Straw Man – Krugman Style

This is one excellent description of how Paul Krugman argues.  It also describes how many others avoid arguing the legitimate points and counterpoints of an issue.

It’s from Steven Landsburg’s blog at the The Big Questions:

Let me summarize my complaint in a paragraph: Krugman has some policies he’d like to see enacted. Some people oppose those policies for silly reasons and others oppose them for sensible reasons. Krugman habitually ridicules the silly reasons and pretends that he has therefore dispensed with the sensible reasons.

I would add to Landsburg’ paragraph that those who oppose Krugman’s policies for silly reasons are usually very few in number, while those who oppose for sensible reasons are much greater.

Because the reasons Krugman chooses to debate are silly, and few, if any, people truly believe those reasons, Krugman utilizes nothing more than a very common, but accepted, fallacy – the straw man.

An example that Landsburg provided in an earlier post refers to a column where Krugman debunks the position of a “deficit hawk”.  Personally, I don’t know many pure “deficit hawks”, that is , I don’t know many (or know of many economists) who believe that the most important thing is controlling the deficit.

Do I think deficits are necessary?  Not really.  Do I think they represent in many cases the inability of politicians to make tough choices?  Yes.  But, do I think that’s the only thing that matters?  Nope.

UPDATE: In this post, Landsburg claims that politicians do often claim that deficits are all that matters.  Perhaps they do.  Maybe I don’t hear them or I filter them out because I know they’re politicians and they’re saying something they think will be consumable by the people watching Lindsay Lohan coverage.  Either way, if they do say that, I agree with Landsburg.  That’s silly.

Please Turn Off Your Cell Phones

On a recent flight it occurred to me that turning off cell phones while flying must not be that big a deal.  If it were a big deal, it seems we’d have better measures to ensure that cell phones have been turned off.

If they can send a man to the moon…

I started the draft for this post before reading Steven Landsburg’s The Big Questions.  Only now, as I get back to completing it do I realize that he provided the perfect words to back up this point, and I’ve already posted those words.

The fact that “we (I certainly didn’t have anything to do with it) sent a man to the moon” has been used in many debates over what the government is capable of achieving.  Maybe you’ve heard it.  It usually goes something like this:

“If we can send a man to the moon, then we can…

…end poverty

…make sure everyone has health care

…ensure everyone has a good standard of living

…give everyone a vacation?” (This one surfaced recently in the UK.  While they didn’t send a man to the moon, this shows where this logic can lead.)

Sending men to the moon was hard, no doubt.

But, the fallacy is generalizing what it takes to send a man to the moon is similar to what it takes to end poverty or give everyone health care.

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Quote of the Week

Time to retire the quote of the week, it’s been much longer than that.  But, this is a good quote and a keeper.

“Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel or a private jet.” -Nassim Taleb

Journalism Needs Government Help???

The President of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, makes a case in today’s Wall Street Journal that journalism needs government government help.  One of the staples of his case:

To take a very current example, we trust our great newspapers to collect millions of dollars in advertising from BP while reporting without fear or favor on the company’s environmental record only because of a professional culture that insulates revenue from news judgment.

Actually, we don’t.  Or, at least, I don’t.  You are very silly if you do not think the source of advertising dollars has no effect on reporting just as you’d be very silly to think that funding journalism from government would have no effect.


Here’s another gem from Bollinger’s column:

There are examples of other institutions in the U.S. where state support does not translate into official control. The most compelling are our public universities and our federal programs for dispensing billions of dollars annually for research. Those of us in public and private research universities care every bit as much about academic freedom as journalists care about a free press.

Bollinger tries to hide a strawman in the first sentence with “…does not translate into official control.”  I imagine few critics of Bollinger’s case would argue that government funding would need to lead to “official control” to cause trust issues.

Scroll up to the first paragraph I quoted.  There he makes a case that merely funding from companies like BP leads to credibility Continue reading


…does light have a speed?

Seems strange.  I’m sure Einstein or someone answered that, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the reason.

Update: The auto “related post” generator reminded me that I asked this question at least once before back in ’08.

Five Excellent Paragraphs from Thomas Sowell

The following paragraphs are from pages 60 through 61 of Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society.

For several years, I’ve theorized that any problem can be sourced to a problem with a feedback loop.  Supernanny knows this.  Kids aren’t bad.  The feedback the parents provide their kids is usually to blame.  Overweight people choose to ignore the feedback the scale or BMI provides.   Moral hazard is a feedback problem.  Car accidents are usually a result of a feedback problem, whether it be with a driver or with the vehicle system.

In these paragraphs, Sowell eloquently writes about feedback problems, markets and goverment.  He uses the term consequential feedback.  I wish I would have thought of that.

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Lack of Understanding and Appreciation of Nation’s Founding Documents

I couldn’t agree with Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek more regarding his letter to USA Today.

Sandra Day O’Connor and George Nethercutt are correct that too many Americans lack sufficient understanding and appreciation of U.S. history and of the meaning of this nation’s founding documents (“Celebrate America by learning about her,” July 3).  In no group of Americans does this ignorance run more deeply and malignantly than it does for those in Congress and in the White House.

Aimed at ensuring that there would be no misunderstanding, the Tenth amendment makes clear what James Madison wrote in Federalist #45 about the U.S. Constitution: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined.”  Those few powers are enumerated and defined in Article I, Section 8.  Read the 429 words of this part of the Constitution and you’ll find no authority there (or anywhere else in the Constitution) for Uncle Sam to enforce minimum wages; to command Americans to purchase health insurance; to dictate the hiring practices of private firms; to operate a universal ‘pension’ program; to oversee or fund education; to subsidize farmers – indeed, no authority to do so much of what Washington does today as a matter of routine.

Yet every elected official in America swears an oath to uphold the Constitution.  Clearly, these oaths are muttered insincerely or in inexcusable ignorance (or both).

Donald J. Boudreaux

One thing I look for in a politician is evidence that he or she first understands the rules that they are signing up uphold and second agrees that the rules say want they were intended to say.

Journalism is in a really sad state when it can’t even seem to ask this basic question of candidates seeking elected office.  Of course, along with the elected officials, most journalists only have a vague understanding of the Nation’s founding documents and they feel comfortable granting government whatever it needs “to get the job done”, whether or not that job actually falls within the defined role of government or not.

Landsburg on Free Trade

Here’s another great passage from Landsburg’s The Big Questions.   Here he discusses the moral implications of a common hot button issue, foreign trade:

Princeton Professor Alan Blinder has recently estimated that 30 to 40 million Americans face the prospect of losing their jobs to lower-paid foreign competitors.  Or in other words, all Americans face the prospect of lower prices for the output of 30 to 40 million workers. That’s good, though of course 60 to 80 million would be better.

The italicized sentence made me smile.  That’s an excellent way to frame it.  We never think of it that way.  We  disassociate jobs from output or what we buy at the stores.  Or we assume that somehow the costs of the good, high paying jobs are magically absorbed by shareholders of a company rather than paid by customers.

It gets better:

Let’s start by observing that there is almost surely no such thing as a net loser from free trade.  (I owe this observation to George Mason University professor Don Boudreaux.) I doubt there’s a human being on earth who hasn’t benefited Continue reading

Economics Should Be Easy

“Rank-and-file PhD economist” Kartik Athreya explains why Economics is Hard and “bloggers” like John Stossel, Matt Yglesias, Robert Samuelson and Robert Reich are unlikely to have anything “interesting to say” about economics and “cannot meaningfully advance the discussion on economics policy.”  At least in Stossel’s case, that’s a straw man fallacy.

The key is that macroeconomics, which involves aggregating the actions of millions to generate outcomes, where the constituents pieces are human beings, is probably every bit as hard [as predicting Earthquakes].

Kartik asks why a cottage blog industry hasn’t cropped up to “offer their own diagnosis for what had happened, and advice for how to avoid the next big one [regarding earthquakes],” while such a cottage industry has popped up around economics.

I have some thoughts for Kartik.

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