Tuesday, August 10, 2004

David Warsh

The WSJ Opinion Journal mentioned David Warsh today in the context of an article on the fact that some Vietnam vets do not believe that Kerry should be Commander in Chief (no link):
Robert Novak's much-noted column yesterday on anti-Kerry Swift Boat vets described their book purporting to debunk John Kerry's war record as "neither the political propaganda nor the urban legend that its detractors claim." Tom Lipscomb, the former chief of Times Books and head of a Vietnam Vets group in New York City, instantly credited Mr. Novak with having "informed the news directors of America that it is OK to discuss the charges being made by the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth."

Don't bet on it. Ask David Warsh. He was the Boston Globe columnist who, during Mr. Kerry's 1996 senate re-election battle with Bill Weld, got interested in the episode that earned Mr. Kerry his silver star. The reason was a Kerry shipmate who, under the auspices of the campaign itself, casually mentioned that he had already injured the enemy fighter whom Mr. Kerry later chased and killed behind a hootch. That led Mr. Warsh to investigate and eventually lay out as a theoretical possibility that Mr. Kerry's killing of wounded enemy was less than heroic, possibly even technically a "war crime." He noted that Mr. Kerry returned the next day with his movie camera to reenact his version of the scene.

Though Mr. Kerry himself had come home and insisted before Congress that "war crimes" were routine in Vietnam, Mr. Warsh later opined that the term should never have been in his column. In any case, the violent reaction would have taught anybody that there was no taste for revisionism about Mr. Kerry's Vietnam heroism. Mr. Warsh was ripped by fellow columnists in his own paper, and even his editors (who had meticulously screened his column) were less than staunch in its defense. But the episode is also relevant in another way: Mr. Warsh was a Vietnam vet himself and obviously skeptical of Mr. Kerry's penchant for dramatizing what was, after all, a four-month stint in the war that Mr. Kerry proceeded to turn into lifelong political gold. Maybe that's the real source of veteran hostility to Mr. Kerry. --Holman W. Jenkins Jr
I know David Warsh, I read his Economic Principals every week. Warsh takes a literary approach towards economics and mostly discusses new books, biographies, university departments and social relationships related to the subject, a focus that must require genuine affection for the field. A pity that I do not think he gets much of it right, his genuinely warm and sentimental nature limit his ability to embrace the mechanical self-interest at the heart of economic models.

One recent example is a column on a paper which demonstrates that economists are less selfish that other volunteers in tests, and uses this to urge us to 1) drive sweetly and 2) imagine a kinder, gentler world where we were all just nice to each other. I used to take part in exactly the kind of game theory experiment that Warsh describes, and basically you end up in a room with 1) a buddy or 2) a fellow student, who is probably a buddy as well. Note that this precisely fails to reflect the reality of nations and modern economies where the bulk of economic transactions are (necessarily and preferably) anonymous.

Another is an article that says Bush II has brought social security and Medicare into imbalance through tax cuts. The truth is that the system is already in "imbalance" because politicians have promised more to retirees than they have promised to tax earners, and Bush II's tax cut does little to change this one way or the other. The only reason this is not reflected in current government accounts is because the government uses cash accounting, not regular accounting, but David did not really understand this point. Arnold Kling demonstrates this pretty clearly.

But some of Warsh's columns are super, like this one on excellent piece on productivity and automation.


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