New York Times Columnist: U.S. Government Is ‘most successful organization in modern history’

In your heart, you know he's right. |||Remember that number-cruncher extraordinnaire Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times became the go-to spot for electoral prediction and numerical analysis in 2012? Well, Silver has since moved on to his own broader venture (still called FiveThirtyEight), leaving the Old Gray Lady lagging in the fashionable (if scarequote-worthy) "data-driven journalism" space. The paper plugged that gap this spring with a new mini-pod called "The Upshot," edited by economics columnist David Leonhardt.

Some of us have been skeptical about the rise in fact-checking, "explanatory" journalism, arguing that it too often attempts to bathe a solidly statist bias in the holy waters of above-it-all empiricism. As if to live out that theory, here are the first two paragraphs of a David Leonhardt Upshot piece today:

If you wanted to bestow the grandiose title of "most successful organization in modern history," you would struggle to find a more obviously worthy nominee than the federal government of the United States.

In its earliest stirrings, it established a lasting and influential democracy. Since then, it has helped defeat totalitarianism (more than once), established the world's currency of choice, sent men to the moon, built the Internet, nurtured the world's largest economy, financed medical research that saved millions of lives and welcomed eager immigrants from around the world.

Especially when you're wrong. |||This is a telltale exercise in scoreboard-pointing, responsibility-assumption, and blurry timelines. For example, if a measurable chunk of the success of the United States is due to the revolutionary, limited-government architecture of the Constitution, which provided a framework protecting the non-governmental pursuit of happiness (including commerce), then that design victory technically belongs not to the current U.S. government, but to its immediate precursor, no? If the majority of America's globe-topping GDP–which created the conditions for the dollar becoming a reserve currency–emanates from the private sector, is it numerically sensical to assign primary responsibility to the much less productive sector that taxes and regulates the Apple Computers of the world? And though the raw numbers may be higher today, the continent was more legally welcoming to immigrants under British, French, and Spanish rule than it has been over the past century under the Yanks.

Then there are the U.S. government's many egregious failures, ranging from slavery to colonialism to internment to pointless war to mass incarceration. In fairness, Leonhardt's column is actually about government screw-uppery and the need to correct it; the we're-number-one stuff is more of a sweetener to make the medicine go down easier:

[P]rogressives in particular will need to grapple with these failures if they want to persuade Americans to support an active government.

Time, time, time, look what's become of me. |||The fact that such a sentence still needs to be written 45 years after Charles Peters founded an entire public-policy journalism genre around the notion of intellectually rigorous, sacred cow-slaying policy analysis from the left, speaks volumes about how far the Democratic/media center of gravity has drifted. As I wrote in a May 2013 critique of the new New Republic,

An entire valuable if flawed era in American journalism and liberalism has indeed come to a close. The reformist urge to cross-examine Democratic policy ideas has fizzled out precisely at the time when those ideas are both ascendant and as questionable as ever. Progressivism has reverted to a form that would have been recognizable to Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann when they founded The New Republic a century ago: an intellectual collaborator in the "responsible" exercise of state power.

If your starting point is that the U.S. government is the most successful organization in modern history, there are many possible adjectives to describe your journalism. "Data-driven" isn't one of them.

Hat tip: Rowland Stebbins.

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  • GILMORE||

    "Remember that number-cruncher extraordinnaire Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times became the go-to spot for electoral prediction and numerical analysis in 2012?"

    Strangely, no.

    Weird, right?

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    He got some bad press recently for his soccer predictions. Otherwise, I wouldn't know who he is.

  • GILMORE||

    "Soccer Predictions", aye?

    *I predict* a low-scoring game.....

  • Mike M.||

    He also had a crap World Series of Poker this year, failing to even cash in anything.

    He really should drop down and try playing against some easier competition. Because like most poker players, he isn't nearly as good as he likes to think he is.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    Modern history, eh? So that excludes Rome?

  • Swiss Servator, Alles Klar||

    What have the Romans ever done for us?

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

    Well for one thing, the Romans invented concrete.

    And not only did they invent concrete, their concrete formula is far superior and more durable than the modern concrete we use today. Their mix incuded volcanic ash. It is more impenetable to water and it actually gets stronger over time.

    The concrete dome of the Pantheon has lasted for 2,000 years.

  • Restoras||

    Ok, aside from the concrete, what have the Romans ever done for us?

  • Jensen||

    Roads, indoor plumbing, republicanism?

  • Bardas Phocas||

    ROADZZZZ!

  • Sudden||

    built the Internet

    Not just the internet, but everything in the U.S. was built by fedgov. Because "you didn't build that"

  • Doctor Whom||

    [P]rogressives in particular will need to grapple with these failures if they want to persuade Americans to support an active government.

    They have a way to grapple with these failures: They lie about them. The first line of defense is to blame the private sector. If you don't believe me, ask a progressive to identify the parties at fault for drug prohibition. When this is too brazen even for them, they blame specific people but promise us that once the right people are in charge, everything will be just peachy.

  • Sudden||

    ask a progressive to identify the parties at fault for drug prohibition

    Racism and white male privilege. Next question.

  • Christophe||

    More seriously I've seen them blame the privatized prison sector.

    Who are sons of bitches, but are a much more recent development than the War on Drugs.

  • MJGreen||

    Or look at the prison population. The true culprit of this national shame? FOR-PROFIT PRISONS!!

  • John||

    Well it has managed to run the richest and most productive nation in history into bankruptcy. So there is that. That is one hell of an accomplishment if not quite a "success" by normal standards.

  • MegaloMonocle||

    Success has to be defined in context. What counts as success, here? Is it sheer size? Longevity? What?

    You can't even get to the question of who is really responsible for "success" without defining it first.

  • Sudden||

    This.

  • wagnert in atlanta||

    Success is what they say it is. What we have now is success. The fact that everyone else describes it as "a hot mess" doesn't alter that.

  • DK||

    If you wanted to bestow the grandiose title of "most successful organization in modern history," you would struggle to find a more obviously worthy nominee than the federal government of the United States.

    It's not that difficult to be successful when you're a monopoly AND have the legal authority to use force.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    The rest of the article is just as bad. The author concedes that the USG is terrible at most everything, but says that more "data-driven" processes will change all of that. I mean, how stupid do you have to read to write an article that says, "Yes, the libertarian view of government being a failure at mundane programs is exactly right, but look over there! A "data-driven" unicorn!"

    Jesus, it's like we time-warped back to the 30s and progressives are telling us about how we're just a few human calculators away from utopia.

  • Swiss Servator, Alles Klar||

    +1 Brains Trust

  • Brandon||

    30s progressives were into Mentats?

  • John||

    But I thought America was built on racism, slavery and Indian genocide? How can the government of what every right thinking progs swears is the most evil, sexist, rape based, slave loving white male nation in history be the most successful organization ever? I guess the truth really does change with the needs of the party.

  • MasterDarque||

    Some whites did enjoy the brutality of slavery. Some blacks owned slaves. Some whites were slaves etc etc. Unless you are willing to really talk about the history of slavery and its actors, you just wind up with both sides staying own their own respective sides. Regardling America being successful, the things that made/make this country great are being destroyed daily.

  • John||

    All of that yes. I was just pointing out how the Progs' perception of reality changes based on whatever furthers the point they are making at that moment.

  • CE||

    Hey! Look at those shiny jack-boots! Pretty!

  • chmercier||

    So, the New York Times published an article that's basically constructed entirely on a logical fallacy? Is it a sigh, gasp, or shrug that is the proper reaction?

  • Swiss Servator, Alles Klar||

    shrug.

  • Jensen||

    I think this is largely dependent on what your expectation of 'success' is.

  • David R||

    I always love how progs talk about the Internet like it was carefully planned from the beginning, and that what it is is what technocrats envisioned from day one. The aim of the early DARPA project was to address the problems of a centralized information structure by decentralizing it, and many of the subsequent technical efforts at centralizing it have been failures. You can't pull them out of the equation, because US Gov actors were vital to certain critical parts of it, like packet-switching, but we had been working on the problem of putting information over the wire for years. It's not like some technocrat experienced a mental lightning bolt. Wall Street was putting stock information on the wire from the 1870's, and the AP was putting out teletype updates from, what, the 1920's? Many groups of people, without any single organizational structure, were working towards this result for a long time. And yet the "we created the internet" argument is often used to try to justify massively planned projects by pretending that they've done this before.

  • MasterDarque||

    The bar must be set very very low.

  • Ayn Random Variation||

    Why do you hate midgets?

  • Brandon||

    Because of Robert Reich?

  • wagnert in atlanta||

    I knew he was an intellectual midget. I had no idea he was only 4'11". Live and learn.

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