Are You Ready to Debate?

I have decided to devote my first Health Alert of the New Year to “tolerance” and “rational thought” — terms that are rarely conjoined.

The next time you are in an argument with someone over a public policy, stop and ask yourself: Can you summarize your opponent’s position in words that he would recognize and accept? If not, you are not listening. And if you are not listening, odds are your own position was not arrived by any rational thought process. If you feel the need to mischaracterize the views of those you disagree with, odds are you are secretly very insecure about your own beliefs.

What brings this to mind are two Christmas Eve columns: A bah humbug” column in The New York Times in which Paul Krugman accuses Republicans, conservatives and just about anyone else who is right-of-center of being worse than Ebenezer Scrooge and a “reality check” column in The Wall Street Journal, in which Arthur Brooks reveals that right-of-center folks are more charitable by far than people who think the way Paul Krugman thinks.


Just the way you are

At the National Center for Policy Analysis, we sponsor the largest online program for high school debaters on the Internet. It includes evidence, sample cases, economic analysis of the topic, an ask-the-expert section and a student chat room. We devote a lot of resources to this project because we think debate teaches students skills they will use their entire lives.

In high school debate, students get no points for ad hominem arguments — nothing gained, for example, by questioning their opponents’ motives, attacking their character, etc.  All that counts is the ability to construct a logical argument and defend it with reason and evidence. To make sure the students fully understand both sides of each year’s debate topic, half the time they are required to debate the affirmative side and half the time they are on the negative.

Contrast the skills high school debaters have to master with this gem from Krugman:

Consider the scene, early in the book, where Ebenezer Scrooge rightly refuses to contribute to a poverty relief fund. “I’m opposed to giving people money for doing nothing,” he declares.  Oh, wait.  That wasn’t Scrooge.  That was Newt Gingrich – last week.  What Scrooge actually says is, “Are there no prisons?” But it’s pretty much the same thing…  As you can see, the fundamental issues of public policy haven’t changed since Victorian times. Still, some things are different.  In particular, the production of humbug — which was still a somewhat amateurish craft when Dickens wrote — has now become a systematic, even industrial, process.

Okay, I realize this isn’t up there with Frank Rich comparing Republicans to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan (see Joe Scarborough here), but Krugman hasn’t been at it as long. To make matters worse, he completely misreads A Christmas Carol. As David Henderson points out, Scrooge was always a believer in the welfare state.  What changed in the story was his attitude toward private charity. See also Troy Camplin at Austrian Economics and Literature.

Now against Krugman’s emotional diatribe, consider Arthur Brooks’ explanation of the “charity gap”:

Your intuition might tell you that people who favor government redistribution care most about the less fortunate and would give more to charity.  Initially, this was my own assumption. But the data tell a different story. Those who were against higher levels of government redistribution privately gave four times as much money, on average, as people who were in favor of redistribution.  This is not all church-related giving; they also gave about 3.5 times as much to non-religious causes.  Anti-redistributionists gave more even after correcting for differences in income, age, religion and education…  Those who said the government was “spending too much money on welfare” were more likely to donate blood than those who said the government was “spending too little money on welfare.” The anti-redistributionists were also more likely to give someone directions on the street, return change mistakenly handed them by a cashier, and give food (or money) to a homeless person.

You wonder why Krugman and Rich write the columns they write. Most op-ed authors want to persuade people. And maybe these two are persuading folks who live in Manhattan or Princeton — where Republicans are very scarce. But everywhere else, one out of every two people votes Republican. Do Krugman and Rich really think an editorial equivalent to a temper tantrum — with name calling and mischaracterization — is going to change how we think about our neighbors, business partners, family members, etc.? Or, are these editorials more like a word version of a Rorschach test? You decide.

Addendum: Here is Steven Landsburg, defending Scrooge, and here is Joel Waldfogel against gift-giving at Christmas. Hat tip to Greg Mankiw.

Comments (18)

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  1. Vicki says:

    Good post. Good musical pairing. Always enjoy the entertainment.

  2. Ken says:

    I’m ready to debate. But Paul Krugman is obviously not. He’s ready to have a mud throwing contest.

  3. Devon Herrick says:

    If you believe solving a particular social problem is the role of government, then you are not required to contribute personally because it is a collective problem.

    However, if you think a given social condition is a problem that should be solved privately by individuals listening to their consciences, you are required to act.

    With this in mind, it is amusing that Europeans are though much more benevolent because they tolerate high taxes to alleviate social problems. Yet they are far less charitable that Americans. Moreover, it is paradox that Paul Krugman titles his New York Times commentaries… “the Conscience of a Liberal” since he advocates for a system where he believes compassionate individuals should have their government solve social problems through higher taxes and spending rather than individuals listening to his or her conscience.

  4. Neil H. says:

    This is another one of Krugman’s trash columns. Hard to believe the New York Times doesn’t have hiher standards. Ditto for the crap we keep seeing from Frank Rich.

  5. Rusty W. says:

    Sieg heil.

  6. Joe S. says:

    I think Krugman rarely changes anyone’s mind on anything. How could he?

  7. Virginia says:

    The older I get, the more I start to like Scrooge and the Grinch.

    I wish that the Dickens story would have ended with Scrooge enjoying the holiday in his own dark office with a bottle of wine and a calculator (or abacus or slide rule. Whatever they used before they had iphones to do their math for them) to count his wealth.

    And slightly unrelated: Taxpayer choice is a really great idea. It would be great if we could do that on a large scale.

  8. Frank Timmins says:

    John asks “Why Krugman and Rich write the columns they write?”. We could ask the same question about why Keith Olbermann spews constant inaccuracies and Michael Moore twists the truth in “docudramas”. Perhaps the question should not be why they do these things, because obviously unskilled debaters, writers and corrupt ideologues who believe any means justifies their ends are out there in great numbers.

    Instead the question should be why do people like these have access to such public exposure. The answer to that of course is the leftist dominated media with all its power (be it news or entertainment) serves them up to everyone through the mass media vehicle. Yet few (if any) of us who support the causes of NCPA would begrudge them that right. Ironically it is those on the Left who propose things like the “fairness Doctrine” designed to muzzle free speech. This is critical for the Left because as the public inevitably becomes more astute, the media misrepresentations become more toxic to the corrupted media and “competition” ultimately diminishes the influence of that media. Why? Simply because they cannot win the ultimate debate.

    I apologize for the digression but if one thinks about the question it is hard not to go there.

  9. Lizzy says:

    I believe discussions about the issues are far more productive when we all stick to the issues, rather than getting snarky and personal over personalities. I can dream….

  10. Marti Settle says:

    Terrific article John. I just returned from my pain management doctor’s office. He is terrified about Obamacare and is considering (along with his partner) leaving medicine to open a Subway restaurant. Make’s me sick to my stomach. I told him that Obamacare would be killed and not to worry. His parents immigrated here from Vietnam. He went to medical school hoping to be successful. Now, America is no longer the land of opportunity thanks to Barack Obama. It is a land of fear for your life and livelihood. Paul Krugman, in my estimation, is so full of baloney you cannot detect a human being inside the creature. Same for Ezra Klein and Frank Rich.

  11. Joe S. says:

    Marty, don’t hold back, Tell us how you really feel.

  12. Ralph Weber says:

    I am ready to debate, as long as I am permitted to ask those that learned all they know about healthcare from bumper stickers to prove their claims.

    Is that allowable?

  13. steve says:

    The number Brooks cite are not anywhere near numbers I have seen.


  14. Joe Barnett says:

    “Now against Krugman’s emotional diatribe….”
    Nothing ad hominem here?

  15. Uwe Reinhardt says:

    As my good friend John Goodman knows only too well, I just hate being the proverbial skunk at his otherwise joyous blog parties.

    But in connection with private charity, as a blue-state New Jerseyite of European extraction, I feel compelled to register two points on the topic.

    First, the “private” charitable giving about which Dr. Brooks writes is not truly private.

    If I in NJ wish that $10,000 of purchasing power be steered toward my favorite charity — e.g., hunting rare animals in Asia and donating their stuffed body to the Smithsonian — then, at my combined marginal tax rate, I personally need to sacrifice only about $5,000 for that charitable act. Other taxpayers will be forced to contribute the remaing $5,000 to that charity, which they may not even know or, if they did, might not like.

    So “private charity” in this country is more accurately described as a mixture of voluntary private giving coupled with tax-financed public subsidies.

    This does not detratct from the fact that even on a net basis Americans contribute more as a percent of GDP voluntarily and privately to “charities” than do Europeans. Being an immigrant struggling with the English language, of course, I am not sure whether writing a big cheque to New york’s Lincoln Center or Metropolitan Museum is “charity” in the way my college dictionary defined it, but let’s leave that aside. I am still learning.

    Although I wish Dr. Brooks had provided more precise references for the sources he cites and I have not yet found the data he quotes, I take his word for them. After all, he has a Ph.D..

    Even so, do these data prove definitively that conservatives tend to me more charitable toward their fellow human beings than are American Liberals or, worse, Europeans?

    The data may reflect that. But an alternative hypothesis is that both groups are equally charitable, but differ in their beliefs on the relative efficiency of funneling charitable giving through either private charity or government.

    Forever on the lookout for efficient private charities, for exampe, I have been struck by how many of them burn half or more of the funds donated to them on administration and fund raising, rather than on the mission they profess. Charities ostensibly aimed at veterans are conspicously in that group. For an extreme case, look at Help Hospitalized Veterans, Inc, on which Congress had hearings about a year or two ago.
    It turns out that general Tommy Franks, who had sent these soldiers into combat, charged $100,000 merely for having his name used on the letterhead soliciting funds.Is giving that much money to Tommy Franks really charity?

    So if some people mistrust private charity, forgive them. They may have a point.

  16. John Goodman says:

    Uwe points out a defect in many private charities — too little money actually goes to poor people. That might be contrasted with this interesting question: what percent of money spent on the welfare state actually gooes to poor people. It turns out that the answer is: very little. Health dollars go to doctors, hospitals, etc, housing subsidies go to developers and landlords, food stamp money goes to distributors and supliers of food, special education money goes to teachers, etc. Only a tiny fraction of what we call welfare spending has ever gone directly to the poor.

    Are the services as valuable as the money? Put another way, do you think the poor would rather have the money than the services? How about 50 cents on the dollar. How about 25 cents on the dollar?

    The situation begin to change somewhat when the “miserly Republicans” instituted the Earned Income Tax Credit.

    But even today most welfare dollars end up in the pockets of people who are not poor.

  17. Great post. Don’t forget the new op-ed on Scrooge and Private Charity from Dr. Ed Feulner of The Heritage Foundation –

  18. Uwe Reinhardt says:


    You are correct in statting that if a Medicaid or Medicare patients receive a cataract operation, the tax-dollars that pay for it actually go to the doctor. It is so because just putting tax dollar on an eye that cannot see won’t make the eyes see. Or at least I think that is true. Do you know better?

    Medicare’s MLR is above 98%. You can fiddle with the data and add depreciation on government buldings etc., but the fact remains that the bulk of those dollars buy health care. Ditto for Medicare.

    But whem a charity burns 50% or more just on fund raising and administration, you can’t equate that with paying a surgeon to do a caract operation, John, and you know that.

    Now your argument that the recipients of benefits in kind generally would prefer the cash government paiys for those benefits instead of the benefits makes sense to me. We all teach it to econ 101 students. But can you imagine us handing out that kind of cash to the poor, no questions asked? I know you are an economist, but that much about politics you surely must know.

    So I think your comment is clever but not to the point.