Friends and Enemies on Social Media

The Morning Call looks at market commentary in the total state

So…something interesting happened over the weekend, something that exemplifies the present zeitgeist and thus explains, at least in part, the dour mood we mentioned on Friday.

Two people we kinda know a little bit got into a HUGE fight on Twitter, one that drew in other people we kinda know a little bit and that persisted, growing more acrimonious, throughout the weekend.  The two original antagonists were Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory and Brian Wesbury of First Trust Advisors in Chicago.

By way of disclaimer, we should note that one of these men is someone we consider a friend.  He’s been kind and helpful to us over the last few years.  We’ve tried many times to pinpoint his ideological predilections, but have failed.  We’d guess that “Liberalitarian” comes close, but then, we don’t know for sure.  Beyond that, we know that he is a communitarian of sorts, like us, and someone with whom we agree on a great many things.

We should also note that the other man, by contrast, is a diehard conservative, someone with whom we probably align quite well, ideologically, and someone whose work we’ve generally liked in the past.  Beyond that, we don’t know him at all, except that he was a client of ours for a long time.  Or, more accurately, he was on our email list, and someone else at his firm paid us – until about five years ago.  That’s when he told us in no uncertain terms that he just didn’t see the point in continuing to pay us.  Despite the fact that his firm had 19 other readers on our distribution list, he just didn’t see the value in what we did.  And that was that.  Not wanting to lose clients and not wanting to believe that his sentiments were representative, we reached out to him via email, but he never got back to us.  C’est la vie, we suppose.

Anyway, the rumble all started last week when Wesbury posted an updated version of a chart that he’s been using since last spring.  It shows COVD cases on one Y-axis, COVID deaths on the other Y-axis, and time on the x-axis.  It looks like this:

death vs test



Now, the interesting thing to note here is that the chart is completely, 100%, inarguably accurate.  If you look at the underlying numbers, there is nothing whatsoever inaccurate about the information presented therein.  Wesbury’s first defense, a perfectly reasonable defense, was that, statistically, his chart is just fine.  And he is RIGHT.

Kinda.

As Ben Hunt came along to point out, the “accuracy” of a chart was not in doubt.  But then, accuracy is not the only measure by which such visual aids should be judged.  There are also the matters of perspective and narrative.  In a note published entirely on Twitter, Ben wrote:

I think more lives have been endangered and more damage has been done by “respectable” Covid truthers and minimizers, armed with sophomoric analysis and intentionally misleading charts, than by all the Q-Anon wackos combined.

I’m not talking about honest disagreements on appropriate public health policy responses to Covid-19. I’m not talking about honest mistakes in assessing the biology of this novel coronavirus and how it spreads.

I’m talking about a willful effort to present Covid health data in a way that encourages it’s-just-the-flu risk-taking, all behind the respectable veneer of a corporation or a think tank or a government agency.

There are many respectable COVID minimizers but today I’m going to focus on one – @wesbury and the COVID-19 Tracker published by First Trust, an Illinois-based asset manager with AUM  ~$150billion….

Twenty-two of these Covid-19 Trackers have been published by First Trust going back to June 29th….

Each of the exhibits is a first-degree chart crime. Today I’m focusing on the worst – the graphic in the upper left corner. The vertical axis on the left, in blue, is daily Covid cases. The vertical axis on the right, in orange, is daily Covid deaths.

Ben then ran through the versions of Wesbury’s chart as it has evolved over the last several months, noticing an interesting change over time.  Wesbury has scaled up both of his y-axes, meaning that he changed the perspective regarding the number of deaths, despite not needing to.  In the December 9, chart, therefore:

This “respectable” economist has scaled daily Covid deaths at 0 – 12,000. There are only ~7,000 daily deaths in the United States from ALL causes. It’s like charting Apple revenues on a scale of ALL company revenues….

This “respectable” economist has magnified the scale of Covid deaths by more than 3 times the original scale, even though today’s number would still fit comfortably on the original scale….

Why is this “respectable” economist doing this? Because he wants you to believe that Covid deaths are largely unchanged even as Covid cases are skyrocketing (“we test too much!”)….

There is no legitimate statistical reason for this persistent magnification of the reported-death axis. There is only a desire to make it look like cases are growing but deaths are not. There is only narrative.

Now, as we noted above, we’re not impartial observers here.  And even if we were, it would still strike us as strange that Wesbury would feel the need to expand his reported deaths axis, even if he presented entirely accurate and inarguable data.  Moreover, this scaling presents a distorted visual image of what is happening.  As one of Ben’s readers/allies in the argument demonstrated, maintaining a constant reported-death axis presents a much different visual proposition (as seen below).

Does this mean that Wesbury was maliciously or purposefully manipulating the data to create a visual construct that would undermine the present media narrative?

We don’t know, and frankly, we don’t care.  What fascinates us about the whole thing is not the argument about the chart and the scaling and the data.  BOTH sides in the argument agree that the data is accurate and that the visualization of it is the issue.  In the end, that’s not a fight that we find all that interesting.  Rather, what interests us instead is the reaction to Ben’s rant against Wesbury.  It is telling.

Wesbury, understandably, responded annoyedly at first and then, more and more angrily as the argument continued.  What was interesting, though, is that he – and especially his friends and supporters on Twitter – also started responding POLITICALLY, almost instantaneously.

In Wesbury’s defense, he doesn’t go immediately to politics, but his followers/defenders do…and he follows them, willingly and unapologetically.  Wesbury’s followers accuse Ben of being out to get the conservative economist because Ben disagrees with him about COVID and masks and Trump.  Ben, we’re told, is a scared little man, hiding in the woods on his compound, wanting everyone else to be scared like him.  He is an advocate of shutdowns forever, they intuit.  He’s an elitist with a Ph.D., who is desperate for power and control and wants to destroy freedom and liberty and mon and apple pie all that is right with the world.

Before long, Alex Berenson, the former New York Times writer and current anti-lockdown activist got involved, ascribing to Ben all sorts of nefarious motives, most of which were laughably inaccurate:

Ahh, the woke style of argument at its best. You stop it, buddy! Now! NOW! Here’s the fact, and how @wesbury or anyone graphs it makes no difference. Positive tests (“cases”) are 5-8x as high as they were in April, the previous death peak. Reported #Covid deaths are ~the same...

I am beyond sick of cancel culture bullshit. Who does this @epsilontheory guy think he is to tell you not to present data?

That, naturally, gets Wesbury’s juices flowing:

It’s complete BS. He thinks he has me on the run because he can “threaten” my business. But, both you and I use the actual data. The actual facts. As a result, he doesn’t scare me one bit. Their narrative is wrong and they know it. By the way. I am in awe of you.

Finally, Berenson dismisses Ben as a crank and part of the great effort to destroy the world:

Sorry if that bothers you, @EpsilonTheory. Team Apocalypse always hates hearing the sky isn’t falling. I won’t presume to guess why.

That last bit there is fantastic.  Berenson won’t “presume to guess why,” Ben doesn’t like Wessbury’s chart, but that’s only because he’s already definitively determined Ben’s motives.  Ben, you see, is out to get Wesbury because Ben is “woke” and part of the “cancel culture.”  Berenson has it all figured out already and, moreover, he just KNOWS it’s all about politics.  And knows all this without, seemingly, even bothering to read anything Ben has ever written on any subject other than COVID and Brian Wesbury’s charts.  Based on this one, rather misleading data point, Berenson – and Wesbury, and the entirety of his defenders – immediately categorize Ben as a political “enemy.”

This, as we keep saying (over and over and over) is what life is like in Carl Schmitt’s “total state,” the society that “no longer knows anything absolutely nonpolitical.”  Ben Hunt disagrees with Brian Wesbury, and because he does, he MUST be after something political, he MUST be politically motivated, he MUST be, as Schmitt put it, “the other, the stranger . . . the adversary [who] intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.”

Not only is this whole thing nuts, it’s also self-defeating.  Because they love freedom or liberty or whatever, these “conservatives” are playing the Far Left’s game.  The personal is political.  The political is personal.  And the only reason anyone could find a chart visually misleading is that he’s woke or a social justice warrior or trying to get people canceled.  The irony is that this approach to life effectively EXPANDS the power that the state holds over every stinking one of us, by turning every interaction between us into calculated moves in a total political war. 

Worse still, if those who make Ben Hunt an enemy bothered to pay any attention at all, they might realize that their political snap-judgment was entirely backward.  They and Ben Hunt – the woke cancel-culture guy – actually agree on a great many things, including the need to end the corrupt American ruling class’s stranglehold on the country and the need to BITFD.

Look.  As we said above, we agree with Ben Hunt (and Rusty Guinn) about a great many things.  We disagree with them about a great many things as well.  We don’t agree with everything Ben writes about COVID – especially on Twitter.  We don’t agree with everything Ben writes about President Trump – especially on Twitter.  We don’t even agree with him about everything he writes about Brian Wesbury – especially on Twitter.  But so what?  OUTSIDE of politics – which is where people are supposed to live and financial markets are supposed to function – we recognize that we and Ben share many of the same motivations and goals. 

As for Brian Wesbury, we understand his initial reaction perfectly.  That’s why we included the bit up top about him ending First Trust’s relationship with The Political Forum.  Getting told that your work is garbage tends to sting, whether the assessment is shared by anyone else or not.  We get it.  Believe us.  But when one reacts to all criticism by presuming that it is political rather than personal or, as in this case, professional, then one does real damage both to his own judgment and to the culture.

As we also noted at the top of this piece, we’d guess that we’re generally sympatico with Brian on most political matters.  On non-political matters, when we see in his Twitter bio: “And, yes, I own a John Deere tractor!” we chuckle.  For most of the last 25 years – the period when Brian and his firm received our work – the senior partner at The Political Forum, Wall Street’s original gentleman-farmer, was constantly trying to hide it from his wife every time he bought another John Deere or Farmall or whatever other toys he decided he wanted.  After all, we’re from Nebraska and Iowa, respectively.  We get this too.

What’s our point?  Well…mostly it’s this: while Ben Hunt, Brian Wesbury, Steve Soukup, and Mark Melcher might not necessarily all be on the same side in life, we’re also not on opposite sides.  We’re not Schmitt-ian “enemies.”  If anything, we should be Schmitt-ian friends, as we’re all in the same general fight and would all very much like to negate the ruling-class’s way of life.

If we are to do so, however, we will all have quit playing by their rules and quit politicizing every goddamn thing.  If we are to win, the forces of de-politicization will all but certainly need Ben Hunt AND Brian Wesbury in the fight.  Making enemies because of a zeitgeist-induced fixation on politics only serves to weaken us all.   

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