Back in my day

Maybe we could call this the "grandpa argument": to anyone complaining of a misfortune, you reply by recounting misfortunes much worse.  So if someone says it's hot, tell him about when you forgot to turn on your air conditioning.  When someone says school is hard, tell them about when you went to school and had to run both ways uphill in the snow with bricks.

Robert Samuelson offers us a nice example of this.  He writes:

The specter of depression stalks America. You hear the word repeatedly. Are we in a depression? If not, are we headed for one? The answer to the first question is no; the answer to the second is "almost certainly not." The use of "depression" to describe the economy is a case of rhetorical overkill that speaks volumes about today's widespread pessimism and anxiety. A short history lesson shows why

I haven't heard the word "depression" at all (and my quick and informal Google search did not produce anything serious).  I've certainly heard the word "recession," which is a much different thing.  So who is Samuelson talking about?  He doesn't really say.  And this isn't just a lead in.  He's serious.  He concludes:

We are relearning an old lesson: The business cycle isn't dead. Prosperity's pleasures breed complacency and inspire mistakes that, in time, boomerang on financial markets, job creation and production. Just as expansions ultimately tend to self-destruct, so downswings tend to generate self-correcting forces. People pay down debts; pent-up demand develops; surviving companies expand. The Great Depression was an exception. The present economy would have to get much, much, much worse before it warranted the same appraisal.

So there you have it.  Samuelson has conjured up a non-existent opponent, and soundly defeated him.  Now the funny thing is this.  Normally one makes such arguments in order to defeat much stronger ones–or so goes the strategy of the straw man.  Samuelson, however, doesn't seem to suggest that much.  So, while today may be no Great Depression, it doesn't mean that it's not a "recession" (which is another, more interesting question Samuelson might have spent more time addressing).

6 thoughts on “Back in my day”

  1. AHA! The straw herring rears its ugly head.

    This could also be an example of my own made-up fallacy: the Bushman.

  2. I love the term ‘grandpa argument’.  Though I wonder if there are non-fallacious uses of the argument form.  In essence, I think, it’s an argument from dis-analogy:

    You say X is bad.  But back in my day, our version of X (X*) was very very bad.  Given how bad X* was, it’s inappropriate to call X bad.   (OR: X fails to stand to badness as X* does, so X fails to be bad.)

    This form of argument also is used to deflate positive assessments of X.  Think of the anybody vs Jim Brown arguments as to who was the greatest running back.  (Jim Brown was soooo great, it’s inappropriate to call almost anyone else ‘great’.)

    Surely terms of heavy assessment can be clarified (and misuses corrected) with tese contrasts.  For example, you say you’re starving when you come home from a long day and you missed lunch, but you’re not starving when compared to refugees.   These sorts of cases are surely things we can appeal to when we talk about ‘depressions’ or ‘suffering’ and so on.    As such, grandpa arguments place a heavy burden on those making them to demonstrate both the extremity of their preferred case for assessment and the liminality of the current case.  Samuelson’s case seems on the right track here…, but the problem is that nobody is using the term ‘depression’.    Do we have a name for the fallacy of attacking a non-existent opponent?  Perhaps pmayo’s “straw herring” is about as good as we get. 


  3. Hey Scott–

    I agree with your analysis of the Grandpa argument.  Here, of course, the Grandpa argument is irrelevant, because, as you note, no one is making the claim that we’re in a depression.  Of course, someone is making the claim, what with the blogosphere there’s always someone, but no has seriously made the claim.  Having said that, there might be a good Grandpa case to be made that our current situation isn’t so bad.  Samuelson touches on this, but only in order to show we’re not in a depression.  Had he made the argument that we’re not in a terrible recession, then he would have been on more solid Grandpa ground, I think.

  4. jcasey, so it’s his argument still a straw man fallacy?

    1. Person A has position X.
    2. Person B ignores X and instead presents position Y.
    3. Person B attacks position Y.
    4. Person B draws a conclusion that X is false/incorrect/flawed.

    He does not ignore or distorts anyone’s position. He just argues against a non-existent position. But I see no problem with the actual form. He does not mention recession, he does not imply it either.
    So, like you rightly have pointed out, he’s not using his argument to attack the “recession” argument. Therefore, I can’t see the “twist” of the straw-man fallacy in here.

  5. That picture of the straw man seems right on to me.  And in this case Samuelson isn’t really guilty of it (maybe by implication).  He attacks the wildly wrong argument that no one is making, while leaving the obviously more reasonable positions untouched.  I suppose, as pmayo pointed out about, that that’s a straw herring.

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