree of enthusiasm. Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in principle – I’m obviously in favour of strongly opinionated political writing, or I wouldn’t do it myself. But it certainly doesn’t put _Economist_ reporters in a very good place to criticize op-ed writers and political magazine journalists, or more generally to assume a lofty position from which they may criticize the pell-mell of ideologically driven debate beneath. The activities that op-ed writers and _Economist_ reporters are engaged in aren’t nearly as far removed from each other as Ms. McArdle might wish to suggest.

Which brings us to the more particular matter under discussion. Herbert’s piece rested on a set of factual claims – if she wants to take issue with the article, she should, one would think, concentrate on whether these claims are in fact correct, rather than appealing to general arguments about the inferiority of op-ed writers. My original post suggested precisely that “inconvenient facts have been left out so they won’t annoy the reader.” As I claimed, if you want to take an undocumented immigrant worker’s experience in Smithfield Foods’ meatprocessing plant as a proxy for the Mexican-American dream, it’s hardly irrelevant that Smithfield Foods has an established track record of abusing aforementioned undocumented immigrant workers’ rights, and threatening to report them to immigration authorities if they should dare to organize themselves. If this isn’t an “inconvenient fact” for the Economist‘s preferred narrative, I’m not sure what would be.

{ 1 trackback }

Crooked Timber » » Up to a Point, Lord Copper
06.22.06 at 1:38 pm



P O'Neill 06.17.06 at 4:20 pm

Bob Herbert puts his name to his column. Who puts their name to The Economist’s articles?


Brendan 06.17.06 at 4:23 pm

I notice Ms McCardle is still going on about the ’34 times’ statistic as though it is God’s honest truth, as opposed to highly tendentious and misleading rhetoric. To quote:

‘Not that Mr Farrell’s readers seem particularly interested in facts or truth. Much of the comments section consists of readers rather hilariously assuring each other that one of the statistics from The Economist’s story is right-wing horse puckey that cab drivers are 34 times more likely to be killed on the job than meat packers. I don’t know where that particular stat comes from, if they’d spent a little less time working themselves up into a fine lather of pompous indignation, and a little more time actually, y’know, trying to find out the truth, they would have discovered that the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists taxi driver as one of its most dangerous occupations in its Census of Occupational Fatalities, and that the most recent data shows that our nation’s 500K+ meatpackers experienced roughly 20 deaths per year on the job, while the roughly 60K cab drivers had an average of 60 occupational deaths per year, putting the disputed figure in the right ball-park.’

My own comments are at the bottom of the relevant post, but I would still like to know where she got the data that ‘500K plus’ people are ‘meatpackers’ in the US (this isn’t to say it’s not true: I’d just like to know where she got the information from). I would also like to reiterate that, whereas taken as read this statistic may (or may not) be accurate, it is also definitely true that 47 of the ’60’ deaths for taxi drivers in 2004 were homicides.


Brendan 06.17.06 at 4:38 pm

If anyone cares (and God knows, by this stage of the night, I’m not sure I do) I’ve found out where Ms McCardle got her information.

‘According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Labor`s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2003, an estimated 527,000 workers were employed in the animal slaughtering and processing industry’.

‘A number of injuries sustained by meat and poultry workers are fatal; according to BLS fatality data, from 1992 to 2002, 229 workers died from their injuries’.

So in the spirit of honesty, it seems that the statistic, as a statistic, would seem to be more or less accurate.


abb1 06.17.06 at 4:43 pm

Well, one could argue that the Economist takes an objective empirical approach is this case: let’s skip the details; immigants take these jobs, they (anecdotally) like them, they can even (anecdotally) afford a house working these jobs – everyone’s happy, case closed. It’s a Gone with the Wind kind of thing.


abb1 06.17.06 at 4:51 pm

In other cases, though, the Economist likes to take the opposite approach, like: yes, the Europeans seem happy now, but the devil is in the details – they are in a terrible shape, only they don’t know it.

Oh, well.


FXKLM 06.17.06 at 5:29 pm

Unions are a means, not an end. If the workers are able to secure a decent wage and standard of living without a union, why does it matter that they’re unable to unionize? That fact may not be inconvenient to the Economist’s narrative, but it’s certainly inconvenient to the narrative of a person who believes that unions are necessary to advance a worker’s standard of living.


Yentz Mahogany 06.17.06 at 5:43 pm

I was willing to play along with the Economist for a while, until I noticed two things which completely ruined their reputation.

1) In a critical peice on “No Logo”, Economist correspondent Sameena Ahmad accused Naomi Klein of being unqualified to discuss economic matters. Ahmad’s authority, evidently, derives from her degree from Oxford in physiology.

2) Their bandwagon riding in the 2004 election led to their labelling of John Kerry as “incoherent”. Kerry, of course, was perfectly coherent (in his discussion of the war), but his argument was detailed. In any other matter, this kind of bland misreporting would have raised hell, but evidently you can simply ignore things like “meaning” and “facts” in an election year.


Jonathan 06.17.06 at 5:50 pm

Dsquared’s “nine times out of ten when a scientist says anything stupid it can be traced back to Popper” remark was especially enjoyable there. I have to wonder about how this applies to the string theory discussions I’ve found myself reading at Peter Woit’s and Lubos Motl’s blogs.


Bernard Yomtov 06.17.06 at 6:57 pm

‘According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Labor`s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2003, an estimated 527,000 workers were employed in the animal slaughtering and processing industry’.

Yes, but that includes everyone who works in the industry, salespeople, accountants, janitors, etc., not just meatpackers. The figure for slaughterers and meatpackers is 127,760. See category 51-3023 at the BLS site.


yabonn 06.17.06 at 6:59 pm

As we’re on the subject, said D. Davies gave the best definition i know of The Economist : “a dangerous drug that needs to be kept out of the hands of slightly tipsy businessmen on trains.”


Kelly 06.17.06 at 9:18 pm


As an OpEd columnist, my life would be so much easier if I didn’t have to fact check, spell things properly, and had editors who just glanced at column length before signing off on layout.


John Quiggin 06.17.06 at 9:41 pm

‘No one ever challenges an opinion columnist to be balanced, fair, or even defend his facts, unless they’re of the “The Holocaust never happened!” variety.’

Also as an OpEd columnist, I’d say that this happens more than for reporters. Lots of news stories contain factual errors, but unless the error is personally damaging to someone they are generally not corrected. On the other hand, if you want to attack a columnist’s opinions, catching them out in (or, for that matter, simply alleging) an error of fact is an easy place to start.


Boo 06.17.06 at 10:41 pm

Henry, you are wrong to be harping on this point. The Herbert column and Economist article do not contradict or tell “a rather different tale” from each other. They tell the same tale from different perspectives.

Herbert is interested in the social justice aspect of exploited workers. The Economist is interested in how those workers are still better off than they would be in Mexico.

The Herbert column in fact adds little or nothing to what the Economist said. The Economist quoted a Human Rights Watch report and explicitly stated that “Slaughterhouses are harsh and dangerous places to work, said the report, and illegal immigrants, who form a large chunk of the workforce, find it hard to defy abusive employers…”

The Herbert article only adds explicit statements that the workers are not allowed to unionize and that the management violates labor laws. But both of these facts are rather obvious from the Economist’s own formulation “illegal immigrants… find it hard to defy abusive employers.”

Whether the illegal immigrants can unionize or have the full protection of American labor laws does not prevent them from enjoying a better workplace than they would have in Mexico, which is the Economist’s overall point.

It was the Economist article that told both sides of the story, both that of Human Rights Watch and that of a worker who benefited from his time there.

The Herbert column, on the other hand, does exactly what you criticize the Economist for, telling only one side of the story.

The fact that when confronted with both articles you choose to attack the Economist, and not Herbert, reveals your own biases, not those of the Economist.


Henry 06.17.06 at 11:48 pm

boo – ummm nope. The _Economist_ never itself endorses HRW’s claim that slaughterhouses are bad places to work, that immigrants are open to abuse etc, and indeed uses Queiroz’s story to cast doubt on these claims. But we’re not talking about matters of opinion here – we’re talking of matters of legally established fact. The _Economist_ never adverts to the fact that the Smithfields Foods management has been found by the NLRB to have threatened that it would report undocumented immigrants to the authorities if they voted for a union. I’ll repeat yet again – if you want to use the Smithfield Foods experience as your poster-boy for the experience of poor undocumented immigrants, then the ways in which management in your case-study have demonstrably abused illegal immigrants is surely germane. Nor for that matter, does the _Economist_ ever mention that the Smithfields Foods plant in question was specifically singled out in the HRW report; instead it suggests that the HRW report was about slaughterhouses in general.

For that matter, I’d be quite interested to know how the _Economist_ found Queiroz as a potential interviewee in the first place.


bad Jim 06.18.06 at 2:47 am

So few seem to find it troublesome that industries whose workers are regularly maimed are among those most vigilantly resisting unionization.

America is certainly fortunate to have an endlessly renewable source of workers at its doorstep.


Jack 06.18.06 at 3:28 am

I agree with boo except in the conclusions that that there is something wrong with the Herbert column and that there is something wrong with Henry taking issue with the article.

Since Mexicans do keep coming to the US it is obvious a priori that they in some sense prefer what they get there. It is not obvious that Smithfield should be let off the hook as a result.

I think the sins of the article are quite subtle. Firstly there is statistical sloppiness. That is not falsity and would probably pass a fact check. However the comparison of the danger of meatpacking with taxi driving is not illuminating, as Bernard above points out is probably flawed as a representation of the specific dangers faced by Mr. Q and neglects the culpability of the employers in the danger. Finally the comparison is puzzling because many taxi drivers are immigrants themselves so if the magazine had chanced on a different immigrant they would have had to find a different comparison.

Secondly since millions of Mexicans take great risks to come to the US most probably do prefer to come to the US. After that the article is amazingly incurious. It might have investigated something controversial or poorly understood. For example does the willingness of Mexicans to work in such conditions make conditions in such places worse? What makes life so hard at home? Was Mr. Q a farmer whose livelihood was destroyed by farm subsidies? Does his illegal status make conditions worse or his labour cheaper? What does that mean in terms of economic incentives? Instead we get what we knew from the beginning.

It is precisely because there is no contradiction between the facts of the Herbert article and those of The Economist one yet there is no chance of the Herbert article or anything like it appearing in The Economist that there is a problem.

It also seems rather bad form of Ms. Galt to cast aspersions on Bob Herbert’s article without attempting raise an actual objection to the article.


Brendan 06.18.06 at 5:26 am

For what it’s worth: ‘
Yes, but that includes everyone who works in the industry, salespeople, accountants, janitors, etc., not just meatpackers. The figure for slaughterers and meatpackers is 127,760. See category 51-3023 at the BLS site.’

‘Jane’ (Megan?) flat out disputed this in the last thread:

‘And “animal slaughter and meatpacking” is a category for people who slaughter animals, and pack the meat. Management is a separate occupation, so no, they aren’t lumping in the office guys with the guys wielding the knives.’

And no I have no idea where the truth lies. But I would suggest that someone should get this sorted out before wielding the (highly misleading and beside the point) ’34 times’ statistic.


Brendan 06.18.06 at 5:32 am

Finally (and I am going out now so I will stop…er…flogging this dead horse…pardon the imagery….)

the over 500K figure came from adding together ALL workers in the meat industry (including poultry). But that still only comes to (according to link above): 89,860 (poultry workers) plus 127,760 (Slaughterers and Meat Packers). Even if you added in all the butchers and other workers in meat and poultry as well, you still wouldn’t get above 250,000.

So unless there is some differing kind of count or definition, or the 500K stat is somehow more accurate in a way in which I don’t understand or know about…the ’34’ times stat is inaccurate.

This is my final position on the matter until my next one.

(Research done on behalf of the reality based community).


anon2 06.18.06 at 7:30 am

The economist has a slant but they arent fundamentalist or anything. I saw a decent article about income inequality in it the other day.


Burzootie 06.18.06 at 9:22 am

McCardle works for the economist? explains a lot.


Bernard Yomtov 06.18.06 at 11:12 am

Management is a separate occupation, so no, they aren’t lumping in the office guys with the guys wielding the knives.’

That’s exactly what they are doing. Look at the link.

The reason McArdle relies on arguments from authority is she has a great deal of difficulty with any other kind.


Hedley Lamarr 06.18.06 at 5:32 pm

My copy of the latest Economist has some unnamed factotum supporting aWol’s bogus Iraq war. ‘Nough said.


David Margolies 06.19.06 at 5:15 pm

About the 34 times more likely to be killed: the game of picking the wrong statistic. How about comparison of likelihood to be injured, which seems more relevant to me. (I do not know the numbers, but I would guess that packing house accidents are lost fingers or hands, which may rarely be fatal. As some one else pointed out, most taxi driver fatalities are homocide, presumbably less a risk to meatpackers *in the plant*.

But as usual, the Economist misses the point in their article in many ways. They say “American meat has grown steadily leaner, cheaper and safer” and leave that out it tastes like nothing worth eating.

When I subscribed, occasionally there would be an article in the US section on a subject I know a lot about. The facts were generally garbled or wrong.


nick s 06.19.06 at 11:29 pm

They say “American meat has grown steadily leaner, cheaper and safer” and leave that out it tastes like nothing worth eating.

You’d be interested in last month’s Harper’s, then, which had a piece on the pig-farming business discussion those things.

Anyway, it’s the McArdle Principle: for every argument that can be supported with facts and citations, ‘Jane Galt’ will have met someone who says the exact opposite.

Comments on this entry are closed.