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Elizabeth Warren’s “weird choices”

Elizabeth Warren’s “weird choices”

It’s a pattern laid out by Meghan McArdle in July 2010, Considering Elizabeth Warren, the Scholar.

Read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:

But while I found the thesis compelling, there were some problems with the book.  The first is that Warren simply fails to grapple with what her thesis suggests about the net benefits of the two-earner family.  Admittedly, I don’t quite know what to say either, but at least I can acknowledge that it’s a pretty powerful problem for the current family model; Warren kind of waves her hands and mumbles about social programs and more supportive work environments.  There is no possible solution outside of a more left-wing government.

But the deeper problem is that some of her evidence doesn’t really support her thesis, and can be made to appear to support her thesis only by making some very weird choices about what metrics to use….

That’s a pattern I see over and over in her work.  In  her (in)famous paper on medical bankruptcies in 2001, Warren and her  co-authors defined anyone with $1000 worth of medical bills as having a  medical bankruptcy, and used that figure to imply that rising medical  bills were pushing people over the financial edge.  Now maybe they are,  but you sure couldn’t prove it with that metric….

Does it matter? I think yes.

Warren has reached scholarly conclusions which she then parlays into a political platform.  The interaction between the two is fair game in an election, as much as a candidate’s business or political experience.

More to come.

Update: A reader writes:

Good Afternoon Professor –

I follow your site regularly but never comment because of the “sign in” factor. Now and then I see something worth pointing out though. You write

“Warren has reached scholarly conclusions which she then parlays into a political platform.”

I think you have that backwards. I think Warren has a political platform which she doctors her data and “scholarly” conclusions to fit.

Have a great afternoon.

I think this reader may have it right. Which came first, the scholarship or the political platform?


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And the “weirdness” all goes to one, overarching problem…

she has no integrity.

Well, and she’s nuts…

PrincetonAl | June 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

I had read this series before. I don’t always agree with McArdle, but she is very sharp with numbers – a lot sharper than Warren – and her takedown is excellent.

My money quote from Part 1:

“Her work gets so much attention because it comes from a Harvard professor. And this isn’t Harvard caliber material–not even Harvard undergraduate.”

    TrooperJohnSmith in reply to PrincetonAl. | June 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Well, being an Indian, the elites will, in their own paternalistic way, give Ms. Warren a pass on anything she does or writes. In their narrow, tortured little minds, all “minorities” are incapable of original thought and achievement without help from people like themselves.

    These are the same people who put creating self-esteem above actually teaching curriculum in schools.

    We’re waaaaay overdue for an American Spring!


As big a fraud as ‘Barack Obama.’

Perhaps enough people will start seeing the cookie-cutter pattern, and Harvard’s institutional complicity.

Perhaps then, enough people will take a look at who Elena Kagan really is.

casualobserver | June 6, 2012 at 2:31 pm

I know this will sound arrogant, but it isn’t meant that way:

So much of the work in social sciences over the past few decades seems victim of the same inadequacies as some have accused Warren. As one who studied within pure sciences and engineering, I am very data and number dependent for conclusions. However, after reading many authors and many works in social sciences, the pattern seems the same. Without justification (without proving it), many assumptions are posited as if proven, and are woven throughout an analysis. Definitions of terms and the meaning of values can be arbitrary and capricious, often supporting the desired conclusion. Logic is often circular. “A causes B, A exists, B exists, therefore A caused B (a skeletal example).” A full path of deduction or even simple reasoning isn’t always required.

I don’t have the time nor patience to read through any one of Warren’s works. But given how her critics describe the deficiencies, I suspect she follows in this trend. Some say academia has become corrupted with such sub-par practice. I can’t agree as an expert, but my “gut” says yes.

    Ragspierre in reply to casualobserver. | June 6, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Heather MacDonald is a gem along the lines you note.

    She empirically (i.e., with actual sound statistical data) put away the myth that poverty >>>> crime, as a cause >>>> effect relationship.

    And THAT was a Collectivist lynchpin of social programs.

    You just described Noam Chomsky’s entire body of work.

radiofreeca | June 6, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Harvard (like many mental institutions) is where people go who can’t cope with reality, or who simply are so creative that they can create their own reality and live in it. The rest are not fortunate enough to have that level of creativity. 🙂

The more I read, the more I see someone who has gotten where she is – not through solid, scholarly work – but through playing the liberal, gender, and ethnicity cards. It blows my mind that no one in the MSM is talking about the foreclosed properties she flipped and the money she made from doing it.

It’s damned sad state of affairs.

Cassandra Lite | June 6, 2012 at 3:28 pm

You’re right, Professor, to keep on Warren’s case (just as you were to focus on Wisconsin). Once this whack job gets into the U.S. Senate, her lying, delusions, and faulty syllogisms in support of an ever-bigger state become all of our problems.

“Warren and her co-authors defined anyone with $1000 worth of medical bills as having a medical bankruptcy,…”

That statement was so outrageous, I had to go back to the paper to find it. She really did that. Thanks for including the link. If you had not done so, I would have assumed that you had made a typographic error.

    Ragspierre in reply to Valerie. | June 6, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    I do some consumer and business bankruptcy as part of my practice.

    Unless someone has (depending on their income) $20k + in debt, there is no economy in taking bankruptcy. (Texas is known as a “debtor state”, in that nobody is able to incumber wages, etc.)

    I have yet to help anyone with even the preponderance of their debt in medical bills, though I know sometimes that happens.

Granny Warren and Daughter took up a research subject and turned out a book called: “The Two-Income Trap.” They then proceeded to mis-analyze the results of the study.

Todd Zwicki over at Volokh, helped clarify what the results really mean here.

After Professor Zwicki did all the heavy lifting, I added my two cents worth – here. Credit where credit is due, EW picked a subject that need to be looked into – but her liberal mind could not comprehend the negative effect that our progressive tax system and the new requirement for outsourced childcare was having upon the availability of discretionary income.

Trifecta! Charlatan. Hack. Shill.

She is not alone in doing this. The majority, probably the vast majority, of ‘research’ that is either paid for by the government or conducted to advance a political cause is completely bogus.

Warren’s ‘work’ is in no way exceptional here.

You start with a political position for legislation that you want to see enacted. Then you find some academic willing to publish a paper supporting your position. If you have sufficient pull in politics then you fund this ‘research’ with taxpayer dollars. Once the paper is published, you make sure it makes as big splash in the media as possible. You then get it cited on the floor of the legislature. When the legislature holds hearings on the issue, you make sure your academic testifies for the committee (often for a fee, paid by taxpayers).

This, by the way, is how 4, yes 4, millionaires in CO had so much success in their efforts to turn the state blue. They understood the laziness of reporters. They created a few think tanks to churn out ‘research’, funded by tax dollars, that would support their causes. They then fed this garbage to lazy, but friendly, reporters.

Create an echo chamber, control the message, control the news cycle, change the boundaries of discussion, pass your agenda into law.

Anon Y. Mous | June 6, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Ms. McArdle spells her first name as “Megan”. When I see Meghan, I think of McCain (shudder).

I’ve followed your site for a while but not until now did I register, in order to post this comment. The guy who left the previous comment: “I think Warren has a political platform which she doctors her data and “scholarly” conclusions to fit,” IMHO has it exactly right. I’ve worked for the fed in insolvency since 1992 and am familiar with Warren’s Harvard “studies” on medical bankruptcy (and with criticism of it from Zywicki and others) and I found the study to be nothing more than advocacy for nationalized healthcare presented with patina of science. If the same loose criterion were applied to consumer bankruptcies which include tax liabilities (federal or state) one could argue that taxes were a primary cause of consumer filings.

    Aridog in reply to Zhombre. | June 7, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Of course you are absolutely correct. What “puzzled” me was that she could assert a mere $1000 of debt would drive anyone in to bankruptcy court. That anyone accepted such an assertion is even more astounding. Then I remembered, paraphrasing, something President Clinton once said, … “is” depends upon what you mean “is” is.

McArdle’s critique of Warren certainly appears credible. Yet afaik McArdle has made no attempt to obtain Warren’s data or to repeat the analysis. Afaik McArdle’s posts acknowledge few if any similar commentaries on Warren’s work in the academic or think tank communities.

I would probably not have posted the previous paragraph if I hadn’t learned that McArdle is heading to Tina Brown’s Newsweek. In my mind as I type is the career “evolution” of “conservatives” like Jennifer Rubin, Davids Brooks & Frum, Andrew Sullivan, et al.

Trust, but verify.

BannedbytheGuardian | June 6, 2012 at 11:09 pm

I think the early sociology was an attempt to categorize society from a new methodology .

Pretty soon it was being used as a tool .

I got over 90% in Social science methodology & statistics & failed Sociology 101 twice. Hence my budding career as a social scientist ended.

I coulda been a Champion.

I think the word you are looking for is HACK.

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