Debunking Charlie Kirk

Charlie Kirk has been one of the most vocal supporters of President Trump online and on camera. His appearances on Fox News and his cheerleading tweets echo the libertarian philosophy of his Turning Point USA group whose goal is to convince college students they are not getting the truth from their professors. To that end, Turning Point and Kirk put some professors on a McCarthy-style watchlist.

I was put on it for the crime of being against guns on campus.

But Kirk gains ire from people like me not just because of his often inane claims, but because he positions himself so badly. He performs the worst kind of rhetorical fallacies in his appearances and tweets and his organization reproduces them in their legion of memes on Twitter.

He is following a pattern that began when he was in high school.

The legend of Kirk begins in an AP Economics course at Wheeling HS in Wheeling, Illinois in 2012. As described in “How to Debate Your Teacher (and Win!),” young Charlie was incensed at the course’s textbook. As Kirk tells the story, he was so angered, he wrote Breitbart News. They were so impressed they asked him to write an article for and ten days later, on April 26, 2012, the post went live.

That post (and a Fox News appearance on May 21 of that year) began Kirk’s meteoric rise in conservative political circles. And this post begins the pattern of evidence-less claims and logical fallacies now spreading across college campuses. As a writing instructor surely to face more of this kind of composing from students, and to possibly trim the sails of conservative attacks on professors, I think it is imperative to assess this post — Kirk’s urtext.

In his post, Kirk makes a bold claim: if graded as student work, the textbook’s section (perhaps it as a whole) would receive an F. His reasons are supposedly based on academic standards of citation and “objectivity.” As someone who teaches writing, I want to turn back on Kirk his own assessment claim: would what he wrote about the book make a similar grade?

First, while Kirk aims his ire at Krugman in “How to Debate Your Teacher (and Win!),” (9) the book Kirk actually takes to task in his Breitbart post was Krugman’s Macroeconomics for AP, a popular text for AP classes which is adapted from the 2009 book by Krugman and Wells. [A PDF copy of the AP book to which I refer can be found here.]

This is important to point out because Kirk is really leveling his criticism at the wrong people. The textbook authors — notwithstanding their own views — are using as a foundation Krugman’s book, not trying to write their own. [For a non-exhaustive list of books that meet the requirements of AP for this course, see here.]

From the post, the first issue to address is Kirk claim the book’s “sweeping generalizations” about a “consensus” against supply-side economics are not backed by citations. [If he is suggesting that no such citations are available, here is one.] To answer this, let me say Kirk is playing loose with genre conventions. Textbooks are not like other academic materials. They hardly ever cite sources for “general knowledge” about their subject. With that in mind, if a student wrote such lines, they would receive a failing grade because of their lack of credibility. Kirk’s main error is dismissing implicitly the credentials of the authors of the book. This error is hypocritical of Kirk as we shall see later.

What are those credentials? Krugman’s Macroeconomics for AP was written by Drs. Margaret Ray and David Anderson, highly respected experts in their field. Ray teaches at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., while Anderson teaches at Centre College in Danville, KY. Ray has been involved with AP Economics since 1992 and now is the chair of her department at the small, public college that is ranked #17 “regional university in the South.” Among his other credentials, Anderson is an expert witness on the value of life and lost earnings. Their book has gone to several more editions than the second edition Kirk quotes from.

Generally speaking, these experts can make summary statements without attribution like they do in this book. They have the authority to suggest there is a “consensus.” One may disagree with that judgment, but nonetheless it is appropriate. And it is important to note Kirk’s problems with the statement. Along with the lack of citation, he thinks there are “historical, factual, and statistical distortions,” but he provides no evidence for his claim.

In his summary in How to Debate Your Teacher, Kirk suggests one line about Regan is “deceitful”: “In the textbook it stated ‘The Reagan tax cuts did not accelerate economic growth’” (9). In the Turning Point publication, Kirk provides a picture below this line that shows clearly Kirk is distorting the textbook. [In his Breitbart article, he writes: “Referring to economic growth and output, our textbook goes on to state there was ‘no sign of an acceleration in growth after the Reagan tax cuts.’”]

His slice of the quote from both sources makes it seem that the CBO said after the fact that the tax cuts did not grow the economy. In fact, the CBO was only estimating such effects before the tax cuts happened. The cuts were signed into law in August 1981; the CBO estimate was made in March of that year.

The textbook’s full quote reads: “In particular, the supply — side doctrine implies that large tax cuts, such as those implemented by Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, should sharply raise potential output. Yet estimates of potential output by the Congressional Budget Office and others show no sign of an acceleration in growth after the Reagan tax cuts.” I italicized the important phrase.

Second, the claim by the textbook is a factual one, not a philosophical or theoretical one: did the Congressional Budget Office estimate “no sign of an acceleration in growth?” First, Kirk’s “evidence” that the statement is a lie is a string of numbers that does not address the fundamental factual question of what the CBO said.

What did the CBO say? In an analysis of the 1981 Reagan tax cuts available here, the CBO notes first strong qualifications for its claim, then makes its projections: “generally higher inflation and unemployment and less real economic growth than the Administration’s [estimate] over the 1981–1984 period” (xvii). I won’t get into the weeds on how much economic growth the CBO estimates versus how much Reagan did. In fact, the CBO’s “less” signals growth but perhaps at a slower pace which allows the textbook authors to say that there was no “sign of an acceleration in growth.”

The CBO even suggests its analysis could be wrong in favor of Reagan. It also suggests the economy could be worse than its estimate.

On the point, though, we can say the textbook is factually correct in summarizing the CBO position. It seems Kirk is simply misreading and therefore erring in his attack on the CBO.

The question for Kirk, of course, is did the tax cuts grow the economy? While Kirk does provide information from a Cato Institute report, he gets sloppy with numbers. He cites Bureau of Labor Statistics for a 7% unemployment rate in 1980 declining to 5.4% in 1988. According to a BLS chart found here, in 1980 the rate was 7.1 and 5.5 in 1988. Then he suggests with no citation Reagan created 21 million jobs. But the Cato report only notes 17 million. For context, Business Insider says 17 million, a Wall Street Journal article, citing Department of Labor numbers, suggests 16.1 million jobs, and argues, not citing a source, says 15.9 million.

For assessment purposes, the number errors are minor. The difficult work of linking tax cuts to the economic gains laid out in these numbers is not done. As economists will say, it is not as simple as the implication Kirk makes.

With this foundation in mind, Kirk’s makes his main claim: this textbook doesn’t give enough credence or space to his preferred economic theories. That is where he makes his biggest mistake.

To be fair, “supply-side” is mentioned once in the index, in the section Kirk aims his ire at. Art Laffer is mentioned 12 times, mainly on pg. 45 where there is a short summary of the “Laffer curve” and students are asked to chart the curve. And the two economists Kirk praises are not mentioned.

But Kirk’s suggestion that an “objective” textbook would have mentioned these people more is not plausible. First, there is no textbook, syllabus, or lecture free from bias or professional judgment. In fact, they never should be. Kirk’s entire article is premised on a “public education system” built on a foundation of objective thought and a lack of bias or partisanship. This simply is never the case. Textbook authors like syllabus writers select and emphasize some theories and information over others based on their experience, judgment, and course goals (here passing a well-documented test). One certainly can be fair to opposing views, as this book is. But the goal is not to have generic “balance” — equal number of mentions for opposing theories. [On the success long-term of supply-side economics, see here, here, and here. And one of the people “around” when the term was coined says it is no longer useful.]

The claim of objectivity is a rhetorical straw man that allows Kirk to suggest the textbook is deceiving “misinformed and clueless” students by conspiring not to inform them about other theories.

Ironically, this rhetorical move uses the same claim to expertise he dismisses in the textbook authors. Kirk is claiming a “special” knowledge not shared by the mass public and unlike the textbook authors, he isn’t going to withhold any of it.

And with this so-called authority Kirk makes his central claim: this textbook is part of an indoctrination of students to a pedagogical agenda that “demonizes free enterprise while advocating top-down government, deficit spending, and class warfare.” Such “propaganda” forces students to “turn to the government. And that is exactly what the liberals want.” These last lines echo Turning Point’s motto: “big government sucks.”

One should note here Kirk’s generalization about liberals in his Breitbart article is disavowed by “How to Debate Your Teacher (and Win!)”: “This booklet makes several references to liberal teachers and professors. Turning Point USA acknowledges that not all teachers are liberal, and that many teachers who identify as liberal do an excellent job of presenting balanced and fair information in the classroom. Turning Point USA also rejects bias from the conservative point of view.” This disclaimer may be there because Turning Point is a non-profit organization that is supposed to be non-partisan.

And finally, one more rebuttal is needed: the authors of the textbook did not demonize any ideology or advocate as Kirk claims. On Kirk’s claim of promoting “top-down government,” the book warns on pg. 391 of the dangers of “excessive government intervention.” The authors also lay out a very clear picture of the problems with deficit spending on pgs. 300–304, noting that “experts on long-run budget issues view the situation of the United States (and other countries with high public debt, such as Japan and Greece) with alarm” (303).

Kirk’s assessment rests not only on faulty logic and sloppy facts but a lack of substance. His Breitbart article has a strong point of view, but the opinion is not based in much facts or the hard work of making arguments. So without major revision it would be unacceptable by standards of the academy. If he were my student, I might instruct Kirk to visit my office for guidance.

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