UPDATE: Continued Presence of NYT's 'Wall Street Psychopaths' Op-ed Becomes Totally Indefensible

Last night (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog), I noted the total inadequacy of a correction the New York Times made to a notorious William Deresiewicz op-ed ("Fables of Wealth") published on May 12. Deresiewicz originally claimed that "A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are ‘clinical psychopaths’ … (The proportion at large is 1 percent.)." The study he cited was really of 203 management trainees, the proportion of supposed psychopaths found was 4%, and the study's authors said that generalizing the results in any way to the overall population should not be done. As I asserted, the Times should long ago have pulled the op-ed instead of trying to cure something which is incurable.

Well, it turns out that Deresiewicz completely blew it in interpreting the rest of the alleged foundation of his op-ed, namely English writer Bernard Mandeville's "The Fable of the Bees," leaving the author utterly without any support for his anticapitalist and anticapitalism screed. At his Chequerboard.org blog (HT John Hinderaker at Powerline), Pejman Yousefzadeh performed the clinical dismemberment:

Deresiewicz ... also managed to make Bernard Mandeville, author of The Fable of the Bees ... sound as though he was some kind of sworn enemy of capitalism. The truth is ... different. As anyone who bothers to consult Wikipedia would know:

... Mandeville believed it was vicious greed which led to invisible cooperation if properly channelled. Mandeville’s qualification of proper channelling further parts his philosophy from (Adam) Smith’s laissez-faire attitude. Essentially, Mandeville called for politicians to ensure that the passions of man would result in a public benefit. It was his stated belief in the Fable of the Bees that “Private Vices by the dextrous Management of a skilful Politician may be turned into Publick Benefits”.

... He believed that certain vices would bring about progress, and that a society “blest with content and honesty” would stagnate, and might even regress.

Without getting into a dissertation, there is something to Mandeville's idea, given the fact that vices exist and that they can never be fully tamed in all people.

Yousefzadeh goes on to show how Deresiewicz totally blew it in his interpretation.

Here's what Deresiewicz claimed about Mandeville:

Mandeville argued that commercial society creates prosperity by harnessing our natural impulses: fraud, luxury and pride. By “pride” Mandeville meant vanity; by “luxury” he meant the desire for sensuous indulgence. These create demand, as every ad man knows. On the supply side, as we’d say, was fraud: “All Trades and Places knew some Cheat, / No Calling was without Deceit.”

In other words, Enron, BP, Goldman, Philip Morris, G.E., Merck, etc., etc. Accounting fraud, tax evasion, toxic dumping, product safety violations, bid rigging, overbilling, perjury. The Walmart bribery scandal, the News Corp. hacking scandal — just open up the business section on an average day. Shafting your workers, hurting your customers, destroying the land. Leaving the public to pick up the tab. These aren’t anomalies; this is how the system works: you get away with what you can and try to weasel out when you get caught.

Yousefzadeh takes over (bold is mine):

... again, Deresiewicz utterly and completely fails to note that Mandeville considered vice “a necessary condition for economic prosperity,” and believed that an honest society would be one that fell back, rather than one that progressed. This is not the same as saying that “capitalism is predicated on bad behavior.” It is the same as saying, however, that without the presences of certain “vices,” society would not advance all that much, and that greed can be properly channeled in order to bring about that advancement and prosperity Mandeville wrote about.

Obviously, I am not writing this post to extol the virtues of fraud, or to say that we ought to have more of it. I am writing it, however, because Deresiewicz sought to portray Mandeville as some kind of critic of capitalist society, when in fact, Mandeville was anything but.

Thus, to relatively briefly run down the entire sordid affair:

  • The New York Times published an op-ed whose author cited nothing with foundational validity. Instead, he took an Internet-distorted rendition of a study as gospel without investigating it, and erroneously cited an author who was a "greed can be good if properly channeled" (i.e., properly managed within a framework of reasonable laws and regulations) proponent as someone who was rabidly anticapitalist.
  • Eight days after the op-ed's appearance, the Times published a "correction" which failed to adequately address the first incurable problem and did absolutely nothing about the second.
  • In the meantime, as noted at the Media Research Center's TimesWatch outpost, the op-ed became "the paper’s second-most read and e-mailed story (behind a more substantive Times magazine cover story on diagnosing children as psychopaths), as liberal readers ironically used tools honed and perfected by capitalists to spread a tale — published by a capitalist organization, the New York Times Company, with revenues of $2.3 billion in 2011 — of the utter wickedness of capitalists."
  • As a result, as I noted yesterday concerning the "psychopath" study, "untold hordes of readers and email recipients now believe a lie, thanks to William Deresiewicz and the Times, which knows it’s a lie and doesn’t seem the least bit sorry about having spread it."
  • Additionally, as explained here, many of those same readers and email recipients believe that Bernard Mandeville was a staunch anticapitalist, when, as Yousefzadeh explained, he "was anything but."

Now that Deresiewicz's op-ed has been shown to be totally indefensible, the Times comes out of all of this looking for all practical purposes like a dedicated propaganda mill with zero integrity, and apparently proud of itself for what it has done -- namely, as I asserted yesterday, causing "serious damage to rational public discussion."

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.