Category Archives: Rhetoric

The Real Problem (bullshit) with the Ryan Speech

There are a few critiques of Paul Ryan’s Wednesday speech that can now be defined as boilerplate. This does’t mean that they’re incorrect. Rather, it means that they don’t really go to the heart of the matter: sophistic manipulation. Juan Cole, for example, identifies the Janesville issue:

7. Ryan slammed President Obama for the closure of an auto plant that closed in late 2008 under George W. Bush. Ryan’s running mate, Mitt Romney, opposed Obama’s actual auto bailout, which was a great success and returned Detroit to profitability.

And here’s Jonathan Cohn at TNR:

It’s true: The plant shut down. But it shut down in 2008—before Obama became president.

Just an accuracy point: it didn’t shut down; it was shut down.

Both writers are responding to this Ryan segment:

A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: “I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.” That’s what he said in 2008.

Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.

While Cole and Cohn are factually accurate, Ryan never refers to the problem of a date, a segment of questionable time, or to cause and effect (on Wednesday, August 29, 2012). Ryan’s is a repetition, though less inaccurate, of another speech he gave in Ohio (on August 16th, 2012). In terms of cause and effect, the Ohio speech is more telling, as Ryan attributes the cause to Obama administration energy policies, which is demonstrably false, both anachronistically and in terms of factual policy effect (which, I assume, Ryan is well aware of. This is an example of a howler). In any event, the Ryan quote at the convention averts the date critique by concentrating instead on something else: the powerful accusation of betrayal. Ryan quotes Obama: ““I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.”” CNN has done a fact check of the “quote” and concludes:

The only thing Ryan appears to have gotten technically wrong in Wednesday’s version was saying that the plant didn’t last another year. It did last another year — more like 14 months — if the Isuzu line and its 57 workers count.
So, though Ryan might have been incorrect in the August 16 telling, he cleaned it up for Wednesday’s convention. Obama said what Ryan said he said.

They also miss the point, and I’m not referring to the 4 minus 2 algorithm. This example of fact checking is about as squishy as a slug. I love this part: “The only thing Ryan appears to have gotten technically wrong . . .” Otherwise, they miss the entire point. And just to push, CNN writes: “So, though Ryan might have been incorrect in the August 16 telling . . . ” What is the penchant for this passive form: “might have been incorrect . . . ” Just change it to: “So, though Ryan [was] incorrect in the August 16 telling . . .” Please.

Ryan has a method for using the quote that goes to Obama’s lack of commitment and trustworthiness to save a specific plant where school mates of Ryan worked. After all, Obama said the plant “would be open for another hundred years.” Well, not really, but my readers should grasp the point. Rather, Obama reneged on a promise because Obama said in his very words: “If the government is there to support you . . .” which necessitates a “then.” In programming terms this is an “if then” statement. The promise was: “I will keep this plant open for another hundred years.” This is not the meaning of Obama’s original expressions, though. Nor were the words meant to be understood this way. But no matter. In other words, if he had been in charge, even though Obama could not have known the plant was doomed to close by the “free market” Ryan would have used the power of the federal government to keep the plant open, even if the market for SUVs had soured, which is, of course, not what he intends to mean, but asserts nonetheless. When it was closed, when one knows it was closing, or why it closed isn’t treated in Ryan’s speech. The implication is that Obama is not as committed as he claims to be: he can’t be trusted. He did not “support” the plant as he promised. The basis for the accusation is non-historical.

The second part of the speech snip is important to study.

Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.

“It didn’t last another year.” “It is locked up and empty to this day.” ” . . . the recovery as promised is nowhere in sight.” Read those sentences over and over again, please. Here we have Ryan making the typical apples, oranges, and conflation errors that in cynicism speech are mean to beat a drum rather than demonstrate a relationship or support an actual assertion. The answers to the quiz are: yes, yes, and “what promise?” The image: all over the country, plants are “locked up and empty” because Obama did not bring on the “recovery as he promised” will stick, whereas the obvious silliness of “all over the country plants that were supposed to stay open another one hundred years were betrayed by Obama,” which is what Ryan actually says, is couched in thick clouds written by word smiths probably paid to craft language not obviously falsifiable. This, to me, is obviously unethical and “immoral.”

That’s the real problem with the Ryan speech. Cole is right and Cohn is right. But their knives aren’t sharp enough. Even Republicans should be unnerved by this level of breech of trust.

Researching Drug Policy and the Problem of Dumb College Writing Assignments

Last week I gave my writing students the assignment to research Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s drug policies just for kicks and to do some compare and contrast. We’re writing about the subject with Global Commission on Drug Policy’s Report as a base text. I knew what I was getting myself into on this assignment, but I threw it out there anyway (with some need to explain to some students who Mitt Romney was).

When the time came, I asked, “So, tell me what you found?”

They had all kinds of material from Obama. There’s lots of substance on the website and elsewhere. Most of the students (some of the students didn’t bother) claimed they could find nothing on a Romney position, other than a general “against legalization for medical purposes.” You know, of “pot.”

In our media age, readers and researchers would think that positions would be fairly well drafted out and easy to find. The Romney official website is general on most topics. It’s difficult to do fact-based analysis without clarity and specifics. That’s one of the elements I’m trying to teach.

Another Best Buy Trip: Or, Are Public Ed Solutions Easier Than We Think?

Since education is much in the news, here’s another interesting Megan article that might reveal much. She reports:

The legislature’s higher education committee discussed several bills Tuesday that it hopes to raise in the current session, including one that would enable the tracking of individual students through college.

Here’s the breakdown of significant items

The committee also discussed bills that would:

*Address the Connecticut State University System. Exactly what this bill would do has not yet been decided because legislators are waiting for a report from the state’s program review and investigations staff that is expected to assess the operation of the system.

*Address the agreements among the state’s public colleges and universities to ensure the easy transfer of credits from one institution to the next.

*Work toward the elimination of sexual violence on college campuses.

*Require institutions of higher education to provide financial counseling to students receiving financial aid.

*Require early childhood educators to have either a bachelor’s or associate’s degree by 2015.

*Address the University of Connecticut Health Center. This bill is also uncertain and will depend on what the legislators learn during hearings about the next step for the proposed renovation and expansion of the health center. Late last month, the state learned that it would not be getting a $100 million grant from the federal government for the work.

*Help prepare students to join Connecticut’s manufacturing and technological workforce.

*Create a strategic plan for higher education.

A couple of comments: Connecticut, therefore, does not have a “higher ed” strategic plan. CT will be hiring more financial aid staff. CT will grow Early Childhood ed programs. CT will explore its manufacturing and tech workforce, whatever this may mean. But this might be a hint. CT will persist in the “transfer” problem for yet another legislative round. Furthermore, Megan reports

State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, and the committee’s co-chairwoman, said that the bill — which is still in the “concept stage” — would tag students with a “unique indentifer” so that their records could be followed at any public or private college or university that receives government funding.

“A high number of our students need remediation,” Bye said. “This will give us a way to understand where students are coming from, how can we support them … so community colleges aren’t using so many resources on remediation.”

Technically speaking, this “tracking” is not so difficult. It wouldn’t even require a “unique [sic] identifier.” All the state would have to do is ask for the numbers. The real problem is what the numbers will say. The legislature is actually after information that is readily knowable now: we know where students are coming from and we also have a pretty good idea why students need “remediation,” which is a word I don’t like, as the root “remedy” is improper. Enormous scholarship exists on the problem. Community college teachers teach these students and our professional staffs have much knowledge about them.

From my perspective, the early years of college should be the equivalent of “intellectual bootcamp.” The concepts, knowledge, and frameworks of higher education have developed from thousands of years of knowledge in philosophy, science, ethics, and language. To be successful, a student must be mature, patient, resilient, and curious. But the solutions to our current “public” education problems are actually simple to fix but impossible at the moment to make real, and, of course, they’re arguable:

1. A 1:10 teacher-student ratio across the board
2. Intuitive learning spaces for all students
3. Grueling study in knowledge frameworks for teachers, with plenty of flexibility for their own research and initiatives
4. Integrate all schools into their communities so that it’s difficult to see where the school starts and the community begins
5. Make real alternatives to higher ed so that the “Everyone needs a college degree” philosophy isn’t necessary. If high school has general rigor and can be viewed as “terminal” and someone can seek good quality of life with the high school degree, is this not a good thing?

I assume a general agreement with the above by most people. But if the money can’t be found, then “weaker” solutions should simply be seen as “workarounds.”

The Problem with Solutions is They’re Boring

The last several years I’ve attempted to get students interested in design, urban/suburban relationships, and issues related to human ecology. It’s not exactly sexy stuff when compared to the typical college classroom writing fare, as illustrated in rhetorics and readers: death penalty, drug legalization, gun control. That sort of thing. The death penalty has very much been in the news and people get excited and impassioned about it, but, in the classroom, it’s difficult to develop fresh and impactive perspectives.

I would hazard that most issues come with nuance, but nuance can be boring and even boorish, much like punning when under the influence or during a card game. In his article, Balancing Act: What Can be Cut from State Spending, John McKinney promotes three arguments in support of a cost cutting project. He writes:

Being honest about the crisis we face; building a bipartisan coalition of legislators committed to reducing government spending and creating jobs; and bringing state employee wages and benefits more in line with the private sector are keys to responsibly balancing the budget.

This thesis goes for the throbbing jugular of that cussing giant so often seen in adventure tales. The first issue goes to the image of GAAP, which most commentators agree will reveal the real CT budget mess and hence promote an honest picture of what needs solving. The second issue goes to the image of a “balanced” legislature with equal parts Democrat and Republican (but not Green Party) which would promote “bipartisanship.” The third issues goes to the image of the over-expensive state employee as moocher (I fully disclose myself as one of these cadges).

I contend that these “images” are fads. While exciting, they amount to either herring being dragged along the path or those typical “perspectives” of the out party who always accuses the in party of either having caused all the problems, having ignored the real solutions, or keeping all the marbles to themselves. As the issues with state employee moochers, the author does supply evidence of this grubbing. He writes:

Connecticut’s government has grown beyond taxpayers’ ability to pay for it. In fact, state spending has increased 227 percent since 1980 — rising from $4,400 per household to more than $10,000 per household — while median household income remained relatively flat.

and later

Unlike the state’s private sector, which lost 100,000 jobs during the recession, the public sector avoided layoffs by granting concessions. Still, state employee wages and benefits account for nearly 25 percent of total government spending (more than $4.5 billion annually), and further concessions must be part of any responsible proposal to eliminate our deficit.

There are a couple of issues with this evidence, all, of course, subject to rebuttal. The author does supply the cost of its own employees to the private sector in order to provide comparison. In argumentation, relations should accompany statistics to supply both context and relevance. What is, for example, the percentage of payroll for GM or Apple, Inc and, even better, why and even better why the difference? Secondly, the author fails to define “private sector” or evolve the issue of “entity” in the eyes of government, as “small business” are treated differently than large corporations, and sectors complicate things. A sub-issue here has to do the other “75 percent” question or to payroll as “percentage of gross” benchmarks across the board.

In addition, the author does not develop this idea: “bringing state employee wages and benefits more in line with the private sector are keys to responsibly balancing the budget.” This idea is a garble requiring definition and substantive evidence. Would, for example, lining up state employee wages and benefits be “key” or would it make things worse? Line them up with what, for example, as “lining” would imply similarity that may be difficult to solidify?

While there is debate about the proper application of idioms such as “the devil is in the details” (van der Rohe) or “God is in the detail” (Flaubert?), I generally agree with Tom Condon in his assessment of “the problem.” The problem is in the sewer. But that’s not very exciting. And Jeffrey Thompson’s recent study on infrastructure and tax incentives certainly makes an alternative case than McKinney’s. But no one’s going to build a reality show around “drinking water infrastructure.”

Laments, Forecasts, and Logic

Over the past several weeks I’ve been watching Journalism, the Humanities, and the Marketplace wonder about itself. We have Tiger Woods to watch and now a variety of gripes about the Edwards’ and “what was really going on.” The news this morning is a round table expressing justifications for the story. Nothing about trivia.

In the larger context, we need to think hard about markets in their broadest sense: ideas, goods and services, information, energy. The jobs figures still suck but in my estimation this has a lot to do with players sitting on their hands wondering what Mr/Ms Entertainment will do next, what new revelations will come, or about the fate of Google’s new phone. Google and Apple are apparently doing something, while, according to one speaker on a Sunday morning show, “businesses are reluctant . . . . and for good reason.” Nobody asked: what the hell are you talking about?

Kindle, Nook or Apple tablet? Should we wonder about the device already or about what goes in the thing: convention, links, other media. This headline from the Washington Post is an instance of a problem in logic: “U.S. job loss report is blow to still-fragile recovery” link. How does this make sense? The “report” is “blowing” the “recovery.”

One trend I’ve noticed in the camp who launched Obama into office is to kick back and wait for him to do something, to solve several pressing matters. A powerful narrative in the press (for most people this means TV World) at the moment is that Democrats will not come out for Congressional voting. Wow do we have short memories. Really, since when is everything Obama’s problem?


From Dean Baker

The fact that Senator McCain could make such an incoherent complaint about younger generations being mistreated, after they have just seen a transfer of close to $16 trillion in wealth from older generations, warrants attention from the media. It is far more newsworthy than President Obama’s comment’s about “bitter” working class voters that received so much attention during the primaries.

Political Futures

Mary Glassman comes to some interesting conclusions:

Our town is not unique. Connecticut is more reliant on local property tax revenue to fund local education than any state in the nation. Our state contributes only 40 percent to our K-12 education, compared with other states such as Michigan, which contributes 78 percent. As a result, towns are forced to turn to the only revenue source available to them: the local property tax.

Funding education is not the only major challenge facing the state. Connecticut currently loses more young adults than any other state in the nation. That means that as our state population ages, there are fewer young people coming in to fill our jobs, buy our homes and purchase our goods and services.

Faced with these challenges, local and state elected officials must work together to create a long-term statewide plan that sets priorities, saves money and creates regional solutions.

In Connecticut and New England generally, regionalism is becoming more and more interesting, an idea that seeks to deeply link the fortunes of municipalities and states. It calls to attention, during these days where old paradigms will no longer provide answers to individuals wondering how they will fare in five years, the differences between theory and practice. Here’s what I mean by theory.

In another HC article, Jim Campbell offers advice to the GOP in how it can “come back,” providing a theoretical set of principles as a path, aiming at perceptions over realities. He writes

Second, it’s important to reassert the party’s traditional principles. Core Republican beliefs in lower taxes, fiscal responsibility and a strong national defense remain popular with most Americans, even as many have lost confidence in the GOP’s ability to govern. With Democrats back in power, they are already committed to an agenda that includes raising taxes on some and dramatically increasing spending. At the same time, it is hard to imagine that defense spending will rank as the new administration’s top priority.

In present contexts, none of the above hold contextual logic and amount to theoretical political science, as they always have. Lower taxes has never worked in practical terms, as Glassman shows above, and strong national defense must always come with qualifiers. What does “dramatically increasing” spending mean? Last week the auto industry travelled to Washington asking for bailout money. And why should national defense be a the “top priority” when the bricks are cracking at the local school?

Over the next few years we will be hearing a lot about “the parties” and why one is better than the other. Practical solutions will be on people minds. Not the great Platonic bridge. “I believe in lower taxes” in political framing is not quite a logical tautology but it’s pretty close.


In a period of rest today, I took some time to read the Democratic and Republican Party platforms. Here’s a bit from the Democrats:

Open, Accountable, and Ethical Government

In Barack Obama’s Administration, we will open up the doors of democracy. We will use technology to make government more transparent, accountable, and inclusive. Rather than obstruct people’s use of the Freedom of Information Act, we will require that agencies conduct significant business in public and release all relevant information unless an agency reasonably foresees harm to a protected interest.

We will lift the veil of secret deals in Washington by publishing searchable, online information about federal grants, contracts, earmarks, loans, and lobbyist contacts with government officials. We will make government data available online and will have an online video archive of significant agency meetings. We will put all non-emergency bills that Congress has passed online for five days, to allow the American public to review and comment on them before they are signed into law. We will require Cabinet officials to have periodic national online town hall meetings to discuss issues before their agencies.

It will be interesting to track the new media side of things here.

Here’s a slice from the Republican platform on Government Work

Improving the Work of Government

Modern management of the federal government is long overdue. The expected retirement over the next ten years of more than 40 percent of the federal workforce, and 60 percent of its managers, presents a rare opportunity: a chance to gradually shrink the size of government while using technology to increase its effectiveness and reshape the way agencies do business.

Each agency must be able to pass a financial audit and set annual targets for improving efficiency with fewer resources. Civil service managers should be given incentives for more effective leadership, including protection against the current guilty-until-proven-innocent grievance procedures which disgruntled employees use against them to thwart reform. Due process cannot excuse bad behavior.

We will provide Internet transparency in all federal contracting as a necessary step in combating cost overruns. We will draw on the expertise of today’s successful managers and entrepreneurs in the private sector, like the “dollar-a-year” businesspeople who answered their country’s call during the Second World War, to build real-world competence and accountability into government procurement and operations.

Both documents reflect Obama and McCain pretty closely.

The Surge

I keep hearing that the surge is working. It’s hard, but I have a trillion dollar argument against this. The battle is also economic, blasted to start against the Twin Towers.

Everything is linked.


From Michelle Goldberg

It was an appalling display. The only reason it was not widely described as such is that too many American pundits don’t even try to judge the truth, wisdom or reasonableness of the political rhetoric they are paid to pronounce upon. Instead, they imagine themselves as interpreters of a mythical mass of “average Americans” who they both venerate and despise.

In pronouncing upon a debate, they don’t try and determine whether a candidate’s responses correspond to existing reality, or whether he or she is capable of talking about subjects such as the deregulation of the financial markets or the devolution of the war in Afghanistan. The criteria are far more vaporous. In this case, it was whether Palin could avoid utterly humiliating herself for 90 minutes, and whether urbane commentators would believe that she had connected to a public that they see as ignorant and sentimental. For the Alaska governor, mission accomplished.