The Issue with Partisan Math

Grounding policy calculus in political bias is a recipe for lazy math.

It’s an open secret that American politics are utterly bankrupt when it comes to mathematical ability; because this is particularly true of the Democrats, a common accusation from the Republicans is that they propose “pie-in-the-sky” tax-and-spend schemes that rely on ludicrous increases in taxation and will almost certainly result in runaway inflation. Far be it from me to defend the Democratic party at large from that critique on the whole because it’s pretty damn close to true, and we’ve called them out on this in the past.

However.

In the wake of the rising profile of UBI, particularly in the form of Andrew Yang’s Freedom Dividend (which he promoted during the second Democratic debate on Wednesday evening), the cracks are beginning to appear in the arguments against significant spending. As the debate finally emerges from the ivory tower and onto the mud-slinging, day to day dredge of more conventional politics, the disturbing truth emerges: opponents to spending (usually Republicans, or centrists) just … aren’t very good at math either, and they’ve been camouflaging the fact by dealing in increments and ideology.

Statistically, this isn’t surprising: We already know that only around a third of American students receive a passing grade in math [1], and that our international performance in the subject is pretty abysmal [2] , and we’ve been spinning all sorts of narratives as to why we have failed the nation’s pupils. But they’re not alone: it so happens that adults are also terrible at math [3] . If the source of the problem is education (which would make sense), then it’s a long-term one that impacted us even during an era when we assumed we were doing well.

The source of the problem is ultimately more complicated than just education and attainment: just because you can do math doesn’t mean that you will. Daniel Kahnman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow [4] demonstrated the gap between potential cognitive investment for any given topic (system 2) and the default investment we usually put forward (system 1). Put bluntly, our common sense or intuition is automatic, difficult to circumnavigate, and frequently wrong, riddled with cognitive biases. Our in-depth thinking, the sort that reasons effectively with more than basic calculation and eyeballing, is lazy and difficult to activate.

So with this in mind, let’s return to American politics.

There are several mainstream critiques made whenever any major spending by the government is proposed. The first set of strategies is the most obvious (1. “we can’t afford that!”) immediately leads into the next two (2. “inflation!” and 3. “taxation!”). It’s an elegant little flowchart that has the capacity to become a fairly universal counterargument, as steps 2 and 3 can lead back into 1 and continue an ever contracting spiral of bad -faith haggling, ad infinitum. What’s more, this schema is even more difficult to counter because it almost exactly resembles the effective strategy to take down a flawed spending program. As such, it can be incredibly persuasive, and only falls apart when you get into the details and notice the lack of precision and the failure to fully examine the proposed program. 

The second strategy is a moral or ideological one, hidden under a thin veneer of “common sense”. The opponent of the program will make some general statement that makes sweeping assumptions about human nature and pass it off as fact in order to prove that the program can’t work. A good example of this is the laziness argument against UBI, which states that people will stop working if they receive basic income. Mr. Dowell of the Foundation for Economic Education made a particularly amusing ad absurdum version of this, wherein he implied that the economy would shrink given to everyone becoming artists [5] .

Much in the same way that the ability to add undermines opponents of things like UBI and universal health care, ideology tends to also replace what could be thoughtful debate with pure lunacy. A recent video released by the Foundation for Economic Education [6] demonstrates one of the moral arguments used against UBI, musing on whether it would be ethical to grant people free money when the government has no power over what they spend it on. This is really weird: FEE is nominally quite libertarian and usually celebrates the freedom of individuals to spend money on whatever they wish. The argument that the government should have a say in what the money is used for comes from a much more authoritarian, nanny-state position than their usual statements.

Far be it from me to cast aspersions on every critique of the aforementioned natures. Mr. Dowell ultimately made a comparatively sound argument against Mr. Yang’s specific iteration of UBI using math (though the lively debate in the comments section suggests that he would benefit from brushing up on Keynesian economics [7] ); the same can be said of arguments against the Green New Deal and the border wall. However, if we intend to keep using math against policy, we should at least be mindful to make sure it all adds up.

Sources:
1. Elie Vanezky, “Why U.S. Students Are So Bad At Math”, U.S. News, May 4 2018
2. Drew Desilver, “U.S. Students’ Academic Achievement Still Lags That of Their Peers In Many Other Countries”, Pew Research Center, February 15 2017
3. Carl Richards, “Americans Are Bad At Math, But It’s Not Too Late To Fix”, The New York Times, August 4 2014
4. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, Amazon
5. Jacob Dowell, “Andrew Yang’s Math Doesn’t Add Up on Universal Basic Income”, Foundation for Economic Education, March 8 2019
6. Foundation for Economic Education, “‘Free’ Money Is Really Expensive!”, YouTube, July 23 2019
7. Emergent Order, “‘Fear the Boom and Bust’: Keynes vs. Hayek Rap Battle”, YouTube, January 23 2010

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