Belated happy birthday, H. L. Mencken

September 14, 2018

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, September 12, 1880:  Henry Louis Mencken.

But I missed it. It’s worth noting a day or so late, though, just for his creed.

H. L. Mencken celebrates the end of Prohibition with a glass of beer with friends. (Who took the photo? In what bar? Who are those people with Mencken?)

H. L. Mencken celebrates the end of Prohibition with a glass of beer with friends. (Who took the photo? In what bar? Who are those people with Mencken?)

Mencken is the guy who invented the Millard Fillmore bathtub hoax.

As a quintessential curmudgeon, Mencken took a cynical pose on many issues.  Why?  His creed explains:

Mencken’s Creed

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind – that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty…
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech…
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I – But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

The Mencken Society in Baltimore plans a commemoration of Mencken at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, on Saturday, September 15, 2018, starting at 10:30 a.m.

It would be a great day to be in Baltimore.

There are reports that Mencken's beer was an Arrow Beer, at the bar of the Hotel Rennert in Baltimore. Is that accurate?

There are reports that Mencken’s beer was an Arrow Beer, at the bar of the Hotel Rennert in Baltimore. Is that accurate?

The Hotel Rennert stood at the corner of Saratoga and Liberty Streets, at 31 West Saratoga Street. It was torn down in the 1940s.

Baltimore's Hotel Rennert, torn down in the 1940s, stood at the corner of Saratoga and Liberty Streets. Photo from the Maryland Historical Society.

Baltimore’s Hotel Rennert, torn down in the 1940s, stood at the corner of Saratoga and Liberty Streets. Photo from the Maryland Historical Society.

 

Yes, I know Mencken had many unpleasant views. He didn’t relish the title “curmudgeon” because it was wrong.

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Still, it’s what we know — that ain’t so — that gets us into trouble

September 10, 2013

Yes, yes, it’s the Dunning Kruger Effect.

It’s being gullible to hoaxes.

Gullible’s travels, etc. (illustration 1)

Gullible’s travels, etc. (illustration 1) (Photo credit: UIC Digital Collections)

And it’s not really understanding politics, or economics, but assuming that we do, that gets us moving in the wrong direction.

Is it dangerous?  The entire Tea Party is misled by their own wrong assumptions.  Mistaken belief in what intelligence sources found in Iraq helped get us into the second longest war in U.S. history (and perhaps the costliest ever). Erroneous beliefs about the economy contributed to the great Crash of 2008.  False beliefs about the economy short-circuited our recovery, after Obama got action to prevent our bottoming out.

They’re still at it.

Today I had a guy tell me that Paul Krugman, the Nobel winning economist from Princeton and the New York Times, was wrong when he advocated creating a housing bubble, back in 2002.

Krugman did that?  Really?

Maybe in the land of Gullible’s Travels.

Turns out the claim is based on a carefully edited-out-of-context quote from a 2002 column Krugman wrote.  It’s a hoax quote, as it appears, and as it appears to make Krugman call for a housing bubble — which he didn’t do.

This guy afraid to put his name to his claims, “Obomination1” hadn’t bothered to check the source.  Any journalist worth the newspaper ink on his hands would have had a clattering Hemingway Brand® Sh** Detector at that point. Krugman advocating a housing bubble?

Not tough to find that quote, and track it back to an opposite-editorial page piece Krugman wrote for the New York Times on August 2, 2002, “Dubya’s Double Dip?”  In it, the usual-critic of Greenspan, Krugman, worried about the failure of the economy to recover except by excessive consumer spending — which both had a finite amount of capability, Krugman argued, and did not mend the organic problems of production that caused the recession whose pain was eased by the NASDAQ bubble but not cured in any way.  Put Krugman’s quote from the photo poster into real context (I’ve highlighted the quoted part below):

A few months ago the vast majority of business economists mocked concerns about a ”double dip,” a second leg to the downturn. But there were a few dogged iconoclasts out there, most notably Stephen Roach at Morgan Stanley. As I’ve repeatedly said in this column, the arguments of the double-dippers made a lot of sense. And their story now looks more plausible than ever.

The basic point is that the recession of 2001 wasn’t a typical postwar slump, brought on when an inflation-fighting Fed raises interest rates and easily ended by a snapback in housing and consumer spending when the Fed brings rates back down again. This was a prewar-style recession, a morning after brought on by irrational exuberance. To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.

Judging by Mr. Greenspan’s remarkably cheerful recent testimony, he still thinks he can pull that off. But the Fed chairman’s crystal ball has been cloudy lately; remember how he urged Congress to cut taxes to head off the risk of excessive budget surpluses? And a sober look at recent data is not encouraging.

Krugman wasn’t calling for the creation of a housing bubble at all.  He was warning there were other problems that needed to be solved then.  They weren’t solved, the housing bubble collapsed and took down a great deal of the world’s financial markets with it.

So, was Krugman “a loser” as my correspondent claims?  Or is my correspondent looking the wrong way through the telescope, and being suckered by a hoaxed-context quote?

Krugman continued:

On the surface, the sharp drop in the economy’s growth, from 5 percent in the first quarter to 1 percent in the second, is disheartening. Under the surface, it’s quite a lot worse. Even in the first quarter, investment and consumer spending were sluggish; most of the growth came as businesses stopped running down their inventories. In the second quarter, inventories were the whole story: final demand actually fell. And lately straws in the wind that often give advance warning of changes in official statistics, like mall traffic, have been blowing the wrong way.

Despite the bad news, most commentators, like Mr. Greenspan, remain optimistic. Should you be reassured?

Bear in mind that business forecasters are under enormous pressure to be cheerleaders: ”I must confess to being amazed at the venom my double dip call still elicits,” Mr. Roach wrote yesterday at cbsmarketwatch.com. We should never forget that Wall Street basically represents the sell side.

Bear in mind also that government officials have a stake in accentuating the positive. The administration needs a recovery because, with deficits exploding, the only way it can justify that tax cut is by pretending that it was just what the economy needed. Mr. Greenspan needs one to avoid awkward questions about his own role in creating the stock market bubble.

But wishful thinking aside, I just don’t understand the grounds for optimism. Who, exactly, is about to start spending a lot more? At this point it’s a lot easier to tell a story about how the recovery will stall than about how it will speed up. And while I like movies with happy endings as much as the next guy, a movie isn’t realistic unless the story line makes sense.

Had only Greenspan, Bush, and a few million more people only listened to Krugman, then, we might have been spared two decades of lousy economy growth.

But they didn’t.  It wasn’t Krugman who was “the loser,” on this — though he certainly is pained by America’s failure to follow his advice.

Bertrand Russell warned us of the Obomination1/Thiessens and others.  So did Will Rogers, and Kin Hubbard, and Daniel Boorstin, as well as Drs. Dunning and Kruger.

Those who don’t listen to Russell, Rogers, Hubbard, Boorstin, the repentant Mencken, and Krugman, are the losers, and they drag the rest of us with them.

By the way, Krugman’s Nobel was awarded in 2008, after the great shock of the housing bubble’s bursting, but before all the predictions he had made were played out.  He was right.

Santayana’s Ghost dines with von Hayek’s Ghost tonight, and they both smile pityingly at those who ignore Krugman and claim to ridicule him while failing to even check out the accuracy of what they thought Krugman said.

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Happy birthday, H. L. Mencken (a day late)

September 13, 2012

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, September 12, 1880:  Henry Louis Mencken.

H. L. Mencken at his piano, 1942.  Photo from the Library of Congress collection

H. L. Mencken at his piano, 1942. Photo from the Library of Congress, via Gibbons

Mencken is the guy who invented the Millard Fillmore bathtub hoaxSo here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, we owe a birthday greeting to the guy, no?

As a quintessential curmudgeon, Mencken took a cynical pose on many issues.  Why?  His creed explains:

Mencken’s Creed

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind – that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty. . .
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech. . .
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I — but the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

The Mencken Society plans an event commemorating his birthday.  David Donovan will speak on “H.L. Mencken and the Saturday Night Club” on Saturday, September 29, 2012 at 1:00 p.m. at the the Pratt Library’s Southeast Anchor Library, 3601 Eastern Avenue (S Conkling St), Baltimore, MD 21224.  Donovan is a librarian and musicologist from the Pratt Library; the Saturday Night Club was a group of musicians with whom Mencken played piano.

It would be a great day to be in Baltimore.

I wonder what Mencken would have made of Kennedy’s speech in 1962 about going to the Moon.

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Happy birthday, H. L. Mencken

September 12, 2008

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, September 12, 1880:  Henry Louis Mencken.

H. L. Mencken at his piano, 1942.  Photo from the Library of Congress collection

H. L. Mencken at his piano, 1942. Photo from the Library of Congress, via Gibbons

Mencken is the guy who invented the Millard Fillmore bathtub hoax.

As a quintessential curmudgeon, Mencken took a cynical pose on many issues.  Why?  His creed explains:

Mencken’s Creed

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind – that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty…
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech…
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I – But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

The Mencken Society in Baltimore plans a commemoration of Mencken at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, on Saturday, September 13, 2008, starting at 10:00 a.m.

It would be a great day to be in Baltimore.


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