It’s a sign of the times that your humble blogger is having to create finely stratified typologies for the various types of
propaganda dubious research being deployed to promote the idea that rule by our new financial overlords, despite the considerable evidence to the contrary, really is for our own good.
We’ve already instituted the Frederic Mishkin Iceland Prize for Intellectual Integrity for special-interest-group- favoring PR masquerading as research.
However, Mishkin is a Respected Personage, and the initial Mishkin Iceland Prize recipients, Charles Calomiris, Eric Higgins, and Joe Mason, presumably knew they were writing utter bunk and were handsomely compensated for attaching their names to less than credible arguments. That suggests we need a separate category for the more mundane, bread-and-butter shilldom that is dressed up to look like serious academic work. Let’s call it the Lobsters Really Want to be Your Dinner Prize.
The name comes out of a Wall Street Journal front page story in the days when the Journal had only one section and the center column always featured a lighthearted human interest story. This one was on really bad research. Of all the examples, the one that struck me as being the most patently ridiculous was a University of Maine study that concluded that lobsters really liked being boiled to death. Since I have lobstermen in my family and have had to commend more than a few crustaceans to execution via steaming, I have to say that anyone with intact powers of observation would take issue with the University’s findings.
“Lobsters Really Want to be Your Dinner Prize” is admittedly very wordy, and something like a Pangloss Prize conveys the same general idea of strained rationalizations of things that by commons sense standards are pretty nasty as being actually all for the best. However, the image of lobsters clattering around in a pot trying to escape being cooked to death seems an awfully lot like what financiers have in mind for the rest of us, so I’ll provisionally stick with the longer label.
Joe Costello pointed out to us the study that is the first recipient of this award, which he found via Yahoo News and was published in Social Science Research in May. I confess to not having read the underlying article (I’m not paying $31 to support this sort of nonsense) but the abstract is sufficiently detailed to give a sense of how barmy the framing is:
Young adults at the turn of the 21st century came of age in a time of unprecedented access to credit but slowed growth in earnings, resulting in a dramatic increase in indebtedness. Debt has been little studied by sociologists, even though it is increasingly important in financing both attainment and a middle-class lifestyle, especially for youth in the transition to adulthood. We study the consequences of indebtedness for young adults’ sense of mastery and self-esteem as stratified by class. Young adulthood is a crucial developmental period for mastery and self-esteem, which then serve as a social psychological resource (or deficit) into the adult years. Research suggests that young people have divergent perspectives on debt: some focus on credit as a necessary investment in status attainment, while others worry that readily available credit invites improvidence that can erode the self-concept as debt encumbers achievement and future consumption and increases a sense of powerlessness. We find that both education and credit-card debt increase mastery and self-esteem, supporting the hypothesis that young people experience debt as an investment in the future, and contradicting the expectation that debt used to finance current spending will lower mastery and self-esteem. Our expectation that debt effects are accentuated for those of lower- and middle-class origins but blunted for those of upper-class origins is supported. We find, however, that the positive effects of debt appear to wane among the oldest young adults, suggesting the stresses of debt may mount with age. We conclude that further study of the long-term consequences of debt will be essential for advancing contemporary stratification theory and research.
It does take a certain skill to pack so much bad thinking in such a short space. Let’s start with the unexamined assumptions: debt is useful and necessary to enter or maintain a place in the middle class. That’s clearly backwards. A college education is typically seen as the most reliable way to assure a middle class lifestyle, although that is now very questionable (due both to high young adult unemployment rates and a proliferation of colleges, particularly for profit colleges, where the value of the degree even in better economic times is open to question). The price of college education, even for schools and degrees that even recently had some career potential, has escalated so much that most students have to borrow to finance their education, yet even when graduates do land jobs, it isn’t clear that the payoff is there. But it is really astonishing to see someone attempt this formulation: debt in college is conducive to joining the middle class.
Then we have the unproven assumption that enhancing self esteem is a good thing. This is the mythology underlying parenting norms of the last two decades and all it seems to have accomplished is increasing narcissism in the younger generation. Why do young people need more “social psychological resources” if they function adequately? As I’ve indicated in past posts, Goldman and McKinsey, and I imagine most elite firms recruit for insecure people (McKinsey was quite explicit about it). They are more easily controlled. So higher self esteem may in fact make young people less rather than more attractive in the job market.
And if people do have such lousy self esteem that it might get in the way of their education, job search, and career performance, getting in debt hardly seems like the best way to address that problem. Cocaine and meth also enhance self esteem; did it occur to these researchers to compare the “mastery and self-esteem” enhancing effects of debt with legal and illicit drugs?
The authors almost seem disappointed that “oldest” young adults feel stressed by debt, and blandly conclude that “the stresses of debt may mount with age.” This is simply embarrassing. They clearly failed to differentiate between the debt accumulation and the debt servicing/payback stages. I am sort of tempted to read the study to see the study methods; the summary smacks of prejudice, and I suspect the questionnaires were not validated adequately. Any kind of questionnaire based research, particularly if the questions were administered in person, are easily tainted by investigator bias.
If you think I’m being unfair, the lead author told the New York Times that students have come to view debt positively because they perceive it to be an investment in their future. If this were indeed true (and as indicated, I’d need to be persuaded), it’s bizarre to take this belief and rationalize it as “self esteem enhancing” rather than examine how it came about, since indebtedness, particularly so early in life, is clearly a millstone.
Indeed, I think the analogy to drugs is pretty exact. Spending produces a short term high. A lot of people benefit from creating addiction. The addicts feel in control even as their lives are falling apart. Getting and staying clean is remarkably difficult, particularly if they continue to associate with users.
The American Dream once meant upward mobility and financial independence; the same branding is being used to peddle debt servitude which is certain to erode financial security. The authors of this shoddy piece lack the ability to see what is in front of their noses.
PS A site contributor is looking for other examples of orthodoxy-justifying dubious research in the think tank/political/economic realm. Please describe in comments or send to me at firstname.lastname@example.org