Question time

In case you haven't seen the exchange yesterday between President Obama and the entire House Republican Caucus, do yourself a favor, and watch the whole thing (or read it).  An excerpt:

Now, you may not agree with Bob Dole and Howard Baker and Tom — and certainly you don't agree with Tom Daschle on much . . .

(LAUGHTER)

. . . but that's not a radical bunch. But if you were to listen to the debate, and, frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you'd think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot.

(LAUGHTER)

No, I mean, that's how you guys — that's how you guys presented it.

(APPLAUSE)

And so I'm thinking to myself, "Well, how is it that a plan that is pretty centrist . . . "

(LAUGHTER)

No, look, I mean, I'm just saying — I know you guys disagree, but if you look at the facts of this bill, most independent observers would say this is actually what many Republicans — it — it's similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care.

So all I'm saying is we've got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality.

I'm not suggesting that we're going to agree on everything, whether it's on health care or energy or what have you, but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me.

I mean, the fact of the matter is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You've given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you've been telling your constituents is, "This guy's doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America."

And I — I would just say that we have to think about tone.

It's not just on your side, by the way. It's — it's on our side as well. This is part of what's happened in our politics, where we demonize the other side so much that when it comes to actually getting things done, it becomes tough to do.

Mrs. NonSequitur, a lawyer, observed that at moments it felt like lawyer Obama was attempting to get an unreasonable client to see that a settlement of their case cannot in principle mean they get one-hundred percent.

. . . Then the terrorists will win

According to a recent report, Bin Laden has now blamed the US for global warming.  He has called for a boycott of American products.  Since Bin Laden believes in global warming, we must now not believe it, because we must do the opposite of everything Bin Laden does.  (update to follow)

In other news, so to speak, there's this item:

Department of Homeland Security officials told reporters that it could take months to determine the full extent of the damage from what they are calling the worst-ever ad hominem strike on American soil, even as crews worked around the clock to salvage whatever bits of Harris' self-respect they could from the wreckage.

Ok, that's from the Onion.

UPDATE.

As I imagined, this did not take long.

Silly arguments

My favorite line:

Unfortunately, too many of our citizens have lost faith that our biggest institutions -– our corporations, our media, and, yes, our government –- still reflect these same values.  Each of these institutions are full of honorable men and women doing important work that helps our country prosper.  But each time a CEO rewards himself for failure, or a banker puts the rest of us at risk for his own selfish gain, people's doubts grow.  Each time lobbyists game the system or politicians tear each other down instead of lifting this country up, we lose faith.  The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates to silly arguments, big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away.  

No wonder there's so much cynicism out there.  No wonder there's so much disappointment. 

I like the "silly arguments" line, but I'm somewhat wary of the causal claim.  My sense is that people like silly arguments.  Unfortunately.

Political fights

I'm trying to find a charitable interpretation of this comment by George Will on This Week with David Brinkley (via Crooks and Liars):

MORAN: Let's — let's go across the street from the Congress for a moment. There was a historic decision this week out of the Supreme Court of the United States on the First Amendment, the court holding that the campaign finance reform prohibition on corporations and unions using the money from their general funds to support or oppose candidates, that's a violation of free speech. So is this a vindication of the First Amendment, or is this a surrender to the plutocracy?

WILL: Vindication, because the court recognized the obvious, which is that you cannot disseminate political speech without money. And, therefore, to restrict money is to restrict the dissemination of speech. To that end, they have freed up the amount of money that will be spent.

Now, some people are saying, oh, corporations, that means Microsoft will be buying ads. Microsoft's trying to sell software. They're not interested in getting into political fights.

What this really emancipates are nonprofit advocacy corporations such as the Sierra Club. I pick that not at random because the Sierra Club was fined $28,000 in Florida last year for falling afoul of the incomprehensible, that-thick set of regulations on our political speech.

I'd reject the first biconditional.  But I think there's something obviously wrong about the claim that "Microsoft is not interested in getting into political fights."  Well, ok, they're not interested in that as their primary mode of business.  But Microsoft, and oh, I don't know, the Banking Industry or the Oil Industry or the Defense industry are interested in conditions which are politically favorable to them.  That's their business.  Am I missing something?

There once was a union maid

Driving to work at my unionized (no contract at the moment however) government job, I heard a story on NPR about "Cadillac" health care plans and higher wages.  Some unions, you see, have negotiated for themselves some pretty good health benefits.  They did this even though it meant sacrificing higher wages.  They must have done some math somewheres, and figured it's better to have better benefits than higher wages.  One would suppose, in any case, that they did this.  Not NPR, however.  Here is how they framed the story:

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The fate of Congresss health care overhaul is unclear after this weeks election of Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts to the U.S. Senate. One of the major issues thats been holding up the health care bill is how to pay for it. The Senate wants to impose a Cadillac tax. That is a tax on the most expensive health care plans. Executives with gold-plated plans don't like it and neither do labor unions, whose workers have generous plans. But many economists say it could help everyone in the long run. Here are Planet Moneys Chana Joffe-Walt and David Kestenbaum.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Economists on this issue feel lonely, sad and very misunderstood.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Well, yeah, because economists use math and charts to make their arguments. Labor unions use emotion and advertisements featuring sympathetic characters with asthma.

Something tells me there is a chart somewhere in the union argument.  Nonetheless, the interchange that follows is hilarious.  It is a discussion between a union worker and a professor of economics, one who holds an endowed chair.  He, the professor, argues that if AT&T were forced (by the Cadillac tax) to abandon "expensive" health benefits, they would increase wages.  The union maid argued there was no evidence of that particular entailment.  Unable to provide any, the professor changed tactics. 

JOFFE-WALT: And to Valerie, the idea that she should be taxed in the first place is just insulting to her. She has given up wages over the years to get better benefits, great benefits she says she needs.

KESTENBAUM: Steve pauses, and says well, maybe not.

Prof. STEARN: When was the last time you had a medical emergency?

Ms. STANLEY: I went to the ER seven years ago when I broke my arm.

Prof. STEARN: It sounds like you dont need the health benefit plan that you have. On the whole, my guess is youre losing money on your health insurance. You would benefit from having a worse health benefit plan and taking that extra money and getting higher wages.

The sheer dumbness of that argument boggles the mind.  But the amazing thing is that the professor seems not to understand that someone must have done some math and figured generous benefits were better for the workers–even if they weren't necessarily going to have a medical emergency.  Indeed, if one knows anything about family medical costs, incrementally higher wages mean nothing–nothing–in comparison to the costs of one serious (and eventually likely) medical episode.

False trichotomy

I'm puzzled by the point of this David Ignatius piece about the Haitian earthquake.  He rightly condemns Pat Robertson (see here) for having a poor explanation for the earthquake's striking Haiti, but then he does the old columnist trick of finding people with an opposing viewpoint who assert something equally dumb.   They must teach this move in columnist school, because they all at one point or another will do it.  He writes:

An extreme example of this desire to "explain" tragedy was the Rev. Pat Robertson's statement a day after the quake. He said that Haiti had been "cursed" by God because its people "swore a pact to the devil" two centuries ago through voodoo rites.

There are secular versions of this same desire to interpret horrifying events. Looking at the devastation, some observers have seen the effects of Haiti's class system, with poor people suffering disproportionately, as reported by The Post's William Booth ["Haiti's elite spared from much of the devastation," news story, Jan. 18]. Richard Kim blamed harsh international loan policies for Haiti's chronic poverty in a Jan. 15 post on the Nation's Web site.

Other commentators have drawn different lessons. David Brooks faults Haitian culture. "Some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them," he wrote in the New York Times. Anne Applebaum argued in The Post that this was "a man-made disaster" and that the earthquake's impact "was multiplied many, many times by the weakness of civil society and the absence of the rule of law."

There's some truth in all of the secular explanations. But they leave out the most painful and perplexing factor we encounter whenever terrible things happen: bad luck. The same problem arises when catastrophic events befall people we love — a life-threatening disease, say. We look for a rational explanation of why this person got cancer, but his neighbor, who has all the same risk factors, didn't. Often, the most honest answer is: It just happened.

I think the Reverend Robertson meant to point out the cause of the earthquake.  The fellows in the second paragraph highlight things which exacerabated the misfortune of the earthquake.  They don't allege, as the last paragraph asserts, that bad luck played no role in the occurence of the earthquake.  I don't see how they could.

Not even Ignatius, however, believes his own silly but-one-the-other-handing.  For he concludes (after a trip back to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755) by affirming the very same lessons he rejects:

The hero of the Lisbon tale was the man who led the relief efforts, the marquis of Pombal, who served as prime minister under King Joseph I of Portugal. Pombal had no use for the anguishing debate. He famously said: "What now? We bury the dead and feed the living." And he did just that, rapidly disposing of the corpses, seizing stocks of grain to feed the hungry and ordering the militia to halt looting and piracy. Within a year, the city was being restored.

I will think of Pombal as I watch the reconstruction of Haiti. His response to imponderable devastation was to rebuild, boldly and confidently, making sure the new buildings could withstand a future quake.

"Nature has no meaning; its events are not signs," concludes Neiman. Earthquakes are not evil; evil requires intent; it is what human beings do. The response to inexplicable events is not debate but action.

Good for Pombal–he recognizes that the human element (poverty, inequality, corruption, etc.) makes such misfortunes worse–which is nearly exactly what the secular types were saying.

Anyhoo.  I think this is a fairly common form of argument.  It consists in creating an unrepresentative dichotomy (not a false one in the classical fallacy sense), in order to make the case for a third, more reasonable option.  In that sense it does represent a kind of false trichotomy, where strawmanly false extremes imply a kind of third non-extreme way. 

The Devil went down to Haiti

On behalf of Americans everywhere, I apologize and condemn these remarks:

ROBERTSON: [S]omething happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, "We will serve you if you will get us free from the French." True story. And so, the devil said, "OK, it's a deal."

And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. … They need to have and we need to pray for them a great turning to God.

I thought the French were in league with the Devil.

Iroquois Twists

Sorry for the absence–I was on vacation.  To start off another season of The Non Sequitur, here's our favorite pseudo-intellectual, George Will on the constitutionality of health care legislation.  I wonder if we have a case of the slippery slope here:

Although Democrats think their health-care legislation faces smooth sailing to implementation, there is a rock dead ahead — a constitutional challenge to the legislation's core. Democrats who assume it is constitutional to make it mandatory for Americans to purchase health insurance should answer some questions:

Would it be constitutional for the government to legislate compulsory calisthenics for all Americans? If not, why not? If it would be, in what sense does the nation still have constitutional, meaning limited, government?

Supporters of the mandate say Congress can impose the legislation under the enumerated power to regulate interstate commerce. Since the New Deal, courts have made this power capacious enough to include regulating intrastate activity that "substantially affects" interstate commerce. Hence Congress could constitutionally ban racial discrimination in "public accommodations" — restaurants, motels, etc. — as an impediment to interstate commercial activity.

Opponents of the mandate say: Unless the commerce clause is infinitely elastic — in which case, Congress can do anything — it does not authorize Congress to forbid the inactivity of not making a commercial transaction, of not purchasing a product (health insurance) from a private provider.

One reason we might call this a slippery slope is that Will's objection hinges on permissiveness: if we allow activity x, then we will eventually have to allow absurd activity y, as they are fundamentally or in principle no different.  Permitting the one–the (sometimes subsidized) purchase of health insurance) will logically compel us to permit the other (the mandatory practice of morning jumping jacks).  The argument, then, isn't against the current proposal, it's against exercise, which will follow logically from the current proposal.  

Well that's just dumb.  There are lots of arguments against the current lame proposal in Congress.  This is not one of them. 

Straw Obama

Here is an entertaining item from a Washington Post Editorial:

THERE IS, it seems evident, more than enough blame to go around in the botched handling of the botched Christmas bombing. Not for some Republicans. With former vice president Richard B. Cheney in the lead, they have embarked on an ugly course to use the incident to inflict maximum political damage on President Obama. That's bad enough, but their scurrilous line of attack is even worse. The claim that the incident shows the president's fecklessness in the war on terror is unfounded — no matter how often it is repeated.

These critics have set up a straw Obama, a weak and naive leader who allegedly takes terrorism lightly, thinks that playing nicely with terrorists will make them stop, and fails to understand the threat that the United States faces from violent extremists. Mr. Cheney said that the incident had made "clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war." Likewise, Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) called on Mr. Obama to "recognize that we are at war with a murderous enemy who will not relent because we heed political correctness, acquiesce to international calls for deference or close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay." Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano "and the rest of the Obama administration view their role as law enforcement, first responders dealing with the aftermath of an attack. And we believe in a forward-looking approach to stopping these attacks before they happen."

That's an improvement in our public discourse.  They go on to argue, however, that Obama does view the war on terror mainly, though more pragmatically, through the lens of war and violence:

Words first. "Evil does exist in the world," Mr. Obama said in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. "Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms." In his weekly radio speech Saturday, he disposed of the war-vs.-law-enforcement canard, pointing out that in his inaugural address he made it clear that "0ur nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred and that we will do whatever it takes to defeat them and defend our country, even as we uphold the values that have always distinguished America among nations." "

Damning with faint praise.  It's gets more silly, because the Post now praises itself for its tough approach to the Obama administration in the wake of the knickerbomber:

It is possible to disagree with the administration's decision to bring criminal charges against the suspect in the failed airplane bombing, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, although we think that was the proper course. It is possible to fault, as we have, some of the administration's public statements in the immediate aftermath of the attack. And as the president has acknowledged, the incident revealed failures in intelligence and in security screening that must be urgently identified and corrected. The country would benefit from a serious and bipartisan effort in Congress to ensure that the lessons of the Christmas attack are learned. A groundless campaign to portray Mr. Obama as soft on terror can only detract from that effort.

Wondering what statements those are?  Follow that link and you get this:

Finally, it is hardly reassuring to argue, as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano did on ABC's "This Week," that "once the incident occurred, the system worked." The attack was averted because of the luck of a faulty detonator and the quick response of alert passengers. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president has ordered a review into "did the government do everything that it could have with the information that they had?" The answer to that question seems obvious.

Try to appreciate the sheer inanity of that observation–reaffirmed again a week later: Napolitano argued that <BOLD>ONCE</BOLD> the attack happened, the "system worked."  She did not argue (that's not an argument anyway, that's a statement), that the system for preventing attacks of that nature worked.  The Post, unlike Krauthammer the o