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.