Handy Brother-in-Law Retorts

August 12th, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Someone asked me for a list of the usual canards you hear from people who just want to work your last good nerve at the family barbeque, along with the best responses to them.  Once I got started, it was hard to stop, so this is a very long post.  But that’s only because there’s so much nonsense going around these days.

This being summertime, we’re all spending a lot of time with our families, and sometimes that brother-in-law just starts hitting you with Fox talking points.  Don’t throw your hot dog at him—throw back these witty retorts.  (Of course, I’m not referring to my brothers-in-law—Jim, Andy…this isn’t about you…I mean not directly…I mean maybe a little…but not much…).

Cutting spending creates jobs: Start with flipping this on him: “It’s the other way round, of course.”

With consumers strapped by the weak job market, corporations sitting on piles of cash reserves (and thus not investing in job-creating endeavors), to cut back on government spending would only mean more job losses.  Point out that states are cutting their budgets leading cities and towns to lay people off month-after-month.

Use this example, fresh in the minds of others in the backyard: when the FAA was shut down for almost two weeks, 4,000 federal workers were furloughed but another 70,000 private transportation and construction workers were also laid off of projects that were doing for the agency.

End with: “Cutting spending cuts jobs.”  Have another hot dog.

The budget deficit is our big problem: Ask him why.  What is it doing that’s hurting the economy?  Is it crowding out private borrowing?  Can’t be that—interest rates are low and firms have all the cash they need to invest if they wanted to do so.

If he goes to the “uncertainty” place—employers won’t hire because they’re too worried about the national debt—just look aghast and say, “Wait a minute—you’re telling me that an employer who needs a new worker in order to meet demand for her goods or services won’t hire that worker because of the budget deficit?  The employer would leave profit on the table because the debt-to-GDP ratio is too high?!?”

Then just shake your head in disbelief while reaching for another slice of watermelon.

Of course, he might then go here:

The federal budget is like a family budget and we’ve all gotta tighten our belts: Agree with him that sure, given the loss of our home values and the cutbacks in our hours and paychecks, we have to tighten our belts, but then hit him with: that’s exactly why the federal government has to loosen its belt!

It’s the only game in town—states, like families, have to balance their budgets, but the feds can and must run deficits—loosen their belt—in order to offset the belt tightening going on everywhere else.

Tell him that the recession is like a boat taking on water, and there’s only one guy in the boat with a bucket to bail, but it’s a big bucket and can keep the boat from sinking.  When you incorrectly think of the federal budget like the family budget, you threaten to take away the big guy’s bucket and scuttle the ship.

Moreover, once families get back on track and can loosen their belts a bit, that’s when the federal gov’t has to tighten, i.e., to pay down the deficit it built up in the downturn…(as a little coda to your argument here, point out how GW Bush got that completely backwards—inheriting a budget surplus and turning it into a deficit during an economic expansion!).

Gov’t can’t do anything about jobs; gov’t doesn’t create jobs: Point out that, in fact, 22 million people work for the government, and before he chokes on his hamburger explaining how they’re all lazy do-nothings, remind him that the largest group— 14 million— are local jobs…has he been over to the public school lately, or had his trash picked up, and seen a cop on the beat?  Because that’s what we’re talking about here.

And that’s just in good times.  When we hit a recession, we need government spending to temporarily step up to the plate and create jobs like we did in the Recovery Act.  (Again, cue incredulity and guffaws.)

But it’s true…don’t cite statistics…cite anecdotes…there’s a LED factory in North Carolina that expanded thanks the Recovery Act, a window manufacturer in Philly, an airport security equipment provider in MA.  All these e.g.’s come from a series I wrote for the Huffington Post awhile back called “Recovery Act in Action.”  So do a little homework on this one— I actually think you’ll be surprised to read about some of this stuff.

But have some chips first.

Public spending crowds out private spending: You’re more likely to hear this one if you bro-in-law read the WSJ, but it’s just a variant on gov’t doesn’t create jobs, deficits are always bad, etc.

Very simple to straighten him out on this one.  If borrowing by the gov’t was competing with, or “crowding out,” borrowing from businesses and households, that would lead to higher interest rates, as the competition among borrowers for scarce loanable funds would bid up the price of loans, i.e., the interest rate.

But interest rates are very low, and firms are sitting on lots of cash…in other words the supply of loanable funds remains high relative to the demand.  Tell your brother in law that you’ll worry about this one when the unemployment rate is back down to 5%, and that could be awhile.

There’s too much regulation—that’s what’s holding back job growth: This is a very common nerve-worker.

Again, ask him what he’s talking about.  Much of the time, these guys are just repeating talking points and don’t have specifics.  But if he does have some, the following is almost surely true: either they (the regulations he’s citing) have been around forever and thus can’t explain the current, cyclical problem, or they haven’t kicked in yet.

Health care reform is the primary example of the latter, and I’d recommend the same disbelieving approach used earlier.

“OK, wait a minute…let me get this straight…I’m an employer and for some reason more people want to buy my stuff so I need to hire a new worker.  But because of a rule that’s going to kick in over two years, that btw won’t affect me if I’m a small business (<50), I’m not going to hire that worker.  I’ll just leave the profit on the table.”

“An employer who thinks like that would be out of business in about a week.”

Of course, you risk annoying your sister by ripping into her husband with such an airtight argument, but chances are she agrees with you.

US Taxes are too high: I’ve avoided links in this post because I want you to be able to shoot back without firing up your smart phone.  But read this and you’ll get the international skinny on this canard.  Relative to our competitors around the globe our tax take is low…very low…26th out of 28 countries.  And right now, the federal gov’t is collecting less revenues as a share of the economy than we have since “Grams was a girl” (the 1950s, that is).

Note I said our tax “take” is low, not our rates.  If he’s a WSJ reader, your bro-in-law may complain about our high tax rates compared to other countries.  First, our income tax rates are generally lower, but it’s true the US rate on corporations is higher here than in other advanced economies.  There are, however, so many loopholes that the average rate that firms actually pay puts us around the middle of the pack.

So go ahead and bond with him about the need to simplify the tax code and get rid of all those loopholes.

You should also point out that taxes under President Obama are even lower than under GW Bush (he’s kept the Bush rates and added a bunch of other stuff, like the payroll tax holiday).  Meanwhile, under Clinton, taxes were considerably higher than they’ve been since, yet the economy generated over 20 million jobs in those years versus about six million in the Bush years.  Middle-class incomes— after-tax!—rose faster in the Clinton years!

Look around at your parents and sibs and again, with great incredulity, put it to them this way, “You tell me— how do you think all this tax cutting has worked out?  Do you feel a lot better about the economy since W lowered all those tax rates and Obama kept them in place?  Do you remember the Clinton years as much worse for your wallets??!!”

Then go ahead…have another hot dog.

We can’t afford Medicare, Social Security: This is a toxic one, because even libs are getting squishy on it.  But it’s flat out wrong.

Start out with a counterpunch: we can’t afford TO LOSE Social Security and Medicare.

Peruse the group— and ask them: “Do you feel more secure or less secure about your retirement, cuz if it’s “less” then you want these programs to be strong and healthy.  Social Security will soon be the only guaranteed pension on the block, and Medicare provides guaranteed health security, and by the way, does so at a better price than private sector alternatives.”

Score for you…but bro-in-law punches back: sure, they’re great, but you’re missing my point: we can’t afford them anymore!

“Says who?” you say.  When people say we can’t afford something in this context, what they’re really saying is I’d rather pay for X than Y.  This is the fundamental concept of “opportunity costs,” one of the most important concepts in economics, as it incorporates the reality of scarcity, which is what makes economics tick.

Here’s a great example: we could fully cover the shortfall in Social Security, by using the revenue we’d get from the expiration of the highend Bush tax cuts.  Not even all the cuts, just the highend ones.

Paying for Medicare is a bigger challenge, but here, the problem isn’t Medicare, it’s health care, meaning cost growth across the whole system, private and public, is too high.  And, like I said, and this is an important arguing point, it’s considerable worse on the private side.

Point out that Medicare does a better job of controlling costs because it has less overhead, doesn’t need to gouge profits out of sick people or spend a lot of money hiring people whose job it is to get between you and the care you seek.

Note that every other country has some sort of universal coverage that goes considerably further than Medicare, covering everyone for about half of what we spend as share of our economy.  And they do so while generating health outcomes that are at least as good, if not better, than ours.

Ask your brother-in-law whether he’s saying that France can take care of its people better than America!  Get pissed off about this!

Finish with a flourish, asserting that there’s no alternative— we either figure out how to pay for the health care we need, or we end up the only advanced economy in the world who has continuously failed to do so.  And you happen to believe in an America that guarantees health security for retirees, like Grams over there.


By now, you’re stuffed to the brim, your bro-in-law is in full retreat, your sister is smugly pleased, and Grams really liked the way you stood up for the old folks.

Nice work!


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17 comments in reply to "Handy Brother-in-Law Retorts"

  1. vicki says:

    Very, very helpful. (grabbing more watermelon…)

  2. perplexed says:

    Great stuff – do news show anchors have access to this information? After 30 years of listening to it they still seem caught off guard by the same old propaganda and don’t know how to ask for, or interpret, the evidence.

    What about the brother-in-law story that the “country is going broke” due to all the high taxes & entitlement programs! Don’t we need a retort that explains that “only 90% of the country is going broke, the other 10% are doing fantastic! In fact, they are doing soooo well that, in addition to their lavish lifestyles, this tiny group has accumulated over $40 trillion in net worth and this little tiny group alone could PAY OFF our entire national debt 3 times over! In fact, they could pay it off once without ever altering their life styles. So don’t say the country is going broke just because you don’t personally know any of these beneficiaries of our current political and tax system. On average, we’re doing just fine, they’re accumulating enough wealth to make us all look good as a country. Its just like the fact that, on average, every person in America has one breast and one testicle, just because you can’t find the “average” person, doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”

    One more hotdog please.

  3. David Rubenstein says:

    You have consolidated my “everyday” conversations.
    I will be using your style from now on… I especially like the hotdog breaks!


  4. C Heinz says:

    The Fox News/Mad Hatters of the Tea Party are incapable of being rational. You may as well argue with a stump on fire.

  5. Mary says:

    “End with: ”Cutting spending cuts jobs.” Have another hot dog.” Funny!

    I really appreciated this section. I think this is right, “But it’s true…don’t cite statistics…cite anecdotes…” Or analogies, like the ship one you used. If you use a lot of jargon, especially economic or financial terminology, people’s eyes just glaze over. Some people think they can win an argument by being more erudite or knowledgeable than the person with whom they’re arguing. It depends on the context. In academia, this is more appropriate, but when you’re dealing with a general audience or your “brother-in-law,” you’re not going to win the argument because you’re not going to convince them with complex concepts and terminology. You’re just going to silence them via intellectual intimidation until they find a forum in which they can launch into their misconceived ideas and feel like they are winning. This is a loss for you, for them, and for society more broadly.

    If you can teach someone who has little background in a subject a hard concept, it means that you understand it well. And sometimes while you’re doing this, you may learn where you need to refresh your memory or learn a bit more. So it’s not a one-way exchange. At the very least, it forces you to get creative in your argument style. You have to think about the indoctrination by FOX, etc., and how to counteract the crude, incorrect, emotional appeals that like a greasy burger stick better in the mind than a healthy salad.

    Repetition matters, concrete, tangible information matters, but so does understanding that this isn’t just cerebral, it’s emotional. Anger and indignation are strong emotions, especially during periods of economic malaise. People instinctively want someone to blame. Right now, that’s government. The problem is that this feeling is not entirely misplaced, but it needs refinement. To do that people need the correct information and to be able to digest it, absorb it into the head and the heart.

    I would add another tool to this arsenal. I would explicitly ask the person what they read and listen to, how did they arrive at these conclusions, not in a confrontational manner, but to solicit information? Then I would ask the person if they really trust these sources? Do they really believe that Limbaugh is well educated enough to provide accurate economic analysis or it is more a talk show meant to make him money by stirring up anger and frustration? Most sensible people know that these shows are really more about emotions than intellect. If they have to face up to it, it will help give your argument more of an opportunity to penetrate their psyches. You’re basically trying to undermine the credibility of their previous source which creates an opening for a new source — you. Also, they may feel better after listening to FOX et al., but the time they give these sources costs the listeners not only in terms of the quality of their understanding of material events, but because they’re more likely to vote against their own interests due to the biased, incorrect information. This basically would make them a schmuck. And who wants to be that?

  6. The Raven says:

    I love this remark: “don’t cite statistics…cite anecdotes”

    Thanks for this!

  7. PeonInChief says:

    With respect to Social Security and Medicare: Slap brother-in-law on the back (gently, of course) and tell him how great you think it is that he’s going to take in Mom and Dad, and pay for their health care too, when M&D retire!

  8. Jeff says:

    While I agree with your first point that cutting spending cuts jobs, the example you cite is a bad one. The whole 70,000 number was just based off a formula from a 3 year old study. Of the “70,000” cut jobs it turns out that 46,000 of them weren’t lost, but rather “impacted.” And these 46,000 jobs were not construction workers out of work, but people like “drug store clerks and restaurant waitresses, who might see ‘a tiny bit less revenue flow.'”

    Here’s a link: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/POLITICS/08/04/faa.jobs/index.html?eref=mrss_igoogle_cnn

  9. Lex says:

    Brad DeLong at Berkeley has done something similar, posting some items on his blog titled something like “Notes for the Virtual Green Room,” which are basically factual rejoinders to conservative talking points.

    Bless you both for trying to repair the fraying edges of the reality-based community.

  10. Tom says:

    Have you heard the definition of rich? Making more money that your wife’s brother-in-law. So I’ll never be rich as my wife’s b-in-law is a CEO. I could have used these on him a while back, but even they are starting to see the light and think they should pay more taxes. I just don’t understand were all the business owners are in this. They know they have weak demand and yet they stay silent on cuts in spending that reduce demand further.

  11. general c. san desist says:

    jfk proposed the end of ideology, essentially myth vs. reality, when he stated the following…

    What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which sweep the country with passion but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need are not labels and clichés but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead…Political labels and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solutions…Technical answers-not political answers-must be provided.

    …problem is Jack didn’t have osama boss limbaugh nor henpeck nor the Treasury Extortion Anarchist Party nipping at his ankles. Just exactly how did the Fairness Doctrine get gelded & why?

  12. Brian.Montana says:

    This is an excellent list! Like Lex says, DeLong has the Notes for the Virtual Green Room, but I’ll be more likely to run into arguments that your list will help explain.

    Thanks Jared!

  13. Richard Ettelson says:

    My in-laws are mostly Republicans, some are even Obama haters; I’m not just reading your post, I’m studying it. Thanks!

  14. Roman Berry says:

    …we could fully cover the shortfall in Social Security, by using the revenue we’d get from the expiration of the highend Bush tax cuts. Not even all the cuts, just the highend ones.

    That’s a fail, and the reason that it’s a fail is because there is no shortfall in Social Security. None. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

    Social Security is perhaps the most solvent program of any. The Social Security surplus is over 2 trillion dollars and is expect to grow to over 4 trillion in the next decade before the trust fund is gradually drawn down over the following fifteen to twenty years…exactly as designed.

    People who claim that there is a shortfall in Social Security are helping (intentionally or not) to reinforce the meme that Social Security is going broke. It isn’t. The problem that people like Barack Obama and other Republicans have with Social Security is two fold: First, they don’t want the deficit masking effect of excess Social Security contributions to end. And second, as would logically follow, they don’t want to have to repay the loans taken from the Social Security Trust Fund (which were used to help offset the costs of all those tax cuts) which are guaranteed by the special purpose treasuries that were issued to the trust fund when that money was borrowed.

    That’s really the “crisis” in a nutshell right there: Obama and other Republicans don’t want to ever repay the money borrowed from Social Security. They want the program to constantly be “in surplus” so that they can effectively steal that surplus.

    Anytime someone (even with the best of intentions) starts talking about the “shortfall” in Social Security, they need to be corrected. Because what they are saying, no matter how well intended, is wrong.

  15. Kathleen Fox says:

    Every time you go into a government office, or a doctor’s or dentist’s office, notice what they have on the television. Most of them have Fox, which creates a captive audience for them, and people believe what they hear 500 times. So maybe the b-i-l wouldn’t even have anything to say if it hadn’t been forced on him. I’ve started asking them to put on CNN, and sometimes they do.

  16. Misaki says:

    “most of the public wants the government to spend less, and doesn’t want the government to create jobs with spending from current or deferred taxes or inflation”

    reply: …