Bad rhetoric

I’ve had a fair amount of feedback and correspondence following my recent posts on “opaque finance” (1, 2, 3). Much of that has been positive, though certainly many readers disagree and dispute my points. That’s par for the course. But I’ve had several letters outraged in a way that I haven’t so much encountered before, from correspondents who felt mistreated, like their ideas and concerns had been bulldozed by my rhetoric.

Looking back at the posts, especially the second in the series, I think that those correspondents have a point. I try to keep interfluidity mostly pretty civil, and hope to be respectful of readers who disagree with me. I think I failed to do so in this series.

As a blogger and a polemicist, I do a lot of thinking aloud. I try to liven things up in voices, hyperbolic, outraged, absurd, gruff, petulant. I mean to present ideas that I think matter, and to do so in ways that are fun to read and write. I intentionally allow my moods and passions to flow into the tone. My moods and passions have been dark recently, and I let that excuse a degree of license that I should not have taken.

Although I’m entirely done blogging the subject, I think the ideas I presented on “opaque finance” are interesting and important. But I regret my categorical use of the word “true”. I should have listened to this guy:

The quality of mind I value in other people and strive for in myself is a kind of nimbleness, a fluidity of mind. The world is too complex for any particular narrative to be perfect. Good judgment, I think, comes from the ability to slip between and among stories, to understand the ways different accounts might be true, to marshall evidence and reasoning on both sides and then assign weights to a superposition of competing, sometimes contradictory ideas, all of which play a role in ones choices.

Wait. That was me. But you’d never know it reading this.

I certainly reserve the right to vigorously defend my ideas, and not to walk on eggshells when I do so. I think the perspective I presented captures something very real about the role that finance plays in human affairs. But it isn’t the one true story, there are lots of other important narratives, and I apologize to readers who, with some justice, felt as though I shouted them down.


9 Responses to “Bad rhetoric”

  1. Indy writes:

    Heh, now you’ll have to apologize to those of us who think you have nothing to apologize about ;~D

    I would like to point out, however, that this particular post is almost the perfect antithesis to the Krugman-DeLong vs Cowen “spat” on whether in econoblogging one need have, well, I’m not exactly sure the proper term for it, maybe “good sportsmanship” – some combination of politeness, decorum, etiquette, and a magnanimous generosity towards one’s opponents as opposed to constant abusive, antagonistic dismissal, denigration, and outright name calling.

    One can be extreme in both directions, of course, but I’d choose too pleasant over too obnoxious any day.

  2. Joe Smith writes:

    You were always civil. I certainly never took personal offense.

    You were just profoundly, dangerously wrong.

    If you deliberately chose to be unsupportably extreme in the position you took that is your problem.

    What surprised me was the number of people who gave your theory of the benefits of opacity the respect that they did.

  3. Mitch Skinner writes:

    I’ve just read through the series, and I read those posts as advocating an argument rather than “shouting people down”. However, I did notice a lack of data. The question of whether or not societies grow faster with opaque financial arrangements is an empirical one, but in this series you haven’t really presented data on it.

  4. Mattia writes:

    I think you were OK. While you may or may not have had a more “aggressive” style than usual (I don’t really pay attention to such things) I think you were as insightful as usual and that’s what matters. Don’t be afraid to pick an intellectual fight over what’s true – Socrates wasn’t. (And, well, they put him to death now that I think about it, but he is more famous than the people who wrote the death sentence).

  5. Doc at the Radar Station writes:

    Thanks Steve for publishing your ideas and thoughts. The placebos and finance thing is intriguing. This ties in quite well with your post about the “bezzle”, IMO. Investors are (understandably) spooked and trust is in short supply. Everything is suspect and put under the harshest analytical light. I happened to run across an interesting analogical post that made me chuckle:

  6. Hah, shootfire. This post happened to be right above a typically fire and brimstone Matt Taibbi post in my feed reader, which I just finished reading, and this feels positively tea-timey by comparison. Still, good instinct.

    By the by, my thoughts on opaque finance here. I hope they aren’t too aggressive ;)

  7. Sandrew writes:

    Posts like your previous three demonstrate why you are, to my mind, the most insightful writer-commentator in the financioblogosphere (at least the in lay audience version that I consume).

    Posts like this one demonstrate why I believe you are the most pleasant person among the same.

    Please don’t rule out returning to the subject of financial-systemic opacity. Like many who commented, I hope you are wrong about the relationship between the “devil” (opacity) and “her due” (outcome-successful capital allocation). But I nevertheless appreciate your commentary on the subject, and I hope for more.

  8. totally failed to defend the 999 as he would not acknowledg-e that the national sales tax wouldwow gold

  9. I think there may also have been a bit of a devil’s advocat in the arguments and perhaps a loss of patience in the underlying stupidity of mankind. Many would prefer to live in ignorance, which allows what might have been appropriately termed, for a while, a “necessary evil”. Unfortunately, this necessary evil has led us on the road to a type of “hell”. I agree that many assume that cash is a risk free asset and ignore the reality that banks are taking very large risks with this capital, risks that are exposed when defaults rise and asset values fall. I do not however think that opacity and ignorance is the way forward though: the cat has been let out of the bag. A valid point is nevertheless made – there will be a trade-off between the growth we have been used to (1980s to early 2000s) and the growth we should come to expect in a more risk averse, less opaque world. But is this so wrong given that the direction we were all heading in was so dangerous? Risks do at certain points in time need to be taken and losses are necessary in order to advance, but to develop risks and potential losses that risk the system itself, is another matter entirely.