Romney, Lying Liars, and Concern About Concern Trolls

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan
Yesterday, in my Verdict column and my Dorf on Law post, I discussed Mitt Romney's recently revealed comments about "the 47%" -- the people who supposedly pay no taxes, and who (therefore?) have no intention to vote for him.  One of the documents that I cited in my column is a recent analysis from the Tax Policy Center (TPC).  That analysis nicely summarized most of the key points that debunk Romney's comments, using basic statistics (that is, facts).

Some readers might remember that TPC -- which has always enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for being solidly nonpartisan (and which is, for that matter, utterly orthodox in its economic approach to analyzing tax issues) -- was savaged by the right-wing echo chamber for having had the temerity to publish an analysis of the Romney tax non-plan.  Their analysis showed that, even after giving every benefit of the doubt and making every judgment call in Romney's favor, his tax plan could not meet all of his stated goals.  In particular, if he wanted to lower tax rates to the levels he has specified and not lose revenue, taxes would have to go up for middle class (and probably poor) people.

As I say, TPC was quickly attacked by the usual crowd, with claims that TPC was somehow an arm of the Obama campaign.  This should not have surprised anyone, of course, because even the fiercely nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is regularly attacked by Republicans in Congress when its analyses do not support conservative positions.  TPC was forced to defend itself against these similar attacks, and it has continued with its important work.  When Romney's remarks about the 47% came out, TPC did what it should do in response to an issue that falls squarely within its area of expertise: analyze the numbers and announce its findings.  And those findings made Romney look foolish, or worse.

I first found out about the TPC's analysis of the 47% in the same place where I see many such studies: the indispensable TaxProf Blog.  On the comments board for the post about the new TPC study was a classic "concern troll" comment.  (For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a concern troll is a reader of a blog post whose comment boils down to something like this: "I am not saying that you're wrong, but I'm just very concerned that you're saying this in a way that is unhelpful.")  Concern trolls are almost never demonstrably wrong, of course, because they trade in counter-factuals: "Oh, if only you took a different tone, your point would have been so much more influential.  But by forgetting to follow the rules of polite society -- admitting that everyone has a point, never assigning blame or assuming bad faith -- you have done yourself harm, compared to what you could have achieved by playing nice."

Here is the concern troll's comment about the TPC's analysis:
"TPC is demolishing its reputation as a non-partisan source of information by repeatedly wading into political debates. Even if the analysis is perfectly accurate exactly down the middle, people on either side will not see it as such.  Accuracy issues aside, TPC's recent topic selection has shown a bias toward Democrats, their points of view, and their accusations against Republicans. ... TPC has always been above reproach, providing pertinent and accurate analysis of important and feasible policy alternatives. This year it's turning the corner to becoming yet another partisan think tank analyzing largely irrelevant topics that are being promoted by Democrats' campaign staffs. That's really sad. It's so hard to build a reputation for impartiality and so easy to destroy it through carelessness.  I'm reminded of the advice given by Obama's first Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: Just shut up. Although he phrased it less delicately."
So, the basic idea is this: If the TPC sees an issue that is within its area of expertise, and it has something to say about it that is relevant to current political discussion about taxes, it should just "shut the f*ck up" anyway, because telling the truth will destroy its reputation for impartiality -- "[e]ven if the analysis is perfectly accurate exactly down the middle."

Notice, of course, that this concern troll -- like all concern trolls -- is not really saying what s/he purports to be saying.  It is not that TPC needs to protect its reputation for impartiality, it is that it is destroying that reputation by showing a bias in its topic selection, looking at "largely irrelevant topics" that favor Democrats.  You know, irrelevant topics like whether a man with a 20% chance of becoming the next President, and who steadfastly refuses to give any specifics about his tax plan, can achieve the combination of feel-good goals that he has bothered to specify.  Irrelevant topics like whether a major party's candidate for President is at all accurate in his description of how the tax system affects different people in the country.

I have no idea who the author of that particular comment was, and it does not matter.  He or she perfectly captures the essence of trolldom.  Whereas the classic concern troll's comment is always couched as a matter of form ("You shouldn't have said it this way"), it is almost always a complaint about content ("You shouldn't have said that!") -- without being willing to argue about the merits.

Which means that concern trolling is merely another form of false equivalence.  Let us say, purely hypothetically, that one side of a debate is simply lying.  The other side is not as pure as the driven snow, but its partisans do not simply deny facts.  What does one do?  The US media defaults to "he said, he said" reporting.  And concern trolls tut-tut about calling lying liars what they are.

As I noted above, however, the concern troll's nominal argument is never actually wrong.  We cannot know, after all, whether being just a little bit less confrontational, forcing ourselves to be just a bit more even-handed, would have worked better.  Even though the liars are lying, it is always possible that the better path would be to smile and assume the best, pretending that nobody's pants are on fire.  It is just that all the evidence of the past generation or so suggests otherwise.

As I was writing my column on Wednesday, I found myself writing these sentences: "The idea that, at a given moment in time, only half of the country is paying taxes is, therefore, so wrong as to be laughable.  That it has become the key talking point for Republicans for almost six years now would be amazing, if it were not for that party’s track record when it comes to denying the realities of global warming, evolution, and any other inconvenient aspect of taking the actual economic or scientific evidence seriously."  I considered concern-trolling myself, but I decided that, especially in the current political environment, pretending that both parties are reality-based would be a much greater sin than risking the wrath of the trolls.

Maybe there's an ironic twist there.  Those who might express concern about the bluntness of such statements can themselves be concern-trolled: "I am not saying that you're wrong when you criticize people for being too critical, but I'm just very concerned that you're saying this in a way that is unhelpful."