Saturday, November 22, 2008

Furor over Auto Exec's Planes Not Justified by Counterfactual Analysis

The last two days have seen an uproar over the use of private jets by the auto industry executives lobbying Congress for billions in financial aid (1) (2) (3). Similar complaints attended the government rescue of financial institutions a couple of months ago (4) (5). Common to these criticisms is the notion that one should not be asking for financial assistance while at the same time spending “excessively.” The problem with this normative claim is that it could be deployed even if the facts were completely contrary. Were a company to own a private jet and not use it to fly executives to Washington, for example, the company could be charged with needlessly wasting money on plane tickets while a perfectly good Gulfstream sits idle on the tarmac.

Indeed, it may make better fiscal sense to indulge in these so-called ‘excesses’ (6). Perhaps corporate jets ferry executives, their staffs, and their business partners to meetings with greater speed (saving expensive time) and with greater accommodations (saving expensive tickets otherwise bought from commercial airlines). Were this the case, then in a counterfactual where a company does not own private jets, the company could be just as fairly criticized for not employing better fiscal sense by having such planes already on hand.

Putting these empirical questions regarding cost aside, it is hard to see the value in a criticism that can be equally valid when deployed even amidst contrary fact patterns.

(1) Milbank, Dana. "Auto Execs Fly Corporate Jets to D.C., Tin Cups in Hand." The Washington Post, November 20, 2008.

(2) Lavan, Rosie. "Big Three jet into furore over funding call." Times Online, November 21, 2008.

(3) Dutton, Monte. "What if Ford auto exec had driven to congressional hearings in a hybrid rather than private jet?" Gaston Gazette, November 20, 2008.

(4) "Lawmakers steamed over ritzy AIG retreat after bailout.", October 8, 2008.

(5) Mamudi, Sam. "Senate chair gets mad over AIG retreat." MarketWatch, October 9, 2008.

(6) Stephen, Max. "Private Jet Rental - Not Just For The Rich & Famous.", Accessed: November 21, 2008.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Obama is a Reliable Epistemic Agent

Senator Obama has proven himself to be a reliable epistemic agent. In addition to his previously noted employment of the principle of charity (1), Obama has tracked truth in a reliable fashion more so than any other candidate, a hallmark of epistemic reliability.

Goldman notes that “the justificational status of a belief is a function of the reliability of the process or processes that cause it, where. . . reliability consists in the tendency of a process to produce beliefs that are true rather than false.” (2) Deploying shrewd judgment and deft distinctions between sound policy and gimmicky politics, Obama’s intellectual efforts have consistently yielded true results:
  • He rejected the politically safe yet effectually impotent call for a summer gas-tax holiday (3) (4). In this case, Obama wisely heeded advice that indicated the policy would have a negligible effect on gas prices (if any) yet would endanger essential transportation projects (5) (6).
  • He showcased due scepticism over the effectiveness of offshore drilling (7). While eventually opening the door to the possibility of limited exploration (8), he openly questioned the effect that such drilling would have on oil prices in the near future—a causal chain that McCain did not seem to follow too far as his party cavalierly demanded to “Drill, Baby, Drill.” (9)
  • He demonstrated prescience with respect to both the initiation of the war in Iraq (10) and the deterioration of conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, merely being ‘right’ on these issues does not in itself confer reliability upon an agent (considering, for example, that he was not a member of the US Senate when he intially took his unpopular stance on Iraq). However it is an important part of the constellation of factors around such an ascription.
  • He has promoted a more diversified and nuanced approach to conducting the nation’s foreign affairs. This includes a greater utilization of alliances (11), a more thorough diplomacy (12), and at least a tacit understanding that American exceptionalism cannot by itself be the world’s guiding political ideology.
These savvy episodes are only further corroborated by his impressive institutional credentials (Columbia University for undergrad; Harvard Law School; a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School). That Laurence Tribe, the stalwart of contemporary jurisprudence, calls Obama the best student that he has had in 40 years at Harvard Law (13) lends first-hand credence to the claim of Obama’s epistemic reliability.

Obama’s credibility as an epistemic agent is made all the more remarkable by the contrast provided by Senator McCain, who even Karl Rove has criticized for not passing “the 100% truth” test (14). Indeed, McCain has consistently undercut his reliability as an epistemic agent:
  • He has persisted in presenting the brief and insubstantial association between Obama and William Ayers as evidence of Obama’s questionable past and dangerous views (15). This persistence flies in the face of numerous reports that find evidence of only brief and insignificant interactions between the two (16) (17).
  • He has significantly distorted and exaggerated the risk posed by the efforts of ACORN to register voters (18). These allegations continue to be made despite having been discredited (19) and the fact that there is scant evidence of vote fraud, and no evidence of systemic vote fraud, in recent history (20). In fact, what problems there are seem due to government mishandling (21).
  • His intransigence when it comes to altering his free market, tax-cut mantra (22), even in the face of game-changing economic conditions, is not evidence of a supple mind capable of overcoming dogma in difficult times.
  • He has consistently relied upon political stunts to capture attention and gin-up votes. From his insistence that the SEC Chair be fired (23), to his selection of the patently unqualified Sarah Palin to be his running mate, to the abrupt suspension of his campaign in a cynical ploy to be seen as rescuer of the financial markets (24).
Instances where McCain engaged in so-called ‘negative’ campaigning are not necessarily indicative of him being an unreliable epistemic agent (as was covered in a previous post (25)). However, continuing to make such scathing allegations in the face of overwhelmingly concurring evidence to the contrary is quite relevant to one’s epistemic status, and does not bode well for McCain in the final analysis.

Of course, no epistemic agent is in the right all of the time. Obama’s repetition of McCain’s “100-years in Iraq” assertion has paid little regard to the statement’s original context or McCain’s stated policy (26) (27). However, infallibility (i.e., a ‘lawlike’ relation between belief and truth) is not a condition for reliability (27), nor could it be for any ascription of the trait to have meaning. Obama’s proven political and intellectual acumen, his coolness even under the high pressure of a national campaign, and his comfort with nuance are reason enough to believe that he is a reliable epistemic agent no matter his inevitable faults.

Many sources have recognized these desirable traits (29) (30) (31), while some have stubbornly disregarded them (32) (33) (34). Regardless, given that Obama has demonstrated his reliability as an epistemic agent, there is good reason to believe that he will excel at the avoidance of error and the discovery of truth, qualities that are well suited to a president.

(1) “Obama Employs Philosophical Principle of Charity.” Analytic Politics, March 2008.
(2) Goodman, Alvin. “Reliabilism: What is Justified Belief?” Justification and Knowledge, ed. G. S. Pappas (Dordrecht: D. Rediel, 1979) 1-23, reprinted in Pojman, Louis P., The Theory of Knowledge: Classical and Contemporary Readings. (Belmont: Wadsworth) 2003, p. 265.

While engaged in a different project than we are here concerned—i.e., with the conditions under which a belief may be considered as justified as opposed to the reliability of an epistemic agent—his thoughts yield keen insight into the nature of an agent’s epistemic reliability; questions as to the sufficiency of reliabilism as an epistemological theory need not detract from the contributions the theory makes to understanding the concept of epistemic reliability itself.

(3) “Obama: Call for gas tax holiday pure politics.” Associated Press, April 29, 2008.
(4) “Obama Takes Heat for Opposing Gas Tax Holiday.”, April 30, 2008.
(5) Bull, Alister. “Clinton-McCain gas tax holiday slammed as bad idea.” Reuters UK, April 30, 2008.
(6) Abouhalka, Yael. “Obama correctly rejects gas-tax holiday.” Midwest Voices, May 5, 2008.
(7) Pickler, Nedra. “Obama Criticizes McCain on Offshore Drilling.” Associated Press, June 20, 2008.
(8) Weisman, Jonathan. “Obama Opens the Door to Offshore Drilling.” The Trail Blog of The Washington Post, August 1, 2008.
(9) de Zengotita, Thomas. “Drill, Baby, Drill: Anatomy of a Slogan.” The Huffington Post, October 13, 2008.
(10) Obama, Barack. "Against Going to War with Iraq." Speech delivered in Federal Plaza, Chicago, October 2, 2002.
(11) Zeleny, Jeff and Nicholas Kulish. “Obama, in Berlin, calls for renewal of ties with allies.” International Herald Tribune, July 24, 2008.
(12) Zeleny, Jeff. “Obama Outlines His Foreign Policy Views.” The New York Times, April 27, 2007.
(13) Schoenberg, Shira. “Law expert: Obama will preserve Constitution.” Concord Monitor, November 14, 2007.
(14) “Rove says McCain ads fail ‘truth test.’” UPI, September 14, 2008.
(15) Bumiller, Elizabeth. “McCain Questions Obama-Ayers Relationship.” The Caucus Blog, October 9, 2008.
(16) “Not a radical group, and Ayers didn’t run it.”, October 9, 2008.
(17) Shane, Scott. “Obama and ‘60s Bomber- A look Into Crossed Paths.” The New York Times, October 3, 2008.
(18) Dinan, Stephen. “Campaigns swap voter-fraud charges.” The Washington Times, October 18, 2008.
(19) Roberts, Gregory. “Canvassers, not ACORN, at fault.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 17, 2008.
(20) Lithwick, Dahlia. “Believing in vote fraud may be dangerous to a democracy’s health.” Slate, October 16, 2008.
(21) Urbina, Ian. “States’ Actions to Block Voters Appear Illegal.” The New York Times, October 9, 2008.
(22) Bumiller, Elizabeth. “McCain Unveils New Economic Proposals.” The New York Times, October 14, 2008.
(23) Davis, Susan. “McCain Calls for Firing of SEC Commissioner.” The Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2008.
(24) “McCain Suspends Campaign to Help with Bailout.”, September 24, 2008.
(25) “’Negative Campaign’ Label can Obscure Germane Content.” Analytic Politics, October 15, 2008.
(26) Scoblete, Gregory. “The Real Controversy Behind McCain’s ‘100 Years.’”, April 4, 2008.
(27) Roth, Zachary. “The U.S., Iraq, and 100 Years.” Columbia Journalism Review, April 1, 2008.
(28) Goodman, Alvin. 2003, p. 226.
(29) “The Choice.” The New Yorker, Editorial, October 13, 2008.
(30) “Barack Obama for President.” The Washington Post, Editorial, October 17, 2008.
(31) Buckley, Christopher. “Sorry, Dad, I’m Voting for Obama.” The Daily Beast, October 10, 2008.
(32) “Post Endorses John McCain.” New York Post, Editorial, September 8, 2008.
(33) Kengor, Paul. “Why Obama’s Communist Connections Are Not Headlines.” American Thinker, October 10, 2008.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

'Negative Campaign' Label can Obscure Germane Content

The content of so-called 'negative' ads and campaigning is often relevant to a candidate's fitness for office. Hallmarks of the 2008 'negative' campaign cycle have included assertions that Sen. Obama associates with terrorists (1) (2) and that Sen. McCain is too old and feeble to be entrusted with the presidency (3) (4). These 'negative' message strategies have been deployed by both candidates going back to their respective primary campaigns (5) (6).

Of course, such talking points are considered legitimate topics for discussion by one side and
ad hominem attacks by the other. Remember, though, that ad hominem is only a logical fallacy if the personal remarks bear no logical relation to the conclusion (7). However, if the conclusion is that a candidate is unfit for office, then premises that their character or health (mental or physical) are lacking are certainly relevant and logically valid. If such conditions were to obtain (i.e., if Obama were actually to be sympathetic with the cause of domestic terrorists,or if McCain were to be physically or mentally incompetent to serve in office), they could pose legitimate and substantial difficulties for the country--risks that are manifestly legitimate topics for debate in an election.

While so-called 'negative' attacks may be mean-spirited and rely upon untrustworthy or discredited information, they should not be automatically excluded from the political discourse based on their content. Whatever the motivations behind such methods, their content is certainly germane to a presidential campaign.

(1) Stewart, Martina. "Palin hits Obama for 'Terrorist' connection.", October 5, 2008.
(2) Klein, Aaron. "Obama worked with terrorist." WorldNetDaily, February 24, 2008.
(3) Frederick, Don. "Things younger than John McCain." The Swamp, May 20, 2008.
(4) Quindlen, Anna. "How Old is Too Old?" Newsweek, February 4, 2008.
(5) Media Matters for America. "Media once again uncritically report McCain's criticism of Romney's negative ads without mentioning McCain's numerous ads attacking Romney." January 31, 2008.
(6) Mason, Jeff and Ellen Wulfhorst. "Obama, Clinton trade barbs over negative tactics." The Boston Globe, April 18, 2008.
(7) Kahane, Howard and Nancy Cavender. Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric. Wadsworth: Belmont (2006). P. 73.

From this definition ("attacking his opponent rather than his opponent's evidence and arguments") it can be inferred that an attack bearing no relation to an opponent's evidence or arguments will bear no logical relation to the reasons for the opponent's conclusion.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

'Tax and Spend' Epithet Nonsensical

The common use of this phrase as an epithet (1) (2) runs contrary not only to the Article 1, Section 8 powers conferred by the U.S. constitution (3), but also the causal relation between outlays (i.e., 'spending') (4) and taxation . Spending, of course, naturally follows taxing. In fact, in a counterfactual whereby spending were not to follow taxation, we would arguably have a much worse condition on our hands. "Where'd all the money go?" some might ask. "You taxed it, why didn't you spend it?" others may inquire.

Of course, the inverse relationship (whereby spending is an antecedent to taxation, or exists altogether independently) is a common occurrence. War appropriation supplementals and other forms of non-authorized or deficit spending are a veritable tradition of federal politics. However, this does nothing to invalidate the relationship in the original model between taxation and spending. In fact, the relation between taxing and spending is so strong as to allow itself to take the form of a modus ponens argument:

P1 If funds are taxed, then the taxed income is spent.
P2 Funds are taxed.
C Taxed income is spent.

Whatever the alternatives and whatever the motivation, using the phrase 'tax and spend' in a pejorative manner will remain a stupid idea.

(1) Hodge, Scott. "Tax and Spend: Who Wins." New York Post, March 29, 2007.
(2) "Torries attack tax and spend Brown." BBC News, March 17, 2004.
(3) United States Constitution. Article 1, Section 8.
(4) United States Senate Glossary. Entry for "outlays."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Nascent Popularity of Term ‘Going Forward’ Not Due to Any Discernable Semantic Content

The most overused phrase in the 2008 election contest is the enigmatic “Going Forward.” Ostensibly used to begin consideration of the future consequences of an action, (e.g., stating that, with respect to Obama’s direct appeals to black voters in the SC primary, he will “continue that strategy going forward”(1)) the term seems to have no non-redundant semantic content – i.e. meaning.

This is made clear if we simply eliminate the phrase from any sentence in which it appears and then ask if the truth-value of the sentence has changed. With respect to the sentence above describing Obama’s strategy, we see that the use of the verb ‘continue’ already implies the temporal direction that is supposedly contributed by the term ‘going forward’ (it wouldn’t be germane to ‘continue backwards’). Similar results obtain if we examine other instances of the phrase’s usage. (E.g., Obama’s “prescription going forward” in Iraq (2); a commentator’s suggestion of a “few lines Obama might use going forward” (3); and the Chair of the DCCC’s decision not to endorse a candidate in “the interest of making sure that our members are in a strong position going forward.”(4)) This (admittedly unscientific) survey uncovers only a redundant semantic contribution from our new phrase; in these instances it might as well not have been used.

To be charitable, that a phrase does not have any semantic – or locutionary—content does not mean that it cannot serve some other purpose. Like Wolf Blitzer’s painfully slow enunciation of “United States... of... America,” or the unconscious utterance of ‘um’ or ‘ah,’ perhaps our new phrase serves some phatic usage. This may allow the speaker to maintain control of the speech time or to fill what would otherwise be an unpolished pause between on-air thoughts.

Less charitably, we can consider what J.L. Austin called the ‘perlocutionary’ effect intended by the speaker (5). This is the effect that the utterance of a statement is intended to have upon the listener, and is distinct from the simple literal meaning of a phrase. In the case of ‘going forward,’ the intended effect could be anywhere from emphasizing the importance of the so-called ‘Change’ agenda in the election to the use of buzzwords to impress upon the listener one’s appropriate place in the pundit community (perhaps as I have also done in this piece with respect to the community obsessed with abstruse philosophical terminology). At best, in the former the term is obscuring the real issue; at worst, in the latter it is used as an exclusive shibboleth.

We are thus led to conclude that the term is either semantically redundant or just another example of pundit posturing. In any event, at whatever level of charity one is comfortable with, one should probably be far less comfortable with the usage of this new buzzword than many seem to be.

(1) Fouhy, Beth. “S.C. Primary Marked by Talk of Race.” Associated Press. January 26, 2008.

(2) Zelleke, Andy. “Chill, Bill.” Christian Science Monitor. January 25, 2008.

(3) de Zengotita, Thomas. “A Few Lines Obama Might Use Going Forward.” The Huffington Post. January 7, 2008.

(4) Brown, Matthew Hay. “Having a ‘Super’ Impact.” Baltimore Sun. January 27, 2008.

(5) Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words, 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Incorrect Pundit Predictions Underscore Hypothetical Nature of Empirical Statements

The dramatic difference between the results of the New Hampshire primary (1) and the projections made by pundits before the voting commenced (2, 3) underscores the hypothetical nature of all empirical statements. Empirical statements, including those made by pre-vote polling, cannot express necessary truths, only probabilistic truths. Ayer notes that “no proposition, other than a tautology, can possibly be anything more than a probable hypothesis.”(4) This is because, for any situation, there will always be some possible experience that will lead us to believe that our original conclusion was mistaken. Put more simply: we can never be sure that an empirical assertion is one-hundred percent accurate as the truth of such an assertion depends on facts that could be otherwise. Anywhere short of expressing necessary truths, empirical statements can be highly probable but may never be certain.

Such was the case with the NH polling data. Regardless of how many polls corroborated the prevailing belief that Hillary Clinton would lose by double-digits, the evidence bore no necessary relation to the eventual, quite opposite outcome of events (strictly speaking, this is a problem with the inference from the evidence, and not the veracity of the evidence).

While it is unlikely that the contrary to this principle was being employed before the NH primary (i.e., a belief that empirical statements expressed a necessary truth), acknowledgment of the probabilistic nature of empirical statements may have implications for, among other things, the decisions on which candidates to include in debates. The exclusion from a debate of such candidates whose polling support does not meet the arbitrary standards for inclusion -- such as Fox News’ decision to exclude Ron Paul (5) and NBC’s decision to exclude Dennis Kucinich (6, 7)—is less justified if the network’s sole criterion for inclusion is the candidate’s popularity in the polls.

(1) Healy, Patrick and Michael Cooper. “Clinton Stuns Obama; McCain Wins.” New York Times. Janurary 8, 2008.

(2) Frankovich, Kathy. “N.H. Polls: What Went Wrong?” CBS News. January 14, 2008.

(3) Howell, Deborah. “Pollsters in the Primary Storms.” Washington Post. January 20, 2008.

(4) Ayer, A.J. Language, Truth, and Logic. New York: Dover. 1952. P. 38.

(5) Catchpole, Dan. “Paul left out in the cold in NH.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer Blog. January 4, 2008.

(6) Hasselback, Benjamin. “NBC Tries to Pick the Next President.” Associated Content. January 15, 2008.

(7) Harris, Paul. “Let Them be Heard.” The Guardian. January 17, 2008.

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