Hacks

For our purposes, I’ll define a hack as someone who writes something he or she does not believe (or who carefully looks the other way to avoid encountering any facts that might get in the way).

The purest example of a hack I can think of is John Gribbin, a physics Ph.D. who many years ago unscrupulously wrote a ridiculous book called The Jupiter Effect. Another example would be whoever publishes those books they sell at newsstands in Chinatown with lucky lottery numbers.

More recently, we encountered think-tank administrator Arthur Brooks, who wrote, “Unless you are in a heavy physical industry or have a health issue, why should you retire at 65? You’ll still be in your prime”—a statement that applies to congressmembers, Clint Eastwood, Betty White, and not many others. I’ll label Brooks here as a hack because it’s hard for me to believe that he really thinks that most people are in their prime at 65.

Just to be clear: when I’m describing someone as a hack, I’m not saying he’s political or that he’s writing something I disagree with. I’m saying that he’s writing something that he doesn’t himself believe.

Anyway, the point I’d like to consider here is: why am I so surprised to find that someone is a hack? I read something hackish and try to figure out how he could possibly think that, what was he really trying to say, etc etc. Labeling the writer as a hack is my last recourse.

But then I was thinking, the correct starting point in reading such things should not be academia or even mainstream journalism, but rather advertising and public relations. There’s no expectation that these people believe what they write. Whether Don Draper really believes that Lucky Strikes are the best—who cares? That’s not the point.

With Arthur Brooks the story is a little bit different. Although, I assume, he does not really believe that silly line about retirement, he does (I assume) believe that reducing Social Security benefits would be preferable to raising the limit of income that is taxed for Social Security. He’s not (I assume) a pure Don Draper, hired to say whatever he is told to say. Rather he is (I assume) comfortable writing evidently false statements in the service of a larger goal.

Still, I think advertising and P.R. is a good model here, in that these are fields in which there is no presumption of sincerity and in which it’s part of the job description to say things that don’t believe.

This is one thing I sometimes wonder about law professors: as academics, they’re expected to stand by what they write and to be open and sincere. But as lawyers they are trained to be advocates (for example, it’s considered ok to defend someone who you think is a killer). Does that leak back into their academic writing?

P.S. This is not just about Republicans. For example, I haven’t read the books of James Carville but he certainly gives the vibe of being someone who might not believe everything he writes. I could also throw in Michael Moore here—did he really believe that O.J. was innocent—but he’s more of an entertainer, again a field where there is no presumption of sincerity.

21 Responses to Hacks

  1. Jeff August 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

    Pretty low bar for hacktitude. While his statement is indeed overblown, he might have just poorly expressed the commonly argued point that people are healthier (or should at least expect to live longer) at 65 this day in age than they would have been x number of years ago.

    I think if you asked Mr. Brooks about this statement, he’d concede that it is inaccurate but that he likely phrased his argument poorly rather than meant to flat out lie

    • Andrew Gelman August 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

      Jeff:

      I don’t think it was a lie, exactly–after all, “prime of life” is not precisely defined. But I think he wrote something that he did not believe. In contrast, I’m guessing that when he made his refuted-by-the-data claim about the happiness of political extremists, he was making a mistake, writing a false statement that he believed was true. In that case he was being sloppy rather than hackish.

      • Bill August 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm #

        Doesn’t your standard make all hyperbole dishonest? And all people who use hyperbole, hacks? I’m kind of amazed that you read Brooks’s statement as anything but hyperbole. Does the context somehow make this implausible? If he had said 85 instead of 65, would that still be a hackish lie?

        • Andrew Gelman August 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

          Bill:

          I don’t think it was a lie, exactly–after all, “prime of life” is not precisely defined. But I think he wrote something that he did not believe.

          You can read Brooks’s book yourself and make your own judgment, but that bit about Social Security seemed completely serious to me. It didn’t read as hyperbole at all.

          Again, consider the analogy to advertising and P.R. The advertiser writes some copy that is intended to be believed, even if the content makes no sense.

  2. Thomas August 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    William Bottom has a great paper about the somewhat disturbing relationship between the birth of the PR industry and the rise of social science, especially in U.S. business schools. (PDF here) I think it’s important to understand the work of people like Brooks in that light.

  3. Chris August 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    In many sectors of the economy, don’t people retire when their earnings (not disconnected from productivity) are at their lifetime peak?

    Probably true of more jobs than not, in fact.

    • Andrew Gelman August 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

      Chris:

      As I wrote in my other blog post, I don’t think professors, hospital orderlies, soldiers, police officers, or firefighters are in their prime at age 65. But maybe there are some jobs where this is the case. Congressmember was the only one I could think of offhand, but maybe there are others.

      If I stay on at my job until the age of 80 (which maybe I will), I don’t think Columbia is planning to cut my salary. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be in my prime at that time.

    • Chaz August 31, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

      Professors, hospital orderlies, soldiers, police officers, and firefighters all get paid the most when they retire, and would get paid the same or more if they kept working. However, they are past their peak productivity. So I would argue that, yes, pay is disconnected from productivity.

      The high pay comes from blind respect for seniority, the assumption that performance increases with experience, and an unwillingness to ever lower pay once it’s been raised or admit that performance declines past a certain age threshold (until they suddenly impose forced retirement). Plus there’s the mundane facts that management is old and has a lot of seniority, and the union leadership if it exists is old and has a lot of seniority, so yeah, they’re going to build in rewards for seniority.

      • Chaz August 31, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

        (In most cases performance does increase with experience, but it is not a linear and infinite phenomenon, and it is counteracted by old age)

  4. Scott Monje August 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

    My favorite story is about the origins of the expression “death tax.” Opponents of the estate tax weren’t able to generate much opposition to it because it affected so few people, even if you include farms and small businesses as people. But they discovered that if you call it the death tax and allow people to believe that it will affect them, then the task becomes much easier. As Frank Luntz says, “Death is something the American people understand.”

    • Andrew Gelman August 30, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

      Scott:

      Labels such as “Death Tax” (or the “Star Wars” missile defense system) seem different than hackery to me. Yes, they are marketing, but they’re about emphasis rather than untruths. That is, a hack can spin, but a spinner is not necessarily a hack.

      • Scott Monje August 30, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

        Yes, but I think the “allowing people to believe that it will affect them” involves a certain dishonesty. People would go to a public forum and ask “How many people here will be affected by the death tax?” Way too many hands would go up (statistically speaking), and they would let it ride. And they only got that response after they switched to the emotion-laden label, so that is part of it, too.

  5. Andy Guess August 30, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

    What if he started off not believing what he writes, but now he does?

  6. Brian Schmidt August 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    Bias from lawprofs might even be more evident in their teaching than their writing.

    George Mason University has hired some climate denying lawyers to run their environmental law clinic. I can’t imagine what kind of dreck is being spewed at the students.

  7. krissy August 31, 2012 at 6:27 am #

    Arthur Brooks is a cynic that wants people to work forever. As soon as one is eligible, one should claim SS and take a break. And if its not enough to live on, then we should really fix that.

  8. Chris D. August 31, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s early years as a tobacco apologist. As the great philosopher Costanza once said, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

    Anyhow, I’m all for staying busy after 65, but that doesn’t mean I want to short myself some social security. At the age of 41, I’d rather see my social security benefits rolled into maintaining full Medicare benefits. So, long as I have health care, I don’t really care about the rest.

    • Chaz August 31, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

      Personally I’d like to have food and housing as well. . . .

  9. Stephen August 31, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    Arthur Brooks has written a compelling book on the necessity of framing the benefits of free enterprise with moral concepts, such as earned success. Since this book unabashedly champions free market capitalism, and the author is the head of a conservative think tank, many on the left were invariably going to be displeased. But I am surprised, given the major points made in this book, that we are only focusing on one (one!!) statement that does not directly address the main issues of making a moral argument on behalf of free enterprise. To call someone a hack based on one sentence in a 200+ page book that can be interpreted to not be completely accurate in all cases–as others have pointed out, 65 can still be within the prime for some occupations–demonstrates other motivations. Even in some of the most respected political science books read in graduate-level courses, there are almost always a few normative or ambiguous or broad statements that can be criticized. But we certainly don’t starting calling authors hacks the moment we disagree with one statement. There are a few major points in this book that are worth further analysis/criticism, but name-calling does not appear to be warranted.

    • Andrew Gelman August 31, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

      Stephen:

      I think there are very few jobs for which people are their prime at age 65. “Congressman” just happens to be one of them. But Brooks is using his silly claim to support his larger goal of raising the retirement age for everyone, not just congressmembers. But that’s ok, he’s a hack. He doesn’t have to believe what he writes, he just has to stay on message, like Don Draper.

    • liberal September 2, 2012 at 12:32 am #

      “Arthur Brooks has written a compelling book on the necessity of framing the benefits of free enterprise with moral concepts, such as earned success.”

      The problem is that most financially successful people in the US didn’t earn their success, they stole it by collecting economic rents.

  10. Jon FD September 2, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    I do want to put in a word for John Gribbin: he wrote The Jupiter Effect in 1974, publicly repudiated it in 1980, and has written quite a bit of more responsible stuff since then. He’s not perfect, but there aren’t many popularizers of science who are. More to the point, it’s hard to think of Arthur Brooks repudiating anything he’s done. It seems to me that a failure to admit error is a hallmark of a hack.

    I’m not a regular commenter–but Gribbin’s popularizations inspired my misspent youth in a physics PhD program, so I have a fair amount of affection for him.

    (Also: Gribbin comes up in the linked article because he apparently said something stupid about sociology. Recalling my physics experience, I have no trouble believing that whatever he said about sociology was stupid; but if that’s the qualification for being a hack, more than half the faculty in any given physics department are hacks too. I think that kind of arrogance runs wild in physics, as a field, because it’s had so much predictive success in a narrow area that most people don’t care about. I do wonder whether there’s an analogy there with the business community and AEI, though there, of course, there’s much, much more money involved.)