Thursday, March 14, 2013

Rhetological Fallacies and the Politicians that Love Them

So, the other day, I re-discovered the website Information is Beautiful and was delighted to come across the visualization of rhetological fallacies (“errors of manipulation and logical thinking”) because our political discourse is rife with such fallacies.

 Delving into CPAC for rhetological fallacies would be like searching for balls in a ballpit, so, instead, let’s go to Nancy Pelosi’s press conference this morning.

Nancy Pelosi expressed her willingness to aid Obama in his efforts at a “Grand Betrayal” of his voters and the American public.

"In terms of C.P.I., I have said let's take a look at that," she said at a weekly press briefing in Washington. "What is it -- there are elements in our party, who have said that we can do this without hurting the poor and the very elderly. So let's see what that is. There are others who are objecting to it plain and simple. I have to say if we can demonstrate that it doesn't hurt the poor and the very elderly, then let's take a look at it because compared to what? Compared to what? Compared to Republicans saying Medicare should wither on the vine? Social Security has no place in a free society? These are their words. These are their words."

Those last few lines are perfect demonstrations of two rhetological fallacies: the false dilemma and the red herring.

A false dilemma is the presentation of two opposing options as the only two while hiding an alternative. Pelosi is saying that the only two options are (1) adopting chained CPI and reducing the outlays from the Social Security Trust Fund and (2) dismantling the program in entirety. She does not mention the possibility of increasing Social Security benefits or raising the cap for the payroll tax which funds the program. She is limiting the debate to two alternatives in order to make her own seem more palatable.

A red herring is the introduction of irrelevant material to the argument to distract and lead towards a different conclusion. The line “Republicans saying Medicare should whither on the whine” functions as such a red herring. I’m supposed to support cutting Social Security benefits because Republicans hate Medicare? There’s no logical path from point A to point B; she has simply introduced point B as a distraction, as a way of not having to argue for chained CPI on its own merits or defend it against its (I would say) obvious weaknesses.

There's another logical fallacy at work in the broader argument of the Dem leadership although I'm not quite sure how to name it. The argument has three parts steps:

(1) Chained CPI is a technical fix, not a benefit cut.
(2) Chained CPI is harmless.
(3) We will make sure that chained CPI does not hurt the poor or the very elderly.

Setting aside the question of the vagueness of the definitions of "poor" and "very elderly," let's break down #3 a bit further. To say that we will make sure chained CPI does not hurt the poor and the very elderly is to say that, applied uniformly, it will hurt them. Let's rephrase the above statements:

(1) Chained CPI does not cut benefits.
(2) Chained CPI causes no harm.
(3) Chained CPI causes harm to the poor and the very elderly.

These three statements cannot all be true, so the Dem leadership suffers from its own internal contradictions.

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