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. 

7 thoughts on “Posts blog posts”

  1. Strikes me as a form of false dilemma: either oversight solves all the problems with smart people trying to bend the rules, or oversight does nothing worthwhile.   One might call it ‘the perfectionist’s dilemma’, which runs that either X is a perfect fit or X is worthless. (One then turns to how X is not perfect… considering how X isn’t worthless defeats one’s purposes, you know)

    Surely anyone who knows conservative thought (one regular premise: you can’t change human dispositions to self-interest) would think that market oversight is a good idea, since the natural selfishness of individuals would be a positive worry for anyone looking for a fair market.    Regulation, though a burden, surely is something that makes markets more perspicuous, more trustworthy, and more likely to determine accountability in cases of failure.  Markets with these properties are ones that really encourage contributions and those willing take risks. 

    But there is one rhetorical move that shouldn’t go without comment (and some indignation):

     “But you can’t blame the mess on either political party — at least not if you want to remain honest.”

    Why is this something that one can’t point a finger squarely at a Republican administration and ask why there hasn’t been more oversight?  Did the Democrats have a shadow Treasury Department or a second string Justice Department to  do backup research?   Is there a Democratically appointed Securities and Exchange Commission to run parallel with the one appointed by the Republicans? Sure, to concede the ancillary point Mallabe makes, even if the laws were enforced, there would still be people breaking them…. But it’d be better if, well… someone bothered to enforce the laws or at least do the math to check whether the bank sheets were black or red with the mortgage securities.  What Democrat, really, could have made sure to enforce this?  Really, I’m being honest… which  one?   Unless the Democrats bear equal responsibility for not holding up Chris Cox’s appointment to the chair of the SEC as the Republican administration has for appointing him, then I do not understand how a party not in the position of enforcement (the executive branch) bears equal responsibility.  Really.  Mallabe, here, has bluffed (the implication is: if you object, it’s because you’re dishonest), but once you call the bluff, you’ll find his hand is more like a foot.  Who’s dishonest, now? 

    I have to say, I’ve had it with Conserva-publican hacks. 

  2. Hi Aikin,

    Mallaby has always had a contrarian streak–sometimes in fact it seems to me that this pretty much sums up what he writes.  He’s not going to side with either McCain or Obama, so he’s going to gin up some pretty silly reasons to play “false equivalence.”  Only this time false equivalences has him rejecting “rational” regulation.  Sheer craziness.  Someone ought to tell these guys they don’t need to be objective, there’s no obligation to balance the critique of one party with that of another.  Doing so does not, as you point out, demonstrate your fair-mindedness.

  3. John,

    I’ve calmed down a bit since last night, but I have to say the charge of dishonesty threatened against any of those who disagree is one of the most infuriating rhetorical moves.  It’s a special form of well-poisoning, where one undermines even *potential opponents.  It has a two-pronged attack on objectors:

    1. The implication is that one can object against one side of the debate only if one suppresses some very obvious evidence.  Mallaby here seems to be acting as  though there are facts that all who know better would know that Dems are as bad at enforcing the law as Rep’s… or that Dems have recently contributed to the undermining of enforcement as eggregiously as the Reps.  But this is a far from obvious (or true) proposition.

    2. The dishonesty charge further implicates objectors, instead of being in pursuit of truth, of being in a cynical game of painting the other side as badly as possible purely for political gain.  Holding people accountable is less a matter of justice than a matter of exercising power.  As a consequence, these people are manipulators instead of investigators.  It’s a form of ad hominem attack that strikes at the heart of our care for truth — if you disagree, it’s because you’re more interested in making a display of disagreement for the sake of a power grab than you are in the truth.  It is a move made by those expressly avoiding any scrutiny.

    Viewing things through a theoretical lens here has been therapeutic.  I’m not nearly as angry, but I’m clearer about what made me so.

  4. Well Scott, I think you point out something I’ve long complained about here–this is why we can’t have nice things.

  5. I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about Mallaby’s latest article Blaming Deregulation, in which Mallaby argues more clearly why deregulation is not to be the center target of the blame game.  I think what Mallaby argues is that, since Obama seems to mostly focus on the need for more regulation, he undermines the market, and somehow this equates a subsequent inability by a “President Obama” to deal with what Mallaby calls the real source of the problem, Greenspan’s standing aside as asset inflation rates were on the rise.  Am I missing something or does it not follow?

  6. Hi Jessica,

    Mallaby often appears to have this contrarian streak: I’m smarter than everyone and I’ll show it by arguing against the conventional wisdom.  But contrarianism such as this can sometimes be forced.  When things are forced, one gets straw men and assorted other problems. 

    Perhaps the issue is what “regulation” means.  It doesn’t strike me that Obama is committed merely to regulation in the narrow sense, as Mallaby suggests.  But more importantly, Mallaby claims that Obama must be committed in the future to maintaining only regulatory measures because he has for now blamed deregulation for the current financial crisis.   I think you’re right.  That just doesn’t follow. 

    Aside from this, he seems to insist throughout that regulation of a different kind–the kind from the Fed–is responsible. 

    But John McCain and I both share a marked inadequacy in matters of economics, so caveat lector.

  7. John Dewey called vagueness the “aboriginal logical sin;” I think a great deal of media discussion of the economy validates this assertion.

    [Rant On]

    There seems to be a shared (and false) perspective on both/all sides of the political divide(s) that if

     P = “The market is free”
    ~P = “The market is regulated.”

    If one accepts the above division, then clearly one can only have a free market or a regulated one. But the notion that these two form a pair of contraries or contradictories is nonsense on stilts — nonsense that even Adam Smith recognized 232 years ago.

    In The Wealth of Nations, Smith heaped a considerable volume of criticism and disdain upon merchants, owners, monetarists and the like. He could not explicitly criticize “capitalists,” because the word “capitalism” did not first come into use until some 15+ years after the publication of Wealth; “capitalist” did not appear until even later. Smith’s critiques were all of a kind: these people are not to be trusted because they consistently divert (if not simply mutliate) the normal operation of the market in order to suit their viciously greedy purposes. Government intervention was the only solution to prevent such interference with the legitimate functioning of the market. In other words, Smith was saying that a free market required a measure of regulation. Current events seem to bear this conclusion out.

    Along these same lines, we have empirical and irrefutable evidence that capitalism and market economy are not the same things. We have examples of market socialisms — Sweden, for instance — and non-market (“command”) capitalisms — Nazi Germany, and the United States to the extent that oligarchic and monopolistic systems favoring the holders of wealth determine prices and availability of goods and services.

    Some regulations work against the interests of capital, but that does not mean they work against the free functioning of the market. As another example, consider the functioning of those “regulations” (i.e., law and law enforcement) that dissuade armed gangs of thugs from ruling your neighborhood. “Freedom” is not the same as “anarchy,” “rule by force,” or “nature red in tooth and claw.” So by the same token, a genuinely free market is NOT one that is governed by unfettered brute force, greed and self-serving savagery. Such brute force invariably lies in the hands of those with wealth and capital and excludes the majority of those who must suffer its consequences. A free market is one in which all persons — not just those with wealth and power — are able to freely exercise their rational and informed choices in marketable and marketed ways, in a fullsome determination of prices and availability of goods and services.

    I submit that, as logicians, one of the services we need to render is insisting on the clarification and disambiguation of such politically loaded economic terms.

    [Rant Off]

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