The Plausibility Plague

What seems implausible in prospect often seems inevitable in retrospect.


One of the things that's wrong with America these days is what might be called the Plausibility Plague.

That's the problem of pundits assuring readers that some outcome is impossible.

Sunday's New York Times contained two classic examples. One was in The New York Times magazine article about Glenn Hubbard, the dean of Columbia Business School, whose ideas on restraining the growth of entitlement spending the Times reporter characterized as "politically outlandish."

The Times reporter wrote, "I suggested to Hubbard, in one of our last conversations, that aggressive entitlement reform seems rather unlikely to be enacted. I asked if shrinking the wildly popular Social Security and Medicare programs, if ever seriously put forward, wasn't quite likely to meet the same fate as George W. Bush's failed Social Security privatization plan, one of the most hastily rejected presidential initiatives in recent memory."

The second example was an article in the Times Book Review, a review of a new book by David Rohde that calls for improving America's non-military foreign policy institutions. The Times review says, "While Rohde's call for dramatically empowering the civilian instruments of American foreign policy represents an understandable reaction to the failures he's chronicled, it's not remotely plausible. Even the politically powerful Pentagon is set to see its funding slashed. In this budgetary environment, more U.S.A.I.D. spending would probably come at the expense of money for teachers and police officers in the United States."

Anyone who has ever suggested a bold policy adjustment, whether it is a change in monetary policy or the elimination of a cabinet department, is familiar with this phenomenon. Instead of addressing the actual merits of an idea, people prefer to just dismiss it as implausible, as if that ends the discussion. The result is an artificially constrained public policy debate biased toward the status quo.

But if there's anything that history teaches, it is that what seems implausible in prospect often seems inevitable in retrospect.

Who would have thought a ragtag band of American revolutionaries could overthrow the mighty British army and win independence?

Who would have thought the Jewish people could return to the land of Israel and establish a state there after nearly two thousand years in exile?

Who would have thought that America would elect a black president whose middle name is Hussein and whose father was a Kenyan polygamist?

Who would have thought that Islamist terrorists could succeed in knocking down the World Trade Center by flying two hijacked airplanes into the twin towers?

Who would have thought that something called Facebook would have a market capitalization 25 times that of U.S. Steel, or that General Motors and Kodak would be bankrupt, while a company called Google would be worth more than Boeing, McDonald's, and American Express combined?

Who would have thought that the president of the United States would be joking at the White House Correspondents Association dinner about a news organization called BuzzFeed?

By these standards of plausibility or outlandishness, the chances of entitlement reform, or of some modest adjustment in the national security budget away from military spending and toward "soft power," seem not as inconceivable as The New York Times would have its readers believe.

The Times take on entitlement reform is almost entirely wrong. For one thing, while Social Security and Medicare benefits are popular, the taxes that fund them are not. For another thing, President Obama has fiddled with both programs, raiding planned Medicare spending to fund Obamacare and proposing to use "chained CPI" for Social Security, without suffering much political fallout. And for a third thing, though reform seems "rather unlikely" to the Times, the alternative — continuation of the current benefits indefinitely without dramatic tax increases, growth in the working population, or decreases in medical costs — is unpalatable.

The Times take on the foreign policy budget is also probably wrong. Just because there is an overall budget constraint doesn't mean that some programs can't grow — Pell Grants have doubled recently. The additional USAID spending needn't come out of funding for teachers and police officers, as the Times says it would; those salaries are largely funded by state and local taxes, not the federal tax dollars that fund American diplomats and aid workers.

So maybe we can all hope for a day when the Plausibility Plague will end, and pundits stop telling us ideas or events are implausible. Don't worry, though — that will never happen.

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  1. Why are you wasting your time commentating on the stupidity of the NYT?

  2. It has nothing to do with plausibility, it has to do with narrative. The media is against the examples used here, so of course they consider them "implausible". Because that sets the narrative. I mean, does the author expect the media to be honest?


    1. That is not a sign of strength. If you are so weak that you cannot even entertain the ideas put forth by your critics, I think you believe in an ideology that is on its last legs.

      1. They don't have an ideology, John, they just have TEAM. If they actually had an ideology they'd get upset when their leaders completely go against what is supposedly their ideology.

      2. While I wish the 'spend to be great' ideology was on its last legs, I think that is not the case. Even if there is a collapse, the spenders will fight any changes (including Greek-style riots) and blame the collapse on the cuts, not the spending that made the collapse inevitable.

        But the real objective here is to keep the notion of entitlement reform out of the discussion entirely. If it is dismissed without discussion, then the spenders can ignore it.

  3. Stoll uses an awful lot of words to say that handwaving is not an argument.

  4. Look, you need to advocate serious policies. In a serious manner. Seriously.

  5. Speaking of "offhand dismissals" =


    ...this is the 'expert rejection' of claims made by some guy that special ops were ready to intervene in Benghazi.

    This has been trotted out by pundits as conclusive and damning, complete with 'nanny-nanny poo-poo' jeering that anyone could possibly believe some 'anonymous special operations' guy

    But - the fact is the commenter is simply speculating. He runs through a number of scenarios all of which he believes are 'possible', then debunks their plausibility. The fact is, he doesn't know what the facts were, and is simply theorizing.

    Never mind the fact that Ricks' will look like a complete and utter shithead if it turns out he's been sputtering with indignation over the 'lack of story here' for months.

    1. It's one of his by a guest columnist so Ricks can put it out there without owning it. I read Ricks for years before the registration wall went up. He has his crotchety old man columns and then there's the "why is is this topic showing up out of the blue?" ones.

      His regular commenters often have interesting insight and even better sea stories if you can get by the sock puppet feel, even more than Ricks or the HnR commentariat.

      1. Cdr Lytton| 5.6.13 @ 2:37PM |#

        It's one of his by a guest columnist so Ricks can put it out there without owning it

        Yeah, I know - its his longstanding M.O. to allow others to make 'controversial' comments in his stead, and hide behind their credentials (sort of a backhanded 'appeal to authority')

        I'm not sure what substantive was really being said by the contributing marine. Effectively it was, "I think the quoted guy is full of shit". Based on what? Some speculation. What makes him an expert? Some similar experience? Fact is, he doesn't *know* anything we don't already. Just seems pretty lame.

        His regular commenters often have interesting insight ...

        Yeah, I know. Eric Stratton III, Gold Star Father et al. I quit posting there after they implemented the new registration scheme.

        One guy immediately in the comments makes a simple and devastating rebuttal = forget all the B.S. re: 'how long would it have taken to respond'.... Why the hell *wouldn't* people have been on ready-alert, given the fact that our embassy in Cairo had been stormed only 12 hours earlier? The author pretends we wouldn't have been prepared to respond...

  6. The republican party was regarded as committing suicide by "moving further to the right" during the 2010 midterms, and some predicted the end of the party, saying it would become a regional party, but they kicked ass in the midterms. Implausible, but it happened. If it were not for the tea party, Obama would have got his $400B jobs bill, and the deficit would be over $1T, instead of the $790B it is projected to be.

    1. instead of the $790B it is projected to be

      I find a deficit of ONLY $790B so reassuring.

      Almost as reassuring as the estimate that it will only be $790B.


  7. It's almost as irritating as mentioning an argument put forward by one's political opponents and dismissing it with a laundry-list of irrelevant, nonsensical non sequiturs.

    1. Your comment is outlandish.

      1. But would anyone have believed that a sentient gonorrhea named Ke$ha would record a #1 hit?

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