False Equivalence About False Equivalence

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Last Friday, I bemoaned the mindless use of the two-sides-to-every-story approach to journalism. In the context of current politics, this narrative template boils all political stories down to the claim that both American political parties are driven by their extreme ideologues, to the detriment of compromise in the sensible center. I explained why it is simply inaccurate as a factual matter to claim that there are extremists in today's Democratic Party, and that even the politicians who are the most liberal have no noticeable influence on policy, now or when the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress. There might be a lot of things wrong with both parties, but being "driven by their extremists" is not a shared flaw.

Two days later, yet another claim of such equivalence ran in the Sunday New York Times, offered by the liberal columnist Frank Bruni. Bruni claimed that, if we are all honest with ourselves, we must admit that everyone -- liberal and conservative alike -- engages in "magical thinking." This claim is, at some level, at least not ridiculous. The weakest form of the argument boils down to the idea that people use mental shorthands to process new information, causing people to act in consistent ways.

Fair enough. Bruni was not, however, making the weak form of the argument. Instead, he was claiming that liberals (like him) are just as guilty of mindless intransigence in the current political environment as Tea Partiers or anyone else. Here is the money paragraph:
We all have our religions, all of which exert a special pull — and draw special fervor — when apprehension runs high and confusion deep, as they do now. And if yours isn’t a balanced-budget amendment and a government as lean as Christian Bale in one of his extreme-acting roles, it might well be a big fat binge of Keynesian stimulus spending. Liberals think magically, too, becoming so attached to a certain approach that they wind up advocating it less as option than as panacea.
Maybe Bruni is accurately describing some people's approach to economic policy-making, but I do not know of any Keynesian who thinks in the way that he imagines we do. Bruni's error, in fact, flows from a misunderstanding of the essence of Keynesian economics. (To the extent that he is arguing that all Democrats are Keynesians, of course, he is even more wrong. See, e.g., Obama, Barack H.)

Keynesianism is evidence-based and contextual. Keynesians were not advocating "a big fat binge of stimulus spending" before the economy went into a tailspin, and we have continued to advocate it since then only because the "huge" stimulus of 2009-10 was, in fact, successful but too small. The unemployment rate remains stuck at 9%, which is better than the 12-13% that it would have reached without the stimulus bill (according to nonpartisan analysis). If the unemployment rate were back in the 4-5% range, however, Keynesians would be recalculating the size of multipliers, not calling for more stimulus.

The contrast with anti-tax, small-government magical thinking is stark. The advocates of tax cuts have been notable for their dexterity in fitting their idee fixe to any and every situation. The economy is weak? We need a tax cut. The economy is strong? We need a tax cut. The same is true of views on spending. If the economy is strong, then we hear almost Keynesian-sounding arguments about how spending cuts will cool off the economy; but now that the economy is weak, we learn that spending cuts do not cool down the economy at all, because they will unleash businesses to spend and hire more. It is not a matter of evidence, but simple belief.

The difference between Keynesians and their critics, therefore, is not a difference in two fixed policy choices, always on offer from both the right and the left. Keynesians change their policy recommendations in response to changes in the world. Anti-tax, anti-government advocates do not. There are, of course, reasons why one might consistently propose cuts in taxes and spending, but those reasons have nothing to do with being responsive to current economic conditions.

There are, however, views which most liberals hold that might at least seem to be non-situational. For example, while it is inaccurate to say that liberals (those that are Keynesians, in any case) view fiscal stimulus as a one-size-fits-all panacea, it is at least fair to note that many liberals always seem to be advocating greater progressivity in the tax code. When the economy is strong, we want to increase taxes on the rich; and when it is weak, we want to increase taxes on the rich. Is this where the equivalence lies?

It is true that no one has ever been able to describe a definitive way to measure progressivity, much less an absolute level of any measure of progressivity, that would tell us when enough is enough. To that extent, it is true that the typical redistributionist liberal has no simplistic answer to the question: "When would you be satisfied?" Even so, every liberal would certainly reach a point where increasing progressivity would no longer be a priority. Importantly, that point would fall well short of the caricature in which rewards are severed from effort. There is no observable tendency among liberals to advocate progressivity above all other considerations, to the most extreme degree imaginable. By contrast, such absolutism is not only the tendency of anti-tax ideologues, but their explicitly stated goal.

There is a larger issue, however, in this "both sides do it" debate over extremism. The assumption among people like Bruni and those I described in my earlier post (especially Thomas Friedman) is that entrenched debates are, by their very nature, driven by two sides that are both wrong and will not see the wisdom of compromise. When both sides are dug in, they say, nothing can be gained. It is, therefore, supposedly incumbent on everyone to admit that both sides are wrong, in order to make progress and find a reasonable compromise.

The deep problem, however, is that this assumption is itself an empirical assertion. There are times when two sides cannot agree, when both sides refuse to budge from their positions, and when both sides' positions are based on magical thinking. Religious wars are only the most obvious example. When one side's "intransigent" position, however, is simply that the other side's magical position is magical, then describing both sides as "equally unwilling to see the other side's point of view" is nonsense. The so-called debates over evolution, global warming, and similar issues clearly fall into that category.

For those who comment on political controversies, therefore, it is lazy and irresponsible simply to assume that every controversy is ultimately caused by both side's insistence that they are right. As a snapshot, one can turn on the Sunday shouting shows and see a Democrat and a Republican talking past each other, and then conclude that both sides are crazy and unreasonable. That, however, does not tell us how we reached the point where the two sides are blaming each other.

Making such an assessment requires looking at the evidence, seeing whether one side has consistently tried to move toward the other's point of view, and then seeing what the other side has done in response. In American politics over the last 30+ years, the evidence is overwhelming that the Democrats have consistently moved right, and the Republicans have responded by moving even further right.

If judges employed the style of logic that people like Bruni suppose to be the essence of reason, then they would simply assume that no litigant in their courtroom is ever right. It might (or might not) be true that many -- perhaps even most -- litigants are taking unwarranted positions on both sides of a given case, but the law correctly tells judges not to simply assume that neither party is right. Evidence matters.

Most Keynesians, and many liberals, have been anything but consistent defenders of the Democrats in Congress and the White House. We have not assumed that one side is right and the other wrong. We also have not, however, assumed that it is never the case that one side is right and the other wrong. To do so would be to engage in magical thinking.