Analysis 101: Does the Answer Match the Question?

In my last blog post, I used New York Times columnist Timothy Egan's essay attacking Walmart as a destructive economic force to illustrate a principle of good analysis. After a bit of thought, I decided that it would only be fair to take a look at one of Walmart's counter-argument. (Check out the previous post for links to Egan's editorial and Walmart's cheeky response.)

I promise that this lesson will be shorter than the last one.

Principle of Analysis #2 — Make sure the answer given matches the question posed. 

In response to Egan's claim that "Walmart is a net drain on taxpayers," Walmart retorts that "We are the largest taxpayer in America. Can we see your math?" That's a gutsy claim since Walmart doesn't show it's own math — according to Forbes, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Apple, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan Chase all paid more taxes that Walmart in 2013, so what's the basis for Walmart's claim? How is Walmart defining "taxpayer"? That's the kind of problem I addressed in my previous post and anyone who studied it will know which questions to ask about Walmart's claim there.

But there's a different problem with their answer that I want to address, which is: the answer they gave didn't match the "question" that Egan posed.

Even if Walmart is, by some formulation, the biggest corporate taxpayer in the US, it's still possible for the company to be a net drain on taxpayers. "Paid the most in taxes" and "received more in subsidies than paid in taxes" aren't mutually exclusive. So is Walmart a tax leech? Walmart could've said "no" and showed some math the prove it. Instead, they went for the cheeky answer, offering a statement that makes the company look good — "we pay a lot of taxes" — but they didn't provide evidence that Egan was wrong.

Any politician will tell you that one of the basic rules of debating is "don't answer the question you're asked, answer the question you wish you were asked." That's what Walmart did, essentially. It's a good tactic for the debater but it deprives the audience of the answer they probably wanted to hear.

So the next time you're following a debate and someone gives an answer that seems a little too pat, think hard about whether it actually addresses the question at hand. If it doesn't, the person giving it might be trying to hide something.