10 Nov 2012

A Qualified Defense of Big Bird

Debt, Steve Landsburg 20 Comments

Steve Landsburg (over email) did not agree with me that Krugman was wrong in the Great Debt Debate, allowing Ken B. and Gene Callahan to run victory laps. As punishment for this stance, I must now criticize a recent Landsburg blog post. (Sorry Steve but actions have consequences, as you should know by now.)

Anyway in a post with the clever title, “Can a Million Puppets All Be Wrong?” Steve writes:

The million-puppet march on Washington is advertised as a demonstration in favor of public broadcasting, but of course that’s not exactly what it is.

What it is, exactly, is a demonstration in favor of the current level of funding for public broadcasting.

Now: Just how many of those puppets — or how many of their human fellow marchers — do you imagine would be able to tell you what the current level of funding for public broadcasting is?

And insofar as these humans are out there marching and chanting without pausing to inquire into what they’re marching and supporting — well, I guess that explains their affinity for puppets. [Bold original.]

At first this sounds devastating, but actually I don’t think it works at all. Suppose I hear that my local government is going to raise property taxes. Am I allowed to object to that, even if I can’t tell you exactly how much I currently pay? I think that is totally fine.

For the people protesting–if they were coached by an economist on vocabularly but not given any information about current funding levels–presumably would say something like, “If they cut the budget for public broadcasting by $x million, then we will get less of the programming we love. In exchange, we’ll get a slightly smaller deficit or lower taxes on rich people, or more spending on bombs. I would rather keep things the way they are, than make those changes on the margin.”

What’s wrong with that, besides the fact that they want government funds at all? Steve was saying they are committing some kind of basic mistake, but I don’t see it.

20 Responses to “A Qualified Defense of Big Bird”

  1. Steven E Landsburg says:

    But surely these people (if they are even slightly reasonable) would agree that there is such a thing as too much spending on PBS, as well as such a thing as too little. In the absence of any information on current spending levels, it’s hard to see how you can have a reasonable opinion about whether the current level is too little or too much.

    Re property taxes, I would object to an increase in my property taxes, even though I can’t tell you their current exact level, but I at least have *some idea* of their current level and of how the money is used. If I honestly developed total amnesia about my current property taxes and the current level and cost of govt services in my town, then I can’t imagine having an opinion about whether those taxes are too high or too low. And that, i suspect (though of course I can’t prove this) is about the state of ignorance that most of these people are in.

    • Jonathan M.F. Catalán says:

      What is the majority of the protestors think there is too little funding? I think this is more accurate, and you don’t need to know the exact level of funding to justify this sentiment. All you need to know is that funding for things like public broadcast has historically been low — i.e. it’s not a major part of the national budget. And, you can feel that the government should lower funding for other things (such as defense, or even healthcare), but raise or maintain spending on public radio.

    • Silas Barta says:

      So if you’re protesting taxes, it suffices that you have “some idea” about their current level and how much they pay, even if you couldn’t give the exact details to an armchair economist. But if your protesting cuts to PBS, and you don’t know “the” current level, you’re just a muppet.

      Got it.

    • Keshav Srinivasan says:

      Steve, isn’t it possible to have some idea about the marginal costs and marginal benefits of government programs, without having much of an idea about the total costs and total benefits?

      • StraT says:

        Yeah I agree with Keshav, people will generally calculate on the margin.

    • Major_Freedom says:

      In the absence of any information on current spending levels, it’s hard to see how you can have a reasonable opinion about whether the current level is too little or too much.

      Not if you’re a socialist who thinks there is always too little taxpayer funding of PBS.

      You might not agree with them, but it’s the same sort of thing for anarchists who think any taxpayer funding of PBS is too much.

  2. Matt Miller says:

    Well, I think it’s much more likely (and far easier to find out) for someone to know how much taxes they themselves pay than it is for them to know how much funding one particular federal program gets.

    But this is par for the course in terms of people objecting to government funding levels (whether for or against). Conservatives don’t want federal funding for planned parenthood, even though most of them probably have no idea how much funding it currently receives. Liberals always want more funding for public schools, even though they likely have no idea how much funding they currently receive. That’s just the way it goes.

  3. Max says:

    If the streets are full of potholes, then I know the level of street output isn’t ideal. Granted, this doesn’t automatically mean that government funding for streets should be increased – maybe the level of funding is fine but it’s being wasted, maybe the streets should be privatized, etc etc. But still, you don’t need to know the current level of funding to have an informed (though not completely informed) opinion.

    This applies to any government program with an easily observable output, which includes PBS.

    • Matt Miller says:

      That’s an interesting point, and I don’t disagree.

      But are the protestors really saying that the quality of PBS is low? Or that it is so close to being low that any drop in funding levels would make it very low? I thought these are people who love PBS and think it’s great and wonderful.

      • Major_Freedom says:

        I think they just don’t like cutting spending to PBS, no matter how high the spending is.

  4. Seth says:

    I don’t believe Landsburg implied that they are not allowed to object without knowing specifics. Just that objecting w/o knowing the specifics seems dumb.

    You are “allowed” to object to a property tax hike w/o knowing how much you pay, but a certain lot of us would not find such an objection compelling.

  5. Ken B says:

    One of my favourite words is phatic. I think most political speech is phatic speech. And I think it’s particularly true of Save Big Bird rallies. Does anyone seriously deny this?

    Steve impliesthe same thing but he’s adding a nipple-twister by looking at the logic the sudden protests imply. There were no prior rallies demanding a hike in PBS funding. No demand for a higher amount was articulated. So there doesn’t appear to be a strong belief amongst the protestors that more is needed. So the rallies are not for a hike. And there can’t be a strong belief amongst them that the level needs to be lower. And again no specific lower amount was articulated. So the rallies are not to demand a cut.

    The protesters presumably want *some* level of spending. They mention demands and they mention spending. They don’t demand more, they don’t demand less. What’s left?

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Again Ken, this all sounds great when we’re making fun of those silly PBS lovers, but if you switched it to property taxes it would be identical. If there were a proposal to suddenly raise property taxes by 50%, there would be a lot of people protesting. And yet, they weren’t rallying the day before. So are we to conclude that they know the exact current level of taxes, and are happy with it? Of course not. Their behavior is completely fine. If Krugman tried to write a critique of the tax protestors a la Landsburg, we would laugh at him.

      • Major_Freedom says:

        Yes, lack of action X does not imply one does not have X anywhere on one’s value scale.

        It’s about prioritizing. We only see people’s highest values when they act, and they make choices on the margin.

      • Ken B says:

        You missed my phatic speech point I think.

        Property tax protestors know they will be directly and strongly affected. And as SL noted, have some notion of by how much. Their speech wise or not is really about policy, and really about something they have some knowledge of.
        PBS boosters not so much. Their reaction is purely phatic. They are protesting to prove they are good people. They are there because a Republican said it. So there is no reason to assume they know anything about the costs or amounts. So now they are open to a snide Landsburg-B style argument like above.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Ken B. yes, if you are allowed to take certain behavior from people you dislike, and attribute silly motives to them, but then attribute rational motives to people you like who do the exact same thing, I agree Landsburg’s critique only works against your enemies.

          What if the PBS people tell you, “I *really* like watching PBS, so yes a big budget cut would hurt me.” You’re saying you can demonstrate that they are incoherent with this utterance? Your knee-jerk defense of Landsburg rivals DK with Krugman.

          • Ken B says:

            Then we have a factual disagreement don’t we. Why are most of the protestors there? The one thiong we do know is that most are not there because they have an informed opinion about the level of spending.

            I take issue with “silly motives”. I am attributing to them a perfectly sensible motives: good feelings, fellowship, fun. This is not silly. It is just not germane.

            I have noticed a similar effect in Ann Arbor. On warm sunny days under Republican presidents there is no end to the evils of the world caused by the US government. Protestors of myriad wrongs overflowed the parks. But since Obama’s election the world has become a much better place!

            • Bob Murphy says:

              The one thiong we do know is that most are not there because they have an informed opinion about the level of spending.

              And we have already agreed that this per se isn’t grounds to criticize someone. It just so happens that I saw a notice recently and so now I do know, but if you had asked me last week how much I pay in property taxes, I don’t know that I would’ve been percentage-wise closer than the median PBS protester regarding funding. (Maybe I would have, I don’t know.) Yet I certainly would have been coherent and rational to object to them hiking my property taxes. So I still don’t see why the protesters aren’t the same if they don’t want to see “Less Big Bird and More Bombs and Bigger Tax Cuts for the Rich.”

  6. Garrett says:

    Grandfather Fallacy.

    Read About It

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