Category Archives: Ad hominem circumstantial

New study shows: liberals don’t have conservative economic views

Ron Ross, at The American Spectator, reports that a Zogby International survey "confirms what (he's) long suspected — when it comes to economics, liberals are clueless."  The survey asks respondents to identify themselves on a spectrum from very liberal to very conservative, and then eight questions come.  Ross notes: 

On the basis of eight economic questions, wrong answers correlated consistently with ideology.  Progressive/very liberal respondents got four times more wrong answers than libertarians.

Ross concludes that the survey results "demonstrate a strong connection between economic ignorance and interventionist enthusiasm.  Those who are most determined to interfere with the economy know the least about it."

Well, golly, if there really is a connection between not knowing economics and being a liberal, that'd be a bad thing.  Especially for liberals and their views about economics.  So let's look at all the economics that liberals are so ignorant about.  Here are two of the most telling questions:

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.  (Unenlightened Answer: Disagree)

6. Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited. (Unenlightened Answer: Agree)

The rest of the questions are the usual libertarian talking points (minimum wage laws increase unemployment, licensing professional services causes the price for those services to be raised).  The crazy thing is that question 1 is so vaguely stated that anyone with any sense would ask for clarification: Are the restrictions with regard to where the houses will be built, what kind of houses, or whether they must meet safety codes, and so on? In some cases, those restrictions will drive prices up, and other times, down.  Of course, the survey has the right answer that they do.  Why? Because that's what libertarians believe.

With question 6, I don't see this as a matter of having knowledge of basic economics or any such thing, but more a question of having ethical judgment about what counts as exploitation.  Again, because the right answers are being determined by people who casually use the term "leftist," as a term for anyone who's not a member of the John Birch Society, the right answers will likely be different from, say, any morally developed adult.

None of this would be surprising or irritating if the survey and report did not use terms like "unenlightened" and "wrong" for the answers here.  Now, if the survey were about, say, basic economic knowledge, where there is no reasonable disagreement, then we'd have no problem.  But here we have the simple strategy of polling one's opponents in a disagreement, noting how they have views you reject, casting them as being wrong, and then reporting how often those with whom you disagree are wrong about things that matter.  But, even if liberals are in error, these are not the simple errors that Ross portrays them to be.  These are controversial matters in economics, ones about which intelligent people disagree.  To portray this as a matter of ignorance, as Ross does, is not just a distortion of the debate, it's simple lying.  But Ross is all too happy to run up the score when the deck is stacked:

What we're seeing all too often is "the arrogance of ignorance." Both arrogance and ignorance do enormous damage in the world, but together they are a toxic brew.

Ross's gerrymandered study really only shows that opinions about economics track political self-identification.  That's not news, and certainly not something to make the hay Ross does of it.  There's another toxic brew, in addition to Ross's arrogance and ignorance: it's willful deception and self-righteous indignation.

**Hello Everyone–Welcome Scott Aikin, our newest contributor


You just want to be happy

Today Robert Samuelson, mustachioed captain bringdown of the Washington Post op-ed page, meditates on the obvious fact that people who think they're right about something feel good about being right.  The only thing is that he mistakes this for some kind of profound discovery.  He writes:

Obama's approach was politically necessary. On a simple calculus of benefits, his proposal would have failed. Perhaps 32 million Americans will receive insurance coverage — about 10 percent of the population. Other provisions add somewhat to total beneficiaries. Still, for most Americans, the bill won't do much. It may impose costs: higher taxes, longer waits for appointments. [argument please–eds]

People backed it because they thought it was "the right thing"; it made them feel good about themselves. What they got from the political process are what I call "psychic benefits." Economic benefits aim to make people richer. Psychic benefits strive to make them feel morally upright and superior. But this emphasis often obscures practical realities and qualifications. For example: The uninsured already receive substantial medical care, and it's unclear how much insurance will improve their health. [WTF? –eds.]

Purging moral questions from politics is both impossible and undesirable. But today's tendency to turn every contentious issue into a moral confrontation is divisive. One way of fortifying people's self-esteem is praising them as smart, public-spirited and virtuous. But an easier way is to portray the "other side" as scum: The more scummy "they" are, the more superior "we" are. This logic governs the political conversation of left and right, especially talk radio, cable channels and the blogosphere. [Or it's even easier to portray them as having ulterior psychological motivations about feeling good about themselves-eds.]

I think a country as rich as ours ought to be able to provide health insurance for everyone.  I think this for moral reasons and practical ones.  On the practical front, the total costs, I think, of our current system outweigh the benefits.  The new bill, by the way, wasn't just about the uninsured (and really Samuelson ought to know this)–it was about reforming the insurance you already have (which in many cases barely qualifies as "insurance").  Now, thankfully, if Samuelson develops a new condition–mustache cancer for instance–he can't be "rescinded" (that was the idea, anyway) by his insurance company just because he's sick.  If his kid has a preexisting condition, the Post's insurance policy can't not cover him.  Well, that's the idea anyway. 

Does it make me feel good about myself to have supported such a position?  Maybe.  Did I think it was the correct position to take?  Yes.  That feeling–feeling good about having the right position–is a consequence of my thinking I have the right position, rather than the cause of it. 

But in any case, I think we can all assume for the sake of argument that everyone always wants to feel good about himself.  We can also assume that people want to feel good about themselves for good reason.  The relevant question here is whether people who supported (or opposed) HCR have good reason to feel good about themselves. 

Maybe they do, maybe they don't. 


Too much of our critical political discourse depends on one single virtue: consistency.  This is why Pat Buchanan, a man who writes articles (I am not exaggerating) in praise of Hitler–is a kind of pundit saint.  Since consistency matters, and consistency depends on memory–or rather, detecting someone's inconsistency depends on remembering what she's said in the past, let's have some fun with our favorite son on an economist, Robert Samuelson.  Samuelson, is like the captain bringdown of the Post editorial page.  He's got a droopy mustache, a dour expression, and he poo-poos just about everyone who tries to do something about something–environmentalists are dumb and self-indulgent for buying Priuses!. 

For a while–for those who remember–Samuelson been poo-pooing Obama's "self-indulgence" on health insurance reform.  A more competent rhetorical analyst, by the way, might have fun with the way he always goes ad hominem on Obama–treating his own impoverished and uncharitable image of Obama rather than Obama's stated positions (he even admitted once that this was his own problem).  But it's worthwhile to poke fun at Samuelson's priorities.  Way back before we spent 700 plus billion dollars in Iraq, chasing what turned out to be an easily uncovered deception, here is what Samuelon wrote:

A possible war with Iraq raises many unknowns, but "can we afford it?" is not one of them. People inevitably ask that question, forgetting that the United States has become so wealthy it can wage war almost with pocket change. A war with Iraq would probably cost less than 1 percent of national income (gross domestic product). Americans have grown accustomed to fighting with little economic upset and sacrifice.

Pocket change.  In reflecting on this piece (called "A War We Can Afford") Samuelson wrote:

Yes, that column made big mistakes. The war has cost far more than I (or almost anyone) anticipated. Still, I defend the column's central thesis, which remains relevant today: Budget costs should not shape our Iraq policy. Frankly, I don't know what we should do now. But in considering the various proposals — President Bush's "surge," fewer troops or redeployment of those already there — the costs should be a footnote. We ought to focus mostly on what's best for America's security.

When it comes things that are actually real, on the other hand, Samuelson is skeptical:

When historians recount the momentous events of recent weeks, they will note a curious coincidence. On March 15, Moody's Investors Service — the bond rating agency — published a paper warning that the exploding U.S. government debt could cause a downgrade of Treasury bonds. Just six days later, the House of Representatives passed President Obama's health-care legislation costing $900 billion or so over a decade and worsening an already-bleak budget outlook.

900 billion?  That figure is almost exactly what we've spent in seven years of war.  Weird.  But this time cost is all that matters. 

Qui tacet consentire videtur

It really did not take long for George Will to engage in unwarranted triumphalism over the very selective violation of some scientists' right to engage in private and informal communication about their work.  He writes:

Disclosure of e-mails and documents from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) in Britain — a collaborator with the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — reveals some scientists' willingness to suppress or massage data and rig the peer-review process and the publication of scholarly work. The CRU materials also reveal paranoia on the part of scientists who believe that in trying to engineer "consensus" and alarm about warming, they are a brave and embattled minority. Actually, never in peacetime history has the government-media-academic complex been in such sustained propagandistic lockstep about any subject.

The story basically runs like this.  Some hacker broke into a server, stole, yes, stole a bunch of emails, and published them for the selective misinterpretation of people across the media-opinion complex–which, in this case includes the usual suspects, and, sadly enough, the Daily Show.  The emails show the scientists speaking candidly about their work and their frustration at the phony skepticism they have to answer.  Now comes George WIll, writing that answering phony skepticism (such as his) means one's certainty in one's view is not "unassailable":

The Post learns an odd lesson from the CRU materials: "Climate scientists should not let themselves be goaded by the irresponsibility of the deniers into overstating the certainties of complex science or, worse, censoring discussion of them." These scientists overstated and censored because they were "goaded" by skepticism?

Were their science as unassailable as they insist it is, and were the consensus as broad as they say it is, and were they as brave as they claim to be, they would not be "goaded" into intellectual corruption. Nor would they meretriciously bandy the word "deniers" to disparage skepticism that shocks communicants in the faith-based global warming community.

Skeptics about the shrill certitudes concerning catastrophic man-made warming are skeptical because climate change is constant: From millennia before the Medieval Warm Period (800 to 1300), through the Little Ice Age (1500 to 1850), and for millennia hence, climate change is always a 100 percent certainty. Skeptics doubt that the scientists' models, which cannot explain the present, infallibly map the distant future.

The Financial Times' peculiar response to the CRU materials is: The scientific case for alarm about global warming "is growing more rather than less compelling." If so, then could anything make the case less compelling? A CRU e-mail says: "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment" — this "moment" is in its second decade — "and it is a travesty that we can't."

The travesty is the intellectual arrogance of the authors of climate-change models partially based on the problematic practice of reconstructing long-term prior climate changes. On such models we are supposed to wager trillions of dollars — and substantially diminished freedom. [such as diminished right to privacy–non seq. eds].   

For a discussion of the Post's sloppy handling of the email theft start here (and for more on this particular piece start here).  Briefly, however, no one has been goaded into intellectual corruption–that's the Post's view (which Will confuses with actual fact).

Speaking more broadly, however, it's obvious the scientists who work on this stuff–I mean the ones with bonified credentials–are frustrated by the very vocal and well-funded parade of numbskulls who think the non-geometric certainty of models and of climate science in general entails that the thesis of anthropogenic climate change is all a role of the dice and that any skepticism, even the a prioristic George Will kind, is just as warranted as accumulated empirical research.

Sadly, however, the more detached from even a third-grader's understanding of the scientific method Will becomes, the more pressing he makes his case that any critique of him amounts to an apparent lack of confidence in the person doing the critiquing.  That strategy, however, is just silly: not answering George Will's silly denialism would no doubt amount to agreeing with it–or as he would put it, qui tacet consentire videtur!

Not just pundits like the cheap shot


Tucked in the last paragraph of an otherwise banal review of Jonathen Foer's Eating Animals we find this gem

He uses the word “atrocities” to describe the cruelties visited upon baby turkeys and chickens and writes that KFC “is arguably the company that has increased the sum total of suffering in the world more than any other in history.” He asserts that “we have let the factory farm replace farming for the same reasons our cultures have relegated minorities to being second-class members of society and kept women under the power of men.” And in another section he talks about “the shame” he felt as an American tourist in Europe when “photos of Abu Ghraib proliferated” and then speaks in the very next sentence about the “shame in being human: the shame of knowing that 20 of the roughly 35 classified species of sea horse worldwide are threatened with extinction because they are killed ‘unintentionally’ in seafood production.”

Anticipating reader objections, Mr. Foer writes that people might say “social-justice movements” have “nothing to do with the situation of the factory farm,” that “human oppression is not animal abuse.” But he adds that in his view we interpret the legacies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez “too narrowly if we assume in advance that they cannot speak against the oppression of the factory farm.”

It’s arguments like this that undermine the many more valid observations in this book, and make readers wonder how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes.

As it stands this isn't an argument,  and so isn't fallacious. But, it seems to me that this move is deployed as a sort of defensive argument to shift the burden of moral justification. It questions the author's moral authority, rather than his argument, with a quasi ad hominem circumstantial fallacy wapped in a slice of accusation of hypocrisy. Although it doesn't assert that Foer's conclusion that we should end the massive vicious violence of our current systems of meat "production" is false, it certainly suggests that Foer is, at least, suspect for wanting to make such an assertion. It's about as cheap an argument as you can squeeze into a book review.

Of course, if we allow this move in this discourse, then it seems to me that it can be used about caring about anything–I certainly wonder how this author "can expend so much energy and caring on reading books, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year."

Insofar as it is an argument, it seems to rest on some sort of premise such as that "animal suffering can matter only if human suffering is abolished." This seems likely false to me and seems to miss Foer's point which seems relatively benign–that we should not assume that social justice discourse does not have anything to say about how we treat animals, or that there are similarities between how we degrade human beings and how we treat animals.

My distortions are your fault

There was a time when a young Robert Samuelson insisted that cost should not count if something like an invasion of Iraq was necessary. He wrote:

A possible war with Iraq raises many unknowns, but “can we afford it?” is not one of them. People inevitably ask that question, forgetting that the United States has become so wealthy it can wage war almost with pocket change. A war with Iraq would probably cost less than 1 percent of national income (gross domestic product). Americans have grown accustomed to fighting with little economic upset and sacrifice.

He regretted writing that. Having spent something like a lot of money now on Iraq, one might reasonably ask whether Samuelson should be listened to on matters of cost. I would say not. In any case, so Samuelson makes his argument against health care reform by the well-known device of attacking someone’s motives:

The campaign to pass Obama’s health-care plan has assumed a false, though understandable, cloak of moral superiority. It’s understandable because almost everyone thinks that people in need of essential medical care should get it; ideally, everyone would have health insurance. The pursuit of these worthy goals can easily be projected as a high-minded exercise for the public good.

It’s false for two reasons. First, the country has other goals — including preventing financial crises and minimizing the crushing effects of high deficits or taxes on the economy and younger Americans — that “health-care reform” would jeopardize. And second, the benefits of “reform” are exaggerated. Sure, many Americans would feel less fearful about losing insurance; but there are cheaper ways to limit insecurity. Meanwhile, improvements in health for today’s uninsured would be modest. They already receive substantial medical care. Insurance would help some individuals enormously, but studies find that, on average, gains are moderate. Despite using more health services, people don’t automatically become healthier.

Let me state first that Samuelson isn’t talking here about the specific plan (he does later, but he relies on the Lewin group, an insurance company funded “research” group–so, really, please), he’s talking about the general concept of reform. For anyone with a minimal knowledge of other industrialized nations, who spend at most about half of what he do and get a lot more, this is just an insult. For more on that, see here.

But more basically, Samuelson is doing a bit of straw man–weak man actually–and a bit of ad hominem circumstantial. It’s a weak man because he picks on the weakest of the pro-health reform moral arguments. There are other good moral reasons to support health care reform, and they involve arguments against the very real threat of medical bankruptcy, recision, denial of coverage of pre-existing conditions, and so forth.

The ad hominem accompanies the weak man–so weak are these arguments (which Samuelson has imputed to pro-reform people), that they must rather be dishonest attempts to score political points. Now that’s just a double-wammy. It’s a bit like saying this: “the weak argument I have dishonestly imputed to you is so bad that I question your honesty in making it.”

On the arguments against the specific plan, I’d say Samuelson needs to look beyond anti-reform sources of analysis and information. It’s a fair question whether the current plans being discussed will help, so we ought to have an honest discussion of that. But that perhaps is just hoping for too much.

But let me close by going back to something Samuelson said in defense of his poorly thought-out defense of the Iraq invasion:

But I am certain — now as then — that budget consequences should occupy a minor spot in our debates. It’s not that the costs are unimportant; it’s simply that they’re overshadowed by other considerations that are so much more important. We can pay for whatever’s necessary. If we decide to do less because that’s the most sensible policy, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that any “savings” will rescue us from our long-term budget predicament, which involves the huge costs of federal retirement programs. Just because the war is unpopular doesn’t mean it’s the source of all our problems.

Other considerations that are much more important. Indeed.

I can’t change my mind

Speaking of one of the weirdest op-eds I've ever seen, Bob Somerby (aka the Daily Howler) asks:

For years, we have asked why the professors don’t help us with our floundering discourse. When our journalists fail to serve, who don’t the professors step forward to help? Where are all the professors of logic, with their vast clarification skills? Why don’t the professors step in to straighten our broken logic?

The question is obviously rhetorical, but he continues to ask it, so here's an answer.  John Holbo, at Crooked Timber, is a professor of philosophy, and he has stepped up to the plate (as have many others).  Holbo recently addressed the very kind of argument Somerby was complaining about (here and here).  We talked about that here the other day.  But, just for fun, and because Bob wonders where the professors of logic are, and I'm one of those, let's have a look see at what he was talking about.  

The op-ed in question is by Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Study (I'm not kidding).  She writes:

His administration now agrees with the analysts who argue that only by ensuring that no one games the system can reform be made to work. The mandate serves to ensure that individuals do not buy insurance only when they are ill. Other elements of the reform similarly serve to ensure that neither insurance companies nor employers will game the system. As Paul Krugman has argued in the New York Times, each of these strategies to prevent gaming is necessary to make the whole thing work. The point, though, is that the push for implementation has turned Obama's policies into something other than what he promised.

This change in Obama's position goes a long way toward explaining the objections to the new reforms that are being raised vociferously through grass-roots action by citizens on the right. The issue here is not that these citizens consider Obama untrustworthy — though they do. The issue, rather, is that they recognize that the stated goals and structure of a policy may not fully capture its full range of outcomes in practice. This is why these citizens, including professionally briefed participants such as Sarah Palin, can continue to maintain, in the face of a barrage of insistences to the contrary, that the reforms will (1) result in rationing and (2) establish "death panels."

Gee professor, as others have pointed out (here and here for examples), every one is justified in making the most outlandish slippery slope arguments since it is a fact of nature that the "stated goals and structure of a policy may not fully capture its full range of outcomes in practice."  And no, for the love of Mike, a change in a proposal does not open the door to that inference, as she suggests.  While perhaps not a fact of nature qua nature, I think moderate (or even extreme) changes in the positions one advocates are a normal reaction to the facts on the ground.

Think about this for a second.  Given the professor's argument, no policy maker (or person) can change a position without having her real motives stretched to include the most extreme and unlikely consequence.  So, take heed, policy people, if you change your mind ever so little then Danielle Allen will wonder whether you really want to turn old people into Soylent Green.

You’re just saying that because it’s true

One day someone with more time than me will write about the various forms of meta debate.  By "meta debate" I mean, of course, discussions about the various forms and rules of "debate" (a word I don't like so much) or "discussion." Here's an example of a particularly pernicious form of meta debating (courtesy of Sadly,No!):

Pointing out that both sides engage in the same tactics, and that, in this case, one set of tactics seems to be unrelated to a substantive policy outcome neither presuppose the truth of one side of the debate nor does it presuppose that one side of the debate isn't actually, ultimately, right.  In the same way, it is illogical to assume that because one side distorts the debate far more than the other side, the debate itself ought to turn out in any prescribed way.  When I write things like this, it drives some partisans absolutely crazy. They don't like where the I'm drawing the "truth" line, and instead of reading the judgments that I've made — the Right is appealing to anger and fear and is distorting the debate more — they focus on the link that I won't then make — the link that I have no expertise to make — the link that, if I were to make it, I would be guilty of an offense against democracy — the link between what IS and what OUGHT to be. 

This is not actually that bad of a disclaimer (save for the confused "is-ought" business at the end.  Nonetheless, where this fellow's observations fall on rocky soil (I just heard that phrase the other day) is earlier in the piece.  He writes:

The field of cognitive neuroscience has all but given up trying to distinguish between emotion and reason, but political debate evidently lags far behind the science. Some observers of health care politics, particularly on the left, tend to accuse their opponents of trying to trigger emotional panic points rather than argue dispassionately about the facts. The implication is that the Right doesn't have any facts, so it looks to exploit voters' fears. There is something to be said for this argument, but it's not what proponents would have you believe. In policy debates where the target voter claims an independent identity, the side that's proposing something usually has a set of normative facts, and the side that's against something always appeals to that which most powerfully undercuts a fact. Democrats and Republicans both use emotion, but they use it differently, and use it to achieve different goals. 
The pro-reform side is appealing to emotion, too — albeit a wholly different emotion — the self-satisfaction one feels when one believes one has rationally deliberated something and meaningfully contributed to an important public debate.  This is called a solidary incentive. It's a powerful — and often completely ignored — sentiment, one that the Obama presidential campaign found, capitalized on, and won the election by exploiting.

As an empirical matter, I think this observation is just plain false.  Both "sides" (there are more than two for Pete's sake), appeal to facts.  The screaming Mimis at the town hall meetings (who are largely opposition types) come harmed with "facts" that have produced "emotions" although emotions of a decisively negative kind (relative to the things being proposed).  Let me put that another way: given the facts as they know them, they really hate the proposals.  The degree of their hatred of the proposals does not (for a careful observer) accentuate or diminish the basic factual assertions some of them seem to make.  In other words, they're not wronger or righter because they're screaming.  Maybe they're just jerks for that.  But that's a different question.

The real idiocy here of course consists in the claim that the side whose appeal is primarily factual (in the silly description offered here) is also appealing to emotion–the satisfaction one gets from doing the right thing.  I mean, again, for Pete's sake.  This is the lowest form of ad hominem argument: attacking someone because they're eager to have the correct position.  There's no defense against this.

I don't mean to allege that the screaming Mimi opposition doesn't have the right answer.  I think they think they do.  This author's analysis here is too shallow and too facile to bother with such weighty questions.  Instead, we are treated to the silliest form of meta debate analysis.  Everybody poops.

Would I lie to you?

In the department of distinctions, today we have the following (via Steve Benen):

There are a lot of angry nuts on my side of the aisle [the right].  They simply can’t believe that Barack Obama somehow got elected president and they feel powerless right now.

But here’s the thing:  There’s plenty of crazy to go around.  Remember Bush Derangement Syndrome?  The 9/11 conspiracy theorists who thought Bush and Cheney were in on the whole thing?  The Diebold plot to steal the 2004 election?  Should we judge the Left by the whackos that show up at the anti-trade rallies?  PETA?  Greenpeace?  Of course not.  Almost by definition, the people motivated and available enough to show up in the middle of the day to express their outrage about something are not like you and me.

"Bush Derangement Syndrome" was shorthand (invented by Charles Krauthammer, of all people) for the (fallacious) ad hominem tactic Bush supporters used to malign critics of all things Bush.  So, saying, "Remember Bush Derangement Syndrome" as evidence of the wrongness of your opponent is like saying, "Don't you remember how I used to lie about you, didn't that show you were wrong?"


The Green Hornet

When you have nothing to say against the actual arguments of your opponent–you know, her facts and inferences–you can always psychologize about her motives.  Cue the "you're just saying that because."  This, I think, would properly characterize George Will's response to any argument not his own (at least those which he doesn't straw man).  Today he enlists the help, as he often does, of a couple of fellows who say something he thinks makes his points about environmentalism, and by extension anything "liberal."  He writes:

In "The Green Bubble: Why Environmentalism Keeps Imploding" [the New Republic, May 20], Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of "Break Through: Why We Can't Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists," say that a few years ago, being green "moved beyond politics." Gestures — bringing reusable grocery bags to the store, purchasing a $4 heirloom tomato, inflating tires, weatherizing windows — "gained fresh urgency" and "were suddenly infused with grand significance."

Green consumption became "positional consumption" that identified the consumer as a member of a moral and intellectual elite. A 2007 survey found that 57 percent of Prius purchasers said they bought their car because "it makes a statement about me." Honda, alert to the bull market in status effects, reshaped its 2009 Insight hybrid to look like a Prius.

You can read the original article at the link.  This article doesn't seem interested in the actual realities addressed by "the green movement."  Here's a taste:

Little surprise, then, that they would start buying a whole new class of products to demonstrate their ecological concern. Green consumption became what sociologists call "positional consumption"–consumption that distinguishes one as elite–and few things were more ecopositional than the Toyota Prius, whose advantage over other hybrid cars was its distinctive look. A 2007 survey that appeared in The New York Times found that more Prius owners (57 percent) said they bought the car because it "makes a statement about me" than because of its better gas mileage (36 percent), lower emissions (25 percent), or new technology (7 percent). Prius owners, the Times concluded, "want everyone to know they are driving a hybrid." The status effects were so powerful that, by early 2009, Honda's new Insight Hybrid had been reshaped to look like the triangular Prius.

Of course, for many greens, healing required more than a new kind of consumption, however virtuous. In The New York Times Magazine's 2008 Earth Day issue, Michael Pollan argued that climate change was at bottom a crisis of lifestyle and personal character–"the sum of countless little everyday choices"–and suggested that individual actions, such as planting backyard gardens, might ultimately be more important than government action to repair the environment. Pollan half-acknowledged that growing produce in your backyard was ecologically irrelevant, but "there are sweeter reasons to plant that garden," he wrote. "[Y]ou will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen."

And so forth.  One can always find someone who participates in mass action whose motives are not directly in line with the goals of the mass action.  But hey, that doesn't say much.  Some Nazis, after all, were just in it for the chicks.  That doesn't make their Nazism any less horrible.