Over at Slate, John Dickerson has a piece expressing amazement that “numbers guy” Mitt Romney was so badly misinformed about the election. While I’ll admit to a certain amount of schadenfreude about the general bafflement of the Romney campaign and the Republicans generally, this particular slant (which Dickerson isn’t the only one to take, just the latest in a series) is more annoying than entertaining.
You would think that the 2008 economic meltdown, in which the financial industry broke the entire world when they were blindsided by the fact that housing prices can go down as well as up, might have cut into the idea of Wall Street bankers as geniuses, but evidently not. The weird idea that the titans of investment banking are the smartest people on the planet continues to persist, even among people who ought to know better– another thing that bugged me about Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites was the way he uncritically accepted the line that Wall Street was the very peak of the meritocracy. It’s not hard to see where it originates– Wall Street types can’t go twenty minutes without telling everybody how smart they are– but it’s hard to see why so many people accept such blatant propaganda without question.
Look, Romney was an investment banker and corporate raider at Bain Capital. This is admittedly vastly more quantitative work than, say, being a journalist, but it doesn’t make him a “numbers guy.” The work that they do relies almost as much on luck and personal connections as it does on math– they’re closer to being professional gamblers than mathematical scientists. This is especially true of Bain and Romney, as was documented earlier this year— Bain made some bad bets before Romney got there, and was deep in the hole, and he got them out in large part by exploiting government connections and a sort of hostage-taking brinksmanship, creating a situation in which their well-deserved bankruptcy would’ve created a nightmare for the people they owed money, which bought them enough time for some other bets to pay off.
Romney has no shortage of nerve, and while he creeps me out, he has the sort of faux charm that works well in the finance community. But he’s not a “numbers guy” in any sense that looks meaningful from over here in the land of science. He can do the math needed to add up his personal fortune, but the game that he made his money playing isn’t a rigorously mathematical one– people get rich in finance as much by playing hunches and cutting sharp deals as by crunching numbers. There are people who make their way in that business by taking a rigorously data-driven approach to investing– one of the many things I need to write up for the blog at some point is a review of a forthcoming book called The Physics of Wall Street— but they’re nowhere near a majority of the industry, and Romney’s not one of them.
Nobody should actually be surprised that Romney’s campaign cooked the books as badly as they did, because that’s what his class of Wall Street sharks do— they take quantitative data as a starting point, but they make their money betting against the simplest numbers. They make “gut” decisions all the time, and slant their projections in a way that justifies what they want to do. When one of their bets come through, they rake in huge amounts of money, when it doesn’t, they chop up the company and sell the pieces to cut their losses. And when a disaster that thousands of other people see coming a mile off blows up in their faces (the housing crash, or last Tuesday’s election), they’re left utterly flabbergasted.