An Argument for Argument

When people use the word argument they often mean just fighting – shouting back and forth and name-calling, and cutting insults of course. Or you have the other kind of fighting, where the two parties sit silently and seethe with resentment and all the communication in non-verbal – the deadly stare, the turned back, or something slammed down without explanation, as the other party damned-well better know what that means. All married people know about such things.

But those aren’t arguments. That’s just fighting. An argument is where each party explains their position, and then the reasoning that led them to that position, with telling examples and maybe some statistics or other sort of empirical facts – and then they rest their case. And the other party then does the same, followed by each side telling the other what they see as the flaws in the opposing argument. All that has to be reviewed and what makes sense sorted out from what doesn’t. And that’s arguing. In fact, each side had an argument for wisely taking action or wisely deferring any action at the moment. And this is not fighting, or self-righteous posing and posturing. It’s how people agree to get stuff done.

But people generally quarrel because they cannot argue, as William Shenstone once put it. Explaining your position and the reasoning involved, and the relevant and cogent facts as you see them, is either too much work or really irritating to someone who just knows they’re right. And as Shenstone implied, most people are not just too lazy pr too arrogant to do the work, they are intellectually incapable of doing that work. They just don’t have the horsepower – even minimally intelligent people argue, while dumb people just quarrel. That’s all they can manage.

But there is the variation of this that every parent of a teenager knows all too well – the argument that isn’t an argument, that statement of outraged anger. You know the words. It’s just not FAIR!

What can you say to that? Yes, life is not fair. Life often isn’t fair. Hell, life seldom is fair. And maybe it’s not so bad. You get used to it. But anyway, what do you want to do now? How would you like things to be different, and how can we work on making things different?

Good luck with that. Teenagers seem to hang onto their anger as if it were a badge of honor. They don’t want consolation – no hugs. And they don’t want perspective on how life, really, is full of such things. And they don’t want to think of next steps. They want to savor their anger, because it makes them special. No one has ever been wronged this way before. And it feels good to be special, even if you’ve been wronged.

And of course you cannot argue with them. They don’t want to hear your position, and your reasoning, or be presented with your supporting empirical data. And they don’t know what they want. They just want you to know they’re angry – really, really angry. That’s the only thing they want you to know. They cannot explain it. They’re no real argument for their anger, just the anger. It’s best to wait them out.

And of course that might remind you of the Tea Party crowd – angry and proud of their anger. They want their country back, although they’re a bit vague on where it’s been, and the country, the one they want back – that Ozzie and Harriet world of the early fifties – never was. But now it’s stop this and stop that – healthcare reform and gay and minority people being too visible and all the rest – with no alternative ways to move forward. They too just want you to know they’re angry – really, really angry. The alternatives, what to do next, will come later, or maybe not. All you need to know for now it that they’re very, very angry.

So noted – but more and more of them have been elected to office, mainly in the House. And that’s the problem. That’s the sort of place where the job is to review policy and sort out what makes sense from what doesn’t, and argue things out, and then pass some legislation about it, shoot it over to the Senate and hope they agree, and then if they do, send it off to the president to be signed into law. That’s how people agree to get stuff done. It’s no place for teenagers to sit and seethe and now and then shout out that life isn’t fair. Of course life isn’t fair. So what? There’s work to be done – budgets and funding the nation’s operations, and laws to pass to make things run better. The perpetually angry folks gum up the works. And there’s no time to wait them out.

And they sow confusion, because they’ve never made the argument for their position on any issue. It’s as if their anger should have been enough. There’s no argument there, in the sense that argument is a means to work out the best way to proceed. Nothing much seems to have been thought through. It’s all quarreling.

Curiously, in American Conservative, Sean Scallon in this item points out this contradiction:

One of the main theses of the Ron Paul 2008 Presidential campaign, where the genesis of the Tea Party movement lies, is the fact one cannot have a large military, national security and intelligence establishments and a small government at the same time. It doesn’t work that way contrary to what the politicians will have you believe. If Tea Partiers are serious … then they have to call for not just cuts in the Pentagon budget, but fundamental changes in the way the U.S. conducts foreign and military policy, in line with current budget, economic and resource realities. This is the challenge that must be presented to the Tea Partiers and must pushed upon them to meet. If they do so, then the Tea Parties can have a transformative effect on U.S. policy and politics and broaden itself to being a larger movement. If not, they simply pass into history as just another faction, another protest group.

Yep, you can be angry at all the runaway spending, and angry no one even slightly left of center has any respect at all for the military, or any sense that everyone else is the word is trying to kill us next Tuesday, but you have to think things through. Being angry isn’t enough.

And it is somewhat like talking with a pouting teenager, and Andrew Sullivan wonders about that:

The question is how to engage the Tea Party in this debate. They certainly can’t be reached via National Review, or the Weekly Standard or the Wall Street Journal, all of which tread very gingerly around the anti-interventionist impulse that still runs through parts of the rank and file. Nor is Fox News willing to cede the cudgel of national security politics, having become so adept at wielding it. The same goes for talk radio. Breaking into the information cocoon is hard to do…

It’s complicated, and at Conservative Home, Yuval Levin suggests that if there’s one thing he could change about his crowd it would be this:

I would make it so that every time we are tempted to talk about the size of government we talk also (and more so) about the purpose of government. This would make us more focused on policy particulars than on vague abstractions, better able to offer an alternative to the left’s agenda rather than just slowing the pace of its implementation, and better able to speak to the aspirations of the larger public.

And at the Fiscal Times, Bruce Bartlett practically begs these folks to acknowledge reality:

Spending and deficits are not going to be controlled by taking a meat-ax to the budget, as many of those in the Tea Party want to do. You can’t just enact across the board cuts in every program or abolish departments and agencies and expect their functions to completely disappear. …

The reality is that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are where the real money is, and reducing outlays for these programs is very, very hard; not just for political reasons, but because they are highly complex programs and require changes in the law governing eligibility to reduce spending in the long run. Doing so in a way that can’t be gamed by beneficiaries or create massive unfairness is a major challenge.

In other words you want to think about this, and about how angry people can think, as they refuse to think. They’re too proud of the special anger.

And Steve Benen covers that in this item on the big issue of the day:

The House Republican effort to repeal the entirety of the Affordable Care Act is absurd from a variety of angles, not the least of which is that it’s actually a pretty good law.

On a substantive level, the GOP move would hurt consumers and increase the deficit. On a political level, the GOP is breaking its own rules to get repeal done quickly. On a practical level, Republicans realize this bill is a pointless stunt that can’t pass the Senate.

But then there’s the name of this dumb endeavor.

Benen is referring to what Paul Krugman noted – “The only lingering surprise I can muster is at the sheer tackiness of the bill’s title. The Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act? Really? Have they, at long last, no sense of shame?”

Benen – “Actually, no, they don’t.” And Benen sees a pattern here:

Republicans have been obsessed with throwing the words “job-killing” in front of all kinds of ideas – it’s arguably surpassed Giuliani and his affinity for 9/11 references – generally without making any sense at all.

This is especially problematic when it comes to health care because the GOP has it backwards.

And Benen cites Steven Pearlstein in this column on the larger dynamic at play:

Ironically, the first order of legislative business in the new Republican House will be to repeal last year’s health-care reform law. Since the immediate impact of the measure will be to allow 30 million more Americans the chance to buy drugs and medical services from doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, it’s hard to imagine a more effective way to reduce employment in the one sector that is actually adding jobs.


Exactly right. The House GOP says it needs to gut America’s health care system in order to create jobs … and were they to succeed, it would cost America jobs.

At a certain level, Republicans just have to hope the public isn’t paying any attention to reality at all. Since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, the private sector has added 1.1 million jobs. Roughly a fifth of that total – more than 200,000 – were jobs created in the health care industry.

If health care reform is bad for job creation, how did this happen?

Good question. So see Igor Volsky:

Aside from the fact that increasing access to health services will create thousands of jobs in the health care sector, Harvard economist David Cutler argues in new paper released this morning that repealing the health law would reverse these gains and could destroy 250,000 to 400,000 jobs annually over the next decade. Eliminating the law would increase health care costs and cause employers to reduce wages and cut jobs for those employees who already receive minimum wage or are in fixed contracts.

As Benen notes, these arguments aren’t just wrong, they’re backwards, “And yet, they’ll continue to use inane phrases because, well, it’s easier than thinking.”

Shenstone said that, and Pearlstein concludes with this:

The next time you hear some politician or radio blowhard or corporate hack tossing around the ‘job-killing’ accusation, you can be pretty sure he’s not somebody to be taken seriously. It’s a sign that he disrespects your intelligence, disrespects the truth and disrespects the democratic process. By poisoning the political well and making it difficult for our political system to respond effectively to economic challenges, Republicans may turn out to be the biggest job killers of all.

But Pearlstein also says this:

What’s particularly noteworthy about this fixation with “job killing” is that it stands in such contrast to the complete lack of concern about policies that kill people rather than jobs. Repealing health-care reform, for instance, would inevitably lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths each year because of an inability to get medical care.

Although lack of effective regulation led directly to the deaths of 78 coal miners last year in West Virginia, Republicans continue to insist that any reform of mine safety laws is bad for miners’ employment.

Republicans also continue to oppose food safety legislation that could save the lives of hundreds of Americans killed each year by contaminated food, just as they oppose any regulation that would effectively keep assault weapons out of the hands of convicted criminals and narco-terrorists who kill thousands of innocent victims on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Don’t kill jobs, kill people? That’s odd. You don’t think clearly when you’re professionally angry. And Matthew Yglesias covers that:

Today the CBO announced that HR 2, the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act” will increase the budget deficit considerably. This should come as no surprise to those of us who recall that the CBO said passing the Affordable Care Act would reduce the deficit.

The confusing part here is the conservative take. They complained that claims about the deficit-reducing powers of the ACA were disingenuous because repeal of the deficit-reducing elements was likely. Well, maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. But if that’s your argument, then it follows that repealing the deficit reducing elements of the ACA will increase the deficit. What’s more, repealing the entire ACA necessarily entails repealing the deficit-reducing elements of the ACA. Ergo, ACA repeal increases the deficit even according to the bizarro world math in which passing it in the first place didn’t reduce the deficit.

Obviously the fact that neither conservative politicians nor voters care about long-term deficit reduction isn’t news. But still!

Yep, it’s like talking to a sulking teenager. And see Bruce Bartlett on what motivates the longtime Republican hatred of the Congressional Budget Office:

It’s a fact of life that sometimes you have to spend money to save money. We all know this in our personal lives. For example, it may be cheaper to buy a new car than keep spending money repairing an old one, or to invest in a more efficient new furnace that may pay for itself by lowering one’s heating bill. The same is true with government. Closing an obsolete military base costs money in the short run, but saves money in the long run.

Another way Congress may need to spend money now to save much more later is by investing in the analysis and research necessary to understand the enormous complexity of federal finances. The fact is that permanent solutions to our budget problems will necessarily require changes in a great many laws that govern the eligibility for government benefits, contracting, federal financing for programs administered by the states, and many other things.

Only experts understand the complexities of programs like Medicare and how difficult it is to change the law in such a way as to achieve meaningful savings. They know that those who benefit from such programs – by which I don’t mean individual beneficiaries, but institutions such as hospitals, HMOs and insurance companies – employ people who know the law and program details and get paid a lot to frustrate ill-devised efforts to reduce their revenues.

So they invented the Congressional Budget Office and we get this:

CBO’s great sin, in Republican eyes, is that it’s always telling them that their pet ideas are wrong: tax cuts don’t automatically pay for themselves through the Laffer Curve, the Affordable Care Act didn’t raise the deficit, the budget can’t be balanced only by cutting domestic discretionary spending, and other heresies to Republican dogma.

And Kevin Drum adds this:

The latest incarnation of this assault on reality is typically childish: the GOP leadership is declining to officially reappoint Doug Elmendorf to head the CBO even though both the chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees (one Republican and one Democrat) have recommended it. It sure is good to see that the grownups are back in charge, isn’t it?

Well, it’s not FAIR!

And the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein points to this:

In the Wyoming state legislature, 10 congressmen and three senators have co-sponsored “The Health Care Choice and Protection Act.” The intent? To make it a felony to implement the health-care reform law – which is, you’ll remember, the official law of the land.

After his analysis Klein adds this:

There’s not much use in worrying about something like this as it wouldn’t survive two seconds in a court of law. But the sentiments are worth considering: The argument is that this legislation isn’t just policy that the authors disagree with, but rather a deeply, profoundly, un-American threat to liberty. It’s so un-American, in fact, that a plain reading of the Constitution makes clear that the Wyoming legislature, which has sworn to protect and defend the document, must “adopt and enact any and all measures as may be necessary within the borders of Wyoming to prevent the enforcement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.”

Many of my friends on the right have legitimate technocratic differences with the Affordable Care Act. But many of the politicians they’ve stood with have not made a legitimate case against the bill. Rather, they’ve taken a bill that echoes past legislation Republicans have introduced and called it, as Sen. Jon Kyl did, “a stunning threat to liberty.” They’ve told their supporters, as Senator Chuck Grassley did, that they’re right to fear that the health-care bill “determines if you’re going to pull the plug on grandma.” This is not merely legislation that they have some technical or philosophical disagreements with. It is, in the words of Speaker John Boehner, “a monstrosity.”

Given the extremism of the rhetoric at the top, is it any wonder that there is incredible fear trickling down to the grass roots? If those are the stakes, then of course criminalizing any implementation of the bill makes sense. Frankly, if those are the stakes, then violent resistance might be required.

But Klein points out that those aren’t the stakes:

They’re just the words. And words slip sometimes. Things come out too angry, or too quickly, or too sharply. I’ve had my share of experience with this. But words matter. And the Republican Party hasn’t been slipping up: It’s been engaged in a concerted campaign to scare the population into opposing health-care reform. That may be good politics, but it can have bad consequences.

But that’s what happens when one side thinks we’re all engaging in careful and detailed argument back and forth, about what’s best moving forward, and the other side is sulking and pouting and proudly displaying their anger, their anger that makes them so special.

And it would be nice if we could just wait them out. You know that with your teenager. Acknowledge their anger – they like that – and leave them alone. They’ll get over it, whatever it is.

But you can’t run the country that way. Of course life isn’t fair. And yes, if you wish, you guys are special. So what? There’s work to be done.

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.
This entry was posted in Arguing with Conservatives, Passion in Politics, Political Discourse, Politics of Grievance, Politics of Resentment, Tea Party Movement and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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