Category Archives: Sebastian Mallaby

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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. 

Menace 2 society

Sebastian Mallaby takes a stand against all of the Obama-Wright crap up with which the American people have had to put in recent days.  His basic position is that the accusations against Obama are logically incoherent–he's an effete snob who goes to a firebrand's church, for instance.  While we're all for pointing out logical incoherence, such accusations are only incoherent if they're believed by the same person at the same time.  I'd venture to guess that some believe Obama is some kind of Harvard snob, perhaps because some other Harvard types in the media won't shut up about it, while others believe Obama is some kind super left-wing radical.  Nonetheless, for those who repeat all of the conventional wisdom about Obama, Mallaby's piece may be instructive.

We're put off–unfortunately–by his closing analysis.  He writes:

The real character issue, in this campaign as in others, comes down to one thing: Does a candidate have the guts to espouse positions that are not politically expedient? Here there are serious questions about Obama, who pledges to pull out of Iraq no matter what, and who promises both to increase spending and not to raise taxes on anybody making less than $200,000 to $250,000 a year, ensuring the perpetuation of crippling federal deficits. For that matter, there are serious questions about Hillary Clinton, who proposes an irresponsible gas-tax holiday, and about John McCain, who couples gas pandering with a flip-flop on the Bush tax cuts, which he once (correctly) viewed as unaffordable. But these genuine character issues have been shunted aside by the spectacle of Obama's falling-out with his preacher.

After complaining–almost correctly–that we're awash in irrelevant character issues, Mallaby makes policy questions character issues.  Perhaps these candidates really believe the things they're saying about the gas tax, Bush tax cuts, and so on.  If that's the case, then it's not a character issue at all–at least in the sense Mallaby is alleging.  It's a policy question. 

But even if it's a character issue, it's not a very important one.  Politicians take stands they don't entirely endorse all of the time.  It's their job.  The important thing is that they not take stands that they don't believe in and which are folly.  


Maybe writing a column every now and then is harder than it looks.  You first have to find a premise that is thoroughly grounded in conventional wisdom, and then you have to give it an ironic twist that will surprise the person for whom the conventional wisdom is regular wisdom.  That person, call him CW, might for instance, believe that ethanol was the solution to the energy problem: the only one, ever, and it will never be revised, and no new ideas will ever be entertained by anyone at anytime because that idea is awesome.  Or he might believe (at the same time) that cap-and-trade emissions policies were the complete awesome solution, with none better ever imaginable.  But, you'll point out, ethanol isn't perfect.  It will alter agriculture in massive ways without producing the kind of solution CW believed.  

But CW will always have the second, won't he? Not so.  Sebastian Mallaby tells us how.

Obama favors a cap-and-trade regime. This is indeed a good idea, and the candidates are right to back it. But a cap-and-trade system is not the silver bullet that advocates sometimes imply. The same is unfortunately true for that other popular cure-all, a carbon tax.

Oh sometimes–cousin of some–where would we be without you?  You're so vague and malleable.  And you'll stick on anything.  For we don't know who these advocates are or when they make these claims.  No matter.  We're busy showing CW how wrong he was to listen to the CW.  

Besides, some–hee hee–might think it stretches credulity to believe that anyone seriously claims that any of the things Mallaby is talking about are "cure-alls."  And just in case you find his premise as thin as April ice, you'll probably also wonder how this applies to Barack Obama, for whom this article is named–"Obama's missing ideas." 

I was wondering that as well.  But then Mallaby explains. 

So it just isn't true that we have all the good ideas we need — at least not on climate change. And it's peculiar that Obama, the brainiac Harvard grad, should dismiss the importance of fresh thinking this way: He is an intellectual, he is beloved by intellectuals, and yet he poses as an anti-intellectual. If he locks up the Democratic nomination and faces off against a brave old airman with little interest in domestic policy, he will want to encourage a debate about ideas. He has the skills to win it.

I can't fathom what Mallaby is talking about.  Who says we have all of the good ideas we need?  Besides, he hasn't in the first place shown or even attempted to show that Obama is "anti-intellectual" or "dismissive" of "fresh-thinking."  He's established–if you can call it that–that Obama "favors" one perhaps fallible approach to the energy issue.  A quick glance at Obama's website, however, will show you that he favors much else as well.

So let's recap.  Some believe incorrectly and exclusively in solutions that few would seriously believe in.  Obama embraces one of those solutions–among others–and so therefore Obama is running as a moron CW believer, not as the Braniac we know he is.

As if it were yesterday

Sometimes it seems like so long ago that we marched off to war in Iraq. For some, that distance has blurred their memory of events. Writing the "grown-ups" or, as it has become known in the blogosphere, the "very serious persons," foreign policy piece, Sebastian Mallaby, professional contrarian, illustrates that very smart looking people can make some really silly arguments:

Clinton's rivals are contemplating history and deriving only a narrow lesson about Bush: Don't trust him when he confronts a Muslim country. But the larger, more durable lesson from Iraq is that wars can be caused by a lack of confrontation. The Iraq invasion happened partly because the world had lost the stomach to confront Saddam Hussein by other means. By 2002, the sanctions on Hussein's regime had been diluted, and there was pressure to weaken them further. Hussein was no longer "in his box," to use the language of the time: If you believed that a resurgent Saddam Hussein presented an intolerable threat, it was worth taking the risk of unseating him by force, sooner rather than later.

Alone among the Democratic candidates, Clinton has the honesty to insist that the case for war was reasonable at the time — even if, with the benefit of hindsight, the invasion has proved disastrous. In sticking to that politically difficult position, Clinton is saying that, despite its awful risks, war can sometimes be the least bad choice. She is not running away from military power, even in a political climate that makes running attractive.

That's not how I remember it. Nonetheless, more annoying that Mallaby's ignorant contextualizing of history ("at the time") is his pointless hypothetical ("If. . . "). The point of history is not to relive it, but to learn from it: one can learn from history because we know what happened. And you can't forget that all of the things said by Bush, et alia, about a resurgent Saddam were false–false in the sense of not being true.

If you believed that they were true, indeed, then you believed that Saddam posed a threat. But you had a false belief. And more than that. Bush's false belief about Saddam was rather less justified than Joe Citizen's: Bush and his war making party had access to facts that made the case for war against Saddam even less justified than it otherwise appeared. Mallaby writes all of this on the manifestly silly premise that any opposition to Bush's policies–foreign or domestic–can only be explained by the silly ad hominem of Bush derangement syndrome.

I suppose it's "deranged" and "immature" to have been right.

At long last, a response

Not often does one see columnists argue openly with each other–especially columnists of the same newspaper. The best they can usually muster is the straw man “some say . . “. That’s why it’s refreshing to read the following from Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post:

>Some say the bank isn’t worth rescuing. My colleague George F. Will asserts that 90 percent of the bank’s loans go to 27 middle-income countries that can get all the development finance they need from private capital markets. But this statistic leaves out the bank’s soft-loan and grant-making arm, which serves countries with gross domestic products of less than $965 per capita. Counting that, just under half of the bank’s money went to poor countries in 2006. The middle-income countries that received the rest of the cash include such places as China and Brazil, which are home to millions of poor people.

>The bank’s critics ought to understand that while capital markets are marvelous things, they can’t be expected to do everything. Private investors won’t provide loans in the midst of a crisis, as the World Bank did during the East Asian meltdown a decade ago. Private investors tend not to finance global public goods — projects that are important for the world but not a priority for any one country. The world needs to curb carbon emissions, for example, but an individual country won’t capture all the benefits of a clean coal plant, since these benefits are shared globally. Because of this “externality” problem, there is a role for the World Bank in subsidizing anti-carbon policies.

We were struck by that same op-ed (for a different reason). Notice two things. Mallaby names his opponent specifically and he provides a link to the original argument (rather than a partial contextless quotation (so often the hoist by your own petard strategy employed by Will) or an unfriendly synopsis). If you have a question about Mallaby’s fairness (which you might) he tells you where to look. It’s almost as if Mallaby were some kind of media critic blogger. Now one can hardly expect the op-ed page to turn into the debate page. But a little awareness of each other seems to be a step in the direction of actual intellectual engagement.

The Hobgoblin

One way easiest ways to appear analytical to scream about inconsistency. Consistency with what, you ask? Doesn’t matter. The fact is, few of us are entirely consistent, so pointing out this fact is as easy as it as banal.

Take today’s op-ed in the Post by Sebastian Mallaby. He charges that the democratic strategy of “bashing” Wal*Mart will backfire, because Wal-Mart saves a lot of people money, and gives a lot of people jobs who could vote for democrats. But at a more basic level, such arguments are “inconsistent.”

He writes:

>Once upon a time, smart Democrats defended globalization, open trade and the companies that thrive within this system. They were wary of tethering themselves to an anti-trade labor movement that represents a dwindling fraction of the electorate. They understood the danger in bashing corporations: Voters don’t hate corporations, because many of them work for one.

This is colossally dumb for a number of reasons. But we’ll point out one of them. Wal-Mart has done much recently to undermine the Democratic Party’s principles and it has taken a decisive stand against a core principle–the right of workers to organize into unions. So perhaps the Democrats whose consistency Mallaby so superficially criticizes have moved back in the direction of their party’s base. Besides, the corporations Dems used to work for (and not alienate) were nothing like the Wal-Mart kind. They were the GM kind–where one could earn enough not to live on welfare.

Of course in some sense this is inconsistent. Democrats have taken money in the past, and some (Bill Clinton) have praised it’s founder as a great American). What their argument is now, however, is another question. One that Mallaby completely ignores in favor of a kind of perverse tu quoque: having supported Wal-Mart in the past somehow invalidates any present criticism as politically motivated. Besides consistency in the face of evidence to the contrary is the characteristic of another political party.