The Worst Sort of Discourse

Kevin Drum had a post lamenting that Congress is doing nothing when it could be spending money that would, in his view, stimulate the economy out of a recession.  All well and good, and predictable based on his assumptions.  But he ended with this

We are ruled by charlatans and cowards. Our economy is in the tank, we know what to do about it, and we're just not going to do it. The charlatans prefer instead to stand by and let people suffer because that's politically useful, while the cowards let them get away with it because it's politically risky to fight back. Ugh indeed.

I was horrified by this sort of discourse, and wrote back:

It is so tiring to see both parties ascribing horrible and hostile motivations to their political opponents.  Your last paragraph is just absurd, implying that everyone agrees with your economic prescriptions and that the only reason everyone is not following them is either a) political self-interest or b) loathing for the poor and helpless.

Is it really so hard to understand that well-intentioned, intelligent people who honestly want the economy to get better might disagree with you about the benefits of deficit spending? The literature is at best mixed on this topic and certainly there is nothing about the last stimulus that causes me to become a believer.

Those of us who believe strongly that diverting trillions of dollars of capital from private to public hands (ie from hands focused on productively employing it to hands focused on politically employing it) makes the economy worse by necessity are just as motivated by trying to improve the economy as you.

I really don't understand this absolute insistence on ascribing bad motivations to those with whom one disagrees.  Is it ego, or just insecurity?  If one admits his or her opponents can be smart and well-motivated, it certainly creates an edge of doubt and uncertainty.  Deal with it.  That's healthy.  It keeps us intellectually honest.


  1. Brian:

    This has become the new means of argumentation on the Internet. It starts with the author assuming everything he states is true and claiming anyone that disagrees with him just doesn't understand the problem or even worse is knowingly part of the problem and continues to be so because they are innately evil. This way, they never have to debate their points, they just throw them out there and let their followers do the arguing.

    Climate Change? It's settled, anyone that disagrees is an unscientific ideologue.

    Economic Recovery? Let the government take more money and do whatever it wants, anyone that disagrees just hates poor people.

    Terrorists are hiding behind every corner waiting to kill you and rape your children? We need to invade every oil-producing country on the planet to stop them; if you disagree, you're obviously a terrorist.

    That dude down the block smoking pot? He's going to get your kids addicted to crack and heroin and sell your daughters into slavery to support his habit if we don't raid his house with a SWAT team and throw him in a cage for the rest of his life. If you disagree, you're obviously a drug addict.

  2. Cajun:

    There are plenty of reasons to ascribe bad motivations:

    - Republicans didn't give a hoot about deficit spending until a Democrat was elected president.
    - As we see across Europe, austerity exacerbates, rather than remedies, unemployment.
    - Republicans benefit if the economy is bad in November 2012, because it is a well-established fact that the President bears the brunt of the blame for a poor economy.
    - There are plenty of things to cut other than programs aimed at aiding the poor and unemployed, especially when the poor and unemployed actually SPEND the aid they receive from the government (you know, to live), rather than sock it away in their savings. This stimulates the economy!
    - For all the talk about "uncertainty," Republicans sure don't seem to mind bringing us to the brink on the debt ceiling debate, after--you guessed it!--voting numerous times to raise the debt ceiling in the past.

  3. Mesa Econoguy:

    A variation on this theme is "Can't we all just get along/be nice/compromise"?

    It is exactly this "middle ground" (which has slid progressively left and statist in many - if not most - arenas) which has brought us to this fiscal Waterloo.

    Would it not be wise to evaluate the prior action and motivations, and reverse course, if necessary? It seems to be pretty painfully obviously necessary right now....

    The illogic is stunning.

  4. mahtso:

    I couldn't help but consider the blogger's position with respect to illegal immigration as I read this:

    "I really don’t understand this absolute insistence on ascribing bad motivations to those with whom one disagrees. Is it ego, or just insecurity? If one admits his or her opponents can be smart and well-motivated, it certainly creates an edge of doubt and uncertainty. Deal with it. That’s healthy. It keeps us intellectually honest."

    I guess it applies only some of the time.

  5. Bob Smith:

    "Republicans didn’t give a hoot about deficit spending until a Democrat was elected president."

    Republican deficits: 300B
    Democrat deficits: 1500B

    If you can't see the difference...

  6. Craig:

    Cajun, two things.

    "Republicans didn’t give a hoot about deficit spending until a Democrat was elected president."

    You're right, they didn't. But 1/4 the Democrat's spending is still significantly less.

    "rather than sock it away in their savings"

    It's savings that provide the capital that grows the economy. Too much spending on consumer goods actually drains capital from eventual growth.

  7. Richard Harrington:

    What bothers me about this particular argument is the assumption that not only is ALL government spending a good thing, but more government spending is a MUCH better thing. Even worse, a lot of people seem to equate a healthy economy with the quantity of government spending.

    I've spent a lot of time trying to define what I consider to be "good" government spending, and eventually reached the conclusion that it's not that far from what a business would consider good - the return on investment (ROI) should exceed the cost of the capital. The biggest difference is that measuring that return may be a bit more difficult. For example, I favor good public education available to anyone who wants it. Eighteen+ years for any return is a long time, and figuring out what works with the variability in raw material is difficult.

    Virginia Postrel has a good article in Bloomberg about public projects ( The quick summary is that the costs are always underestimated and the benefits overestimated. Toy trains (that's what I call the various train initiatives) tend to cost twice as much as planned, and get half the ridership! Obviously not a good return on that investment!

  8. el coronado:

    second what mahtso said. that 'what i say is so obvious and true that anyone who disagrees must be a racist troglodyte' tactic is *precisely* this blog's position in re illegal aliens. people don't like living next to a house rented out to 6 illegal families? "racists". people don't want to pay for illegal's healthcare and schooling and/or welfare bennies? "racists". sheriff joe arrests lots of *illegal* (note that key word) aliens? "MEGA-racist".

    one has to wonder: "is it ego, or just insecurity?"

  9. me:

    Amen, Coyote. Great post. It's precisely this unwillingness to engage in actual discourse and the fallback to convenient tribal positions that makes American politics so dysfunctional.

    Commenters - you're right that the author does on occasion fall into the same trap. I'd like to point out, however, that he does so far less frequently than even most highly educated people (and not necessarily in my experience on the subjects quoted - you might want to check your own biases?) and that the letter to Drum is written perfectly, calling out the other parties illogical arguments. I really wish there was more of this going around.

  10. steve:

    The reason it's done is because sometimes it works, even spectacularly so. There are still issues that can't intelligently be discussed in polite company because the charge of racism worked so well. As another example, the charge of being unpatriotic silenced serious debate in the run up to the Iraq war.

  11. Ted Rado:

    The problem is finding people with whom one can have a calm, intellectual discussion of controversial issues. Most want to vent and emote, rather than try to find logical and well thought out answers. If you can find soch a person, you have "a pearl beyond price". When you discover that the person with whom you are talking is a zealot rather than a thinker, it is time to bail out.

  12. Keith Weiner:

    I don't think that there is any honest person who thinks that taking your money to flush down a welfare, er, excuse me, stimulus drain will do anything good for the economy. I don't think people want the irrational.

    They want the unjust.

    Drum is a soldier in an army of looters. He's doing his job, while others do theirs. His job is to keep the victims supportive of their victimizers, or at best disarmed and confused. While the shock troops in the bureaucracies do the actual work of looting and redistributing. And the royalty in Congress and the White House command it all.

    You cannot look at the thief and the homeowner and say "guys, can't you work something out." Or, to make the analogy applicable to this situation... the thief is accusing the homeowner of being evil and dishonest, so what's the answer to that? To say that NEVER is it appropriate to call someone evil and dishonest???

  13. John Barton:

    You said it very well. You begin your comment with "I don't understand..."

    Thomas Sowell's "Conflict of Visions" offers a simple reason for why the left is so much quicker to disparage the motives of conservatives. Among the many points he makes on the topic is the relative importance of sincerity vs fidelity between the two primary types of visions for human capabilities that divide left and right.

    From page 58:

    "Sincerity is so central to the unconstrained [left] vision that it is not readily conceded to adversaries, who are often depicted as apologists, if not venal. It is not uncommon in this tradition to find references to their adversaries "real" reasons, which must be "unmasked." Even where sincerity is conceded to adversaries, it is often accompanied by references to adversaries' "blindness", "prejudice", or narrow inability to transcend the status quo. Within the unconstrained [left] vision, sincerity is a great concession to make, while those with the constrained [conservative] vision can more readily make that concession, since it means so much less to them. Nore need adversaries be depicted as stupid by those with the constrained [conservative] vision, for the conceive of the social process as so complex that it is easy, even for wise and moral individuals, to be mistaken - and dangerously so. They "may do the worst of things without being the worst of men" according to Burke."

  14. Vilmos:

    As far as I know, Napoleon Bonaparte said this: Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence.

    I would replace "incompetence" with incompetence/shortsightedness/stupidity/ignorance/misunderstanding/lack-of-data/go-with-the-flow/etc. Or, describe something with malice only when *NOTHNIG* else is left.

    Unfortunately, there are many people who describe their opponent as malicious first. There is really not much can be done with these people. They immediately kill any kind of discussion. I personally know some such people and I reduced our contact to the minimum.


  15. me:

    Sigh.... Dear John: I think you're making the precise mistake Coyote points out above by attributing certain moral characteristics to "the left".

    The problem with that is of course that there really aren't any clearly defined "left" and "right" movements in America. There's a jumble of groups with all sorts of labels all over the spectrum. And associating certain ethics with such ill defined groups is even more perilous.

  16. John Barton:

    @ "me":

    What I posted was a quote from Thomas Sowell's "Conflict of Visions". Great book. Try it sometime.

    His point, which this quote is inadequate to develop, is basically that those with a constrained vision for man's potential place greater importance of fidelity vs the emphasis on sincerity from those with an unconstrained vision. It's be hard for me to map out here how those two vision types map to left wing and conservative world views, but they generally do. From this differing emphasis a lot follows. One is that it's harder for those with the unconstrained view to concede sincerity from their adversaries. This isn't an attack of them as individuals at all. It would be correspondingly true to say that those on the right have a hard time conceding fidelity to obligations from their adversaries. See, for example, how conservatives have a hard time conceding that judges may, in their own view, show fidelity to legal text where conservatives would say that they've read in what they wish to see in their sincere desire for a good outcome.

    I don't agree at all with your point that observing this difference in emphasis amounts to an attack in return.

    Try the book sometime. It's excellent on this topic.

  17. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society:

    >>> The charlatans prefer instead to stand by and let people suffer because that’s politically useful, while the cowards let them get away with it because it’s politically risky to fight back. Ugh indeed.

    Warren, I think the REALLY hilarious thing is that, assuming I WAS of a mind to agree with this statement, his cowards would be my self-serving charlatans, and my charlatans would be his cowards.

    I think it's adequately demonstrated that one of the ways to reliably, consistently stimulate an economy is to cut taxes.

    I believe, thereby, that it's the charlatan DEMS who refuse to do so for political reasons (they cannot argue with past experience, ergo they are taking their stance not for sensible reasons but for political demagoguery), and the cowardly GOP that allows them to be obstructionist about it, despite having the power to override much of what the Dems are doing.

    Somehow, I really doubt if he's assigning the descriptive epithets to the political groupings the same way I do.

    That's where the amusing irony comes in.

  18. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society:

    >> They immediately kill any kind of discussion.

    Sorry, Vilmos, in my experience with Dems and Lefties, it's not so much malice as ignorance and stupidity. The key thing to remember is that rascality (malice, whatever) has its limits, stupidity is not thus encumbered. The Left is filled with Good Intentions, and are using them, day in and day out, as paving material in their roadway**.

    As a result, while there are certainly exceptions, there's usually very little room for discussion no matter what tack you take, unless it's drooling sycophancy.

    **You know where almost any road paved with Good Intentions goes... right?

  19. GoneWithTheWind:

    I truely did believe that Obama and the Democrats were simply in error and following this mistaken path in an honest effort to succeed using Keynesian economics. I don't believe this anymore. It would be impossible for an intelligent person to see what is going on and still believe more of the same will fix it. So today and for about the last six months I do indeed believe that Obama is intentionally trying to collapse the economy. I suspect his reason is that with a total collapse he and other democrats can push through legislation to their liking. But even then I'm not sure Obama's motive is not to destroy the U.S. I do not think he ever thought of himself as a citizen of the U.S. I think in his heart he hates the U.S.

  20. Assistant Village Idiot:

    cajun - I am postliberal, not conservative. I work with leftists 40 hrs/week x 35 years, was deeply socialist in the 60's and 70's, and left them over precisely this issue. They hate, and sneer and ascribe evil motives to those who disagree. Conservatives and Republicans aren't great on this issue, but there is really no comparison: the left is far worse. I suspect Sowell's explanation is correct or at least covers a good part of the territory.

    I can seldom find a decent discussion/argument in any group, but I have found that some groups at least have them occasionally (evangelicals, committed Catholics, libertarians, mild agnostics, and just about anyone who has left one group for another), while other groups seem to produce no examples of ever hosting a reasonable discussion (religious left, paranoid libertarians, anti-corporatists, fundamentalists, union officers).

    me - you are half-right. There is a well-defined left that is 15-20% of the population whose positions are highly predictable and self-referential. The rest of us are more mixed in our views, even if we tend strongly to vote for one party or the other (blacks and fundamentalists come to mind as the examples here. They often have similar views on many issues - school choice, drug legalisation, gay marriage - yet vote for different parties.

  21. MJ:

    ...especially when the poor and unemployed actually SPEND the aid they receive from the government (you know, to live), rather than sock it away in their savings.

    Well, see here's the problem with that line of "stimulus" argument. We are now in the middle of a 1+ year experiment with a policy designed to put more money in the hands of the "poor" and "middle class" (and which in fact excludes the "rich"). This policy has had the full support of President Obama and his congressional allies, and in fact is now being proposed for extension despite scant evidence of any effects on economic growth. The policy in question is the cut in Social Security payroll taxes, and it follows on the heels of other efforts to pump up the take-home pay of the lower-income segments of society (such as the Making Work Pay tax credit).

    I'm sure this is not what Paul Krugman and his acolytes, including Kevin Drum, want to hear. But the evidence is now out there, and they must face the facts. No more hiding behind theory and grandiose, "what if?" statements.

  22. Assistant Village Idiot:

    @ MJ - Krugman believes it hasn't worked because we haven't done it enough. That could be true, of course. Here is why I believe they should no longer be listened to: even if the approach is correct, it should be apparent that it is counterintuitive to the rest of us, and those proposing it should go out of their way to make the case in light of that. Something along the lines of "Yes, it sounds backwards to spend more money in a bad economy, but this is why it works." (No one should bother to explain it to me here, please. I get the idea. But almost no one in the general public does. Those who support the plan, if you listen to them, are quite vague about where the money comes from, and believe the government just "has it" somehow. Drum knows better, of course. But the Democrat-in-the-street doesn't.) Can't they admit that Greg Mankiw, for example, understands economics and disgarees with them honestly?

    But this is not the approach at all. Krugman is increasingly strident and condescending that his opponents just don't know economics, not really and truly like he does. We're just stupid and evil. Thus, I reason, if a person cannot display the insight to recognise that their plan, even if wonderful, looks scary, then they will also lack the insight to recognise when it isn't working. They will find ever-more-ingenious rationalisations why the scheme failed.

    Once we have come so far down that road, the motives of such people are fair game for questioning. they have begged for it.

    @ cajun - BTW, I did not refute the points because it isn't the topic here. It wouldn't be hard, though. I think you are giving evidence against yourself by becoming such an excellent example of the actual post. Did you MEAN to out yourself so clearly?

  23. MJ:

    @Assistant Village Idiot

    Yes, I have heard Krugman make this argument. But he and others like him truly believe that redistribution will result in a glorious "two-fer", where the lower income classes will receive more money AND the economy will be jump-started. He just threw in the issue of scope (i.e. too little spending) for good measure so that he has another excuse in line when the stimulus inevitably fails.

    There are many legitimate criticisms of the previous attempts at fiscal stimulus, none of which Krugman (or Kevin Drum, for that matter) recognize. The public choice critique is foremost in my mind, and can be seen most obviously in the ARRA spending. But the other issue that sticks out for me, and which drives home the point I made earlier, is that most of the people who would presumably be helped out by such stimulus, whether in the form of Social Security tax cuts, tax credits on earned income or direct cash transfers, are unlikely to dramatically increase consumer spending because so many of them are still swamped in debt, whether for credit card balances or underwater mortgages.

    It didn't work under Bush. It hasn't worked under Obama. And it seems extremely unlikely that any new master plan dreamed up by the Washington crowd will be successful.

    Thus, I reason, if a person cannot display the insight to recognise that their plan, even if wonderful, looks scary, then they will also lack the insight to recognise when it isn’t working. They will find ever-more-ingenious rationalisations why the scheme failed.

    And that is precisely the problem with the likes of Krugman. For all his knowledge, he is crippled by pride and arrogance, not to mention extreme ideological blinders. From his current perch as tenured professor and social commentator, he is accountable to essentially no one, and so is free to continue throwing bombs from the sidelines. Those who disagree with him are simply mean-spirited and wrong.

  24. CTD:

    Krugman and Drum's view toward more, bigger "stimulus" spending in light of it's failure has always reminded me of what Lincoln said of his over-cautious general McClellan, who refused to move against the Confederates, despite having clearly superior forces (paraphrasing from memory): "If I gave [McClellan] a million men, he would claim the enemy had two million and demand three."

    Just replace "million" with "trillion" and "men" with "dollars" and that just about sums up their argument, no?

  25. caseyboy:

    GoneWithTheWind, you are closer to the truth than you might believe. It takes great skill and determination to bring so great a country as the USA to its economic knees. The Prez does not believe in American Exceptionalism. He believes our racist heritage and exploitation of people gave us an unfair advantage versus the rest of the world.

    A refreshing view of the role of government in public welfare and charity.

  26. Ignoramus:

    Had Obama's press conference on in background. As it ended and Obama walked out, a reporter asked "will we see you everyday?"

    Obama wants to create the impression that he's fair and balanced and an honest broker. But what came out of today is that he won't agree to any extension past August 2, and that he won't agree to anything that doesn't have "revenue enhancements". He was careful to say nice things about Boehner, but had to acknowledge that Boehner may not have the votes for even a token amount of revenue enhancements.

    Obama just made it harder for Boehner to seize the initiative by having the House pass something and then put it back to the Democratic-controlled Senate and Obama. Boehner might still do that anyway.

    Obama pointed out that the revenue enhancements he wants wouldn't apply until 2013. But he wants an immediate extension of the payroll tax cut. I suspect that Obama's spending cuts are also heavily back-end loaded.

    Here's the big problem: Even the $4 trillion "big deal" isn't a "big deal" if back-ended loaded, spread over a decade and subject to the whims of later Congresses. Not when we're running a permanent annual structural deficit of well over a trillion, where the USA is borrowing over 40% of what it spends.

    Don't forget that (1) the official projections already assume that the Bush tax cuts lapse, (2) the White House budget already assumes greater than 4.0% growth for the foreseeable future, and (3) that we'd only need a small increase in general interest rates to wipe out the effect of even the "big deal".

    This is really a fight over the size of government. Obama & Co want to negotiate after having raised the share of federal government to over 25% of GDP, when we can only afford 18% on a good day. It's unsustainable. Tim Geithner is starting to acknowledge this.

    So the game of chicken continues. If I'm Boehner I pass my House bill and stop. If I'm Obama, I mail checks to seniors in late July and then when they bounce in early August, I blame Boehner ... and by extension all the Republican candidates. I still wouldn't rule out Obama using the 14th Amendment "silver bullet" to blow through the debt ceiling, despite what Larry Tribe thinks and Tim Geithner now says.