That Which Just Isn’t So

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge – what we know and what we can know, and perhaps what we cannot ever know. Epistemology is all questions. How is knowledge produced? Should we be skeptical of different “knowledge claims?” What do people really know? How did they come to “know” it, whatever it is? And what does “knowing” mean anyway? And it’s easy enough to assume that those on the other side, whoever they are, are incapable of thinking clearly from actual evidence and are, in fact, incapable of knowing anything, but then, what is evidence? Anecdotes are not evidence, and so on. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that makes your head hurt, but it’s where all of philosophy must start. What do we know?

Epistemology is also in the news, with this from dictionary.com:

Our 2018 Word of the Year Is … Misinformation

The rampant spread of misinformation poses new challenges for navigating life in 2018. As a dictionary, we believe understanding the concept is vital to identifying misinformation in the wild, and ultimately curbing its impact.

But what does misinformation mean? Dictionary.com defines it as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.”

They’re making a distinction here:

The meaning of misinformation is often conflated with that of disinformation. However, the two are not interchangeable. Disinformation means “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.”

So, the difference between misinformation and disinformation comes down to intent.

And that’s the problem:

When people spread misinformation, they often believe the information they are sharing. In contrast, disinformation is crafted and disseminated with the intent to mislead others. Further confusing the issue is the fact that a piece of disinformation can ultimately become misinformation. It all depends on who’s sharing it and why. For example, if a politician strategically spreads information that they know to be false in the form of articles, photos, memes, etc., that’s disinformation. When an individual sees this disinformation, believes it, and then shares it, that’s misinformation.

And then there’s Donald Trump and the big story of Thanksgiving weekend that simply disappeared, as Chris Cillizza explains here:

President Donald Trump on Monday dismissed a study produced by his own administration, involving 13 federal agencies and more than 300 leading climate scientists, warning of the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change.

Why, you ask?

“I don’t believe it,” Trump told reporters on Monday, adding that he had read “some” of the report.

That was no surprise:

Just over eight years ago, he tweeted this: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” In 2014, he penned this tweet: “It’s late in July and it is really cold outside in New York. Where the hell is GLOBAL WARMING??? We need some fast! It’s now CLIMATE CHANGE.”

And then, this from last Wednesday: “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?”

And then this:

Forty-eight hours after Trump’s how-can-the-world’s-climate-be-changing-if-it’s-cold-in-half-the-country-on-one-day tweet — and the moved-up release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment… It was originally slated to be made public next month but was suddenly released on the day after Thanksgiving, aka Black Friday, when the country shops, eats, hangs with family and pays a total of zero attention to what’s going on in politics. Outside of Christmas and the actual day of Thanksgiving, there’s no better day to drop bad news that you don’t want people to see.

No one was supposed to see this:

The report, the second of four such annual studies commissioned by Congress, concludes not only that the world’s temperature is rising and but also that the preponderance of evidence suggests human actions play a role in it. The report’s authors conclude that the changing climate “is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us.” And that, unless we change our practices and policies, there will be “substantial damages to the US economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.”

The report goes on to detail the economic impact of climate change (hundreds of billions lost, with farms being hardest hit) and the physical toll it could take on our collective health, as factors like air quality, disease transmission by insects, food and water will “increasingly threaten the health and well-being of the American people.”

Trump believes none of it:

Earlier the White House downplayed the report, saying it relied on extreme models that were selected during the Obama administration… but it’s important to note here that this is not a partisan document. It was produced by 13 agencies within the Trump administration — the result of Congress, in the 1980s, mandating that this sort of report be submitted every four years as a sort of reference point for lawmakers and legislators.

And yet, the chances of Trump taking any of the advice from this report, which was conducted by HIS administration, are somewhere close to zero. Why? Because it was surprisingly cold in a lot of places in the country on Thanksgiving, of course!

What do people really know and how did they come to “know” it? Sometimes they look out the window. The earth really is flat. Sometimes they they’re simply insecure and paranoid:

Trump’s disdain for the idea of climate change is also born of his broader suspicions of the United States being taken advantage of by other countries. In Trump’s conception, the US signs on to pledges to reduce its carbon footprint and the like and sticks to it while other competitor countries break the rules and force America to fight on the economic world stage with one hand tied behind its back.

Trump insisted Monday the US is “the cleanest we’ve ever been,” and said other countries weren’t keeping up.

This is the cleanest we’ve ever been? Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman dispute that in a long item full of actual evidence including this:

In his disregard for scientific evidence, Mr. Trump has made the dismantling of policies to curb greenhouse pollution a centerpiece of his deregulatory agenda.

The most direct way the Trump administration is working to allow more greenhouse gas emissions is by weakening the Obama-era regulations meant to reduce pollution at its source: the smokestacks of power plants and tailpipes of automobiles.

Trump has been systematic:

In 2015 the Obama administration put forward its signature climate measure, the Clean Power Plan, designed to cut greenhouse pollution from power plants 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. That would be the equivalent of preventing more than 365 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

By contrast, the Trump administration’s replacement unveiled in August, known as the Affordable Clean Energy rule, sets no national benchmark. It aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 0.7 to 1.5 percent by 2030.

According to estimates by environmental groups, that means the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from American power plants over the next decade could be up to 12 times higher than it would have been under the Obama-era plan.

“These are life-extension projects for coal plants,” said Jody Freeman, a Harvard law professor and former counsel to the Obama administration. “It’s a very calculated effort to go in the opposite direction from what’s needed.”

Davenport and Friedman have much more. Donald Trump was lying, or he was misinformed and innocently spreading misinformation, not maliciously spreading disinformation – unless he was angry and his intention was to deceive – unless Davenport and Friedman have evil intentions and there was no 2015 Affordable Clean Energy rule at all and they’re the one intending to deceive, or at least just causing trouble. Who knows? One man’s evidence is another man’s anecdotal nonsense that proves nothing.

What is “hard evidence” anyway? Actually, that might be this:

The number of farms filing for bankruptcy is increasing across the Upper Midwest, following low prices for corn, soybeans, milk and beef, according to a new analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

The analysis found that 84 farms filed for bankruptcy in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana in the 12 months that ended in June. That’s more than double the number over the same period in 2013 and 2014.

“Current price levels and the trajectory of the current trends suggest that this trend has not yet seen a peak,” said Ron Wirtz, an analyst at the Minneapolis Fed.

Something is up:

The increase in Chapter 12 filings reflect low prices for corn, soybeans, milk and beef, The Star Tribune reported. The situation has gotten worse for farmers since June because of the retaliatory tariffs that have closed the Chinese market for soybeans and held back exports of milk and beef. Chapter 12 bankruptcy allows for repayment of debt over three years.

“Dairy farmers are having the most problems right now,” said Mark Miedtke, the president of Citizens State Bank in Hayfield. “Grain farmers have had low prices for the past three years but high yields have helped them through. We’re just waiting for a turnaround. We’re waiting for the tariff problem to go away.”

That’ll be a long wait:

President Trump has told The Wall Street Journal he expects tariffs to be placed on all Chinese imports, including items like iPhones. This could boost the cost of an iPhone by 10 percent – a hike which Trump believes would not be a problem. “People could stand that very easily,” Trump told the Journal.

The news comes four days ahead of a summit between Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. China’s top priority for the summit is to try to persuade the US to not implement a planned tariff increase that’s set to kick in on January 1st, which would raise existing tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods to 25 percent. Trump says Beijing’s request to hold off on this increase is “highly unlikely.”

There will be our new wide and deep and comprehensive tariffs – on every damned thing that China tries to sell here. No one here will buy their stuff. There will be their massive and nasty and cleverly targeted retaliatory tariffs. No one there will buy any of our stuff. It’s a game of chicken. Who will blink first? Both economies will be driven into deep recession – the whole world will be driven into deep recession – but whose economy will collapse first? Who will “win” this superpower trade war? Who will be the last country standing, bankrupt and ruined, but still there, the only one still there? Or are all trade wars “good” and “easy to win” as Donald Trump has said, over and over again? Which is it? That’s an epistemological question.

Donald Trump does get some things wrong. David Lynch and Taylor Telford report on that:

General Motors said Monday it will close five factories and lay off nearly 15,000 workers in a move that shows the economy may be starting to slow and dents President Trump’s claim to be leading a renaissance for industrial America.

The automaker said it would save $6 billion annually by thinning its salaried management ranks, dropping thousands of American and Canadian factory workers, and emphasizing the production of larger sport-utility vehicles rather than sedans.

GM’s announcement sounded an incongruous note amid otherwise plentiful signs of U.S. economic health.

In short, Trump was leading nothing:

Coming just weeks after Republican candidates lost several congressional seats across the industrial Midwest, GM’s action carries a stark political warning for the president. If voters conclude that Trump failed to deliver on his promise to return lost jobs and prosperity to the region, his reelection hopes could be dealt a blow.

In 2016, he won four states with significant ties to the auto industry: Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. They provided nearly a quarter of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

Before leaving the White House Monday for a campaign rally in Mississippi, the president told reporters he had complained to GM chief executive Mary Barra about the shutdowns.

“I was very tough,” the president said. “I spoke with her when I heard they were closing. And I said: ‘You know, this country has done a lot for General Motors. You better get back in there soon. That’s Ohio, and you better get back in there soon.’ ”

He did, after all, make promises:

Trump’s ire may be linked to his repeated promises to reverse the Rust Belt jobs hemorrhage that he said had emptied the region’s factories as a result of poorly designed trade policies.

“They’re all coming back. They’re all coming back. Don’t move, don’t sell your house,” the president said during a July 2017 visit to Youngstown, Ohio. “We’re going to fill up those factories or rip them down and build new ones.”

During an October 2016 campaign rally in Warren, Mich., site of one of the targeted transmission plants, Trump promised: “If I’m elected, you won’t lose one plant, you’ll have plants coming into this country, you’re going to have jobs again, you won’t lose one plant, I promise you that.”

And then he screwed that up:

GM’s bombshell news comes near the end of a year that has seen the auto industry occupy center stage in the Trump’s “America First” campaign to overhaul U.S. trade policy. Raw-material costs have soared as a result of Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, with Ford saying it absorbed a $1 billion hit because of the president’s policies.

The new North American trade deal with Mexico and Canada includes sourcing requirements that will complicate industry supply chains, and the president also is considering imposing 25 percent tariffs on imported vehicles, a policy that would increase the cost of imported cars by an estimated $6,000 and eliminate 600,000 industry jobs, according to the American Automotive Policy Council.

And none of this was in his control anyway:

GM’s action was largely a result of shifting consumer demand rather than a sudden, economy-wide deterioration. “GM is making a big bet on a future that is autonomous, connected and electric,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst at Auto Trader. “It has to be extremely profitable now to finance that because no one knows when those vehicles will be commonplace.”

This had to be done. They were selling fewer and fewer “cars” and that was going to get worse. Those would go away soon enough. There’s no future in selling buggy whips but the president doesn’t see it that way, as Jonathan Chait explains here:

General Motors announced the closure of several auto facilities, including the Lordstown plant in northeast Ohio. This is a devastating development for those workers and their communities. Secondarily, it is a political setback for President Trump, who has boasted repeatedly that his policies have brought back American manufacturing. Trump responded by loudly threatening GM.

“You’d better get back in there soon, that’s Ohio,” Trump told reporters zeroing in on the plant whose fate concerned him the most. He elaborated in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “They better damn well open a new plant there very quickly. I love Ohio. I told them, ‘You’re playing around with the wrong person.'”

Apparently concerned he had made the point with too much subtlety, Trump continued, “I said, ‘I heard you’re closing your plant. It’s not going to be closed for long, I hope, Mary, because if it is you have a problem.'”

You’re playing around with the wrong person… Keep that plant closed and YOU have a problem…. Chait sees the return of gangster government:

In 2009, the Obama administration extended loans from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to General Motors and Chrysler, which were facing imminent bankruptcy. While both firms had serious competitiveness problems, neither would have had any danger of failure except for the financial crisis having frozen the credit markets, which they needed to finance their operations. (Ford was safe – not because its autos were more economically sound, but because it happened to have secured a loan shortly before the crisis.)

The Obama administration considered its dilemma carefully. The administration had strong reservations about wading into the economy on a firm-by-firm or sector-by-sector basis. Obama ultimately decided the economic and social repercussions of the auto industry failing was too great a calamity to bear, and extended loans to Detroit. (They have since been repaid.) As part of the deal, the administration forced both unions to accept wage reductions and creditors to take some losses.

Chait says that tore it:

It is almost impossible to convey the tenor of the freak-out this generated on the political right. Conservatives, already whipped into a lather by the fiscal stimulus and Obama’s plans to reform health care and create a cap-and-trade system, treated the auto bailout as the literal death knell for capitalism. Michael Barone quickly coined the phrase “gangster government” to capture the conservative belief that the Obama administration was threatening the private sector with the untrammeled power of government. Denunciations of “gangster government” echoed from editorials (the Washington Examiner “the way Obama strong-armed creditors who rightfully expected to be treated justly under the law was right out of Juan Peron’s playbook”) to tea-party rallies to a book by David Fredosso (Gangster Government: Barack Obama and the New Washington Thugocracy.)

The conservative pundit Lawrence Kudlow used the term in a hysterical interview with one of the bondholders who had to accept some losses as part of the bailout. “I mean was there bullying in those meetings? I have heard from other sources that there was. And some of this stuff is pretty mean and nasty. And that ain’t the American way,” he asked at one point. “We are corrupting the Constitution and contract law,” Kudlow declared at another point.

Chait is amused:

One early sign that the right-wing freak-out about gangster government might not have been completely sincere is the Republican Party’s decision to nominate for president a man who has spent his career working closely with literal mobsters, from the Cosa Nostra in New York to the Russian mafia. But the fact that the Republican president is now publicly threatening a private company, and making perfectly clear his concern is not the overall economy but his specific needs in a particular swing state, casts an especially clarifying light on the “gangster government” attack.

Kudlow, now Trump’s chief economic adviser, is holding a meeting today with GM president Mary Barra. Presumably he will not simply tell her that the administration is staying out of private business decisions out of fealty to the Constitution and contract law.

He certainly won’t say that, and John Nichols adds this:

The company will stop making a long list of Chevrolet, Buick, and Cadillac sedans that have been mainstays of its production lines. And this will not be the end of the change as GM makes a transition toward production of self-driving cars using manufacturing models that share components across vehicles, utilize virtual tools, and embrace robotification.

Many of these changes were anticipated. It was possible to make smart policy moves and send savvy signals that might have bettered the prospects of American auto workers. Yet Trump, Ryan and McConnell got everything wrong. Instead of angling for programs and policies that could have positioned US workers on the winning side of technological transitions – and that would have eased hits that could not be avoided – Trump and his fellow Republicans governed as if it was 1985, with an emphasis on tax cuts for multinational corporations, reduction of regulations, and dismissal of environmental concerns. They played games with trade policy and tariffs, failing to recognize the reality of the global game that is afoot.

But others have noticed that it isn’t 1985 any longer:

Decrying “a bad combination of greedy corporations and policy makers with no understanding of economic development,” Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan, who represents Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, said on Monday, “President Trump has been asleep at the switch and owes this community an explanation. We tried to get his attention on this issue two years ago. He promised us that his massive corporate tax cut would lead to dramatic reinvestments in our communities. That clearly is not happening. The Valley has been yearning for the Trump Administration to come here, roll up their sleeves and help us fight for this recovery. What we’ve gotten instead are broken promises and petty tweets.”

And there’s the other guy:

Instead of responding to warnings that his decision to scrap fuel-efficiency standards could harm US manufacturers of compact cars, instead of creating incentives for US corporations to embrace innovative work-sharing programs, Trump pursued a foolhardy course that left GM workers vulnerable to what Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown on Monday referred to “corporate greed at its worst.”

Brown pointed out that “the company reaped a massive tax break from last year’s GOP tax bill and failed to invest that money in American jobs, choosing to build its [Chevy] Blazer in Mexico.”

Brown has been warning for months about threats to the Lordstown plant and to other GM facilities. He proposed responses, including a host of innovative measures designed to create incentives for the purchase of US-made vehicles and to address loopholes in the GOP tax plan.

Sherrod Brown saw the danger coming. Donald Trump did not. That’s all there is to it, along with the one core epistemological question. What does this guy know about anything at all?

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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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