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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.

Sports Stadiums and Logic

This tweet from the account @BleacherView came across my Twitter feed this morning:

MN has lost 2 sports teams due to inadequate facilities: Lakers & North Stars. Paid more for new teams later.

I am always trying to improve my skills in the use of logic, and I find using analogies is a great way to help people visualize a certain subject and to also a way for people to better understand my point of view.  Today’s analogy will be televisions.

Let’s say you own a television.  You buy it in 1967.  It works great up until 1993 when it needs some repair.  You really don’t have the money to fix it, so you give the TV away to someone who puts a bunch of money getting it working.  Now, a few years later you find yourself really missing TV.  Well, you go buy a new one.  Likely, it would cost a little more than what repairing your old one did, but you didn’t have the money to fix it at the time.  The new 2000 model TV also cost much more than the 1967 TV because of simple inflation.

Here’s the other question to ask in this analogy: Is television a necessity?  Television is  primarily an entertainment vehicle.  Now granted, there are some economic considerations, such as the jobs created to design, manufacture, and distribute the TVs, along with the on going benefit you provide your local cable company.  However, not everyone has a TV and those people do fine.  And again, I would argue that television is not necessary for a fulfilling life. I don’t think the government has money for the 2000 model right now anyway.

Hopefully you followed my analogy in regards to sports teams.  When it comes to government funding, I just can’t find any justification for the government to fund a sports stadium.  Professional sports is primarily an entertainment vehicle.  Should the government really be funding entertainment?  Why not fund movie theaters?  Why didn’t the government step in and bail out Blockbuster or Borders Books?  Are those not venues of entertainment where thousands of people’s jobs are affected?

The arguments for a stadium are usually the economic benefits.  Is there really a large economic benefit from a stadium?  Let me ask it another way.  If the Vikings/Twins/Wild/Timberwolves didn’t exist, would you not find some other form of entertainment?  I would guess you would still go out to dinner.  maybe you would go see your local high school or college sports team.  Those teams would benefit because the admission could be put back into the education system.  You might read more books or rent more movies.  You might go to more plays.  The idea here is that people like ways to relax and getaway.  You don’t need a sports team to convince you of that.  A stadium simply concentrates that money into a smaller area.  Likely you wouldn’t travel to a central location if the stadium wasn’t there – which is also a benefit by saving infrastructure cost and maintenance to the government.

The other consideration is how pro sports works.  The Vikings are threatening to move to Los Angeles.  Could LA really support all 30 NFL franchises.  Or 15 each in New York and LA?  Obviously, no.  The markets need to be spread out to maximize ticket sales, TV revenue, and merchandise revenue.  I guess if a team can’t make it in a market, they need to find a market where they can make it.  If a league can’t survive without government support, then perhaps the players need to get paid less so the league can be profitable.  If the current players can’t survive on $5 million per year instead of $10 million per year, well then find another job because I am willing to be quarterback for the Vikings for a nice cool $500,000.  I bet I can find a few others willing to play for alot less, and now the Vikings will have $100 million+ per year free to finance a stadium.  OK, I understand the last sentence is a stretch and who would go to the stadium when the best athletes aren’t playing.  On the other hand, that also means the stadium could be much smaller and it would cost even less.

I do understand stadiums are a much larger project, and the government would have some limited involvement with infrastructure planning.  The government would also have some role in perhaps helping to secure property and maybe even offer some property tax breaks.  I say this only because I would say it is hard to value a stadium.  When our homes are valued for property taxes, it reflects what we could sell our home for on the market.  A stadium isn’t exactly easy to sell, so I think offering some concessions on property taxes could be considered while planning for a new building.  We do already offer teams government help, such as anti-trust exemptions.

We all like TVs and we all pretty much have one.  But should the government pay for our TVs?  I wold hope you would all answer no.  We shouldn’t be forcing our friends and neighbors to pay for entertainment they might not use.  By taking the cost of stadiums off of the teams and the leagues asking for government assistance, we artificially increase their profits, allowing them to pay their players more and benefit the owners of the teams.  As much as I like watching sports, sports will survive without government help.  Elite athletes will play for less money if they have to, because they will still make far more than most of us ever will see in our lifetime.  I hope the Vikings stay, but I am not willing to have my taxes diverted from roads, education, etc. just to have a football team play 8 times a year.

Let me leave you with this last thought as we all near property tax payment time.  The Vikings want $500 million from the state in assistance.  I couldn’t find numbers on how many homes there are in Minnesota, but there is just over 5 million people.  If there is 1 million homes in Minnesota, that $500 million dollars could instead reduce all of our property tax bills by $500.  That’s alot of money to me.  I really don’t feel the Vikings have delivered $500 worth of entertainment to my house.  I have been at a few games, and have been very entertained, but I also paid for the ticket.  That’s exactly who should pay for it.

I’ll buy my own TV.