Meme Watch: Economic Bullsh*t

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I hate memes like the above with a deep and fiery passion. Not because it is untrue, because I have no idea whether its immediate claims are true or not, but because it’s bullshit.

The word “bullshit” is a technical term in the philosophical community these days. It means speech used to persuade and manipulate others, with no concern for whether the speech is true or not. A bullshitter doesn’t necessarily lie to you; the essence of bullshitting is that he doesn’t care whether he’s lying to you or not. He just wants you to do what he wants you to do. I hate this because speech without reference to truth is perversion in its purest form. And this meme is a prime example of political and economic bullshit, spread on the Internet with the goal of manipulating the electorate.

This is hardly uncommon, mind you, but this one struck me as particularly egregious.

Please note: This is not a post about the political position (such as it is) supported by this meme; and it isn’t a post about economic theory. Instead, it’s a post about the use of memes for communication, and the particular defects I see in this meme. Comments that focus on the two former events, and any comment whose first line shows that the reader hasn’t read my post (but I repeat myself) will be summarily deleted.

Let’s take a look at its immediate claims.

California has raised taxes on the rich. Have they? I live in California, and I was unaware of this. Mind you, I’m married to an accountant, and she does our taxes; and so I don’t much pay attention. Still, suppose this is the case: what does it mean?

  • How much were taxes raised? 1%? 10%? 30%?
  • Define “rich”: people making over $1,000,000? $300,000? $100,000? $60,000?
  • How many California taxpayers are “rich” in this sense?
  • How much revenue was raised in this way?

California has its fifth highest job growth & first budget surplus in a decade Oh, do we?

  • Fifth highest job growth compared to what? The immediate past in California? The nation as a whole?
  • Was that job growth in fact positive? Or was it simply a decrease in the rate of job loss?
  • Over which decade? When was this meme created?
  • How was job growth measured? Was it measured the same way in each year over the period in question? Employment statistics are notorious for being cooked for political reasons.
  • Budget surpluses depend on the size of the budget, which is set by the state government. How has the budget changed over the past decade?
  • How has the “gross state product” changed over the past decade?

Kansas has cut taxes on the rich. Have they? I have no idea. But similar questions suggest themselves.

  • How much were taxes cut?
  • Define rich.
  • How many Kansas taxpayers are “rich” in this sense?
  • Is it the same sense used for California taxpayers?

Kansas has zero job growth and the nation’s largest budget shortfall. Do they? Again, when?

  • Over what period?
  • Is it the same period used for determining California’s job growth?
  • How is the budget shortfall measured? In dollars? As a percentage of the gross state product? As a percentage of the budget?
  • Were the measurements made in the same way as in California? (Almost certainly not.)

In short, a reasonable person can have no real idea exactly what these claims mean or whether they are truly comparable.

Now, let’s look at the meme’s implicit claims:

California and Kansas are directly comparable.

But they aren’t. The economic bases for the two states are entirely different, as are the regulatory environments for businesses within the state. Kansas is a smaller state, with a smaller population and a smaller economy, and I’d be shocked if the disparity between rich and poor in the state were as great as in California.

It might be possible to take statistics from both states and normalize them so that you could begin to compare numbers across the two states. But there are so many ways to measure “richness” and job growth that it’s liable to be quite a bit of work.

Did the author of the meme do this work? There’s nothing in the meme that leads me to think so.

Raising/lowering taxes on the rich has a direct effect on job growth and budget surpluses. Will changes in the tax structure affect the economy of the state? Certainly. But just how is complicated.

There’s a common notion in economics: ceteris paribus, all else held equal. For example, if the gross state product is higher, then, ceteris paribus, you’d expect tax revenue to be higher; and hence, budget shortfalls would be smaller and budget surpluses would be larger.

Similarly, in the short run raising taxes increases tax revenue; and ceteris paribus you’d expect smaller budget shortfalls and larger surpluses.

If all else is held equal; and in the short run. The usual effect of raising taxes is to depress business, which will decrease tax revenue in the long run. Are the gains in California (if they actually exist) long run gains? Or short run gains that will dissipate over time? I don’t know—and neither do you.

Here are some points that I claim are true on the face of it:

  • When taxes were raised on the rich in California (however defined), all else was not held equal.
  • When taxes were lowered on the rich in Kansas (however defined), all else was not held equal.
  • Attributing the economic results in either state to the single cause of raising or lowering taxes is ingenuous at best. Many other things affected the outcome as well.
  • California and Kansas are sufficiently different that an immediate comparison like this proves nothing.
  • This meme, though pretending to educate, casts no light whatsoever on economic realities.
  • This meme, on its own, panders to the sensibilities of a particular voting demographic without regard to the truth of its claims.

And hence, this meme is bullshit.

Please note: I’m not questioning the sincerity of those who respond to the meme and pass it along, or even the motives of the person who crafted it in the first place. I’m just saying that it’s a meme crafted for political effect based on emotional responses, which is to say that it’s bullshit—or, as Plato would have called it, sophistry.

Eschew sophistry wherever you find it; it’s poison for the body politic.

About willduquette
  • Bryan

    As long as we are calling BS…that’s a picture of Missouri, not Kansas in the meme.

    • Sherry

      Which begs the question of how much we can infer from this meme, given that inaccuracy.

    • Elaine S.

      If that is supposed to be the skyline of Kansas City, you are correct. There is a Kansas City, Kansas, but it is a much smaller suburb of KCMO. Posting a picture of KCMO and calling it Kansas is roughly equivalent to posting a picture of Yankee Stadium and calling it Fenway Park.

  • MarcusRegulus

    Well, as long as we on the subject… :)
    I object to calling a slogan-based statement combined with a pretty picture a “meme”. It may be *intended* to become a “meme”, but it ain’t yet.

    • Will Duquette

      I take your point, but I think that ship has sailed. To most people, a picture with words on it posted to FB is a “meme”. But I feel your pain, every time I hear some say that they wrote a “blog” (meaning a “blog post”).

  • AndrewMac72

    “I hate memes like the above with a deep and fiery passion. Not because it is untrue, because I have no idea whether its immediate claims are true or not, but because it’s bullshit.The word “bullshit” is a technical term in the philosophical community these days. It means speech used to persuade and manipulate others, with no concern for whether the speech is true or not. A bullshitter doesn’t necessarily lie to you; the essence of bullshitting is that he doesn’t care whether he’s lying to you or not. He just wants you to do what he wants you to do. I hate this because speech without reference to truth is perversion in its purest form. And this meme is a prime example of political and economic bullshit, spread on the Internet with the goal of manipulating the electorate.”

    When you title your internet piece “Economic Bullsh*t”, and then in the body of your piece ignore all attempts to look into whether the economic claims in the meme are true (or not), aren’t you then guilty of using the same type of manipulative bullsh*t speech?

    Since you didn’t address the claims, and you obviously have very little concern about whether the facts are true, it is more likely that YOU, much like the meme, are trying to persuade and manipulate others.

    • Will Duquette

      On the contrary. I have not taken a position as to the likely effect of raising or lowering taxes on the rich, either in general or in the specific cases of California and Kansas. As for looking into whether the economic claims in the meme are true or not, they are so vaguely stated as to defy proof or disproof.

      • AndrewMac72

        You have not taken a position? Oh baloney. Your whole piece was mocking the meme and [confidently] expressing your conclusion—that the claims are all bullsh*t.

        As for vagueness, the claims in the meme are easy to fact-check, to prove or disprove. But you didn’t.

        • Will Duquette

          In fact, I never said that the explicit claims were untrue. I said, in a nutshell, that the (extremely vague) explicit claims were intended to support an implicit claim; that the implicit claim was unlikely to follow from the explicit claims, given a moment’s reflection; and that the meme *itself* is therefore manipulative.

          It may be that raising taxes led to a good outcome in California, that lowering taxes led to a bad outcome in Kansas, and that the two cases are in fact roughly comparable due to some unlikely circumstances of which I’m unaware, such that the comparison of the two states is a fair one. But if you think showing that the two cases are comparable is easy, I’ve a bridge I’d like to sell you.

          • AndrewMac72

            You never said the explicit claims were untrue? What is the title of your piece? Economic Bullsh*t.

            What is right underneath the title?

    • Nicholas Haggin

      Furthermore, Will has very great concern about whether the facts are true, and he has given us a thorough list of what must be investigated to determine the facts. He wouldn’t have to provide that list if we already knew what data the creator of the meme was using and how it was interpreted. Unless the creator explains his sources and methods, we won’t know; thus, depending on which values we plug into the list, we can come up with analyses that either justify or don’t justify the meme.

      By that standard, Will is absolutely right: the meme is bullshit.

      • AndrewMac72

        Nicholas, you realize that this “meme” is NOT a CBO report, right?

        • Nicholas Haggin

          Yes, I realize that. The fact that it’s not a CBO report is irrelevant to the argument.

          Even though it’s not humorous in nature, let’s call the item in question an “image macro,” since that seems to be the least incorrect term. The image macro that started this discussion is evidently meant to convey the message “Democrat/blue-state economic policy good; Republican/red-state economic policy evil.” Whether that is true or false is beside the point; the macro presents the conclusions of an economic analysis we can’t know and can’t dispute and then invests it with an implicit moral claim. That seems to me to meet the philosophical definition of “bullshit”:

          “The word ‘bullshit’ is a technical term in the philosophical community these days. It means speech used to persuade and manipulate others, with no concern for whether the speech is true or not. A bullshitter doesn’t necessarily lie to you; the essence of bullshitting is that he doesn’t care whether he’s lying to you or not. He just wants you to do what he wants you to do.”

          • AndrewMac72

            It is not at all “evident” that this meme is meant to convey good and evil. That is your interpretations.

            The meme is conveying differences in economic policies and outcomes. Whether the explicit claims are true or false IS absolutely the point. And, it is possible to determine whether the explicit claims are true (valid) or not.

            The implicit claims — that raising or lowering taxes CAUSED the outcomes listed on the bottom — are much harder to answer. It could be an example of correlation.

            However, the explicit facts in the meme are correct. The implicit claims are (at the very least) plausible, and therefore this is NOT an example of bullsh*t.

          • Kristen inDallas

            Nah. The point of graphics like above are not to communicate facts or outcomes, and no the “explicit claims” as presented are not verifiable. As written, I bet we couldn’t even agree on what the claim is. To me it says CA experienced it’s fifth highest job growth in a decade, which (if we’re taking yearly measurements)would also be its fifth lowest growth in a decade and incidentally also its median growth over the decade… pretty much a nothing statement. Oh… you thought it meant fifth highest in the country, region, world. .. why again? The meme doesn’t say what it means. It’s un- fact- checkable. Ie. Bullshit.

          • AndrewMac72

            Kristen, it is clear (to me) they are saying that California is ranked 5th in job growth, as a percentage, compared to all other US states. I imagine that most people read it the same.

            This claim is easy to confirm. Go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site. Look at the year over year percentage growth in employment statistic. The claim is true.

          • Kristen inDallas

            Well, I imagine that 8 in ten people read it the same way I did. I’m not going to tell you these people’s names. So you’ll just have to trust me.

            I’ve been all over the BLS site. Nowhere do I find this nebulusly referenced statistic of which you speak. (as a percentage of what? the previous year? total population? total employment? California will rank in different locations depending on which statistic you are talking about). I did find this handy publication from the BLS which does include a lot of interesting facts about California (and other states) in relation to employment.
            http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/laus.pdf

            The only “ranking” of states is through the top three in certain categories… but I can tell by chart 2 (with the map) that in terms of “percentage change in non-farm employment by state” that California is definitely NOT ranked 5th as there are at least 5 states (NV, UT, TX, FL and ND which are all shaded in a higher 3.1% and over tier. There may be other states in the same tier as California that also outrank it, but 5 was enough for me.

            I also see that in many of the tables that the BLS publishes, California is *listed* (not ranked) 5th regardless of the statistic we might want to speak about. Because…. the alphabet. I guess those crazy cats in Wyoming must really be a mess as they are listed at the bottom of everything. Breaking news – Alabama wins at everything! Quick lets all do what they are doing!
            Just for the record – this has zero to do with my opinion on what we *ought* to be doing in terms of tax policy. If you wanted to have a discussion about that, I bet dollars to donuts (and I love donuts) that I’d agree with you more than not. The point is that yes, math is *true* and I love it, but the way numbers are often talked about can be very deceptive. People use the trueness of math to hide the downright shadiness of the numbers they choose to show. That grosses me out (whichever polital meme we happen to be talking about).

          • Kristen inDallas

            And don’t even get me started on the “zero” job growth for Kansas. I won’t try to sell anyone that Kansas is doing great (especially not as a native Missourian.) But zero is a pretty bold claim. https://klic.dol.ks.gov/gsipub/index.asp?docid=472
            And very easy to counter, unless of course they meant zero job growth in the coastal mining industry. It doesnt say so I suppose maybe it be a reference to something true..?

  • Boris Borcic

    Well, provided we go by a model whereby what counts is awareness of open questions rather than awareness of established facts, bullshit format can be defended as a most parsimonious carrier package for such questions – as you demonstrate by unpacking them in the case of this meme.

  • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

    “The word “bullshit” is a technical term in the philosophical community these days”

    I do find this is true. Philosophy scholars use a lot of swear words. It is demeaning. Especially when they use foul language as an alternative to logic which is frequently the case. We have stopped teaching people how to think and replaced by teaching people a bunch of 4 letter words. Such a waste of intelligence. Lots of people are able to string together many obscenities without even finishing high school.

    • oregon nurse

      I’ve noticed this is an increasing problem on the Catholic channel and I’ve commented on it before. I think they are going for ‘edginess’ and ‘cool’ in an attempt to be relevant to younger readers. It’s a fail though imo or at least a shallow win. It’s also increasingly likely it will cause me to stop reading here. My mom always taught me that ‘bad’ words were the symptom of a bad vocabulary and if I used them people would think I was ignorant. I still believe that. I much prefer a clever or funny euphemism to convey the same meaning.

  • MarcusRegulus

    Ever since political animals discovered “plausible deniability” (i.e. lying without anyone being able to prove you’re lying), the com boxes have been inhabited by the devotees, apologists, and fans (short for “fanatics”) who serve those same political animals.
    Hell yes, this “meme” was politically motivated. To say otherwise is the mark of a person who really doesn’t expect to be believed, but who wants to argue the point anyway. And THAT is Bullshit.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    You know, I had an argument with a Liberal not too long ago and he brought up the California/Kansas comparison. I was wondering where that came from. Now i see it’s all part of an orgainized Lib bullsht line. Thanks for this.

    • Kristen inDallas

      I’m not sure how “organized” it is. People (both sides of the aisle) just seem to pass the bullshit around because its easier.
      http://whatdoumeme.com/meme/la94qc

      • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

        And both are organized. Creating posters as shown above shows it is organized. There are organizations in both political camps that organize this stuff.

  • Dennis Mahon

    I can understand your point – memes are just shortcuts, projecting ideas as “true” without actually considering the facts.

  • oregon nurse

    “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

    Mark Twain popularized that meme so this is nothing new. Reporting a statistic is just a way to condense a whole lot of information and it’s up to the reader to decide or investigate if the statistic or how it’s used gets at the truth of the matter. The fact that we have voters who don’t have even a basic understanding of statistics and how easily a statistic that is true on it’s face can be turned into a bald-faced lie is exactly why ‘memes’ and polls are so popular in politics. Media does the same thing through emphasis and omission because journalistic ethics no longer exist. Consumer product advertisers are just as bad or worse. Some of them don’t even begin with the truth before they lie to us. Voter beware. Reader beware. Buyer beware. All the same thing and we wonder why people are so cynical and untrusting.

  • Mark

    The problem is.. people cast their votes based on sound bites that they can regurgitate at the office and sound well read…to other people who don’t know any better. And the cycle continues.

  • Bill Riedel

    The above noted definition is that from Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit (2005). Another point of view can be found in Joe Bennett (2012) Double Happiness: How Bullshit Works – well worth a read.

  • david schwartz

    The main point is that higher taxes on the wealthiest portion of the population does not equate to lower job growth. Lower taxes on the wealthiest do not increase job growth. Taxes, to a point, raise revenue. The Bush tax cuts were huge pay raises to the wealthiest. We ended up with negative job growth. We have an annual debt. We can raise taxes on the wealthy, cut spending on the wealthy, middle class and poor, or some combination of all the above. Does it make more sense to cut spending on our economic base or does it make more sense to tighten the money supply to those who are doing very well? Do the poor and middle class really have it too well off? Are millionaires and billionaires still not rich enough?


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