On Fallacy, Politics: or Is the Government a Mugger?

I’ve been reluctant to post here as I’ve been busy at mediaplay and the 100days project but it’s a good time to put in some thoughts.

There are a couple of critical terms current at the moment: debt ceiling, jobs, compromise, revenue, and, yes, government. The latter has become the strangest, in my opinion.

There are a couple of problems to remark on. Our troubles appear big and it’s hard to find a context that doesn’t sound or read trite. At this moment a Google search counts 25,900,000 hits for the term debt ceiling. LexisNexis is a hoard as well. But let’s develop some political context. In a very recent International Herald Tribune article, Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and self-proclaimed “issues management expert,” expresses his defense of the ATR pledge in the face of pledge misinterpreters. He writes:

. . . there is some confusion these days about what the pledge does and doesn’t mean, and numerous people have tried to reconfigure its intent to somehow allow its signatories to support tax increases. But in fact the pledge has not changed – indeed, fiscal conservatives must stick to their commitment to oppose tax increases and fight to reduce the size of the federal government.

Politically this is all very interesting and will lead us into a sort of bizarre logic having to do with what I call the misappropriation of the notion of “conservative,” and, ultimately, the definition and context of government and how that word serves ideologues (by this I mean people who take intransigent positions even in the face of reasonable evidence against those position) in our current times.

In his first effort to summarize his efforts, Norquist writes

There have been four main challenges to the pledge and what it means. The first is to charge that it gets in the way of a deal to allow a debt ceiling increase. But that’s not the case at all. John Boehner, the speaker of the House, has repeatedly stated that the House would grant the president a debt ceiling increase of $2.5 trillion if Mr. Obama would sign a deal to reduce government spending from his planned levels by the same amount or more.

This seems fair enough. Back scratch stuff. Obama can have his “debt ceiling,” which is just something he wants and doesn’t need, for something Boehner wants but may or may not need, which is, of course, unclear. It would appear that this might be the way deals are made but not really, as there is a difference between the debt ceiling and government spending reductions in terms of their equitable value. When I go to the local market and barter, I barter with things of equitable value. The shop person with whom I currently barter for cows never says: give me your house and I’ll give you two cows and that’s my final offer.

What is Norquist’s description of the current problem? He writes

The problem to be solved is not the deficit; it is overspending. Federal spending in the 2008 fiscal year was $2.9 trillion, and Washington will now spend $3.8 trillion in the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30. Raising taxes is what politicians do instead of reforming and reducing the cost of government. Advocates of larger government prefer to talk about deficits rather than spending. Why? Because there are two solutions to a deficit problem: spend less or raise taxes. The issue, in other words, isn’t the pledge; it’s Washington’s inability to deal with its own overspending. There is only one fix for a spending problem: spend less.

There are several rhetorical issues here. Norquist’s use of the term “cost of government” is interesting. He presumes that the 900 billion difference between fiscal 08 and 2011 is a large number. He fails to provide a microeconomical equivalent, such as the difference of cost between my oil bill in fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2011. The math is pretty simple: it would be the equivalent of a three trillion dollar difference. In addition, Norquist never explains what he means by the cost of “government.” The cost of government is somewhat more complex than the cost of heating my house. House here, to use a Snickety sort of phraseology means, the thing I live in. But I also live in the USA, which is a body of government. “Cost of government” is an often tossed phrase that’s rarely defined within the context of federalism, which should be a concern of “conservatives.”

Additionally, Norquist presents a case dependent on the begging the question fallacy, as he assumes prior to proof the truth that the problem is overspending. In good argumentation, one should always prove that the problem to be solved is indeed the problem. This fallacy leads to questionable conclusions, such as: “Raising taxes is what politicians do instead of reforming and reducing the cost of government.” The writer here creates an image of devious people all around the country cooking up schemes to raise taxes because they think it’s fun. It may indeed be fun for current employers in Connecticut to start paying interest on unemployment benefits back to the Fed, but I doubt it. This leads to a recomplication to Norquist’s poor attempt at simplifying the meaning of government. According to Matthew Sturdevant of the Hartford Courant, there are about 120,000 people in CT getting unemployment assistance. The “cost of government” to them can be life line. The other fallacy here is the either/or fallacy known also as the false dilemma fallacy, which is a fallacy of limited choices designed to fool people.

Advocates of larger government prefer to talk about deficits rather than spending. Why? Because there are two solutions to a deficit problem: spend less or raise taxes.

Economist provide a whole host of solutions to deficits, some having to do with monetary and tax policy and increasing demand. There are more than just two solutions, and, indeed, neither of these two solutions is as simple as Norquist presents them. But, yes, indeed, raising taxes is a solution. The problem for Norquist, in my opinion, and for Congressional Republicans, is that a no tax pledge requires an equivalence between revenue (if any) and spending (if any): you can only spend what you make and if you can’t make more then you can’t spend more. I would love to live by this principle but free market people probably wouldn’t as the principle itself requires profitability but then eats the notion of profitability. Unfortunately, winter snows will come soon and I will “need” to pay the oil company. The oil company will not reduce the price of oil to a level commensurate to my current pay. I could certainly stop buying food in order to make up the difference but that would be impractical.

Government as a problematic object for Norquist is an easy mark. Since it’s difficult to define, it can be easily rendered into an object of scorn, ridicule, and inaccurate metaphor. Norquist writes

The theory is that any dollar the government failed to take from you in taxes had in fact been given to you in a spending program. By this reasoning, the deduction-killing Alternative Minimum Tax is not a tax hike — a cruel joke on the millions of Americans who get hit by it every year. When a mugger passes you on the street leaving you unmolested, he did not in fact give you your wallet.

Here “government” is a “mugger” and “molester.” But Norquist doesn’t present a set of arguments for why the AMT is an act perpetrated by a mugger or a molester. If he disagrees with the tax he should present effective reasons why he thinks it’s horrid. Some of the history would be nice too. Indeed, if effective, people should be provided with the chance to agree or propose counterclaims. There are many things about the tax code people don’t like. It’s worthy debate material but simply issuing a blanket restriction on tax hikes and taxes in general doesn’t make for intellectual inquiry because it diminishes the act of inquiry itself.

Conservatism should not be about diminishing the act of inquiry.