Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Economics 101 on the Daily Show: Hard Hat Zone

Everyone has had the experience of explaining something to someone who's just not getting it. Maybe your intended student is misinformed and trying to reconcile other information, maybe he's just a little slow, maybe he's having a bad day. So you try other examples and explanations and variations until you get through. It's when you really don't get through that things get interesting. Am I unclear? Have I not understood the matter myself? Your confusion takes a curious turn, though, when you start to see that your interlocutor is not engaging your arguments but deflecting them, and thus you realize that you're bashing your ahead against a wall.

With that in mind, Rand Paul must have some headache after his Daily Show interview with John Oliver last night. Now before moving on, I'd like to admit that I don't like the Comedy Central news shows. The clever tag-team of John Stewart and Steven Colbert occasionally make me chuckle and they've pulled some enlightenment from their hats, but the operating principle behind their shows seems to me clear and twofold. First, appeal to the vanity of the twenty-something would-be intelligentsia. It seems the majority of criticism which the hosts level is directed at supposed stupidity, and likewise most right opinion presented as obvious. Second, the shows are invidious hits against the political right. Not universally or unilaterally critical, but calculatedly critical hits for making the left wing seem, at worse, the lesser of two evils.

Senator Paul's 8/12 interview is a good example of these three phenomena of obtuseness, obsequiousness, and nefarious selectivity.

After some cute salutary remarks, (1:35) Oliver gets to the heart of the left's conception of the right's objections to the Affordable Care Act by characterizing Paul's objection as "religious." Such a description translates, to an irreligious demographic, as a fundamental invalidation of whatever principled explanation might be offered. Paul chooses to dodge the constitutionality and morality play and focus on policy, a wise turn because the CC audience will not likely be persuaded by principled opposition of this kind, but it will be receptive to arguments that the bill simply won't work.

Next, (2:21) Oliver suggests the fact that a certain number of Americans are uninsured self-evidently demonstrates market failure. Before noting the senator's remarks, we may ask why anything should be treated as self evident, let alone this. Healthcare, which is now a political totem and catch-all, is not an unquestionable good in all circumstances for everyone nor an end in itself. As such, why should a lack of it demonstrate any failure at all, let alone market failure? Paul proceeds with an economic counter-example culled from his firsthand experiences, a prudent choice, from which he segues into the process by which insulation from prices raises costs.

In response, Oliver resumes his religiously-oriented characterization by calling Paul a "disciple" for smaller government. He then asks whether healthcare is not something where government should step in, suggesting an affirmation. The question again invites an ideological response which would again confirm the religious set-up, but Paul declines again, offering not prudential but economic arguments. Oliver also chooses here to re-clothe his previous question. He says that business has had decades of opportunity to insure people, and it hasn't, which again implies that people without healthcare are being denied healthcare, a point which Paul easily contradicts.

After that exchange, Oliver suggests that the free market's predilection for profit is at odds with society's goal of stopping people from dying. First, note the puerile characterization, "stop people from dying," which should read "promote health." Second, notice how the statement implies contradiction simply by putting different things next to one another. What is this, Elysium? If Oliver had said what his statement is tantamount to he would have been the subject of humor, and what he said is the fatuous assertion that two things are different and contemporaneous, and the one I don't like is the causal problem. Why are different goals "often at odds?" Just because they're different? This isn't a remotely credible statement, but it's treated as self-evident. Again, Paul responds with an economic, empirical example, although I think it is generally unwise to cite for liberals the Soviet Union as an example of socialistic failure because they often see the USSR as having failed for totalitarian, not economic reasons.

You can all but see Oliver's mind flipping to what Tom Woods calls the 3x5 card of approved ideas: the greedy free market wants profits over people, the right is religious about everything, the free market has been tried and it failed, and everyone wants what the left wants.

It is of course worthy of note that man Oliver characterizes as a religious disciple is the one offering empirical examples and it is Oliver who's offering solipsisms. Meanwhile, we're supposed to infer from characterization of republican disagreement, called "contempt" for Obamacare, is counterbalanced by the rational, democratic support and passage of it.

Unfortunately, Oliver's closing, honest question on healthcare–how we will judge whether "Obamacare" (Oliver's choice of term) is successful–didn't make the cut. It is available on the CC website's page of full interviews, though. Paul responds again with economic predictions rooted in facts principles, and again Oliver doesn't contest them. On not one point was there an exchange. Oliver concludes that the two won't see eye to eye on the matter, but he hasn't actually made any arguments.

I'm not suggesting that Paul's positions are unassailable, only that Oliver's questions towed the usual lines and there was no fruitful exchange, the show's usual pitfalls. The hipster and bohemian fervor for these shows as honorable alternatives to the mainstream eludes me. They do just as poor a job of informing you, although they're chock full of marginally entertaining cheap shots and juvenilia. They're only must-see if you need your ego stroked.

I imagined for a moment that the producers of the show read this article and decided to rebut it, and that they'd do it first by quoting, "They do just as poor a job of informing you," and then cutting to the worst moments of Fox and MSNBC. Then they'd quote, "they're chock full of... juvenilia," and the host would pull his pants down, feign indignation, and the audience would laugh. Doesn't that seem disappointingly probably?

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