Tag Archives: Financial Meltdown

Posts blog posts

I normally don't read the Post's election blog posts primarily because they're blog posts, but this one from Sebastian Mallaby, "Obama's Faulty Logic," caught my eye.  I thought, "perhaps someone has caught Obama in a crazy non sequitur I can talk about here." 

Then I read it and it occured to me that Mallaby thinks logic means something else than I do.  But that's interesting anyway, because I often wonder what people who haven't been teaching it for many years think it is (feel free to comment on that).  When I use the term, I mean something rather specific.  I mean to point out the part of an argument that takes one from one fact to another fact.  This is what logicians call an "inference."  Even though this has to do with the facts in some very important sense, one can isolate the inference and see it as part of a larger pattern, a scheme, or whatever, independent of the particular facts.  To say someone has faulty logic, for me, means he endorses faulty inference patterns or schemes.  

For Mallaby it means something like there's something wrong with the thinking without any specific attempt at a diagnosis.  In this particular case, in fact, he just seems to think Obama has wrongly diagnosed the cause of the current financial crisis.  That's fine–so long as he attempts to prove it (which, to my mind, he doesn't, but that's another matter).  Then Mallaby, swinging about accusations of faulty logic, writes:

The regulation-versus-deregulation rhetoric is appealingly simple, and both parties abuse it. Republicans like to say they will get the economy going by cutting red tape. Democrats like to say that they will make the economy more stable by demanding rational oversight. Neither claim is worth much.

The Republicans fail to acknowledge that the easy economic gains from deregulation were exhausted more than two decades ago, when clearly destructive restrictions on competition in trucking, airlines and so on were scrapped by Carter and Reagan. The Democrats fail to acknowledge that there is a limit to what government oversight can do. Modern financial institutions are so complex that government inspectors are hard pressed to understand their trading strategies. That is why an outfit such as Citigroup, a deposit-taking institution theoretically overseen by multiple government bodies including the Fed, could park billions of dollars of toxic mortgage securities in off-balance-sheet vehicles, with nary a protest from regulators.

Yes, Wall Street's woes reflect greed and reckless borrowing. And yes, some regulatory reform is necessary. But you can't blame the mess on either political party — at least not if you want to remain honest.

It's staggering to say that more rational oversight wouldn't have helped.  But it's silly to say that anyone, even Democrats, would argue that oversight would solve all problems.  That, in fact, is a bit of a George Will style straw man–one which has the liberals demanding that the government will prevent every wrong if it's allowed to.  Obviously some amount of nefarious activity will take place, and unless Obama says that the government will stop every problem, cure every sickness and so on, then Mallaby is making Obama's position more absurd than it needs to be.  

It's fine, in other words, for Mallaby to correct Obama's assertions–that's his job, I think at least.  But accusing him of faulty logic when he's not guilty of it–even in Mallaby's enlarged sense–doesn't help anyone.