Know your audience

Arthur Brooks made a great point in his Wall Street Journal opinion piece yesterday, Republicans and Their Faulty Moral Arithmetic.

Raging against government debt and tax rates that most Americans don’t pay gets conservatives nowhere, and it will always be an exercise in futility to compete with liberals on government spending and transfers.

Instead, the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly—it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats—too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns—but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.

That reminds me. I have made headway with liberal friends on the subject of school choice by doing exactly what Brooks suggests, making it about the kids and the parents who need the most help.

I pointed out that middle-income and wealthy folks already have school choice because they can afford to live in an area with a good public school district or pay to send their kids to private school. That may contribute to why these schools are successful.

I then asked why low-income parents shouldn’t be given more choice, too.

Several told me that changed their mind about school choice and they became supporters of it.


El Debato

These are my limited observations from tonight’s debate, from the 10 or so minutes I saw before I nodded off for a nap.

Have you ever seen one of those letters composed from words cut from magazines? You know how the words are all different fonts and sizes and choppy? That’s how President Obama sounded to me tonight. I often couldn’t tell if the two words he just said were connected to previous sentence, the next sentence or stand alone.

I liked the first part of Romney’s response to the question about this country losing jobs overseas. He should continue to hammer this message home. The answer isn’t trickle down government, it’s to make the U.S. a more attractive place to invest.

Most economists agree, incentives matter. We — through government — chase those jobs away by making it less attractive to invest in America.

I didn’t care much for the second part of Romney’s response. If China devalues its currency to make its products cheaper, we benefit at the expense of the Chinese citizens. They should be up-in-arms about that. Not us. They will be some day.

The moderator seemed fair.

President Obama seemed surprised and a little disappointed that one of the questioners, Kerry, was not female, and judging from Kerry’s body language, not prone to be wooed Obama’s machismo.

Also, the President didn’t answer Kerry’s question, which was When did the Libyan embassy request extra security and who turned down that request? President Obama started his answer at the time of the attack.

I wasn’t clear on what Romney’s answer was on the assault weapon ban question. But, I don’t really care, either. President Obama said enough repeating the wisdom/ that guns kill people. He also demonstrated his lack of understanding of the second amendment when he said something about people having guns to hunt and (I think he said, I was nodding off) fish.

Yes. The 2nd Amendment protects our right to hunt and fish (who fishes with a gun?)./

No. It does not. It protects our right to protect ourselves from an oppressive government and other things that might encroach on our safety. It is one check-and-balance on power in a document that is full of check-and-balances.

I think the President also said something about eliminating mentally unstable people, or not eliminating them…not sure. It was one of those choppy moments. But, I think even he wished that he could ‘walk that one back.’

After I woke from my nap after the debate and was cleaning the kitchen, I heard some post-debate poll results.

One question was which candidate will help the middle class the most. If I heard right, the results were 54% to 30-something% in favor of President Obama.

Wow. I guess this may show the distrust some folks have for a rich guy and the love they have for a guy saying he’s going to pick that guy’s pocket.

However, I’d caution the 54% that you may want to favor the guy who is talking about making our country more attractive for investment. That will do more to help the middle class than any nutshell game. That makes as much sense as a football coach saying he’s going to win games by putting the best team on the field.

In case that 54% needs a little help with that, that makes a lot of sense.

My limited vp debate observations

I don’t watch much of the debates, which surprises my friends.

I watched about 10 minutes of last night’s debate. Here are some of the things I observed and some thoughts on what I have heard since.

Joe Biden reminded me of Will Farrell’s character in the late summer movie, The Campaign. Fake teeth, hair plugs and cheesy charm and all.

More folks should be bothered with the way politicians on both sides refer to ‘tax plans’. It’s unclear what the point of their ‘tax plans’ are. It seems like one key point is to raise even more tax revenue. I don’t care about raising more tax revenue. I would rather hear politicians talk about how they are going to lower spending and minimize taxes for everyone and do the job of executing the Constitution with the most minimal impact on society as possible. Since we don’t hear much of that, I know the direction of government is still a long way from where I’d like it to be.

Democrats say that it was a draw or gave a slight edge to Biden. I even heard some Democrats praise Biden for his distracting behavior.  If a Republican acted in the same fashion, I doubt the Democrats would be praising it. They would call it a loss.

I don’t often quote the Bible, but a caller to a radio show this morning shared his thought on the debate in the form of Proverbs 29:9 and I thought it was good:

If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.

Biden’s remarks on Iran scared me and would have been enough for me to decide not to vote for that ticket if I was undecided.

I heard Ryan give a few zingers. I thought that bringing the unemployed back into the economic picture and saying that they aren’t feeling the recovery was a good line.

However, I also think Ryan (again in my small sample of about ten minutes) got into eye-glaze territory when he was explaining his Medicare proposal.

Just scoring on body language — which is about what any of these things are good for — I would say Ryan carried himself well against a more seasoned performer.

Ryan looked more ‘vice-presidential’ and like he has some future leadership potential. He didn’t fumble, which is all he needed to do.

As I mentioned earlier, Biden looked like a caricature of a politician portrayed by Ferrell.


Straw man army

Much political debate nowadays is one side putting up a straw man fallacy while the other side tries to dismantle it — all of which takes away from productive discourse.

A straw man fallacy is usually an absurdly inaccurate representation your opponent’s position — so absurd that it’s easy to defeat, or knock down, like a ‘man made of straw’.

We begin using straw men right about the time we start talking.

“Mom! Brother called me a booger!”

“Brother, quit calling your sister a booger.”

“I didn’t. I told her she’s a selfish snot, because she will not share her toys with me.”

“Sis, we’ve discussed this. Share.”

Sis, won’t tell Mom what her brother actually said. She intuitively knows that her selfishness will not gain her much sympathy from Mom. Best leave that part out and turn make it seem her brother made an unprovoked malicious comment.

Using a straw seems to imply one of three things.

1. You know, like Sis, that your opponent’s position is stronger than you’d like it to be, so you carefully avoid the truth and construct the straw man.

2. You expect your target audience to be dumb and not recognize the straw man.

3. You’re dumb.

Most political ads are straw men. “My opponent wants to destroy something or the other! Don’t vote for him.”

These campaigners hope that you’re dumb and that the army of straw men they construct will sway your vote their way.

It must work to some degree. Straw men still exist. Unlike Mom, enough of us don’t call BS and request that the campaigners address the real positions.

Keep your eye out for straw men in this election season.

Questions for Political Candidates

These are questions I’d ask Presidential candidates if I were to moderate a debate:

1.  Do you know the oath of office for President?  If not, I’d recite it.

2,  What purpose do you believe the Constitution serves?

3.  How are changes to the Constitution made?  Article V: Amendment.

4.  What is your understanding of the role of the Office of the President, as it is defined in the Constitution?

I find it amazing that most folks cast their vote without giving these questions the faintest consideration.  And, yet we wonder why we get what we get.

I heard a local radio show host say it well recently.   He said something like (paraphrased from memory):

 We’ve come to expect that one candidate will tell us how he’s going to solve our problems.  Then the other candidate tells us how he’s going to solve our problems.  

What we don’t realize is that we should vote for the guy that tells us the truth — that it’s not the President’s job to solve our problems, it’s ours’.

Here’s more of my Questions for Politicians posts from the past.

Debate formats

They irritate me.

Debate formats do very little to expand the viewers’ knowledge of the participants’ actual ideas and why they think they are good.

It’s a circus.  Participants take pot shots at each other.  For example, Michelle Bachman’s characterization of Cain’s 9-9-9 plan (“Turn it upside down!”) was infantile.  I hope there was more substance than that.

Moderators ask obtuse, “gotcha” questions.  The candidates’ arguments are sound bites and slogans and they just don’t have much opportunity to present their cases (maybe that’s the way they like it).

Recently, I heard a radio show caller make a great point.  He observed that Paul Ryan’s Path to Prosperity videos on Youtube are better than debates.  They lay out a case without as much campaignspeak and the noise of the moderators and other participants.

He also pointed out that few candidates actually produce such videos.

His comment jogged my memory of Reagan’s radio addresses in the 1970s.  Those were effective because he was able to get his position and the reasoning for it out in the public.  By debate time, he had message tested much of it and he could articulate it well.

Besides, what’s the purpose of debates?  To sort out the best debaters?  How often do President’s debate?  Not often.  It’s like hiring the best trial lawyer as a CEO.  The skills do not necessarily transfer.

I like the caller’s idea.  I’d much rather see an ongoing series of Youtube videos between candidates that cuts the noise, allows them to build their cases in thoughtful manners, respond to critics and allow people to comment on them.

No argument from Hoffa

W.E Heasley makes a great observation on his blog, The Last Embassy.  He points out that in Jimmy Hoffa’s now infamous speech, no arguments were actually made.  From his post:

“We got to keep an eye on the battle that we face: The war on workers. And you see it everywhere, it is the tea party. And you know, there is only one way to beat and win that war. The one thing about working people is we like a good fight. And you know what? They’ve got a war, they got a war with us and there’s only going to be one winner. It’s going to be the workers of Michigan, and America. We’re going to win that war. . . . President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let’s take these son of bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong” — Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa speaking at a rally for President Obama in Detroit on Sept. 5. (1)

In the above quote exactly what entails the “war on workers”? Exactly how does the tea party [a non existent political party] articulate a “war on workers”? The non-defined and example-less “war on workers” is going to be refuted by means of marching? Marching will “…take these son of bitches out…“? Hence we have an argument with no underlying the arguments.

I think it is very important that we train ourselves to recognize when nothing of substance is actually said.  This happens often.  We fall for the style of the speech or the meaningless platitudes that are uttered, but neglect to ask what exactly does that mean and why?

Grade Redistribution and Discussion Tips

Thanks to Aaron at the Idiots Collective blog for pointing me to the following video (see his post on it here).

The video is meant to show natural inconsistencies in our thinking.  In it, students are asked to support a measure to redistribute grade points from good students to not-so-good students.

The typical reaction was no

Why not?  It’s just like income redistribution, was the response.

But, they would say, GPA and income are different.

I used this same analogy with folks years ago and got similar reactions to those in the video.  Though, not-so-good students were a little more open to the idea.

But, for me that’s not the interesting point.

The interesting point was how well everyone I spoke with understood how a grade redistribution system would hurt overall learning.

They told me that the best students would not have as much incentive to work as hard to earn top grades since some of their efforts would be taken away.  C students also would slack off a little more since they were going to get some grade welfare.  So, overall there would be less learning.

Yet these same people could not even entertain the idea that this same dynamic could occur with income and tax rates.  They were emotionally skeptical of the idea that income redistribution would have any incentive effects on the efforts of high and low income earners.  Sometimes they believed the opposite of the grade redistribution dynamic would occur.  I typically heard the following statements.

  1. Rich people won’t ease off on earning just because we take some more of their incomeThey want more money.  They might even work harder.
  2. Low income folks won’t be less motivated if they receive some help.  Who wants to be on welfare?  That’s not enough to live on.  They might even work harder to avoid the social stigma.

And I continue to hear these in discussions on topics like unemployment benefits or tax rates. 

What really gets me is how unwilling these folks are to consider that they could learn something if they were to spend a few minutes thinking about it.  Instead of going into learning mode, they go into defensive mode.  They dismiss outright what they don’t believe.

How did we get to the point where we are so sure of ourselves that we don’t even consider the opposing arguments, even in areas where we really haven’t put that much thought and research into?

I think of get-out-the-vote campaigns that strongly urge folks to express their opinions, but do not encourage them to keep an open mind to test their opinions against facts, logic and opposing arguments.

That’s why I wrote the Discussion Tips page on this site.  I’ve found these to be useful ways to hold productive, and less emotionally charged, discussions with folks who disagree with you.  Please read them over and let me know if you have any tips to add.  I think when we shut others out and stop learning from each other, bad things happen.

“Delight in Losing Arguments”

In his book The Big Questions, Steven Landsburg offers valuable advice (p. 235):

Argue passionately for your beliefs; listen intently to your adversaries, and root for yourself to lose.  When you lose, you’ve learned something.

Rooting for yourself to lose runs counter to your instincts.  I consider it a sign of wisdom.

If you find yourself saying things like, “I know I’m right” or “I just know that’s the way it works because I feel it,” stop and ask yourself what’s so bad if it happens that you’re wrong?  Consider that you might be wrong.

When I did that, I started learning.

Yes. I’m human and not always wise.  I occasionally get caught up in being right.  But, it’s awfully disarming to a volatile discussion to say, “You know what.  I could be wrong.  Help me see what I’m missing.

Remember ALL part of Landsburg’s advice:

  1. Argue passionately.
  2. Listen intently (which we forget to do).
  3. Learn.

Even if you don’t learn that you are wrong, you may learn why it is that you are not agreeing and find a more productive way of reaching agreement.

Emotional Pleas

This letter to the editor was printed in the Kansas City Star today:

Frank Schwendeman whines about liberals forcing him to buy health insurance (4/2, Letters). What about states forcing people to buy car insurance? Obviously with your wealth you could afford taking a hit for your expensive vehicles or the liability, which would ensue if you were involved in a fatal accident that was your fault. Why not whine about that?

Also, what about mortgage companies “forcing” people to buy overpriced homeowner’s insurance on overpriced residences? Why not whine about that?

What about the government forcing people to pay taxes such as income taxes, property taxes, Social Security, Medicare, gas taxes and sales taxes?

What this is truly all about is that we are a civilized society, and these things are necessary for the welfare of the human community.

J.M. Harris

Kansas City, MO

This is a good example of someone making an emotional plea and not thinking it through to provide a logically valid argument.  Below are my responses to J.M. Harris.

“What about states forcing people to buy car insurance?”

First, that is a state not Federal government.  State and Federal government are not considered the same things here in the U.S.  The powers of the Federal government are fairly clearly defined for anyone willing to read the Constitution.  The rest of the powers are distributed to the states and the people. To argue if a state has the right to mandate liability insurance coverage you’d need to look at the specific state constitutions, which the letter writer does not do.

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