Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why Support an Argument With Facts

Michael Gerson, reverting to his role as a "compassionate conservative" claims to feel for the growing population of impoverished Americans. His critique of conservatives is a bit nebulous,
Conservatives naturally focus on equal opportunity rather than on equal outcomes. But equality of opportunity is a more radical concept than we generally concede. It is not a natural state; it is a social and political achievement. It depends on healthy families and cohesive communities. But opportunity also depends on effective government — on public safety, public education and public health. Governmental overreach can undermine other important social institutions. Yet the retreat of government does not automatically restore them to health.
The first question is whether it's fair to say that "Conservatives naturally focus on equal opportunity" because they believe in equal opportunity, or because it's a means of avoiding the discussion of entrenched inequality. Implicitly, it was in comparison to the proponents of "All we need is equal opportunity" and their implicit, "So all we need to do is nothing", that Matthew Yglesias found conservative proponents of "absolute mobility" to be the "smartest conservatives". At least they're looking at economic reality. "If you're poor, on the whole you have the opportunity to earn a little bit more than your parents earned."

Gerson acknowledges that if you truly want equal opportunity you need to have - and pay for - government programs that support opportunity, including safety, education and health. He complains, with no attempt at specificity, that "government overreach" undermines "social institutions", but without any attempt to explain which ones, how they're undermined more by government action than by other factors, and a cost-benefit analysis, that observation is worthless. Without examining the context and alternatives, you can easily end up presenting imbecilic arguments about how government intervention ruined the "good old days" when racial covenants and discrimination left wealthier and more successful African Americans living in or near poor neighborhoods where they ostensibly served as role models.

For a more direct example, since Gerson mentions "healthy families", it's possible to argue that social welfare programs have contributed to the breakdown of the nuclear family in poor communities, but it's also possible to observe that many other families are helped by the very same supports, that many other factors contribute to the breakdown of the "traditional" family unit, that some family units are not healthy (Gerson later acknowledges "permissive cultural norms" as well as "downward pressure on wages and... stagnant labor markets" as part of the bigger picture), and that you risk confusing cause and effect - is it the availability of government supports that break down families, or are you seeing instead how dubious choices (leaving aside questions of the degree to which they're forced by circumstance) lead people to seek and remain dependent upon government benefits? Public assistance programs were not created in a vacuum - they were created to serve an already-existing population of poor people, many of whom were already part of a measurable cycle of poverty.

Gerson next takes a page out of George Will's style guide, resorting to a "hollow man" argument:
Liberals often fail to recognize that income redistribution, while preventing penury, is not identical to social equality.
Is there a single "liberal" in the world who believes that income redistribution is identical to social equality? Gerson's suggestion that his fabrication is a mistake "often" made by "liberals" should be acknowledged for what it is - nonsense. But that's the entire point of the hollow man - you can easily critique nonsense that you stick into a fictionalized opponent's mouth, but it's a lot harder to deal with arguments in an honest, substantive manner. When columnists habitually resort to the hollow man, you have to wonder if they're implicitly acknowledging that they're simply not up to the task of addressing the actual issues.
The main challenge of poverty is not a lack of consumption but a lack of social capital — measured in skills and values — and of opportunity. Addressing these problems is more complex than increasing marginal tax rates, particularly when revenue is used to cover the increasing costs of non-means-tested entitlement programs.
Addressing a problem that has nothing to do with "marginal tax rates" is more complicated than "increasing marginal tax rates", he tells us? No kidding - it's a non-sequitur. One has very little to do with the other. Who is arguing otherwise? Perhaps Gerson means to allude to the research documenting that societies with less income equality have more economic mobility, particularly at the bottom, but even that's not necessarily either related to or correlated with "marginal tax rates". Who does Gerson imagine is making this argument - or is he deliberately hollow manning in order to cover the weakness of his argument?
The structure of the modern welfare state is not focused on empowering the poor. Instead, it has increased the percentage of government transfer payments that go to middle- and upper-income seniors.
Egad. So his hollow man liberal has constructed a "welfare state" that redistributes wealth from the middle and upper classes to... the middle and upper classes? And that would be wealth redistribution in the sense of... what?

Gerson is, of course, attempting a clumsy sleight of hand. A change of topic from public assistance programs, a/k/a welfare, to Social Security and Medicare. One might look at those programs, and the before-and-after picture of senior citizens' wealth, and say, "Wow, they were effective." One might look at the present picture and say, "Yes, some benefits are received by seniors who don't need them, but those seniors paid for these insurance benefits over the course of their careers, and other seniors are most certainly kept or lifted out of poverty through their receipt of Social Security and health insurance. If one were concerned about the longer-term picture, one might argue that due to some flaws in the funding model too much of the present cost of those programs is falling upon working adults, and that we need to take steps to make those programs sustainable. But within this context, to attempt a silent change of subject from programs like WIC and SNAP (food stamps) to Medicare and Social Security is dishonest.

When speaking of true public assistance, Gerson seems to be positive:
Welfare reform decreased caseloads and child poverty while increasing employment and income for low-income families. Community policing and zero-tolerance policies reduced crime. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — which used to be called food stamps — has been reformed to better fight hunger. The earned-income tax credit has encouraged work and reduced poverty.
I'm wondering, unless the societal breakdown he complains about is occurring among "middle- and upper-income seniors", what social welfare programs does he perceive as actually "undermin[ing] other important social institutions"?

At the end, Gerson suggests that what we need is for "reform-oriented" politicians from the "center-right and the center-left" to impose market-driven reforms. I'm not sure how any of the reforms Gerson praises reflect market forces in action, but I guess that's a discussion for another day. Gerson places himself among those who pretend that a magical bipartisanship at the center can solve all of the nation's problems - as if it's always the moderates and compromisers who have the answers, and that partisans are always wrong - but predictably resorts to false-equivalence, "Our politics has a surplus of ideology and a shortage of wonkery". If I look, for example, at the Republican primaries or, for that matter, at Gerson's past columns, am I apt to see more of the solution or more of the problem?

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