Tuesday, March 31, 2009

McCarthyism, New and Old

Congressional hearings showcase our elected officials at their worst. The spectacle of supposed servants of the people castigating their poor witnesses from raised platforms, like so many feudal lords, is inconsistent with our democratic values, not too mention basic politeness. The most recent offender is Barney Frank. Here's an example from a couple weeks ago:

"We will also be asking Mr. Liddy to give us the names of the recipients. They have sent us some information under the confidentiality rules. I've spoken to Chairman Kanjorski about this. If Mr. Liddy declines to give us the names, then I will convene the committee to vote a subpoena for the names. So we do intend to use our power to get the names of the people here."

This quotation caused Rush Limbaugh to dub Mr. Frank's antics "The New McCarthyism", to which the Gentleman from Massachusetts replied, "I didn't know that Rush Limbaugh thought that McCarthy was a bad guy. That's probably one of the few times that either Fox News or Mr. Limbaugh have said bad words about Joe McCarthy. He'd always been a right-wing hero. In fact, I'm not -- what McCarthy did was to falsely accuse people of things and to make guilt by association arguments or talk about their political associations and -- in ways that were -- were unfair. I'm simply asking for factual information about people working for a company that is mostly owned by the federal government."

Barney's retort is a clever line but a bad argument. Specifically, it is an example of the Fallacy of Package Dealing. This fallacy consists of suggesting that because an opponent buys in to one aspect of a phenomenon, McCarthyism in this case, that he must buy into the whole package. Even though Rush Limbaugh may approve of McCarthy's crusade to eliminate Soviet agents from the State Department, it does not follow that he approves of methods associated with McCarthyism such as arguments of guilt by association or demands to name names.

Mr. Frank's charge that McCarthy "falsely accused people of things" is also incorrect. We now know, thanks to the declassification of the Venona project, that nearly all of the officials accused of espionage by McCarthy were, in fact, guilty. In that they differ from some of the executives accused of incompetence by Barney Frank.

The Logic Critic gives Congressman Frank…

Genuine and structured reasoning, but with fallacies or factual errors in main argument.2 Blades - Wrong.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Marriage Proposal

The local media here in the Boston area has been carrying coverage of the gay marriage debate North of the Border in the Granite State. A proposal permitting same-sex partners to tie the knot passed the New Hampshire House of Representatives last week and is now in front of the Senate.

Passage is by no means certain. The opponents of the bill are well organized and vocal. The Cornerstone Policy Research group is typical. They've ginned up a web video explaining their opposition on the grounds that "Marriage is between a man and a woman".

This is the fallacy of Begging the Question. It consists of an argument in which the premises assume the conclusion. The notion that a marriage can only involve a heterosexual couple is the question to be debated. An argument that uses that as a premise is no argument at all.

The video ends with a graphic that reads "One Man + One Woman". The animated, oversized plus sign resembles a crucifix, which leads me to suspect that Cornerstone's policy research is not exactly based on reason. The Logic Critic gives it…

Coherent structure, but relies on assertion, emotion, or faith rather than genuine argument.1 Blade - Not even an argument.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Koan of the Week

"I was planning to retire soon," said Ollie Officeworker, "but with the crash in the stock market I'm going to have to work another five years. I don't know how I can get through it."
"You don't have to," replied Master Li Kim Grebnesi. "You only have to get through today."

Master Li Kim's Commentary: The best approach to any arduous journey is to be in the present. Focus on the current step.

Master Li Kim's Haiku:

Bleak Powerpoints trudge
Across the conference room wall.
Just watch one more slide.

In Case There's Any Doubt

I've been saying for a while that the mortgage crisis occurred because government distorted the market. In case there's any doubt, here's some stats about the magnitude of its involvement:

Government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac hold $5.4 Trillion of the $12.0 Trillion worth of U.S. mortgages.

Fannie and Freddie originated or funded 90% of subprime mortgages.

Source: Investor's Business Daily http://www.ibdeditorials.com/IBDArticles.aspx?id=322782906144146

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Taxes - Ex Post Facto

I wrote yesterday about the House of Representatives' passage of a 90% tax to confiscate bonuses paid recently to American International Group (AIG) executives. I want to address the question of whether a retroactive tax like this is Constitutional.

Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution states, "No…ex post facto Law shall be passed." An ex post facto law is one that regulates actions that have already occurred when the law is passed. Clearly, ex post facto laws are unfair. The President might sign a law on Monday, for example, lowering the speed limit from 65 to 55 miles per hour. If so, it would be unfair to give a ticket to someone who drove 60 miles per hour on Sunday, when the speed limit was still 65. Similarly, it is unfair to pass a tax in 2009 on bonuses that AIG employees contracted for in 2008 and collected early in 2009 before the tax was enacted.

Nevertheless, over the years the Supreme Court constructed elaborate arguments why a retroactive tax does not, in fact, violate the Constitution. The unanimous decision in the 1984 case of Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation v. R. A. Gray & Co is typical. In that decision, Brennan, J. wrote, "Provided that the retroactive application of a statute is supported by a legitimate legislative purpose furthered by rational means, judgments about the wisdom of such legislation remain within the exclusive province of the legislative and executive branches". In other words, it is up to the President and Congress whether to pass an ex post facto, as long as they do it in the course of executing the responsibilities delegated to them by the Constitution ("legitimate legislative purpose").

This argument may be refuted by a reductio ad absurdum, i.e., by showing that the logical conclusion of the argument is ridiculous. If the Government may ignore the rights of the people for a "legitimate purpose", then the people have no rights at all. Making war is a legitimate purpose that can be hampered by the scrutiny of a free press. By Brennan's argument, the government may ignore the First Amendment and muzzle reporters during wartime. Preventing crime is a legitimate purpose that can be hampered by the right of the people to keep and bear arms. By Brennan's argument, the government may ignore the Second Amendment and outlaw gun ownership. Gathering evidence for criminal prosecution is a legitimate purpose that can be hampered by the need to show probable cause before obtaining a search warrant. By Brennan's argument, the government may ignore the Fourth Amendment and conduct unwarranted searches. Come to think of it, the government may eliminate juries, lawyers, and trials all together.

Clearly the argument that the Supreme Court uses to justify retroactive taxes is one that is easily abused, putting our freedom at risk. The Logic Critic gives Mr. Justice Brennan…

Genuine and structured reasoning, but with fallacies or factual errors in main argument.2 Blades - Wrong.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Not Fair and Not Economical

So this is life in Obama's America.

You make a deal with your employer. If you stay with him for a year, you will be paid a bonus.

It is a difficult year because your employer is suffering from financial difficulties. These difficulties are due, in part, to the damage to your company's credit rating done by an overambitious prosecutor and whorehouse patron who went on to resign the New York Governorship in disgrace. Nevertheless, you keep up your end of the bargain, and collect your bonus.

Then the government, which is now the majority stockholder in your employer, decides that the company made a bad deal.

The President of the United States instructs the Secretary of the Treasury to "pursue every single legal avenue to block these bonuses."

The Chairman of the House Banking Committee calls you "incompetent" and demands your name be made public.

The leading Republican on the Senate Finance Committee suggests that you "resign or go commit suicide."

The CEO of your company pressures you to "voluntarily" return your bonus.

Legal experts writing on CNN.com recommend that your employer play "legal hardball" against you, aggressively search your contract for loopholes, and threaten you with expensive court procedures if you try to retain your earnings.

The House of Representatives, ignoring the Constitution's protection against ex post facto legislation, passes a bill to confiscate your bonus via a 90% tax (The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that this protection doesn't apply to retroactive taxes. I'll deconstruct that in a future entry).

Angry protestors demonstrate outside your home and issue death threats against your children.

This, of course, describes the furor during the past week over American International Group's (AIG's) payment of $173M in retention bonuses to its employees. Since this blog concerns itself with arguments, I will focus on a premise implicit in President Obama's, Senator Grassley's, and Representative Frank's argument that these bonuses should be recovered. The premise is: it is ok to renege on a contract if you decide it was a bad deal, even if the other party already performed his obligations.

This premise is wrong, on grounds of both fairness and economics.

The fairness argument is that it is not right for a company to refuse to pay its employees after they have done the work. They may have passed up other opportunities or incurred financial obligations in the expectation that their bonuses will be paid. It is certainly not fair to publicly humiliate them.

The economic argument is that we enjoy enormous prosperity in this country because individuals and businesses invest enormous quantities of capital, energy, blood, toil, tears, and sweat in exchange for promises from their partners. But they will not make these investments, and consequently they will not generate wealth, if they cannot reasonably expect those promises to be kept.

I do not know whether AIG made a bad deal. I do not know whether the bonuses went to key employees who needed combat pay to be retained, as the company says, or whether the bonuses went to the "incompetents" who were responsible for the company's problems to begin with, as Mr. Frank says. Either way, it doesn't affect the fairness argument or the economic argument. It is unfair for a company to withhold pay after the work is done, even if it decides it had offered too much. People will be reluctant to make deals with a company that welshes on them, even if it welshes "in the public interest". I realize that Messers Obama, Grassley, and Frank are new to the business of running an insurance company, so perhaps they are unaware of this. The Logic Critic gives them…

Coherent structure, but relies on assertion, emotion, or faith rather than genuine argument.1 Blade - Not even an argument.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Origin of the Theses

Michael Medved is concerned. The American Religion Identification Survey (ARIS) released yesterday, shows that 15% of Americans do not identify with any religion, up from 8% in 1990. As a believer in the power of religion to inculcate moral rectitude in the populace, this worries him. So he invited anyone who thinks it is a positive development to debate with him on the Michael Medved radio show.

He gave one agnostic caller an evolutionary argument. Natural selection, he reasoned, applies to ideas as well as animals. Ideas, like biological traits, can only survive if they provide some advantage to those who believe them. Since religion is one of the oldest ideas out there, it must be one of the most advantageous.

There are three fallacies in this argument.

First, the argument is a faulty analogy. This fallacy consists of incorrectly assuming that because two things, organisms and ideas in this case, are similar in one way, they must be similar in another. Organisms and ideas both evolve, but it does not follow that survival of the fittest is the mechanism in both cases. Lots of incredibly unfit ideas survive for generations – transubstantiation, for instance, or the minimum wage.

Second, the argument is a form of the appeal to tradition. This fallacy consists in assuming that something must be better simply because it is time-honored. Accepting, for the sake of argument, Mr. Medved's premise that natural selection applies to ideas, then a new idea, like atheism is sometimes superior to an old one, like religion - just as a new species, like cro magnon man, is sometimes superior to an old one, like Neanderthal man. In fact, the thrust of the evolving ideas argument is that new and improved ideas will from time to time displace old and established ones.

Third, the argument is a stolen concept. This fallacy consists in selectively accepting a premise that you otherwise reject. Mr. Medved rejects evolution; he is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an organization devoted to promoting the theory of Intelligent Design. If he does not believe that natural selection explains the origin of the species, it is not logical for him to draw an analogy (faulty or otherwise) to the origin of the theses. The Logic Critic gives Michael Medved…

Genuine and structured reasoning, but with fallacies or factual errors in main argument.2 Blades - Wrong.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Koan of the Week

“I was so disappointed,” said Valerie Vacationer. “I went to the beach in Florida and froze my butt off.”
“What is the disappointing part?” asked Master Li Kim Grebnesi.

Master Li Kim’s Commentary: Some years ago I was in a hotel room in Venice when I overheard a couple arguing in the street. Venice is the world’s greatest city for getting lost because you cannot walk more than a few steps without coming to a canal and having to turn. This couple was very lost. The main geographic feature of the city is the Grand Canal and these two didn’t know which side of that waterway they were on. The man was trying his best to make an adventure out of the situation, but the woman wouldn’t play along. They would have enjoyed themselves much more if she had, but instead she just complained. “I’m tired. Where are we?”

When you travel, things go wrong. The weather is cold. You get lost. There are cancelled flights, shabby hotel rooms, and six dollar Cokes. In general, it is best to cultivate the serenity to accept the things you can not change.

The beach has many charms on a blustery day. It is uncrowded, the frigid wind makes you feel alive, and the colors of the setting sun on cloud streaked skies and choppy seas are more varied and spectacular. But you won’t notice any of this if you spend your time wishing the weather was different.

Valerie didn’t even notice that is was only cold for two days out of the week she was in the Sunshine State.

Master Li Kim’s Haiku:

The rhythm of surf
Can quiet a racing mind
Even when it’s cold.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Expression of the Conservative Mind

“Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it's incendiary. Yes, it's ugly." – Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele, interview with D.L.Hughley

“Mocking, bullying, full of contempt, and harsh” – CNN’s Bill Schneider

“Crappy” – Whoopi Goldberg, The View

I watched several news channels yesterday and it seems like the only story in town is Rush Limbaugh’s CPAC speech, so I’ll throw in my two cents. You see the reaction to Rush in general and the speech in particular above. I wonder whether these folks actually watched the speech; their comments have little to do with what Rush actually said. Here’s an excerpt:

“Let me tell you who we conservatives are: We love people. When we look out over the United States of America, when we are anywhere, when we see a group of people, such as this or anywhere, we see Americans. We see human beings. We don't see groups. We don't see victims. We don't see people we want to exploit. What we see -- what we see is potential. We do not look out across the country and see the average American, the person that makes this country work. We do not see that person with contempt. We don't think that person doesn't have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government.

“We want every American to be the best he or she chooses to be. We recognize that we are all individuals. We love and revere our founding documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. We believe that the preamble to the Constitution contains an inarguable truth that we are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life. Liberty, Freedom. And the pursuit of happiness [Rush later owned up to the “obvious rhetorical gaffe” here]…

“We don't want to tell anybody how to live. That's up to you. If you want to make the best of yourself, feel free. If you want to ruin your life, we'll try to stop it, but it's a waste. We look over the country as it is today, we see so much waste, human potential that's been destroyed by 50 years of a welfare state. By a failed war on poverty.

“We love the people of this country. And we want this to be the greatest country it can be.”

There is no ugliness here. There is no contempt and no mocking. There is nothing but admiration for America and Americans. What is crappy about that?

Michael Steele is correct that Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. But that is not his “whole thing”. We see in the CPAC speech that he can also be profoundly philosophical. In an 1825 letter to Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Declaration of Independence “was intended to be an expression of the American mind.” What Rush delivered on Saturday was an outstanding expression of the Conservative mind.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Baucus-Kennedy Health Care Dictatorship

Last week, Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Max Baucus (D-MT) warned on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page that “We Cannot Delay Health Care Reform”. Their article provided a lot of detail about the soaring costs of medical care in the United States, the impact of those costs on families and employers, and the “urgent” need to reform the system “now”. But it provided very little detail about what sort of reform they are proposing. Based on the few details they do provide, however, it is possible to deduce what the reformed system will look like.

I’ve written before, based on Arnold Kling’s excellent analysis Crisis of Abundance that the laws of economics prohibit the creation of an affordable health care system that simultaneously provides choice of treatment while insulating the consumer from its costs. Clearly Sens. Kennedy and Baucus desire a system that is affordable – that is the thrust of their article. They also wish to continue insulating the consumer from costs – they are very concerned that “higher deductibles, larger co-payments and greater exclusions from coverage are causing families to bear more out-of-pocket costs.”

Logically, there is only one alternative left. The Baucus-Kennedy plan does not allow choice. They hint as much near the end of their essay: “Today, even as costs rise, the Rand Corporation has shown that Americans receive the recommended care for their conditions only half the time. A revitalized system should reward doctors and hospitals for providing effective, efficient care”. Clearly what they are describing is a system where someone, they do not say who, “recommends” care for any given condition, and doctors and hospitals would be coerced into following the recommendations via a system of carrots and sticks. Indeed, by creating federal board to issue the recommendations, the Economic Stagnation Bill has already implemented the first half of this program.

Beware of those who insist that we cannot delay. They are often seeking to avoid an open debate. In the case of Sens. Baucus and Kennedy, open debate would reveal that the plan they are proposing is one where bureaucrats, not families, dictate the treatment for what ails us.