Arnold Kling  

A Self-Help Book

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I was sent a review copy of Innovation You, by Jeff DeGraff. A couple of excerpts:

p. 181,


Ask a family systems therapist what happens when a family member gathers the clan and says, "We have to be honest. Dad is an alcoholic, and if he goes on this way, he's going to die." Do the other family members praise the truth-teller for bravery and honesty? Not usually. Usually, they call the person an ingrate and act as if the only problem is the terrible way that person talks about Dad. They shoot the messenger.

I thought of substituting "government budget" for "Dad" and "Tea Party" (or S&P) for the messenger.

p. 34:


People don't marry when they've found perfection because there is no perfection. They marry when they've found someone they love whose faults they can accept, and who can accept their faults in return.

This did not inspire any political or economic analogy. I just liked the quote.

Back to p. 181:


Jonas Salk...famously said that if you do work that contradicts prevailing ideas, the response from the establishment comes in three stages. First, they say you're wrong. If you keep going, they say you're immoral. And if you still keep going, they take credit for your work. That's why I tell innovators who tell me they're hitting resistance: Well, sure! What did you expect? You say members of the organization are suddenly being mean to you. You're the one traumatizing them!

When I was pushing innovative projects at Freddie Mac, I would say cynically that the last phase of the effort to convince the company to try something new was "handing the project over to the credit-takers." The aphorism attributed to Salk reminds me of that.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
steve writes:

I would say this depends on the company. In the 90's if you worked for a small software startup and you had a half-baked plausible idea that could arguably be disruptive. The company ran to the VC's who showered money on them.

What you describe sounds more like a large beuracracy. It is not clear to me which approach results in more wasted money and effort.

Wayne writes:
This did not inspire any political or economic analogy. I just liked the quote.

Here's my suggestion: substitute "vote" for "marry" and "prejudices" for "faults".

Sicong Song writes:

Can the Democrats and Republicans act like a family in the best interest of Dad? I am not so sure. It seems that we all know that Dad is an alcoholic, but we just cannot bother to agree on how and when to put him through rehabilitation. Is raising the debt ceiling really the only way to get Dad out of problem? Is that a temporary cure or is that a long term resolution? Would it make more sense to have an independent committee overseeing the government budgets? How about planting more messengers, disregard of their political believes, into the budgetary process and considerations?

N. writes:

Raising the debt ceiling is like giving dad another bottle of Old Crow to stave off the DTs, no?

Tracy W writes:

N. - I don't know where you're going with your analogy, as apparently for an alcoholic going cold-turkey from alcohol can be life-threatening - the human body can become physically dependent on alcohol in a way it doesn't become dependent on drugs like heroin.

jseliger writes:

I wish you would've emphasized that, apart from the excerpts you discussed, the book doesn't have much content. So little, in fact, that I wrote a post about how little it has.

Benjamin writes:

Does anyone know where the original Jonas Salk quote can be found? The closest I can find is on Wikiquotes, which says "There are three stages of truth. First is that it can't be true, and that's what they said. You couldn't immunize against polio with a killed-virus vaccine. Second phase: they say, 'Well, if it's true, it's not very important'. And the third stage is, 'Well, we've known it all along.'"

CharlieH writes:

In this analogy, you seem to equate federal spending with alcohol, in which case the tea party may be viewed as simply a messenger bearing obvious but bad news that dad is an alcoholic who will kill himself if he doesn't change his ways. Never mind the flaws in the analogy that alcohohlics in general must abstain completely, while this tea party doesn't demand abstinence, just keeping the blood-alcohol level below 0.18, where a teatoteler would demand abstinence, not moderation.

But the debt problem isn't just spending, it is the difference between spending and revenues.

Revenues, at 14.4% of GDP, are now 2.5 standard deviations below the mean after WWII. Spending is 2.2 standard deviations above the mean.

Thus without even considering demographics and weighing the benefits of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for dad's longevity and the alternative burden upon the extended family should dear old Dad survive a few years longer than might be expected of an alcoholic, it is hard to take seriously a budget 'hard liner' who says the current problem is strictly one of too much spending, not one of a combination of too much spending and too little revenue.

Off budget, the federal government ran a 1.5% of GDP surplus when temporary tax cuts were enacted ten years ago. While the off-budget balance is still running a 0.4% of GDP surplus this year, common sense dictates that the rest of government would need to generate at least 1.1% of GDP more revenue now than ten years ago to remain in the same balance, since Social Security is now roughly a neutral factor in the budget where it was a positive factor on the revenue side for most of the past 30 years.

We've known since Ronald Reagan raised Social Security taxes that on-budget revenues would have to rise substantially between about 2000 and 2025 if we were to meet that planned obligation of accumulating treasury bonds to keep Social Security solvent to handle a demographic bulge.

Thus, the tea party can only be considered as a messenger bearing honest but difficult news if viewing the deficit strictly from a spending viewpoint, rather than as the difference between spending and revenues. If viewed from a deficit viewpoint, without even considering demographics, social security, medicare & medicaid, it is obvious that revenues are below a sustainable long term level.

With the knowledge that the tea party demands spending be held 10% below its 50 year average at a time when obligations for old age benefits are known to be above their 50 year average and rising, while new revenues are off the table even though revenue is currently approaching 3 sigma below the 50 year mean of 17.7% of GDP, the tea-party member of the family seems like just another substance-abusing member of a disfunctional family, perhaps with a PCP problem rather than dear old dad's alcholism.

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