Up to a Point, Lord Copper

by Henry Farrell on June 21, 2006

I see that Megan McArdle has responded to my “response”:https://crookedtimber.org/2006/06/17/asymmetrical-information/ with “two”:http://www.janegalt.net/blog/archives/005805.html “posts”:http://www.janegalt.net/blog/archives/005806.html, one quite voluminous. I don’t want to belabour this any more than it needs to be belaboured, so I’ll do my best not to be prolix. If you dig beneath the lengthy exposition and lumbering sarcasm, her contentions seem rather straightforward and easily summarizable.

(1) She’s a journalist, and I’m not: therefore she knows more about journalism than I do. Indisputably true – but she’s also a journalist for the publication in question, which may fairly be said to make her more inclined to resent attacks and unconsciously to present a rather stronger case for the defense than might a neutral observer, given the same information.

(2) _The Economist_ is a real newspaper, with real reporters, whose goal is “to find the truth and print it,” and anyway, all newspapers have unconscious biases, so there. Short snappy answer: it’s altogether a wonder how often the truth lends itself to trite wrap-up paragraphs peddling pro-market pabulum. Somewhat longer answer – yes, the _Economist_ has reporters, who do go out there and dig up facts. But it’s recognizably a very different animal from _The New York Times_, _The Wall Street Journal_, or (to take perhaps the aptest comparison) the _Financial Times_. The _Financial Times_ has a clear set of biases – more or less those of the City of London, which make it a little less right wing (and certainly less pro-American) than the _Economist_ but rather more right wing than, say, me. But even though those biases exist and shape its coverage, the coverage is intended to set out and convey facts. It doesn’t seek actively to persuade you of its viewpoint. The _Economist_ does: cf the trite concluding paragraphs discussed above. It may be as Megan argues that this is a good thing – makes caveats easier for the discerning emptor and so on – but it surely allows the _Economist_ to spin its account of the truth far more actively than do more genuinely newspaperly publications.

(3) There’s nothing wrong with setting out a Human Rights Watch report and then introducing a worker’s counterclaims to set things right. Or, in Megan’s more sarcastic version:

bq. Instead of focusing on unions, The Economist, having established that a widely respected human rights group thinks Smithfield is abusive, decides in a fit of right-wing madness, to ask a worker who had made it out of the slaughterhouse what he thought about the experience. Mr Farrell appears to think that asking people about their experiences, and then writing down what they say, is bad reportage. This must be some special, super-scientific academic method that those of us who do not have PhDs in Political Science are too dumb to understand.

(see also her shorter post where she hares off down the wrong track, and thinks that my mention in response to a commenter that the _Economist_ didn’t endorse the Human Rights Watch Report is a demand that the _Economist_ must endorse Human Rights Watch reports, and then starts frothing off about partisan hackery).

My complaint isn’t really about the Economist‘s treatment of the HRW report. It’s about the Economist‘s failure to mention at any point whatsoever that we have a legal determination that Smithfield Foods abused immigrant workers. A judge has found that the company threatened that it would report immigrant workers to the authorities if they were impertinent enough to vote to join a union. I understand from Jordan Barab that the firm has finally abandoned its appeal against this decision. When you’re setting out claims about whether the Smithfield Foods experience is (a) abusive of immigrants’ rights, or (b) hard work but fair, it surely takes an awful lot of special pleading to claim irrelevance for a legal determination that Smithfield Foods is in fact abusive. To make this clearer, let’s take an example that she mentions in her own post, the Enron scandal, and set out a hypothetical. Imagine that an eager young reporter comes along tomorrow to the _Economist_ with a story on corporate accountability, which mentions Enron as an example. The set up of the example is that a corporate accountability watchdog group has written a report attacking energy futures traders for bad financial controls. But the reporter has spoken to a former Enron employee who talks about his experience and says that everything was peachy and above-board. The story doesn’t mention that Skilling and Lay have been convicted of malfeasance. Do we think that this story is going to make it into the _Economist_? Do we even think that this reporter is going to keep his job? The questions surely answer themselves.

(4) That I’m a conspiracy theorist for politely inquiring in comments where the _Economist_ found Mr. Queiroz, its voluble informant about working conditions in Smithfield Foods Tar Heel plant. Or again, to quote Megan in her own words:

bq. Cue the sinister music. Undoubtedly, they had him fabricated at the Evil Right Wing Straw Men factory. Alberto Queiroz is made of people! He’s people!!!!!!

This seems to me to be an entirely reasonable question. Now it may be that the _Economist_ has strong contacts among the community of former Smithfield Foods workers who have made it good and returned home to set up restaurants. I’m actually not being entirely sarcastic here – small worlds phenomena can sometimes have very strange consequences. But it seems to me to be somewhat unlikely. My best bet, from my experience with reporters is that the reporter found him by asking someone. Whenever a reporter phones me and finds out that I’m not the right person to talk to on topic _x_, he or she usually then asks me to suggest someone better suited to talk about it. If this is indeed what happened, I would be interested to know more about the chain of recommendations that led to Mr. Queiroz. Happily, we’re in a position where we don’t have to speculate. Megan is presumably a colleague of the reporter in question; she can ask him or her and tell us the answer in general terms. I can’t see how this would jeopardize anonymity, sources etc – broad information on what happened would do quite nicely.

{ 30 comments }

1

david 06.21.06 at 10:12 pm

“unconsciously to present a rather stronger case for the defense than might a neutral observer”

Ha! a phrase like that suggests you know reporting quite well.

Well done, but don’t spend too much time trapped in that snake pit.

2

Walt 06.21.06 at 10:22 pm

She actually works for the Economist? That explains more about the decline of the publication than any other single fact.

3

Eli Rabett 06.21.06 at 10:37 pm

Someone once told me that everything in the Economist is written along the line of if pigs were horses, cows would fly. Since most of us recognize that pigs are not horses, there is no reason to read that rag.

McArdle appears to have mastered the Economist style manual.

4

fishbane 06.21.06 at 10:53 pm

Eli Rabett goes too far. The Economist is a fine rag, in fact, one of my favorites. I disagree with lots of it, but that doesn’t detract from even from the stories I disagree with – they’re reported well and interesting with a far greater density than lots of other rags. That doesn’t mean it is perfect, or that Ms. Galt is right. But it is a great companion to one’s fare of magazines.

5

fishbane 06.21.06 at 10:56 pm

But it is a great companion to one’s fare of magazines.

Gah. Apologizes, poor phrasing. I should have said something like it is a great magazine to throw in to one’s normal fare of periodical reading.

6

Doug 06.22.06 at 12:04 am

“Mr Farrell appears to think that asking people about their experiences, and then writing down what they say, is bad reportage.”

If that’s all you do, that is indeed bad reportage. Who are you asking? Why are you asking them? Are they telling the truth? Are there considerations that could prevent them from telling the truth? What kinds of different truths do you get when you ask different people? Are you telling your readers what’s important about the people you have talked with? (Is the person you talked to, for example, a union organizer, a relative of someone killed in a plant accident, a Republican activist, or any of dozens of other relevant possibilities? Do you, as a reporter, know enough background about the person you are quoting?)

Point four is also completely valid. All kinds of interested parties will make connections for reporters. Sometimes the interviews that follow from those connections serve an agenda; sometimes they don’t. Somtimes the reporter has the time to dig deeply; sometimes deadline is too pressing. But asking about the connection is legitimate.

7

Daniel 06.22.06 at 1:41 am

At least in the minds of all the editors I’ve ever dealt with at The Economist, the purpose of an Economist article is not to sell the gospel of free markets; it is to find out the truth, and print it

This is a pretty serious accusation which could potentially cost someone their job. Ever since its 1843 prospectus, the mission of the Economist has been to write articles “in which free-trade principles will be most rigidly applied to all the important questions of the day”.

8

abb1 06.22.06 at 2:25 am

…free-trade principles…

That would be nice, but for some (not entirely mysterious) reason they tilt towards one ‘market squeeze for the poor – state protection for the rich’ variety.

9

Jason 06.22.06 at 5:24 am

This fine journalist decided not disclose up front she was defending her former employer? How nice.

I did not follow this exchange too carefully, but I think your original points hold up well. A story is not just about getting facts correct (the 34-times statistic has been shown to be *ahem* a bit of an exaggeration, hasn’t it?), but also choosing which facts to include. I mean, we can post facts and testimonials for product X: Fat free, suppresses appetite, widely touted as “the greatest stuff in the world.” Then you could list the bad effects of heroin, as well as the sordid details of the not-so-great testimonials: “I ended up servicing men in public restrooms.”

10

nick s 06.22.06 at 5:31 am

Mr Farrell appears to think that asking people about their experiences, and then writing down what they say, is bad reportage.

Here we have the McArdle Method in crystalline form. One might call it ad hominem to say so, but La Galt’s practice for years has been to counterweigh large data samples with anecdotes, or not address those samples at all. It’s journalistic horseshit. As if ‘a report’ from ‘a human rights organisation’ is not ‘prepared’ by ‘asking people about their experiences’. Mercy me.

11

Steve 06.22.06 at 7:29 am

“It’s about the Economist’s failure to mention at any point whatsoever that we have a legal determination that Smithfield Foods abused immigrant workers. A judge has found that the company threatened that it would report immigrant workers to the authorities if they were impertinent enough to vote to join a union.”

I’m not familiar with this case, so I’ve got to read between the lines of your own summary to understand it.

By immigrant workers, I assume you mean illegal immigrants (because, otherwise, what would reporting legal immigrants to the authorities mean)?

And reporting illegal immigrants to the authorities presumably means ‘obeying the law.’? (i.e. would reporting them to the authorities result in those immigrants being illegally punished?).

So the gist of the situation is that the company threatened to obey its own country’s immigration law? And that constitutes abuse of illegal immigrants?

Steve

12

pedro 06.22.06 at 7:56 am

Steve: one does not “obey” one’s own country’s immigration law by threatening to become a McCarthyist prick, unless the law of the land clearly commands one to be one.

What constitutes abuse of illegal immigrants, you ask? Are you implying nothing does?

13

Barry 06.22.06 at 8:03 am

Steve, I see the insinuation as that the company knowingly hired illegal immigrants, and then used selective reporting to use the government to rid themselve of problem workers (which could well include those injured on the job).

Frankly, I can’t figure out why you don’t see that, and why you look on it as a matter of a company merely obeying the law.

14

pedro 06.22.06 at 8:04 am

Here’s my position, for what it’s worth. If we are to take Steve’s favorite position, and decree that companies are allowed to treat illegal immigrant workers the very ways labor law has deemed illegal, then we provide an incentive for companies to indeed hire more illegal immigrants, threaten reporting them to the INS, and treat them according to the standards of their own choosing. Violating labor laws twice (by hiring illegal workers and then treating them in sub-standard fashion) should not be applauded.

15

Kevin Donoghue 06.22.06 at 8:07 am

Steve Steve,

IANAL but I’m pretty sure that if I try to extract services from somebody by threatening to set the cops on them, that is itself a criminal offence. I’m not sure of the legal term but it is commonly called blackmail.

16

jet 06.22.06 at 8:32 am

The fact that the company threatened to turn in the illegals is actually pretty funny. If they turned in one of their employees as an illegal, wouldn’t that A) be an admission of their own guilt for hiring an illegal, B) alert the INS to the high probability that a raid would find many more illegals (harming the company by reducing their available employees), and C) be construed by a hardline DA as blackmail?

Unfortunately, those with very little social capital, those not so familiar with the workings of the world, are quite vulnerable to manipulation by threatening the law.

17

Kenny Easwaran 06.22.06 at 8:37 am

I believe that many legal immigrants are in fact worried about getting immigration police called, because they worry about friends and relatives that might be illegal, or they worry about the hassle of a long hearing or trial or whatever even if they are innocent. I don’t know whose arguments this undermines more, but I think it undermines a few points in this dialectic.

18

abb1 06.22.06 at 8:48 am

If they turned in one of their employees as an illegal, wouldn’t that A) …

Most likely it would do none of these things.
Illegal Hiring Is Rarely Penalized:

Between 1999 and 2003, work-site enforcement operations were scaled back 95 percent by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which subsequently was merged into the Homeland Security Department. The number of employers prosecuted for unlawfully employing immigrants dropped from 182 in 1999 to four in 2003, and fines collected declined from $3.6 million to $212,000, according to federal statistics.

In 1999, the United States initiated fines against 417 companies. In 2004, it issued fine notices to three.

The employee would be deported and the employer would suffer no consequences.

19

Henry 06.22.06 at 9:06 am

bq. This fine journalist decided not disclose up front she was defending her former employer? How nice.

Her current employer, I believe (although I could be mistaken). But in fairness, this isn’t dishonesty on her part; she hasn’t ever tried to conceal her affiliation afik.

20

Urinated State of America 06.22.06 at 9:16 am

Daniel said:
‘This is a pretty serious accusation which could potentially cost someone their job.’

‘Ever since its 1843 prospectus, the mission of the Economist has been to write articles “in which free-trade principles will be most rigidly applied to all the important questions of the day”.’

Although those free-trade principles can be suspended when convenient: IIRC Daniel and I had a hard time explaining to McArdle that compensation to gubmint workers would have to track income growth in the economy as a whole, and not inflation. (Perhaps they teach microeconomics differently in U.Chicago GSB.)

21

Steve 06.22.06 at 9:58 am

“threatening to become a McCarthyist prick”

What does McCarthy have to do with illegal immigrants?

“Steve, I see the insinuation as that the company knowingly hired illegal immigrants, and then used selective reporting to use the government to rid themselve of problem workers (which could well include those injured on the job).”

I saw no mention of injuries on the job. I only read the implication that turning in immigrants to the authorities constitutes abuse of immigrants. Still can’t figure out how. If the company knowingly hired illegal immigrants, then the company also broke the law. But that also has nothing to do with ‘abuse’ of immigrants.

“to treat illegal immigrant workers the very ways labor law has deemed illegal”

The only statement in the article is that the company threatened to turn (illegal) immigrants into the authorities. Has labor law really said that turning illegal immigrants into immigration authorities is illegal?

I guess I can see that only turning in illegal immigrants under certain circumstances is unfair (whether it constitutes blackmail or not, I’m not sure), and maybe illegal.

I understand that we all agree, then, that the company’s mistake was to only selectively turn in the illegal immigrants. What the company should have done was not hire the illegal immigrants to begin with, and then turn them all in as soon as they learned of their existence. Is this correct?

Steve

22

Christopher M 06.22.06 at 10:18 am

That 1843 prospectus was a little overambitious, wasn’t it?

“…and we seriously believe that FREE TRADE, free intercourse, will do more than any other visible agent to extend civilization and morality throughout the world—yes, to extinguish slavery itself.”

23

Tim McG 06.22.06 at 10:25 am

Hey, everybody, I know what let’s do! Let’s have a meta-debate!

Why are Chris and Megan getting so vicious at each other, when they’re both reasonable, smart people? Why is it that they both don’t say, “OK, we each exaggerated a bit here, and made an unnecessary insinuation there, but we’re both out to genuinely improve the lot of humanity so let’s let bygones be bygones and agree to disagree”?

A couple of hypotheses:
1) It’s fun to have a debate with a smart person who disagrees with you. (Fair enough, but the fun stops when the debate turns ugly. Or it looks like you’re losing. In public. Which leads to point #2)

2) Ego investment/maintaining a public persona. They’re public figures, they’ve each got their cheering section which they don’t want to let down by saying, “um, yeah, I guess you’re right about that.

All of this leads me to another, larger hypothesis on the correlation between 21st-century communication and political polarization. (I’m totally leaving aside institutional and structural explanations, not because they’re not important but because I don’t think they can explain everything). Email, blogs, and all the other methods to express opinions publicly and easily make it much harder to back down from an opinion when you realize you’ve been mistaken about something.

The only publicly acceptable narrative we have for “I made a mistake” is “I once was lost but now am found”–you have to admit to complete error in order to disavow an earlier view.

If you say, “I was mistaken about…” you are labelled a flip-flopper or a fool or worse.

Anyone care to shoot down my idea? Anyone have any better narratives? Any great examples of self-correction on the part of politically successful and powerful people?

Or, are there any optimists out there, who think that the notion of “the self-correcting blogosphere” is actually having the opposite effect, and perhaps there is a new generation growing up with the internet teaching them that there is always someone out there who can teach you something?

24

Burzootie 06.22.06 at 10:31 am

Megan is a very silly person with poor grasp of logic, surprisingly limited knowledge, a willingness to be dishonest, a fan of appeals to anecdote-as-authority which more often than not are so ridiculous on their face that they must be made up.* As someone said upthread, the fact that she works for the Economist is all the evidence that one needs that the oncefine-if-always-somewhat-frustrating magazine has circled the bowl.

*I’m referring specifically to the time she argued for the estate tax appeal by asserting that rich people get around it anyway. Her anecdote in support of this was that in her high school class at her prestigious boarding school none of her classmates had paid the estate tax. This requires that out of this group of 17 year olds a non-trivial number had already inherited estates above the limit and that this was a standard topic of conversation at that school.

25

Cryptic Ned 06.22.06 at 2:09 pm

I understand that we all agree, then, that the company’s mistake was to only selectively turn in the illegal immigrants. What the company should have done was not hire the illegal immigrants to begin with, and then turn them all in as soon as they learned of their existence. Is this correct?

You are correct, the company morally should not blackmail immigrants by threatening to report them to immigration if they complain about work conditions. The company wouldn’t be able to blackmail the immigrants, though, if there was some sort of enforcement of the laws against the company hiring the immigrants.

However, the company currently has a 1% chance of being punished for hiring illegal immigrants, while the immigrants have a 100% chance of being punished if the company reports them.

26

Barry 06.22.06 at 4:32 pm

Add in that it’s really tough to try to collect your last paycheck if you’re back in Mexico, flat broke. A nice cost saving in addition to labor discipline.

27

EPUesque 06.22.06 at 8:19 pm

What the company should have done was not hire the illegal immigrants to begin with, and then turn them all in as soon as they learned of their existence. Is this correct?

I highlighted the part I felt was most correct. Mostly because there’s a very good chance the company knew before hiring that the immigrants were not legal, and they preferred illegal workers *because* they could push around and treat subhumanly, threatening them with deportation. What you outlined in the italics above would have been infinitely preferable. In fact, the only thing I would add to it is “and the company should have put a statement on its applications or job postings that specifically, clearly stated this will-not-hire, turn-’em-in policy.” I’d respect and appreciate a company that did all this.

28

aaron 06.23.06 at 6:35 am

Did you suggest that the economist is right-wing?!

29

Barry 06.23.06 at 7:59 am

Tim McG : “Why are Chris and Megan getting so vicious at each other, when they’re both reasonable, smart people? ”

Megan is not a reasonable person. She’s a fanatical Chicago-School person, who’s hit her niche as a propagandist after repeatedly failing in the business world (despite having world-class training).

30

dsquared fan 06.24.06 at 12:11 am

Ah, a McArdle-bashing thread! I backslide; I swore I’d never waste brain cells on her again.

To the extent she ever had any, she lost all credibility with me when she generalized from her experience getting fired and going home to Mother, then getting a better job (her current one?), to the conclusion that a social saftey net is a bad thing
because coping with disasters on your own is good for you.

Although as far as I’m concerned, it’s self-evident that anyone who would choose Jane Galt as a nom de plume has her head screwed on sideways, at best. Why does anyone pay her any attention at all?

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