With Pith

Ethan Petuchowski

The Tone Makes the Point

Recently, hot-shot investor Paul Graham wrote a piece about economic inequality. This essay provoked a lot of dialogue online. I read the piece, and a few responses to it. I enjoyed the essay, and I found it very persuasive. In fact, I would say my ‘opinion on the matter’ has been changed by reading the essay and its accompanying summary by the author. The responses I read were also very interesting. They were from seemingly center-left-wing individuals like myself, only they were not persuaded by Graham’s arguments.

My point here is not so much to discuss the piece, as the tone of the piece. This piece was written with a tone that raises the hair on the back of the necks of liberals. This may have been unintentional on the part of Graham, …although considering the follow-up discussions of his previous piece on females in tech, may he just likes raising those particular hairs (they’re called “hackles”).

I will now summarize what I took from the essay. Technology increases the potential productivity of people at an exponential rate. Since some people do not become more productive, this correspondingly increases the variability of productivity within the population. Those who are more productive in producing innovative goods are benefitting society. They mainly only are interested in being more productive because of the possibility of getting rich off of it. If we want to help the poor, the problem is not that there are rich people; the problem is that there are poor people. To help the poor, instead of taking away the ability for the productive to get rich, we should help the poor become more productive. This is because economic inequality per se is not the issue, poverty is.

For me, this is, as I’ve mentioned, both convincing and enlightening. But there are two concerns any left-winger is almost certainly going to bring up. First, a lot of people’s wealth is not made by being productive in a way that benefits society; shouldn’t we wage class-war against them? Second, even people who became rich by benefitting society, are likely to abuse their wealth via some form of corruption, so that’s why we should prevent them from getting rich in the first place. After those two arguments, there are a few other popular rebuttals. (E.g.) Third, why should we allow some people to be that much richer than everyone else; something about it seems creepy, therefore it should be prevented.

These are legitimate concerns, they just don’t actually rebut anything Graham was saying. That’s why, if Graham wants to have a legitimate conversation with people who are going to make the above rebuttals, his argument should start by saying that those rebuttals are correct, and then go into how it is still the case that his original arguments are correct. In this way, the hackles are down, and the legitimate points can be heard.

However, maybe Graham wasn’t writing the essay for left-wing people to be convinced. Maybe he was trying to convince right-wing people. If that is true, the essay was pointless, because right-wing people already agree with the opinions he stated. Or maybe he was writing the essay for maximum “virality” to increase his fame and international mindshare. In that case, I’m not a good judge of effective argument technique.