Friday, October 23, 2009

Bad Arguments: "But What about That?"

Awesome quote from Johann Hari on bad arguments:

There is one particular type of bad argument that has always existed, but it has now spread like tar over the world-wide web. It is known as "what-aboutery."

When you have lost an argument -- when you can't justify your case, and it is crumbling in your hands - you snap back: "But what about x?" You then raise a totally different subject, and try to get everybody to focus on it -- hoping it will distract attention from your own deflated case.

Or, as my friend Slawek says, "Just 'cause you punched someone in the face, it means you should kick him in the b*lls too?" In other words, mentioning something unrelated to the specific issue cannot make your proposal okay by default. In fact, that kind of discourse is a mere distraction, like, "Sure, California is going bankrupt, but those drug dealers down the street are really terrible." My immediate mental response to this kind of "argument" is, "Sigh...yet another person who needs a symbolic logic course."

Anyway, below is an example of "what-aboutery," from an ordinarily very smart and witty person. I make a comment that government workers, including teachers, should view furlough days as necessary to prevent state employee layoffs. A state employee (and very well-respected former law school classmate) responds:

Teachers are not the culprits during these tough times, nor are government employees – except on the same level that all citizens of this nation are culpable for our years of willful ignorance.

Reflect on how we got into this mess. While you may consider anyone working outside the private sector as suckling at the public teat, your ire is misdirected: the biggest galactophages are those considered 'too big to fail.' How ironic that their peculiar form of 'socialism' is meant not to help the poor, but those who make Croesus appear the pauper. One wonders, how many teachers could have been paid a living wage out of the thinnest slice of that $700 billion wheel of government cheese?

The function of this government is not to drop and gobble when Wall Street snaps its fat fingers; to pay the rich and hope they pass the gristle down in the form of job creation and loans. (And Wall Street has shown it will not share: it has stopped lending, raised interest rates or retracted credit, and rewarded the destroyers for continuing the destruction.)

Properly, the function of this government is to allow its citizens the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Education is the singular cornerstone upon which these rights of self-determination are built.

To place this in your terms, think of how many self-propelled and self-augmented small business owners could arise from all that learnin' those teachers would provide – should they be given the proper resources. You should encourage those having an employment that serves the people to do just that: serve the people; as opposed to your stance that some are suffering, ergo, all* must suffer. (*read, excepting Wall Street).

Here's my response:

Listen, I don't like Wall Street's excesses any more than you do--but I am not going to excuse out-of-control gov spending (80% increase in the past 10 yrs!) and unusual public sector benefits just because someone says, "What about Wall Street?"

You say that education is the cornerstone of fundamental rights. But no one is trying to separate children from an adequate education. (This is called a "straw man" argument.) In fact, California's Constitution requires that school coffers receive first crack at the largess:

"From all state revenues there shall first be set apart the moneys to be applied by the State for support of the public school system and public institutions of higher education."

Instead, we are questioning why certain workers have guaranteed benefits while others do not. We are questioning why state workers have access to $201.9 billion in pension assets while 12% of the state is unemployed. [And far more people lack any substantial retirement plan beyond Social Security.] We are questioning why state spending has increased 80% in the past ten years without a concomitant increase in liberty, life expectancy, and happiness. We are questioning why state workers--such as yourself--are complaining about furlough days when such days are necessary to prevent layoffs.

We want government workers to be on the same level as the people who pay their salaries and benefits. Is that too much to ask?

His rebuttal:

I question why you think a government worker has no right to express frustration at the present situation. It does not serve the state of California to furlough revenue collecting agency employees: save $60 million, but lose out on $600 million in uncollected revenue.

But this discussion is about a teacher furlough. Yet you shortchange a student by giving him or her only 92% of the days to learn 100% of the curriculum and then send them off to compete on standardized tests against students from other states without the furlough.

My response to his rebuttal:

Finally, someone pulls out the "Think of the children!" rhetoric. You are assuming that children who receive seventeen fewer days of instruction will end up worse off. Quality matters more than quantity. Think about it--17 extra days with a crappy teacher will harm a child, not help him.

Also, parents and their expectations matter far more in establishing academic success than any particular teacher or length of instruction. There are exceptions, of course. For example, see The Hobart Shakespeareans. Note, however, that one reason this program works is b/c it is non-traditional and isolates highly motivated students. Unfortunately, such programs are rare exceptions, in part due to pushback from unions and public school teachers, who fail to advocate innovation and who refuse to accept competition from charter schools.

Bottom line: any gov worker who complains about furlough days either fails to understand basic finance (i.e., if an employer doesn't have money, it can't pay its workers) or prefers state employee layoffs.

I don't question gov workers' right to complain, but I wish gov employees could see the frustration in the private sector now that unemployment benefits are expiring. When 12% of Californians--almost all of them non-gov employees--are in danger of losing their homes and don't know whether they can feed their kids, complaining about an 8% to 14% pay cut seems obscene.

Quite frankly, gov unions should have volunteered for higher pay cuts instead of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor. Unfortunately, the Republicans/rich and the Democrats/gov unions put their own interests above the poor, the weak, and the disabled when they passed the budget. So much for public service.

His response:

What do you want? Everybody is frustrated. Should our employment go away, we are all in danger of losing our homes. Government unions did offer concessions, the contract did not pass the governor's desk. So rather than putting all on equal footing, the State has balanced the budget by targeting some state workers, as well as social service programs for the poor and underserved.

You speak of equal footing. How does working for the government place one on unequal footing? Should government workers to be allowed to accept gifts? Should they be allowed to invest, without disclosure, in any company they see fit? Should their salaries be made private and not published in the newspaper? Should they be allowed profit sharing and bonuses in good times? Make partner? Matching fund 401K plans? Should they go away on weekend 'team-building' retreats to Napa?

What do you want?

After ending the discussion by citing a Simpsons quote on unions, I sent him a message addressing his questions. Basically, I want a middle class (and a third viable political party).

Bonus: if you scroll down this post, you will find a discussion on the tragic Fort Hood shootings, where one person compares the shootings to 9/11, and I promptly expose her lack of reasoning.

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