Home > Austan Goolsbee, Greg Mankiw, Keith Hennessey > The Trouble With Partisan Critiques

The Trouble With Partisan Critiques

Keith Hennessey, Former Director of the National Economic Council under President Bush, has put out a video critiquing President Obama’s Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers’, Austan Goolsbee, video. Here’s Hennessey’s cleverly made video where he presents himself “on the other side of the white board” so he can “give you the other side of the story so you can judge for yourself.”

The problem with both videos, and I’ll focus on deconstructing Hennessey’s because Hennessey has deconstructed Goolsbee’s, is that they both set their argument up to win the partisan battle rather than the policy battle. Of course, those partisan battles are rooted in policy differences, but watching the videos the true aim of their arguments becomes clear.

Hennessey’s first criticism is that Goolsbee neglects to include public sector job workers in his chart. Rhetorically feigning incredulousness, he proposes three potential reasons why Goolsbee might do this: 1. “He doesn’t care about government workers” 2. “He didn’t want us to get confused with the effects of census workers being hired and fired” 3. “He wanted to hide the job losses over the last four months so his chart looked like things were getting better.” Then he tells us to be the judge. It doesn’t take much to figure out which option Hennessey wants us to assume is correct. By limiting the options to these three, Hennessey has given us a false choice. Isn’t another possible option that 4. He wants to show the effects of the government’s policies on what most people consider to be most important for long term prosperity, the private sector.

Now obviously, Goolsbee wants to make things look as positive as possible and wants to use visuals that present the administration he works for in the best light possible. That’s why a critique of Goolsbee is warranted, but intellectual honesty isn’t reached by omission on either side. The GOP, after all, were the ones that fought hardest to limit the state aid and to force the layoffs of government workers (one example). How many more ads from GOP candidates do we need to see calling for cutting state workers? Would Hennessey or Republicans support billions of dollars to fund increased hiring of government workers? Odd to criticize the Obama Administration for policy inaction that they don’t favor but you do.

Just imagine if total employment was up due to the government hiring more workers, does anyone think Hennessey would be arguing that Goolsbee has now given a complete and nonpartisan illustration of employment? Hennessey himself has written that he hopes “the pace of private job creation accelerates.” Why would he write that if he didn’t think there is something especially important about private sector job growth? When Goolsbee talked to a CNN Money correspondent he explained that the President wanted his economic team to focus on policies that help the private sector because “the President’s view from the beginning and continues to be now that private sector job growth creation is the sustainable form.” None of this is to argue that Hennessey isn’t correct that the administration should focus on total employment instead of only private sector jobs, but don’t you think he might have included that as an option?

The next statement that Hennessey challenges Goolsbee on is the claim that “the middle class had been squeezed like never before.” To undermine that Hennessey shows total job gains (uninterrupted for 46 months) during the Bush years. Yet this appears to be another example of partisan uncharitableness. Goolsbee wasn’t perfectly clear with what exactly he meant, and Hennessey is right to want to know exactly what Goolsbee meant, but it’s reasonable to assume by “squeezed” he wasn’t just talking about jobs numbers otherwise he probably wouldn’t have pointed out that the recession begins after the “intervening years” of the squeeze. In a discussion about his white board videos Goolsbee told Stephen Colbert that during the Bush employment boom (and he uses the word “boom” acknowledging employment/GDP growth), “it was the first boom in recorded US economic history in which the middle class’s income fell by over $2000 over what was supposed to be a boom and it was followed by what was the worst recession since 1929.” If Hennessey doesn’t watch Colbert, we know he watches the white house videos, and in the above video I posted, Goolsbee repeats the claim that the middle class was “squeezed,” this time in the context of healthcare. The more you listen to Goolsbee, the more you realize that he’s referring to a squeeze on multiple levels in their lives.

I don’t except Hennessey to follow everything Goolsbee has ever said or to be a mind reader, but if you’re trying to combat partisanship and the Adminstration’s selective data engaging in partisanship and omission yourself is hypocritical. I’m sure Hennessey and others may have some reasonable arguments about the exact nature and cause of Goolsbee’s middle class “squeeze” but to pretend you have no idea what he’s talking about or that he could only be referring to the job rate is disingenuous. If Hennessey really didn’t know, couldn’t he have asked?

Right after Hennessey makes the correct observation that people overstate the effect of the President and Congress on the short-term economy, Hennessey can’t resist and makes the same type of criticism he’s faulting Goolsbee and others for. But ultimately he’s right that the color selection is mostly a partisan trick.

Hennessey goes on to puncture Goolsbee’s argument by contending that no one can prove a counterfactual. He’s arguing that it is “impossible” to prove if the stimulus made things better or worse. It’s true that we can’t run history twice and prove conclusively either way, but Hennessey is using this to diffuse only positive assessments of a policy he doesn’t like. His claim works for everything and thus, if we follow Hennessey’s argument to its logical conclusion, means we can’t ever say anything ever about the effectiveness of any policy. He goes on to point out that other policies (many before Obama took office) affected the economy and therefore the recovery. He’s correct. The trouble is that he’s so caught up in blaming Goolsbee for making partisan arguments that he makes the same mistake again. If he was interested in the policy question rather than the political one, Hennessey wouldn’t be worrying about which administration these policies occurred under, just the effectiveness of them. Hennessey says, “Dr. Goolsbee wants to attribute any good economic news to the one policy that was all President Obama’s, the stimulus, and there’s no way he can know or prove that.” Yet, I can’t find where Goolsbee makes that claim. It’s also not evident to me the Goolsbee would argue that those other policies didn’t have a positive effect – Obama himself has argued that many of the policies Hennessey displays were helpful – he even continued and carried many of those policies out (certainly with the input of Goolsbee). Hennessey insists on the most uncharitable and narrow reading of Goolsbee’s argument, further demonstrating his own commitment to partisanship over objectivity.

I do agree with Hennessey’s further point that getting worse more slowly is not the same as getting better. He’s right to point that out to many in Goolsbee’s audience that might not be very familiar with analyzing graphs.

Unfortunately in his new graphs, once he fails to acknowledge Goolsbee’s reasoning behind showing only private sector employment, Hennessey doesn’t show us what that employment picture looks like. Even playing Goolsbee’s words over the new graph didn’t shock me as I think Hennessey intended. Sure, slowing the rate of job loss isn’t equivalent to gaining jobs, but I still can’t help but notice that it is preferable. Goolsbee isn’t obviously incorrect when he says the government’s policies “starts [us] on the path to improvement.”

Ultimately, Hennessey’s critique of Goolsbee had two effects on me. First, using the total employment numbers we see that the situation is far worse than the administration would like us to believe. Therefore, that leads me to support more of the policies that Hennessey (and the Hoover Institution he’s a fellow at) doesn’t seem to favor such as more state aid and direct government hiring. In other words, more fiscal stimulus.

Second, I saw an illustration of the trouble with partisan critiques. Hennessey’s main interest isn’t providing viewers with a complete picture of employment to “give you the other side of the story so you can judge for yourself” – he wants to undermine the Administration’s side and persuade you of his side… even if that means using the same type of omissions and fallacies that he wants to criticize Goolsbee of using.

I hope I haven’t given anyone the impression that I believe I’ve never made a partisan argument before or haven’t focused more on GOP failings over Democratic ones. My aim here is to expose the partisanship that both sides play and remind myself that in attempts to debunk and “deconstruct” the other side it is very easy to make the same mistakes you seek to refute. My purpose in deconstructing Hennessey’s deconstruction is not to declare which side is correct on the merits of their case for or against Obama’s policies. I’m sure reading this or other posts on my blog readers can figure out that I come down more on Goolsbee’s side. But I don’t want that to excuse either side purposefully casting the other’s arguments in the most negative light possible. The true test of an argument confronts the strongest case of the opposition not a weak or incomplete case.

(Hennessey’s video via Mankiw)

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  1. Deana
    October 25, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Good post, Daniel! Nicely and clearly done considering the possibility of a confusing task of deconstructing a deconstruction. 😉

  2. Bill Sowka
    October 25, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    Dan- Excellent post. Thanks for providing the videos and your keen commentary.

  3. Dean Moriarty
    October 26, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Ah, he’s from the Hoover Institute. I’d expect nothing less than dissembling and disingenuous pleading. It is par for the course when it comes to the Heritage, Cato, AEIs and Hoovers of the world. They are successful because there aren’t enough of people like you, and few with enough audience reach to show these bums for who they are.

    • October 26, 2010 at 3:30 pm

      I appreciate that, I hope with readers like yourself my audience will continue to grow. Thanks for reading and responding!

  4. Don
    October 26, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    Your arguments are unconvincing and begin with your bias toward the White House. I do not see this as de-constructing Hennessy as much as simply re-stating the Goolsbee’s original video with feigned “objectivity”.

    • October 26, 2010 at 3:49 pm

      I’m sorry you found my arguments unconvincing – although I’m glad you took the time to read through them. It’d be more helpful if you pointed out exactly where my arguments went thin. For the record, I hope you understand that I wasn’t setting out to prove the White House correct. So, if you read a White House bias maybe it was my lack of forcefulness and so I apologize; but I thought I made clear I only sought to demonstrate where Hennessey made similiar partisan or fallacious arguments to what he claimed Goolsbee was making. Also, the focus was on Hennessey because he had already made the case against Goolsbee and I found no need to belabor the point. It’s possible I didn’t emphasize this enough but I wasn’t passing judgment on the merit any policy.

      You didn’t ask, but in case you were curious, I think a lot of the White House’s policies were and are insufficient to push us to a full recovery. I do think they helped, but Hennessey and others are correct that they aren’t and won’t be enough. What policies would get us there are for another blog post. I encourage anyone to check back through my catalogue if they want to know more of my views on the merits of particular policies.

  5. Mr. Z
    October 27, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Your arguments are completely rational and plenty convincing. I didn’t detect any “feigned objectivity”. In fact, i think you went to more lengths than necessary to distance yourself from the politics. Well done… I’ve added you to my regular blog list and will be looking forward to more of your writing!

  6. October 28, 2010 at 12:51 am

    Thanks Mr. Z, appreciate the support. I’ll do my best to remain rational and convincing.

  7. May 28, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Almost all of the comments on this web site dont make sense.

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