A Lesson in Liberal Logic

The week John Stewart left the Daily Show, I had to get rid of my blog.

These aren’t connected in any explicit way. I am changing jobs, and not because Stewart is, and there was content on there that simply wasn’t acceptable for my new position. And as I’ve come to terms with losing my blog (the job is worth it) I’ve been thinking about how to move forward. And as I’ve thought about what parts of that blog I’d like to salvage—and if a new project is the way to go—I started thinking more and more about John Stewart.

Stewart’s legacy is complicated. It is totally possible to view him as a great liberal hero, albeit with qualifacation. It is completely fair to call him the patron saint of liberal smugness. It really comes down to where you situate his long tenure on the Daily Show.

Stewart was always at his best when he picked low hanging fruit. The Bush administration was terrible in a way that transcends politics. It was scandal-ridden, expensive, and by the end one of the least popular presidencies since the end of the Second World War. Going after Bush was easy, but Stewart did it with such panache at a time it was much needed so it felt refreshing.

But it is easy to lose sight that that was his game. Now that a Democrat is in the White House, it has been the Daily Show’s MO to go after Fox News. Again, not hard. They seem so blissfully unaware of the tenants of logical consistency so as to be self-parody without Stewart’s help. Stewart elevated them to a spectacle of conservative folly. In an age where they have the plurality of viewers, that is worth a lot.

But I can’t say he’s elevated liberal discourse.

Liberals have taken his exasperated approach and applied it with not his thought, research, or self-awareness. Stewart’s method works best when you have an open contradiction or an argument that is so at-face wrong it can be dispatched with a zinger. Conservatives have neither a monopoly on those problems nor are they incapable of forming reasonable thoughts.

An example that is percolating through my feed is this meme:

It has the virtue of being both misleading and wrong. And they are different problems in this case.

It is misleading because it only shows discretionary spending. Of 3.5 Trillion dollars spent in 2014, the larger part went to entitlement spending. The difference is important, and it is sometimes correct to separate them out. Entitlement spending is money owed to people by virtue of their circumstance—usually poverty or age. It is appropriate to omit entitlement spending when trying to control for the business cycle. When the economy is bad, more people need the safety net, so spending in the large part increases. It doesn’t tell us anything about the more stable parts of government nor even what the government might look like after the economy has recovered. But, by leaving entitlements out, it distorts how much of your taxes goes to different programs. Call me cynical, but I suspect it was deliberate to make military spending look even bigger than it is.

It is also wrong. SNAP benefits are not discretionary spending. They are Entitlements and thusly not reported in the discretionary part of the Food and Agriculture budget. SNAP comes in a bit north of 4% on this chart—right around the purple wedges—though it doesn’t belong here. It is a bit like talking about the city budget, displaying what the schools spend, and pointing at the resource officer’s wedge to explain what you spend on policing. It misses every point.

Now, it’s true that SNAP still constitutes a small part of Federal expenditures. About 2 cents for every dollar in you pay in federal taxes, for those keeping score at home. And there is virtue in pointing out the big fight lays elsewhere. But it lays soundly in the bigger entitlements, with military spending being a modest fight at the margins. To get a sense, here is the 2010 budget as broken down by Wikipedia. SNAP is about an eighth of the large, greenish wedge “Unemployment/Welfare/Other Mandatory Spending”. Note this is from the height of the Great Recession, so the entitlements are bloated:

2010 Federal Budget, per Wikipedia
2010 Federal Budget, per Wikipedia

I worry liberals have taken the wrong lesson from Stewart. A smart, savvy comedian who lampooned those who very much needed to be lampooned is not the voice of a generation who is poised to start setting the policy agenda. In 2020, the demographic march will make it harder even under current gerrymandering for the Republicans to maintain such a hold on redistricting. By the time 2022 and 2024 rolls around, we’ll be looking at significant realignment in the House and Senate—and the GOP has more than likely seen its last presidency until it reinvents itself. Closer to the present, 2016 and to a lesser extent 2018 will see over-positioned Republicans facing tough elections, much like democrats in 2014. Young liberals will soon be the plurality of voters and we need to get these questions right.

As long as we liberals view conservatism uncharitably—or, more precisely, so long as we’re not careful enough to consider which arguments deserve our attention and which are flat out wrong—we will continue to be flat out wrong in our responses. The budget debate, while not best centered around food stamps, should talk first about entitlements in a wider sense.

While I won’t be above going after low-hanging fruit from conservatives, I do hope to use this new project to put liberal feet to the fire. Trust me, we’ll all be better for it. I’m sad that I lost my old blog, but it is a chance for my political views to grow up some more.

After all, if we really believe that the liberal movement is generally correct, it will withstand hard questions and the occasional admission that, hey, conservatives aren’t always wrong.

P.S. I don’t even know what is going on in this one. I think it is completely wrong, but I can’t figure out how they spliced the data together:



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