I find that, even after 11 updates, I’m still not ready to let go of the Brian Beutler #mathfail story.
There’s one element that I didn’t really address so far. Originally, John Thune said that if you keep cutting the deficit by 10% each year, in 10 years the deficit would be eliminated. In the first version of his post (before it went through at least 8 different revisions, which were not acknowledged till well after the fact), Brian Beutler wrote that Thune was wrong because actually “it would take over 20 years to reduce the deficit to a penny.”
At that point, Beutler’s also talking about how long it would take to eliminate the deficit (“eliminate” being defined as reducing to a penny). And it makes perfect sense for him to be talking about how long it takes to eliminate the deficit, since those are precisely the terms in which Thune had discussed it.
Then, as Beutler starts revising his post, the first change he makes to the text is that “it would take over 20 years to reduce the deficit to a penny” becomes “it would take decades to reduce the deficit to a penny” (see update 1 to my original post).
He’s still talking about how long it would take to reduce the deficit to a penny. He’s realized that “over 20 years” is wrong. He’s fixing that, but he’s temporizing with “decades” for some reason, instead of just giving the correct number. (Temporizing somewhat deceptively, too, since it would take centuries, not decades; 306 years, to be precise. He’s realized he’s made a colossal error; he’s compounding it by immediately starting to obfuscate the magnitude of the error.)
The next change Beutler makes to the text, within 15 minutes (see update 4 to my original post), leaves it reading: “it would take decades to reduce the deficit to a percent of its current level.” Simultaneously, Beutler finally offers us a revised number, in the title: “Math Is Hard: John Thune’s Plan To Eliminate Deficits In
10 43 Years“.
Why? Why on earth does Beutler suddenly change the terms of the argument from eliminating the deficit to reducing it to 1%? Thune’s comment was about how many years it takes to eliminate the deficit. Beutler initially talked about the exact same thing. Why suddenly switch to how many years it takes to reduce it to 1%? Where the heck did that even come from? And why?
Especially since the decision to switch the terms of the argument creates some real tensions in the title. Because the two numbers now in the title are apples and oranges — eliminating the deficit is a quite different fruit from reducing it to 1% — whatever the title says in words will match one number but not the other. “Math Is Hard: John Thune’s Plan To Eliminate Deficits In
10 43 Years” clearly does some violence to the truth. “Eliminate Deficits” applies only to the 10, not the 43. The title implies that 43 is the corrected version of the 10; it isn’t. (Which must be why, in revision #6, Beutler changed the title to “Math Is Hard: John Thune’s Plan To Eliminate Deficits In 10 Many, Many Years“; see update 6 to my original post.)
Why would Beutler make this totally unnecessary change in the terms of the argument? At the risk of being unkind and unfair to Brian Beutler, here’s one possible scenario.
Beutler’s post is about a glaring math error made by John Thune. Thune went and said the deficit would be eliminated in 10 years, when it should actually be more than 20 years (or so Beutler thinks at the time). Beutler writes the post — mocking Thune (“Thune finds math rather difficult”) and using words like #mathfail — and publishes it. And then it is brought to Beutler’s attention that his post has a glaring math error that pretty much rivals Thune’s. It would actually take 306 years to reduce the deficit from $1.4 trillion to a penny, not 20 years. Thune said 10, Beutler said 20, but it’s actually 306. There’s really not much difference between 10 and 20, is there, when the true answer is 306?
Beutler now has what he perceives as a dilemma. He’s just realized that Thune’s error is much more glaring than he had initially realized. It’s not 10 versus 20, it’s 10 versus 306. It’s now a much juicier story.
But there’s no way to draw attention to the real magnitude of Thune’s glaring math error without first confessing his own equally glaring math error. An error made while mocking Thune for his error. What, oh what, is a journalist to do now?
Lo and behold, the terms of the argument suddenly change. Out of the blue, we find Beutler shifting to how many years it takes to reduce the deficit to 1%. Thune’s 10 and Beutler’s 20 don’t have to be compared to the oh-so-embarrassing 306. That oh-so-embarrassing 306, so carefully concealed at birth, now never has to surface in the post at all. Much, much better that the only numbers floating around in the post are 10, 20 and 43. (Beutler’s obviously counting on the fact that most people will not realize there’s such a huge difference between the number of years it takes to reduce the deficit to 1% and the number of years it takes to reduce it to a penny. He puts out the 43; readers will realize that it will take longer to reduce the deficit to a penny, but most of them probably assume it’s just a few more decades; hardly anyone is going to suspect centuries.)
Of course, in the process, Beutler chose to compromise the really juicy story he had, he chose to water down the truth about what a colossal error Thune had really made. And all so that Beutler wouldn’t have to confess to an almost equally massive error of his own. He had a conflict-of-interest that should have been a no-brainer for any self-respecting journalist: confess your error, take your lumps for it, but tell the plain truth about Thune’s story; whatever you do, don’t obfuscate, don’t falsify the story.
But it wasn’t a no-brainer for Beutler. That he made the choice he did speaks very poorly of him. (As Shaun reminded me last time, that he was allowed to make the choice he did, and get away with it, in turn speaks very poorly of TPM‘s editorial oversight.)
All this is, of course, pure conjecture. It’s possible I’m just being thoroughly unfair to a really good man (and, truth be told, at least one person has told me that I am). However, I am mystified and troubled by the sequence of events. Beutler makes error; Beutler realizes and corrects error but withholds new numbers; Beutler changes the terms of the argument before he offers new numbers; the new number he offers is much less embarrassing, both to himself and to Thune.
If anyone has a convincing, innocuous explanation for why it would make sense to change the terms of the argument from eliminating the deficit to reducing it to 1%, I’m all ears. And I’ll be perfectly willing to apologize to Brian Beutler. But until then I’ll stand by my conjecture.