Red Herring Alert

Last week, I heard a local liberal radio talk show host repeat, with gusto, the claim that President Obama has the lowest spending growth since Eisenhower.

Several places have addressed this claim. Here’s one and another. They raise some good points.

But I think spending growth is a red herring. The issue is actual government spending, not spending growth.

As Arthur Laffer and Steve Moore pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, President Obama took over after the grandest public spending binges of all times, one that was supposed to be temporary.

Claiming that locking that temporary spending binge into the budget going forward is a sign of conservative fiscal management is spin.

Consider a CEO who gives himself a $300 million bonus and draws the ire of the Occupy Wall Street types. He gets fired and the next CEO gives himself a $301 million bonus and tells Occupy friends not to worry because the growth in his salary is the lowest in recent history. I don’t think many people would fall for that.

Red herring society

I agree with what Newark Mayor Cory Booker said yesterday on Meet the Press. Issues like Bain Capital and Jermiah Wright are red herrings, or as Booker says, “a distraction from the real issues.”

I’m not sure who’s to blame for the proliferation of red herrings in society.

The media? I imagine they push the stories that produce responses.

Society? Probably the most to blame. We do like our red herrings.

Education? I would put some blame here, too. Many of my college educated friends can’t explain to me what red herring means. Every sixth grader should know this and be able to spot them.

For those of you who don’t know, red herrings are distractions from the real issue.

You tell me that my gum chomping annoys you. I respond that your yawning bugs me. Not only did I not address my gum chomping, but I attempted to distract you from that issue by introducing a new, unrelated topic — your yawning — and I put you on the defensive hoping you will begin to discuss that or something else (maybe my throat clearing) rather than my gum chomping.

According to Wikipedia, William Corbett first used “red herring” in his weekly newspaper in the early 1800s as a metaphor for a political maneuver to distract people from the issue at hand. A red herring is a cured and pungent fish. Corbett wrote that hounds can be distracted from the scent of their mark by dragging a red herring across the trail.

Beware combo fallacies

Hypocrisy is a common criticism leveled at free market advocates.

The criticism is that since free market advocates use and benefit from various forms of government programs like roads, Social Security, fire protection, Medicare, public education, libraries (I threw that one in there) and so on they are hypocrites for suggesting that such programs could be carried privately.

The implication is that unless free market advocates refuse to use these programs as a matter of principle they are not credible.

A couple examples from the last week stick out in my mind.  In one, a commenter on a local blog pointed out that Ayn Rand, libertarian heroine, relied on Medicare near the end of her life.

Below is another example from the comment section at Cafe Hayek, where a commenter charges Don Boudreaux with this hypocrisy:

I take it you (and your blog buddies) vehemently oppose support of any kind of “welfare state;” though, I’m betting you have no problem with the many and various forms of corporate welfare that abound, or the state university systems which apparently provide for your education and career, or the Internet (still regulated by the GAC) which provides a very public platform for your right-wing ideology…and I could go on, but you get my point.

Don responded: “I oppose ALL government programs, including support for higher education.”  Great.  But, I think Don’s response is unnecessary.  He took the commenter’s fallacious bait.

The hypocrisy criticism is a combo fallacy.  It combines a red herring (aka ‘changing the subject’) fallacy with an ad hominem (aka ‘name calling’).

Whether Don is a hypocrite, or not, has no bearing on whether he is correct.

The roots of this combo fallacy tactic can be traced to Kindergarten recess. It should not be so becoming for supposedly well-educated and bright folks to use as adults.

The ad hominem part of this combo fallacy is a personal attack (“hypocrite”) meant to put the accused on the defensive and respond to the red herring.

If you change the topic of conversation away the merits and demerits of free market vs. government to defend yourself against the hypocrite charge, the red herring fallacy succeeds and little productive discussion will take place about the original subject.

When faced with this combo fallacy, I think it’s best to keep to the topic at hand.  Here’s an example of a response that could do that:

Whether or not I’m a hypocrite has no bearing on the correctness of my point.  Would you like to discuss my point?