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Fact-Checking John Boehner, Economist Style…

July 27th, 2011 · 26 Comments
Economic Growth · Just For Fun · Macroeconomics

I’ve never really disputed the perception that economists are socially awkward/eccentric/autistic/etc., myself included to some degree. Personally, I have a particular knack for completely ruining jokes by adding something of the form “actually, *insert random fact here that indicates that the joke is technically incorrect*.” I’m a joy to have at cocktail parties, really. (If you are unfamiliar with this sort of behavior, watch a few episodes of Bones and you will see what I’m talking about.)

As it turns out, economists fact-check not only jokes but also political speeches in this way. During his speech on Monday, John Boehner said, “I’ve always believed the bigger the government, the smaller the people.” He should have known better than to make such flowery metaphorical statements, since the literal interpretation of the statement got economists all in a tizzy.

Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic appears to have gotten the ball rolling with the following tweet:

I find this interesting if for no other reason than I now know that people are really tall in the Netherlands. (Insert joke here about having to be tall to make up for living below sea level.) If economists were normal people, the discussion would probably end there…but they aren’t, so Ezra Klein had his researcher make a graph of, roughly speaking, government size versus height. Guess what it shows?

Now, we don’t know a whole lot about causality here, but, in any case, it doesn’t appear as though bigger government makes for smaller people. If I were to go out on a limb, I would venture to (absurdly) guess that tall people listened to economists and decided that it’s efficient for them to pay higher taxes than shorter people:

Should the income tax system include a tax credit for short taxpayers and a tax surcharge for tall ones? This paper shows that the standard Utilitarian framework for tax policy analysis answers this question in the affirmative. Moreover, based on the empirical distribution of height and wages, the optimal height tax is substantial: a tall person earning $50,000 should pay about $4,500 more in taxes than a short person earning the same income. This result has two possible interpretations. One interpretation is that individual attributes correlated with wages, such as height, should be considered more widely for determining tax liabilities. Alternatively, if policies such as a tax on height are rejected, then the standard Utilitarian framework must in some way fail to capture our intuitive notions of distributive justice.

Have we taken this too far yet? Don’t even get me started on the link between penis size and economic growth.

In actual fact-checking news, Catherine Rampell over at the New York Times highlights Boehner’s shaky grasp on history. Apparently he referred to “a national debt that has gotten so out of hand it has sparked a crisis without precedent in my lifetime or yours.” That’s all well and good, except that it’s not true:

The wording is a little ambiguous, but it appears that the “crisis without precedent in my lifetime or yours” refers to the current stalemate over the debt ceiling and the resulting threat of default.

With all due respect to Mr. Boehner, there is a precedent for this, and it was in his lifetime.

Mr. Boehner was born in 1949. In 1979 there was a showdown over raising the debt ceiling, and the country came within hours (not days) of defaulting on its obligations. In fact it actually did temporarily default on some of its obligations, although that seems to have been because of technical difficulties because discussions ran so close to the wire.

Hell, that was even almost in *my* lifetime. The “was never intended to be a factual statement” line might fly for the flowery metaphor, but not so much for this one. How can we learn from history if people don’t even bother to see if a relevant history exists?

Tags: Economic Growth · Just For Fun · Macroeconomics

26 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve_0 // Jul 27, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    (1) Please tell me no one actually thinks he was referring to height.

    (2) I assume it is only this horrible sense of humor, and not moral cowardice, that prevents anyone from actually addressing his real point.

  • 2 Ben Lunsford // Jul 27, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Steve-o is obviously a joy to have at parties as well. I assume it isn’t moral cowardice that prevents Steve-o from using his Big Boy name for attribution of his comments? LOL.

  • 3 Steve_0 // Jul 27, 2011 at 5:05 pm


  • 4 Steve_1 // Jul 27, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    ^^ Anonymous cowards cast the heaviest stones.

  • 5 Steve_0 // Jul 27, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    What difference does it make if you know who I am? I don’t know or care who “Ben Lunsford” is. Does that lend some credence to his argument? Perhaps I’m Steve Levitt, Dubner, Landsburg, or Roach. Or a junior high student, or a paranoid mom who is afraid of the internet.

    Any of that have anything to do with addressing Boehner’s statement? Did any of you address it? Do I care whether you are anonymous or not? Does it matter if you use what appears to be a name?

    Is this your gut instinct? Attack the first easy thing that you can use to make a punchline? Is this what constitutes a substantive argument? This is the result of the Daily Show mentality.

  • 6 Chris // Jul 27, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I think his “point” can only be addressed insofar as how inaccurate his statements are.

    His point seems to be that our debt problem was NOT caused by starting two conflicts without having the good sense to hike taxes to cover the ridiculous amounts of capital needed for such ventures. This is a total lie, and from where I sit it seems the cutting of taxes at the outset is what un-involved the American public from the war, because there were no crippling taxes and rations to inform the broad population of the terrible opportunity cost of liberally (excuse the pun) slinging ordinance, deploying armor and infantry, and covering all of the medical and maintainence costs of the above. Oh, did I forget to mention the trillion+ giveaway to big pharma that was stuck to the bill *at the same time?*

    If the speaker can’t properly address the point, and opt instead to feed lies and rhetoric to trick and hoodwink the electorate even further, why should anyone else properly address his empty political posturing? In a nutshell, his “point” was nothing more than a continued attempt at forcing Obama to cash the checks that the reckless and irresponsible right wing wrote last presidency.

    The Republican position here, as usual, is an intellectually indefensible smokescreen for the wider structural issues created by their own party.

    Check and mate.

  • 7 Steve_0 // Jul 27, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    That’s interesting. How did you get all that from “I’ve always believed the bigger the government, the smaller the people”?

  • 8 Chris // Jul 27, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    See Steve, you care nothing about the issues. That or you see as I do how rigorously I destroyed any faint trace of an intellectual backbone Boehner’s argument might have.

    If you think the sound byte is the actual issue, you delude yourself. The real issue is what I outlined; his response was centered around characterizing the irresponsible government spending as a liberal or Obama sponsored endeavor. The economic facts do not support this.

    I think the government ought to be smaller insofar as not extending itself into sovereign foreign nations. That is the real spending spree and the real size of government that you and your political cohort doublespeak on.

  • 9 Chris // Jul 27, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Boehner’s doesnt want policy regulation; just to go to the middle east and regulate the people there. He doesn’t want big government yet supports physically and monetarily extending the federal government across the ocean. He doesn’t want the debt ceiling raised, just when his party is in the white house.

    Orwell called it doublespeak. I call it intellectually devoid political trickery and posturing which you seem to have bought hook line and sinker, Steve my friend.

  • 10 Dan L // Jul 27, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    But just imagine how huge those Dutch might be if government spending was only 20% of GDP!

    @Steve-0, a mindless slogan is hardly a “real point” worth “addressing.” The fundamental content of the quote is, “Smaller government is good!” This hardly counts as some interesting new idea that needs fresh debate.

    Btw, the humor in the joke doesn’t merely come from a silly interpretation of what Bohner said. The silly interpretation points out the failed attempt at creative use of language, and that’s the part that’s funny–someone try to be clever and failing miserably.

    @econgirl, as far as I can tell, society doesn’t learn from history anyway. Even when people do know their history (which is rare, of course), they simply interpret that history the way that suits them.

  • 11 Steve_0 // Jul 27, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Chris, you have no idea who my political cohort is. You’re guessing. I didn’t defend Boehner, either in his statement, or in his general approach to the debt ceiling issue.

    I thought, since it was the original point of this blog post, that it would be worth discussing the actual point of his statement, since we’ve all had a good hearty laugh at the pretend ignorance of thinking he was talking about height.

    He made an interesting metaphor, one which could have been explored. But so far, there’s been a lot of posting about anything but. I’m always fascinated how people behave like fully pressurized political zits, just waiting to be popped and spew their noxious goo. Your spleen venting was completely off topic. And you don’t have the foggiest idea what I believe. Nor do you know what I’ve “bought, hook line and sinker”. Where have you seen any evidence that I agree with Boehner, or have bought any arguments from him? Don’t care. Not my area of interest. Not the discussion I started.

    Boehner made an interesting rhetorical point in regards to very basic political philosophy. I haven’t seen anyone address it. My gut tells me one thing, but the empirical evidence I’m aware of says something else. I haven’t seen anyone mention either their personal feeling, evidence, or interpretations of his statement. Instead, just a lot of accusations and spewing above.

  • 12 Steve_0 // Jul 27, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks @Dan L for at least waving your hand over the point. I think you dismiss it too easily, and characterize it too simply.

    He didn’t simply say “smaller government is good”. He made a rhetorical point about the relationship between two parties.

  • 13 Ben Lunsford // Jul 27, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Steve, since you’re the only person who seems to know which Boehner statement it is that you demand be addressed by all, has it yet occurred to you to weigh in on it yourself?

  • 14 Steve_0 // Jul 27, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    So everyone just skipped the original blog post above, the exact subject she wrote about, and these humorous responses were based on. Everyone just likes to click on the blog and jump straight to the comments.

    It’s not a puzzle. It’s the subject. Hard to miss.

  • 15 econgirl // Jul 27, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    Wow…all this, and yet no one has pointed out the simple fact that smaller and shorter are not the same thing. =P On that note, I’m going to wait around a while and see if a graph of weight versus size of government shows up.

    Also, I can’t tell if Dan L meant to or not, but he made a good point regarding cross-sectional (across countries) versus longitudinal (within a country over time) data.

  • 16 Ben Lunsford // Jul 27, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    Steve, to quote you: “I assume it is only this horrible sense of humor, and not moral cowardice, that prevents (you, Steve) from actually addressing his real point.”

  • 17 Mj // Jul 27, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    I’m still lol-ing at the notion that taller people should pay higher taxes.

  • 18 Herpderp // Jul 27, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    The relationship between size of government and weight is positive because countries that can afford plenty of food tend to be rich and thus have higher taxes.

    And Boehner’s point is that a large government reduces the self-confidence of the people, causing them to be less bold, which is metaphorically size.

    That may even be true to some degree. A large organization with many levels of bureaucracy tends to make both its workers and its costumers feel they are basically powerless.

  • 19 Ben Lunsford // Jul 27, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    “And Boehner’s point is that a large government reduces the self-confidence of the people, causing them to be less bold, which is metaphorically size.”

    Hmmm… the opposite seems true. I posit that the people tend to have more confidence if they are backed by a safety net, allowing them to take bolder risks.

  • 20 Scott // Jul 28, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Apparently, I share Jodi’s sense of humor, because I thought it was funny and figured the column was all in fun. Tactfully, I will not point out econ girl’s size…

  • 21 sped9001 // Jul 28, 2011 at 11:00 am

    If a gov’t is of, by and for the people then the size relationship is a positive one.

  • 22 Eat The Babies! // Jul 28, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Totally ignoring the meat of your piece… but I’ve been guilt of the same thing. Lots. So much so that it has become one of my rules in life. Any time I want to start a sentence with the word ‘actually,’ I fight to keep my mouth shut. This often results in me awkwardly getting have the word out and then saying, “Nevermind, it’s not important,” which is still awkward but better.

  • 23 econgirl // Jul 28, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Personally, I think that you should just embrace it. 🙂 My recent favorite is “actually, if you want to try to register your running speed on the displays that the cop put on the side of the road, you’re going to have to get a few friends and cover yourselves in tin foil and perhaps carry some large metal objects, since that’s how the speed detectors work.”

  • 24 Steve_0 // Jul 28, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Herp and Ben are on track with what I found interesting. I am generally extremely libertarian or classical liberty oriented, and much of my economic belief is Austrian influenced. I have a gut feeling that the size of an force-wielding, resource sucking administration simply must reduce the “vitality” of the people.

    At the most basic level, the government produces no goods and services. It is not a input-output converter. Everything it provides must come from production profits from the people. And, it suffers woeful administrative costs, expensive pricing ($500 hammers), and poor accounting. Every dollar that goes to DC is a dollar not spent on popcorn, cars, gasoline, MRIs, education, entertainment, etc. *by the choices of the people themselves*.

    However- empirical evidence doesn’t show a clear correlation between size of government and assorted quality of life indicators. Other indicators of economic freedom do. I’m not a shill for Heritage, they are too conservative for me, but their Index of Economic freedom is pretty good, if not perfect. (And it correlates strongly with other similar indices made by other groups on the left and right, and groups from other countries).

    Any of the individual measures in the Index correlate very strongly with outputs like GDP per capita, life span, or other quality of life measure. EXCEPT, “Size of Government”. A graph of the sub-indices (Business Freedom, Trade F, Fiscal F, Monetary F, Investment F, Property Rights, F from Corruption, Labor F) vs GDP@cap is predictable, with the usual suspects at the bottom (Cuba, North Korea, Haiti, etc) and the expected top (Hong Kong, US, New Zealand, Australia, Japan).

    But, the sub-indices for Size of Government vs measures of quality of life is a flat line, and the scatter is gibberish. My *ideological bias* leads me to say that an otherwise robust population/economy can support a higher government burden, just as a healthy dog can harbor more fleas. You wouldn’t necessarily make a statement that more fleas equal a happier dog.

    But… how much of that interpretation is simply my bias? Ben brings up an interesting point, and as a minarchist (not anarchist) I agree that a certain level of *perception* of government “safety” or organization, or protection, or what-have-you may indeed embolden the people. (How much? Is there an internal maximum?). At the same time though, I still believe that at a minimum, every dollar of government resource is simply transferred from a dollar taken from some other productive area, AND added to 75 cents of debt! Since 43 cents of every dollar spent by government comes from the future, isn’t it reasonable to believe that is depressing the market expectations for future returns on all productive activities?

  • 25 Kyle Pate // Jul 30, 2011 at 1:52 am

    Its always fun to play “freakonomics” with correlations. I suspect it is a pastime of most economists (including myself).

  • 26 steve // Aug 23, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    (diff steve :p)

    I wonder if higher government spending means the average person is better off (i.e. lower inequality) and can therefore afford better food etc which results in people being taller.

    please do the weight graph tho, I suspect it will be interesting

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