Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Seriously, literally, and bullshit

Welcome MBRU, thanks Tengrain!

Image from an article of last June in Pulpit&Pen, "NAR Prophet, Steve Cioccolanti: Donald Trump is the 'Last Trump' Before The Rapture".
Something in that Salena Zito article, from back in late September, kept sticking in my craw:
The best way [to prevent inner-city "explosions", says Trump], is to provide good education and good jobs in these areas. “Fifty-eight percent of black youth cannot get a job, cannot work,” he says. “Fifty-eight percent. If you are not going to bring jobs back, it is just going to continue to get worse and worse.”
That's pretty insightful there; if it doesn't get better, it's likely to get worse, whatever it is.
It’s a claim that drives fact-checkers to distraction. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the unemployment rate for blacks between the ages of 16 and 24 at 20.6 percent. Trump prefers to use its employment-population ratio, a figure that shows only 41.5 percent of blacks in that age bracket are working. But that means he includes full time high-school and college students among the jobless.
My bold.
It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.
But you just took him seriously and literally, identifying the statistic you think he was using as if it could be completely appropriate, although it's apparently not, since it's unreasonable to expect full-time students to take jobs if they can avoid it.
When I presented that thought to him, he paused again, “Now that’s interesting.”
I'll bet he did. It takes a bullshit artist to recognize superior bullshit.
What does she mean, he "prefers"? Are you saying he sat down with his economic advisors, supposing he has some, and said, "You know, folks, I think that traditional U-3 number for unemployment gives a distorted picture—why don't we start using the employment-population ration instead?" Does he use it? And then, if he does use this alternative statistic, what does Zito mean by saying one can not take it literally?

To the first question, not exactly. For example, in February:
During his victory speech after the New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump repeated a claim he’d made several times before.
"Don't believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9 and 5 percent unemployment," Trump said. "The number's probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent."
At that point, the unemployment-to-population ratio for the general US population 16 years old and up was, in fact, 40.2%. If he "preferred" to use that statistic, why didn't he use it? If the standard U3 numbers of 4.9 and 5% were just statistics he didn't "prefer", why did he call them "phony"? Why does he refer to "the number" as if there were only one correct answer, as opposed to the large number of possible answers economists use, of which you might "prefer" one or another for some particular purpose?

The 42% is in fact a figure cooked up by David Stockman, according to Politifact, to represent the unemployed population ages 16 to 68 if all the workers were full-time, as they weren't, how much joblessness there would be if nobody had a part-time job, as a way of creating a picture in which all those people who can't find full-time work and just do what they can simply disappear, replaced by hordes of imaginary layabouts and idlers:
"Yes [, Stockman said], we have to allow for non-working wives, students, the disabled, early retirees and coupon clippers," he wrote. "We also have drifters, grifters, welfare cheats, bums and people between jobs, enrolled in training programs, on sabbaticals and much else."
Pure statistical fiction, in other words, while for the "28, 29, 35" Politifact found no source at all. Trump was pulling those numbers right out of his ass, for rhetorical purposes, to build up to his climactic number, whose meaning ("I heard recently") he has no clue about or interest in.

To say his audience doesn't take it "literally" is to say they take it as a figure of speech, which isn't wrong, but is a sort of long way around of approaching the fact that it's simply bullshit. The worst thing about Zito is the way she uses that formulation of "literally" and "seriously" to suggest that Trump deserves to be taken seriously—that he has an actual idea, and not just shtik.

Incidentally, this trick of Trump's, of employing the pandit language of statistics and trends to describe an emotion while giving the impression of talking about empirical reality, is not just him, but generally Republican. For the past eight years, as 95% of the population sees its tax burden diminishing, they've been telling us our taxes are going up; as the annual budget deficit falls to ridiculous lows (it's not even safe, with the economic recovery so shaky, to have them this low) they tell us the deficit is going up; they tell us we taxpayers gave up our money to rescue the banks when the banks have paid all the money back, they tell us Obamacare is failing as it grows, and so on. What's unique about Trump is that he does it so shamelessly and transparently, without even bothering to hide.

The other thing I want to note is where that phrase comes from, which is modern Christianity, as represented for instance by Marcus J. Borg's 2001 Reading the Bible Again For the First Time:Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally. Zito is effectively asking us to read Trump the way believing Christians take the Word of God.

Cross-posted in No More Mister Nice Blog.

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