Milwaukee’s alternative weekly, the Shepherd Express, recently ran a thought-provoking article by Lisa Kaiser criticizing the tea party movement. I haven’t written a whole lot about the tea party movement. But my reaction has been mixed.
The positive is that a large and vocal constituency is agitating for lower spending and lower taxes. That’s been missing from the protest scene since at least Vietnam.
The negative was summed up almost perfectly by Koch Industries VP Richard Fink: “Some of their worries are… more thoughtful, some of them are less thoughtful.”
If you think about it, tea partiers are the right-wing analogue of Bush-era Iraq war protesters. Both of their main causes are true and just. War against a country that never attacked us is wrong. So is the Bush-Obama spending spree.
But both movements attracted a fringe. A loud fringe. A fringe that, because of their volume, their kookiness, their entertainment value – attracted disproportionate press coverage. Tea partiers have their birthers and John Birchers and so on. The anti-war movement has its Code Pink, truthers, and other strange, fascinating, creatures.
Now suppose you’re a journalist covering one of these protests. You’re on a deadline, and you don’t know a whole lot about what you’re covering.
You could write a story about the ordinary people in jeans and t-shirts, kids in tow, holding up their signs with quiet dignity.
Or you could talk to outlandish – and outlandishly quotable! – nutjobs from Code Pink or the John Birch Society. It’s pretty obvious which tactic gets you the more entertaining story in less time.
An economist would point this out as a classic example of the law of demand. If something costs less, people consume more of it. If it costs more, then less. Since writing a story about colorful kooks costs less time and effort than interviewing ordinary people, no wonder so many newspaper stories are of the cheaper-effort variety.
Which brings us to the article in question.
The words “corporate,” “corporations,” and variations of the same appear nine times. And it is not a long article. Each time, the epithet is unsubtly used as shorthand for “I disagree with this.”
This is a mental shortcut — evidence that Kaiser did not give the issue deep thought. If your gut feeling is that you don’t like something, you can research it to find out for sure. But that is very costly in terms of time and effort. It’s mentally cheaper to just blame “the corporations.”
This is not a rigorous line of thought. Arguments are either right or wrong. The presence or absence of corporate funding has nothing to do with whether an argument is right or wrong.
Take the pull quote from the print edition:
“Americans for Prosperity is a corporate-funded front group that is trying to extract as much of our public dollars as they can and then put it (sic) in the hands of the corporations that fund it.”
That isn’t actually true. AFP is against corporate bailouts. Against corporate subsidies. AFP thinks that corporations should compete in the marketplace. Not in Washington. Public dollars should be kept as far away from corporations as possible. The source who Kaiser quotes is factually inaccurate. And she doesn’t correct him. She agrees with him.
He uses the same mental shortcut that Kaiser does. Just use the word “corporate” to stand for that which he disagrees with. Then he attributes those views to AFP, blissfully unaware of AFP’s actual stances on taxpayer-to-corporation wealth transfers.
This is intellectually lazy. If Kaiser and the activist are against government funding of corporations, they actually have a lot in common with AFP.
Kaiser quotes another activist:
“It’s no coincidence that profits from giant corporations are being pumped into front groups like AFP to further those corporate interests.”
This guy doesn’t get it either. Dollars tend to flow to causes that the donors already agree with. The arrow of causality is pointing in the opposite direction that he thinks.
For example, I favor legalizing same-sex marriage. Suppose that I’m planning to donate money to an organization to advance my view on that issue. Will I get better results by giving to a group that already agrees with me, or by giving to Focus on the Family in hopes of changing their mind?
Koch Industries in particular comes under fire for its longtime support of free-market organizations. And they have much to gain from the crony capitalism they are accused of promoting.
But they aren’t actually promoting crony capitalism. If their political giving actually was made in the name of corporate self-interest, they’d be giving to groups like the Center for American Progress, which openly favors giving billions of taxpayers’ dollars to corporations.
Instead, Koch-funded groups believe, across the board, that corporate welfare is wrong. The Koch brothers are free-market ideologues, and it shows in their philanthropy.
Kaiser’s Shepherd Express article is an interesting read. But not for what it says about tea parties and corporations. It’s interesting because of what it says about her, and about how the law of demand partially explains the poor quality of most journalism.