Sunday, September 14, 2008

Rhetoric: "Failed Policies"

Politicians frequently claim that their opponents support "failed policies". But the arguments they make to support that claim are often pretty lousy, and the "failed policies" assertion is prone to falsehood and exaggeration.

Look at a few examples of this claim:

  • Democrats say that the economic policies of Republicans under President George W. Bush are "failed policies" because after those policies we had the 2008 Financial Crisis;
  • Republicans say that the economic policies of Democrats under President Barack Obama are "failed policies" because after them we had an anemic recovery;
  • People say that the United Kingdom's policy of austerity in the wake of the Financial Crisis is a "failed policy" because it hasn't kept the U.K. out of recession;
  • People say that deficit spending is a "failed policy" because Greece, Spain, and other countries have engaged in it and their economies are in tatters;
  • People say that increased spending on education is a "failed policy" because the U.S. has done so over the past 30 years without seeing an increase in international test scores;
  • Medicare is called a "failed policy" because it's run way over budget;
  • The War on Poverty is a "failed policy" because there is still a lot of poverty in the U.S.;
  • The War on Drugs is a "failed policy" because Americans still use a lot of illegal narcotics.

The only real way to settle these empirical disputes is with rigorous experiments that use a control group. For instance, set up two identical economies and implement, say, $100 billion worth of stimulus spending in one of them but not the other. Then you'll see whether $100 billion worth of stimulus spending makes a difference for better or worse.

But, of course, that's not practical. On any number of issues that we care about -- economics, crime, war, education, etc. -- it's just not possible to set up large-scale experiments like this. You can't set up two $1 trillion economies and then give them different income tax rates and see what the economic results are. You can't set up two identical cities and then implement stop-and-frisk policies in one of them and see what difference results in crime statistics. You can't set up two identical school systems, give one of them 5% smaller class sizes, and then see if there's a difference in test scores.

Without data from experiments like this, you can only rely on historical data. But historical data is never comparing two situations that are identical except for one difference. You can't make the argument, "Well, they implemented their policies and it got bad results, but when we implemented our policies we got good results, therefore our policies are good and theirs are failed", unless the only difference between those two situations is the difference in the policies implemented. But that's never the case with historical data. So you can never completely rule out the possibility that something else is behind the difference in results.

The argument -- "after these policies were implemented good results happened, so the policies are good" -- is simplistic and flawed. Even if it's true that good things happened, just because A precedes B doesn't mean A causes B (that kind of flawed reasoning is known as false causation). Plus, even if the good results were caused by the policies, it's still an open question whether a different set of policies might have yielded even better results.

Likewise, the argument -- "after these policies were implemented bad results happened, so the polices are bad" -- is wrongheaded on the same lines. The one preceding the other doesn't mean that the one caused the other, and it doesn't rule out the possibility that different policies might have resulted in even worse results.

People in politics like to act as if it's obvious which are the best policies on, say, economics or the military. But the lack of rigorous experimental data makes it tough to know for sure which policies are successful and which ones are failures.

Think about it: People are difficult to predict. It's tough to predict sporting events, elections, overseas political upheavals, wars, technological innovation, whether a relationship will last longer than a year, whether someone will like your outfit, or what the next fad among teenagers will be. People typically approach these topics with some humility, because they know how easy it is to be wrong about these sorts of things. But then the very same people act as if something like the economy is all figured out, and that the right economic policies are so obvious that anyone who doesn't support those policies is an appropriate object of derision and ridicule, perhaps by calling them evil or stupid. The difference in attitude is unwarranted and baffling.

Beyond this, there are plenty of other difficulties with the "failed policies" assertion: What are the agreed-upon, measurable benchmarks for success for the policy? Has the policy had enough time to work? Was the policy fully implemented as intended, or were there changes and amendments made to it?

This last point is worth expanding on. People are often condemned for "failed policies" even though they didn't get the policies they wanted. Obama didn't get as much stimulus as he wanted in 2009; Bush didn't get the Social Security reform he wanted in his second term; President Ronald Reagan didn't get the spending cuts he wanted; President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) -- even with huge majorities in Congress -- didn't get everything he wanted, and unsuccessfully tried to pack the Supreme Court in order to have his policies implemented.

So, when the "failed policies" assertion is made, we should demand clarification on the following points:

  • What was the goal of the policy? What was the standard of success? What were the specific, measurable outcomes that the policy promised?
  • What is the appropriate time frame for evaluating the policy?
  • Was the policy fully implemented, or implemented without serious exceptions?
  • Were there any alternative policies that could have achieved the goal in question?

This sort of assertion shouldn't be made carelessly, and we shouldn't let our politicians be so quick to insist that some or other policy has clearly and unambiguously failed.

"Now we have to overcome some big challenges, I will admit that. First, too many of our representatives in Washington are in the grips of a failed economic theory called trickle down economics. Now, I do not doubt their sincerity. But it has been proven wrong again and again. But there still are people in Congress who insist on cutting taxes for the wealthy instead of investing in our future. They careen from one self- inflicted crisis to another. Shutting down the government, threatening to default on our national debt, refusing to make the common-sense investments that used to have broad bipartisan support, like rebuilding our roads and our bridges, our tunnels, our highways, our airports. Or investing in better education from zero through high school and college. … And if the evidence were there to support this ideology, I would have to acknowledge that. But we have seen the results. Twice now in the past 30 years, a Republican president has caused an economic mess and a Democratic president has had to come in and clean it up."
-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, June 22, 2016.

Comment: There are lots of things going on here. Where has it been proven that so-called "trickle-down economics" is a failed policy? Where has this policy been tested rigorously – that is, against an otherwise-identical control group? Such experiments are difficult to craft, and almost never occur on a large scale. It may be true that there have been cases where trickle-down economics has been implemented and bad economic news has followed, but it's propter hoc reasoning to jump to the conclusion that the former caused the latter. Correlation isn't necessarily causation. (Perhaps the bad economic news would have been even worse without the trickle-down policies, it's impossible to know unless you set up a control group for comparison.) Also, who has proposed not investing in our future? Perhaps people have proposed tax cuts for the wealthy along with spending less on investment than Clinton supports, but is there anyone who has said we shouldn't spend any money on education or infrastructure? This sounds like a straw man she's setting up to knock over. Finally, Clinton also resorts to "common sense" rhetoric, as well as "bipartisan" rhetoric (if the Republicans aren't supporting common-sense investments, then how can they have bipartisan support?).

"This group needs to be confronted with serious proposals. And this is a very significant threat we face. And the president has left us unsafe. He spoke the other night to the American people to reassure us. I wish he hadn't spoken at all. He made things worse. Because what he basically said was we are going to keep doing what we're doing now, and what we are doing now is not working."
-- Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), December 15, 2015.

Comment: This is "failed policies" rhetoric.

"We're taking back America. … Obama has failed us."
-- Unidentified supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, October 10, 2015.

Comment: This is "real Americans" and "failed policies" rhetoric.

CLINTON: I'm not going to sit here and tell people that I make up my mind – that's the Republicans. They make up their mind, they're never bothered by evidence.

TODD: Bernie Sanders has been on the – sort of, where you are on these issues, Bernie Sanders was there, when it came to marriage, 20 years ago. Do you think one of the reasons he's doing well right now is some progressives think, well, you know what, he was there when it wasn't popular?

CLINTON: Well, he can speak for himself, and I certainly respect his views. I can just tell you that I am not someone who stakes out a position and holds it regardless of the evidence, or regardless of the way that I perceive what's happening in the world around me. And, as I was saying, that's where the Republicans are. You know, they're still believing in trickle down economics, even though it was a disaster not once, but twice for our country.
-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D-NY), September 27, 2015, during an interview with Chuck Todd of NBC News. Clinton was questioned on her change of position on certain issues, in comparison to the positions of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Comment: Clinton is defending herself for flip-flopping on various issues. She doesn't answer the question of whether or not Sanders' constancy is causing his rise in the polls. Clinton also accuses Republicans of not caring about truth, and of "failed policies".

Secretary General of the Shitte paramilitary Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said on Friday, that the U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy in fighting ISIS has failed.

Nasrallah stated in a television interview, “The failure of the U.S. attempts to defeat ISIS has pushed Russia to intervene directly in the conflict,” pointing out that, “The Russian militarily presence in Syria includes advanced and very accurate weapons as well as fighter jets and helicopters,” welcoming this presence which supports the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
-- Hassan Nasrallah, September 25, 2015, as related in a story by Amre Sarhan of Iraqi News.

Comment: This is "failed policies" rhetoric.

I would argue that all of the G.O.P. candidates are calling for policies that would be deeply destructive at home, abroad, or both. But even if you like the broad thrust of modern Republican policies, it should worry you that the men and woman on that stage are clearly living in a world of fantasies and fictions. And some seem willing to advance their ambitions with outright lies. Let’s start at the shallow end, with the fantasy economics of the establishment candidates. You’re probably tired of hearing this, but modern G.O.P. economic discourse is completely dominated by an economic doctrine — the sovereign importance of low taxes on the rich — that has failed completely and utterly in practice over the past generation. … If the discussion of economics was alarming, the discussion of foreign policy was practically demented. Almost all the candidates seem to believe that American military strength can shock-and-awe other countries into doing what we want without any need for negotiations, and that we shouldn’t even talk with foreign leaders we don’t like. … I began writing for The Times during the 2000 election campaign, and what I remember above all from that campaign is the way the conventions of “evenhanded” reporting allowed then-candidate George W. Bush to make clearly false assertions — about his tax cuts, about Social Security — without paying any price. As I wrote at the time, if Mr. Bush said the earth was flat, we’d see headlines along the lines of “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.” Now we have presidential candidates who make Mr. Bush look like Abe Lincoln. But who will tell the people?
-- Pundit Paul Krugman, September 18, 2015.

Comment: Krugman is using "stupid" name-calling as well as the "they'll say anything" caricature. He's also accusing Republicans of failed policies. Finally, Krugman is using the "only my opponent" caricature, saying it is a false equivalence to say Republicans and Democrats are equally guilty of making false assertions.

"I agree that it's good for Sanders to go out and to address racial issues since he's never been identified with it … But what he's doing now is he's criticizing this idea of inequality. It's a great idea if you're the opposing party. His party, the Democrats, Obama has been in office for seven years. They own the economy. The idea that you're running against inequality, the whole middle class is being held back, nobody is advancing, It's all stacked against you. Well, they've had the power for seven years and done nothing."
-- Pundit Charles Krauthammer, September 14, 2015. His remarks referred to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Comment: Krauthammer is using “failed policies” rhetoric against Democrats.

"And they talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. Their menu doesn’t have a whole lot of options for the middle class. The one thing that the bus full of people who are fighting to lead the Republican ticket all share is they keep on coming up with the same old trickle-down, “you’re on your own” economics that helped bring about the crisis back in 2007-2008 in the first place."
-- President Barack Obama, July 2, 2015.

Comment: This is "failed policies" rhetoric. What evidence does Obama have – apart from flawed post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning – that Republican fiscal policy caused the Financial Crisis? Were Democrats – or, was Obama – offering any policies in the 2000 or 2004 presidential elections that would have prevented the recession?

"[Obama] mentioned that we all need to do soul searching. I think he needs to do some soul searching about failed liberal policies that have prolonged the misery in the American ghetto. You know, he said this is society has to step up and do more, and I reject that thing out of hand. This is lifestyle choices. These are flawed lifestyle choices people make like dropping out of school, like failing to stay employed, like having kids out of wedlock, like father absent homes. Those are behavior changes that have to go on in these central cities and these American ghettos if we're going to see a change."
-- Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, posted April 28, 2015.

Comment: This is "failed policies" rhetoric.

"In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new."
-- President Barack Obama, January 20, 2015, during the 2015 State of the Union address.

Comment: Obama is claiming that the embargo on trade with Cuba is a failed policy, and that adaptation and adjustment rather than persistence is the right tactic.


Examples from 2012.

"Now, I believe myself that the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense -- and you have to make your own decisions as to what the President knows -- that this war is lost, and that the surge is not accomplishing anything as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq yesterday."
-- Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), April 19, 2007.

Comment: President George W. Bush announced the Iraq "surge" in January 2007. By October 2007, violence in Iraq had dropped significantly, and continued to decline through 2008. How much of a role the surge played in decreasing the violence is certainly debatable, but it does look like Reid was too quick to declare that the war was "lost".

"In 1981 our critics charged that letting you keep more of your earnings would trigger an inflationary explosion, send interest rates soaring, and destroy our economy. Well, we cut your tax rates anyway by nearly 25 percent. And what that helped trigger was falling inflation, falling interest rates, and the strongest economic expansion in 30 years."
-- President Ronald Reagan, May 28, 1985.

Comment: Reagan is using "failed policies" rhetoric on his critics, noting that they made false predictions about what his policies would do. But is Reagan resorting to false causation reasoning? Was the drop in inflation and interest rates, etc., caused by Reagan's policies, or just preceded by them?

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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