Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 10 – Welfare is charity.

Alternate Assumption:  Welfare is nothing like charity.

Most of my extended family and many of my good friends are Democrats.  I think that a primary reason is that they perceive the Democrats as the political party that tries to help people.  Such programs as welfare, Medicare and Obamacare are seen as a form of charity.  If we are good people, we must support these programs.  I’d like to challenge this assumption.  There are three big differences between welfare and charity.

Donating to charity is voluntary.  Paying taxes is not.

By definition, charity is voluntary.  Other people may have a different experience, but my understanding is that paying taxes is not exactly voluntary.  One can argue that if we are members of society and society democratically votes to pay taxes to help others then this is voluntary.  We can always elect to leave that society.

This argument has validity if everybody who votes pays taxes and everybody potentially benefits from the spending.  For example, if a city votes a 1% sales tax to support city parks, one can argue that even if I never go to a park, I have the right to use the park and the whole city benefits from having a park.  I think it has less validity if everybody pays and only a few benefit.  If this same sales tax is used  to subsidize favored corporations or for welfare payments, then it moves into what I would consider a gray area.

If, however, the majority of people vote for a tax paid only by a minority, then it  totally ceases to be voluntary.  For example, if 90% of the people vote for a tax that is only paid by the top 10% and then redistributed to the other 90% then this isn’t charity.  This is theft by taxes. We fought a revolution against the British because of taxation without representation.

Charity is much more efficient than welfare.

When you give to a good charity, a high percentage of the money actually goes to the recipients.  I know that my favorite charity that provides many services to the poor, including a food bank, cites that over 85% of donations go to the poor and less than 15% goes to administrative overhead.  James Rolph Edwards did a study in 2007 published in the Journal of Libertarian Studies in 2007 that stated that typically charities target 75% of the their spending directly on services to the poor and 25% goes to overhead.  In contrast, with welfare programs only 25% of the money goes directly to the poor and 75% goes to overhead.  Welfare is a very inefficient way to get services to the poor.1

This becomes particularly worrisome because many supporters of welfare believe that because government helps people, they don’t have to.  For example, Vice President Joe Biden is a big proponent of government spending on welfare.  This chart shows Biden’s tax donations for the ten years before he became Vice President:


When we direct money to welfare, we often direct money away from charity.  As a result, the bureaucrats prosper and the poor suffer.

Welfare is addictive.

The most insidious difference between charity and welfare is that welfare is addicting. We now have multi-generational welfare.  People spend all their lives on welfare and don’t know anything else.  Welfare does not cure poverty.  Welfare causes poverty.  The following graph charts welfare spending in constant dollars against the official poverty rate since the war on poverty started in 1964.

Welfare Spending vs. the Poverty Rate

As the chart shows, the poverty rate fell dramatically from 35% in 1950 to  less than 20% in 1964 before the war on poverty started.  It continued to fall to approximately 10% in the early 70s.   Since then, despite dramatic increases in welfare spending the rate has stayed within the 10 to 15% range ever since.  We are spending more and more money on welfare to fight poverty, but we are not reducing poverty.  Since Obama became president, we have dramatically increased welfare spending, but instead of poverty going down, poverty has gone up.

The addictive quality of welfare in the long term make poverty worse instead of better..  Each charity can decide how it wishes to help people.  If the charity isn’t being effective, it can change what it does.   If the donors think the charity is ineffective, the donors can give elsewhere.  Welfare is a government program that is locked into what it does.  It doesn’t change when it isn’t effective.  And the “donors”, the taxpayers, certainly don’t have the choice to give elsewhere.


Welfare is not charity.  It is not Tzedakah.  Welfare replaces Tzedakah, and welfare is a poor substitute.  Assuming that welfare is charity is a very bad assumption.  The people who suffer the most from this bad assumption are the poor, the people we are trying to help.

1Normally, I always like to cite reference data from mainstream sources.   In this case, after extensive googling I was unable to find any data from a well-known, unimpeachable source.  This data is typical of what I found.  I will leave it to the reader to evaluate the merit of this claim and I would appreciate it if anybody else can provide data from a more mainstream source.

Why do intelligent, well-meaning people disagree?

I have changed the tag line of my site with this question.  I have also added it as a permanent page to the blog.  The text below is now on this new page.

I am blessed to have wonderful friends and family.  They are good people.  They wish for peace and prosperity for themselves, the people they care about, their country, and the world.  They are very intelligent, thoughtful people who take an interest in the world and are reasonably well informed.  I also think that I am a reasonably good, reasonably intelligent person.  So why is it that when it comes to politics, most of my friends, my family, and I profoundly disagree?

Why do intelligent, well-meaning people disagree?   I have never seen anybody else seriously address this issue. This subject fascinates me.  My blog can go in many directions, from memorable movies to global warming, but the majority of my blog focuses on this key question.

I am a computer programmer.  In computers, we think in terms of input, process, and output.  If we share common goals, basically peace and prosperity, we desire the same output.  If we are intelligent, we have reasonably good process.  I believe the disagreement is primarily due to the input, the assumptions we make and how we frame the issue.

Early in life we form assumptions about how the world works.  We make these assumptions based upon our observations and what we believe to be common sense.  Once we make an assumption, this becomes the starting point for our thoughts on everything else.  We seldom re-examine our assumptions and we tend to hold our assumptions with a religious fervor, rejecting outright any argument that violates our assumptions.

To a certain amount this makes sense.  If a person starts with the assumption that 2+2=5, that person may be able to brilliantly argue that 4+4=10, but that argument is worthless as it is built on a faulty assumption.  You and I have better things to do with our time than to listen to this argument.

People can only have a reasonable discussion when the discussion begins with common assumptions.  Two Christians can have a fascinating debate using the text of the new testament as the basis for their arguments, but if you are a Jew, a Buddhist, or an Atheist, for example, their arguments mean absolutely nothing to you as you don’t accept their underlying assumptions.

In this blog, I try to examine our underlying assumptions, both good and bad.  It is only at this level that people of differing political philosophies can have any kind of meaningful discussion.  I, of course, tend to think my assumptions are good and try to justify them.  I welcome others to point out any flaws in my arguments.  If my assumptions are wrong, I want to re-examine them.  For example, a book I read recently by Malcolm Gladwell caused me to modify an assumption I had held for over forty years.

Bad assumptions aren’t the only type of input that causes well-meaning, intelligent people to disagree.  I think another problem is that we frequently don’t frame the issue properly.   For example, someone might say that he or she supports government program XYZ because it is a good program that helps people. I would ask is XYZ such a good program that it is worth borrowing money from China that our children and grandchildren will have to repay. Because of this debt they will not be able to afford many other good programs.  If this is true, do you still support XYZ?

I care about what causes intelligent, well-meaning people to disagree.  I don’t care about analyzing the opinions of people who don’t fit this category.  I don’t care about the haters, who are on both the left and the right politically.  I don’t care about the opinions of clueless, people who can’t identify China on a world map and give no thought to these opinions.

I hope through this blog to find others who find this topic fascinating.  While I will venture off into other areas that interest me, this is the predominant theme of the blog.  I hope you find it fascinating too.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 9 – People making more cause other people to make less.

Alternate Assumption: People making more cause other people to also make more.

Income inequality is one of the hottest political issues in America today.  People don’t think it is fair that some people make substantially more money than other people.  Proposed solutions include increasing taxes on the wealthy, raising the minimum wage, and limiting the pay of CEO’s.  The key assumption in this whole debate is that the total amount of wealth is a fixed pie.  People who take a bigger slice of pie force others to take a smaller slice.

It is a basic principle of economics that wealth is not a fixed pie.  It grows and contracts. The key to growing wealth is voluntary transactions.  For example, you buy a cup of coffee.  You are buying the coffee because to you the coffee is worth more than the money that you are paying for it.  The coffee shop owner sells you the coffee because to him or her, the money you pay is worth more than the coffee.  You both feel you are better off by making this transaction.  If not, you wouldn’t make the transaction.  This transaction has made both you and the coffee shop owner better off than if you hadn’t made the transaction.  In essence, you are both a little bit wealthier.

The key here is that the transaction is voluntary.  If the transaction is not voluntary, wealth is not increased.  If someone steals your money, wealth is not created.  When government taxes you, wealth is not created.  It is only when the transaction is voluntary, when both parties to the transaction think they are better off, that we create wealth.

Steve Jobs was exceptionally good at creating wealth.  When he returned to Apple as CEO, Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy.  Now Apple has the highest market value of any company in America according to the latest rankings by Fortune magazine.  Steve Jobs earned billions as a result.  He was not the only one who benefited, however.  Millions more benefited from his success.  pPeople who invested in Apple, work for Apple, work for companies who sell to Apple, work for companies who develop software for Apple, or who simply enjoy using iPhones and iPads are all better off.   Would all of these people have better lives if we stopped Steve Jobs from creating wealth because he made too much money?

In the feudal societies of the middle ages, most transactions were not voluntary.  Nobles forced serfs to work for them and taxed from them just about everything they had.  Kingdoms grew wealthy not from innovating and creating but from plundering weaker kingdoms.  In these feudal societies, the assumption that one person growing wealthier causes others to become poorer was valid.  It is also why society did not progress for over a thousand years.  This assumption is also true in a modern autocratic society where dictators plunder from the rest of the population.

It is not true, however, in societies where most transactions are voluntary, where there is economic freedom.  The Heritage foundation ranks each country by economic freedom. Look at their rankings:  2015 Index of Economic Freedom.  Note that the most economically free countries are also the wealthiest countries.  The least free countries are the poorest countries.

Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who is currently running for president, is calling for a top tax rate of 90%?  Why should an investor put money into a risky new company that might become the next Apple if when the company fails, the investor loses everything, but if the company succeeds, the investor only gets to keep 10% of the gain.  The investor doesn’t make this investment and just puts the money in the bank for a safe low interest. As a result, society loses the next Apple.

The belief that people making more cause other people to make less is a very popular, very dangerous, very bad assumption.

“President Obama is too Intelligent for Republicans to Understand”: Revisiting Bad Assumption 1

I have a friend who is a delightful person and highly intelligent.  That being said, she constantly bombards Facebook with far left wing links.  I often look at these.  As I have said before, if you can’t argue the other side of an issue, you don’t know enough to argue your own opinion.  Frequently I see the bad assumptions I talk so much about permeating these articles.  The other day I saw one such article that stood out by the audacity of its title:

The Simple Truth: President Obama is Too Intelligent for Republicans to Understand.

I highly suggest you click on this link for a moment and read this article.  I also suggest you revisit my previous blog post:

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 1 – If we disagree, you are either mean or stupid.

I would now like to analyze this article.  The author, Allen Clifton, provides three examples which “prove” how much smarter Obama is than the Republicans.  I would like to take a close look at each of these examples.  I would then like to talk a little about how intelligent Obama really is.


Obamacare is Clifton’s first example of the “big picture thinking” that Republicans are too stupid to grasp because “Republicans seem unable to understand anything beyond the spoon-fed bumper sticker talking points they’re given by the GOP and the conservative media.”  Clifton states that in the long term medical rates will go down because increased preventative care will cause a reduction in more expensive treatment down the road.  Let’s assume that Clifton’s premise is true that increasing preventative care is a force that will drive down healthcare costs.  The “big picture” piece that Clifton is missing is that there are many, many forces at work in the market.  Some of the forces push costs down and some push costs up.  For example, Obamacare reimburses doctors at a significantly reduced rates compared to private insurance.  As a result, many doctors are refusing to accept patients with Obamacare.  At the same time, Obamacare enrollment is increasing.  With supply going down and demand going up, this inevitably is a force to either push costs up, or if costs may not go up because of regulations, it will cause a shortage in medical care.  Here is an article from USA Today titled “Some doctors wary of taking insurance exchange patients” explaining the situation.

I am not expert enough to say whether the forces pushing costs up or those pushing costs down will prevail.  This certainly is a subject for reasonable debate.  Clifton, however, looks at one small piece of the overall “big picture” and makes a definitive statement while ignoring the rest of the picture.  At the same time he derides Republicans for being too stupid to look at the big picture.  Ironic, isn’t it?

The Minimum Wage

Clifton’s second example of Republican stupidity is the minimum wage.  He notes that Republicans call it a job killer and refute this with this powerful argument:   “It’s not.”  I’d like to refer here to Dr. Thomas Sowell about the minimum wage:

Minimum Wage Madness:  Part 1

Minimum Wage Madness: Part 2

Minimum Wage Exploitation (if you prefer audio)

Dr. Sowell is basically stating that a minimum wage job is the bottom rung on a career ladder.  A person with no skills works for a low wage.  In the process, the person gains skills that allow him or her to earn a higher wage.  A company will only hire a worker, at minimum wage or any other wage, if the company expects that the value received from the person exceeds what it costs to employ that person.  As the cost rises, fewer people will be hired.  This is basic economics.  When we raise the minimum wage, we are cutting off the bottom rung of the ladder.  As a result, some people will never, ever climb that ladder.

This does not mean we should not raise the minimum wage.  In any policy, there are winners and losers.  There are trade-offs.  If we raise the minimum wage, the clear winners are people who now have a job at the new higher wage.  It is very easy to see that they are better off, and they know it.  There are losers too, but they aren’t so clear and the losers may never know they are losers.  The primary losers are people who never get hired who would have gotten hired if the minimum wage had not risen.  If the employers have to raise prices to pay for the higher wages, the consumers who pay the higher prices are also losers.  The companies who have to pay hire wages without getting more for their wages are also losers, although I am sure that this would be unimportant to Clifton.

Clifton also claims that the workers will make more money, spend the money, and this will help the economy making everybody a winner.  This would be true if the higher salary was due to increased productivity, to the worker earning more because the worker is worth more.   When productivity increases, the pie gets bigger. If, however, this is just an arbitrary raise without any productivity increases, the pie isn’t getting better.  It is just being cut differently.  This means that every extra dollar that the higher minimum wage worker spends, somebody else is spending a dollar less.  There is no spending boost in the economy.

The key point here isn’t to say that the minimum wage shouldn’t be raised.  The key point is to say that it is complicated, that there are trade-offs that should be weighed.   Clifton is denying the complexities of the issue and proposing a simple answer.  Remember that Clifton’s whole point was to say how stupid the Republicans were and how Republicans didn’t understand the issue.


Clifton states, “When it comes to ISIS,Republicans just want to send in troops and ‘crush the terrorists’.”   Note that Clifton put “crush the terrorists” in quotes.  I am not sure who he is quoting.  I have not heard a single reputable Republican advocating sending American ground troops to fight ISIS.  Clifton is raising a straw man argument.  He is saying his opponents are for a position and then ridiculing the position, when his opponents don’t have that position.  Clifton states:

When it comes right down to it, I really do believe a huge part about why so many of the non-racist Republicans are against President Obama is because many of them are simply unable to grasp his “big picture” thinking that drives a lot of his policies. That requires intelligence and far too many conservative would rather just be told what to think by Fox News. They want their policies to be so simplified and catchy that they fit on bumper stickers.

He is clearly stating that Obama has a “big picture” policy, that Obama’s understanding is so much better than the Republicans’.   Is he referring to the same Obama who over a year ago scoffed at ISIS as a threat calling it the “JV team.”  Here is a link to a Politifact article which shows Obama’s statement and stating that his later denial of referring specifically to ISIS is false.  Obama also removed all troops from Iraq, overriding his top advisors who wanted him to leave behind a residual force.   This Time article “Leon Panetta: How the White House Misplayed Iraqi Troop Talks” references former Obama CIA leader and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on this subject.  On the way to taking over major Iraqi cities, such as Mosul, ISIS had to cross a wide open desert which would have made them sitting ducks to an air attack if we had kept a residual force.

Why therefore should anyone believe that Obama has this “big picture” view of ISIS  that the Republicans are just too dumb to understand?

Obama:  The Super Genius

In addition to saying that all Republicans are idiots, Clifton is stating that Obama is such a genius that his detractors, idiots such as Dr. Thomas Sowell, can’t keep up with his intellect.  I ask where is the evidence that Obama is such a genius?  I am not saying Obama is stupid.  After all, he graduated from Harvard Law School.  What about Obama though should make us think he is that much more intelligent than his opponents?  Obama still has not authorized the release of his grades in college.  Does anybody really think that if his grades were exemplary, he wouldn’t release them?

I will tell you what shocked me more than anything else when it comes to realizing Obama’s understanding of policy.  In 2011, in an interview with NBC’s Ann Curry, Obama blamed unemployment on advances in technology:

There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.

By Obama’s logic, we never should have invented the plow.  For example, lets say we have an agrarian society where it takes everyone’s efforts to grow enough food to feed the society.  Then somebody invents the plow.  Now only half of the people are needed to do the farming.  We can say that the plow made half of the society unemployed.  Now, however, the labor that has been freed from farming can do other things.  People can be blacksmiths, shoemakers, merchants and artists.  Overall, the society is wealthier than it was before.

The concept here is that technology increases productivity.  Productivity is the total value of goods and services produced divided by the costs of providing these goods and services.  Productivity from labor can be thought of as the total value of goods and services produced per working hour.  A person’s productivity represents the most somebody is willing to pay that person.  When we increase productivity, we can pay the person more.  New technology may cause some people to lose jobs in the short-term.  The proverbial buggy whip employees were put out of work by the invention of the automobile, but overall society was better off.

This is something that they teach in Economics 101.  It is simple, basic economics.  When Obama blamed unemployment on ATM machines and other technology, he showed he did not understand the basic facts about economics.  This is the man who is in charge of the economic policy of the United States.  This is the super genius whose knowledge leaves everybody else in the dust.

I don’t think so.

Bad Assumption 1 Revisited – If we disagree you are either mean or stupid.

I don’t know Allen Clifton. I think he is probably a fairly intelligent person.  Like my friend who posted this article on Facebook, he is also probably a nice person.  I think he is also totally blinded by bad assumption 1.  By demeaning his opponents, by saying they are all stupid, this means he doesn’t need to seriously look at their arguments.  This also means, he doesn’t need to examine his own arguments, his own views.  As I have said previously, just about every issue has two sides.  If you can’t argue the other side assuming that your opponent is a well-meaning, intelligent person, that means you don’t really understand the issue.  I think we are all much better off if we can jettison this bad assumption.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 7 – Judge a policy based on its benefits.

Alternate Assumption:  Judge a policy based on its benefits and its costs.

This is probably the bad assumption that we see the most.  Policy A helps people.  Therefore Policy A must be good.  If anyone opposes Policy A, that must mean that they don’t want to help people.  This bad assumption usually involves government spending, but it doesn’t have to.  It also applies to both sides of the political spectrum.  A “Jobs bill” might hurt the environment or a “Clean Air” bill might cost jobs.

Generally, any policy has both costs and benefits.  The costs frequently involve spending money, but there can be other costs as well.  For example, raising the minimum wage might reduce the number of minimum wage jobs.  One can debate whether the benefit justifies the cost, but too frequently there is no debate as people only look at the benefit.

The debate on global warming provides a good illustration for this.  Recently Bill O’Reilly said something to the effect  that even if global warming claims are exaggerated, it can’t hurt removing pollutants from the air.  It certainly can hurt.  We each can drastically reduce our carbon footprint.  All we need to do is to stop driving and stop using electricity produced by coal-fired power plants.  Is it worth is?  If the threat is dire enough, yes it is.  If the threat is remote and speculative, then it probably isn’t.  We need to compare the benefits of reducing the carbon emissions to the cost of doing so.  Is it worth giving up driving?  Is it worth losing the millions of jobs we would surely lose if there was no more driving?  You decide.

Right now the national debt is approximately $17 trillion.  Of this, $7 trillion has been accumulated in the last six years under Obama.  This should alarm both conservatives and liberals.  Let’s say you are a devout  liberal and you believe that government has the obligation to help the needy.  There is a new proposal to spend $50 billion on anti-poverty programs.  The question you typically ask is does this program provide real help to people who need help.  Let’s assume the answer is yes.  As a result, you support this bill.

I suggest that you are asking the wrong question.  The question you should ask is does this program provide enough help to justify borrowing the money from China that one day our children and grandchildren will have to repay.  Moreover, since you believe that government should help the needy, does it provide enough help to the needy today to justify the fact that there won’t be any money available for government to help the needy in future generations?

We can’t just look at the benefits.  We need to look at the benefits and the costs.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 4 – Government helps people. Business exploits people.

Alternate Assumption:  People are helpful when they have an incentive to be helpful.

We hear this all the time.  Government is compassionate and caring.  Business is heartless and cruel.  This assumption was a cornerstone of the argument for nationalizing healthcare.  Health insurance companies have a reputation, deserved or not, for denying benefits.  I have seen countless stories in the newspaper about a very ill person whose insurance company denies a needed operation or medication.  If only government ran healthcare, it would be much more compassionate.

Before we even look at government, let’s look at a different type of insurance.  My city of St. Louis was hit by a major hailstorm a few years ago and my roof was damaged.  Within two days my insurance company had an adjuster at our house.  The adjuster was based out of Dallas.  After the hailstorm, the insurance company flew in adjusters from all over the country to quickly handle the huge influx of claims.  The insurance company could not have been nicer to work with and they quickly paid the claim.  I heard similar stories from friends and neighbors who had different insurance companies.

Should we assume from this that people who work for property insurance companies are nicer than people who work for health insurance companies, or is there another factor here?  Property insurance is an extremely competitive business.  There are many different companies.  Everybody chooses his or her own insurance.  The insurance company’s reputation for being easy to work with and prompt in paying claims is a key factor in the sale.  If a property insurance company gets a bad reputation, their sales plummet.  The property insurance companies have a very strong incentive to be fast and fair in paying claims.

Contrast this with health insurance.  Due to regulations, there are very few health insurance companies to choose from in a state.  Moreover, most people don’t choose their own health insurance.  Their employer chooses the health insurance.  You can’t change your health insurance without changing your job.  The employer wants a benefits package that on paper is at least comparable to health insurance offered by other employers.  If the benefits package appears inadequate, the user might lose values employees or might have to pay additional salary to compensate.  For a given benefits package, the employer is then looking for the insurer who can provide it for the cheapest cost.

Nowhere in this sales equation is there a factor for how promptly, fairly, and courteously the insurance company handles claims.  If a health insurance company is especially generous in handling claims, it may raise their cost basis which would make them less competitive and therefore hurt their business.  Property insurance companies have the incentive to be helpful and health insurance companies have the incentive to not be helpful.

The Veteran’s Administration is a current example of where government runs healthcare.  It is known for providing poor healthcare.  In a recent scandal, veterans died as they were on a months long waiting list for care.

My belief is that neither government nor business is inherently good or bad.  All organizations are composed of people, both good and bad.  Most of us are good when it comes with family and friends we care about.  When we deal with strangers, while there are a few Mother Theresa’s in the world, but most of us try to be polite. On occasion we are more than polite, but on an every day basis, we don’t go out of our way to help people if there is no advantage to us in helping them.  While we may wish that everybody was a whole lot nicer, this is the way that people are, and we are not going to change human nature.

So, for example, if we want to make health insurance more responsive, would it be better to make the health insurance industry more competitive and more like the property insurance industry, or would it be better to make it less competitive and more like the Veteran’s Administration?

If government was inherently more helpful, then everybody would have loved living in the Communist countries where government did everything.  The Berlin wall would have been built to keep the West Berliners from heading east.

Businesses have people.  Governments have people.  With people you get more of what you reward and less of what you punish.  This applies to helpfulness.  It applies to everything.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 3 – America should not favor Americans.

Alternate Assumption:  America should favor American citizens.

I had been planning to discuss this assumption later in the process but this assumption so underpins Obama’s recent executive action on immigration and the entire immigration debate I have moved it up a bit.

First it is important to note that this is strictly a values assumption.  There are no facts to argue here.

The basic assumption is that we are citizens of the world.  Americans are not inherently better than other people in the world.  If our policies favor Americans over other people, we are implying that Americans are more worthy than anybody else.  The moral approach is to treat everybody equally.  Immigration restrictions are immoral because they state that existing Americans have more of a right to be in America than other people in the world.  Moreover, unless you are a native American, you are an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants so it is hypocritical for you to try to restrict immigration.

As Barack Obama said just a few days ago on November 24, 2014 in his immigration speech in Chicago:

If you look at the history of immigration in this country, each successive wave, there have been periods where the folks who were already here suddenly say, well, I don’t want those folks.  Even though the only people who have the right to say that are some Native Americans.

It is clear that the belief that America should not favor Americans is a core value behind President Obama’s immigration approach.    The purpose of this post is not to debate immigration.  I want to look at the core value itself.

This assumption has a further assumption below it.  It states that whenever someone favors one person over another, that person is stating that the more favored person is somehow superior to the less favored person.  I believe that this is a false assumption.  When a parent cares for his or her child, the parent is not saying that this child is more worthy than all other children.  The parent cares for the child because of an emotional attachment and because the parent has assumed a fiduciary duty to act in the interests of the child.

Now let’s move up from the individual to local levels of government.  At the governmental level, we no longer have the emotional attachment, but the fiduciary duty still holds.  A fire department, for example, has the fiduciary duty to protect the homes and businesses within the district from fire.  It does not have the same fiduciary duty to protect the homes in neighboring districts.  This doesn’t mean that if a neighboring district has a fire and there is not currently a fire in the district, that the local fire department shouldn’t assist the neighboring fire department.  If there are simultaneous fires in both districts, however, the local fire department needs to take care of its own residents first.

At the state level, the Missouri government has a duty to protect the citizens of Missouri.  The Illinois government has a duty to protect the citizens of Illinois.  In doing this, neither state is saying that the citizens of its state are better or more worthy people than citizens of the other state.

It is the same at the federal level.  The United States government has a duty to the citizens of the United States.  The Mexican government has a duty to the citizens of Mexico, and the Nigerian government has a duty to the citizens of Nigeria.  This is not racism or any other form of discrimination.  It is a government fulfilling the duty that the government was created for.

Therefore America should favor Americans.  This does not mean that America has the right to attack other countries or expect countries to favor Americans over its own citizens.  America has not only the right but the moral obligation to put the interests of its own citizens first while respecting the obligation of every other country to put its citizens first as well.  Greece should favor Greeks.  Mexico should favor Mexicans.  America should favor Americans.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 2 – The intended effect is the only effect.

Alternate Assumption:  The impact of unintended effects is frequently greater than the impact of the intended effect.

Let’s say we run a store.  For simplicity’s sake, let’s say we have ten customers who each spend $1,000 per month for total sales of $10,000 per month.  We set a goal of increasing sales by 10%.  To do this, we raise prices by 10%.  We expect that we will now have $11,000 in sales each month.

After we increase our prices nine out of the ten customers decides to shop with us as always, but one customer balks at our price increase and chooses to shop at a different store.  Now nine customers spend $1,100 per month for total sales of $9,900/month.  Instead of increasing our sales, we have decreased them.

The unintended effect exceeded the intended effect.  Most people intuitively understand that you can’t just raise prices without losing customers.  Typically, however, the unintended effects aren’t immediately obvious.

New York City had a problem.  Rents were rising and elderly people could no longer afford to stay in their apartments. People were moved by the plight of elderly people being forced to leave their homes, and so they instituted rent control which limited how much landlords could increase rent on their tenants.  This solved the problem of high rent increases forcing out the elderly, but what were the unintended effects?  These included:

  • There was a major housing shortage in New York City causing rents for new residents to skyrocket.
  • As people age and their children move out, they need less room.  Typically people would move to a smaller apartment to save money.  After rent control, renting a new smaller apartment costed more than staying in the rent controlled apartment, so people stayed in apartments that were bigger than they needed.  The unavailability of the large apartments forced young families into higher priced, smaller apartments.
  • Landlords would often not perform proper maintenance on their apartments.  The normal incentive is to keep your existing tenants happy as it is more costly to find a new tenant than to keep collecting checks from the old tenant.  Under rent control, however, if the old tenant moved out the landlord could rent the apartment for much more to a new tenant so landlords were rewarded for performing shoddy maintenance,

Rent control had an intended effect that was good but it also had unintended effects that were bad.  With some thought, the negative affects were fairly predictable.  One just needs to look at what behaviors are being rewarded and what behaviors are being punished.  You will get more of what you reward and less of what you punish.  The people who pushed rent control didn’t do that, however.  They wanted to stop elderly people from being evicted.  If you opposed rent control, that meant you wanted elderly people to be evicted.

Right now there is a current push to substantially increase the minimum wage.  There are proposals before Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $8.25 to $10.10.  Fast food workers have been protesting demanding a $15 minimum wage. The argument is that if people work full-time, they should be able to earn a “living wage”, enough to pay rent and food and other basic necessary expenses.  This certainly appears to be a reasonable argument.  If the minimum wage increases, it will certainly achieve the intended effect where people who work for the minimum wage will get paid more.

What, however, are the unintended effects of increasing minimum wage?  Employers now have an increased cost and they need to do something about it.  What are their choices?

  • They can absorb all of the costs and reduce profits.  Some employers can and would do this.  This is certainly what many who are pushing for the minimum wage increase are expecting.  In some cases the profits aren’t large enough to cover this cost and the employer would be forced out of business.  Also, if the profitability of a business decreases, it decreases the incentive for people to open new businesses and stops new jobs from being created.  We will never know how many businesses aren’t even started because they are no longer perceived to be profitable.
  • They can pass on the increased costs to consumers.  This will cause everybody’s prices to rise.  This is not a good thing.  Some consumers will reject the price increases and shop elsewhere causing a loss of sales, profits, and eventually jobs.
  • They can hire less people, reducing jobs.  There might be one less person behind the counter and you will wait a little longer for your fast food.
  • They can replace people with machines.  The burger flipping machine might seem to expensive at an $8.25 minimum wage but attractive at a $10.10 minimum wage.

As a result, raising the minimum wage would cause a drop in minimum wage jobs.  One can debate over how large that would be, but there would definitely be a drop.  Also, many people who make minimum wage are teenagers who live at home.  These teenagers do not need a living wage.  They want to help their families or earn extra pocket money.  Most importantly, the minimum wage job is the first rung on the ladder of a career.  The minimum wage job for most is where you get initial experience, prove yourself, and work your way to a higher paying job.  If the minimum wage job isn’t there, the teenager never gets to step on that first rung of the ladder and may never go any higher.

One could conceivably account for that by passing a higher minimum wage for adults than for teenagers.  In this case, you are now favoring the hiring of teenagers over adults, so you are hurting the adults who need the job to survive and helping teenagers gain extra pocket money.

In short, we have a trade off.  The intended effect is that minimum wage workers make more money.  The unintended effect is that some businesses go out of business, other businesses never open, inflation rises, unemployment rises, and some young people never get their career started.

I personally think that the unintended negative effect is greater than the intended positive effect,  This is debatable.  The big problem though is that there is often no debate.  This is because of Bad Assumption #2:  The intended effect is the only affect.  If you oppose the minimum wage increase, you don’t want people to earn a living wage.   You must be mean.  (See Bad Assumption #1.)

While I focused here on my examples of rent control and the minimum wage, this bad assumption is pernicious and can be seen in an endless number of policies that on the surface do good but below the surface do a lot of harm.  It is easy to make this awful assumption.  We need to recognize it and fight against it.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 1 – If we disagree, you are either mean or stupid.

Alternate Assumption:  If we disagree, we may have differing assumptions.

This is the first in a top ten list on bad assumptions.  I am interested in why people disagree.  In particular, I am interested why people who I know are intelligent, caring people often strongly disagree with me when it comes to politics.  If I know them to be intelligent and caring, does that mean I am stupid or uncaring?

I am a computer programmer.  I know that any process has three components:  input, process, and output.  If we disagree, we must differ in one or more of these.

The output is our goal, our desired outcome.   We may have differing goals.  If my goals are noble and pure then you must be mean, racist, selfish, unpatriotic or have some other horrible motivation.

The process is our logic.  If I think you might not be a horrible person, then the alternative is that your logic is flawed.  You are stupid.  You are incapable of thinking rationally.  If you weren’t stupid, clearly you would agree with me.

The input is the facts.  Maybe you aren’t mean or stupid.  Maybe you just don’t know the facts.  We disagree because you don’t know the facts.  I present the facts to you and we still disagree.  This means that you are either mean or stupid after all.

I see this thought process all the time.  It seems so obvious, so logical, so true.  There is one missing piece.  The missing piece is assumptions.  Input is more than just facts.  Input is facts and assumptions.  The assumptions are what we believe to be self-evidently true.  For example, one assumption can be that the United States is a great country.  An alternate assumption is that the United States is a terrible country.  There are countless facts that can be used to support or attack the United States.  We don’t go through these facts every time we make a decision though.  We start with are underlying assumption as an input and we go from there.

There are some assumptions that can’t be supported or attacked by facts.  For example, the key assumption in the abortion debate is whether the fetus is a human life.  If you believe that the fetus is a human life, then abortion is simply murder and there is nothing else to talk about.  If you support abortion rights, you support murder.  Alternatively, if you believe that the fetus is not a human life, then abortion is simply a matter of a woman’s right to control her own body and there is nothing else to talk about.  If you don’t support abortion rights, you are either a nut or you hate women.  In actuality, science can not prove or disprove whether a fetus is a human life.  It is a value judgment.

I think that assumptions are very important, and nobody ever talks about them.  If we don’t share the same assumptions, we can’t converse.   If a person’s assumption is that 2+2=5, that person can prove to you with brilliant logic that 4+4=10.  If you don’t share this assumption, however, their logic from that point is meaningless.  As we say in the computer world:  garbage in, garbage out.

The only point where we can hold a meaningful conversation is at the point where we hold common assumptions and our opinions at this point differ.  For example, two priests can have a meaningful conversation about moral values using the New Testament as a starting point and citing scripture to prove their points.  A priest cannot have this same conversation with an Atheist who does not share this same assumption that the New Testament is the authoritative source for moral decisions.

I think that everybody has some bad assumptions that can and should be re-examined.  I am sure that I have bad assumptions.  True discourse comes from reaching that level where we first disagree and then examining our beliefs from there.  This was Socrates’ contribution to the world.  Socrates would start where he and his opponent first agreed and get this opponent to say yes.  He would then build on that with a series of questions to which his opponent had to continue to say yes.  By the end, his opponent had agreed himself into a position that was totally opposed to his original position.

If we say, however, that our opponents are mean or stupid, then we don’t have to listen to their arguments.  Why should we listen to the arguments of stupid and mean people?  Yes there are mean people and the world and there are stupid people in the world.  Rather than initially assuming that our opponents are mean or stupid, I think it important that we assume that they are intelligent people and that we all want the same things.  Most of us all want peace and prosperity and a bright future for our children.  We all would prefer a world where everyone can be happy than a world where everybody is miserable.  Yes there are mean people in the world and there are stupid people in the world.  After we fairly evaluate their arguments, we might conclude they are mean or stupid, but this should not be the starting point.

This is why the first bad assumption in my top ten list of bad assumptions is the belief that if we disagree, you must be mean or stupid.  If we make this assumption, we will never be able to learn from anybody else.  We will never be able to correct our own bad assumptions.

In this series I will be listing what I believe to be bad assumptions along with what I believe to be more valid assumptions, and I will be arguing for my assumptions.  I will state here that my assumptions might be wrong as well.  If anybody reading this finds a flaw in my assumptions, please feel free to point them out.  Unlikely as it may seem, maybe I am the one with the bad assumptions.

Let’s find out.

Assumptions are Everything

America is becoming increasingly polarized between liberal and conservative, blue states and red states.  Each side accuses the other of evil intentions.  Liberals call conservatives mean-spirited people who hate the poor.  Conservatives  accuse liberals of being unpatriotic, of hating America.

While there are clearly people at the fringe of both sides who do hate, I believe that most people on sides are basically good people.  We all want the same things.  We want peace and prosperity.  We want to reduce poverty, educate our kids, have a clean environment, and have a multitude of jobs and opportunities.  We differ, however, in what methods will achieve these goals.

The big problem with demonizing your adversary is that if your adversary is evil, you don’t have to listen to their arguments, to their logic, to their facts.  If their goal is evil, then their arguments are meaningless.  You have nothing to learn from them.  Even if you do try to listen to their arguments, they often make no sense or may even seem repellent, reinforcing your concept that the other person is either a villain or a moron.

The core problem is that people have different assumptions.  If you start a discussion with differing assumptions, there can be no progress.  If my assumption is that 2+2=5, I can prove with brilliant logic that 4+4=10.  Two Catholic priests can have a discussion on morality building their arguments on the common assumption that the teachings of Jesus as expressed in the New Testament is a definitive authority.  No matter how brilliant their arguments, however, they will have no effect on a Jew, a Muslim, or an Atheist.

What kind of assumptions do we have?  A liberal might have the assumption that the best path to peace is by being kind to everyone so they will like you and not want to hurt you.  A conservative might have the assumption that the best path to peace is by being strong enough that nobody will want to mess with you.  A liberal might assume that their is a fixed amount of wealth in the world and if a person is wealthy, they are taking the fair share from someone who is poor.  A conservative might assume that people create wealth and a person becomes wealthy by creating more wealth.

So if we read an editorial and the editor relies on assumptions we don’t share, we don’t give any weight to the arguments in the editorial.  They make no sense.  They might as well be speaking a different language.

My belief is that communication can only begin when we strip issues down to the core level where both sides agree on any underlying assumptions.  At that point we can have a meaningful debate.  We can’t really debate the size of the defense budget until we first debate whether strengthening our military leads to peace or leads to war.

And the biggest, most important assumption for any good debate is that we are both basically good but not perfect human beings who share the same overall goals and just differ in how to get there.

When I discuss politics or philosophy, my goal is to strip the arguments down to their core assumptions.  When we get there, we can talk.