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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Asking politicians uncomfortable questions

If you like watching politicians squirm, you'll really enjoy the interviews of Jan Helfeld. He asks simple questions intended to get his subjects to state the unstated assumptions behind their positions and assertions -- and he's persistent in his efforts to get a straightforward answer.

These are my favourite interview excerpts, along with my own interpretive summaries:

Q: Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, do you pay your interns the minimum wage?

A: Uhmm... not exactly

Q: Then why should McDonalds have to?

A: This interview is over.

Q: Congressman Pete Stark, does government debt make us wealthier?

A: Of course. The more you owe the wealthier you are.

Q: Doesn't the government have to pay more interest if the debt is higher?

A: You're an economic ignoramus. Get the [email protected]*# out of here, I'll throw you out the window!

Q: Senator Harry Reid, are taxes voluntary?

A: Yes.

Q: But doesn't the government threaten to use force in order to collect taxes?

A: Like I said, we have a voluntary tax system.

Q: Congressman James Clyburn, if you use race as a factor to evaluate a person would that be racial discrimination?

A: Yes.

Q: Is racial discrimination wrong?

A: Yes.

Q: If an educational institution uses racial preferences to determine admission, are they evaluating a person based on race?

A: You have to use race as a factor.

More of Helfeld's interviews are available on his youtube page and website.

(hat-tips to Bob Murphy and David Henderson)

Posted by Kalim Kassam on February 19, 2009 | Permalink


The Pelosi and Stark interviews are examples of bad "gotcha" journalism where the interview subject is particularly inept at handling the "gotcha". Some interns are not paid money, but that does not make them the same as slaves. They get college credit and just as doing their calculus homework does not logically contradict minimum wage laws, internships don't. But Pelosi looks foolish not because her view on the min wage is inconsistent, but because she gets so flustered trying to explain the obvious when given a "gotcha" question.

Stark just gets pissed, so does not really get around to explaining the value of debt. Any business that has ever taken out a loan to get started knows that debt can lead to wealth and not all debt is bad. That does not mean all debt is good or that any amount of debt is acceptable, but it does mean saying that debt reduces wealth is simple-mindedly wrong. But Stark just gets annoyed instead of saying that.

The Reid interview is better because there is a very real contradiction in the claim that paying taxes is voluntary, yet there are penalties (including jail) for not paying. The differences that he appeals to between how the US does it and some unnamed European countries do it is just nonsense.

The Clyburn interview is a good example of how people too often oversimplify their arguments or reasons. Again, there is no inconsistency in the ideas he holds, but when he oversimplifies the explanation in the first place it leads to what seems a contradiction at the "gotcha" moment and requires refining. At the end of the day it should be clear that Clyburn believes that using race as a factor in making decisions is not legitimate when it is being used because of a dislike of people of a certain race or a false belief in the relevance of race to qualification (or lack thereof). But it is legitimate when it is being used to eliminate disadvantages that have been previously caused by using race as a factor in the first way. One might disagree with that position, but there is no inconsistency in it.

I don't know why people agree to be interviewed by Jan Helfeld, but I guess the vetting process for politicians with journalists is generally weak. It is how so many ended up being interviewed over the years for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report without seeming to know the interviews were for comedy shows. I also don't know how much there is to learn from his interviews. They are a bit like seeing the neighbour you don't like fall on the ice. A moment of schadenfreude, but not much more.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-02-19 6:44:42 AM

Fact Check,

Since when is gov't a business that can create wealth? Gov'ts crowd out the private market when they take on debt and subsequently destroy wealth creation. Gov't can only redistribute. Taking on debt to redistribute a smaller sum than you are taking away is absurd. Furthermore, businesses and indiduals have the freedom to take on debt if they please. Gov't forces the taxpayer to take on debt.

Posted by: Charles | 2009-02-19 7:43:50 AM


You might believe that it is in practice impossible for any government spending to ever have any positive effect on the economy of a nation and thus never help create wealth within that nation. You might believe that it is in principle impossible for any government spending to ever have any positive effect on the economy of a nation and thus never help create wealth within that nation. But if both of those beliefs are false, then government spending can create wealth and so sometimes expanding debt in order to achieve that result is wealth-creating debt. Clearly this is what Stark believes. Now Helfeld could have chosen to debate him on those questions, but he didn't. Instead he tried to show how clever he was by trying to claim that going into debt cannot produce wealth and thus hanging a contradiction on Stark. GOTCHA!

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-02-19 9:17:01 AM

McDonalds workers deserve a decent wage. I don't want them spitting in my food.

Debt reduces real wealth. Take a look at your financial statement. Oh, that's right, people who make comments that debt creates wealth usually don't receive financial statements, they receive salaries.

Taxes are voluntary, until you decide not to pay.

Discrimination only applies to minorities. Majority rule is a recipe for discrimination. America should be run by brown/black people, and Africa should be run by white people. Then everything will be in perfect order.

Posted by: dp | 2009-02-19 9:35:34 AM


Apparently FC believes that if people choose not to spend their money, then the government has every right to spend their money for them.

But then, it's possible I misunderstand his line of reasoning.

Also, the current US crisis has been portrayed as a ‘credit crunch' brought about by questionable credit instruments.

So, if the problem was too much debt, how is it possible that the solution would be to create even more debt?

Sounds to me like spending your way into prosperity, something Stark seems to advocate.

Me? I'm paying off my debt and saving my money, glad to be living in a Canada that's emerging from the folly of Trudeuapia as the same time the US is plunging into the marxist-inspired idea that the government know best how to spend my money.

Posted by: set you free | 2009-02-19 9:40:25 AM

dp: "Debt reduces real wealth."

Nonsense! If I borrow money from a bank to open a business and make a success of the business, then I create wealth. If the debt at the start of the process was necessary to my being able to start the business (as it often is) then debt can be wealth creating. Only if you limit your vision simple-mindedly to the short term does debt reduce wealth. This is the "gotcha" game Helfeld was playing.

syf: "Apparently FC believes that if people choose not to spend their money, then the government has every right to spend their money for them."

You will notice, if you read carefully, that I have made no comment in this thread at all about the legitimacy of government spending. You will also note that it was no part of Helfeld's questioning of Stark to ask what does or does not make government spending legitimate. That is an entirely separate issue. Helfeld only asked about the possibility of debt creating wealth. I have only pointed out (what should be) the obvious fact that debt can produce wealth. Any conclusions you draw about my opinions of the legitimacy or even the wisdom of government debt (or spending more genberally) are entirely without any basis.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-02-19 10:13:41 AM

Fact Check- I'm assuming you've never started a business. Well, I have.

Borrowing money to start a business is one thing, carrying a debt load is another. I have 5 employees, and minimum debt. I have the capacity to "carry" these employees through this downturn. My employees will be able to service their debts without burdening the social safety net.

If I'd followed the trend of the last few years, I'd have taken on a large debt, expanded my business, and hired another 5 employess. If I'd done that, there'd be 10 people looking at applying for EI right now. I'd be defaulting on several loans, and/or declaring bankrupcy.

Since there's been a shortage of workers during the last artificial boom, I might have been inclined to hire a temporary foreign worker. I'd be responsible for bringing an extended family into my community, from a place where people don't have the same work ethics we have here. When they lose their jobs, they don't jump the next plane home. They stay, and go on welfare, thousands of them.

Posted by: dp | 2009-02-19 10:49:31 AM

If MSM had investigative journalists, they would be asking the same kinds of questions regardless of the political party. It requires that politicians move beyond their empty platitudes and be able to explain and defend their policies, contrary to the claim of FC.

Anyone claiming that governments create wealth can only be one of two things: an idiot or a die-hard socialist. I see that even Putin tried to warn Obama about this.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-02-19 11:49:42 AM


"I'm assuming you've never started a business."

As usual, you assume wrong.

"Borrowing money to start a business is one thing, carrying a debt load is another."

No. Borrowing money to start a business is one thing, carrying an excessive debt load is another. It is impossible to borrow money without carrying at least some debt load. The moment you borrow it and the entire time you owe it you are carrying it. You admit yourself that you have a debt, however "minimal" it might be. Why do you have any debt at all? Why did you ever borrow money? The answer is, as I have said repeatedly, not all debt is bad. Sometimes, and especially when starting a business, debt is what finances the operation that leads to wealth creation, even if that debt is "minimal".

Notice that, unlike the SYF's comments, Helfeld and Stark were not discussing the legitimacy of government spending. Notice also that the line Helfeld was pushing was that going into debt always is a decrease in wealth, and he's just wrong about that (again, unless you only take the mosy myopic view of debt). Maybe STF thinks all government debt is immoral and maybe you think that current levels of government debt are excessive. All that is fine, but neither is the question Helfeld and Stark discuss and neither is a subject I have commented on.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-02-19 12:29:29 PM

Clyburn was wrong on a major point. To use race as a factor to justify hiring a minority, bacause there was some apparent racism in the past, is a never ending cycle of racism. It may only be a reason why the black guy ius hired but it is the ONLY reason the white guy was not.

So what do we do next? Affirmative action for whites? Common, the whole thing is government endorsed racism.

Posted by: TM | 2009-02-19 1:23:23 PM

Fact Check, I agree that borrowing can increase wealth. Government borrowing is a little different thing. Governments take our money to borrow it, basically. It is possible that more wealth would have been created for the economy had the tax payers been left to spend and invest as they believe is best.

Borrowing does not always increase wealth for an individual, and the chances of it increasing wealth when a government does it is even less.

Posted by: TM | 2009-02-19 1:29:56 PM


"Clyburn was wrong on a major point. To use race as a factor to justify hiring a minority, bacause there was some apparent racism in the past, is a never ending cycle of racism."

First, since other commenters here like to make assumptions, let me point out that in what follows I neither endorse nor criticise affirmative action as that is not the issue here (for me, anyway).

Second, you might be right TM, but if you are right, you are right empirically, not logically. There is no reason logically that affirmative action needs to lead to an endless cycle, even if as a matter of fact it does. In principle, if someone or some people have been disadvantaged unfairly and others benefit, it should be possible to remove the benefit and compensate for the disadvantage, at least approximately. And once that is done, then there is no cycle to continue. There is nothing logically contradictory about believing that this can be accomplished with affirmnative action, even if it is practically impossible.

Third, the reason the previous distinction is important is because it was Helfeld's point to show that Clyburn's views on affirmative action were not just wrong, but inconsistent. He tried to show that the very same judgements Clyburn calls wrong when used to disadvantage racial minorities must also be regarded as wrong when used in affirmative action programs. But that is not true. Again (for the slow witted commenters out there) that is not to say that affirmative action is a good idea, just that it is not contradictory to think racism is bad and affirmative action is good.

"It is possible that more wealth would have been created for the economy had the tax payers been left to spend and invest as they believe is best."

Again, this may well be true. I offer no opinion on its truth or falsity because my point here is that this claim is different from saying that Stark asserted a contradiction. He might be wrong in thinking that government spending is a better way to create wealth or in thinking it is a legitimate way to create wealth, but he is not wrong in thinking it is possible to create wealth through debt.

"Borrowing does not always increase wealth for an individual, and the chances of it increasing wealth when a government does it is even less."

And if that is true, it still also remains true that however slight the odds of success, it still is possible for government borrowing to create wealth, which is what Stark said and Helfeld tried to paint as a contradiction.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-02-19 1:54:31 PM

Fact Check,

I have nothing to say, except: I love how precise you are with your language.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-02-19 2:30:18 PM

Fack Check- As usual you are a tool. I doubt very much that you have any employees, in fact I'll wager money on it. If you do own a business, it's most likely a pseudo-consulting position with a government agency. Either that, or Mary Kay.

Your position is that ALL debt is good. That's as idiotic as saying ALL debt is bad. Yes, I created jobs by taking risks, and using borrowed money, but the aim of any business, or individual should be to eliminate any net debt as quickly as possible. All this talk about multiplier effect only works in a growing economy, and you can't force it to grow by printing money.

I won't respond again. You are from a different world. One that I could never stomach.

Posted by: dp | 2009-02-19 2:40:51 PM


Thanks... I think.... :-)


In my fist post in this thread (it's still there if you want to check) I wrote: "Any business that has ever taken out a loan to get started knows that debt can lead to wealth and not all debt is bad. That does not mean all debt is good or that any amount of debt is acceptable, but it does mean saying that debt reduces wealth is simple-mindedly wrong."

You just wrote: "Your position is that ALL debt is good." Nice try, dumb-dumb. Try reading instead of just assuming. Or, better yet, just leave the conversation to the adults, k?

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-02-19 2:50:44 PM

Fact Check, thanks for the reply. I think I understood, and agree.

I would add that it seems wrong to try to compensate B because A was disadvantaged, and in order to do so, C is then disadvantaged. If it was wrong in the first place it seems equally wrong in the second.

Posted by: TM | 2009-02-19 4:12:18 PM


The ADD world is indeed different.

Brilliant with details, socially repulsive.

Posted by: set you free | 2009-02-19 5:56:44 PM

What government produces is a product no one wants to buy at a price no one would pay, for a product that is sub standard at best.
And they don't "ask" you to buy it...they force you to buy it.
If a couple of gangsters came through your door forcing the same terms on you...you would shoot them.

But I guess its all ok really...good for us in fact, right FC?
I mean how could free enterprise even hold a candle to a great set up like that one?

Posted by: JC | 2009-02-19 6:36:01 PM


Learn to read or join dp at the children's table. I have written nothing in this thread in support of government spending. I have written nothing to say that it is effective, nothing to say it is a good idea and nothing to even say that it is ever legitimate. None of those questions are the issue here. They were not the point Stark was making nor were they elements of the contradiction Helfeld thought he was exposing in Stark's thinking. If you can't understand that, then you really should permanently refrain from commenting. It just makes you look stupid.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-02-19 6:56:29 PM

FC Since you obviously suffer from a level of narcistic vanity and ego not usually seen outside of psychiatric wards I will let your blatantly pompous assed remarks go as being the psychotic manifestations of an ego maniac that they so obviously are. And when you get back from admiring yourself in the mirror you might take another run at belittling others in order to help prop up an obviously insecure and small personality. BTW there are support groups and therapy for your ailment.
Oh and thanks for the advice.

Posted by: JC | 2009-02-19 7:54:37 PM

Fact Check:

You should listen carefully to what the honorable Congressman Stark actually said in the first few seconds of the interview, to wit: "The national debt is a measure... indicates the wealth of a nation." To be charitable, one could paraphrase this to mean that government debt is highly positively correlated with GDP.

That is patent nonsense, and the interviewer was perfectly correct to inquire further why, then, it does not make sense for the government to borrow another trillion dollars.

All your fine analysis is beside the point, as usual.

Posted by: Grant Brown | 2009-02-20 2:44:27 AM


Learn to read or join dp at the children's table.
Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-02-19 6:56:29 PM

PS I'd sit at a table with dp anytime, at least he's "real".
Anyone who calls themselves "Fact Check" suffers from some sort of psychotic superiority syndrome. You have obviously elected yourself to being some kind of an authority. What a complete ass you really are.

Posted by: JC | 2009-02-20 4:54:11 AM

Grant: "You should listen carefully to what the honorable Congressman Stark actually said in the first few seconds of the interview."

No, perhaps you should listen again. You will note that it is not "the first few seconds of the interview" at all. Helfeld jumps us in mid-interview and at a point where Stark was already getting quite annoyed with Helfeld. If you watch the George Stephanopoulos interview he did you will see that even when Helfeld gets a sensible answer to his questions he just repeats them and tries to walk down garden paths of contradictions that don't exist. Stephanopoulos chose that moment to end the interview. I would bet that Stark had already been asked several times about debt and wealth before the point we are allowed to start watching the interview and then, rather than walk out, he started to give obnoxious versions of his answers. We'll never know because Helfeld does not let us see "the first few seconds of the interview" at all. It can really spoil the "gotcha!" moment sometimes if you show how you really got there, so he doesn't.

Helfeld's schtick is to expose what he thinks are contradictions in politicians thinking. So with Pelosi, he tries to show that she is inconsistant by paying interns nothing, yet supporting a minimum wage. With Clyburn he tries to show that his opposition to racist hiring and support of afirmative action are contradictory. In both cases Helfeld is wrong, even though Pelosi cannot answer the questions to save her life and Clyburn only does a little better.

Charles Rangel and George Will both do a good job of exposing Helfeld's foolishness, however. And even though Helfeld does the same editing trick with James Woolsey that he does with Stark, Woolsey still is able to make his point clear between his insults, showing that Helfeld is just being dense, whether intentionally or not. Helfeld asks Woolsey what the guiding principle is when deciding when to invade another country. Woolsey tells him there are several principles, not just one, and thinking there can be only one at play is simplistic. So then Helfeld goes for his "money shot" of trying to get Woolsey to "admit" that he does not have "a" principle to guide him. Woolsey, between insults, reiterates that there are several, not just one, but Helfeld packages the interview as an example of "evading" the question. Riiiiiight....

With Stark the game is not to try to show that expanding government debt to try to improve the economy of a nation is mistaken (as some here are arguing), or immoral (as others here are arguing), but that it is a contradiction. He thinks that debt is the opposite of wealth and so increasing debt can never be good for the economy. It is such an idiotic belief that probably after explaining things a few times to Helfeld, he just gave up trying. The Stephanopoulos response would have been the much better choice, especially because it would not give Helfeld idiotic sound bites to play out of context.

Nice try, Grant, but stick to defending the wife-beaters and girlfriend-killers. It's more your strength.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-02-20 7:01:00 AM

JC: "Anyone who calls themselves 'Fact Check' suffers from some sort of psychotic superiority syndrome."

And what should we say about someone who calls himself "JC"? Just this:

Hosanna heysanna sanna sanna ho
Sanna hey sanna Hosanna
Hey JC, JC you're alright by me
Sanna ho sanna hey superstar!

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-02-20 7:03:59 AM

Fact Check,

I disagree that the Pelosi interview was "gotcha" journalism. Her position on her interns making less than minimum wage is that they have some other sort of circumstance where they benefit from the job outside of compensation. However, she is against a private company doing this exact same thing. I think Helfeld makes a good point about if McDonald's jobs were in demand, would it be acceptable for McDonald's to put perspective employees through a 1 month unpaid internship before getting paid.

Posted by: Ken | 2009-02-20 8:36:25 AM


Internships with Congressmen is not just job training. It is a part of their educational programme through a college. Just as students don't get paid to write essays or do math homework, interns do not get paid to do the work they do because it is part of their education. Now I can imagine Mcdonald's having a legitimate internship programme and, in fact, would not be surprised if they already do. (I just did a google search. Unsurprisingly, McDonald's does have real internship programmes.)

But pretending that the first few months of working for them are an "internship" so you can pay them less than the law allows is a very different thing. It is not inconsistant to think working without financial compensation as an intern through a college program is legitimate while working without financial compensation as a job trainee is not. They are very different things. A legally mandated minimum wage might be a very bad idea and it might not be legitimate for any government to impose one, but it is not contradictory to think, on the one hand, there ought to be a minimum wage and, on the other hand, it is ok for interns to work for free.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-02-20 9:41:39 AM

Fact Check, I agree with what you say. But you don't seem to take a position.

Personally, I think people should be able to pay whatever they can get away with for anything. Including labor.

Posted by: TM | 2009-02-20 1:31:19 PM

Logic Chopper:

I don't like Helfeld's interview techniques any more than you do, and I'm not very much impressed with the results. It reminds me too much of the kind of "debates" I have witnessed or been a party to between philosophers or between lawyers - you know, the kind where one side mispeaks, or makes a casual remark that omits obvious qualifiers, or articulates a first-approximation answer that obviously requires reworking or further empirical support, and the other side bashes away at the "mistake" over and over again and refuses to entertain a clarification, retraction, qualification, addendum, or other amendment. It is tiresome.

In fact, the Helfeld technique is quite like your own argumentative technique of being as logically nit-picky and uncharitable as possible with anyone you disagree with, bashing away about "this" not being strictly logically inconsistent with "that" rather than trying to understand what is really going on behind the position and ignoring obviously suppressed empirical premises, and so on, and so on.

OF COURSE preferences in education are not "logically inconsistent" with discrimination in employment. OF COURSE using free labour of interns is not "logically inconsistent" with the minimum wage. OF COURSE debt is not "logically inconsistent" with wealth. But as amateurish as Helfeld's interviewing techniques are, he is not as foolish as you suggest by resting your critique on such platitudes.

Helfeld's technique is to ask for an underlying *principle* that justifies some policy, and then to show that the (perhaps too crudely stated) principle has broader application to cases where the supporter of the policy would not wish it to apply.

So, for example, he asks why it is OK for interns to work for Pelosi for no remuneration, and Pelosi gives him some answers: they get an education [huh!], they get some valuable job experience, etc. He then asks, "Well, if someone wants to get an education in how a fast-food operation works, or wants to get general job experience so he can prove to a future employer that he is a reliable worker, and is willing to work at McDonalds for less than the minimum wage in order to get this education or that job experience, why is that wrong, then?" And that's a good question. And Pelosi has no good answer to it. This does not settle any issue, of course; but it does show that Pelosi is an ignorant, self-righteous blowhard.

Likewise, Helfeld wants to know why increasing government debt is a good thing. Unlike you, I don't know what Stark might have said before the documented interview took place, but his answer in the first few seconds of the video clip is utter nonsense, and Helfeld was quite right to point this out. The most significant thing this video clip demonstrates is that Stark is an arrogant, inarticulate, hot-tempered, ignorant blowhard who thinks he knows it all. And that is a valuable thing to expose; it is valuable to show just how fallible and defective politicians are, how unwothy of being revered. I don't think the point of the video was to settle the substantive issue of whether government debt can ever increase wealth, or under what conditions. If you think that was the point of the video clip, then maybe your underlying assumptions need to be examined.

Wisdom is not a simple matter is deductive logic. If the only tool you have in your toolbox is deductive logic, you will miss the point in virtually all arguments (other than the ontological "proof" of the existence of God).

Posted by: Grant Brown | 2009-02-20 1:55:42 PM

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