Two Fallacies used against you

By Mike Cronin

If you don’t put this ribbon magnet on your car, it means you don’t care about kids starving in Elbonia.

“Senator Do-right voted no against my bill to fund Program Y with higher taxes – He hates blind people.”

“You’re either for me or against me!”

Sound familiar?  These are example of the False Dichotomy/False Dilemma/False Choice fallacy, and we are surrounded by examples every day. It takes critical thinking to spot them and see them for what they are.

Let’s have another look:

If you don’t put this ribbon magnet on your car, it means you don’t care about kids starving in Elbonia.” Maybe.  It might also mean I find it pretentious to brag about my charitable giving, or I don’t like to advertise my activities, allegiances, or involvements for security reasons; or it means I don’t want the sticker to damage my car, or it means I care about something else more than I care about starving kids in Elbonia, etc.

“Senator Do-right voted no against my bill to fund Program Y with higher taxes – He hates blind people.”  Or maybe he found out Program Y is corrupt, or he doesn’t like pork-barrel spending, or he’s a budget hawk, or he won’t agree to anything put forward by a political enemy, etc.

“You’re either for me or against me!” Or, maybe you have a far higher opinion of your significance than I do!

False dichotomies are a staple technique of politicians, especially during election campaigns.  Advertisers love them, too: “If you bought brand X, you’re paying too much!” How do they know? Maybe you got a great deal.

Whenever you see an either-or proposition on offer from somebody who wants something from you, it’s a safe bet to assume you are being offered a false choice.

Another popular fallacy that professional debaters (politicians, talk-show panelists, pundits, etc.) love to use is the “Straw Man” argument.  Simply put, it means exaggerating or misrepresenting something someone else said in order to (attempt) to make a clever rebuttal.  Here’s an example:

A large corporation announces it’s going to close a major plant in the US and move it to Mexico. One of the reasons given is the too-high labor costs here due to the minimum wage, workman’s comp, and payroll taxes in the US.

Professional blabbermouth:  “Company X announced today that it’s moving to Mexico.  I guess they think it’s OK to exploit Mexicans and pay them slave wages.  How unpatriotic.”

The blabbermouth ignored the full context.  It’s quite possible that a Mexican working in the new plant will make much less than his or her US counterpart; what is not mentioned is how far that pay might go in the Mexican economy, or how much better off the Mexican might be working in the new factory than her or she would have been without that opportunity. The blabbermouth also ignores the very real possibility that rather than the corporation being unpatriotic for moving, it may be that our law makers have been unpatriotic by creating the conditions that are driving the company to move!

 

My World View, Pt. 2

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By Mike Cronin

I left off last week by asking, “…how can we overcome the pain of the past without inflicting all new pains now and in the future?”  In my world view, the answer lies in the opposite direction from what most politicians, pontificators, and pundits would have us follow. The answer lies in treating human beings as individuals first and foremost, not as mere units of whatever contrived victim or oppressor collectives the “divide and conquer” crowd has tried to bin us into. In other words, quite often the pathological power seekers in this world seek to divide us in the name of diversity, while the way to a just, peaceful, and united society is by recognizing and protecting individual rights and liberty.

That means tolerating all kinds of behavior and relationships one might find personally distasteful – so long as such behavior violates no one else’s rights.  In my view, there simply should be no government purview to ban any intoxicants a competent adult might chooses to use – but neither should it allow intoxication to mitigate any criminal or negligent act taken while intoxicated.  It also means the government should have no interest in regulating consensual activities between competent adults.  That means there should be no laws against – nor any kind of tax breaks for – any kind of consensual domestic relationships. The only role government should play is in the realm of contract enforcement: Those who choose to register their relationship and codify any such agreements in writing may turn to the government for dispute resolution if necessary.

Of course, that would also mean the tax code would have to be reformed. As well it should be.  There is only one reason for the government to levy taxes:  to pay for the legitimate, Constitutional functions of government. Likewise, there is only one morally acceptable way to apportion taxes: According to how much government one “consumes,” not according to how much income one earns.  Of course, collecting taxes via income confiscation is right out.  A consumption tax, such as The Fair Tax, is the way to go in my book.

Speaking of books, when did the United States of America become a democracy?  According to more than one of the social studies text books my kids have used over the years, the US is just that: a democracy.  That can be taken in two related ways. The first is simply common usage. At some point in the past, the term “democracy” was corrupted from its original meaning to accommodate nearly any government that has adopted some form of constitution, has separation of powers, leaders chosen by elections, and has a more-or-less open market.  The other way to take it is that some of the same corrupt people who want to chivy us into collectives are in charge of the education-industrial complex.  They want to smuggle into our heads the idea that our government operates according to the concept of majority rule (i.e. pure democracy) vs. the rule of law (i.e. as a republic) – with the ultimate goal being to amass enough of a collectivized majority to gain control of all three branches of government at the same time, undo the Constitution, and turn the US into a Venezuela – all the while believing they are making it into a Sweden (or at least, what they imagine Sweden to be like).

Indeed, one such lament we are always hearing from such quarters is that our “public” school system is failing, always accompanied by the clamor for more and more money to fix it. What if our government schools are not failing?  What if they are doing exactly what they are designed to do?  Given the model our school system is based on (Prussia’s) and the sentiments expressed by many of its promoters and pioneers, (e.g. “The role of the schoolmaster is to collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneading board.” Edward Ross, Sociologist, and “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” –Woodrow Wilson) a strong case can be made that our school system is just fine: It is not designed to produce critical thinkers; it is designed to produce compliant mass consumers, and it does.  When the most pious prophets of the public school systems tell you the system is failing, they mean that it hasn’t yet succeeded in removing all independent thought from the labor and middle-management classes quite yet!

Now don’t go thinking that because I’m critical of government schools that I must be a snob for a snob for parochial schools.  Faith-based private schools, at least of the Catholic variety (of which I have some passing familiarity) may have a better record of producing literate, college-bound graduates than government schools, but they are very comfortable following the Prussian model as well, in some ways to an even greater degree than government schools (case in point: Uniforms and corporal punishment).  It just would not do to give your flock too great a taste of independent thinking, lest they come to question their faith, and ultimately the Church!

Ten Observations on Election 2016

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By Mike Cronin

Donald Trump’s victory certainly stirred up a lot of clamor and noise this week.  Let’s see if we can herd some of the cats:

  1. Democracy has failed. The people chose Hillary Clinton by 200,000 votes, but the electoral victory went to Trump. Our “democracy” cannot fail if we don’t have one, which is in fact the case. We were given a federalist republic under the rule of law. We use democratic processes for some decisions to give the people a voice, but we are not supposed to have a system of straight-up majority rule. As to the electoral vote: It remains to be seen whether any electors will “go rogue” and vote against their “pledge” on Dec 19th, but it has happened before (as recently as 2004).  Of course, it’s never been by enough margin to change the outcome of an election.  In this case, at least 38 would have to be “faithless electors” to get Clinton to 270.
  2. Trump hates immigrants. He hates Mexicans. He hates Muslims. He’s racist.  We’ll, he might. Only he knows for sure.  However, he is married to an immigrant and he has people from all walks of life working for him.  He certainly doesn’t think people should be here illegally, which is not the same thing as hating the people who are or the people who want to be.
  3. Trump is a misogynist sexual predator. His caught-on-camera crudities certainly lend themselves to this narrative. There’s little actual evidence and no credible accusers that demonstrate he hates all women or has assaulted any of them, but Trump’s verbal vulgarity in this area is one of the most troubling things about him. Still, while Trump has been caught speaking like a sexual predator might; Hillary Clinton continues to aid and abet one.
  4. Trump is going to destroy all of the progress progressives have made over the last eight years. Possibly, but presidents seldom accomplish their full agendas.  Yes, Trump will have a Republican-majority Congress, but it won’t be a super-majority, and the Republican establishment doesn’t like him.  Trump bills himself as a deal maker.  He’ll have to be to get his agenda anywhere.
  5. Trump is going to elevate nationalism over globalism. Both are euphemisms for collectivism; only the boundaries are different. Neither is as good for individuals as unfettered free market capitalism.  There might possibly be temporary beneficial effects for Americans in the shift, especially if our troops come home and small businesses can thrive again.
  6. Trump is an idiot/outsider/politically inexperienced. He certainly does not articulate himself with Obama’s grace, but he is no dummy. In fact, he’s likely quite adept at persuasion (see items five and six on this list). He is certainly gifted at getting free publicity (or at least notoriety) from the very mass-media that hates him. Also, his lack of political experience, i.e. his NOT being a career politician or D.C. insider, is one of the fundamentals that led him to get elected.
  7. What happened with the polls? They consistently gave Clinton the edge! Bottom line: garbage in/garbage out.  The pollsters drew their samples from the same body of “likely voters” they always used, and in some cases “oversampled” Democrats.  The former was neglectful and led to the Democrats believing in their own invulnerability; the latter was a nefarious attempt to convince would-be Trump voters to stay home on Election Day. Once exposed, the revelation likely caused the exact opposite effect. Either way, the pollsters failed to obtain accuracy because they could not, or would not, sample validly.  
  8. FBI Director Comey’s shenanigans (i.e. his announcements regarding the on-again/off-again investigation into Clinton’s email debacle vis-à-vis Huma Abedin’s laptop) comprised the quintessential October Surprise, and it hurt Clinton. It certainly didn’t help, but it’s much more likely that Clinton’s shenanigans hurt Clinton.
  9. Why were Clinton and Trump our candidates? What secret weapon did they employ that none of their competitors had? 30-plus years of universal name recognition.
  10. What does it mean that Republicans gained more seats in Congress, strengthening their majority? They didn’t get a super majority, so there are a few (rare) actions they would have to earn Democratic support for in order to act: Impeaching the president and overriding his vetoes are two such cases. 2. Republicans will get to shape the Supreme Court for the next generation. 3. Republicans now have an opportunity to reverse much of the Democrats’ work over the last eight years. Whether they will actually do so, or get complacent and/or get caught up with internal divisions remains to be seen.

Choosing a Beekeeper?

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By Mike Cronin

Today’s item is an update of “Will You Vote for a Beekeeper,” originally posted January 2, 2014.

The most basic (and most commonly employed) model of the political spectrum places Fascism (like Germany under Hitler and Italy under Mussolini) on the extreme right side of the scale, and Socialism or Communism (like the former Soviet Union or modern North Korea) on the extreme left side.  A government, a country, or a person’s political position can be gauged on this spectrum.

The problem with this model is that while the ideologies of Fascism and Communism may differ on the surface, in practice they result in the same conditions for the vast majority of people who live under them: subjugation. There may be distinctions between the two on paper, but in reality both ideologies are collectivist; that is, they espouse that the state, or the party, or the race, or the group, i.e. the collective, is more important than the individual, and that the individual exists to serve the larger group. In other words, both of these forms of politics, Communism and Fascism, treat humans like bees or ants, i.e. as drones (or slaves). The individual’s rights don’t matter (or even exist), only the party, or country (or hive/colony, i.e. collective), matters.

The achievement of the founding fathers was in creating a nation founded on the concept that the individual has rights that are inherent, that is, they are not granted by the state, and that the sole purpose of government is to protect those individual rights. The implementation of this idea was flawed, but still gave rise to a nation that brought more liberty and prosperity to more people than any other in history. One of the hallmarks of the system the founders built is the peaceful transition of power that has attended every presidential election and inauguration (save perhaps Lincoln’s).

One of our most contentious campaign seasons will culminate with the general election on Tuesday.  Consider: Whether a politician identifies as a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, does not matter as much as this: What does his or her character and voting record reveal about their understanding of individual rights?  Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump are remarkable as candidates in that each was chosen by their party seemingly on the strength of name recognition over any other factor.  (Both have been in the public eye on a national scale for 30+ years, far longer than any of the other candidates on either side.) They certainly haven’t been selected for their “sterling” personal attributes.  Will we elect one of them based solely on popularity (or notoriety)?  Can either of our candidates be considered defenders of our rights, or are we choosing between beekeepers?

Trolling by Polling

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By Mike Cronin

Now that the presidential campaign season is in full swing, we are being treated to the usual inundation of “demographic” polling results (i.e. how are “soccer moms,” Hispanics, gays, white men, etc. going to vote?)  Taken individually, as they are usually reported, the vast majority of these polls tell us nothing useful.  Piolls that tell us how a state will vote are getting closer to valuable.

Consider: This page at Real Clear Politics lists numerous polls with entries similar to this one:

Race/Topic: State X:         Poll : Qunipiac                Results  Trump 44, Clinton 38                            Spread: Trump +6

Trump is up by six points over Clinton in State X.  Sounds dire for Clinton, right?

You still might be getting “trolled.”

Regardless of how you’d like the race to go, we need to remember how presidents get elected: by winning the Electoral College vote.  The popular vote heavily influences the Electoral College, but the nature of that influence is determined by state laws. As we’ve seen as recently as 2000, it is possible to win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote and the election. In terms of polls: It means that generic surveys of this or that demographic, such as the one cited above, are almost useless by themselves for telling us how an election might go, especially in “solid” red or blue states. It makes no difference if a candidate’s poll numbers go up in a state that was already going to vote for them.  It makes a great deal of difference if a candidate’s numbers change in a battleground state with a lot of electoral votes, such as Florida or Ohio – such a shift could move electoral votes from one column to the other, perhaps enough to get to 270.

Thus, even taken in aggregate, “demographic” polls aren’t much of a barometer.  A much more instructive product would tell us how every state is currently trending, with caveats for the states (Nebraska and Maine) that are not “winner take all.”  Such a tool would give us a much better predictive assessment of the electoral college votes likely to go to each candidate.

Such a beast exists: http://www.270towin.com/. They have broken down the race several ways.  If we look at their map that “kluges” current polling data with expert forecasters’ opinions, Mrs. Clinton already has 272 votes in her camp, two more than are needed to win.  But  if we look at their chart that displays the accumulation of polling data only and omits “expert opinion,” then Clinton has about 200 electoral college votes in her camp (out of 270 needed to win), while Mr. Trump has 163.  Either situation sounds much more troublesome for him than “Trump up by six” sounds for Clinton, doesn’t it?

If “demographic” polls vice “electoral vote” polls do little to predict the outcome of the Electoral College race, why publish them? At least two possibilities come to mind:

  1. There’s nothing like stirring the pot in order to keep you tuned in and watching advertisements.
  2. To shape voters’ behavior in some way favorable to whomever commissioned the poll. Example one: Clinton’s current lead only translates to victory on Election Day if enough voters actually go to polling places and pull levers.  If you want Clinton to win, maybe you paint her as losing ground in the polls in order to generate a hint of doubt. Maybe that will motivate folks to go vote that might have stayed home if they felt comfortable she was going to win. Example two: If you want Trump to win, you might commission such a poll in order to generate enthusiasm by painting him as an underdog coming from behind and pulling ahead – a narrative that always does well in America.

Manifestly, Donald Trump still has an uphill battle.  In his best case scenario, he has to take 107 more votes and keep Clinton from gaining, while in his worst case he needs to take at least three of Clinton’s existing votes away!

Despite being much more instructive than run-of-the-mill poll reporting, even such tools as the “270towin” charts are not infallible, nor is the sentiment recorded today going to be the same on election day.  Clinton’s recent bout with “pneumonia,” clumsy messaging regarding her overall health, and “deplorable” commentary on Trump supporters certainly helped Trump’s polling tick up a bit, but did it affect the electoral vote trend?  Time will tell – and we still have to get through the “October Surprise.”

While such and event or revelation may yet upend the race, there is sure to be a battle over the next few weeks for the remaining available electoral votes. Poll results that don’t tell you how that aspect of the election is going are probably not worth your consideration.

The Battle Begins. How Will you Fare?

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By Mike Cronin

Barring a “black swan” event, the race for president is down to Trump vs. Clinton.  Who will you vote for, and why?  Will you even vote?  Will your vote matter?

There are so many marginal factors that can shape an election, but there are some basic election fundamentals that seldom get explained.

First: From 1932 to 2012, the average voter turnout has never been higher than 63% or less than 49%.  That means on average only a little over half of the eligible population votes in any given presidential election.  Of the half that votes, roughly 32% are dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrats and will always vote for the Democrat candidate.  Roughly another 22% of the half that votes is comprised of hard-core conservative Republicans who will always vote for the Republican candidate.  These groups are the “base” for a given candidate/party.  Once you exclude the 54% of voters that are going to automatically vote D or R in any given election, the real battle takes place over the remaining half of the half of Americans who are going to vote. Expressed another way: Presidential elections hinge on the lever pulls of slightly less than 25% of the adult population!

It gets better.  Where those 25% reside is crucial.  If a majority of them reside in states that are overwhelmingly likely to vote a certain way, their votes aren’t going to mean very much.  Conversely, if the bulk of those independent voters reside in states that could go either way (the so-called battleground states), their votes could wield enormous influence!

Are you one of the independents or third party members who vote but don’t blindly punch holes for any party’s candidate (or against the other party’s!)?  Where do you live?  Will your vote count?

If you are, how will you make your decision? Party loyalty isn’t your thing, so what does it for you?  Unfortunately, some will waste their votes on frivolous criteria such as the looks, race, or gender of the candidate, or on candidate’s oratorical prowess.

To do justice to our system and not waste my vote, I’ve developed a small list of criteria that I can rate each candidate against using a survey technique called a Likert scale.  Here it is:

Rate each candidate on how you believe they would:

Honor the Oath of Office and abide by the Constitution & the laws of the land Fail Marginal Mediocre Good Exemplary
Appoint Supreme Court Justices that will uphold the Constitution Fail Marginal Mediocre Good Exemplary
Command the armed forces and employ military force only to counter serious threats to the United States Fail Marginal Mediocre Good Exemplary
Act with integrity & honesty, and demonstrate character Fail Marginal Mediocre Good Exemplary
Govern transparently Fail Marginal Mediocre Good Exemplary
Reduce dysfunction and corruption in the Executive Branch Fail Marginal Mediocre Good Exemplary
Work to reign in government spending, promote capitalism and demonize socialism Fail Marginal Mediocre Good Exemplary
Work to audit, and possibly end, the Federal Reserve Fail Marginal Mediocre Good Exemplary
Work to end, or at least lessen and simplify, the income tax Fail Marginal Mediocre Good Exemplary
Overhaul the immigration system to allow maximum freedom to enter and remain in the country  consistent with preventing criminals, terrorists, and other bad actors in and without yielding an automatic electoral advantage to any party Fail Marginal Mediocre Good Exemplary

Obviously, you might prefer different criteria than what I’ve settled on, but whatever thoughtful criteria you select can still work.  Once you establish your criteria and rate each candidate, score them thus: 1 point for each Fail, 2 points for each Marginal, 3 points for each Mediocre, 4 points for each Good, and 5 points for each Exemplary. Total up the scores and vote for the candidate that earns the highest marks.

Still, there is at least one other major contextual factor that is seldom examined during presidential elections: Congress.  We can elect a president based on the most cogent criteria, but if he or she must deal with a Congress skewed to the opposing party, it is likely they will face high resistance to carrying out their plans or their mandate.  Even if he or she gets to work with a same-party Congress, your candidate could still find it hard to make headway if, like Donald Trump, they come from outside the beltway political establishment.

There is a simple (not easy!) fix to that: Help your presidential candidate get a sympathetic, same-party Congress to work with!

 

Putting Polls in their Place

By Mike Cronin

Now that election season is in full swing, we are subject to a constant stream of polls and polling results in the news. Many of these polls are legitimate attempts to gauge public opinion.  But some polls, and/or the results of some polls, are put to use to shape our opinions rather than discover them.  One example I heard recently alleged to be reporting opinions on who had little or no chance of winning the presidency in November.  The polling methods might have been legitimate, but the client who ordered the poll might have had an ulterior motive.  Here’s a possible scenario:

Candidate A, or an organization in favor of Candidate A, orders a legitimate poll from a reputable firm such as Gallup or Quinipiac to find out who people think have the worst chances of getting elected. The poll is taken and the results come back that people don’t think Candidates X, Y, or Z have much chance of getting elected in the fall.  Candidate A’s organization then trumpets these results loudly and often. Had the results been inconclusive, Candidate A’s organization wouldn’t have publicized the poll at all.

Knowing that we are all influenced to some degree or another by peer pressure, the results of the poll could sow discouragement among the supporters of Candidates X, Y, and Z, and even affect the candidates themselves, potentially hastening their departure from the race and reducing the competition against Candidate A.

There are dirtier tricks in the pantheon of polling practices. One such is to use the so-called “push-poll.” A push-poll is not really a poll at all in that it doesn’t seek to find out your opinion, but to change it or reinforce it. You might have received a piece of political junk mail that seems like a poll, but the questions will be highly “loaded” or biased.  Questions from such an artifact might read something like these examples:

“Candidate B wants seniors to lose their Medicare benefits. Do you think we should allow him to get his way?”

“The ABC project will pollute the local wetlands with 10x the current level of toxic substances.  Candidate B receives campaign donations from the company behind the project.  Don’t you think we need campaign finance reform?”

In both examples, the reader is first led to be outraged. The outrage is inherently tied to a candidate, then the respondent is manipulated to respond a certain way. The client of the poll wasn’t trying to find out people’s feelings on Medicare or campaign finance; rather, he or she was trying to sully the competition. A legitimate opinion poll will word the questions in as neutral a way as possible.  For instance, the questions above might be legitimized by rewording them in the following way:

“How do you feel about Medicare?

It should be maintained         Uncertain            It should be abolished”

“What is your opinion on campaign finance?

It needs to be completely reformed       It could use some reforms           It does not need any reforms”

So how can you peek behind the curtain of the polling game? Whenever you are asked to participate in a poll, or you hear polling results, consider these questions and/or look for trouble signals:

Who took the poll?  Was it a reputable polling firm?

Who commissioned the poll? What do they stand to gain or lose from the results?

Was the sample (the group of people taking the poll) drawn at random?  (If not, the poll will results will be biased, and therefore suspect.) Something to consider: most internet or call-in polls may seem to be sampling at random, but they are not. They are surveys of people who are already interested in the topic at hand! Most often, valid polls are accomplished via random digit dialing.

Was the sample size large enough?  (If the total population is, say, “likely voters,” which might be 75 million people, a sampling of ten people is not sufficient to gauge the opinion of the whole, but a sampling of 1000 or 10,000 might be. This is what statisticians get paid the big bucks to figure out.)

Are the questions biased or neutral?

Who is touting the results of the poll? Have they focused on the results of only one question that serves their ends, while ignoring the results of other questions on the same poll?

When you understand how polls can be used and misused, you increase your immunity to being manipulated in ignorance.