Electronic Lynch Mob

A law professor at the University of Chicago wrote a post about what a bad idea increasing the marginal tax rates on couples making more than 250,000 is.  His was an ad misericoridiam (not the fallacious kind by the way) argument: look at me, I'm a potential payer at this rate, I will suffer, so it's not fair for people like me to pay and so forth.  It turns out that he had not cleared with his wife (who rightfully disagreed with his analysis), so he took the post down.  More on that in a second.

Here is some of the original argument.

I, like the president before me, am a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and my wife, like the first lady before her, works at the University of Chicago Hospitals, where she is a doctor who treats children with cancer. Our combined income exceeds the $250,000 threshold for the super rich (but not by that much), and the president plans on raising my taxes. After all, we can afford it, and the world we are now living in has that familiar Marxian tone of those who need take and those who can afford it pay. The problem is, we can’t afford it. Here is why.

The biggest expense for us is financing government. Last year, my wife and I paid nearly $100,000 in federal and state taxes, not even including sales and other taxes. This amount is so high because we can’t afford fancy accountants and lawyers to help us evade taxes and we are penalized by the tax code because we choose to be married and we both work outside the home. (If my wife and I divorced or were never married, the government would write us a check for tens of thousands of dollars. Talk about perverse incentives.)

Our next biggest expense, like most people, is our mortgage. Homes near our work in Chicago aren’t cheap and we do not have friends who were willing to help us finance the deal. We chose to invest in the University community and renovate and old property, but we did so at an inopportune time.

We pay about $15,000 in property taxes, about half of which goes to fund public education in Chicago. Since we care the education of our three children, this means we also have to pay to send them to private school. My wife has school loans of nearly $250,000 and I do too, although becoming a lawyer is significantly cheaper. We try to invest in our retirement by putting some money in the stock market, something that these days sounds like a patriotic act. Our account isn’t worth much, and is worth a lot less than it used to be.

Like most working Americans, insurance, doctors’ bills, utilities, two cars, daycare, groceries, gasoline, cell phones, and cable TV (no movie channels) round out our monthly expenses. We also have someone who cuts our grass, cleans our house, and watches our new baby so we can both work outside the home. At the end of all this, we have less than a few hundred dollars per month of discretionary income. We occasionally eat out but with a baby sitter, these nights take a toll on our budget. Life in America is wonderful, but expensive.  

For a complete refutation of this argument, click here.  Read the whole thing (and the comments).  I'm not interested in this argument. 

What interests me is a subsequent post, where the good professor explains why he took down the post.  Here it is:

The posts that generated an unintended blogocane have been deleted. I stand by the posts, the facts in them, and the points they were making. The reason I took the very unusual step of deleting them is because my wife, who did not approve of my original post and disagrees vehemently with my opinion, did not consent to the publication of personal details about our family. In retrospect, it was a highly effective but incredibly stupid thing to do. The electronic lynch mob that has attacked and harassed me — you should see the emails sent to me personally! — has made my family feel threatened and insecure. We recently had a very early preemie, and this was a quite inopportune time to bring this on my family. For the record, I still think the planned tax increases will negatively impact my family and my country, but that is basically all I should have said. To my wife, my three children, and to anyone who was offended by my remarks, please accept my apologies. To those with pitchforks trying to attack me instead of my message, I feel sorry for you. You have caused untold damage to me personally. I may be wrong, even stupid, but I don’t think I deserved that.

This is worse than the original.  The good professor ought to know that he made himself and his very sorry financial planning skills, understanding of tax law, sense of empathy, and so on, the argument.  To respond to such an argument–which one has a duty an obligation to do if one disagrees (and besides he published it)–one has to go ad hominem.  This going ad hominem is not going ad hominem of the fallacious kind, because the initial position is an ad hominem too.

Let me put this another way.  If I claim that event x will negatively impact me personally, and it turns out that instead the negative impact is due to my own poor decision making, that is completely relevant to whether it will negatively impact me.  I cannot believe this guy cannot appreciate that point.  If you don't want to get attacked personally, don't make ad misericordiam arguments.

14 thoughts on “Electronic Lynch Mob”

  1. John, 
    It might just be self-pity, but what made his family "feel threatened and insecure"?
     In other words, is it possible that while some ad hominems were relevant, while others went to far and were not relevant?

  2. I would bet money — w/o even reading the posts — that some "went too far." Chalk it up to the nature of the internet. But that, by itself, still does not justify the additional ad misericordiam about the family feeling threatened. My "feelings" of entitlement do not mean I'm actually entitled, a point I suspect Herr Professor might agree with.
    And, as noted above, if you're going to call down the thunder, maybe you should accept it with a grain of salt when it arrives.
    In addition, considering his roll as a professor at a high-end law school, perhaps learning some of the basics of critical thinking and recent history (we are, after all, talking about nothing more than a return to the marginal tax rates of the Clinton era) is not such an unreasonable impostion to place on this gentleman's time.

  3. If someone threatened this guy’s safety that person ought to be arrested. If someone called him a d**che then that’s a different story. Hard to think of what other conclusion one could draw from this: “because we care about our children’s education . . . .” I can hear as I write this the voices of the children at the public school across the street whose parents must not care about their education.

  4. Interesting post.  Much appreciated.
    Not to pile on Professor Henderson too much, but . . . .
    He has a new farewell post up today.  In it he writes:
    "I have different ideas about this than many of our readers and my critics, but my motives are the same as theirs. I’ve never made up stuff about them, distorted their arguments, or questioned their good intentions. I would expect the same in return."

    But . . . .
    On February 24, 2010, Professor Henderson wrote a  post entitled “Morons of the world, unite!”:
    “My wife makes me subscribe to the New York Times, and occasionally it is worth it. Take this recent essay by Roger Cohen. It is difficult to get past the faux-intellectual babble — “As it is, everyone’s shrieking their lonesome anger, burrowing deeper into stress, gazing at their own images” — but if you can resist laughing or immolating yourself to escape Cohen’s drivel . . . ”
    One can find more, if one cares to look.
    It's just a train wreck.  And fascinating.

  5. It may be the case that the good prof's arguments have been distorted by some.  This certainly didn't include the majority of the discussion at DeLong's site.  He made himself the issue of his argument; he lost badly because he's a bad example.  He should take his lumps.  I'm embarrassed for his colleagues and his wife on his behalf.

  6. Agreed.  He lost because he's a bad example.
    To expand on that a bit.  He doesn't want his taxes to go up, and yet he and his wife benefit from government spending.   For example:
    – He works for a university which accepts government aid via student loans and research grants.
    – His wife works for a hospital which accepts MediCare.
    – He took student loans which presumably were guarenteed by the Federal government if not partially subsidized.
    – He drives his car on public roads.
    – He benefits from police and firefighter protection.
    It's the impossible position of an extreme Libertarian.  You don't want to pay your taxes, but you gladly accept government benefits.
    The policy position he's arguing for might work if he and his wife lived off the grid.  But he's not willing to do that, it would appear.

  7. Mt.Hood–


    I think the most appalling non-ad-mis argument he made was that his largest expenditure was "funding government."  Seriously.  As was pointed out by DeLong, this is a dishonest trick.  Via his taxes, he funds wars of choice, soldier burials, gravestones, hospitals for soldiers and veterans, oil subsidies, roads, student loans (without which there wouldn't be a student body at UofC), and so on.  One might believe those are unequivocally good expenditures.  That's what your taxes pay for.  It's dishonest to suggest they are his single biggest expenditure.  And they weren't that anyway.

    Good comments over at "Truth on the Market."    

  8. Sorry.  One last thought.
    There are so many problems with Professor Henderson's orignal post and subsequent retreat, but this one stands out to me.  He wrote:
    "[T]he president plans on raising my taxes. After all, we can afford it, and the world we are now living in has that familiar Marxian tone of those who need take and those who can afford it pay. The problem is, we can’t afford it. Here is why."
    He throws out the red meat of "that familiar Marxian tone" and all the ridiculous context it drags up out of the sewer with it, and then he plays the innocent victim card of "why, oh why, did any of you react so forcefully?!"
    It carries the whiff of bona fide personality disorder.  I think that's why this episode has received so much attention.  Professor Henderson represents a type that many have encountered and found so incredibly frustrating.

  9. Mr. Casey,
    Thanks.  Just found your site today.  I appreciate your work.  I'll comb through the archives.

  10. Besides, Mt.Hood, very little of Obama and his Goldman Sachs buddies remotely deserves the adjective "Marxian."  One must truly be living in another reality to make such claims.

  11. "One must truly be living in another reality to make such claims."
    Yes.  Marxist.  Kenyan Anti-Colonialist.  Muslim.  Palling around with terrorists.
    It's mumbo jumbo.  It's lunacy.

  12. I think you probably don’t mean to suggest the impoverished one-percenter is guilty of all of those views.

    The Marxist remark, as I think you noted, is interesting. There’s nothing Marxist in slight increases in marginal tax rates. As a matter of fact, that such tax brackets exist at all (and at the Clinton levels) isn’t anything close to Marxism. There are plenty of non-Marxist arguments for them.

    Now in his defense the poor Prof might have imagined himself to be ranting among friends, and not seriously suggesting himself a victim of Marxism. In that case, he might have said–“look, I was ranting among friends, and not advancing serious arguments aimed at serious people.” That would have been a good excuse, I think. And a sufficient one, to end the problem.

    Instead, he stands by the original argument, its alleged facts and points, and whines that he’s been attacked. How very sad. I’m sorry for his students. What kind of lesson are they learning here?

  13. John,

    No, I didn't mean to impune Professor Todd with the sins of "Kenyan Anti-Colonialist", etc.  I just meant it fits with the recent decent into silly name-calling.

    As to your further point, I agree.  It would have been so easy to difuse the situation with at least an attempt at a true apology — "hey, on second thought, I can see how this may have come across as insensitive . . . ."   Instead, he dug himself a deeper hole.  It was almost savant-like obtuseness.  It was a strange case.

    The key insight I appreciate from your blog, however, is the framing of this started out as an ad hominem argument — he made this argument about himself.  And then he was shocked — Shocked! — to find people responded in kind.

    Here's a great synopsis of his argument Brad DeLong just cross-posted:

    "In this case the argument seems to be that if you don’t have an unlimited budget for luxury trinkets and vacations after buying an extremely expensive house in a good neighborhood in a terrific city and sending your kids to extremely expensive schools, you’re not really rich. I trust that this is self-refuting."


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