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Fighting Over Money

The example I used last time to illustrate the difference between an argument and a fight, one involving a debate over welfare in which two people proposing incompatible strategies were, in fact, on a common mission, played out last month in debates over how to spend two-trillion dollars to support Americans during the Covid crisis.

A large portion of that spending went to expanding unemployment benefits for those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. In debates over how much benefits should be expanded and for how long, Republicans argued that making payments too high for too much time might create “perverse incentives” that would lead to people continuing on unemployment, rather than going back to work, if staying at home doing nothing paid better.

As it turns out, those concerns were well grounded, especially in the restaurant industry where employers are worried that their staff may not return, even after the most severe restrictions on economic activity are lifted.

An argument over this issue would begin by recognizing that the best intentions (helping those out of work) might have unforeseen consequences (incentivizing people to continue not working, even when jobs become available). Presuming everyone shared the same concern of helping Americans survive financially, but also get back to productive employment as soon as it was safe to do so, such an argument would focus on how to balance these legitimate concerns. This could involve investing more in programs that help small businesses keep their employees on the payroll or limiting unemployment benefits when laid-off or furloughed employees were offered their old jobs back.

Sadly, the debate over this part of the measure turned more into a fight when opponents chose to characterize Republican concerns as mean-spirited, representing alleged indifference to the poor and suffering. Such criticisms implied bad faith on the part of Republican critics of expanded unemployment proposals, assuming that they were not really concerned about how perverse incentives might hurt those very people (not to mention small businesses) over the long term, but were simply waging war on the needy.

Something similar played out when that portion of the relief program for small businesses I just mentioned ran out of money weeks after it came into being. In Congressional debates over how to appropriate more funds for the program, Democrats withheld their approval unless the new appropriation also included additional funds for emergency services like hospitals, as well as expanded aid to states and communities.

This would seem to represent a legitimate argument over spending priorities, one in which all sides had the same goal (helping the nation to manage through the crisis), but different priorities regarding the best way to do so. Yet claims that Democrats were holding small business relief “hostage” in order to serve their own ambitions made the debate seem more like a fight.

In the end, unemployment benefits were expanded and new loans were made available to small businesses (along with some, but not all, of the additional spending sought by Democrats) which indicates compromise is possible, at least when it comes to spending trillions of new dollars.

As we have seen over the last several years, however, such compromises have been nearly impossible when it comes to making more difficult choices, like ones involving shutting down popular programs, rather than spending more on them.

One of the things preventing any form of compromise over the most important issues facing the nation is the fact that we have chosen not to argue them out, but rather to fight over them. Accusing opponents of bad faith, refusing to take their concerns seriously (even if you disagree with them), reducing people to stereotypes (such as Republicans as plutocrats or Democrats as social engineers) might play well with one’s own tribe, but tend to deliver nothing but polarization and paralysis.

So if we want to solve the nation’s problems, both during and after the current crisis, it’s time to find ways to argue about the issues, rather than just fight about them.


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