What I Said ... What They Heard

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Let us start with the obvious: Humans have well-known limitations on their capacity for perceiving and processing information. Those limitations can make it especially challenging for those who try to offer nuanced or complicated arguments.

For example, litigators who represent defendants in criminal trials say that a jury has to have someone to blame. Even if the legal question before them is whether there is a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the murder, it turns out that juries will often (usually?) convict, if the answer is "no" to the following question: Is there someone else who seems more likely to have committed the murder than this defendant? That the evidence against the defendant is weak, mutually inconsistent, or lacking credibility apparently matters little. "My client didn't do it," in jurors' minds, can only be supported by proving that "This other guy really did it."

The combined roles of teacher, scholar, and pundit offer similar (though less immediately consequential) lessons in dealing with twisted and incorrect responses from listeners and readers. Saying, "I do not like X," does not necessarily mean that "I dislike X," because it is also possible for one neither to like nor to dislike X. This is all covered in Logic 101 (or, at my undergraduate institution, a course called "The Nature of Argument"), but the burgeoning sub-fields of psychology that feed various behavioralist explanations of behavior -- often revealingly called "cognitive distortions" -- offer evidence that real life continues to offer endless examples of people making logical errors.

None of which is news, of course. Still, it is worth remembering the broader phenomenon when confronted with specific examples of unjustified logical leaps. For me, a good example of such an error is offered by reactions to my recent decision to buy a house. I made light of this error in my post discussing that decision, but the basic error is still rather simple and seductive. I have been saying, for quite some time: "It is not true that everyone should own their residence." What many people have heard me say is: "No one should own their residence."

Of course, there are strong and weak versions of what I said. The weak version is merely that every decision is fact-specific, and thus a choice between buying and renting should be driven by the facts. While weak, that statement still has some real power, because it denies the conventional wisdom that says that -- especially because of the deductibility of mortgage interest and property taxes -- owning a home is always the preferred choice.

The stronger version of my argument is that it is more likely than not that the better choice will be to rent rather than to own. The basis for that stronger claim (as I noted in my earlier post) is based on simple economic theory: supply and demand considerations are likely to make apples-to-apples own-versus-rent comparisons come out in favor of renting, rather than buying. Other factors might cause a specific situation to deviate from that global expectation, but the rebuttable presumption is that renting will dominate buying. My decision to buy a house was thus simply a case of the specific facts of a case leading to an unexpected conclusion.

Even so, I once received an email from a student that read as follows: "Professor Buchanan, I am going to be married this weekend, and I will be on my honeymoon next week. I hope that you don't have the same attitude about marriage as you do about home ownership, because I would like to be excused from class next week." Let us assume that this email was serious (which, based on other evidence not worth relating here, seems a safe assumption). What the student seems to have heard was that Professor Buchanan is against home ownership, which I never said. (In the next class meeting, without identifying the student, I admitted that I actually do have the same attitude about home ownership and marriage: Both can be great ideas, but there are plenty of reasons to suspect that social norms push far too many people into both home purchases and marriages that are bad ideas.)

So, is this merely a matter of my own inability to be clear? Maybe, but if so, I am not alone. In a blog post last summer, Paul Krugman wrote:

"I’m not the first person to notice this, but whenever you read conservatives trying to critique what they think the other side believes, you find them assuming that their opponents must be mirror images of themselves. The right believes that less government spending is always good, regardless of circumstances, so it assumes that the other side must always favor more government spending. The right says that deficits are always evil (unless they’re caused by tax cuts), so they assume that the center-left must favor deficits in all conditions."

Regarding deficits in particular, I certainly receive the same illogical feedback that Krugman identifies. Moreover, this is not merely the reactions of unthinking anti-government ideologues. In a talk last Fall at a good law school, I found myself compelled to clarify that I do think that deficits can be bad (and, in other circumstances, good). I added: "I'm not echoing Dick Cheney's infamous statement that 'Reagan proved deficits don't matter.' " What I had said was: "The deficits that we have been running since 2008 are not a long run problem." What they heard was: "Deficits are never a problem."

This tendency of people to make unjustified leaps motivated the title (and, of course, the content) of one of my law review articles (from 2006): "Is it Sometimes Good to Run Budget Deficits? If so, Should We Admit it (Out Loud)?" My question was posed as a non-universal statement: "sometimes," not "always." Even so, if the answer to the question was "yes" (and it is, as post-2006 events have demonstrated yet again), then it might still be dangerous to say so, if people were to hear me saying that deficits are not a problem at all, as a categorical (rather than a conditional) statement.

I ultimately concluded that it is worth taking the risk that people might misunderstand, because the consequences of acting as if deficits are always bad are so unambiguously awful. Even so, it is disheartening to be confronted over and over again with examples of how people jump to the "mirror image" argument.

Another of my law review articles (from 2009), "What Do We Owe Future Generations?" skeptically confronted the repeated-ad-nauseum assertion that we must reduce deficits "for the sake of our children and grandchildren." Looking at projections from the Social Security Administration (the same projections that are used to try to convince people that the Social Security system is going bankrupt), I showed that the income levels of people living in the US 75 years in the future are forecast to be from two to four times higher than today's (inflation-adjusted) income levels, on average. Further, I argued that the inter-generational lens is unhelpful in assessing what is ultimately a claim about distributive justice.

What I said, therefore, was: "Future generations are apparently going to be doing rather well (assuming that average income levels are what matter), so we need not form policy based on the ill-informed notion that we are impoverishing future generations." Even so, more than one colleague has said to me words to this effect: "But as you said, Neil, we shouldn't worry about future generations, right?"

In a way, that comment is at least partly correct: I did argue that inter-generational comparisons are not the right way to think about distributive justice, meaning that I arguably said that we should not worry about future generations qua future generations. Yet that is ultimately not the point, because I certainly never argued that we should not worry about how policies will affect people in the future. Moreover, some listeners seem to have heard me say that there is never anything to worry about, because of the forecasts that I cited. This would be like hearing someone say, "We don't need to turn the steering wheel to the right, because the road ahead is straight," and hearing, "We need to turn the steering wheel to the left" (or perhaps, "We don't need to steer at all").

Which brings me back to Krugman's reaction to this kind of logical error. Describing his conservative antagonists, Krugman wrote: "What seems beyond their intellectual range is the notion that other people might have subtler beliefs than their own. Keynesianism, in particular, is not about chanting 'big government good.' " While I certainly agree that liberal deviations from "Deficits bad!" are almost always met with "So you LOVE deficits, don't you?!" there is plenty of evidence that people are often making these errors for non-ideological reasons. My experiences with colleagues' comment re my work on future generations, for example, cannot be explained through a liberal/conservative framework, nor can the misreading of my comments about home ownership. There is something larger at work here.

So, what I just said was: "People often hear non-categorical statements, and incorrectly interpret them as categorical statements." I hesitate to imagine what some people will hear.