There’s been an argument in the comments of this post that I want to comment on, but it’s more than a little off-topic so I’m starting a new thread.
It all began when Alsis complained that our social support system is “starving, looted, privatized.” Robert responded with a genuinely stunning display of economic ignorance and misrepresentation:
We spend 23.4% of our gargantuan GDP on the “social system”. (#11 in the world in absolute percentage terms; around the top of the world in per cap terms.)
For a starving, looted, privatized system, it sure has a lot of dollars sloshing around in it.
As far as your reverse Panglossian view of thirty years of decline goes, it’s about as accurate as every other economic opinion I’ve seen you utter. In 1980, we spent less of a percentage of GDP on the entire Federal government than we spend today just on social spending. Our social programs today are bigger than the entire government was then.
How many ways is this wrong?
1) As I said at the time, that 23.4% number obviously includes more than just federal social expenditures to be that high. In fact, it includes federal, and state, and private expenditures.
2) Robert talks about “the entire Federal government” in one sentence and then “the entire government” in the next as if they were the same thing.
3) If we eliminate private expenditures from Robert’s figure, total government social spending is about 17% of GDP. In 1980, the Federal government cost about 22% of GDP, and the entire government cost about 31% of GDP. So unless private spending is included, Robert is dead wrong.
4) It appears that Robert intended to say either that the entire government’s social spending in 2001 is greater than the entire government’s spending in 1980; or that the federal government’s social spending in 2001 is greater than the size of the entire federal government in 1980.
In either case, Robert is wrong in a way that shows ignorance of basic economic matters. In the thread, I initially responded to Robert without looking up any numbers, which isn’t at all like me. But in this case, I didn’t have to look anything up – because like anyone who knows anything about US government spending, I could tell at a glance that Robert’s claims were impossible.
5) Although Alsis said the system is “starved,” she also said that the system is corrupt and privatized. So even if Robert hadn’t hopelessly bungled his statistics, his response – which boiled down to “we spend a lot” – doesn’t logically refute any of Alsis’ claim except the “starved” bit. Besides, relative to many other countries, we don’t spend a lot, so Alsis’ “starved” comment is certainly within the bounds of reasonable discourse.
Brandon then wrote:
Government spending at all levels has been trending slightly upwards as a percentage of GDP (31% in 2004, up from 23% in 1959 and 28% in 1970, but down from a peak of nearly 34% in 1993).
That’s inaccurate. Government spending at all levels trended up from 1948 (16.7%) to 1968 (28.4%), but has been flat since then, staying at 30% of GDP give or take two percentage points. (Source - scroll down to the table labled “Appendix Two”).
Robert, attempting to recover ground, admitted error (to me, not to Alsis) but wrote:
Thanks for the correction; you’re right, it was apples to oranges. Nonetheless, as Brandon notes, the trend is up up up.
No, the trend isn’t “up up up.” The statistic Brandon notes – government spending at all levels – has been flat as long as Robert or I have been alive.
Robert’s counterfactual belief that spending is “up up up” is pretty much the norm for the conservative movement. I suspect that what’s going on here is too much listening to the echo chamber, and too little reading of basic economic statistics.
Amazingly, Robert then had the chutzpah to tell Alsis off:
I made an (honest) error regarding the magnitude of how far off your base your statement was. Instead of being wildly and ludicrously off base, your statement is only really quite amazingly off base.
Where’s the distortion in that? It’s an error – like saying that Alpha Centauri is 6 light years instead of 4 light years from Earth – but if the proposition being advanced was “Alpha Centauri is a fuck of a long way from here, not just around the corner”, then I’m right, even if I got the numbers a bit mixed up.
I was stunned by the above post. I don’t doubt that Robert’s error was honest – but it was also a demonstration of rank ignorance, not a simple typo. I didn’t expect that Robert would change his mind, but I thought he would stop condescending to others about their supposed economic ignorance, on a thread where his own ignorance had been so amply displayed. Clearly, I was wrong.
Contrary to Robert’s rant, Alsis’ claims were all reasonable. Relative to other countries, we don’t spend much on social services (as a percentage of GDP). And our system – especially in the area of health care, which is Alsis’ primary focus – is incredibly expensive per capita, and many experts have argued that a significant portion of the problem is the amount of money skimmed off by private insurance companies.
Alsis didn’t get any objective facts wrong in the dispute between her and Robert; she just stated opinions that, while within bounds of reasonable discourse, are considered ridiculous by the right-wing echo chamber. In contrast, Robert’s statements actually were “wildly and ludicrously off base.” No competent economist, right or left, could agree with what Robert’s “1980 vs 2001″ claim.
You just have a very different opinion than I of what constitutes a sufficient percentage of spending on social problems.
Apparently “more than any group of people in the history of the universe has ever spent under any circumstances” is apparently nowhere close to good enough. [...] Post something on-topic instead of trying to defend your ludicrous opinion.
How many times does Robert have to be dead wrong before he’ll stop condescending to Alsis?
Alsis’ opinion is not at all ludicrous. As Robert’s own link upthread shows, the US spends a significantly smaller percentage of its GDP on “social expenditure” than many other countries do. It’s not unreasonable to think that the US could benefit from spending more. Robert may not approve of how other countries spend their money, but it’s not “ludicrous” to think that many Americans would benefit if our health care system was more like France’s.
In that same thread, Brandon wrote:
It was Alsis, not Ampersand, who complained that social spending is less than a quarter of what we spend in this country. Heck if I know what her perception is, but the reality is that social spending (by government) is 23.4% of GDP…
Like Robert, Brandon rushes to correct Alsis but displays ignorance of the statistics he’s throwing around. The 23.4% figure doesn’t refer to “social spending by government”; it refers to the net of both private and public spending on social expenditures. Social spending by government is actually 17% of GPD. (See table six of this excel file. This is the same data source Robert cited, except I’m citing it directly instead of indirectly). Note that of the countries listed, all but three governments (Mexico, Ireland, and Korea) spend more on social expenditures as a percentage of GDP than the U.S. does.
By now it’s hard not to note a consistent pattern:
1) Alsis states an opinion.
2) Male conservatives rush in to correct Alsis, usually in an incredibly condesending manner.
3) Said male conservatives demonstrate that they in fact don’t know what they’re talking about and are incapable of citing even their own chosen statistics correctly.
In the thread I’m discussing, Alsis – despite being far more modest about her economic knowledge – displayed a more accurate understanding of the economic statistics under discussion than either Robert or Brandon. (Admittedly, a low bar). And in return, she’s been treated with nothing but condescension.
I consider Robert a friend, and writing this post doesn’t give me any joy. But frankly, the whole exchange stinks of sexism to me. And considering how much they got wrong, I think Brandon and especially Robert both need to buy some fucking humility – and they both owe Alsis an apology for their condescending ways.