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It’s All About Balance AKA Boy Are We Selfish

August 2, 2011 Leave a comment

I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on history, but I have been reading quite a bit to try to better understand how things in the economy, politics and our government work so I can make better decisions in the voting booth. I also want to start being more involved in the process so that I feel that my little voice somehow makes a small difference in making things better. This summer has been a learning experience. I have come to realize one of the biggest biases in politics, the economy and government is our own personal selfishness. Being selfish does not make one a bad person, but not being aware of it is where problems can arise.

David Frum posted a great blog yesterday about how the ideological stance of the Republican party is harmful to the American economy and political process. Mr. Frum worked for President Bush (43), has written books on the conservatism and believes in smaller government. He also understands that the political process is about balance and getting there is sometimes about compromise and leadership, and not always about getting through all of your ideals. It is a great read and not very long – I recommend checking out the link.

The other thing I’ve come to realize is I am thinking that for all of his flaws that President Clinton really was a great President because he understood our selfishness, and somehow was able to find bits of leadership and find ways to make it work for everyone. We had a balanced budget, yet for the rich and conservatives he signed welfare reform and a massive cut in capital gains taxes. For the middle class he raised income taxes on higher incomes. For the military protectionist types, we went to war in the Balkans. There was some level of gun control with the Brady Bill. There was something for everyone in President Clinton’s policies, and he knew it. Everyone got a little of what they wanted, and it fed their selfish desires.

Certainly there were things that people didn’t like about the policies. Not everything was perfect. I don’t think the policies of Clinton would have prevented a tech stock bubble or the housing bubble. In fact, a case could be made that the capital gains cut made that problem worse. The overall point is that leadership and political discussion requires understanding we are all selfish. If we start with that premise, then we know to be careful anytime we want to start or change a government program or give the government more money.

I wanted to cover that after a Twitter discussion I had with State Representative Ryan Winkler this morning. I thank the Representative for taking the time to discuss some issues with me. He seems to be reasonable in his views. But the initial post that brought on the discussion was his tweet this morning that said:

Moody’s downgrade of MN finances due to ‘political intractability’. In other words, GOP obstructionism lowers our credit score.

I stated that intractability simply means “complex.” His response is the government needs to spend more money on education and taxes should be raised based on the ability to pay (later stating the rich should pay more). Now there is no doubt that education is important. But there is a selfish bias to assume that the rich who already foot over half the bill for education should pay even more for it.

The other point is that if taxing more and spending more were the solution to our economic problems, then why not do it ad infinitum? There must be a point in taxation and government spending (and government hiring for that matter) where the benefit stops or we would just have the government tax us 100% and hire all of us so unemployment would be 0%. Obviously that doesn’t work. So we have to realize that it is our very selfish nature, the desire to make more money, that drives our economy. The government must exist to protect us, so it will always be a cog in the machine that is our economy. It is not easy to find that point where it isn’t doing enough, and when it is doing too much. In either case, it is hurting our economy. The danger on the “too much” side is that can also affect our freedom.

Look at it another way. If unemployment benefits were a great driver of our economy, then why not just start sending checks to everyone so that they could go buy more stuff? If government work was a big driver of the economy, then why not double the government work force? Now don’t take this as me saying to stop those benefits or saying we don’t need government workers. What I am saying is that there is a point where government money becomes ineffective in the economy. We have to be aware of that. Based on the last 20 years and my humble opinion, government is probably spending about enough. What we need to do is get the size of the federal government reduced and get more spending brought back to the state and local level. We are going to need to raise taxes to get the budgets balanced. That would do much more for the economy than what is happening now.

So you can see, I will freely admit we are going to have to raise taxes in order to ensure that our standard of living doesn’t suffer during this economic malaise we are in. Likely, that is going to fall on those with higher incomes more. We can debate on how we should accomplish that, which I think can be done by fixing the tax code more than by raising the rates. But we are going to have to go back to the rates of 10-15 years ago to make sure we don’t lose all we have gained. But we have to be careful that we don’t allow those taxes to be spent on other things due to selfish motivations.

Do You Really Think We Are That Selfish?

I’d like to ask all of you how many televisions you own? How many iPods? How many PCs? How many pairs of designer jeans? How many times did you eat out this year so far? How many magazines do you subscribe to? Do you have cable? Premium cable? How many major sporting events have you attended? How many of the things in your house are made in the US? How many of you have mutual funds in your retirement accounts that benefit from the very corporate profits you are now claiming to despise.

My point is we are all selfish – rich, middle-class, and poor alike. We must first admit that we are selfish and step outside of that selfishness before we start shouting about the problems we face in our country. We must also realize that part of being free is the right to be selfish and the only way to maintain that freedom is to make sure that whatever we do, it is applied equally.

We need to do things to support and encourage freedom and success, but we cannot buy success through wealth transfer. We cannot spread out way of life throughout the world to people who do not want it.

Name calling and demonizing a group of people or one certain party is not going to solve the problem. that is what these politicians want, and you are playing right into their hands – they want this polarization, as it solidifies their base for the next election. Realize we all have our own self-motivating factors, and lets all work to try to bring out the better in people instead of continuing to grow the self-interest.

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Logical Fallacies in Politics

June 1, 2011 Leave a comment

I am still seeing two issues come across the news and social media quite a bit in regards to Minnesota politics. One is the lack of a budget (vetoed by Gov. Dayton)/upcoming special session/tax rates. The other is the gay marriage amendment. My idea here today is to show how rampant the use of logical fallacies in defending each side, and to give a lesson on common logical fallacies so we can all spot them and make more informed decisions.

One of my favorite podcasts is The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Their website carries a great explanation on what is a logical fallacy:

All arguments have the same basic structure: A therefore B. They begin with one or more premises (A), which is a fact or assumption upon which the argument is based. They then apply a logical principle (therefore) to arrive at a conclusion (B). An example of a logical principle is that of equivalence. For example, if you begin with the premises that A=B and B=C, you can apply the logical principle of equivalence to conclude that A=C. A logical fallacy is a false or incorrect logical principle. An argument that is based upon a logical fallacy is therefore not valid. It is important to note that if the logic of an argument is valid then the conclusion must also be valid, which means that if the premises are all true then the conclusion must also be true. Valid logic applied to one or more false premises, however, leads to an invalid argument. Also, if an argument is not valid the conclusion may, by chance, still be true.

Most of us will be guilty of using logical fallacies often. I am guilty of it myself, but for most of us it is done by accident. It takes reflection and discussion to uncover the fallacies and form a more sound, logical argument. Politicians are guilty of using logical fallacies purposely to advance their personal or party views.

Here is an egregious logic fallacy committed by AFSCME. The key statement here is this:

The Republican majorities are choosing to protect the richest 2 percent. They’re making sure these households – making $300,000 or more – don’t have to do their share to fix the state’s budget problems.

This claim falls under a few different categories. The first would be a False Dilemma. AFSCME’s assumption here is the only way to solve the state’s budget problems is to raise taxes on the rich. I haven’t looked at the budget in detail, but my understanding is the budget vetoed by Gov. Dayton was roughly a 6% increase in spending (with no tax increases). According to the BLS, inflation from 2010 was under 3%. If inflation stays at the same pace, then the 6% increase in dollars is a true increase in spending as well since the extra dollars should be able to buy more even when considering inflation. So is the state’s budget truly dire when we can increase spending without a tax increase? Yes, I know this could be construed as it’s own logical fallacy since government is only one sector of the economy and it is possible inflation in those sectors is much higher. The counter-argument to that is to then ask why is inflation higher in those sectors since the government is so heavily invested in those certain sectors of the economy, it could be partially due to their own doing.

The second fallacy of AFSCME’s statement is an example of an Appeal to Emotion, more specifically an Appeal to Spite. Saying the GOP is “protecting” the rich is a way of inciting an emotional class warfare. These people have way more than most people, and that “isn’t fair.” You could even say this is an Ad Hominem attack, saying the GOP’s position is wrong simply because they are protecting those people which most people hate.

Finally, AFSCME uses an Appeal to Belief that the rich don’t pay a fair share of taxes. Statistics on the federal level are readily available and reported. The top 1% of income earners pay 40% of federal income taxes and the top 5% of income earners pay 60% of federal income tax. The democrats want to tax the top 2% of Minnesota incomes on the premise that they don’t pay enough. Think of an analogous situation: If 100 people are in a bar and in total ring up a $5000 bar tab. 1 person in the bar pays $2000, 4 more people pay another $1000, leaving the rest of the people in the bar to pay just over $21, even though the average bar bill was $50. Did the first 5 people pay their fair share? Let’s say they each drove away in a Bentley, would you then feel cheated by how much of the bar bill they paid? Maybe you could make a moral argument that they should pay more, but claiming they didn’t even pay a fair share is simply a bad conclusion.

In the gay marriage amendment debate, I have heard 2 arguments for passing a gay marriage ban. The first one is the idea that being homosexual is biologically unnatural because it doesn’t lead to procreation and that it would be like saying “sand is food.” Human psychology and physiology is much more complex than simple procreation. While it is true that humans are animals and sex is mostly about procreation, Wikipedia has a great summary showing examples in other animals where sex is more than just a mechanism for procreation. To get very basic, it is unnatural for human males to be with only one partner in marriage. In many large mammal species, the biggest and strongest males get to breed with several females to best ensure the survival of the species. Another example where we go “against biology” is when men shave their face or women shave their legs. Biology intended that hair to be for warmth and protection. Should we ban shaving too because it is “biologically unnatural?”

Yes, that last question is a Straw Man argument, but I was employing it in this case as an exaggeration to prove a point that the “sand is food” argument is also the same type of argument. Homosexuality isn’t a biological “wrong” and cannot be explained that way. There are layers of biology, psychology, and other reasons beyond a simple “yes or no” explanation. So the “sand is food” argument doesn’t prove anything.

The other argument used is the past history of voting on this issue in the U.S. I haven’t looked at each vote and what was specifically addressed, but the claim is 34 votes banning gay marriage have taken place and all have had the outcome of supporting a ban. This is wrong based on both the Appeal to Popularity fallacy, as well as the Appeal to Common Practice fallacy. This is easy to explain. I am sure everyone remembers a parent saying to you, “If friend A and B jump off a bridge, are you going to as well?” Just because something is popular or has always been done doesn’t automatically make the position or action correct.

Both major parties are horrible at explaining their logic and presenting evidence for their positions on issues. Most usually want to ignore past data to support an idealistic position that is popular. For example, raising taxes on the rich sounds like a great idea in theory, but it never comes out in practice because we ignore the fact people will adjust their behavior to derive maximum benefit for the amount of work they do. It is human nature. If we taxed every dollar above $1 million at 95%, do you think many people are going to work much past that $1 million mark? Stated another way, if I make $1 million for working 6 months out of the year and make $2 million if I work 12 months, but I keep $500,000 if I work 6 months and keep $550,000 to work 12 months, how many months do you think I am going to work?

My example above doesn’t mean a tax increase isn’t warranted in this budget cycle. Maybe it does need to be part of the solution. But to say tax increases on the rich are always justified is wrong. It is also wrong to assume raising taxes will raise the revenue needed to solve the budget concerns.

If the GOP gets its budget passed in Minnesota, it does look like some people are going to lose their access to the social programs they rely on. That could affect them negatively in the short-term. However, we can’t simply look at the first layer of the consequences in a government policy and make our political decisions based on those outcomes. Taxing the rich gains us money in the short-term, but what if that change prompts a corporation to relocate? What if the rich work less or change their investments and the revenue doesn’t pan out to the projected amounts? What if a person dies due to lack of coverage?

As callous as it sounds, we do have to look at the cost/benefit in these decisions. People die more often because of the 70 MPH speed limit on the interstates in Minnesota than they would if the speed limit were 40 MPH. The higher speed limit saves everyone time (and time is money), thus costing less to transport goods, giving us more time for production, etc. We have chosen to set the speed limit at a reasonable human cost in balance with our own financial interest. Most insurance policies have a co-pay to prevent unnecessary trips to the doctor. Maybe someone skips going to the doctor because they think they just have a mild flu (rather than pay the $20) and end up dying when their infection quickly worsens. (Yes, this is more anecdotal because it is harder to quantify scientifically, but I thought it made some sense to discuss here).

Hopefully you are still reading and didn’t get too bored with some basic insights on logic. My point is to stress the importance of analyzing your political positions carefully, especially if you are perfectly aligned with the ideals of a particular political party. Be especially wary if your party or candidate uses an Ad Hominem Tu Quoque attack, where the attack is simply based on the fact the opponent changed their mind. Use your mind, think logically, discuss with a measured reason, and don’t be afraid to change your mind.

The ability to debate gay marriage.

May 22, 2011 1 comment

I was tweeting pretty heavily tonight, mostly trying to understand both sides of the gay marriage amendment here in Minnesota. Early this morning, the measure passed and will appear on the ballot in 2012. I once again want to point out how both sides have really failed to clearly define government’s role on this subject. I also want to point out the arguments for and against the amendment that I have yet to get an answer to.

Typically, this is an issue that falls along party lines. The Democrats in the Minnesota House gave passionate speeches, some shedding tears and talking about discrimination. It is not personal discrimination as I see it. A gay couple with some planning can enter into a contract with each other that would be able to mimic a marriage as the law in Minnesota treats it. The name of the contract is different (it couldn’t be called a marriage contract), but it would still act much like a marriage. So in reality, it is the definition that is taken away.

This is, however, is contract discrimination. Marriage is defined in Minnesota as, “Marriage, so far as its validity in law is concerned, is a civil contract between a man and a woman…” First, imagine if you inserted a race description before man and/or woman. Those races excluded from the law could still enter a contract as up above, but for the government to pick and choose what type of people can enter this specially defined “civil contract” is outside of the very essence of the United States Constitution which gives us the freedom to associate with who we wish. The argument that a gay couple could draw up a contract that mirrors marriage law cannot cover all things because other laws refer to marriage specifically. Also, if marriage law changes, the contract wouldn’t automatically adjust to those changes. The DFL in Minnesota should have argued it from this more specific point.

I also find the emotional outpouring from the Democrats a bit disingenuous. The law was modified in 1977 to include the phrase “between a man and a woman…” It was further modified in 1997 to add another phrase “ Lawful marriage may be contracted only between persons of the opposite sex…” If the democrats were so concerned about the rights for homosexual couples, why didn’t they do something to remove this language for the many sessions where they held a majority? It concerns me that their passion is a political points passion, and not a genuine concern for gay couples.

From the conservative side, I heard a few different arguments. A couple of Twitter users had civil discussions with me 140 characters at a time, but I found some of my questions went unanswered. The main argument was “let the voters of Minnesota decide.” That was probably the strongest argument. The issue I have is it is so specific and if the amendment fails, it doesn’t change the existing law nor does it prevent it from coming up again. This argument seems to really be an attempt to mask the religious motivation for proposing this amendment.

One Twitter user wrote, “The gay marriage crowd has it’s work cut out convincing people that sand is food,” referring to the assertion that homosexuality is “unnatural” biologically. This is what you might call a “straw man” argument. If one were to extend this idea, should we ban everything that is not biologically natural? Should it be illegal to eat sand? It is readily apparent that arguing from this position is silly. Homosexuality is very common in the animal kingdom. The only counter-argument I saw to this was that animals have also been known to advance on inanimate objects. While that fact is true, it doesn’t negate the occurrence in nature, including in humans long before Christianity. Humans have also come up with things such as the love doll. Do we ban those as well? My point here is that sex outside of procreation does exist. Note: I did use Wikipedia links here because they are good summaries of large subjects.

Another argument used studies showing kids do best when they have a mom and dad at home as parents. The studies are too many to link here, but those studies are very weak correlations and often done as surveys. We just don’t have enough good data to make a comparison between heterosexual couples and homosexual couples. Also, since kids of homosexual couples are often because of adoption (yes, there are a few surrogates, etc), are we not improving that child’s situation? Even if it could be proved a heterosexual couple was better, wouldn’t having a pair of loving parents still be an improvement over no parents? A recent study showed that kids of homosexual couples attend college at a higher rate and graduate at a higher rate than the general population. The protecting the kids argument is very weak at best.

One argument that bordered on offensive was using the rates of STDs in comparison to the general population. It does need to be addressed. My brief search didn’t turn up much for research, but some reading and general knowledge of psychology would lead me to this conclusion: The higher rate is partly due to the continued marginalization of homosexuality. When a person feels they need to hide something, they may not make rational decisions regarding the situation. It would be interesting to look at rates of STDs in countries where gay marriage is legal.

The last argument from conservatives I will address here is homosexual promiscuity. There are some survey studies that have been done that weakly conclude that homosexuals tend to have more partners and tend to be less committed than married couples. What isn’t addressed in this data is: 1) It is hard to get people to be completely truthful, even in an anonymous survey. Perhaps married people feel more shame about their previous partners or are afraid to share the information. And 2) How does not being allowed to marry affect commitment in a homosexual couple. Would married homosexual couples stay more committed knowing they have the contract between them and could lose 1/2 their stuff? The promiscuity argument is weak because the comparison is not equal.

I have a personal plea to make to Republican politicians. I’ve always voted DFL until recently. I voted for the most Republicans I ever have in the last election because I really thought the platform was focused on being fiscally responsible and minimizing government’s interference in our lives. This issue is not what I voted for, it is not high on the priority list, and it is not in the spirit of the Libertarian, non-intrusive government that many of you ran on during the campaign season. You are quickly losing my faith that you will take care of the things that really need to get done.

In my previous blog, I talk about the lack of logic used in this issue. If marriage is indeed a civil contract allowed between two people and a person can be in only one contract at a time, then that contract law needs to be applied equally. Some religious officials are OK with gay marriage. Some religions define marriage as only a man and a woman. We cannot choose which of these religious beliefs to follow, or to me it is in violation of the free exercise clause in the first amendment. The law might not always be fair (i.e. we don’t allow polygamy), but it should be applied equally.

2012 is going to be a very difficult vote. Right now, logic and reason seems to escape anyone in office. Without logic and reason, there is no debate – or at least no progress being made.