Help me debunk Auntie (& Bill Whittle)
April 21, 2011 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Help me debunk Auntie (& Bill Whittle) - warning, highly politicized fiscal data

Help me debunk Auntie (Bill Whittle) - warning, highly politicized fiscal data

My sweet, generous, well-meaning aunt forwarded me this video from Bill Whittle. A fair warning: the framing for this information is highly skewed to a conservative vantage point.

I've taken this opportunity to see if rational, detail oriented dialogue can exist between people with very different points of view. I'm not optimistic of being successful, but I think a lot may be learned from the effort.

What I'd like for help is (1) a point by point debunking of the data where it's applicable and (2) a nuanced big-picture reframing of this that I hope will be convincing to her.

I have a background in economics and have already created a decent amount of contextual data that shows Bill's points to either be misleading or entirely incorrect. However, there's a lot here in a short 4 min and I'm not nearly as wonky as some of the people I've seen on here.

Another thing is that I was surprised (if Bill's #'s are anywhere near accurate), that this much wealth could be fit into the equivalent of one annual federal budget.

This is a pretty big topic, so let me know if I can clarify anything.

Thanks for your help!
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens to Law & Government (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I used to send detailed responses when my mom and dad would CC me with this kind of bullshit. Since I reply all'd, they just stopped CCing me. Problem solved from my point of view.
posted by empath at 9:45 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

No, I have a good handle on how to avoid communication on these types of divisive topics. This is an attempt to do the opposite.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 9:48 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

For a written record of the numbers used, the original blog post the video is based on is here.
posted by FJT at 10:32 AM on April 21, 2011

I have found that the most effective way of convincing someone to my side of an argument is to make it sound like it's not an argument. That is, I try really hard, in these cases, to make it sound like I'm on the same side as the other person, and then from that side, I start asking questions.

So, for example, when my uncle starts ranting about how unreasonable environmental regulations are, I say, "Yeah, I know what you mean! I really wish it were easier for businesses to get things done without interference ... [pause] ... Although, you know, there was this one time when X regulation really helped my neighbor when he was having trouble with blah blah blah. And I heard about this thing back home where a whole bunch of ranchland was saved due to water management, so I guess it's sometimes good." (Said grudgingly or kind of skeptically.) Then, later, bring up another couple of examples, and after that, say something like, "Actually, so now that I'm thinking about it, I'm actually wondering if I've been oversimplifying this situation ..."

This only works if the other person really does think you're starting out in a similar place, though, and if you can pull it off with a straight face. No one likes to look like a fool, so it's important to be respectful throughout.
posted by rosa at 11:51 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I took a great class (more of a lecture series) on communicating controversial science. We watched Flock of Dodos, a well-made movie about the evolution debate. Now, as my scientist colleague says, "There IS no debate! Evolution is a FACT! End of story!" That's pretty much what the scientists in the movie reacted, albeit more snidely. But I'd still call it a debate, because there are people out there who want to debate it -- fact or not.

Thing is, everyone in our class agreed that the substance of the scientists' message meant nothing. These guys acted like complete assholes. Why should we pay attention to them, even if we know they're right? It's a hierarchy of needs. How can we accept something new and potentially unsettling to our world view if the source can't even handle basic courtesy?

When our former chancellor, a whip-smart guy at the center of the stem cell debate, dropped in the next week, he talked about drilling down to find whatever you can agree on. If you're standing on a carpet with a door between you, and you can't even agree that the door exists, at least you can say, "Okay, we're both standing on the carpet." Even if that has NOTHING to do with what you're talking about.

We talk so much about our differences, and whose ideas are better than others'. And yeah, IT'S A FACT. But if we embrace some of the inconvenient tidbits we don't want to acknowledge, and put ourselves in the shoes of someone else to at least see how they got there, maybe that's a start. You don't have to agree with them; start by saying, "Okay, I can understand why you might feel that way" and LISTEN to what matters the most to them. Then tailor your argument so it relates to what they say they need.
posted by Madamina at 12:19 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Are you looking for help debunking this video specifically? Unless I'm missing something it looks like he completely ignores current tax revenues, which amounted to $2.16 trillion in FY 2010.
posted by aganders3 at 2:42 PM on April 21, 2011

For what it's worth, Paul Ryan used an abbreviated version of the same argument during his listening sessions /slash/ Powerpoint presentations of his "Path to Prosperity" budget plan, held here in his congressional district this week.

As aganders3 notes, the real calendar that he should use would be one with a swash of color all the way up to the point at which the budget goes into deficit -- around August-ish. So right there the only hole that needs filling is about four months long. But primarily, he is not using "the rich" honestly, he is picking and choosing relatively small groupings and ignoring everything else out there -- such as "all the Fortune 500 companies". That's some $391 billion, which is a tiny fraction of the US gross domestic product of some $14 trillion. Just under 3%, in fact. Of course you can't plug the budget hole just selectively taking everything from 3% of the country. The same goes for the other income categories, such as "everyone in Beverly Hills".

I think it's more helpful, perhaps, to concentrate on changing the framing of the argument. What is unquestionable is that the rich in the US are getting a lot richer. This widely-passed-around group of charts from Mother Jones shows how much. Particularly, the charts showing how much more heavily the burden of taxation has fallen onto the middle class -- who are much more populous than any grouping of the rich, and will make up the bulk of taxable citizens in any case.

What the Whittle/Ryan/etc. approach does is make it seem like there's way too much spending for the rich to pay for, but it's really a question of fairness. The country has been shifting its tax burden away from the rich and especially the really rich for the last 30 years, and naturally they are going to mount a pitched battle to keep that from changing. You need to ask why your auntie is so interested in protecting the super-rich. Is she that wealthy? I doubt it. What is her tax burden? Does she realize that by protecting them she is volunteering to pay a larger share herself? Or does she somehow identify, as polls show many Americans do, with the highest income brackets -- either erroneously thinking she is part of it (some 20x more answer "yes" than really are) or wishfully imagining she may somehow join it eventually (again, 20x more proportionally than ever will)?
posted by dhartung at 3:31 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Try Tom Tomorrow.
posted by KRS at 3:44 PM on April 21, 2011

@Dhartung, thanks, this is the kind of information I'm looking for.

Everyone else, I appreciate the 'approach' help and rhetoric, but I'll make those myself. Per the question, I'm really looking for primary information, good value-added analysis and nuance on the subject, not argumentation in general. Thanks.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 4:36 PM on April 21, 2011

The blog post argument is simply the fact that $3.7 trillion is a lot of money. You can't argue against that because of course it is.

However, because debt is not itself either a 'good' or 'bad' thing. This isn't actually an argument for, or against, running a large budget deficit and thereby increasing your debt. After all, as much as it can get people in too serious financial difficulties, without debt most people wouldn't be able to start businesses, buy houses or go to university.

The key points to consider in deciding whether levels of debt and deficit are good or bad are;

a) are we better off for having brought this consumption forward, than we would otherwise have been?
b) is the risk (impact x likelihood) of us not being able to pay of the debt manageable?

I think the answer to both questions a) and b) is unambiguously: yes.

Here's why:

a) The financial crisis has done two things that jointly led to a recession in the global economy.
Firstly, it caused a massive crisis in confidence. we thought the system was working and it catastrophically wasn't. A lot of wealth was destroyed as the banks collapsed and its quite sensible, therefore, to reassess our investment decisions and to move capital to what one perceives to be 'safer' investments.
Secondly, the actual fact that the recession resulted from a bank collapse, means that our ability to bounce back from it is restricted. This is because the banks can't or won't lend the money that is needed by private enterprise to begin growing again. These two points are self re-enforcing: confidence in the recovery gets worse because the banks are lending and the economy can't recover, whilst the banks won't lend because confidence in recovery is so low.

The resulting recession can only be combated by action to restore confidence and lending. The only game in town for this is government spending to both inject liquidity into the banks directly, and confidence into the economy indirectly by hiring staff and contracting new projects.
If the government doesn't act the recession will be longer, recovery slower and peak debts eventually larger. By not acting, America risks trillions more dollars in lost out put. Unfortunately, this lost output is, for now, a theoretical idea, and so doesn't seem a real enough basis for policy to some people. However, it will seem all too real if the economy enters a decade of stagflation, ref: Japan in the 1990s.

b) You need to put it in context. $3.7 trillion is a relatively small proportion of the US $14 billion GDP. To put this in perspective, it is very common for people have mortgages that are 3.5x their annual gross salaries, if not more.
I would suggest that America's debt and deficit is therefore, affordable - when spread over a number of years. Does anyone really think that US economy is simply going to stop being productive? No they don't that's silly. Be happy you are coming to the end of a long tunnel of recession and recovery, still in possession of a diverse, innovative economy with a flexible labour market, you have every reason to be hopeful for the future.

In fact, counter intuitively to some, the American economy would probably benefit from increased social spending and labour market protections! But this is another story.


America is not like Greece. Greece is facing huge structural problems in its economy that were well known before the crisis and ignored for purely political reasons.

I agree with your Mom, by the way, over the long term you should get the deficit down and start paying down the debt, that's obvious. The problem is that you can't afford to right now....
posted by munchbunch at 3:45 PM on June 18, 2011

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