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.