Man Bites Dog: A Relentless Onslaught of (Online) Civility

Rodney Dangerfield said, “I went to the fights; a hockey game broke out.”

The crusty old editor says to the cub reporter, “Don’t give me dog bites man; if you’ve got man bites dog, now that’s a story!”

Something like that is happening over at Forbes Magazine, where TCU Economist John T. Harvey has guest-written a rather unusual post, titled How to Destroy the US Economy? Balance the Budget. Here are the opening two sentences:

I can think of nothing more fundamentally foolish, more unequivocally self-destructive to our economic well being today than attempting to balance the US federal budget. It is totally unnecessary and every dollar we cut from government spending is a dollar taken from someone’s income.

I say “unusual” only because the title and the opening lines lead one to believe Harvey is a raging Keynesian liberal, which one hardly expects to see in Forbes. What will the readers think!

The Emergence of the Flamers

Sure enough, initial reader comments did not disappoint. The flamers jumped on Prof. Harvey with track shoes, e.g.:

The trouble with you young people is that you do not understand the use of money. Money is a foreign element to you. You don’t even know what it looks like! All you understand is plastic, and that means borrowing.

This is absolutely asinine. You cannot seriously believe that it is more expensive for the government to provide unemployment benefits etc than it is to EMPLOY someone and then tax the salary that the government is giving them. If that’s how the system worked, the USSR would have long ago become the lone superpower.

Professor Harvey started to respond. He quickly (within an hour) answered every comment—calmly, rationally, taking every person seriously. He greeted each person warmly (“Howdy, psumba, thanks for reading!”).

He didn’t coddle (“you seem to have misunderstood my point”), but he never talked down to anyone either—no matter how tortured the logic, no matter how rude the tone.

And then a remarkable thing began to happen.

Some commenters started to get honest. The level of vitriol declined. Issues began to get discussed. Look at these excerpts from commenters:

“John I hope you come back and help me to understand [more].”

“John, I have found this discussion enlightening and fascinating. I am old school and too old to stalk you and besides I live in Arkansas..[but] see you can teach an ole dog new tricks.”

“That’s an epiphany for me. This is a very informative post. It makes perfect sense, though. I just wish more economists would be as explicit as you…This is so interesting!”

The Power of Civility

So many people, certainly including politicians, pander to the negative in all of us. It’s a cheap trick, and it works depressingly well, particularly because it’s a quick hit.

I find it gratifying when you see proof that the long game, the game of sincerity and respect and civility, when allowed to play out, is extremely powerful. Harvey’s post is less than 48 hours old at the time I’m writing this one and already civility has calmed a few beasts, added to the net economic knowledge of many, and I think lowered the political temperature of debate by a tiny but measurable fraction as well.

Harvey’s column, by the way, is called Pragmatic Economics. He is proud that his views are hard to label. And you might want to subscribe to his RSS feed, and get you some practical wisdom too.

I think Dangerfield would’ve gotten a kick out of it.

11 replies
  1. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Charlie, thanks for the heads up. I certainly got a kick out of it.
    Refreshing to read respectful give & take without the vitriol & negativity. I was able to focus on the key points that were calmly addressed instead of the usual “shouting”, finger-pointing and generalizing.

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    As a corollary, I think one of the things that gets in the way of civility in such conversations, online and off, is that folks blur the difference between positions and interests.

    Many of the respondents in the Forbes blog, as well as others, are wedded to their position and the vitriol comes out in defending one’s position. Positions led to good-bad, right-wrong types of reactivity. The only option here is polarization.

    When we allow our interests to drive, then we often become less polarized, more collaborative and understanding..which leads to civil discourse, and to non-violent communication. I think that’s part of what may be happening in this case.

    Positions are shallow. Interests run deeper and the deeper aspect leads often to a slowing-down, thoughtful and reflective dialogue and, dare I say, mature conversation.

    When we go deeper and implicitly or explicitly ask and explain “why,” clarification can often lead to a settling, taking-a-deep-breath- type of response and, as I said, greater understanding, collaboration and maturity in the conversation.

    I think that may be some of what’s happening in some of the bloggers’ responses:

    “John I hope you come back and help me to understand [more].” “John, I have found this discussion enlightening and fascinating. I am old school and too old to stalk you and besides I live in Arkansas..[but] see you can teach an ole dog new tricks.”

    …- a sort of “hmmm, there is possibility of common ground.”

    Just a thought. Positions vs interests; incivility vs. civility

  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Barbara, yes, I found it made the content much easier to read as well.

    Peter the position vs. personality distinction is huge. I haven’t read it in a while, but isn’t that also a central point made in the Getting to Yes negotiation material? Regardless it’s very right.

    For anyone interested, John and a friend of his collaborated to produce a delightful little educational video called Debt and Deficit in a Nutshell. Honestly, I think it’s terrific! I’m no economist, but John is, and it sure makes sense of a whole lot of things I hadn’t really understood before.

    Check it out!

  4. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Peter, well said re: positions and interests. So often the line gets blurred and suddenly with passions inflamed,civility goes out the door along w/ coherent discourse.
    And if my feeble memory serves Charlie, you’re correct about Getting to Yes negotiation material.

  5. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    Nobody deliberately starts out trying to be stupid. Usually, what we see as stupid, is our lack of insight to why that person thinks that way. If we search to understand why or how they have that opinion, we might find they are right and we are wrong – or in the search, they may deduce they are wrong and change. But the change will only happen if both parties are open to the joint discussion and the process of discovery.

    If they are unable to discuss openly and dig down into being stubborn about an opinion – well that’s a whole different issue and we are then into why are they stubborn – what’s made tham like that?

    In all this I think the most difficult issue is keeping everyone friendly. You’ve heard the old adage, “Win the arguement and lose a friend.” Well in business persuasion it’s pretty easy to ‘educate’ the client, eventually get them to change their view on some topic, only to find that they’ll then make the change and hire someone else. In other words, we might respect our ‘educator’ but not want to be in business with someone that ‘educates’ us. It’s a tricky balancing act.

  6. Bruce MacIlroy
    Bruce MacIlroy says:

    What a refreshing story. I have read this one several times now, went to the Forbes site, read the article and the comments and responses. Dr. Harvey has allowed me to believe in civil discourse again! Thank you Charlie for enlightening us with this post.

  7. Gctiii
    Gctiii says:

    Hello everyone nice to meet all of you. I clicked on the link and was led here and was amazed someone would write about our chat there.

    I am going to be honest with all of you. I originally clicked on that link with the intent to do what most of the other posters did. Call him a nut and tell him off. Thats what most of us do these days. We have allowed our emotions to over ride our good sense.

    As I read the article there was no finger pointing, there was no political agenda. Still a bit miffed I started to read the replies and John’s replies. John did not interject who is screwing who and this is why, John was trying to educate us simple folks about his point of view on economics. Even though I am not an economist I just knew what the pundits have been telling is not a lie and this guy was a nut. I read on and said to myself ok open your mind on this Gordon and think rationally as some of what he said made sense.

    Oftentimes depending on what side of the fence you are on clouds your point of view. Once I threw out everything I have heard or listened too I was no longer being sheparded by what we are being bombarded with, I learned from him. Even as I typed I thought he was sitting across from me and he listened agreed with me and corrected me and the pundits remarks lightened up as the conversation went along even with my piss poor typing.

    Still in my gut something is seriously wrong with this great country and it is a financial matter. I thought this several months ago. So I am a noob to financial matters at the federal level. John challenges me and as I stated in his thread I was and still am amazed at the interaction that can happen if we will just put aside our differences and not judge something before we understand it.

    But you economists are usually putting out theories and are not very helpful in clarifying things for us working stiffs.

  8. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Thanks so much for writing in here; delighted to hear your first-hand description of the impact of that column; I thought it was great too.

    (For other readers who went through the blogpost at Forbes, Gctiii was maybe the poster child for being objective, willing to courageously re-examine his own thinking, in engaging with author John. I was very impressed with him and told him so publicly in that comment-thread. You can get a sense of it in his comments here as well).

    Thanks again Gordon for setting an object example for the rest of us.

  9. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    If you’d like another outstanding example of civility from a discussion host, I have always been really impressed by Rev. Jennifer Brooks at The Lucifer Effect Theology blog, which is part of Philip Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect project. (Yes, the Stanford Prison Experiments Zimbardo.) The blog itself is interesting and the interaction between the authors and the commenters is remarkable (or at least last I checked; haven’t stuck my nose in there for a while, and…in a bit of a time crunch today).

  10. Gctiii
    Gctiii says:

    Cg sometimes we will never change a persepctive. You did your best. Jhilton see it his way or the highway. Even when I asked him why our currency should be linked to gold, he replied it needed to be linked to something.

    Good discussion and salute to ye



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