An Unproductive Discussion

I saw this video of David Letterman’s interview of Rand Paul from 2011 posted on Carpe Diem:

I suggest skipping past Paul’s corny attempts at humor near the beginning and watch the last five to six minutes of the discussion. It’s a great example of how someone’s ignorance, Letterman’s in this case, can be mistaken for legitimate arguments by stating platitudes and refusing to accept facts.

In one example, Letterman characterizes Republicans as the party that just wants to give tax breaks to the rich and big business.

Paul points out that there’s the idea that the rich don’t pay their fair share isn’t accurate. They, in fact, pay most of the taxes. He says the top 1% income earners pay a third of income taxes collected and the top 50% pay 96%. Letterman gets some claps for replying:

…I think there’s something wrong with those numbers. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with them…

I’ll give Letterman credit. After the applause, he then says:

Thank you, you’re applauding my stupidity, God bless you.

I’d like to know if Letterman followed up to learn more about these facts to see if he could build a more valid counterpoint than “I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong.” If he did, what did he find? Did it change his mind?

What do you do when you encounter facts that go against what you previously believed? I don’t know about you, but I find that intriguing and I usually dig in deeper.

Earlier in the conversation (4 minute mark), Letterman demonstrates his ignorance by confusing the national deficit with the debt.  “The American debt is what, $3 trillion?”

Paul explains that the deficit is running about $2 trillion each year, but total debt has accumulated up to $14 trillion.

Letterman blows by this fact. He just learned that something he thought was $3 is nearly 5 times as big and he has no reaction. A reasonable person should respond, “Holy cow! $14 trillion? How did that happen? I had no idea that it was that much. What was I thinking?”

I will give Letterman some credit here. He asks how continuing to borrow will affect him. Paul tries to explain, but I don’t think it made much sense to Letterman.

I would have said the Soviet Union, Greece, Cyprus and Detroit are good examples of what can happen. It’s tough to tell how far down the road that is, but that’s the direction borrowing leads.

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An emotionally attractive against the minimum wage? 2

Thanks for the great comments to the previous post. There’s nothing I disagree with from the regular commenters, but I think the arguments tend to appeal more to conservatives or libertarians and illustrate how tough the challenge is.

I’d like to keep on this topic. I’ll refine the challenge a bit.

  • Two sentences max.
  • It must appeal to someone who thinks along the liberal oppressed-oppressor axis (per Kling’s 3-axis model).
  • It must be easy for just about everyone to grasp without the need to modify based on the person.

I read a good example of a short and compelling framing (on a different topic) in Steve Forbes’ recent Fact and Comment column in Forbes. Regarding Keynes’ monetary notions he wrote:

What Keynes posited was the equivalent of saying that manipulating scales is the way to attack obesity.

I think the story of Adam’s son, from the previous post’s comments, comes closest to appealing to liberals. But, I can well imagine that they spin it and say, “see, that’s why we need to guarantee him a living wage.”

Here are couple attempts:

1. Maybe smash-and-grab mobs and the knockout game wouldn’t be growing trends if the minimum wage didn’t prevent employers from paying such potential hires what they are worth — and keeping them more gainfully occupied.

2. Unfortunately, the liberal “We Care” banner is wrapped around a wrecking ball aimed at the very people they think they care about, when their actions result in continuing to fund schools that have not been educating children for decades and raising the minimum wage to make it even tougher for those uneducated children to gain job experience.

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An emotionally attractive argument against minimum wage?

The previous post made me think of the argument for and against minimum wage.

Those who support it have the emotionally attractive edge. They say it helps the poor. They also have the easy-to-envision edge. It’s easy to envision Minimum Wage Worker Bobby getting a raise.

Those opposed would seem to have an emotionally attractive edge, too. They say it hurts the poor. If you care about helping the poor, that should get your attention.

But, how it hurts the poor is tougher for someone to envision and maybe not very emotionally attractive, as well.

They say it hurts the poor by reducing entry-level job opportunities for the folks who need them the most, people with little or no job experience. How do you get to the next run in the economic ladder without experience?

What does ‘reducing job opportunities’ mean? That’s tougher to envision than Minimum Wage Bobby getting a raise. Does it mean the burger shop not hiring an extra worker next year? Does it mean that some businesses will never materialize because the costs are too high? Yes and yes. But, again, that’s tougher to imagine than Bobby getting that raise.

And, is entry-level work really a run on the economic ladder? Does it lead to bigger and better and things? That is also hard to imagine, since most folks are brainwashed to believe that it’s education, not entry-level job experience, that moves you up the economic ladder.

They would need to be paying close attention to observe how important many of the work skills, habits and interpersonal skills learned on those entry-level jobs are to their jobs later in life.

The minimum wage argument boils down to, I can envision Bobby getting a raise and I think that is worth more than some nameless person down the road not getting something they never knew they were going to get.

So, how do you frame the argument against minimum wage to make it both more emotionally attractive and easy to envision?

Any ideas?

 

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Art and arguments

This week’s EconTalk podcast featured Jonathan Haidt. It was an interesting discussion. This part made me go hmmm…., cock my head a little to the side and squint my eyes a little:

Russ: …I think libertarians have handicapped themselves tremendously by failing to realize that most people aren’t like us. Guest: That’s right. I agree. Russ: Most people are groupish, most people are emotional. They don’t want an analytical argument. Most people don’t. They want an argument that appeals to the heart; and they want to feel part of something. So the libertarian–obviously there are many different strands of libertarianism, but I think the worst strand is the one that is totally individualistic and totally analytical; and that appeals powerfully to an analytical individualist. And then they can’t understand why no one wants to go with them. And the answer is because you’ve made it unattractive.

I think there’s more to it than an attractive emotional argument. The people who prefer them also seem prone to believe that attractive emotional arguments provide enough information to know the answer and not have to think about it any more.

Update: Adding to my last thought, it helps if the argument is emotionally attractive and easy to envision. More about that in the next post.

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Loosely connected cost-benefit analysis?

To my previous post, I can imagine that some people would make the case that sending disruptive kids home from school will increase crime rates, so better to keep them in school.

This is one example of a concept I’ve been thinking about, but don’t have a good name for yet. For the lack of a better name, I’d call it ‘loosely connected cost-benefit analysis’.

This happens when we ascribe benefits, like lower crime rates, to schools because they keep criminals preoccupied. There may be some truth to that, but there are also problems with this reasoning.

First, keeping criminals preoccupied isn’t the purpose of education. Providing an education to students is. The folks who support this second order benefit of using schools to keep criminals off the streets don’t consider the cost that imposes on the school’s primary goal of educating students.

Second, it isn’t fair for the students and parents who want their kids to get an education.

Third, it assumes there are no better ways of dealing with criminals. Isn’t it the job of parents and police to limit criminal activity? I don’t think we gain when we try to offload that responsibility on to schools.

If you think I’m being too narrow-minded and should be more open to all the holistic benefits of schools, I encourage you to consider the following example.

Community centers that promote recreational sports leagues are also a way to keep criminals preoccupied. Though I can’t imagine many people would argue that community centers should be forced to let misbehaving people continue to participate.

I imagine there would be large agreement that community centers have the right and duty to expel dangerous people to keep other members safe and the programs productive. If you agree with that, then why would you think that schools should be forced to keep disruptive students?

Most people could easily predict what would happen if community centers were forced to keep misbehaving people. Community centers would become dangerous, which would chase away well-behaved members and cause eventual failure. The blind spot created when changing ‘community centers’ to ‘schools’ amazes me.

 

“What does being conservative mean?”

I heard a teenager tell Mark Levin, on his radio show, that his Mom asked him this question and he couldn’t give a good answer. The teen wanted to know how Mark would answer.

Mark said a lot. But, I don’t think it would make much sense to non-conservatives. It started off something like, “A conservative believes in individual sovereignty…[I zoned out]…he doesn’t believe in no-government, they’re not anarchists, but a limited constitutional republic…[I zoned out, again]…”

First, I liked hearing this question being discussed. I think questions like this are asked too infrequently. But, yawn. There has to more compelling answer for those who don’t consider themselves conservatives.

Any ideas?

Speaking of Krugman…

In my previous post, I explored my first exposure to Milton Friedman, while comparing him with Krugman. I thought it would be fair to do the same for Paul Krugman.

Somewhere in the early 00’s, I read a Paul Krugman column for the first time. Like Friedman, in the 70s, I had no idea who he was. Instead of being impressed with his ability to have a productive discussion, I was appalled at his use of fallacies. Name calling (ad hominem) and straw men (misrepresenting/oversimplifying opposing positions) seemed to be his favorites.

Friedman struck me as someone who, if you had a question about something, you could ask him and he’d give you a good rundown of both sides of the issue and why he thought one way or the other.

Krugman struck me as someone who would twist a story to match his preconceived ideas and would do so uncivilly. I decided he wasn’t worth my time to read Krugman and I have been amazed at how much attention the twerp gets.

Liberals like him because they can use him in their own fallacies — especially the Appeal to Expert or Authority fallacy — with heavy emphasis on his Nobel prize. Disregard, however, that whatever idea of Krugman’s they are appealing to has nothing to do with what he won the Nobel prize for.

Economists seem to like to play an annoying Krugman game. How can I praise him and disagree with him at the same time? I’ve been amazed at how willing they are to overlook his uncivil behavior.

It took longer than I thought, but a couple of economists have publicly called out his uncivil behavior in their open letter to PK.

I don’t post much about Krugman here, because I find that he is not worth my time. Occasionally, I do give him another chance to see if I’m missing something, but he hasn’t changed my mind yet. I still find his arguments contorted to fit his vision and not the least bit compelling.

As just one example, here he responds to the open letter.

Krugman first claimed that these two economists didn’t do much to publicly distance themselves from politicians who may have misused their research. When they provided a record of the times they did exactly that, Krugman retreats to “if the authors ever made an effort to correct this misconception…it was done very quietly.” Rather than admitting he overplayed that point, he gives us conditional, non-admission. That’s Childhood Sibling Fighting 101.

This whole point, however, is a red herring.

I also found this to not be compelling:

It’s the difference between arguing that failure to impose an austerity program amounting to a few percent of GDP might reduce GDP a decade from now by a fraction of a percent at most — which is what the actual correlation suggests — to suggesting that it will reduce future GDP by 10 percent, which is what the threshold claim suggests.

 

While I have issues with several things in this paragraph (like the use of the word austerity,  the characterization of ‘failure to impose’ it and the underlying notion that correlations matter), a couple others stand out.

First, I thought the corrected correlation showed the difference could be 8%, no? The Herndon correction showed that countries at the 90% of GDP debt threshold still underperformed countries with less debt by 0.8%. Compounding for 10 years, isn’t that 8%?

Even at that, that’s not the key reason I don’t find Krugman’s statement compelling. Even if my 8% figure is incorrect and Krugman’s ‘fraction of a percent at most’ is, the data still shows that ‘austerity’ programs, at worst, DO NOT HURT, and may help.

So, what is the argument against austerity?

Why is there no Milton Friedman today?

This question was put to economists recently. Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution, responded here.

Here’s an excerpt of his response:

In some respects, if there is a Milton Friedman of today, it is Paul Krugman, who both has a Nobel Prize and has a very large popular audience and considerable skills as a communicator. Of course Friedman’s contributions as an economist were far more fundamental. Arguably Friedman deserves three or four distinct Nobel Prizes, while no one would say the same about Krugman, even though most of his serious critics readily would grant he deserves the one.

What about the differences in political orientation? The great policy battles of Friedman’s day were defeating communism and planning, moving away from naive Keynesianism, privatizing, and overcoming an excessive belief in regulation. And today what goals are perceived (correctly or not) as comparably important? Improving income inequality, fixing health care, and reining in the banks. The cynic might toss in ‘fighting austerity and returning to naive Keynesianism.’ It should be no surprise that today’s closest equivalent to Milton Friedman—in terms of being an iconic, popular, Nobel Prize-winning economist—should come from the left rather than from a conservative or a libertarian viewpoint.

I agree, but I would add a few observations. The differences between Friedman and Krugman run deeper than political orientation.

Friedman encouraged and facilitated productive discussion. He didn’t (at least to my knowledge) personally attack his critics. He engaged them and made his points on merit. Friedman got people to think and changed minds.

Krugman muddies the discussion with personal attacks and straw men representations of his opponents’ positions. He doesn’t encourage or facilitate productive discussion. Rather, he polarizes.

As a lad, I saw Friedman on the Phil Donahue show. I had no idea who he was. In fact, I had no cognizant recollection of seeing him on Donahue until I watched Youtube videos of those appearances in the last few years.

But, when I re-watched them, I was taken back to my pre-AC and pre-cable TV days. On a hot summer afternoon, with five channels on TV, Donahue was a last resort from boredom…usually coming after watching Beverly Hillbilly and I Love Lucy re-runs for the umpteenth time.

While I didn’t have much idea what he was talking about, I found his style refreshing. He didn’t get sidetracked with fallacies or caught up with noise making. He simply presented his case. When challenged, he addressed the challenge instead of avoiding it, which stood out to me.

He also struck me as someone, if given a challenge that he had handled a hundred times before, would stop and think about it and give it due consideration.

 

Even at that young age I seemed to notice that productive discussion was rare. That when challenged, folks just repeated their talking points (perhaps with more fervor), but thought it best to not acknowledge the challenge.

So, while Krugman may be today’s Friedman when applying a simple filter (an economist, with a Nobel Prize and a large popular audience that matches with the political trends of the day), he doesn’t have Friedman’s penchant for productive discussion. I don’t get the sense that Krugman changes minds to his way of thinking. Rather, he provides cover for people who already think his way.

Know your audience

Arthur Brooks made a great point in his Wall Street Journal opinion piece yesterday, Republicans and Their Faulty Moral Arithmetic.

Raging against government debt and tax rates that most Americans don’t pay gets conservatives nowhere, and it will always be an exercise in futility to compete with liberals on government spending and transfers.

Instead, the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly—it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats—too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns—but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.

That reminds me. I have made headway with liberal friends on the subject of school choice by doing exactly what Brooks suggests, making it about the kids and the parents who need the most help.

I pointed out that middle-income and wealthy folks already have school choice because they can afford to live in an area with a good public school district or pay to send their kids to private school. That may contribute to why these schools are successful.

I then asked why low-income parents shouldn’t be given more choice, too.

Several told me that changed their mind about school choice and they became supporters of it.