Friday, April 17, 2009

Analysis: Governor Bobby Jindal's response to President Barack Obama

Following are excerpts of Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R-LA) response to President Barack Obama's address to Congress [CNN Transcript, RCP Transcript, February 24, 2009]:

During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office I'd never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: 'Well, I'm the Sheriff and if you don't like it you can come and arrest me!' I asked him: 'Sheriff, what's got you so mad?' He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go -- when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn't go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, 'Sheriff, that's ridiculous.' And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: 'Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!' Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and start rescuing people. There is a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and enterprising spirit of our citizens.

Comment: Is this really the lesson that we're forced to accept by this anecdote about Hurricane Katrina?

Suppose someone offered this anecdote, and the accompanying lesson: "Government mandated that airbags be put in cars. Just such an airbag saved my grandmother's life in a car accident that otherwise would have killed her. There is a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is found in our government." It doesn't seem like we're really compelled to draw this lesson from this anecdote. Likewise, the lesson Jindal tries to draw from the Hurricane Katrina anecdote is also a bit of a stretch.

Granted, there are times when government policies and regulations create needless obstacles and do more harm than good. But there are also times when government regulations and policies are helpful, and do more good than harm. To cite examples of either case and then come up with a general lesson about where "the strength" of the country lies is unfounded.


That is why Republicans put forward plans to create jobs by lowering income tax rates for working families, cutting taxes for small businesses, strengthening incentives for businesses to invest in new equipment and hire new workers, and stabilizing home values by creating a new tax credit for home-buyers. These plans would cost less and create more jobs. But Democratic leaders in Congress rejected this approach. Instead of trusting us to make wise decisions with our own money, they passed the largest government spending bill in history -- with a price tag of more than $1 trillion with interest. While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending.

Comment: Jindal is describing Democratic policies on taxes and spending as being motivated by a distrust in people. Democrats, he says, don't trust us "to make wise decisions with our own money".

This is a caricature, however: all government spending involves taking money from people and spending it in a different way than the people would have spent it. The only way to avoid this is to not have ANY taxes or government spending at all, and neither Jindal nor Obama -- nor any other Republicans or Democrats -- are proposing that. Jindal himself says that some of the spending items proposed by Obama and the Democrats "make sense": does that mean he "distrusts" how the people would have spent that money? No, of course not.

Jindal doesn't agree with all of the Democrats' spending proposals. He thinks that lowering some taxes and cutting some spending would create more jobs and economic growth than the Democrats' proposals. But he needs to defend this assertion (just like Democrats need to defend THEIR claims that their proposals would create more jobs and growth than Republican proposals). But Jindal doesn't do this. Instead of giving us evidence for the claim that Republican economic proposals are better, he just dismisses Democratic proposals by saying that the latter are based on a "distrust" of the people (even though his own spending proposals are based on a similar "distrust").


Who among us would ask our children for a loan, so we could spend money we do not have, on things we do not need? That is precisely what the Democrats in Congress just did.

Comment: This seems like another caricature of Democratic proposals.

It's not as if Democrats are saying, "Hey, let's borrow money that our kids (and not us!) will have to pay back so we can buy a bunch of stuff we don't need." Rather, Democrats are increasing spending (granted, by borrowing more money) so that they can spend money on things they believe we -- both current and future generations -- DO need. Democrats believe that what they are spending money on are programs that are important to our prosperity in the near term and in the longer term, and that the benefits of that spending will outweigh the cost of having to repay the loans.

Now, just because they believe that doesn't mean that they're correct. It could be that they're wrong about what programs are vital to our prosperity. A detailed, substantive empirical debate is needed here -- from both Jindal (and Republicans) and Obama (and Democrats) -- regarding what policies will result in what costs and benefits. But Jindal doesn't give us a detailed argument supporting the claim that Republican policies are better, he just asserts it. And he offers up a caricature of Democrats as knowingly and intentionally spending borrowed money on superfluous programs that yield no benefit.


We believe Americans can do anything -- and if we put aside partisan politics and work together, we can make our system of private medicine affordable and accessible for every one of our citizens.

Comment: This is an appeal for bipartisanship, an appeal to unify the country, along with a condemnation of "partisan politics" (in other words, "negative politics").

Appeals for bipartisanship and condemnations of partisan politics are sort of the flip sides of one another. And they usually share the same flaw: a lack of specificity. What, in particular, is supposed to count as good, bipartisan behavior, and what counts as bad, partisan behavior?

Such is the case here, with Jindal's appeal. How, in particular, do we put aside partisanship on the issue of health care? Moreover, how do we do this in such a way that will make private health care "affordable and accessible" to everyone? What is it that Republicans need to "put aside" in order to get this result, and what is it that Democrats need to "put aside"? Jindal doesn't say.

As with most political issues, there are substantive disagreements on health care. People have beliefs -- different beliefs -- about what is the best course of action. Is Jindal instructing people to simply put aside their beliefs about what is the best course of action on health care? If he's not saying that, what is he saying?

Appeals for unity need to include details.


Democratic leaders in Washington place their hope in the federal government. We place our hope in you -- the American people. In the end, it comes down to an honest and fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government. We oppose the national Democrats' view that says the way to strengthen our country is to increase dependence on government. We believe the way to strengthen our country is to restrain spending in Washington, and empower individuals and small businesses to grow our economy and create jobs.

Comment: This is standard caricature. Just like Democrats, liberals, and "left-wingers" typically caricature Republicans, conservatives, and "right-wingers" as being greedy, uncompassionate people who don't care about the poor, the standard caricature in the other direction is that Democrats, etc. want government to run peoples' lives rather than have people be responsible for themselves.

Both caricatures are nonsense. There's a real debate about how much assistance -- how many services -- government should and shouldn't give. Should government provide roads, a police force, emergency services, unemployment benefits, education, dental care, etc.? These are legitimate questions.

Unfortunately, we like to simply caricature anyone who disagrees with us on these questions:

"If you don't agree with me that the government should be providing X, then I'm going to accuse you of being a social Darwinist who doesn't care about human suffering at all."


"If you don't agree with me that the government shouldn't be providing X, then I'm going to accuse you of being a communist who doesn't believe people have any responsibility for their own well-being."

Such is the case here with Jindal. He should stick to arguing about what moral priorities we should have, and what policies he believes have the best empirical track record with respect to those priorities.

But saying that the people who disagree with him don't put their hope in the American people and want to make the American people dependents on government is simply caricature. If Jindal doesn't want his own views to be caricatured, then he shouldn't do it to the views of others.

-- Civ.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Analysis: President Barack Obama's Address to Congress

Following are excerpts of President Barack Obama's address to Congress [CNN Transcript, RCP Transcript, February 24, 2009]:

What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more. Now, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that for too long, we have not always met these responsibilities -- as a government or as a people.

Comment: This claim -- that we as a government and as a people haven't been taking responsibility for our future or boldly confronting the challenges we face -- is questionable. Part of the problem with it is that it's not clear what he's asserting.

Is Obama making a claim about peoples' motivations? Is he saying that, up until this point, nobody was trying to take responsibility for our future or trying to boldly confront the challenges the U.S. faces? If so, then what he's saying is false. Of course there were people trying to do just that. They may not have been advocating the same policies as Obama, but they clearly had the same goal.

Obama might instead be making a claim about what policies will effectively address our problems. In other words, Obama could be saying that, up until this point, we weren't adopting the policies that will successfully confront the challenges the U.S. faces and thus secure our future. Though people were previously trying to take responsibility for our future and confront certain challenges, they weren't implementing policies that -- in Obama's view -- will actually achieve those goals.

This second claim is not straightforwardly false. But its truth depends on whether or not Obama's policies really are effective, whether they really will fix the problems we currently face.

And making that case involves making an awful lot of empirical predictions, predictions about what effects various policies (regarding taxes, spending, trade agreements, regulations, etc.) will have on various economic elements (on unemployment, on economic growth, on inflation, etc.).

Contrary to the confidence displayed by our politicians and pundits, such predictions are not easy to make [CDP: How Easy is it to Understand the Economy? February 12, 2009].

If Obama wants to claim that only a certain set of policies will adequately solve our currently problems -- and this seems to be a central assertion of his address to Congress -- then he needs to defend that claim.

However, as is typical of politicians making economic claims -- or empirical claims in general -- he provides very little in the way of evidence to defend this claim.


I say this not to lay blame or look backwards, but because it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we'll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament.

Comment: Obama is saying that, in order to fix our currently problems, we must understand how they came to be. But he doesn't make much of a case for this claim.

It's not always the case that you need to know how a problem started in order to fix it. For instance, you don't need to know how a tire became flat: you can just replace it and the problem is fixed, without requiring any knowledge about the problem's origin. Likewise, clogged drains can often be cleared without know how they became clogged, and broken bones can often be mended without knowing how they were broken.

Sometimes you do need to know the origin of a problem in order to find the solution to that problem: this is often the case in medicine. Doctors often need to diagnose an ailment before they can effectively treat it (though not always, as in the aforementioned broken bones).

So, Obama needs to explain why our current situation is different from the flat tire or clogged drain situation. That is, he needs to explain why it is that we have to understand the origin of our problem before we can fix it.


In other words, we have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market.

Comment: As with his earlier claim that we should once more "confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future," is Obama making a claim about motivations or about what policies have (or have had) what results?

Is he saying that people in the past era sought short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity? Is he saying that people gutted regulations in order to make a quick profit? Maybe some people had these motivations, but certainly many did not, in which case Obama is making a false assertion.

If, on the other hand, he's saying that -- whatever peoples' motivations were -- the policies of the past had good short-term results but bad long-term ones, then that is a statement relying on a host of empirical assertions which he has yet to back up.

Obama Demonizes Republicans

Obama clearly makes a disparaging caricature in the above quote. He says that people -- by which he means the administration of President George W. Bush in 2001 -- chose to take the government surplus as an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy. In other words, he is saying that the Bush administration was seeking to enrich the wealthy.

This is accusation is frequently made by Democrats (of which Obama is one) against Republicans (of which Bush is one), and is a standard example of how Democrats demonize Republicans.

Republicans often call for tax cuts, particularly for those who have higher incomes. There's a legitimate debate about whether this is a good idea. On the one hand, lowering taxes might result in the government not getting enough revenue in order to pay for worthwhile programs (although there's also a big debate between Republicans and Democrats about what constitutes a worthwhile program). On the other hand, lowering taxes will give higher income earners more money to spend, which could have lots of benefits for the economy in general, including people with lower incomes.

There's a lot of elements to this debate, largely involving empirical predictions about the effects of different tax and spending policies, as well as debates about which moral priorities should take precedence.

For Obama to sum up this complex debate as simply being a matter of Republicans wanting to give more wealth to the wealthy is nothing less than a caricature, a caricature that serves to demonize Republicans.

It is further misleading in that the phrase "transfer wealth to the wealthy" makes it sound as if Bush was taking money from people who aren't wealthy and giving it to rich people. But this is not the case: lowering taxes on higher income earners means that less money is taken from them. It's not the case that lower income earners were having to hand over more of their money to higher income earners.

Obama often talks about the need for bipartisanship and setting a higher standard of civil discourse: accusing Republicans of taking money from poor people in order to give it to rich people doesn't fit in with either of those goals.


As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President's Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government -- I don't. Not because I'm not mindful of the massive debt we've inherited -- I am. I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships. In fact, a failure to act would have worsened our long-term deficit by assuring weak economic growth for years. That's why I pushed for quick action. And tonight, I am grateful that this Congress delivered, and pleased to say that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is now law.

Comment: Again, Obama is making key empirical claims without backing them up.

What is the proof that not acting "would have worsened our long-term deficit by assuring weak economic growth for years"? And what is the proof that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is the action that will avoid that economic outcome?

Is Obama Appealing to Fear?

Obama is clearly urging us in a certain direction in the name of avoiding a perilous outcome. In other words, he is appealing to fear.

But there's nothing wrong with appealing to fear, in principle. There are things that it's quite reasonable for us to be afraid of, and there are actions that it's quite reasonable for us to take in the name of avoiding what we fear.

Politicians routinely appeal to fear, and they often accuse one another of appealing to fear. Democrats and Republicans frequently accuse one another of fear-mongering and using scare tactics on matters such as the economy, national security, public health, etc.

When they do this, the question we have to ask is whether the fear being appealed to is legitimate, and whether a legitimate response to that fear is being proposed. Appealing to fear only becomes "fear-mongering" and "scare tactics" in the negative sense when the fear is not legitimate or the course of action is not appropriate.

Judging whether someone is appealing to fear in the negative sense involves making predictions -- again, empirical judgments -- about whether something bad is going to happen, and whether adopting a certain course of action will prevent that bad thing from happening.

Because Obama doesn't go much into the empirical substance -- because he doesn't lay out clearly and conclusively the bad outcome we will run into unless we adopt his policies -- he doesn't give us a reason to believe that he's making a legitimate appeal to fear rather than engaging in inappropriate fear-mongering.


Still, this plan will require significant resources from the federal government -- and yes, probably more than we've already set aside. But while the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be far greater, for it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade. That would be worse for our deficit, worse for business, worse for you, and worse for the next generation. And I refuse to let that happen.

Comment: Again, this is an appeal to fear, based on a host of empirical claims that Obama does not do much to substantiate in this speech.


I understand that when the last administration asked this Congress to provide assistance for struggling banks, Democrats and Republicans alike were infuriated by the mismanagement and results that followed. So were the American taxpayers. So was I. So I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you -- I get it. But I also know that in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment. My job -- our job -- is to solve the problem. Our job is to govern with a sense of responsibility. I will not spend a single penny for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive, but I will do whatever it takes to help the small business that can't pay its workers or the family that has saved and still can't get a mortgage.

Comment: Obama seems to be saying that at least some -- if not all -- of the objections raised to mismanagement of bailout funds should be dismissed and ignored because they amount to governing "out of anger" and giving in to "the politics of the moment". In other words, he's rejecting that class of objections as being frivolous, and not based on moral considerations.

Now, we certainly SHOULD reject frivolous objections, but Obama doesn't spell out which objections are frivolous. It's not the case than anyone who objects to his policies is raising a frivolous objection, giving in to anger and momentary political considerations, rather than appealing to legitimate moral considerations.

So, which objections in particular does Obama believe are frivolous?


I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity.

Comment: This is probably correct. It's very unlikely that government has no legitimate or productive role to play whatsoever in supporting our prosperity.

However, who has actually said otherwise? Granted, there are people -- Republicans, conservatives, libertarians, etc. -- who believe government should play LESS of a role in our lives and prosperity than Obama envisions. But that doesn't mean they advocate government having ZERO role whatsoever. So who is Obama rebutting with this claim?

It sounds like Obama might be caricaturing those opponents who call for less government intervention than he does. By falsely describing those opponents as being opposed to all government, he can brush them aside easily, like straw men.

But this is a false victory, since it is only achieved by misrepresenting his opponents.

Obama needs to specify who this comment is aimed at in order for us to judge whether it is fair criticism or dishonest caricature.


History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world. In each case, government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.

Comment: Once more, Obama is making some broad empirical claims without much detail or defense.

In particular, he doesn't answer these questions: would any of these things have happened without government intervention? Would they have been accomplished with less efficiency? Is it always the case that government catalyzes private enterprise in a positive way? Does it ever influence private enterprise negatively?

The examples Obama gives are not analyzed, and cannot be taken as exhaustively representing the effects of government intervention on private enterprise.


But to truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. And to support that innovation, we will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.

Comment: There are several claims here concerning climate change (i.e., global warming), national security, and the cleanliness and profitability of renewable energy that are given little if any substantiation.


Already, we have done more to advance the cause of health care reform in the last thirty days than we have in the last decade.

Comment: Another broad claim, comparing health care reform of the last thirty days to that of the last ten years, that is given little substantiation.


And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country -- and this country needs and values the talents of every American.

Comment: Is dropping out of school really quitting on your country? Is that the same as saying it's unpatriotic? Can we characterize other personal or economic decisions as "quitting on your country"?

If he wants to say that dropping out of school is unacceptable as a matter of morality or personal self-interest, etc., that's one thing. But saying that it's unacceptable with respect to supporting your country is another. It opens up a host of questions about what OTHER actions are unacceptable with respect to supporting your country.

Which, in turn, takes us back to all the discussions in recent years about patriotism, wearing flag pins, supporting the Iraq War, supporting the troops, paying more in taxes, etc. [For instance, see: CDP: Joe Biden Calls it "Patriotic" to Pay More in Taxes, October 7, 2008].


... we will restore a sense of fairness and balance to our tax code by finally ending the tax breaks for corporations that ship our jobs overseas.

Comment: Obama doesn't clearly state how this furthers the cause of fairness (or "balance," for that matter, though I take it he's using the term as a synonym for fairness).

Part of this is because fairness (or justice, to use another synonym) is an ambiguous term, and can refer to several different moral considerations. And, even when it's clear which moral consideration is being alluded to, it's often vague how that consideration applies to concrete examples.

Like most politicians who raise the issue of fairness, Obama does not give any details that would alleviate either the vagueness or the ambiguity.

More, does this same standard of fairness apply to other countries? Should other countries do the same to companies that hire workers and invest in the U.S.? Would that be fair?


To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend -- because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America. That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists -- because living our values doesn't make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger. And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture.

Comment: This claim -- "living our values doesn't make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger" -- is almost certainly false if it means that there is never a conflict between our values (for instance, respecting human rights) and our safety.

It is certainly the case that we face moral dilemmas, situations where two moral considerations come into conflict and push us in different directions. And it is not difficult to imagine (or even to cull from recent history) situations in which our moral desire to respect privacy, due process, the rule of law, etc. comes into conflict with our desire to protect innocent people from harm and terrorism.

For Obama to simply assert that no such dilemmas exist -- that abiding by one of these moral considerations NEVER involves compromising or giving up on another -- is false.

For instance, since Obama became president, the U.S. has continued to bomb targets in Pakistan [AP: Airstrike Kills 7 in Pakistan, March 2, 2009]. These strikes are done in order to protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan and to kill members or allies of the terrorist groups Al Qaeda, but they occasionally harm or kill innocent Pakistanis.

Isn't the killing of those innocents a bad thing (even if it is believed to be justified in the name of achieving another moral goal)? Isn't this exactly a case of us choosing one moral consideration over another, because the two are in conflict? Don't these strikes represent actions that we take in order to make the U.S. safer, even though they violate the U.S. value of protecting innocent life?

Again, for Obama to say no such conflict exists is demonstrably false.


In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun. For we know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm. We are instead called to move forward with the sense of confidence and candor that serious times demand.

Comment: In describing the "new era," Obama is caricaturing the previous administration under Bush.

Under Bush, the U.S. did not attempt to meet "the threats of this century" alone, it regularly met and collaborated with allies such as Great Britain, Japan, Pakistan, etc.

Under Bush, the U.S. did not "shun the negotiating table," it regularly spoke with opponents and competitors in matters including trade and military conflict, such as its negotiations with North Korea regarding that country's nuclear program.

Under Bush, the U.S. did not "ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm," it regularly acknowledged its enemies -- again, it sometimes even negotiated with them, which is incompatible with ignoring them.

Now, this doesn't mean we have to agree with the way the Bush administration carried out any or all of these functions. Certainly, Obama believes there is a lot to be desired in the way the Bush administration performed on these fronts, and it is entirely fair for him to offer criticism.

But it is not acceptable for him to mischaracterize the Bush administration by saying that they did not work with others, they did not negotiate, and they ignored their foes. Such claims are false.


Those of us gathered here tonight have been called to govern in extraordinary times. It is a tremendous burden, but also a great privilege -- one that has been entrusted to few generations of Americans. For in our hands lies the ability to shape our world for good or for ill. I know that it is easy to lose sight of this truth -- to become cynical and doubtful; consumed with the petty and the trivial. But in my life, I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary.

Comment: Here, Obama says it is easy to lose sight of the responsibility of governing, and to "become cynical and doubtful; consumed with the petty and the trivial."

He doesn't clearly spell out what he means by "petty" and "trivial" behavior, though. As with most politicians who denounce "negative politics" and ask us to improve our political environment, Obama doesn't specify what we're to avoid and what we're to emulate. He sticks to the abstract, without giving any clear examples of good or bad behavior.

To make matters worse, Obama has made several violations of civil debate in this very speech, particularly with respect to distorting and caricaturing the views of his opponents. When people hear these caricatures, and then hear Obama calling for a higher standard of debate, they are likely to conclude that the two are compatible with one another, even though they aren't.


I know that we haven't agreed on every issue thus far, and there are surely times in the future when we will part ways. But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground. And if we do -- if we come together and lift this nation from the depths of this crisis; if we put our people back to work and restart the engine of our prosperity; if we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then someday years from now our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, "something worthy to be remembered."

Comment: Obama is asking Americans not to question the patriotism of their opponents, not to insinuate that they don't love their country. There is some value in this sentiment, since one of the problems with out discussions of political and moral matters is that we tend to think the worst about anyone who disagrees with us (for instance, to think that they are unpatriotic or have sinister motivations).

But there are also some problems with this sentiment. There are the more abstract considerations, such as that people sometimes DO have unpatriotic or sinister motivations (though probably not nearly as often as we'd like to think), and that motivations and intentions -- good or bad, patriotic or unpatriotic, noble or sinister -- don't play a terribly conclusive role when it comes to evaluating actions or policies as being morally or politically acceptable.

But, more concretely, Obama doesn't do a very good job of living up to this sentiment in this very speech. He has repeatedly caricatured his opponents, and he has demonized them in at least one instance.

If he really knows that "every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed," then why does he keep disparaging so many of them?



Obama's address to Congress was a disappointment on several fronts when it comes to civil, productive debate.

He made many empirical claims without defending them. And he caricatured and disparaged his opponents even while he was calling for us to live up to a higher standard of debate.

Of course it's difficult to defend in depth EVERY empirical claim that your policies depend upon. And of course it can be challenging to ALWAYS be respectful of your opponents views, and to never be dismissive of them.

But the short shrift Obama gave to the empirical assertions he made was not even close to adequate. And the consistently unfair descriptions he gave of his opponents were made even more outrageous by being followed with a call for civil discourse.

-- Civ.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How Easy is it to Understand the Economy?

There is no shortage of opinion regarding the current financial crisis. The media is full of people who seem quite certain about what got us to where we are today and/or what will get us out.

For instance, several candidates are put forward as being the cause (or causes) of the current economic hardship:

  • sub-prime loans, or the bundling and sale of sub-prime loans as securities
  • too much, too little, bad or unenforced government regulation
  • tax cuts
  • too much consumer spending and/or debt
  • too much government spending and/or deficit spending
  • low consumer savings
  • bad monetary policy

And several candidates are put forth as what will be the cure (or cures):

  • tax cuts
  • consumer spending
  • government spending
  • better monetary policy
  • bank bailouts or rescues to shore up credit

Whatever the details, those weighing in on the financial crisis are essentially making empirical claims, claims about how the world works. In particular, they're making claims about how people behave in the world. Economics -- the study of meeting wants and needs, and what people do in order to satisfy their wants and needs -- is a social science, which makes it an empirical issue.

We often act and speak as if we know a great deal about the empirical world. But, in fact, gaining knowledge about the empirical world is often difficult, and the rampant disagreement about the causes of and cures for the financial crisis is testament to that.

Despite people's confidence and insistence that they KNOW what caused the financial crisis, and/or that they KNOW how to reverse it, what do they really know for certain? Is it really that obvious what caused the financial crisis, and how to reverse it?

If there is any doubt about how much ignorance there is of the empirical world -- despite our confidence to the contrary -- consider some related events.

The Great Depression

The worldwide economic downturn known as the Great Depression ended decades ago -- in the late 1930s or the 1940s -- and has been the subject of intense study ever since. Despite this, there is still an enormous amount of disagreement regarding what caused it and what ended it.

The 1929 stock market crash, the gold standard, protectionism, bank failures, flawed monetary policy, etc., are all touted as causes by different people. The reasons for the end of the Great Depression are also hotly debated: some say that the New Deal programs offered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt reversed the downturn, while others say that FDR's New Deal prolonged it. It is also often claimed that industrial production stemming from World War II is what ended the Great Depression.

The point is this: even though The Great Depression is a story with an ending -- and not a current, ongoing event -- and even though it has been investigated by various people from various backgrounds over several decades, it is still something of a mystery.

If there's still disagreement over the economics and causality of the Great Depression, which happened 70 years ago -- if THAT is still a topic of dispute -- then how could what's going on NOW be obvious?

The War in Iraq

Another example to consider is the War in Iraq. This is not, of course, primarily an economic event, but -- like economics -- war also involves predictions about how people will behave in the world. And, like today's financial crisis, the War in Iraq is an ongoing current event that has received immense attention and scrutiny.

When invading Iraq in early 2003, President George W. Bush and his administration were sure of several things: that it would be relatively easy to provide security, keep the peace, and administer Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his regime; that weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) or ongoing WMD programs would be found; that oil revenue would cover the cost of the U.S. military presence; that a stable democracy could be easily established, etc.

But the U.S. quickly encountered problems in Iraq on a variety of fronts. And the Bush administration frequently refused to admit that they had made errors in their predictions or their understanding of the situation.

Critics excoriated Bush and said he was incapable of admitting mistakes and changing tack. The U.S. presence in Iraq was sharply debated both nationally and internationally, and various solutions from a variety of sources -- for example, Iraq Study Group -- were offered. Many insisted that it was time for the U.S. to pull its forces out of Iraq.

Then, in January 2007, Bush announced a new strategy for the U.S. in Iraq, a strategy which came to be called the "surge". It called for a redeployment of U.S. forces already in Iraq, as well as the addition of thousands more soldiers. Critics denounced the plan, saying that it was more of the same, that it would not work, that it was not in the interests of the U.S., etc. Again, there was intense scrutiny of the new plan.

But the "surge" did not fail. Today, violence in Iraq is down and provincial elections have just been held. Granted, the War in Iraq is still an ongoing event, and the situation could change. But the "surge" was clearly not the failure its critics said it would be. And those critics are now just as reluctant as the Bush administration to admit their mistakes. Currently, there appears to be more interest in talking about the problems in Afghanistan than the successes in Iraq.


Our ignorance of the empirical world -- illustrated by both the Great Depression and the War in Iraq -- is very easy to see. But we tend not to acknowledge it.

Instead, we approach new problems -- for instance, the current financial crisis -- with a boldness and certainty that we haven't earned. We assert strongly that we KNOW this or that about the cause of the crisis and the way to reverse it. And, when someone disagrees with us, we quickly dismiss them rather than trying to slowly and carefully convince them that we're correct. Perhaps this is because, if we DID go through the careful process of trying to prove our that our beliefs about the empirical world are correct, we would find how many embarrassing questions we don't have answers to.

This, naturally, is just a symptom of the already poor standard of debate in the U.S.

I'm not arguing for absolute certainty: often, we have to act without complete knowledge of the situation. But, if we are going to act without having complete knowledge -- and we often have to -- we should at least confess to it, which means not being so dismissive of anyone who disagrees.

After all, of the people who are now so certain of what caused the financial crisis and of how to fix it, how many of them predicted it beforehand? Few, if any.

I'm not saying that those who couldn't predict it are wrong about how to fix it (that would be ad hominem reasoning of the "can't fix your own mistakes" variety). But you'd think that having failed to see it beforehand would prompt a degree of humility about knowing how to fix it.

We don't always know the future. It would be nice if our politicians, pundits, and leaders would be less caustic to those who disagree with their predictions.

-- Civ.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Analysis: President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address

Following are excerpts of President Barack Obama's inaugural address [CNN Transcript, RCP Transcript, January 20, 2009]:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

Comment: This is attributing a lot to the people who attended -- or even who watched -- Obama's inauguration. Did all of them clearly choose hope and unity over fear and discord, and did they all have that as a reason for attending? Did people attend in order to renounce petty grievances, false promises, recriminations and worn out dogmas? It sounds like Obama is offering up the dubious "Americans want..." assertion.

More to the point, what beliefs, views and attitudes, in particular, count as petty grievances, false promises, recriminations and worn out dogmas? Of course, we all oppose such things in the abstract: but different people are going to come to different conclusions about whether a certain belief is a worn out ideology or a proven fact, or whether a certain attitude is a petty grievance or a legitimate complaint.

Without being specific about what beliefs, views and attitudes people are supposed to be unburdening themselves of, aren't people likely to reach a self-serving conclusion? That is, won't they conclude that their OWN beliefs, views and attitudes are just fine the way they are, and that it's their OPPONENTS who must change THEIR beliefs, views and attitudes? And won't that leave us stuck with the "conflict and discord" that's already present?

I understand that Obama's speech is intended as inspirational rhetoric, but it should still be judged according to whether it makes clear, truthful assertions. Obama's words are so unspecific and ambiguous that it's unclear what, precisely, we are supposed to do in order to improve our conduct.

This, of course, is very common. When politicians make accusations of negative politics or call for us to set a higher standard of debate and unite as a country -- as Obama is doing here in his inaugural -- they typically speak in the abstract. They don't lay out clear standards and definitions of what counts as good behavior versus bad behavior, and then apply those standards in an even-handed way to specific examples.


It has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn. Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

Comment: Again, this is attributing a lot to a fairly large group of people (akin to the "Americans want..." assertion). All the people who worked hard or sacrificed in the past, all the people to whom we owe gratitude for their past contributions, were ALL of them motivated by the ideals that Obama mentions?


Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed.

Comment: This sounds like a jab at special interests. But what is a special interest (or a "narrow" interest)? Which interests in particular are narrow, and which ones aren't? And why are narrow interests bad, or outweighed by interests that aren't narrow?

As usual, the derision of special interests (or "narrow" interests) is made in such a non-specific way that it's hard to figure out what it means, or what it should prompt us to do in particular.


We will restore science to its rightful place

Comment: This is an implicit criticism of the previous administration of President George W. Bush, which Obama disagrees with on matters such as global warming and climate change, as well as stem cell research.

Such disagreement is legitimate. But Obama's words don't cast Bush as disagreeing with particular scientific theories or about how our moral priorities to scientific research: he's deriding Bush as being opposed to science altogether.

That's a needless insult. If Obama thinks Bush is wrong on scientific matters, then he should defend that belief. But to imply that Bush doesn't care about science at all is going too far.


There are some who question the scale of our ambitions -- who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. ... What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.

Comment: This is not a fair description of what people have been arguing about for the past several decades. The argument has ALWAYS been about whether or not government is working effectively: one group has argued that it isn't working effectively because it is too big (or that it does too much), and another group has argued that it isn't working effectively because it is not big enough (or that it doesn't do enough). And that's still the argument today.

Of course, that's not how these groups have described one another in this debate. Unfortunately (but predictably), they have routinely caricatured each other: the group that thinks government is too big and is doing too much says that their opponents just want bigger government REGARDLESS of whether it is effective and efficient; and the group that thinks government is too small and is doing too little says that their opponents just want smaller government REGARDLESS of whether it is effective and efficient.

Obama is wrong to say that there is somehow a different argument going on now than there was previously, and that "cynics" are failing to see that. We face today the same, perfectly reasonable debate that we have always faced: what consequences will result from different government policies and laws (which is an empirical question), and what values should the government be defending or furthering (which is a question of moral obligation and priorities)?

This debate has seldom been conducted in a reasonable, respectful manner, and it would be an improvement if we'd start having it in a civil, productive way.

But it's not correct to say that cynics are somehow missing out on the real issue at stake.


Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

Comment: Is there anyone who has advocated having no watchful eye whatsoever on the markets? Certainly, there's a legitimate debate about HOW MUCH government regulation and oversight of markets there should be. But Obama sounds like he's crafting the debate as being between those who call for some oversight and those who call for none at all. Is that accurate?

Obama also implicitly describes the previous administration's economic policies as "favoring the prosperous". That's arguably a caricature, since it makes it sound like Obama's opponents simply want to help the rich, when they would insist that they're rewarding (or trying not to punish) those who are productive.

There's a legitimate debate about whether economic policy should focus on compassion and aiding the needy or on merit and rewarding productivity. At the very least, it's not obvious which consideration should win when the two come into conflict. For Obama to describe his opponents as "favoring the prosperous" is to fail to appreciate all the moral considerations at stake in our debate about economics.

Obama and his allies are often caricatured in the same way, which can be illustrated by re-tooling Obama's own statement: "A nation cannot prosper when it taxes only the productive." I'm sure Obama wouldn't consider this statement to be a fair assessment of his policies. He shouldn't inflict the same unfairness on his opponents.


As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

Comment: Obama is correct to say that our safety and our ideals (ideals such as liberty and human rights) are not always at odds. However, it's not obvious that they're NEVER at odds, either. Are they ALWAYS compatible? I doubt it.

Moral dilemmas (many examples of which you can find in the section on moral priorities) do exist, and safety and liberty will likely come into conflict on occasion.

When they do, what is Obama's solution? How does he prioritize safety and our ideals if and when they conflict?


Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

Comment: Again, this is attributing a lot to a large group of people (once more, see the "Americans want..." assertion). Did the generations who faced down fascism and communism really ALL share these beliefs about the use of force and alliances? There wasn't any disagreement among them?

Plus, is Obama claiming that the U.S. manifested "prudent use" of power in World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and other conflicts against fascism and communism? Is that claim correct?


To those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders

Comment: Is Obama claiming that, up until now, affluent nations have been indifferent to the suffering outside their borders? Is that claim correct?


Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.

Comment: Obama is advocating that we return to the values of hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.

This means, of course, that he believes that we haven't been exercising these values recently. Is that true, though?

More to the point, what do each of these values really mean? What do they demand of us in terms of our behavior? What are we to do if these values conflict?

In particular, what does "fair play" mean? I take "fair play" to be a synonym for "justice" and "fairness". But justice is an ambiguous term, involving distinct considerations such as need, merit, culpability and equality. (Note the above discussion about economic policy.) And their application is also controversial. So, what exactly does Obama mean when he says we've failed to engage in fair play, and what does he mean when he says we're going to engage in fair play now?

Without spelling out what exactly he means when he invokes these values, it's hard to say whether or not we've been failing to live up to them, or what we have to do in order to start living up to them.


Again, I realize that inaugural speeches are supposed to be about inspiration, not detail. But it's difficult to know (or to evaluate) what we're being inspired to do if the details aren't given.

As with many politicians and political speeches, much of what Obama said is so vague or ambiguous that it's hard to judge whether we should be inspired by it.

-- Civ.