Why I’m So Mean

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Photo: motifake.com, iStockphoto

People often ask, “Why is Jonathan Chait so mean?” It is a fair question, one that has been raised by my close friends, colleagues, wife, and parents, and it merits a suitably thoughtful reply. The latest person to ask it is ubiquitous right-wing misinformation recirculator Veronique de Rugy, who notes that I am "constitutionally incapable of disagreeing with anyone without impugning motives, professionalism, I.Q. or mental stability."

I’m actually not incapable of disagreeing with people without insulting their intelligence, motives, or other qualifications. I especially enjoy debating the most intelligent and interesting conservatives, like Ramesh Ponnuru, Ross Douthat, and David Frum, not to mention numerous liberal writers I respect.

But it is true that I do spend a lot of time arguing with the lesser lights of the intellectual world as well, and de Rugy herself is a good example. Our current debate offers a useful example of why I do this. De Rugy wrote a column centered around the claim that the United States has a more progressive tax system than any other advanced country, and as her sole piece of evidence cited the fact that rich people pay a higher share of the tax burden in the U.S. than in other countries. I wrote a response, noting that this reasoning is completely idiotic. Rich Americans pay a bigger share of the tax burden because they earn a bigger share of the income, not because the U.S. tax code is more progressive.

De Rugy’s reply is an incoherent collection of hand-waving that does not come close to addressing this very simple and fatal flaw with her claim. She introduces a series of other fallacies, like conflating the marginal tax rate (the percentage tax you pay on your last dollar) with the total tax rate (the overall percentage of your income paid in tax), using “income tax” as a stand-in for total taxes, and trying to broaden the debate into a bigger philosophical dispute. But it’s not a philosophical dispute. It’s a simple case of her making up false claims based on extremely elementary errors.

And this is why I am forced to be so mean. There are just a lot of people out there exerting significant influence over the political debate who are totally unqualified. The dilemma is especially acute in the political economic field, where wealthy right-wingers have pumped so much money to subsidize the field of pro-rich people polemics that the demand for competent defenders of letting rich people keep as much of their money as possible vastly outstrips the supply. Hence the intellectual marketplace for arguments that we should tax rich people less is glutted with hackery. The very simple fallacy I pointed out by de Rugy has been knocking around for years, without end. (Here it is in a piece by Stephen Moore in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Here is Senator Jim DeMint making it today in an interview with the approving editors of Reason.) A similar problem exists, perhaps to an even worse extent, with climate change denial.

Most people don’t follow these issues for a living and have a hard time distinguishing legitimate arguments from garbage. I don’t mean this patronizingly: I certainly would have trouble distinguishing valid arguments from nonsense in a technical field I didn’t study professionally. But that's why there’s a value in signaling that some arguments aren’t merely expressing a difference in values or interpretation, but are made by an unqualified hack peddling demonstrable nonsense. Being so mean is a labor of love, I confess, but also one with a purpose.