Archives for category: Dialectic vs. Rhetoric

Remember President Barack Obama’s annoying “You didn’t build that”?

Today I watched President Donald Trump “explain” how awful trade deficits are. In that explanation he basically said to China, “You didn’t build that.”

The line should still be familiar. Obama had purloined it from the lips of Senator Elizabeth Warren. With this argumentative gambit, these two politicians revealed themselves for what they are, demagogues out to fan the flames of resentment and entitlement. In trying to give to government the credit for the entrepreneurial accomplishments of businessfolk, they were honing an agenda: de-legitimize the achievements of the successful the better to take their wealth away.

But while Obama gave to government the credit for business successes, Trump gave America the credit for China’s.

His logic?

Trump said previous presidents had allowed China to get away with trade policies that disfavored the U.S. to such an extent that no future deal could be 50/50; then, that a deal had been made, but China changed it, so he put up the wall of high tariffs.

Next, Trump boasted of the huge increase in government revenues from his taxes, er, tariffs.

And then the kicker: “We rebuilt China because they got so much money” under freer trade.

That is how Trump had America take the credit for Chinese growth.

And he was more than implying that there is something wrong with Americans helping Chinese grow in this manner.

Trump seems not to understand that when people trade (it is not, really, countries trading) both sides gain. The farmers who support Trump can imagine selling more agricultural product had President Xi’s own protectionist measures been lower, and it is on the basis of those lost opportunities that Trump makes his pitch to American farmers. But it is Chinese consumers who have the greater cause to complain for past Chinese protectionism, for had Xi allowed more trade, China would have grown even faster. Because of all the exchanges. 

Like in all trade, neither side to a trade is irrelevant. China could with just as much justification take credit for American progress in all that past trade.

Every instance of which was an advance for both sides.

The Chinese built what they built, with American help. And could’ve built more had their government gotten out of the way.

And right now, with Trump’s high tariffs in place, American consumers will have to pay more for what we buy from China.

And elsewhere.

Trump is apparently trying to get Xi to take down his protectionist barriers by putting up American barriers. And if Trump succeeds, we do indeed all win. If he fails, we all lose. Meanwhile, we are hurting as much as the Chinese.

And what Trump is saying encourages resentment and economic superstition. So, even if he wins, what we may end up with is more resentment and a greater reservoir of protectionist sentiment in the American electorate.

And that almost guarantees disaster.

twv

Democratic socialism may be all the rage.
But its most famous proponent is no sage.

The art of defining a term can be undertaken in good faith or bad faith. I am fascinated by this art. I am tempted to call the good faith version The Dialectic, but that, alas, would be a designation rather peculiar to me — it being my takeaway of what is wrong and right in Plato’s dialogues, and what I remember after reading Aristotle’s dreadful* book, The Topics. The bad faith version is vulgar propaganda, I suppose, but isn’t the p-word too nice for it?

Definitional arguments underlie so much substantive argument, so my interest in distinguishing proffered good-faith from bad-faith definitions is ongoing, persistent. Take the problem of defining “socialism.”

An important topic. There are a few plausible definitions for the term, and quite distinct ones at that. There are also some technical characterizations that can unify a few of those different approaches, which I have advanced here and elsewhere.

But a definition of socialism you often hear among rather bright people online is not correct, and it is worth showing why. That definition?

“worker ownership of the means of production”

How is socialism as worker ownership of the means of production not a good faith definition?

There exist, today, many economies** that qualify under that definition, but which no socialist I have ever encountered promotes, and which most of the leading socialist theoreticians and proponents look upon with utter disdain, even wishing to squelch. And what are these economies? Sole proprietorships and partnerships that have no employees. These professionals provide goods and services to others by contract. They most certainly labor at their work and thus qualify as “workers” and “laborers” under any commonsense definition of the terms. But these are not what socialists have historically meant by worker and laborer.

Indeed, actual socialists in the past have organized by the thousands to murder millions of workers precisely like this: think of the kulaks’ fate under Stalin.

Further, one can imagine a whole vast catallaxy of market institutions in which all of the businesses are owned and operated by workers democratically — yet no living, breathing socialist I have encountered has any interest in it, despite its near-term viability. What is this astounding institution? Corporations with majority stockholders made up of worker pension funds and other saved funds invested by individual laborers. Robert Nozick suggested this as a possibility; Peter Drucker was its prophet. When Gene Epstein offered this as a decent alternative to state socialism in a recent debate, his socialist interlocutor was just flummoxed. This isn’t political; no force and bullying required — where’s the fun in that?

And there we see why the worker-ownership definition of socialism is a bad-faith definition: it is a lie that masks what socialists really want.

They want power, especially to expropriate the rich and bully people they disagree with. So, though I usually trot out technical definitions of the s-word that make a lot of sense, a nastier definition serves, and it is, despite its nastiness, not in bad faith:

Socialism is the ideology promoting systems of total state power as wielded by people who call themselves socialists.

A bit circular? Well, there are crucial non-circular elements to it, and, besides, there is nothing quite so taut as a tautology.

And it leads to a working definition of a competitive ideology:

Fascism is any ideology promoting systems of total state power wielded by people whom socialists call fascist.

Leftists’ habit of calling nearly everyone they disagree with “fascist” is no more worthy of emulation than is their raising aloft the banner of “democratic socialism.” If they actually wanted a truly democratic socialism, they would defend and advance the liberal, minimal state order — maybe going so far as libertarianism — while working in the voluntary sector, in business, to bring about a worker-owned order.

But what, if you are a socialist, would be the fun of that?

Integral to socialist agitation is the politics of opposition to private property and free markets along with the promotion of state power. Both of these corrupt even the most earnest souls. Whatever good, charitable thoughts that may begin their political quest, and nudge them to prefix socialism with that eulogistic term democratic, erode quickly, replaced by a terrifying changeling: tyranny.


*Oh, and I do mean really, really badly written and mostly unconvincing. Aristotle was a great thinker but not a great writer, and The Topics is one of his very worst treatises.
** I am using “economy” in the manner suggested by F. A. Hayek, in contradistinction to “catallaxy” that I use in the next paragraph. I do not remember where Hayek suggests these two terms of art. I am reshelving my economics section of my library this week, so maybe I will dip into the Hayek volumes mid-course, and come back here to give the proper citation. Until then. . . .

Holding an Aristotle collection open with another Aristotle collection.

The good is not made more real by being eternal, any more than a white thing becomes more truly white by reason of lasting a long time.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

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One of the odder things about dealing with people in the political realm is the recurrent reliance upon simple definitions — speaking as if an Official Meaning could trump reality.

For instance: we call a government policy “a minimum wage.” People therefore seem to think that what the government does in enforcing such a policy is establishing wage rates. I mean, “that is just what we are doing, right?” Wrong. A minimum wage law is a law prohibiting hiring people below a specified rate. It is functionally a prohibition on hiring at a specified set of rates. It does not and cannot guarantee any person a wage, for it does not set any wage — wages being, after all, the terms of a particular kind of trade contract. Wages are set by businesses and workers in the market. The government has merely made some contracts at certain rates illegal.*

Calling a legislated wage-rate floor a “minimum wage” is like calling the prohibition of heroin a “minimum opiate” — with only some opiates allowed (Darvon, Dillotid). Under minimum wage laws, only some wage contracts are allowed. On the transactional level, both policies are policies of prohibition, not guarantee.IMG_1239

And yet people blithely go along speaking of minimum wage laws as if they established employment at the levels specified.

Like magic.

Say the word, and it happens.

This struck me when I was reading the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin, when I was a youth. The magic rules in these fantasies are all about knowing how to find and speak the True Names of the thing or person to be manipulated. Now, these are terrific books. Le Guin’s account of word magic basically amounts to the reification of the human reliance upon words. But one must not believe that this is actually how the world works. The books are good because this is how the human mind works — especially in dreams.

In the actual world, outside our mindscapes, there are no True Names. Words here in the everyday world serve as conveniences of communication. They are semiotic tools. Signs. And though they come in three varieties (icons, indices, and symbols), and evidence no small degree of complexity in the dimensions of their utility and meaning, we can hone these signs to focus in on separate essences — logical atoms — each distinct.

And this is where the power of definitions come in, when we so hone our focus as to become clear as to what we are talking about, and what we are talking about pertains to the world around us and our operations within it. When we define something as x, and point to an X, our definition of x does not change the pointed-to X in our mere act of definition. The thing pointed to, X, may contain essence x as well as essences y and z. So all our blithe confidence in our definitions may not reach far beyond those definitions.

To pretend they do is magical thinking.

Yet that is what dominates politics.

I have found this over-imputation problem in rights theory, in discussions of religion and politics, and in . . . nearly everything said by a leftist today.

IMG_2080Let us say I am arguing with a feminist about the nature of sex and gender and human rights, and I make the case that feminism has advanced some grave errors and moral atrocities. And the feminist responds, “but feminism is merely equality of the sexes — it’s in the dictionary, stupid!” My jaw drops. The dictionary definition does not track what feminists actually say. Though I advocate equal rights for all, regardless of sex, I find that much of what self-designated feminists do is seek superior status for women and girls over men and boys. Special privileges. More rights. And feminism, today, contains a whole lot more bizarre content than is represented by the seemingly inarguable cause of “sexual equality.”

Another example relates to antifa. I often complain, to my friends, about the violence of these leftist bullies in black. And yet mainstream center-left mavens assert that we should not worry at all about these thugs. Why? “Because they are literally ‘anti-fascists’!” Well, yes, fascism is a bad thing. Sure. But fascists can, in reality, masquerade as anti-fascists. And fascists are not the only authoritarian bullies to worry about. But leftists merely point to the definition as if they have proved something. It is as if they think they can utter a few words of a definition and, magically, change reality with their utterances.

This seems like the simplest and least sophisticated form of logic-chopping. It does not even quite rise to the level of logomachy. But when done confidently, with brio, it can bowl over opponents, partly out of the sheer audacity of it all. Which is why one sees the method everywhere, especially in the realms of religion in politics. It is the sophistication of simpletons.

And it is now a major problem of our time.

twv

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* An exception, in a sense, is when governments raise their own employees’ — government functionaries’ — wage rates. But you should see the difference here.

Sometimes we should take a step back and remember: we don’t know much, and much of what we “know” isn’t so.

IMG_2025This is especially the case in foreign affairs. Many important events and agendas are kept from the public. Whole organizations operate (and even exist) sub rosa. We are fed misinformation and lies on a regular basis. We are easily manipulated.

I have tried to hedge, or even seem Delphic, in the recent past, regarding Russia and North Korea, for instance. I know I know little, and more-than-merely-suspect that many who say they know important truths often only parrot half-truths, at best.

There has been way too much partisan nonsense about Russia in the past few years, and much of what is important about the “negotiations” between North Korea and the U.S., South Korea, et al., is kept far from public view.

IMG_2027We should try to keep in mind that manipulation of focus is the modus operandi of all major parties and organizations, and with it the clumsy and deceptive uses of statistics.

Arguably, one of the main jobs of the corporate media is to encourage people to think they are informed, while ensuring that they remain misinformed. News is not history or social science. It is entertainment. And the unfortunate unreliability and sheer perversity of the major media outlets does not need to be seen as a conspiracy (much of it being quite open). Ideological fantasy, partisan coup-stick conflict, and the profitability of hype and hysteria might explain most of it.

twv

For a long time, my skepticism about catastrophic climate change did not take the form of “it could not happen,” or “human civilization has nothing to do with changes in climate.”

My skepticism was prompted, repeatedly, by activists and scientists who kept expressing certainty where certainty could not be had; were given to ignoring and even conspiring to ignore alternative explanations of the effects witnessed; were seemingly uninterested in the reliability of climate data or in questions concerning the relevance of the data they fixed upon rather than other possible data sets.

In all this, I never doubted that terrestrial climate was changing — though I have been dubious, off an on, about the exact shape of the trend lines and whether the climate was indeed ineluctably warming.

Indeed, when activists and scientists were calling climate trends “global warming” I was calling it “climate change”; when they switched I got suspicious.

But my chief problem has been that those most concerned about climate change refused to engage in anything like a stance of curiosity in public, always eschewing the rhetoric of inquiry for the rhetoric of conclusions, especially when confronting long-term trends. The reason I have always believed that climate is changing is that I know history and have read a lot of the science of prehistory, and climate goes in cycles. What climate change scientists have been caught doing is trying to erase the Medieval Warming Period from the record and certainly from the public conversation, and have treated the Little Ice Age as if it were best not to linger over — for fear, apparently, that people might recognize it for what it was, a LITTLE ICE AGE, a very cold period from which we have been emerging for the last 200 or so years.

I used to make a big deal about those two facts: medieval warming and early modern-period cooling. But now what it impresses me most? The facts relating to the end of the last Ice Age — 11,000 years ago or so — which were catastrophic to the American megafauna and to sea levels and climate patterns worldwide. If someone is concerned about current climate change, I would expect to see a lot more interested in past climate change. The fact that I do not suggests to me that they are not really interested in climate change as a subject, but only in current trends — and even that not much. For only a rather stupid person would try to consider current phenomena without reference to past phenomena.

Every climate change activist I’ve met, and most of the scientists I have watched online and on TV, strike me as specialized and not very wise — at best. Most strike me as fools. Or knaves.

And yet, climate change may very well be an important issue. And there might be some out-of-the-box things we could do to reduce human contributions to great, worldwide alterations longterm weather events and patterns.

But as long as activists and scientists try to prove too much while restricting their focus, they will lose their battle.

This is worse than “crying wolf” when there is one. This is like “crying wolf” when it is a swarm of locusts attacking you, and standing around doing nothing but crying.

twv

Pistol

This is the golden age of clever analogies. Short “memes” get shared online, and many of them are quite good. And then there are the ones that fall apart.

Consider this effort in the Ban The Guns Sweepstakes:

I assume this “phil h” fellow invented it. And the first time I saw it, I thought, “not bad.” But the second and third and fourth time I saw it? I saw the problems.

A lot of my friends immediately objected to the condescension in the example: statists treat us like kids. Children.

But it’s worse than just that. The condescension is double: he talks of “giving” out sticks. As if what people possess were a matter of what they “receive” rather than what they work for, earn. Have by right.

But the most deceptive aspect of the meme comes in Option C: it uses a singular construction, not the plural that would parallel current debate. The gun grabbers mean to take away “all the sticks.” Not just the malefactor’s stick. But by leaving this in the singular, we are subliminally cued to understand this in a more reasonable light. Adults do take away sticks from irresponsible kids. And perhaps use the stick to swat the little malefactor on the behind. That’s nothing like what leftists really are up to. They want all the sticks taken away.

And think again about that “give” and “take away” — this language completely distorts how kids actually acquire sticks. A realistic scenario would reformulate it as “let kids find sticks and play with them” in contrast to “take away all sticks and denude the trees and parks of branches and. . . .”

The authoritarian attitude is just a part of the paternalist/maternalist Family Model of the State. It’s the wrong model, as should be obvious in this debate. And especially in this really pathetic attempt at persuasion.

twv

 

In the wake of the church shooting in which a Christian man, Stephen Willeford, shot a mass murderer after a car chase there has, of course, been much discussed on social media. I have tried not to get involved . . . directly.

So, “indirectly,” there is this: what I would have said on Facebook had I said anything on Facebook. . . .

img_0452Friend:

No matter what you might think on the subject, many Christians pray after a tragedy not because they are virtue signaling, but rather because they are praying for the repose of souls.

It is an act of mercy.

I can’t fathom why this would upset people.

Stranger:

What I’m seeing in this issue is on one hand, people sick and tired of seeing news of another mass shooting, and on the other hand, politicians and other “leaders” sending prayers and thoughts instead of doing their jobs. I understand that you don’t want to get involved in a political debate, but trying to redefine the problem as apolitical only muddies the issue further. You may as well be burying your head in the sand. I really don’t think anyone is bashing the average person of faith who is horrified and wants to help and can’t think of anything better. The criticisms are aimed squarely at theocrats who send thoughts and prayers instead of doing their jobs.

Me:

Politicians “doing their jobs” on this issue have, on a state-by-state and city-by-city basis, seemingly done more harm than good. So, the issue is political, sure, but not in a good way: “the job” to be done may be much harder than anyone thinks.

In politics, it all becomes religion pretty fast. The amount of faith in government as an institution that is shown by earnest people demanding that politicians “do something” or “their jobs” is contra-indicated by facts on the ground.

Reasonable people remain skeptical, and unimpressed with people who turn from prayer to promoting pointless and problematic action.

And as for “thoughts and prayers” — it is just something people say when there is nothing they can really do. Give people a break. Getting angry and expressing it politically is hardly the wisest social reaction — especially to grieving and distraught people. That is the reaction of dangerous fools.

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img_0050Yesterday, in my first assay into the definition of “mass shooting,” I stopped short of the real oddity of the term, which I was surprised to find nearly everywhere online — the all-too-common assertion that such shootings happen every day in America.

Every day? Really?

When you drill down, you discover that the term has been wrenched away from its original purpose to describe scenarios where one or two or a handful of persons massacre strangers in public, to include gangland turf war murders and much more.

So, what are the definitions? Well, there is some fluidity to the meanings, of course. But we can get some mostly reliable ideas about what these terms of art mean in rigorous usage. The concept of “mass murder” is now defined like this:

The FBI defines mass murder as murdering four or more persons during an event with no “cooling-off period” between the murders. A mass murder typically occurs in a single location where one or more people kill several others. Many acts of mass murder end with the perpetrator(s) dying by suicide or suicide by cop.

Princeton’s Wordnet puts a number of words together:

slaughter, massacre, mass murder, carnage, butchery (noun)
the savage and excessive killing of many people

“Excessive” strikes me as begging an uncomfortable question about what the right number of people to be killed might be.

Now, “mass shooting” is a subset of mass murder, obviously:

mass shooting is an incident involving multiple victims of firearms-related violence. The United States’ Congressional Research Service acknowledges that there is not a broadly accepted definition, and defines a “public mass shooting” as one in which four or more people selected indiscriminately, not including the perpetrator, are killed, echoing the FBI definition of the term “mass murder.” Another unofficial definition of a mass shooting is an event involving the shooting (not necessarily resulting in death) of four or more people with no cooling-off period. Related terms include school shooting and massacre.

Several of the constituent terms in these definitions are contestable, expecially the concept of “indiscriminate selection.” Really? On some level, most mass shooting victim groups are targeted for very clear reasons. The Pulse nightclub shooting, for instance. It was not accidental or random: a gay nightclub was the perfect target for a radicalized Muslim lowlife. Same with the Dylan Roof’s attack upon a church, whose racism was a key factor. Or the more recent case of a black Muslim who shot up Christians at a white church.

In all of these cases, the groups were selected for their representative nature, as embodying the focus for some grievance.

Of course, what we are seeing is preference on one level (the group, with definitions of groups as all-important) and indifference on another (the individuals, indiscriminately selected). A similar distinction must be made in the pure theory of choice, where preference is the usual rule of choice, but indifferent selection can occur among things of equal value to the chooser. (The latter concept explains why Buridan’s ass is more of a joke than a real philosophical puzzle. Even asses assess options using indifferent selection to avoid preference paradoxes.)

A better definition seems to come from a study covered by CNN in late 2016:

Between 1966 and 2012, there were 90 mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are defined for the study as having four or more victims and don’t include gang killings or slayings that involve the death of multiple family members. These shootings include the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in June 2016 — the worst mass shooting in US history — and others in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, both in 2012.

Note that in under half a century there were 90 such events, about two per year. Currently, however, major newspapers are claiming that there is a mass shooting every day. Take the infamous fake news outlet, The New York Times:

More than one a day.

That is how often, on average, shootings that left four or more people wounded or dead occurred in the United States this year, according to compilations of episodes derived from news reports.

So ask yourself: if the secular trend for murder and gun violence is down, how can mass shootings be up? Have interpersonal shootings gone down so much that they offset the dramatic growth in mass shootings?

IMG_4096Seems unlikely. The key is the nature of the study the Times cites: “compilations of episodes derived from news reports.” They are not throwing out family killings and gang and drug-war related shootings. They are counting everything above a mere three victims.

This is probably to sell papers. If crime is generally down, how can you pitch panic?

So the Times and other mainstream media sources try to make things look like they are worse than they are.

Now, I do not want to suggest that gang warfare killings in, say, Chicago are not a real problem. They are. Indeed, they tell us a great many things relevant to crime fighting and gun control as political topics. But they are are far afield from terroristic, vindictive, and spree murder events. Including them may make a jump in the rate of mass shootings per day to skyrocket from 2/365 to 1/1, but this is hardly responsible journalism.

And there is no great mystery behind this. In addition to selling papers, it is obviously in service to an ideological agenda orthogonal to the truth.

twv

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KimJong-un-rocket-man

Trump’s “Rocket Man” epithet was of course funny.

All the non-witless agree. But there is more to the story.

Scott Adams explained on Periscope how it is funny. It really is about Trump finding the boundary of “good taste” (political etiquette; verbal rectitude) and deliberately crossing that borderline. The joke works not because it is, itself, hilarious — stand-alone it’s worth a mere chuckle — but because the quarter of the audience that expresses shock and dismay make it funny.

Two birds with one rock, man. Humor depends upon a logical catastrophe, as John Allen Paulos has explained so well. We laugh when the logic slips and our grasp on categories shifts, when something or someone in one category falls into a lower category (occasionally the reverse). In the case of “Rocket Man,” not only does a dictator get a demotion, but Trump has yet again tweaked the sensibilities of his critics.

“Something for the fans.”

In a follow-up talk, Adams notes how it proved to be more than that. Trump effectively took away one of Kim Jong-Un’s goals: the “prestige thing.” Trump’s belittling of the dictator, Adams perceptively argues, effectively took out of the negotiation room one whole issue.

“Rocket Man” became “weaponized.”

It all depends on the full frame. “A month ago, every time Rocket Man launched a new rocket, how do you think he felt?” Adams asks. “I’m gonna guess proud. Probably good for his ego. Made him feel important, made him feel like he was a big player on the world stage.”

That must be right. The dictator surely felt the bigger man because of the rocket launches, because of his threat. “Powerful. Bold. . . . his T-count went up a little bit.”

After Trump’s mocking monickerization, however, “he will feel that the entire world is laughing at him.”

Correctly feel, I might add.

Trump, Adams argues, effectively took Rocket Man’s nukes away from him in terms of honor — with a simple two words. Without touching a nuke . . . or dropping one.

I must admit, I worry about a dictator stripped of his last shred of pride. What does he have left, now, but his life? Even his power may taste like sawdust.

But there’s no doubt that the negotiation game has changed. And, short term, this may be quite advantageous to nearly everyone but Kim Jong-un. (The loss of honor will eat away at the man, though. That could be quite bad.)

Trump’s “linguistic kill shots,” as Adams dubs them, amount to something important. At first blush, this routine may seem not too much different from schoolyard taunting. But there is a difference. It is not the “slow kid” or the “ugly girl” who receives the brunt of the ribbing, the humiliation; it is not the lowly or the powerless: in most cases it is the cultural elites, the people who have cultural power, the people who have determined for decades what may or may not be said. They are the ones who take the hit.

And in the case of Rocket Man, he who took the hit is someone with outrageous, horrifying political power. A man utterly deserving of any put-down we can deliver.

In this context, the litany of complaints about Trump’s rough language seem, increasingly, to be vapid and even stupid.* Schoolmarmy.

The schoolmarms naturally object to his example. What will the kids do? Will bullying go back on the rise? Perhaps.

But they miss something. Trump’s not the bully. That’s not the right metaphor. He’s the smart-ass who mocks the principal and the teachers in the hallway and, if the jocks misbehave or abuse their power, the jocks, too.

It’s not “Truth” to Power, of course. Not exactly. Trump is saying not that the Emperor has no clothes, but that the empire’s hangers-on and petty enforcers have their flies open.

And that our biggest enemies are dicks.

Keep those pocket-rockets docked, boys, or the Donald will getcha.

twv


 

*The piling on of boos and hisses, sad-faces and disses by world leaders is just the usual bit of U.S.-bashing. It is cheap credit for the world leaders. It is pathetic.