Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Pundit's Conundrum

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

At the beginning of this month, I wrote a column for FindLaw (here) discussing the easy case for extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Shortly after I wrote that column, I was contacted by a producer at a public radio station in Wisconsin. He wanted me to appear on an on-air debate program to argue against an (to that point unnamed) opponent of extending unemployment benefits. Last week, I was contacted by a producer at another public radio station, this one in New Hampshire, who asked me to do the same thing. In both cases, I declined. Here, I will discuss the very difficult question of whether to engage in a public debate, when the underlying issue is completely one-sided.

First, however, it is worth recalling why the underlying issue -- the extension of long-term unemployment benefits (which have finally been enacted, over the objection of Senator Ben Nelson as well as every Republican Senator not from Maine) -- is a non-question as a matter of economics. The easiest way to do this is simply to review the arguments offered by Senate Republicans and their supporters:

(1) "Subsidizing something encourages it, so giving benefits to people who are unemployed simply discourages them from finding jobs." In a healthy economy, this would be an empirical question. In the current economy, it is simply absurd. Ignore the fact that, to continue to collect benefits, a person must demonstrate that he has actively continued to seek employment. Ignore the fact that unemployment benefits are so low that no one would turn down a job in order to live on those benefits. Just consider the big picture: When there are no jobs, it does not matter whether policy marginally discourages some people from sending out resumes. No opponent of extending benefits did anything more than repeat the claim that unemployment benefits act as a "work disincentive." Benefits might have that effect in some contexts, but definitely not in today's economy. Not even close.

(2) "People won't spend their benefits, so they won't stimulate the economy." This was the trial balloon floated by George F. Will that I discussed in my Dorf on Law post, "Permanently Stupid" (here), which extended my discussion of the issues in my FindLaw column. To put it succinctly, there is no empirical or theoretical basis for the belief that people who have been out of work for months and months would not spend their benefits immediately.

(3) "Extending benefits will increase the deficit." Most of the time, this argument is simply made as a stand-alone, res ipsa loquitur argument. Deficits bad, so unemployment benefits bad, too. I have only seen one attempt to put an actual argument behind this claim. The dean of the University of Rochester's business school, an economist (and former contemporary of mine from grad school), argued that deficits cause the federal government to compete for loanable funds from businesses, which prevents them from investing to expand their operations. Many readers will recognize this as the financial version of the "crowding out" argument.

The problem is that that argument only has any purchase at all if private businesses really are competing for loans with the government. Today, they most definitely are not. In fact, the big problem today is that so many companies are sitting on huge piles of cash, having slashed payrolls and run up record profits. The reason they refuse to invest all that money is that the economy is too weak to justify investments in new plants and equipment. If they wanted to expand, they certainly would not need to compete with the government for scarce funds. Like argument #1 above, therefore, this argument is simply an attempt to use an argument that is relevant only to healthy economies to defeat an argument in a very sick economy. The argument is simply wrong, as applied.

Given that background, one might think that I would have jumped at the opportunity to debate the issue on public radio. The other side could repeat their non-arguments, and I could hit the softballs out of the park. As a former high school and college debater, my salivary glands were positively pulsating.

Instead, I declined both invitations. Here is what I wrote in response to one of the producers: "While you say that there are 'schools of thought on both sides,' the fact is that one of those two sides has no economic evidence on its side and bases its opposition to unemployment benefits on a crass political calculation. Covering this issue as if there are two reasonable sides to be heard, with both sides presumed to be arguing in good faith, is simply not accurate. It is like the 'debate' over cigarette smoking (until about ten years ago), when one side (public health scientists) said that cigarettes cause cancer, and the other side (cigarette manufacturers) said that there is no link between cigarettes and cancer. Or the climate change debate, where every credible climate scientist says that humans are causing the planet to grow hotter, but the other side says that a harsh winter in Washington, DC proves that Al Gore is wrong. Finding people who are motivated to say something clearly wrong is not difficult, but they are still clearly wrong." (This was not the entirety of the email. I tried to make it clear that my disdain was not aimed at the person who invited me, of course; and I hope that the totality of my message was emphatic without being disrespectful.)

I am sure that the producer who read my email wondered why I was not anxious to go on the air and say exactly what I had said in the email -- taking an argument that is clearly wrong and setting the public straight about it. Is that not why I write on FindLaw and Dorf on Law? Would my dean not be happy to know that I had appeared on radio shows around the country? Would I not be putting myself on track for more such appearances, expanding my reach and establishing myself as a public expert on important issues? (Let us set aside the presumably paltry audiences for these particular shows. Word of mouth for future appearances is apparently part of this game.)

As my email suggests, the problem is that appearing on a stage with another person for a debate lends credence to the idea that there is a legitimate, good-faith argument over which two people can have a spirited disagreement. When that is true, I enjoy debating. When it is not, the event is a sham. When such a sham is over, even relatively informed listeners are tempted to say, "Well, there are two sides to every issue; and the experts disagree."

Media outlets, of course, simply want to present a "controversy," even when the only source of a controversy is political opportunism. Producers -- especially, I suspect, producers of programs on public radio stations -- dare not treat an issue as having only one legitimate side, at least when that side is the liberal one. Better to be "even-handed" and simply allow two people to go at it. The producers are simply trapped by the politics of modern journalism.

Obviously, this conundrum is neither isolated nor new. In any event, it poses an impossible choice: allow the crazies to get away with saying ridiculous things, or get in the mosh pit with them and be treated as simply another mud-slinger. As long as there are people who are willing to repeat (and repeat and repeat) statements that are simply false, the media will slavishly treat the contrived controversy as a legitimate debate. There is no way to win that game.


Unknown said...

But Neil, as Sir. Dr. Stephen Colbert points out, it is not the content of your argument that matters. What matters is how loudly you yell your point from the gut.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

"Covering this issue as if there are two reasonable sides to be heard, with both sides presumed to be arguing in good faith, is simply not accurate."

I'm happy you brought this up and applaud your principled stance, a position that no doubt will be misinterpreted by those soliciting your views. I dimly recall someone writing about this somewhere (I think it was a linguist, but more than that I can't remember), as this is a common and ubiquitous phenomenon in mass media presentations of public policy topics and "cultural debates" of all sorts: the presumption is that there are two (and typically only two) sides to every issue and that the sides are roughly balanced in their possession of "reasons," in the reasonableness of their respective arguments, in the merits their cases (something akin to the competing party positions of Democrats and Republicans!). All of this rhetorical pretense in the name of neutrality or objectivity, but it ends up misreading or distorting the relative weight of arguments, including the very real possibility that one side has not a leg to stand on (as in this case). You well express the disturbing resule: "Well, there are two sides to every issue; and the experts disagree."

Media outlets are utterly bereft of any critical capacity for fear of appearing naturally or irredeemably biased. The most outragesous, irrational argument or position on an issue is thereby accorded some measure of legitimation or validation in this framing or presentation of issues. As your last two paragraphs make painfully plain, this is an utterly lamentable state of affairs, the remedy for which is not soon forthcoming.

jimbino said...

Naive as hell!

When I am employed as an IT contractor, I am forced to subscribe to Unemployment Insurance, which is idiotic, since the reason I am a contractor instead of a "captive employee" is that I love being unemployed. Logic would demand that I carry "Employment Insurance" that would kick in if I had the misfortune of having to return to work for a six-month contract.

So I long ago learned to game the system and receive my full quota of six months of Unemployment Benefits between six-month contracts. Nowadays, I am able to take off almost 24 months between six-month contracts.

Sure, you have to be "actively seeking work," but this is a minimal and inoperative requirement, since a person has no problem finding jobs to apply for that he would have no chance of getting, particularly those that require drug screening that he have no legal obligation to submit to.

We who have the most to contribute to society are also, like the rich, those who are best situated to game the system. Only schmucks submit to drug screening, unionism, certification and years of paying for Unemployment Insurance with little benefit.

Michael C. Dorf said...

I don't know whether to trust jimbino's account of his own behavior, but I must assume from his anonymity that he's telling the truth; using his real name would risk prosecution for fraud. The question he raises is how many people are like him. A Wall Street Journal story earlier this month reports that the rate of fraud in unemployment insurance is between 2 and 3 percent. See
(Note that the rate recently went down, presumably because the criminals had already maxed out before the economy tanked, underscoring Neil's point).
The overall rate sounds right, given estimates that about 4% of the population are sociopaths. We wouldn't expect all sociopaths to have what it takes to come up with the scheme that jimbino has perfected. Others can draw their own conclusions, but I think that paying one scoundrel for every 35 or so innocent unemployed people is sensible.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


I suspect what's naive is the presumption that your situation and behavior are somehow generalizable in a relevant sense or representative of the vast majority of unemployed people in our economy.

You exhibit symptoms of a stunted ethical and legal sense insofar as you boast of "gaming the system." Fortunately, examples of people unwilling to game the system exist as well: in my case, I am technically allowed to collect unemployment between semesters owing to my status as an adunct instructor on a semester-to-semester contractual basis. As long as I'm assured I'll be teaching in the coming semester (or summer session) I refuse to apply for unemployment benefits.

And I was never so proud to be counted among the "schmucks" of the world.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I posted while Mike was posting his comment and just wanted to say I'm glad to know Jimbino could be prosecuted for fraud. And I'm not at all surprised about the statistics he cites: similar data have been used to counter nonsense about people on other forms of welfare.

Sam Rickless said...


I respect your position and the desire to maintain your intellectual integrity, but I worry about the result of declaring unilateral disarmament in the face of the admittedly problematic journalistic imperative to treat crazy right wing views as worth debating. If all smart liberal pundits were to adopt your principled stance, the only liberal pundits left to counter right wing idiocies would be none too smart. And this would make the right wing look better by comparison.

I think that the right way to fight idiotic views on unemployment (or anything else, for that matter) is to accept the invitation and come out swinging. One way to swing is to go meta: "the vast majority of nobel prize winners in economics agree that....", "to the vast majority of economists who have studied the issue, my opponent's views are not only wrong, but ridiculous". You might explain that you thought seriously about not joining the program because you were worried that doing so would lend legitimacy to your opponents' position. You can say, if you like, that the very nature of the debate is a sham, but that you see no option but to participate because the results of non-participation are worse than the results of participating. You could explain to the producers that your participation would be conditional on their giving you room to make such statements.

Another tack would be to talk to the show's producers behind the scenes and explain where the real debates are, suggesting names of conservatives whose views you respect (even if you disagree with them). Isn't it part of your job to educate journalists too? You might meet with resistance, but isn't it worth a try?

Charles T. Wolverton said...

While I agree with Sam's suggested procedure in principle, in the case of the specific issue on the table (and probably many others) it might well backfire. As keep observing, there are a shocking number of smart people acting incredibly dumb these days.

In this week's installment of the Becker-Posner blog, both argue against extension. I often find Prof Becker too doctrinaire to take seriously, but in this instance J. Posner (of whom I am - was? - a big fan) has, I think, the more ridiculous essay, comprising marginally competent versions of two of the very arguments Neil refuted.

So, one can imagine even a superb proponent going up against a Nobel laureate or a respected polymath (who presumably knows everything) opposing. The quality of the arguments would likely carry no weight with the typical audience, so reputation/credentials would prevail.

As an aside, I wonder how those who claim unemployment benefits promote work avoidance explain that over the last several years 8 million people who were happy to work for a full wage suddenly became lazy and happy with a subsistence lifestyle.

Bob Hockett said...

Thanks much for this great post, Neil,

I'm of course with you (and Patrick) on the observation that there are not always two sides to a question, and that in some cases one might dangerously suggest the contrary and thus legitimate lunacy by agreeing to 'debate' such a question. But something in me wants to go Sam's route on this particular question. There are some questions about which the general public is sufficiently well informed, while at the same time sufficiently lacking in confidence, as to render the legitimation risk posed by a 'debate' weightier than the further-edification prospect offered by the same. But there are other questions about which the public is very ill informed and hence more apt to be misled by wrongheaded claims than by rebuttals of those claims. And I fear that most matters economic are in this latter class. Your voice is so very clear and informed on such matters that I very much wish I and others could hear it on NPR and other networks. We need you, old boy!

I also think Sam's 'going meta' suggestion a good one, even in cases where the legitimation risk versus further-edification prospect question is a tough call. For one can neutralize the legitimation risk, it seems to me, simply by saying precisely what you say here. That is, you can go onto NPR and say, to begin with, that you are somewhat uncomfortable being there because you fear that you might be implicitly agreeing that there are 'two sides' to this 'question,' when in fact there is no question at all as it's long since been answered definitively. Then go on to apprise the ill informed listeners of that answer. If you don't, I fear that the loons might well sway them. Sam might be right, in other words, that there's a unilateral disarmament risk in this particular case that outweighs the legitimation risk.

I am of course leaving to one side the distastefulness apt to attend any public dispute with a lunatic, and certainly don't want to urge any unpleasantness on you. But if you're at all inclined to go ahead and take off the gloves on the air some time on matters like this one, I hope you'll do so and decisively discredit the wrongheaded view, as seems to me very much in need of doing right now.

All best and thanks again,