Category Archives: hollow man

Iron man versus straw man

Here is serial straw manner George F.Will on Elizabeth Warren, candidate for Senate in Massachussetts:

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. . . . You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Warren is (as William F. Buckley described Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith) a pyromaniac in a field of straw men: She refutes propositions no one asserts. Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context, so all attainments are conditioned by their context. This does not, however, entail a collectivist political agenda.

Such an agenda’s premise is that individualism is a chimera, that any individual’s achievements should be considered entirely derivative from society, so the achievements need not be treated as belonging to the individual. Society is entitled to socialize — i.e., conscript — whatever portion it considers its share. It may, as an optional act of political grace, allow the individual the remainder of what is misleadingly called the individual’s possession.

In large part the straw man diagnosis is purely factual: does arguer A hold position p?  You merely have to go and check (um, editors?  fact checkers?).  Rarely does a serial straw manner such as Will make it so easy.  For Will's favorite straw man version is the hollow man–the variety of the straw man which attacks positions no arguer is alleged to hold.  Here we have Warren's actual words.  Sensisble or not (hey, I think they are and I've been making that argument for years, before it was cool), she is not asserting anything like what Will is saying.  

Worse than this, is the way Will poses the iron man–the egregiously charitable reading of his own team's view–next to the straw man of the other team.  Few in the Republican establishment seem to endorse that part about paying it forward via taxes, or that social infrastructure spending, education spending, etc., serves the purpose of individual striving.

See other commentary here, here, and here.

Grown ups

People acquainted with media narratives know that the "adults" and the "grown ups" and the "serious people" are very often the Republicans, especially when we're talking about entitlements.  Democrats and their union friends, we're often told, are childish or immature for wanting something–public benefits such as medicare and social security–at no cost.  Click here for a funny illustration of that sorry meme

We have something along these lines in this Steve Chapman column from the Chicago Tribune.  The "real world," of course, demands cuts and reforms just like the Republicans want:

After House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled a plan to overhaul Medicare, Democrats announced that despite its minor flaws, it was a brave and thoughtful attempt to grapple with a serious problem that has been ignored for too long.

Just kidding. They said it was the worst thing they've seen since "Sex and the City 2."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Ryan of offering "a path to poverty for America's seniors." Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Ryan's proposal would not reform Medicare but "deform it." The White House faulted Ryan for "placing a greater burden on seniors."

The chief outrage, in their minds, is his proposal to restructure Medicare for Americans currently younger than 55 while keeping the old version for older folks. Instead of guaranteeing a certain set of benefits regardless of cost, the government would pay a fixed premium so recipients could choose their own packages.

The other meme is the "brave" or "courageous" meme.  This one, unfortunately, has even been adopted by Democrats.  On the unity of the virtues theory, however, you can't be stupid and courageous, or wrong and courageous. 

Back to the point.  The "reality" meme usually requires that you show that someone else's plan is unrealistic.  You can do that by carefully demonstrating the shortcomings of their views or their presuppositions, or you can do that by misrepresenting them.  The second is faster.  Here's Chapman again:

I have news for people old enough to be thinking about retirement: Your children may love you, but not enough to be taxed into poverty. Ryan's detractors pretend we can go on enjoying the status quo indefinitely. But it's only a matter of time before we hit a fiscal wall, hard.

There are three basic choices. We can keep on just as we have in the past until the program collapses of its own weight. Or we can restrain costs by letting the federal government ration medical care. Some patients would have to wait months or years for procedures now taken for granted — and some wouldn't get them at all. Death panels, anyone?   

"Ryan's detractors" sure seem stupid, don't they?  There's a reason they don't have a name–they don't exist.  They're hollow men.  Whatever you say about the opposition to Ryan, you'll have to admit that they tried to have a discussion about health insurance reform in light of the problems of rising health care costs, an aging population, and, of course, the limitations of the private insurance model.  Whatever you say about them, you cannot say that they embraced the status quo indefinitely. 

One more thing along these lines.  Notice that Chapman considers three options for reforming medicare: (1) do nothing; (2) death panels; (3) Ryan's plan.  That's a false trichotomy.  It's like a false dichotomy, only you add two unworkable choices rather than just one.  Since (1) and (2) are ridiculous, ergo, ipso fatso, (3) is our only realistic option. 

A courageous adult conversation about the realities of health care systems in the industrialized world, however, would consider many other empirically tested options.  Would it be immature to want that?

Weeds, birds, and reptiles

P.J.O'Rourke, the satirist, writes a satire-filled (April 2nd) op-ed against (of course) urban biking.  Sure, it has some funny lines–funny if you think making fun of misfortune is funny:

Even Dublin, Ireland, has had portions of its streets set aside for bicycles only—surely unnecessary in a country where everyone's car has been repossessed.

Stupid Irish.  And then there are the lines that are funny because of their sheer ignorance:

Bike lane advocates also claim that bicycles are environmentally friendly, producing less pollution and fewer carbon emissions than automobiles. But bicycle riders do a lot of huffing and puffing, exhaling large amounts of CO2. And whether a bicycle rider, after a long bicycle ride, is cleaner than the exhaust of a modern automobile is open to question.

But he really does mean to object (seriously) to urban biking or bike lanes in traffic-dense urban areas.  The most serious point he raises is this:

In fact, bike lanes don't necessarily lessen car travel. A study by the U.K. Department for Transport found that the installation of "cycle facilities" in eight towns and cities resulted in no change in the number of people driving cars. Bike lanes don't even necessarily increase bike riding. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Dutch government spent $945 million on bicycle routes without any discernible effect on how many Dutch rode bicycles.

This is selective.  There are lots of reasons to have bike lanes, such as increasing the safety of bicycle riders.  Besides, if one takes the width of the average bike lane, it doesn't turn a two-lane street into a one-lane street.   Further, bike lanes in very dense parts of New York City (which is what O'Rourke has in mind) are really a small set of bike lanes.  And the alternative to biking there is not driving your personal vehicle (which takes up more space, pollutes more, etc.), but taking public transportation or waking.

 Anyway, dismissing this argument unseriously is merely a set up for his darker purpose:

But maybe there's a darker side to bike-lane advocacy. Political activists of a certain ideological stripe want citizens to have a child-like dependence on government. And it's impossible to feel like a grown-up when you're on a bicycle if you aren't in the Tour de France.

Being dependent on your car is true, grown up freedom.

Satire is fun because it gives you a free pass on sophistries.  For this reason it would be out of order to hit O'Rourke for the slippery slopes, etc. Nonetheless, underneath all of the nastiness he's trying to make a regular argument.  It's just a crappy one.

Speaking of environmentalists and ulterior motives, here's Ayn Rand (courtesy of Crooks and Liars):

Ecology is the war on abundance, fought by the same people who are fighting the war on Poverty. The Ecologists claim that local pollution affects the whole world and threatens the survival of all living species. There is no scientific proof of this claim and none has ever been offered, on the grounds of nothing but arbitrary projections and panic mongering slogans, the ecologists are urging mankind to commit suicide by paralyzing industrial production. Their immediate but not ultimate goal is the destruction of the last remnants of freedoms of capitalism in our mixed economy and the establishment of a global dictatorship. In order to protect our natural environment, this means to enslave mankind on order to protect weeds, birds and reptiles.”

If only that were meant to be satire.

Something had to be done

Richard Cohen, (allegedly) liberal columnist for the Washington Post, writes a column in favor of the Libyan military intervention.  Unfortunately, he's spent enough time around his right-wing counterparts at that paper to believe that making a rhetorical case against his alleged opponents and their alleged views is sufficient for making an affirmative case for his position.

This is oh so tiresome.  To be clear, however, sometimes making a negative case is sufficient, especially when your view is the presumptive one.  For instance, I'm going to continue believing that the Holocaust happened until the denier positively prove that it didn't.  Debunking the denier in this case is sufficient. 

In the case of military intervention, however, especially lately–thinking of Iraq and Afghanistan–the burden of proof is much much higher.  War of this sort has recently proven very costly for little known benefit.  There exist, in other words, very good reasons in the dialectical atmosphere for not going to war.  If, then, you're going to make a case both for military intervention and against all of those good reasons.  It's not enough, in other words, to make a case against a bunch of real or imagined weak views.

Someone ought to tell Richard Cohen this.  He writes:

We heard some of those same sentiments expressed by opponents of U.S. intervention in Libya. I do not liken the situation there to the imminence of the Holocaust, only the startling willingness of good people to mask their cold indifference with appeals to fiscal prudence or something similar. Commentator after commentator, person after person, told me that the United States had no business interfering in Libya — that it needed an exit strategy or permission from Congress, and that if the United States could not intervene everywhere (Newt Gingrich mentioned Zimbabwe, manufacturing a civil war just for the occasion), then we could not intervene anywhere. This, somehow, gets stated as if were a logical principle — do nothing unless you can do everything.

With the possible exclusion of Newt Gingrich, those unnamed people don't count here–even if they were real.  He continues:

Still, a better question is: How much will it cost to save lives? That, after all, is what this operation is all about — the prospect that Moammar Gaddafi was going to settle the score in the most horrific way imaginable. Based on his record and the clear indication that he is crazy, a bloodbath was in prospect. What should the world have done? Nothing? Squeeze Gaddafi with sanctions, seize his Swiss accounts and padlock his son’s London townhouse? None of these measures would have had immediate impact. Sanctions are a slow-working poison. A bullet was needed.

This shocking indifference to the consequences of doing nothing, or doing something so slowly it was effectively nothing, was suddenly in the air — the so-called realist argument. Sadly, the message was coming from the surprisingly cold heart of liberalism. The Nation magazine, the reliable voice of the American left, put it this way: “Given our massive budget deficits and bloated Pentagon spending, never has there been a better time for America to end its role as global policeman in favor of diplomatic and economic multilateralism.” In other words, we gave at the office.

Arguments — good arguments — can be made in opposition to the Libyan intervention. Maybe it will make things worse. Maybe we’ll get bogged down and have to stay for years. Maybe the rebels are the really bad guys.

On the other hand, lives were clearly at stake and something had to be done. The world could not simply shove its hands in its pockets and stand by as some madman had his way with people in his grip — in spirit, a reprise of the Evian conference. The Libyan intervention established a precedent: There is such a thing as the international community and, as inchoate as it may be, it will insist on certain minimum standards even for dictators: Your people are not yours to kill.   

In light of Cohen's support of the Iraq war ("only a fool or possibly a Frenchman. . . "), he really ought to think twice before writing this sort of crap.  The Nation said a lot more than "we gave at the office."  In fact, in the article he cites (or click here), they make another telling point:

Furthermore, as we should have learned from the Iraq War, the use of military force can have all kinds of unintended consequences. We may be going to war to prevent civilian casualties, but even the most prudent use of air power is incapable of doing that. The likelihood of US or coalition forces killing civilians will only increase if Qaddafi’s troops solidify their hold on Tripoli and other cities; urban warfare is notoriously messy. The UN resolution forbids foreign occupation, so what will we do if Qaddafi hangs on and the conflict settles into a grinding civil war, with all its attendant chaos and bloodshed? Mission creep seems to be an inevitable feature of this kind of intervention.

These are at least worthwhile practical considerations–completely ignored by Cohen in his rush to do something.  Cohen here combines all of the worst traits of the overheated pundit–he makes a negative case when he needs an affirmative one, he invents opponents and gives them stupid arguments, and, when confronted with a live argument, he misrepresents its strength.  

And of course, there's the false dichotomy–something's having to be done doesn't entail you've exhausted your non-military options.  Don't people ever learn?

Someone to agree with me

I wish I had a flattering one-idea explanation for the outcome of Tuesday's election, where Republicans took a majority in the house, and made gains in, but did not take, the Senate (weren't they supposed to do that?).  But I know such an explanation would likely be inadequate.  One idea, I think, couldn't explain the entire complex thing.  Not even the one chosen by most political scientists (i.e., the people who study this stuff as a job)–the economy, the economy, the economy–could do the trick. 

But I'm not George Will.  He has studied the data, consulted with the nation's top political scientists and economists, and come to the conclusion that one idea–the idea he blathers about all of the time–happens to the be just the one that explains the election, the desires of the American people, and the failures of "liberalism":

It is amazing the ingenuity Democrats invest in concocting explanations of voter behavior that erase what voters always care about, and this year more than ever – ideas. This election was a nationwide recoil against Barack Obama's idea of unlimited government.

It's just false that Obama believes in "unlimited government" (or anything remotely close to it).  But perhaps few of George Will's devoted readers would likely believe that.  This notion–which pretty much drives the rest of this sorry piece of thinking–forms the basis of George Will's thinking about government, inasmuch as his thinking, to the extent that you can even call it that, is entirely defined by opposition to a fantasy opponent, one who holds beliefs no one really holds, and one who, tellingly, never utters the words he attributes to them.

So he spends the rest of this piece defining this liberal–citing not one thing a liberal in recent years has actually endorsed–but relying on the authority of someone else's hollow man:

Recently, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter decided, as the president has decided, that what liberals need is not better ideas but better marketing of the ones they have: "It's a sign of how poorly liberals market themselves and their ideas that the word 'liberal' is still in disrepute despite the election of the most genuinely liberal president that the political culture of this country will probably allow."

"Despite"? In 2008, Democrats ran as Not George Bush. In 2010, they ran as Democrats. Hence, inescapably, as liberals, or at least as obedient to liberal leaders. Hence Democrats' difficulties.

Responding to Alter, George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux agreed that interest-group liberalism has indeed been leavened by idea-driven liberalism. Which is the problem.

"These ideas," Boudreaux says, "are almost exclusively about how other people should live their lives. These are ideas about how one group of people (the politically successful) should engineer everyone else's contracts, social relations, diets, habits, and even moral sentiments." Liberalism's ideas are "about replacing an unimaginably large multitude of diverse and competing ideas . . . with a relatively paltry set of 'Big Ideas' that are politically selected, centrally imposed, and enforced by government, not by the natural give, take and compromise of the everyday interactions of millions of people."

To most liberals, Alter hardly counts as a representative (hey, let's torture now!).  And besides, Will obviously distorts what Alter meant.  Alter probably meant something like: how can mildly progressive ideas about health care lose to people (just an example) who fear government taking away their medicare (but hey, go read it for yourself–it's a review of a zillion books about liberals).  That point, I think, deserves fairer consideration.

The funny thing about this passage, however, is the bolded part.  Will's assistant found someone else who shares the same hollow man he does in precisely the same way he does: a grand characterization, attributable to no one, full of ad hominem and invective.  And he cites that as evidence for his view.

Fill in the blanks

Dear Readers–been off for a bit, usual excuses.

Writing for the New York Times, Peter Baker alleges that "Obama fills in the GOP's blanks."  Ok, that's the title of the article, but I didn't find anything in the article that made that same decisiive point.  It's an interesting one, because it alleges Obama is a serial hollow manner:

WASHINGTON — In speech after speech lately, President Obama has vowed to oppose a Republican proposal “to cut education by 20 percent,” a reduction that would “eliminate 200,000 children from Head Start programs” and “reduce financial aid for eight million college students.”

Except that strictly speaking, the Republicans have made no such proposal. The expansive but vague Pledge to America produced by House Republicans does promise deep cuts in domestic spending, but it gives no further detail about which programs would be slashed. So Mr. Obama has filled in his own details as if they were in the Republican plan.

Let's say it's the case that there exists no Republican plan to cut spending on education by 20 percent.  Obama's attacking that claim would amount to a hollow man–attacking an argument no one actually makes. 

Not every employment of the hollow man scheme is fallacious, however.  I think this is a good example of a non-fallacious use.  Let's say for the sake of argument that there exists a non specific plan to cut domestic spending (which includes education among other things) "deeply."  In the absence of detail, the critic of this plan is forced to "extrapolate" or as I would say, "infer" which programs would receive cuts (and how much).  

So the critic–Obama in this case–infers.  His move is a fair one, as it asks for clarification of something admittedly vague.  In a direct dialogical exchange, this would be a perfect opportunity for the Republicans to clarify their position.  Near the bottom of the article, the author finds that they do:

That means, the White House said, that the $100 billion cut would amount to a 20 percent reduction in domestic programs, so it is fair to extrapolate the effects on education, Head Start, college aid and other programs. Republicans said they could choose to cut more deeply in some programs while sparing others, so education would not necessarily be cut 20 percent. At the same time, they do not rule it out

So his hollow man, which admittedly is an argument made by no one, turns out not to be illegitimate.  The counter move–logically at least–ought to be a claim that they will not cut education by 20 percent, or that the programs in question will remain in place.  But they havent' (in this article) done that.  They can't even deny that Obama is wrong.  This seems like a perfect use of the hollow man. 

Take this job and shove it

Sitting now on Capitol Hill is a bill, The Paycheck Fairness Act, which aims "to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to provide more effective remedies to victims of discrimination in the payment of wages on the basis of sex, and for other purposes."  Put another way, equal work ought by law to equal equal pay.

Enter AEI Scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, writing in the New York Times op-ed page.  She points out, let's say correctly because this isn't the point, that some women earn more than men:

When these factors are taken into account the gap narrows considerably — in some studies, to the point of vanishing. A recent survey found that young, childless, single urban women earn 8 percent more than their male counterparts, mostly because more of them earn college degrees.

Sounds like great news.  Those women won't need the legal recourse proposed in the bill.  For that reason, I don't see the relevance of this point at all.  So let's call it a red herring.  I also don't see the relevance in some of her other apples-to-oranges points:

Moreover, a 2009 analysis of wage-gap studies commissioned by the Labor Department evaluated more than 50 peer-reviewed papers and concluded that the aggregate wage gap “may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.”

In addition to differences in education and training, the review found that women are more likely than men to leave the workforce to take care of children or older parents. They also tend to value family-friendly workplace policies more than men, and will often accept lower salaries in exchange for more benefits. In fact, there were so many differences in pay-related choices that the researchers were unable to specify a residual effect due to discrimination.

Hurray again for these men and women, but the issue is equal pay for equal work, so this would seem likely not to apply–another red herring.  No one, I think, could honestly say she ought to get paid the same as someone else even though she's not doing equal work. 

Her argument gets worse.  In addition to instances where women make more than men (again, that's great so long as everyone is equally and fairly compensated), the passage of a bill meant to remedy inequality will put an end to debate on the matter:

Some of the bill’s supporters admit that the pay gap is largely explained by women’s choices, but they argue that those choices are skewed by sexist stereotypes and social pressures. Those are interesting and important points, worthy of continued public debate.

The problem is that while the debate proceeds, the bill assumes the answer: it would hold employers liable for the “lingering effects of past discrimination” — “pay disparities” that have been “spread and perpetuated through commerce.” Under the bill, it’s not enough for an employer to guard against intentional discrimination; it also has to police potentially discriminatory assumptions behind market-driven wage disparities that have nothing to do with sexism.

I think the bill assumes the answer to the question of equal pay for equal work.  On those other questions, I'm sure the good folks at the AEI will keep us busy. 

As I conclude here notice one thing–the use of quotes to suggest some kind of ominous future.  Those quotes from from the "findings" portion of the bill.  They're like the hopes and dreams of the bill, in other words.  They hope that making employers actually pay people equally for equal work will have this effect.  They're not alleging that employers must remedy historical wrongs.  They mean they can't continue to do wrong.  To suggest they do is to invent an entirely new and silly argument–a hollow man.   

One final point, as a general rule, dear authors, "picking out quotes" with "dick fingers" is just "wrong." 


Some maintain that arguments are dialogues and such therefore be evaluated as such.  I have my doubts about this view, because so many of the arguments I encounter seem to be monologues, or at least the critical parts of them don't have anything to do with dialoguing with someone who disagrees with you (assuming the back-and-forth exchange is what is meant by "dialogue").  They seem–the critical parts–to be old-fashioned inferences of the inductive variety, or variations thereof.

Here's an example.  Today George Will argues ("superbly" according to some twitterers) that collective action to address an economic crisis is bad.  His argument, such as it is, goes something like this:

1.  During the depression, FDR's NRA attempted  price-fixing as a tool of economic recovery;

2.  One of those charged with overseeing this program admired Mussolini;

3.  Those who attempted to sell goods or services for less than the fixed price were punished  (just like in Cold War Poland);

4.  Today, as in the Great Depression, the government is trying to aid recovery:

Today, as 76 years ago, economic recovery is much on the mind of the government, which is busy as a beaver — sending another $26 billion to public employees, proposing an additional $50 billion for "infrastructure" — as it orchestrates Recovery Summer to an appropriate climax. But at least today's government is agnostic about the proper price for cleaning a suit.  

5.  But, in 1937 the Great Depression got worse:

In 1937, FDR asked in his second inaugural address for "unimagined power" to enforce "proper subordination" of private interests to public authority. The biggest industrial collapse in American history occurred eight years after the stock market crash of 1929, and nearly five years into the New Deal, in . . . 1937.

6.  Therefore:

The NRA lives on, sort of, in this Milton Friedman observation: Pick at random any three letters from the alphabet, put them in any order, and you will have an acronym designating a federal agency we can do without.

That's the best I can do with this argument.  In the first place, Will hasn't done anything to show that price-fixing (or the New Deal) caused the industrial collapse of 1937.  Second, there seems to be no analogy between stimulus spending on teachers, firefighters and police (among others) and arguably misguided price-fixing in the Thirties.  

Now had this been some kind of back and forth of a dialogue, WIll might have anticipated that.  But he didn't.   

Pile on

The other day I talked about this weak and hollow man rich column by Charles Krauthammer.  But there was way more about that column that an attentive undergraduate could have criticized.  Here's another tidbit.  He wrote:

And now the mosque near Ground Zero. The intelligentsia is near unanimous that the only possible grounds for opposition is bigotry toward Muslims. This smug attribution of bigotry to two-thirds of the population hinges on the insistence on a complete lack of connection between Islam and radical Islam, a proposition that dovetails perfectly with the Obama administration's pretense that we are at war with nothing more than "violent extremists" of inscrutable motive and indiscernible belief. Those who reject this as both ridiculous and politically correct (an admitted redundancy) are declared Islamophobes, the ad hominem du jour.

So fine two thirds of the population are against the Ground Zero community center.  What else have two thirds of the people been against?  I wonder.  Let's go back in time:

The reponse?

The "smug attribution of bigotry" to 82 percent of the people.

Letters to the editor

A post or two ago I made the claim that columnists and arguers in general ought to have some lattitude in defining their opponent's argument(s).  One only has 750 or so words, so one can't possibly be expected to provide thorough references.  

The breadth of this lattitude, however, ought to be determined by reality.  This means one ought to use the means available to pin the argument to an actual person or institution whose view is under discussion.  In the days of linkage, this is not very hard: online versions of columns can and often do have links.  When you say something about some person x's view, you can write it as a link ot the place where that person says what you say she says.  Once we have these, then we can discuss the degree to which they are representative of the opposition's case.   

The weird thing about this is that you'd also think in the days of linkage the readers' demands for such precision would increase, not decrease.  I don't have empirical data on this, but I think it's decreased.

Fortunately, an alert reader of the Post noticed just this about Charles Krauthammer's most recent hollow and weak men:

In his Aug. 27 column, Charles Krauthammer offered negative generalizations and accusations about "liberals" — referring to their "promiscuous charges of bigotry" and saying that they give "no credit to the seriousness and substance of the contrary argument" and resort "reflexively to the cheapest race baiting," without citing as an example one statement from any so-called liberal person or organization. Surely with liberals running amok and using such baseless and terrible rhetoric, he could have cited a few examples to better make his case.

He stated also that liberals have lost the debate on every issue he cited in the court of public opinion by often lopsided margins, without citing any polling data. My reading of the polls on the issues he listed is that public opinion is much more nuanced than he acknowledged.

By his polemical, over-the-top attack on liberals in general, Mr. Krauthammer practiced what he condemned — giving no credit to the seriousness and substance of the contrary argument.

Hurray for this reader.  The reader makes another very important observation at the end.  Columnists–right wing ones especially–work dialectically.  They're allegedly trying to convince the unconvinced.  But then again, maybe they're not and maybe that's the entire problem.