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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.

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And so the 2012 campaign begins…

April 27, 2011 Leave a comment

While serious issues get pushed to the back burner, it is obvious that the presidential campaign is underway as Donald Trump makes a fool of himself and President Obama uses his office to start countering political campaigns. I know mud-slinging and misinformation have been a part of campaigns since elections have been held, but the modern main-stream media really adds fuel to the fire. Has anyone ever heard of research. I start to wonder if media has any journalists left, or if they all are simply reporters. Political blogs are even worse. One egregious example is from a progressive blogger who tweeted, “When will [Michele Bachmann] produce her birth certificate and prove she’s from this planet?” Honestly? I don’t agree with Representative Bachmann on many things, including the fact she questioned President Obama’s birth certificate. Or there is this article asking Sarah Palin to produce her college papers. I think she is completely misguided and then tries to distract people by saying “Don’t let the White House distract you from real issues.” Then look at the “@” replies to her tweet. The political rhetoric is so childish it sickens me. This kind of childish rhetoric degrades the political conversation and provides no platform for compromise or discussion.

Let me get out a few facts about the “Birther” conspiracy. The people pushing need to understand the purpose of the “natural born Citizen” clause as stated in our Constitution. It was meant to prevent a dual loyalty, i.e. to prevent someone from making decisions that would benefit another country over our own. All presidents go through an extensive process within their respective parties, so any doubt as to a person’s loyalty would be exposed long before any election. The electors in the Electoral College also provide a buffer (albeit weak) to preventing a rogue candidate from being elected. This was one of the reasons the Electoral College was set up in the first place, because the Founding Fathers knew a pure democracy would never survive. Instead they set up a democratic republic – so if someone ever tries to tell you we are a democracy, make sure to tell them they are wrong. By having a “filtered majority,” we prevent mob rule and in a sense gain more control over our government.

Neither party seems to get it, because as the Republicans go after President Obama over his birth certificate, this Democratic blog seems to think the Constitution mandates the President to make us a moral beacon in the world. They are right that the job of the President is to “…preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution…,” but even our first President warned us to stay out of foreign entanglements. There are people in the world who don’t believe in the freedom we have in our country, and we can’t force them to change their mind. The President’s job is to make sure we always have our freedom here. It ends at our borders.

So, in the worst-case scenario someone were to be elected that was not a “natural born Citizen,” we would still have options. It would be obvious rather quickly if an executive was granting favors to a particular country or set of countries. The President can’t make law. Even the President’s ability to make war is a bit more limited since the Korean and Vietnam conflicts brought up the whole issue of a declaration of war. If the President were to be caught showing dual loyalty, he could be impeached by the House and brought to trial in the Senate. There are even mechanisms in place for the Vice President to take over temporarily if the President is thought to have lost his capacity to lead. We have a pretty good system to prevent a rogue President.

With President Obama specifically, conservatives really just need to stop. Use some logic. First, President Obama has hardly deviated at all from President Bush’s policies of spending and war-making. So, how is it that President Obama’s policies could be construed as anti-American? Second, let’s just say the “birther” campaign were to be successful, then we would get Joe Biden as President? Is his policy going to be that much different?

The bottom line on the “birther” issue is that it is pretty clear President Obama was born in Hawaii. Perhaps the information is not perfectly crystal clear, but I don’t think his loyalty is in question. If anything, it should show us that we need to improve our documentation of all people in the United States to prevent terrorism, identity theft, medical records, etc. There is a whole host of things that cold be improved if we came up with better ways to document, identify, and protect individuals. It also should show us that the “natural born Citizen” clause, along with the 14th amendment, should be reexamined and clarified.

One other campaign issue that is in full swing is the economy. Here again, both sides need to get off their power trip. A hardcore, left-wing website claims that Greece’s austerity measures have worsened their economy. There is a basic rule in any scientific study which is: Correlation does not equal causation. So Greece’s economy got worse, and it just so happens that Greece cut government spending, so it must be that reduction in spending that caused the economy to worsen. It’s not true. Think of it this way: If government spending could improve the economy ad infinitum, why doesn’t the government simply spend more? Does anyone really think that if the United States government doubled its spending that the economy would rocket off into massive growth?

The Democrats started with the mistake of stating that the economy would instantly improve if the stimulus plan was passed. Joe Biden promised that the stimulus would keep unemployment below 8% (it currently sits at about 8.8%). The Republicans are saying if we don’t cut spending and reform entitlements immediately that the U.S. will fall off a cliff. Is there anyone who can inject a dose of reality? They are even going so far as to say that spending cuts and lower taxes would immediately jump-start the economy. The Republicans also point to President Reagan’s tax cuts as a key driver to the economic boom in the 1980s that doubled the federal revenue. Although there is some evidence that is true, further supported by cuts in the 1920s and 1960s, tax policy alone doesn’t drive the economy.

The reality is there is a limit to how much revenue our government can collect and still be within the bounds of a free society. We have to understand there is a balance to taxation and freedom, and if taxes are too low or too high we put that freedom in jeopardy. In fact, the Reagan tax cuts actually made tax collections more progressive, i.e. the rich paid more as a percentage of tax revenues while the bottom 50% paid less. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon said of high taxes:

The history of taxation shows that taxes which are inherently excessive are not paid. The high rates inevitably put pressure upon the taxpayer to withdraw his capital from productive business and invest it in tax-exempt securities or to find other lawful methods of avoiding the realization of taxable income. The result is that the sources of taxation are drying up; wealth is failing to carry its share of the tax burden; and capital is being diverted into channels which yield neither revenue to the Government nor profit to the people.

Note: Link above is to another blog essay that has a nice mathematical example of balancing taxes with the freedom to invest.

We can’t keep spending at current levels, but we can’t just slash and burn without some thought into how to soften the landing. Tax policy, economic policy (i.e. the federal reserve and government borrowing), business regulation, personal freedom, and every other aspect of government affect the economy. We need reasonable taxes and regulation and a reasonable safety net combined with a large level of personal responsibility. The current major parties only want their own small part of that policy. It’s time they expand their minds. Whoever does it first will be getting my vote in 2012.