The End of Argument

The quality of your argument is important – but only to you. As you can tell from political discourse these days, if you just step back and watch, each side has decided that they have the devastating argument for their position – they have marshaled all the facts and lined them up nicely. The case is closed. Tax cuts pay for themselves, because when you cut taxes to next to nothing the economy booms and the money pours into the government coffers, or else when you cut taxes less money comes in, obviously, and the deficit balloons – there’s no money for anything and you have to shut things down, or else you borrow a ton of money from the Chinese to keep the place running.

Which is it? The data from the Bush decade show that the latter position is correct – the Bush Tax cuts dug us into a deep hole – but the counterargument is clear. Had there not been those massive tax cuts for the very wealthy in 2001 and then again in 2003, things would have been much, much worse. Those tax cuts saved us from doom. Think about what you didn’t see.

And you know the old joke – sure, I always carry my lucky penny in the left pants pocket, to keep the giant man-eating mutant otters away. Yes, you say that’s absurd. But have you seen any giant man-eating mutant otters around here lately? Have you? There are many variations of that joke – tigers, bears or whatever. Otters will do.

The same sort of argument can be made about the stimulus – things would have been far worse had the Obama administration not forced that through Congress, all seven hundred billion dollars of it. There’s lots of data to support that position – but that the stimulus sort of worked also led to all sorts of debate – things would have been far better had the government done nothing and simply let private enterprise and the Invisible Hand of fully unregulated competition and personal greed and acquisitiveness work their usual magic. That would have been really great, so think about what you didn’t see. You have to think about what you didn’t see.

And the same pertains to our odd adventure in Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the September 2001 attacks – even Bush finally said so – and all along he feared and loathed al-Qaeda and they despised him and wanted him gone. And we were not greeted as liberators and the war did not pay for itself with Iraqi oil revenues, nor did those oil revenues pay for the rebuilding of Iraq. And the place is still a mess, unable to form a new government five months after the last elections. And with the Saddam-Sunni-Baath folks reduced to whining nonentities, the Shiite folks who remain are quickly aligning with our mortal enemy, and Israel’s mortal enemy, Iran, which may soon have a nuclear weapon or two, or three or four or more one day. And the Kurds in the north look on.

Was it worth it? What if we hadn’t done anything much? Saddam would still be in power. Would you want that? You have to think about what you didn’t see. And yes, Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. But what if he had giant man-eating mutant otters? Have you thought about that?

You know the line. We’re fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here. You have to think about what you haven’t seen. No one has flown a jetliner into a skyscraper in the last nine years or so. There have been no sightings of giant man-eating mutant otters either. Case closed. And the argument, about fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here, is now used by the Obama administration as they lay the groundwork for another ten or twenty years of doing whatever it is we’re doing in Afghanistan.

No one believes we’re leaving. After all, think about what would happen if we didn’t support the goofy and corrupt Karzai and those who will inevitably follow him, each likely to be as feckless as he. The bad guys would take over the place and use it as a base to attack us again, like the last time, when they plotted in Hamburg and San Diego. No, wait – ah, just think hard about the imaginary.

But we do that all the time. You can extend the principle to other matters. What would happen if we let gays marry, or what would happen if we taxed fast food and sugary soda, or what would have happened had we not rescued the banks and GM and Chrysler? And what would happen if we got rid of all income tax and capital gains taxes, and Social Security, Medicare, all welfare of any kind and unemployment insurance and all public schools? Wouldn’t things be better?

Maybe things really would be better. After all, for every factual there’s a counterfactual:

A significant foray into treating counterfactual scenarios seriously was made by the economic historian Robert Fogel. In his 1964 book Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History, Fogel tried to use quantitative methods to imagine what the U.S. economy would have been like in 1890 if there were no railroads. Fogel hypothesizes that, in the absence of the railroad, America’s large canal system would have been expanded and its roads would have been improved through pavement; both of these improvements would take away from the social impact of the railroad. He estimates that “the level of per capita income achieved by January 1, 1890 would have been reached by March 31, 1890, if railroads had never been invented.”

Cool – but rather meaningless. Railroads had been invented. Deal with it. The same applies to much else now in place.

But we actually train ourselves for counterfactual argument. Perhaps high schools still have debate clubs – or perhaps with schools budgets being what they are those days are long gone. But they were useful:

The major goal of the study of debate as a method or art is to develop one’s ability to play from either position with equal ease. To inexperienced debaters, some propositions appear easier to defend or to destroy; to experienced debaters, any proposition can be defended or destroyed after the same amount of preparation time, usually quite short.

If you’re going to be a lawyer, or a politician, competitive formal debate is good training. You can explain anything, however preposterous, in a convincing and orderly way. In a formal debate you get points for your skill at this – the particular point you’re arguing doesn’t really matter. It can be utter nonsense, and in fact – like the Degree of Difficulty in competitive diving – the more absurd the better. You’re not trying to convince anyone of anything, really. You’re demonstrating that you’ve mastered a complex skill set so that you could, if you wanted, convince the Supreme Court of Minnesota that Elvis is still alive, or convince your wife that was just a good friend, or that she doesn’t look fat in that dress. It’s usually a matter of lining up the counterfactuals. If you hadn’t done this, or you had done that, awful things would have happened. And since they didn’t happen, you were right all along. Case closed.

But you do have to have some sort of argument. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor – the Republican from Virginia – spoke with National Review recently and shared his thoughts on the proposed Cordoba House two blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. And Cantor offered an odd response:

Everybody knows America’s built on the rights of free expression, the rights to practice your faith, but come on. The World Trade Centers were brought down by Islamic extremists, uh, radicals who were bent on killing Americans and accomplished that in unimaginable ways. I think it is the height of insensitivity, uh, and unreasonableness to allow for the construction of a mosque on the site of the World Trade Center bombings.

I mean, come on.

That was it. That was the argument, the counterfactual. But damn, you at least have to try, and Steve Benen offers this:

First, “come on” is not a good reason to ignore the rights America was built on. Second, murderous, violent extremists executed the 9/11 attacks, and this would absolutely be relevant in this debate, if murderous, violent extremists were trying to build a community center in Manhattan. Since that isn’t happening in our reality – Feisal Abdul Rauf was a sought-out ally of the Bush administration – Cantor’s point seems pretty foolish.

Benen refers to this:

New York imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, best known as the man who hopes to build the Cordoba House in lower Manhattan, has been asked by the State Department to travel to the Middle East to assist with the government’s diplomatic agenda in the region. Specifically, Rauf would talk about the ways in which Muslim Americans enjoy the same rights and respect that other Americans enjoy.

The right is outraged. The man is a terrorist, after all. But Adam Serwer notes here that the State Department has “a long-term relationship” with Rauf – which included the Bush administration sending him on a similar tour. Republicans didn’t complain when the Bush-Cheney State Department partnered with “this radical” to help with our diplomatic efforts in the Middle East.

And there is this Jeffrey Goldberg’s item – “I know Feisal Abdul Rauf; I’ve spoken with him at a public discussion at the 96th street mosque in New York about interfaith cooperation. He represents what Bin Laden fears most: a Muslim who believes that it is possible to remain true to the values of Islam and, at the same time, to be a loyal citizen of a Western, non-Muslim country.”

I mean, come on. That was Cantor’s argument. Obviously the quality of your argument is important – but only to you. And it’s easy to see the corollary. When you assume that everyone just knows whatever it is, and agrees with you, representative government is impossible. No one can work out anything with the other party. Everyone is convinced of their own argument, or by their own argument. I mean, come on.

Benen points out that Politico described Cantor as a serious wonk – and odd assertion, but mostly they were talking about style, as Cantor is not John Boehner:

Boehner is a backslapper who loves golf and socializes with his friends after hours at an Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill. Cantor is a serious wonk, hard to read and harder to really know well.

Boehner likes to joke around; he has often mocked Cantor for wearing Gucci loafers. Cantor is hyperactive, intensely focused and seemingly always in motion. “They’re not going to be vacationing together anytime soon, but I think they get along okay,” said a veteran GOP lawmaker.

The two did spar privately over the creation of America Speaking Out, Boehner’s pet project for crafting a new agenda. Cantor wanted the program run out of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which would have allowed party leaders to capture names and then hit those people up for cash and campaign help.

Cantor was familiar with the problems of mixing politics and policy. He was forced to pull the plug on the National Council for a New America, after Democrats complained that it violated ethics laws, which prohibit mingling policy staff with political work. It was an embarrassing flop for Cantor.

He’s just not a policy guy. He knows what he knows. See Ezra Klein here saying that he’s “always been a bit puzzled” by Cantor, and hasn’t “seen much evidence” of Cantor’s interest in policy:

His policy positions range from “whatever the rest of the caucus is supporting,” which makes sense given that he’s part of the House leadership, to sort of wacky ideas, like his bailout alternative in which the federal government would insure all mortgages. At the health-care summit, there were plenty of Republicans – Paul Ryan, Lamar Alexander, and Tom Coburn, among them – who made compelling presentations. Cantor… was the guy who brought props.

What Cantor does seem to be is an excellent fundraiser and messenger … But maybe I’m missing something on Cantor and my readers can enlighten me. Is he known for mastery of a particular issue?

Benen responds here:

Eric Cantor has never demonstrated any working familiarity with any area of public policy – ever. On health care, he had no idea what he was talking about, but pretended he did. On national security policy, Cantor is “divorced from reality.”

In one of my favorite Cantor stories, the Minority Whip appeared at the Economist’s World in 2010 conference late last year, and insisted that his Republican Party had plenty of “big ideas,” especially on “jobs.” The moderator responded, “What is the big idea? ‘Jobs’ is not an idea.” Cantor replied, “The big idea is to get, to get, to produce an environment where we can have job creation again.”

He then changed the subject.

That item is full of links to prove the point, but come on – if you think he’s a serious wonk he is a serious wonk. No one ever changes their mind these days.

And Benen adds this:

Eric Cantor continues to be a classic example of a post turtle – you know he didn’t get up there by himself; he obviously doesn’t belong up there; he can’t get anything done while he’s there; and you just want to help the poor, dumb thing down.

Some Republicans may disagree with this assessment, but I mean, come on.

People will not agree. But yes, some do make better arguments. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered an amazing speech in support of the Cordoba House, that proposed Muslim community, and the idea was that his words end all debate:

Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

That shut up a few folks, for a time, but as Cantor was inadequate in his debating skills, William Kristol decided to deploy his skills:

The conclusion of Bloomberg’s speech was odd: “Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure – and there is no neighborhood in this City that is off limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest.” Do the rest of us need Bloomberg’s hand-picked religious leaders to tell us that there are no limits to God’s love and mercy?

That’s it? The speech was about no limits to God’s love and mercy and since everyone knows that the speech was useless?

Benen comments:

Actually, I suspect the point of Bloomberg assembling an ecumenical panel was to prove that this “controversy” isn’t about helping one specific religious tradition – it’s about honoring principles that serve the interests of all. It’s why we’re seeing diverse groups of faith leaders stepping up to denounce “xenophobia and religious bigotry” in the midst of this debate.

Yep, you could look it up – all sorts of religious leaders, of all faiths, all backing Bloomberg on this. But Kristol said this:

If Bloomberg were to have his way, it’s worth noting that he would presumably attend a dedication of Feisal Abdul Rauf’s mosque at Ground Zero before he would attend a dedication of a proper memorial to those who died there.

Contemporary liberalism means building a mosque rather than a memorial at Ground Zero – and telling your fellow citizens to shut up about it.

Benen:

I don’t know nearly enough about internal NYC politics to know why there’s been so little progress at the Ground Zero site; maybe Bloomberg deserves some blame, maybe not. I’m not in a position to say.

I can say, however, that Kristol is playing a dishonest little game, which is consistent with his usual brand of intellectual dishonesty. The building at Park51 would not stand “at Ground Zero,” and Kristol knows it. He’s just hoping conservative activists won’t know the difference.

Kristol could have gone after Bloomberg on the merits, but that wouldn’t have worked out as well.

Well, people don’t argue the merits much these days, and Andrew Sullivan laments that:

There is some bizarre notion among the punditocracy that the Obama administration cannot and should not blame Bush and the GOP for the awful recession, looming tax rises and entitlement cuts, endless wars, tainted moral standing, crumbling infrastructure and massive debt that Obama inherited. I think this is foolish. Because it means this president not only has to take responsibility for his own policies, but for the legacy that has made his job close to impossible.

This is a recession caused by a collapse in a too-lightly regulated financial sector and a huge housing bubble sustained by the last administration. We have a debt fueled overwhelmingly by unaffordable tax cuts, two disastrous unfunded wars, and a new Medicare entitlement that was never paid for. None of this was Obama’s doing. None of it. He came into the White House facing the worst legacy since Carter bequeathed the Oval Office to Reagan. And the great difficulty of moving out of this wasteland of unemployment is due, in part, to the extreme fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush-Cheney GOP. …

Obama allowed the hacks on the right to pivot immediately to pinning the entire deficit and debt on Obama – and, amplified by the Fox News Channel, they have somehow managed to turn the debate back into the exhausted big-government versus little-guy choice – rather than debating exactly what, if anything, we can do to rescue ourselves from the Bush-Cheney hangover.

Sullivan has another idea:

Here’s an alternative approach – aggressively blaming even future bleakness on the GOP, matching their refusal to take any responsibility for the worst period of governance in modern times with a no-holds-barred assault on their brand. It will soon be time for Obama to go on the offensive against these nihilists and amnesiacs and to remind people of the difference between the arsonist and the fire-fighter.

That should be fun, but it doesn’t sound like Obama.

And via Megan Carpentier, consider this:

To many conservatives, almost everything is a secret liberal plot: from fluoride in the water to Medicare reimbursements for end-of-life planning with your doctor to efforts to teach evolution in schools. But Conservapedia founder and Eagle Forum University instructor Andy Schlafly – Phyllis Schlafly’s son – has found one more liberal plot: the theory of relativity.

She quotes him in conservapedia.com on Counterexamples to Relativity:

The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.

Huh? And that leads to a note from his Mom:

See e.g. historian Paul Johnson’s book about the 20th century, and the article written by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe as allegedly assisted by Barack Obama. Virtually no one who is taught and believes relativity continues to read the Bible, a book that outsells New York Times bestsellers by a hundred-fold.

Carpentier:

In other words, reading a theory about physics is correlated to a decrease in people’s interest in reading the Bible, which means that it causes people to stop reading the Bible.

That devolves into a discussion of action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54.

Conservapedia defines “action-at-a-distance” as “Action at a distance consists of affecting a distant body instantaneously.” At the atomic level, this is known as “non-locality.” In non-confusing terms, that indicates the ability to cause something to happen instantaneously in another location (i.e., faster than the speed of light). Since Jesus could, reportedly, do this, thus Einstein is wrong. Schlafly’s evidence is John 4:46-54, in which Jesus reportedly cured someone’s son just by saying that it had happened.

Case closed. The quality of your argument is important – but only to you.

Okay, imagine a political system where representatives have firm opinions on policy, elected by constituents who hold similar opinions, but who see it as their job to reconcile all sorts of strong opinions for the general good, and who discuss matters while refusing to use counterfactuals and unlikely and unknowable imaginary scenarios. And each of them assumes that there might come a time when, under those restrictions, they might have to change their mind, or at least swallow their pride, and deal with the facts available and the given rules for dealing with them, and compromise a bit.

But that’s a counterfactual too. I mean, come on.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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