Tag Archives: hollow man

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.   

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. 


It's Saturday Morning, and it's farmers' market season, so it seems right we have post about food.  The other day the times ran an op-ed by Stephen Budiansky, otherwise known as the blogger Liberal Curmudgeon (not, by the way, THE liberal curmudgeon, who is someone else), on the virtues, or rather the dangers and ridiculous absurdities of selectively chosen arguments and advocates of locavorism. (Locavorism, in case you don't know, is the view that one ought to do one's best to eat the foods grown nearby and in season–farmers' market stuff basically).  

This is unfortunate, as I think many advocates of locavorism consider themselves to be empirically-driven (i.e., reality based) kinds of people, so if there's a mistake in their advocacy for their view, then I think they'd like to know it.  It's also unfortunate for several other reasons, but let's look at the piece first.

Budiansky writes:

But the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas. Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.

The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus. This is particularly the case with respect to the energy costs of transporting food. One popular and oft-repeated statistic is that it takes 36 (sometimes it’s 97) calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to the East Coast. That’s an apples and oranges (or maybe apples and rocks) comparison to begin with, because you can’t eat petroleum or burn iceberg lettuce.

It is also an almost complete misrepresentation of reality, as those numbers reflect the entire energy cost of producing lettuce from seed to dinner table, not just transportation. Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill. 

I think it's not unreasonable to say that every activity participated in by large numbers of people will include advocates who don't have the faintest idea what they're talking about it.  Christianity is one example of this.  But we all know that it's not fair, honest, or accurate to pick out the craziest and most uninformed of those advocates, and then select the weakest of their arguments, in order to undermine the entire movement to which they belong.  A lot of people will "eat local" because it's cool, or because they're joyless hypocrites, or because they have a superficial understanding of the math (as Budiansky alleges), but there's no reason to conflate them with the idea as a whole.  I mean seriously, who advocates the energy-intensive greenhouse tomato?  We know this around here as "weak-manning" and in the tomato case "hollow manning."   

It is a real question, of course, whether "the math" supports the specific (mathematical) claims of locavores.  But that's really hard to evaluate here, because Budiansky hasn't done us the common courtesy of pointing us to any specific source for the claims of the locavore.  It's an op-ed, of course, but a parenthetical reference of some kind is certainly possible (there's more follow-up on his blog, by the way–hurray for blogging!).  More importantly, however, the topic of relative energy cost deserves a more serious discussion than Budiansky seems interested in having–juding by his characterization of locavores and their arguments–they're dogmatists, so why bother?

More basically, however, there's more than one argument for locavorism (as it turns out commenters on his blog have pointed out).  This one argument for locavorism may fail–hey I'm an empiricist, one has to be open to that possibility–but there are other arguments and other more charitable versions of this (the energy) argument.  This is a serious topic.  It deserves better than this.

UPDATE: same points, made better: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kerry-trueman/the-myth-of-the-rabid-loc_b_689591.html

Unnecessarily fallacious

Whether a non-deductive argument is strong, weak, or fallacious oftentimes if not always depends heavily on who the arguer is, what the context of the argument is, what the state of play of the debate is, and so forth.  All of these factors render the identification of good and bad reasoning an at times frustrating enterprise.  One common cause of debatable fallacy accusation is a failure to take seriously the careful identification of the arguer, context, and state of play.

Here's an example of an unnecessarily weak argument from Anne Applebaum:

Only two presidents in recent memory have not had vacation homes of their own: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Not coincidentally, it is their vacation choices that have been most heavily criticized. When he was down in Crawford, George W. Bush surrounded himself with like-minded friends and admirers. Away from the cameras, he had a break from constant public surveillance and the Washington rat race. But when Clinton went to Martha's Vineyard to surround himself with likeminded friends and admirers (and to enjoy a break from constant public surveillance and the Washington rat race), he was damned as an elitist. So was Obama, who went there last summer for exactly the same reasons.

Why, exactly, is borrowing or renting someone's house more elitist than owning one? Why is Martha's Vineyard snobbier than Kennebunkport, Hyannis Port or even a private Texas ranch? I don't know, but that's what everyone said, and thus were the Clintons forced to take a pretend "vacation" in Jackson Hole, Wyo. During this "vacation," they had to provide photo opportunities to the press to prove that they really were normal Americans — which, of course, they were not. Once elected, no president is ever a normal American again.

The same fate has now befallen Obama, whose lack of a permanent country residence has also made him inexplicably appear more elitist. Having done the Martha's Vineyard thing last year, and been duly criticized, he has made up for it with visits to Maine, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and North Carolina, all places where "average" Americans like to go.  

Anyone can tell that Applebaum is in the critical mode here, she's evaluating someone else's reasons.  The question, of course, is: Who argues this?  She doesn't say who exactly (save for "the American people"). 

Applebaum is engaging in the completely useless but time-honored practice of weak-kneed newspaper pundits by not naming the object of her criticism.  This leaves it to the reader to fill in for herself.  I remember Cokie Roberts inexplicably arguing that Obama ought not to vacation in Hawaii, as it is  "exotic."   But in fact, if you check your map, it is a state in the United States, and, by coincidence, it is also the place where Obama was born (sorry birthers).  Now her point, however absolutely outrageously and unforgiveably dumb, is that Hawaii is "unAmerican" and "exotic" so Obama shouldn't go there, it only highlights the oddity of his name and er, ethnicity.  So she's not talking about Roberts–though she ought to be.  

I can't think of anyone in particular (in part because I just got back from vacation–three days and renting–myself).  So Applebaum would do be a great favor is she just said who thinks such stuff.

But maybe this is Applebaum doesn't in fact know, and this is her general sense of the buzz about Obama's (and Clinton's) vacations.  So her crticism is a composite sketch of several distinct possible suspects.  If so, I find this particularly unhelpful.  There are real people making specifically dumb arguments and raising ridiculous questions about Obama's vacation.  We can all learn from their dumbness.  Turning an opportunity for dumbness identification into an occasion for hollow-manning is a waste.

When criticism is not specific, like punishment, it's useless.  It always leaves open the door for the person with the weak argument to escape. 

Straight face

Maggie Gallagher, president of NOM, writes:

Despite the media hoopla, this is not the first case in which a federal judge has imagined and ruled that our Constitution requires same-sex marriage. A federal judge in Nebraska ruled for gay marriage in 2005 and was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 2006.

The Proposition 8 case on which the Ninth Circuit's Judge Vaughn Walker ruled Wednesday was pushed by two straight guys with a hunger for media attention, lawyers with huge egos who overrode the considered judgment of major figures in the gay legal establishment, thinkers who feared exactly what we anticipate: the Supreme Court will uphold Prop. 8 and the core civil rights of Californians and all Americans to vote for marriage as one man and one woman.

Judge Walker's ruling proves, however, that the American people were and are right to fear that too many powerful judges do not respect their views, or the proper limits of judicial authority. Did our Founding Fathers really create a right to gay marriage in the U.S. Constitution? It is hard for anyone reading the text or history of the 14th Amendment to make that claim with a straight face, no matter how many highly credentialed and brilliant so-called legal experts say otherwise.

Nevermind the ad homs (ego-driven straight guys!) and the beggings of the question (proper limits of judicial authority!), I don't understand the last sentence.  Allow me to reconstruct:

  1. Many highly credentialed experts, with the proper knowledge and experience, assert x.
  2. no one can seriously claim x.

Pardon my confusion, but it seems like just the right kind of people–qualified straight people with straight faces–have made the assertion, I think that means it has some initial plausibility. 

Now of course, the controversy might be how one interprets "x" in my reconstruction.  And this is where Ms. Gallagher hollow mans–I don't think anyone has made the claim she alleges ("created an [enumerated] right….").  So no one, with a straight face or otherwise, is arguing that the COTUS (anyone ever say that?  They should) utters the phrase "gay marriage."  Of course, as far as I know, it doesn't say "marriage" either. 

via Pandagon via Atrios.

Profits good

I'm sure Stephen L. Carter is a smart guy, but his opinion piece in the Washington Post today is unquestionably silly.  Here's how it begins:

A specter is haunting America: the specter of profit. We have become fearful that somewhere, somehow, an evil corporation has found a way to make lots of money.

Ok–who can see the problem?  Is it profits simpliciter (I used the Latin phrase since we're talking about a Yale law professor's thoughts here)?  High profits?  Or, perhaps, are we talking about disproportionately high profits earned when people don't make disproportionately large amounts of money?  I'm confused.  But let's continue.

Flash back three years. In 2006, Exxon Mobil announced the highest profit in the history of American corporate enterprise. Politicians and pundits stumbled over each other to call for an investigation and for some sort of confiscatory tax on the money the company earned. Profit, it seemed, was an evil, but large profit was even worse.

Again, I wonder, was it the simple fact of their making a profit, or was it there making a certain kind of profit.  Those, I think, are different propositions.  And indeed, when one considers the amount of public treasure (US military) spent on making Exxon's private wealth secure, one wonders whether it's fair for Exxon to reap rewards incommensurate with their contribution to the res publica, the public thing (Latin again).

Today, the debate on the overhaul of the health-care system sparks a shiver of deja vu. The leitmotif of the conversation about the coming shape of health insurance is that the villain is the system of private insurance. "For-profit" firms come under constant attack from activists and members of Congress.

Thus, a recent news release from the AFL-CIO began with this evidently alarming fact: "Profits at 10 of the country's largest publicly traded health insurance companies rose 428 percent from 2000 to 2007." Even had the figures been correct — they weren't — we are seeing the same circus. Profit is the enemy. America could be made pure, if only profit could be purged.

This attitude was wrong in 2006. It is wrong now. High profits are excellent news. When corporate earnings reach record levels, we should be celebrating. The only way a firm can make money is to sell people what they want at a price they are willing to pay. If a firm makes lots of money, lots of people are getting what they want.

Again–profits, high profits, disproportionate profits, and now profits illegitimately gained.  The problem with the high profits of the insurance companies is that they depend on their not paying claims–on their denying people the insurance that they have paid for (or charging a lot for very little).  Further, it's wrong to talk of "price their willing to pay" when it comes to insurance–one typically has little to no choice in the amount one has to pay or to whom one pays it.

This argument is already so bad that it's not worth continuing to criticize it–the rest goes on to argue that profit is good (including price gouging during natural disasters!).  But no one, save for a few college socialists (and really not even them) denies that profit simpliciter is a positive thing.  They just hold that profits of certain types and quantities are not necessarily a good thing–case in point, health insurance.  The confusion at the beginning makes this argument a case of equivocation, but the fact that the argument sets up a non-existent opponent makes it a very nice case of a hollow man (with a bit of weak man and classic straw man).  In other words, awesome take down, professor Carter, of an argument no one has seriously made.

Das Kapital

Fareed Zakaria argues that Capitalism is not dead.  It's an odd argument, because he doesn't give one any idea of the alternative.  To my mind, it's one big equivocation between market innovation (a feature of capitalism for sure) and deregulation.  Who is not for market innovation?  No one really.  Who is for more deregulation of the kind that brought us the housing bubble?  That's a different question.  He writes:

In a few years we might actually find that we are hungry for more capitalism, not less. An economic crisis slows growth, and when countries need growth, they turn to markets. After the Mexican and East Asian currency crises — which were far more painful in those countries than the current downturn has been here — the pace of market-oriented reform speeded up. If, in the years ahead, the American consumer remains reluctant to spend, if federal and state governments groan under their debt loads, if government-owned companies remain expensive burdens, then private-sector activity will become the only path to creating jobs.

As I said, it's just hard to see what he's arguing against.  The argument today seems to be what kind of thing the government ought to do in a financial crisis (tax cuts? cash injection? temporary nationalization of banks?) not what broad economic theory it ought to have under ideal conditions.  But, if Zakaria is arguing for deregulation (or even privatization), then that is a completely different subject.

The average person must think

Richard Cohen, liberal columnist for the Washington Post, has struggled with some very basic logical notions.  Today is no exception.  Today again he puts on his contrarian hat and accuses a lot of unnamed people–admirers of Sonia Sotomayor (Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court) of elitism and racism.  He writes:

With the nose of a trained columnist, I detect the whiff of elitism-cum-racism emanating from the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. The whiff does not come — Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich notwithstanding — from Sotomayor's own statements; nor does it come from her controversial decision upholding race-based affirmative action. It comes, instead, from the general expression of wow about her background. Imagine, someone from the projects is a success!

"Nobody expects you to be chosen someday for the Supreme Court when your father was a welder with a third-grade education," wrote Richard Lacayo in Time magazine. He is right — the expectations are all otherwise. You can see them on display in many of the reports about Sotomayor's background. She was raised in public housing projects. She grew up in the Bronx, which the average person must think of as a particularly nasty part of Mumbai, and she is, finally and incriminatingly, Puerto Rican. This is all, apparently, very hard to imagine.

With the nose of a trained nonsequitarian, I detect a whiff of it-does-not-follow here.  Cohen's only evidence of a "general expression of wow" is some guy writing in Time and his own "the average person must think."  He then goes on to debunk this not-established-to-exist general expression by running through a list of unnusually successful (and therefore completely unrepresentative) people (for any background) who come from public housing projects (Mike Tyson, Jay-Z, Ken Auletta, etc.).  No one can plausibly deny the empirical possibility of being a success in any endeavor despite having been born in the projects.  But what wows people are the probabilities.  As Cohen ought to know, the expectations for people in the projects are indeed very different, not out of racisim, but out of a realistic sense of how one is successful in America.  I doubt it is really elitism to think that.