Some thoughts on fighting one Paul Ryan-sized duck vs. fighting 100 duck-sized Paul Ryans

March 19, 2013

It is, delightfully, becoming commonplace for pundits, policymakers and politicians to participate in "Ask me Anything" interviews on Reddit.com. Even more delightfully, it's becoming commonplace for them to get questions like this one, directed at Gene Sperling, the director of the National Economics Council:

One horse-sized Bob Woodward or 100 duck-sized Woodwards?

Here's how Reddit phrased the same question to Jonathan Chait, of New York Magazine:

Would you rather fight one Paul Ryan-sized duck or 100 duck-sized Paul Ryans?

These questions are a spin on a Reddit tradition of asking participants in the "Ask Me Anythings" whether they'd prefer to fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses. But in bringing this query into the world of political feuds, Reddit has undermined the perfect balance of the question.

Rick Bowmer - AP (duck); Marco Grob - TIME (Ryan); Dylan Matthews - loving Photoshop.
Rick Bowmer - AP (duck); Marco Grob - TIME (Ryan); Dylan Matthews - loving Photoshop.

Crucial to considering whether to fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck is that a duck is different than a horse. The duck stands upright and has wings. If it were the size of a horse, that wingspan would be tremendous, as this analysis proves. One swipe would likely be sufficient to knock a grown man cold. The horses, meanwhile, are largely confined to running around on all fours, substantially limiting their modes of attack.

The problem with the scenario posed to Sperling is that Bob Woodward is the same as Bob Woodward. A horse-sized Bob Woodward -- and what do we mean by that, exactly? -- is presumably larger and stronger than the duck-sized Bob Woodwards, but all of them have the same basic attributes.

Worse, the answer is much too obvious: Of course you'd prefer to fight the single horse-sized reporter. A duck is about 24 inches tall. The 100 Woodwards amount to 200 vertical feet of opponent. And, since we're assuming they have the attributes of the full man, they can plan, and they can gang up on you, and they can grab you with their arms, and they can climb on your legs, and they can trip you, and soon enough you're on the ground and being mauled by far too many lilliputian budget wonks to fight off.

Meanwhile, the analysis is, if anything, even more lopsided when given the choice between the Ryan-sized duck or the 100 duck-sized Ryans. As mentioned above, 100 duck-sized humans are vastly more dangerous than 100 duck-sized horses. Moreover, a Ryan-sized duck is presumably far smaller and weaker than a horse-sized duck. So this formulation takes the question and makes the large opponent smaller and the small opponents far deadlier. If the initial question is a hard one, and it is, then this question should be an easy one.

A better question is whether you'd prefer to be threatened by one horse-sized Gene Sperling or mocked by 100 duck-sized Jonathan Chaits.

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Ezra Klein · March 19, 2013