Tag Archives: Non Sequitur

Showers of gold

I belong to a faculty union, now in it's third year of contract negotiations (for a contract which lasts four years).  The sticking point, unsurprisingly, is not money.  No one expects any of that–no one other than the administration, the top rung of which has been lavished with raises equal in some cases to my entire full time Assistant Professor salary.  No one is complaining; their punishment is that they get to be administrators.  The sticking point is workload. 

But that's not really want I wanted to talk about.  I'd like to talk about promises.  David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times, writes:

To be clear, I’m making an argument that’s different from “Government workers are overpaid.” I’m saying that they are paid in the wrong ways — in ways that make life easier on union leaders and elected officials, at least initially, but that eventually hurt both workers and taxpayers.

The best example is health insurance. Health plans for union workers and retirees are much more likely to require little or no co-payment, which leads to lots of medical treatments that don’t make people any healthier, and to huge costs. Ultimately, some of these plans will probably prove so expensive as to be unsustainable. Workers would have been better off accepting a less generous benefit package and slightly higher salaries.

 Got that.  He's not saying they're overpaid.  He's saying they're overpaid.

On a different point.  Workers negotiated those plans on purpose.  They accept lower salary in favor of better health and retirement benefits, because they understand that this is part of their compensation.  The responsibility for making these deals sustainable belongs not to them, but to the people with whom they negotiated.  If it doesn't, then Leonhardt has justified negotiation in bad faith, and has placed the blame on failing to follow through on promises with the promise breaker. 

In the moral universe, promises such as those outlined in contracts entail moral obligations to uphold them–however "unsustainable" they may be.  If they turn out, in this case, to be unsustainable, the fault lies with the promiser. 

**In other news.  Corporations have no personal right to privacy:

“Two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation,” he wrote, adding that “personal privacy” suggests “a kind of privacy evocative of human concerns.”

The chief justice had examples here, too. “We understand a golden cup to be a cup made of or resembling gold,” he wrote. “A golden boy, on the other hand, is one who is charming, lucky and talented. A golden opportunity is one not to be missed.”

I wonder if Roberts noticed all of the clerks laughing.

Statism

The caricature of the Tea Party type holds a sign and calls every single government action "communist."  Please tell me how this caricature is not on display here:

Today's evidence suggesting sluggish job creation might give pause to a less confident person than Obama. But pauses are not in his repertoire of governance. Instead, yielding to what must be a metabolic urge toward statism, he says the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is yet another reason for yet another explosion of government's control of economic life. The spill supposedly makes it urgent to adopt a large tax increase in the form of cap-and-trade energy legislation, which also is climate legislation, the primary purpose of which is, or once was, to combat global warming, such as it is.

For the uninitiated, "statism" means "any increase in government activity."  That is a charitable interpretation (on my part).  Because the other one would be "communism," which wouldn't make this any different from the average Tea Party screed about health care or guns. 

So let's get this straight. 

  1. An under-regulated and unmonistored private industry, which enjoys by the way subsidies of all sorts (highways, etc.) incentivizing its products, caused what appears to be a calamity affecting the economy and ecology of entire region, if not the world.
  2. One contributing factor to the disaster was lax oversight.
  3. Therefore, this is not an argument for government regulation. 

That's really silly I think.  If we have an argument for effective government regulation, even if it requires "statism" (God is that term dumb), then this is it. 

On the other point in the paragraph, by the way, oil is dirty in the procuring (seeMexico, Gulf of) and dirty in the using (see Warming, Global).

Does David Broder read the Washington Post?

Two short points today. We’re still working out the kinks here.

First, my view is that we ought to redo our health care system. I think this is a matter of national security, much more say than the imaginary weapons of a fictional dictator. People here actually die from lack of adequate health care. Now, since it’s a matter of national security, and since we continue to pay richly for imaginary threats to our national security, we ought to not complain about things that are real. This is why this kind of stuff from David Broder) raises one’s blood pressure:

Acknowledging that “clearly, we need radical reconstructive surgery to make our health-care system effective, affordable and sustainable,” Walker cautioned that “what we should not do is merely tack new programs onto a system that is fundamentally flawed” — and rapidly driving the national budget into ruin.

He proposes a four-part test of fiscal responsibility for any health reform plan: “First, the reform should pay for itself over 10 years. Second, it should not add to deficits beyond 10 years. Third, it should significantly reduce the tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded health promises that we already have. Fourth, it should bend down — not up — the total health-care cost curve as a percentage of” gross domestic product.

If only people had made this argument about Iraq and Afghanistan.

Next point, the Lewin group is an insurance company-funded group. One ought not to cite them as independent and impartial observers. Following directly from the above:

An analysis by the Lewin Group shows that the Energy and Commerce Committee bill that was the basic blueprint for the House measure comes close to meeting the first of those tests and fails the other three, according to Walker, “by a wide margin.”

A separate Lewin Group study of the Finance Committee bill from which Majority Leader Harry Reid is working on the Senate legislation shows it is almost as much of a fiscal failure. It fails the fourth test, falls short on the third, and passes the first two only by assuming that future Congresses will force reductions in reimbursements to doctors and hospitals that lawmakers in the past have refused to impose.

Here is the Washington Post on the Lewin group on 7.23/2009:

Generally left unsaid amid all the citations is that the Lewin Group is wholly owned by UnitedHealth Group, one of the nation’s largest insurers.

Doesn’t Broder read his own paper?

Use mention torture

If one consumes enough news and commentary, one begins to notice the same (crappy) arguments over and over in certain circles.  This of course can happen anywhere–on the right, or on the left.  The left, however, in my unscientific opinion, just doesn't have the discipline or organization or perhaps heart to carry it off very well.  Few, I think, will repeat Richard Cohen's latest ideas.  That's not a virtue, however.  It kind of reminds in fact of the old paradox of moral weakness: vice plus moral weakness equals virtue.  Not having the stamina to be evil, I end up doing the right thing.

Back to the point.  There's an argument that's been rolling around the world of torture justifying commentary lately. It goes something like this:

MILLER: And I’m going to move beyond that and say the pertinent question to me is, is it necessary. Where do you stand on this?

KRAUTHAMMER: You know, I’m in the midst of writing a column for this week, which is exactly on that point. Some people on the right have faulted me because in that column that you cite I conceded that waterboarding is torture. Actually, I personally don’t think it is cause it’s an absurdity to have to say the United States of America has tortured over 10,000 of its own soldiers because its, you know, it’s had them waterboarded as a part of their training. That’s an absurd sentence. So, I personally don’t think it is but I was willing to concede it in the column without argument exactly as you say to get away from the semantic argument, which is a waste of time and to simply say call it whatever you want. We know what it is. We know what actually happened. Should it have been done and did it work? Those are the only important questions.

Never mind the fact that Krauthammer writes stuff he doesn't believe (without saying so).  He reasserts the manifestly absurd argument that anything done in the SERE program (Survive Evade Resist Extract) cannot be torture, as that would mean we have been torturing our own people.  The SERE program however trains people to resist the kinds of illegal torture used by our illustrious enemies.  Part of the training involves a little taste.  (Someone who went through this training tells me in his final paper for one of my spring courses (true story) that even that little taste can give you raging nightmares).

Not content with that line, Krauthammer, who fancies himself some kind of logician, pats himself on the back for having avoided the "semantic argument."  The semantic argument, in this case I suppose, is whether you call something torture or not.  That's important.  Because if it is torture, then it broke the law, and if it broke the law, then there ought to be prosecutions.  That's the problem with legal semantics.  In the end someone goes to jail.

But that's just what's so absurd about this line of reasoning.  Krauthammer makes a semantic claim–we cannot by definition torture our own people ("it's absurd!")–in order to claim that waterboarding isn't "torture."  But that's just to confuse "use" and "mention."  What's "use" and "mention"?  Well, if I pretend torture my own guy to show him what to expect, I am "mentioning" torture.  I don't really do it, I just kind of do it.  This is kind of like acting.  The actors don't really say the things they say ("I'm going to kill you"), they mention them.  Using torture, on the other hand, is illegal. 

The greatest non sequitur ever foisted

Charles Krauthammer, on Obama's speech of over a week ago:

The logic of Obama's address to Congress went like this:

"Our economy did not fall into decline overnight," he averred. Indeed, it all began before the housing crisis. What did we do wrong? We are paying for past sins in three principal areas: energy, health care and education — importing too much oil and not finding new sources of energy (as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf?), not reforming health care, and tolerating too many bad schools.

The "day of reckoning" has arrived. And because "it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we'll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament," Obama has come to redeem us with his far-seeing program of universal, heavily nationalized health care; a cap-and-trade tax on energy; and a major federalization of education with universal access to college as the goal.

Amazing. As an explanation of our current economic difficulties, this is total fantasy. As a cure for rapidly growing joblessness, a massive destruction of wealth, a deepening worldwide recession, this is perhaps the greatest non sequitur ever foisted upon the American people.

He said "logic" and "non sequitur," so we knew we were in for something good from the guy who thinks a slippery slope is a valid form of argumentation.  And indeed we were.  It seems that Krauthammer has just distorted what Obama said.  Distorting what somebody says in order to knock down the distorted version of what they say is a non sequitur.  To be specific, it's a straw man.  Here's the quoted passage in context: 

We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before. 

The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation.  The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach.  They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.  Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure.  What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more.

Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that for too long, we have not always met these responsibilities – as a government or as a people.  I say this not to lay blame or look backwards, but because it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we’ll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament. 

The fact is, our economy did not fall into decline overnight.  Nor did all of our problems begin when the housing market collapsed or the stock market sank.  We have known for decades that our survival depends on finding new sources of energy.  Yet we import more oil today than ever before.  The cost of health care eats up more and more of our savings each year, yet we keep delaying reform.  Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for.  And though all these challenges went unsolved, we still managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before.

In other words, we have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election.  A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future.  Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market.  People bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway.  And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

Obama has clearly distinguished between the declining economy and "all of our problems."  In particular, the failing economy is just one of the problems we face.  So he is not making, in other words, the non sequitur of the century or whatever, since that isn't even close to the "logic" of Obama's argument.  Whatever the virtues or vices of Obama's proposals, they don't fail for this reason.  

To return to the theme of facts and inference, Karauthammer's claim about Obama's argument does not fall within the realm of plausibility–no fair-minded editor could claim that he has accurately represented what Obama said in his summary.  The Post really ought to have higher standards than this.  

Generalissimus

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?

The hollow man

In general, one commits the straw man fallacy in a situation of criticism–when one challenges someone else's argument in anything other than its true and charitable form, one is in danger of committing the straw man fallacy.  Let me give an Al Gore example.

  • Al Gore argues that curbing carbon emissions is critical to reducing the impact of climate change.  He points to numbers and charts and data and stuff like that.  I see what he's saying, he saying we should get rid of all of our cars!  

The claim after "I see what he's saying" obviously bears little resemblance to what Al Gore is saying.  It's funny, in fact, how often that claim–oh, I see what you're saying!–precedes a straw man.  It's like a straw man warning.  

Anyway, back to what I was saying.   The straw man fallacy admits of a couple of variations.  You might call the most common variation the "misrepresentation" form.  It consists in the distortion of an opponent's actual position.  Take the above example.  Al Gore argues for more sensible carbon policies, but he does not advocate the rapid elimination of the automobile.  Another form, recently discussed by Bob Talisse and Scott Aikin, involves selecting the worst of an opponent's argument for attack.  This one lacks the outright stupidity or dishonesty of the misrepresentation form, although it involves the false claim that the weak argument is the strongest one.  Talisse and Aikin call this "the weak man" argument. One other common form of the straw man, the one I see today in the work of a dear friend of the NonSequitur dot com, involves completely inventing an opponent and an opponent's argument, and then attacking that and claiming victory.  Call this the hollow man argument.

This is just what George Will does today.  He writes:

Reactionary liberalism, the ideology of many Democrats, holds that inconvenient rights, such as secret ballots in unionization elections, should be repealed; that existing failures, such as GM, should be preserved; and, with special perversity, that repealed mistakes, such as the "fairness doctrine," should be repeated. That Orwellian name was designed to disguise the doctrine's use as the government's instrument for preventing fair competition in the broadcasting of political commentary.

Because liberals have been even less successful in competing with conservatives on talk radio than Detroit has been in competing with its rivals, liberals are seeking intellectual protectionism in the form of regulations that suppress ideological rivals. If liberals advertise their illiberalism by reimposing the fairness doctrine, the Supreme Court might revisit its 1969 ruling that the fairness doctrine is constitutional. The court probably would dismay reactionary liberals by reversing that decision on the ground that the world has changed vastly, pertinently and for the better.

The only problem is that, as has been pointed out all over the place, no one advocates the fairness doctrine.  Will doesn't even name one person who supports the fairness doctrine in his article.  Yet he concludes:

If reactionary liberals, unsatisfied with dominating the mainstream media, academia and Hollywood, were competitive on talk radio, they would be uninterested in reviving the fairness doctrine. Having so sullied liberalism's name that they have taken to calling themselves progressives, liberals are now ruining the reputation of reactionaries, which really is unfair. 

This is really appalling, even for Will.  Normally he can muster at least a straw man.  But I wonder whether his inability to find someone to slime is a step forward or a step backward.