Phoning it in

George Will phones it in today with a boiler-plate global warming denying column.

There really isn't anything of interest in the column, though I found myself wondering why it is that the particular argument he recites have any probative relevance to the question of global warming.

The occasion for his cutting and pasting was some remarks by Secretary of Energy Chu on the likely disruption and ultimate disappearance of agriculture in California if global warming continues unchecked.

After blithely ignoring any evidence for Chu's claim, or even (of course) accurately representing them, Will trots out several predictions that proved, it seems, to be false: Global Cooling and Ehrlich's bet about the price of commodities.

Both have not come true, though one wonders whether it is the prediction itself that has failed to come true or the time-frame of the prediction. 

But, even if we assume that both of the underlying claims are false–that the earth was entering a cooling phase in the 1970's and that there will be shortages of non-renewable commodities in the future, what does that tell us about Chu's worries? Neither failure tells us anything about the degree to which we should trust climate science and the consensus around the general theory of anthropogenic climate change. They are essentially irrelevant.(What's the best description of these fallacies? Red Herrings?)

As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

Deniers love to claim that every local short term climate change is advanced as "evidence of man-made global warming," despite the frequent denials by climate scientists that the case rests on local short term climate variations. (Yes, the media often represents climate science this way, but that cannot be taken to be an accurate representaiton of climate science). Nevertheless, it provides a nice straw man for Will to defeat. 

An unstated premise of eco-pessimism is that environmental conditions are, or recently were, optimal. The proclaimed faith of eco-pessimists is weirdly optimistic: These optimal conditions must and can be preserved or restored if government will make us minimize our carbon footprints and if government will "remake" the economy. 

Seems to me that this is not an unstated premise, but a pretty explicit claim–that human life has come to thrive within a tiny window of climate variation and that it will not thrive if dramatic change occurs. This is a nice rhetorical move, but seems to be some sort of straw man as well.

Because of today's economy, another law — call it the Law of Clarifying Calamities — is being (redundantly) confirmed. On graphs tracking public opinion, two lines are moving in tandem and inversely: The sharply rising line charts public concern about the economy, the plunging line follows concern about the environment. A recent Pew Research Center poll asked which of 20 issues should be the government's top priorities. Climate change ranked 20th.

This paragraph just beggars even Will's limited rational capacities! The argument seems to be that  a short term calamity make you less concerned about long term calamities. It would seem to be true: if I break my leg, I will worry more about getting this healed, than lowering my cholesterol. But my elevated cholesterol may still be the thing that kills me in the long term. It isn't clear what Will thinks we should conclude from this, but all of the things I can conceive as possibilities, seem remarkably silly. I suppose that this is some sort of ad populum fallacy.

Real calamities take our minds off hypothetical ones. Besides, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade, or one-third of the span since the global cooling scare.

The last claim–if it is true–might provide some reason to accept Will's cautioning. Perhaps someone can find this assertion here.

Michaeli placet!

I think it's safe to say that many don't get the distinction between a logical problem and a factual one.  A logical problem involves the strength, plausibility, or validity of an inference from one fact to another fact; a factual problem concerns whether a given fact is in fact a fact.  Here's an example (from Marc Ambinder's blog) apropos of yesterday's post:

The Logic Of George Will

His argument:

John McCain probably was eager to return to the Senate as an avatar of bipartisanship, a role he has enjoyed. It is, therefore, a measure of the recklessness of House Democrats that they caused the stimulus debate to revolve around a bill that McCain dismisses as "generational theft."

P1: John McCain enjoyed being bipartisan in the past.

P2: [All people who enjoy things in the past will want to continue doing them in the future.]

C1: Therefore John McCain wanted to continue being bipartisan.

P3: John McCain did not continue being bipartisan.

P4: [Only recklessness by House Democrats could cause John McCain not to be bipartisan.]

C2: Therefore House Democrats are reckless.


There is nothing wrong with Will's logic here (there is almost everywhere else in yesterday's piece–such as his comparing the quantity of money spent on the stimulus with the size of the federal budget twenty five years ago).  The problem with Will's argument is that P1, P2 and C1 are just false

The argument however is something of a topical inference.  A topical inference, on Boethius's definition (cf. De topicis differentiis), rests on an implied maximal proposition.  I'm at a loss for the moment to find in Boethius's text the exact one (there are many of these maximal propositions) which would apply here.  But it seems to me in the first place that this is not, as Ambinder suggests, an enthymeme with P2 as a supressed premise (besides, if it were it would still be valid).  The inference here rests on the notion that McCain is maximally conciliatory such that to scare him away really means something. Here, perhaps, is an appropriate analogy.  Imagine you have a brother who does not enjoy any kind of breakfast comestible, if he eats and enjoys the new one you offer him, it will really say something about that particular food.  That's basically what Will is arguing, but it turns out that your brother likes everything, so your inference, while a good one, fails.

**edited for clarity.  


In honor of Lincoln's birthday, a discussion of logic.  The other day on the Political Animal blog of the Washington Monthly, one of my favorite liberal blogs (it's a good blog, and it features a real philosopher), I encountered the following:

THE GOP MAINSTREAM…. Given the attention of late on the Republican all-tax-cut plans on the Hill, I thought it was pretty obvious what constitutes the GOP "agenda" when it comes to economic stimulus. And yet, John Cole flags this interesting complaint from Real Clear Politics' Jay Cost.

Who's arguing that "tax cuts alone" will solve this problem? Even if some are, is this the median position on the Republican side? Is this the position of the more moderate members of the GOP Senate caucus like Lugar, Voinovich, and Murkowski? How about moderate House Republicans like Kirk, LoBiondo, and Castle? We might count it as bipartisanship if Obama had picked up a few of them, but he didn't.

Cost was referring to a comment President Obama made during his press conference the other night, when he said, "[T]ax cuts alone can't solve all of our economic problems." To Cost, this was a straw-man argument, since it doesn't reflect "the median position on the Republican side."

I guess it depends on the meaning of "median."

In the House, 95% of the Republican caucus — 168 out of 178 — supported an all-tax-cut alternative to a stimulus plan that included spending and tax cuts. In the Senate, 90% of the Republican caucus — 36 out of 40 (with one abstention) — did the exact same thing. We can quibble about where the "median" is, exactly, but with these ratios, there are only so many ways to stretch the definition of the word.

Indeed, Cost's post identified six GOP lawmakers who, he thought, would be likely to reject such an all-tax-cut proposal. Of the six "more moderate members," half voted with their party in support of a plan that wouldn't spend a dime, and would rely exclusively on tax cuts.

What I find especially interesting, though, is that Cost not only wasn't aware of this, but he assumed that even if some Republicans supported this approach, it must be unfair to suggest that such an idea was part of the Republican Party mainstream.

In other words, Republican lawmakers have gone so far around the bend, they're surprising their own supporters.

This raises an interesting question about how one can honestly and fairly represent one's "opponent."  One annoying thing about some op-ed writers and many bloggers is a tendency to use a very general term to refer to their opponent.  "Conservatives," they'll say, "believe x, y, and z."  X, y and z will often turn out to be silly, but perhaps true, of someone who fits in that group.  I find such employment of general terms (they're not generalizations–those involve inferences from the particular to the general) very often inaccurate and for that reason dishonest.  This is especially true of blogging, when one can provide all sorts of evidence about the beliefs of one's opponents.  I think it is also especially true of op-eds, where the bar should be set much higher in that newspapers have editors.  For this reason, I bristle when I read this kind of thing (from none other than George Will):

Certitude of one flavor or another is never entirely out of fashion in Washington. Thirty years ago, some conservatives were certain that their tax cuts would be so stimulative that they would be completely self-financing. Today, some liberals are certain that the spending they favor — on green jobs, infrastructure and everything else — will completely pay for itself. For liberals, "stimulus spending" is a classification that no longer classifies: All spending is, they are certain, necessarily stimulative. 

And some paragraphs later:

Today, again, we are told that "politics" has no place in the debate about the tripartite stimulus legislation, which is partly a stimulus, partly liberalism's agenda of social engineering and partly the beginning of "remaking" the economy. 

Surely a man with an Ivy League education can find it in him to name one representative person who asserts this.

It turns out that such characterizations are straw men–or rather, to be precise, hollow men.  They are hollow because they are so very general.  In the second of the passages above, some liberals might be guilty of wanting to engage in social engineering, but so does everyone, including the author of Statecraft as Soulcraft

There has to be a name for this kind of move.  Its generality suggests straw man, so does it's role in criticism, but I think it might deserve its own special name.  Any suggestion?

Economic Creationism

When the leader of the Republican party insists that government jobs are not really jobs, but something else for which there is no word, and that as a matter of definition only a private employer can "create" a "job," you know you're not going to have a very informative discussion on the relative merits of government spending, not to mention the relative merits of particular spending programs and priorities.  You will spend all of your time instead trying to explain how moronic that distinction is and how irrelevant it is to the matter at hand.  Such inane distractions, however, may constitute a strategy for poisoning the well.  We can't have a serious discussion when the children are running around screaming.

Since I don't know anything about economics, I wonder about the merits of government spending.  Since I wonder about the effectiveness of government, I wonder whether some kinds of spending will be a complete waste.  Lots of economists, however, say that spending is a good idea–and they, real economists, not people with undergraduate degrees in English–claim that spending is appropriate in a time such as this.  Fair enough.  I wonder now what would be a serious rebuttal to this claim.  It is certainly not going to be this set of assertions from the Washington Post's Michael Gerson:

But that creed has now been tested in two areas. First, the new president deferred almost entirely to the Democratic congressional leadership on the initial shape of the stimulus package — which, in turn, was shaped by pent-up Democratic spending appetites instead of by an explainable economic theory. Senate modifications made the legislation marginally more responsible. But Obama's pragmatism, in this case, was a void of creativity, filled by the most aggressively ideological branch of government. And this managed to revive Republican ideological objections to federal overreach. In the new age of pragmatism, all the ideologues seem to be encouraged.

The spending, whatever its particular merits, is the theory.  And saying there is no "explainable economic theory" when (a) there is, and (b) that is the core claim of your argument just begs the question in the most obvious way.  That's what is at issue.

I know a lot of things about which program is better seem to be a matter of taste, not informed or justified opinion, and these sort of assertions just do not help change that impression.  There is, after all, a serious discussion worth having about the economy.  It would be nice if the Washington Post cared enough about its readers to insist that their columnists play along.  Hey Michael, an editor might say, say why there is no explainable economic theory–that's the key issue, after all, and no one can seriously just take your word for it, as you were the former President's speechwriter.

Snow Jobs

Puzzling reflections on the definition of employment from Michael Steele, the new leader of the Republican Party:

STEELE: Well, no — you know, with all due respect to the governor, I understand where he's coming from. Having been a state official, I know what it means to get those dollars when you're in tight times.

But you've got to look at the entire package. You've got to look at what's going to create sustainable jobs.

What this administration is talking about is making work. It is creating work.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But that's a job.

STEELE: No, it's not a job. A job is something that — that a business owner creates. It's going to be long term. What he's creating…

STEPHANOPOULOS: So a job doesn't count if it's a government job?


STEELE: Hold on. No, let me — let me — let me finish. That is a contract. It ends at a certain point, George. You know that. These road projects that we're talking about have an end point.

As a small-business owner, I'm looking to grow my business, expand my business. I want to reach further. I want to be international. I want to be national. It's a whole different perspective on how you create a job versus how you create work. And I'm — either way, the bottom line is…

On the face of it, this is just dumb.  But when one looks in more depth, it's even dumberer.  But first, to be charitable,what Steele means is that private industry (like, say, Blackwater or Raytheon) is uniquely capable of creating sustainable jobs, while the government can only make up short term work.  The only way this makes sense, I think, is to suggest that the stimulus package (anyone want to make jokes about this name?) is an end in itself, rather than a means to the end of stimulating private job sector growth.  Few other than maybe some devout communists, think the government should simply create and sustain all future job growth.  The fact that Steele thinks this shows the extent to which Rush Limbaugh owns his mind.  So even the premise of the charitable version of his remark is silly.

On the face of it, of course, it's silly to make a distinction between work and jobs, as Steele does, with the government creating "work" but not "jobs."  The government creates jobs all of the time by directly making them (e.g., mine–I'm a professor at a state institution), indirectly contracting them with private industry (Blackwater), or indirectly causing them to be created (the people who sell body armor to Blackwater)–and more, of course.  All of those people who use our system of roads, trains, etc., to get their goods to market, for instance, do so with their jobs.

Stimulus package

It struck me the other day in class that the title of this post might be a double entendre.  In any case, here are two funny observations on the definition of stimulus.  First, our great and infallible leader, Barack Obama (it's time that word press updated their spell check, His name still gets marked wrong):

"[Y]ou get the argument, 'Well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill.' What do you think a stimulus is? That's the whole point. No, seriously. That's the point."

And Economist Dean Baker:

"Spending that is not stimulus is like cash that is not money. Spending is stimulus, spending is stimulus. Any spending will generate jobs. It is that simple. … Any reporter who does not understand this fact has no business reporting on the economy."

h/t Media Matters.


Argumentum ad Farkam

If you haven't seen, you should take a look.  It's a kind of one-line news aggregator with one-word commentary: e.g., dumbass: Man insures his honeybees.  Often the observations on the events are hilarious.  But you wouldn't or shouldn't at least consider them serious news commentary.  But when it comes to the stimulus bill, worth something like a trillion dollars, this is the kind of discourse one is treated to.  Thus, Charles Krauthammer:

It's not just pages and pages of special-interest tax breaks, giveaways and protections, one of which would set off a ruinous Smoot-Hawley trade war. It's not just the waste, such as the $88.6 million for new construction for Milwaukee Public Schools, which, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, have shrinking enrollment, 15 vacant schools and, quite logically, no plans for new construction.

It's the essential fraud of rushing through a bill in which the normal rules (committee hearings, finding revenue to pay for the programs) are suspended on the grounds that a national emergency requires an immediate job-creating stimulus — and then throwing into it hundreds of billions that have nothing to do with stimulus, that Congress's own budget office says won't be spent until 2011 and beyond, and that are little more than the back-scratching, special-interest, lobby-driven parochialism that Obama came to Washington to abolish. He said.

Not just to abolish but to create something new — a new politics where the moneyed pork-barreling and corrupt logrolling of the past would give way to a bottom-up, grass-roots participatory democracy. That is what made Obama so dazzling and new. Turns out the "fierce urgency of now" includes $150 million for livestock (and honeybee and farm-raised fish) insurance.

Most of Krauthammer's piece is an argumentum ad Obamam–anything short of Jesus spells failure for the politics of hope, etc.  But the evidence for the old-school hope-crushing ways of Obama (with respect to the stimulus) from (a now suspicious of a fear-mongering government) Krauthammer is a couple of miniscule farkish examples: Honeybee insurance!  

It seems self-evident that there are philosophical differences between the two parties on the nature of the stimulus package–after all, ipse dixit!–and perhaps the readers of the Post could be favored with a discussion of those differences, rather than a series of childish and context-free examples of government waste and feigned disappointment at Obama's not being Jesus.  

Plato on Sophistry

From the Meno:

How could that a mender of old shoes, or patcher up of clothes, who made the shoes or clothes worse than he received them, could not have remained thirty days undetected, and would very soon have starved; whereas during more than forty years, Protagoras was corrupting all Hellas, and sending his disciples from him worse than he received them, and he was never found out. For, if I am not mistaken,-he was about seventy years old at his death, forty of which were spent in the practice of his profession; and during all that time he had a good reputation, which to this day he retains: and not only Protagoras, but many others are well spoken of; some who lived before him, and others who are still living. Now, when you say that they deceived and corrupted the youth, are they to be supposed to have corrupted them consciously or unconsciously? Can those who were deemed by many to be the wisest men of Hellas have been out of their minds?

Made me think of Bill Kristol et alia.

More Argumentum ad Obamam

Richard Cohen jumps on the "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" bandwagon.

Taken individually, the tax problems of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the health and human services secretary-designate, Tom Daschle, don't amount to much. Together, though, they amount to a message: If you are beloved by this administration, you don't necessarily have to play by the rules. Both Geithner and Daschle are good men, but their appointments send the message that Washington's new broom sweeps a bit like the old one.

Which old broom exactly?

 But if the money is going to be offered, why not couple it with demands for reform? After all, without the extra cash, the likelihood is that teachers across the country will be laid off. That gives the president some leverage: Take my money, take my reforms. Maybe a deal could not be done. We won't know. We do know, though, that the teachers unions have an understandable aversion to some reforms. We also know that the unions supported Obama in his campaign. 

But that's not enough. Apparently, the administration apparently is supposed to reform all the sectors of the economy that it is going to fund prior to stimulating the economy. The passage ends with a nice innuendo that the real reason there is no reform tied to these dollars is the support of unions–rather than say the desire to get spending in the economy as quickly as possible (an aim that might be criticized on its own grounds).

 How about extending the school day, maybe for an hour or so? How about extending the school year? How about tinkering with the No Child Left Behind law but insisting that testing — accountability — be maintained? How about doing something about the sad fact that teachers aren't what they used to be? Now that women and minorities have more opportunities in almost every field, the best of them have abandoned teaching. The pay is lousy, and the work can be hard. Can $100 billion do something about that? Could be.

Yes, how about "tinkering" with No Child Left Behind–that's certainly some serious policy suggestions from Cohen–hopefully the administration will jump right on that. This wouldn't seem to be fallacious, but there is something repugnant in Cohen's vague and unsupported analysis here. His criticism seems to be just that we could have some change to education along with stimulus dollars. That's about as substantive as his comments get. 

And I may be wrong about this, but my recollection is that much of this is provided as money to the state, one of which at least is planning on doing some of these things.

An opportunity has been missed. I can appreciate the need to move things quickly and to avoid unnecessary political fights — teachers unions know how to fight — but the explosive energy of "change" is being lost. Hit rewind. It's not too late to get it back.


I’m probably missing something here

Amity Shlaes seems to be the anti-Roosevelt scholar du jour.Today she explains why Roosevelt's economic policy should not be the model for Obama's recovery efforts.

Beginning with an anecdote about the continued economic woes in 1937, she raises the question of the effectiveness of Roosevelt's policies, given that there were still economic problems 4 years after his policies began. But she gives us two reasons for the concern with Roosevelt's economics.

But Roosevelt the economist is unworthy of emulation. His first goal was to reduce unemployment. Of his own great stimulus package, the National Industrial Recovery Act, he said: "The law I have just signed was passed to put people back to work." Here, FDR failed abysmally. In the 1920s, unemployment had averaged below 5 percent. Blundering when they knew better, Herbert Hoover, his Treasury, the Federal Reserve and Congress drove that rate up to 25 percent. Roosevelt pulled unemployment down, but nowhere near enough to claim sustained recovery. From 1933 to 1940, FDR's first two terms, it averaged in the high teens. Even if you add in all the work relief jobs, as some economists do, Roosevelt-era unemployment averages well above 10 percent. That's a level Obama has referred to once or twice — as a nightmare. 

Maybe I'm missing something really important here, but isn't a 30% drop in the unemployment rate a success? Never mind a 120% drop, if you count in work relief? What am I missing here? Is it unreasonable to expect that a stimulus bill of the same magnitude (proportional to GDP) would effect a proportional decrease in unemployment? The numbers that I think I saw the last couple of weeks from the CBO suggested as much. So what is the argument here? That, stimulus spending can make improve things, but perhaps not fix everything? Is that a reason to not emulate Roosevelt? Starting from 25% unemployment and getting it down to 10% cannot be compared to Obama worrying about 10% and presumably spending to decrease it to 6-7%.

This seems to be a version of the argument, if policy x aims to address problem y, and policy x does not fix problem y, then policy x should not be undertaken. This may be a good argument in some cases (where we have a choice between two policies and one will solve y and one won't), or, if it were combined with evidence that some other policy z would better affect problem y. But as it stands it seems a bit bizarre.

But that's not all:

The second goal of the New Deal was to stimulate the private sector. Instead, it supplanted it. To justify their own work, New Dealers attacked not merely those guilty of white-collar crimes but the entire business community — the "princes of property," FDR called them. Washington's policy evolved into a lethal combo of spending and retribution. Never did either U.S. investors or foreigners get a sense that the United States was now open for business. As a result, the Depression lasted half a decade longer than it had to, from 1929 to 1940 rather than, say, 1929 to 1936. The Dow Jones industrial average didn't return to its summer 1929 high until 1954. The monetary shock of the first years of the Depression was immense, but it was this duration that made the Depression Great. 

It's hard to judge this assertion. It isn't really an argument. Rather than justify the claim that the New Deal crowded out the private sector, she suggests that the New Deal was motivated by hostility to the private sector ("went after. . . the entire business community"). Next she asserts that because of this hostility to business, investors did not invest in the US, and so the Depression lasted longer than it would have on some other Deal.

She finds several cautionary tales in the Roosevelt record (short term vs. long term job growth, and possible problems with public investment in utilities), but ultimately the history seems to be less than is needed to support her assertion.

What about spending? The Depression tells us that public works are probably less effective than improving the environment for entrepreneurs and new companies. The president has already put forward a big tax cut for lower earners. He might offer a commensurate one for higher earners. He might expand the tax advantages he is currently offering to companies — wider expensing of losses, for example — and make them permanent. A discussion that permits the word "trillion" might also include the possibility of bringing down U.S. corporate taxes, taxes on interest, dividend and capital gains — again, permanently. The cash that a relatively competitive United States draws from abroad will move the country forward faster than any stimulus.

Economic arguments like this seem to require more than just history to justify the conclusion. It's not clear to me how the depression could tell us what she thinks it tells us, at most we would need to compare it to some other Great Depression in which tax cuts were tried and in which the economy recovered more effectively. It seems to me that the arguments about how to understand the Great Depression ultimately rely on economic theory or hypothesis, more than historical anecdote.

 I'm not sure that I would call this fallacious (though there is a specter of several fallacies haunting the piece). but it seems to me that the history she draws our attention to, at best would illustrate a theoretical view (spending is less effective than tax cuts at stimulus) that she holds on the basis of some other evidence which she has chosen not to make explicit. She suggests however that the historical record provides good reason to hold that theoretical view.