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Dan Rather and the Hedonic Age


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
September 20, 2004

Dan Rather must be autistic. I say this not with regard to his history of odd behavior and apparent inability to relate to others. Instead, a diagnosis of autism would be the likely assessment of a fringe element of the economics profession who call themselves the post-autistic economics network. (Taking their cue from e.e. cummings or archy the cockroach, the group does not capitalize itself.) This affinity group of economists  perceives the train of thought that run through the mainstream of the economics profession to be fundamentally autistic in nature. Neoclassical (not to be confused with neoconservative) economists, as the post-autistics see it, are so involved in their academic games that they willfully ignore the reality of the economic disaster that goes on all around them. By extension, Dan Rather cannot see that the Bush Texas Air National Guard memos appear to even the least trained observer like they just popped out of Microsoft Word and were copied and faxed a few times to age (and attempt to disguise) them.

I am bit of an expert (not that I believe in experts) on such things because, as I described in a series of commentaries I wrote this summer, I worked in "document preparation" at roughly the time when the memos were alleged prepared. (Unlike some self-proclaimed experts in the blogosphere, I never repaired any typewriters, though I did break quite a few.) The documents that I helped prepare and distribute were not the file memos of a National Guard officer, but the announcements of securities offerings sent out on the behalf of Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and the other big firms on Wall Street. Without resorting to detailed forensic analysis, it is obvious to me that the state-of-the-art typewriters, even with customized keys (which were common on Wall Street but probably not on a Texas military base), lacked the technology to create these memos. They look as out of place as a Toyota Prius would have looked in an old Starsky and Hutch episode. And it is not some random details that are bothersome, but the entire gestalt.

Anyone who used a typewriter back in the Seventies, and Dan Rather certainly did, would have to be "autistic" not to see these memos for what they are. And if Wall Street could not produce printed output like that, short of time travel or alien abductions, I don't see how the Texas Air National Guard could.

I am also a bit of an expert on ethical lapses, having studied Enron and devised my own fictional financial scandal, so I understand the moral basis for Dan Rather's actions at either a conscious or subconscious level. Not to inject politics into this commentary, but some of President Bush's more vocal opponents perceive him to embody evil of Hitlerian proportions. Hence, any action taken to remove him from office is morally justified. Dan Rather has effectively said that the authenticity of the documents is secondary to whether they accurately reflect the state of mind of their alleged author who is not alive to clarify matters. The problem is that everybody already knows that the young Dubya was the sort of guy who would miss physical exams and might be tempted to wield his family's influence in questionable waysthat's not news. And judging from the notices on my doctors' walls, Dubya is not the only person to have ever missed an appointment for a physical. The memo, however, was the news and without it, there is no news.

How do I know with absolute certainty that the memos were fake? If the memos were real, by now CBS could have produced a machine capable of creating it or something that remotely resembles it. As one who has spent untold hours with IBM Selectrics (using the regular model and watching others fiddle with the composing one), IBM Executives, and their Remington brethren, I can attest to their heft and durability. It is difficult to believe that no matter how obscure the typewriter used to create the memos was, that a few of its number did not survive to the present day.

I would like to add two observations to the growing list that is circulating out on the Internet. First, it takes a lot of skill to get clean copy out of a proportional-spacing typewriter. There were no self-correcting typewriters in general use back then (the first Correcting Selectric was introduced in 1973 and it did not do proportional spacing). Aside from the skill it took to get Liquid Paper to appear nearly invisible, getting the correct alignment if you had to backspace more than a single character took real talent. Second, I wonder who taught the composer of these memos to single space between sentences. A light green man, perhaps? Even in the early days of the word processor, it was standard practice to double space between sentences.

So, what does any of this have to do with autistic economists? What Dan Rather and the autistic economists have in common is the inability to see that the past, present, and future are entirely different things. It took me four weeks of commentaries to scratch the surface of what 1971 and 1972 were like on Wall Street because so much has changed since then. Indeed, CBS's sister network, VH-1, has raked in the bucks making specials that ridicule the fads and fashions of the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. (Pet rock or Rubik's cube, anyone?)

To economists, the distant past and the present are essentially the same, with any differences being captured in changes in prices and output levels. Well, that's what they used to think. Now we are in the Hedonic Age, where products' "attributes" are also taken into account in comparing the past with the present. While the post-autistics tend to argue that the past was better than the present (too much pollution, fast food, and idiot bloggers), the hedonic economists argue that the past is even better than the numbers would have things look.

The big impact that the hedonics have had is to reduce the payouts on anything tied to the government released inflation numbers, which includes Social Security payments, many wage contracts, and the interest on inflation-indexed government bonds. I heartily endorse the efforts of the hedonic economists to get the numbers right, I used to count myself among there number and I studied with the best of them at Harvard, I just think that people have a right to certain amount of exogenous technological change without the government, in essence, taxing them for it. I am very happy that Microsoft Word can churn out a document for pennies that would have cost hundreds of dollars to professionally typeset back in 1972. I just don't want the Federal Government taking that money out of my future Social Security payments. (And calculating it wrong, to boot.)

Back to Dan, I see him as a tragic figure. It is hard to believe looking at him now, but he once considered nothing more than a pretty face when contrasted with his archrival, Roger Mudd. Soon after Dan took over from Walter in 1981, Don Henley got his first hit single after separating from The Eagles with "Dirty Laundry." The song, which harpoons pretty-boy anchors and underhanded journalism, starts:

I make my living off the evening news
Just give me something-something I can use
People love it when you lose,
They love dirty laundry

Well, I coulda been an actor, but I wound up here
I just have to look good, I don't have to be clear
Come and whisper in my ear
Give us dirty laundry

Maybe some things never change.

Beyond the fringes of the post-autistic economists are those who believe in black swans. If we have not been nuked into oblivion by next week, I will celebrate the triumph of hope over fear in "Still Waiting for the End of the World."

Copyright 2004 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to