Saturday, January 30, 2010

Obama's Logic

Yesterday on Red Eye they played the part of the State of the Union address where Obama said this:

From the day I took office, I've been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious; such an effort would be too contentious. I've been told that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for a while.

Later there was an exchange between Greg Guttfeld and Andy Levy (the show's libertarian) that went pretty much like this:

Andy: You know who I really feel sorry for in all this?

Greg: Who?

Andy: The straw men.

Yes, he really is beating the crap out of them, isn't he? Also the dead horses.

Obama has a curious fondness for fallacious arguments, and straw man is definitely one of his favorites. Others include false dichotomy and argumentum ad hominem. (For examples go here, here, and here. For a comment on why false dichotomy is a fallacy, see this.)

He seems to be unique among presidents in this way. When Bush said he had intelligence reports that showed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, it was not a fallacy but a lie. Indeed, the lie, as everyone knows, is the characteristic rhetorical sin of politicians. A lie and a fallacy are quite different things. One is a characteristic of statements (its author know it is false) and the other is a characteristic of arguments (your statement fails to logically support the point you are making).

I can't remember a single fallacious argument from another president. I remember objecting to many things they said, but not on the grounds that they tried to convince me with a lurching non sequitur. Is this just a failure of memory on my part? It's odd. ...

Actually, I just thought of an explanation. I was just reading the joint session speech in which John Kennedy called for Congress to commit itself to "the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." (May 25, 1961.) The argument he presents for it is a passage of some 282 words in which he claims that a moon program will contribute to achieving four national goals, such as accelerating the development of satellites for communications and for weather observations. As with any argument, it is open to objections, but they would be based on facts and ethical or political principles, not on whether the premises constitute rational evidence for the conclusion. They do.

Turning from the Kennedy speech to the Obama one is like going from the words of a real president to those of a high school debater:

You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China's not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany's not waiting. India's not waiting. These nations aren't standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They are making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.

Well I do not accept second-place for the United States of America!
But it just struck me that there is a big difference between these arguments, aside from their logic: Kennedy is talking about things and Obama is talking about people. More exactly, he is directly attacking his ideological opponents. Straw man, ad hominem, and false dichotomy, at least the way BHO uses then, are all ways of unfairly attacking people. Obama's problem is not with logic, but with debating fairly and rationally with people who fundamentally disagree with him. He's not our first logically illiterate president. He's our first Saul Alinsky president.

Friday, January 29, 2010

I Was Right about Obama, Alas

Before he was elected, I made four predictions about what an Obama regime would be like. I think that, unfortunately, I was more or less right on all counts. I say "unfortunately" because none of them predicted good things for him or the country. In order, they were:

1. Get ready for four years of grovelling leader-worship on the part of a significant part of the population. Of the four predictions, this is the one that seems most likely to be wrong. As his approval ratings sag, it isn't easy to make a case that people are worshiping this man, and I do have to admit that it's been a while since I have heard anyone describe him as "brilliant." I no longer know that "worship" is the right word, but there is a significant part of the population that seems to me to be irrationally attached to him: I am referring to the young (roughly age 18-30). The individual mandate in Obama's health care reform bill, if enacted, would blatantly exploit them, forcing them to buy a lavish insurance plan that the young and healthy do not need, on which they will lose money, in order to pay for other people's care. This means benefiting one group at the expense of another: in a word, exploitation. And yet the young still support him.

2. Get ready for an orgy of political correctness. One of the more absurd examples of this: Last March, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford made this seemingly sensible criticism of the Obama stimulus spendorama: "What you're doing is buying into the notion that if we just print some more money that we don't have and send it to different states, we'll create jobs. If that's the case, why isn't Zimbabwe a rich place?" House Majority Whip James Clyburn responded that this analogy is "very troubling" and "beyond the pale" because the dictator of Zimbabwe, Howard Mugabe, is black. A racist sub-text, he seemed to be saying, was the only reason he could think of why someone would mention Zimbabwe in discussing potentially inflationist policies.

3. Get ready for a divided and angry country. Boy, I sure called that one right. Just today, Gallup pronounced Obama the most divisive first-year president since they began keeping records of such things.

4. Get ready to watch at least a year of on the job training. His election began the fourth "progressive" era in American politics, the others being the ones associated with Roosevelt-Taft-Wilson, FDR, and Kennedy-Johnson. The first three created a large number of new institutions, from the Federal Reserve System to Medicare. For better or worse, they changed America profoundly. The Obama era created no new institutions, and so far has left no enduring long-term legacy other than a warp-speed increase in the national debt. This era now seems to be over, which would make it by far the briefest of the four. I think the reason for that is fairly simple, and completely Obama's fault: While the rest of the country was obsessed with the economy, he wasted time and energy on two issues that professors and grad students think are extremely important, but almost no one else does: medical care and global warming. The result was a collision with the voters, which eroded the enormous power he had when he took office. This was a rookie mistake. A year ago, he could have done anything he wanted, provided it was half-reasonable and well-executed. By now, he has frittered that opportunity away and will have to govern as a normal president, practicing politics as the art of the possible.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Blogging the State of the Union Address

As I write, BHO is giving his first state of the union address, a mere week after his party lost a Senate seat that had been the private property of the Kennedy family since 1952.

As everbody knows, there are three things he might do in this speech:

1.) Signal a move toward the center, a la Bill Clinton.

2.) Signal a move toward the parts of the hard-left program that are not unpopular, namely, bashing, throttling, and expropriating banks and large corporations. In a democracy, the wealthy are never popular.

3.) Blame Bush.

I expect him to talk about himself a lot (see above). [Later: someone later claimed he used the word "I" 96 times in the SOTU.]

Later: Here are my notes:

Five minutes in: he is doing the feel-your-pain thing about the people who are being hammered by the ongoing recession/depression. I also note that he doesn't have that half-smile that seems to be habitual with him, and he is avoiding that looking-down-his-nose-at-you expression he sometimes has.

Eleven minutes in: That was quick. Now he he is smirking and joking again.

Thirteen minutes: This is already turning into a campaign speech. The stimulus bill "saved" two million jobs. [So there are two million events that didn't happen, but would have if he hadn't done whatever he did. No explanation as to how he knows this.]

He calls for a new "jobs bill," something he should have done a year ago.

He just looked down his nose at me. I hate it when he does that.

He also proposed giving the TARP money that he got from the banks and give it back to banks to loan to small businesses.

Also: abolishing the capital gains tax for small businesses. The Republicans cheer.

Slashing "tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas" and give them to ones that don't.

He just blamed Bush for the first time, talking about how the boom of the last decade was based on a housing boom and speculation [which is basically true, of course].

Now he has called for "safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country" and offshore oil drilling. I missed seeing if the Repubs cheered that one.

Now he's on to global warming again, claiming that "clean energy" will lead to leadership of the global economy. [How does that work?]

Somehow, he is going to double our exports over the next five years. He is going to "seek new markets aggressively," presumably meaning expanding free trade agreements. [At least I hope that's what he means.]

Education: "rewarding success" rather than failure. [No details are offered there.] Federal aid to community colleges and federally subsidized student loans. [Okay, I know what that means.]

Yikes! He just called for forgiving student loans for people who "go into public service," ie., get a government job. [That is one of the stupidest ideas I've ever heard. Government is the only sector of employment that is expanding. Government workers are paid much more than the rest of us already. Why in the name of all that is holy should we further reward people for joining this priviledged class of exploiters?]

Damage control over the health care bill debacle. He takes some of the blame: he should have explained it better. [Yes, that was part of the problem. What he said about the bill made little sense. But there were huge problems of substance as well.]

He just blamed Bush for most of the staggering federal deficit.

A three year government spending freeze: except for defense, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security excepted. [Except for that? What percent of the real federal budget is left? It also sounds like it will have to kick in after the next "stimulus" spendapalooza.]

He just bashed Bush for the third time: "that's what we did for eight years!"

He wants congress to publish earmark requests on a web page.

Now he is complaining about politicians who criticize other politicians too much. [Gee, I wonder who he thinks is being criticized too much.]

He just accused the Repubs of "just saying no to everything."

He promised to meet monthly with Republicans [that would be a big change versus his past behavior].

[Wow, is this ever boring! He has gone on for almost an hour. How much more of this can I take? I'm simply amazed, once again, to think of all the people who say he is a thrilling orator. We must be from different planets.]

Troops out of Iraq by August. [That would be nice, but we know how good he is at meeting deadlines.]

He pledges to repeal the ban on gays in the military. [That too would be nice, but he has made that promise before.]

He will "secure all nuclear weapons in four years, so that they never fall into the hands of terrorists." [Wow, how is he going to perform that miracle? He doesn't say.]

Equal pay for women. Enforcing immigration laws.

[Oh God. Now it's over an hour he's talked. How long oh Lord, how long?]

He ends with a discussion of his political setbacks. He seems to be saying that he is not going to change his policies to be popular.

[Omigod! Omigodomigodomigod! I am so glad this is over! If I ever watch an entire speech by this boremeister again, they will have to pry my eyes open with lidlocks and put in moisturizing drops like Alex in the ludovico technique! Aaaaaaa! Stop it stop it please I beg you! It's not fair!]

Bottom line: To some extent, he did some combination of 1, 2, and 3 (see above). Which was most important? Actually, given that he reaffirmed support for health care and cap and trade, and even at one point seemed to be scolding the Supreme Court -- to its face! -- for letting "the most powerful interests" control elections,* he also seemed to be doing something that was neither 1, 2, nor 3 but to a considerable extent -- nothing! That is, no change. Most commentators assumed that what he needed to do in this speech was give a clear picture of what his regime is going to be all about after the Massachusetts humiliation, that he has to provide focus. If that is so, it was a complete failure. Or, perhaps, he does not think he needs focus or clarity.
Update: See also this.

Monday, January 18, 2010

R & R Break

Last night I took out an old (1967) issue of The Objectivist, looking for a quote I needed, and two pieces of paper fluttered out. One was a poem I must have written as an undergraduate, under heavy influence of German expressionism. I'll spare you that (though I don't think it's as bad as it sounds), but the other item seems worth quoting.

Like the poem, I have no memory of it whatsoever. It is a neatly typed copy of a letter. As it ends with a typed name and no signature, it is obviously not the original copy, if there ever was such a thing. A demon is prompting me to hope it is genuine, but I am ignoring it. Here, without further comment, is the letter:

Feb. 29, 1969

Dear Mr. Hayes,

I wish to thank you very much for the radio you donated to the Gold Star Mothers Benefit on October 15th.
I happened to be the lucky winner and am especially pleased because although I am 82 years old, I have never had a radio of my own.
The woman who has a room next to me (her name is Matilda) has had a radio for 5 years and she is only 75 years old.
In the evenings two nights a week I used to listen to her radio but now she got mad at me and wouldn't let me listen anymore.
Two days ago her radio fell off the table and broke to peices and she came to my room and asked if she could listen to my radio. I want you to know Mr. Hayes because of your generous gift I was able to tell her to go f*ck herself.

Sincerely yours,

Theresa Uphers

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Avatar's Success Explained by Science!

Despite my earlier snarky comment, I do recommend you see Avatar, if you are one of the two or three who haven't already seen it -- though only if you see it in 3D. Seeing Avatar in 2D would be a waste of time, money, and probably brain cells (because I am pretty sure you leave the theater more stupid than you go in).

Well, Jonah Lehrer, the nice young man pictured here, has an interesting piece in Wired that suggests an explanation for the success of this movie. In fact, it potentially explains a much wider phenomenon. Ever since the premier of Star Wars in 1976, I think I've noticed a dieing out of thought-provoking, intellectually interesting movies, and a growing abundance of stupifying gobs of eyeball candy like Avatar. I can remember the day when they could make a quiet, didactic think-piece like Twelve Angry Men and actually make money. It's hard to imagine anyone doing that today.

Lehrer's explanation is suggested by an experiment by a series of experiments. The first one:
The experiment was simple: they showed subjects a vintage Clint Eastwood movie ("The Good, The Bad and the Ugly") and watched what happened to the cortex in a scanner. To make a long story short, the scientists found that when adults were watching the film their brains showed a peculiar pattern of activity, which was virtually universal. (The title of the study is "Intersubject Synchronization of Cortical Activity During Natural Vision".) In particular, people showed a remarkable level of similarity when it came to the activation of areas including the visual cortex (no surprise there), fusiform gyrus (it was turned on when the camera zoomed in on a face), areas related to the processing of touch (they were activated during scenes involving physical contact) and so on.
Across the audience, these regions of the brain "clicked together" in scenes that triggered them. What about the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is associated with logical analysis? Well, that's just it: there was no clicking together there.
Subsequent work by Malach and colleagues has found that, when we're engaged in intense "sensorimotor processing" - and nothing is more intense than staring at a massive screen with Dolby surround sound while wearing 3-D glasses - we actually inhibit these prefrontal areas. The scientists argue that such "inactivation" allows us to lose ourself in the movie:
Our results show a clear segregation between regions engaged during self-related introspective processes and cortical regions involved in sensorimotor processing. Furthermore, self-related regions were inhibited during sensorimotor processing. Thus, the common idiom ''losing yourself in the act'' receives here a clear neurophysiological underpinnings.
The idea is that movies, especially the eye-popping kind enabled by new technologies really do rot your brain. This could explain the progressive stupefaction of film that we see today.

Or, the process could be even broader than that, something that is built into cultures of certain sorts. Arguably, what I see happening to movies has happened before, long before moving pictures were invented:
The games of the circus and the amphitheater absorbed the interest and coarsened the taste of the public, and drama died in the arena, another martyr to Roman holidays.Through emphasis on acting and scenery rather than on plot or thought, the drama gradually yielded the stage to mimes and pantomimes.
Source: Will Durant, Ceasar and Christ, Volume 3 of the Story of Civilization.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Real Southers Problem

Here is Obama's TSA nominee Erroll Southers answering a question, in 2008, about which home-grown terror groups we need to be afraid of. Oh, the problems are all going to come from anti-government Christian identity people and folks like that. In the blogosphere, conservatives and libertarians are saying "Yikes! You're saying I might be a terrorist!" Leftist bloggers are saying "You lie!" Christian identity, they point out, refers to a very specific sort of political extremist, and not to the people who stand in line to get Sarah Palin's autograph.

I think they are both missing the real story, which is that this guy is making a prediction, and this prediction, so far, has turned out to be completely wrong. I am no sort of terror alarmist but it is true that we have had some home-grown terror concerns during the last year. By far most of them -- including the Little Rock shooter, the Fort Hood shooter, and the five young men who disappeared and soon popped up in Pakistan -- were not anything like rightwing Christians.

I don't want to be too hard on him for this. People tend to attribute bad moral and psychological traits (like violent and crazy) to people whose political views are opposite theirs. Yes, liberals do it too. They tend to worry about Christian anarchist terrorists, while conservatives worry about leftist and anti-American terrorists. It's just that the conservatives happened to be predicting right in 2008, while Southers was flat-out wrong.

Still, this tendency is a) irrational and b) ignoble. It ought to be resisted. If I thought a TSA nominee were unable to do so, I would vote against him (or her).
Added later: As I write, it has just been announced that Southers has withdrawn his nomination. The real reason, probably, was an issue that is much more important than the one I posted about here: it was widely suspected that he intended to unionize TSA workers (which was actually an Obama campaign pledge).

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The C-Span Promise

Here you see/hear Obama promising on eight different occasions to put the health bill negotiations on C-Span(clip from Drudge). As everyone knows, he is at the very moment violating this promise in a particularly in-your-face way, despite the fact C-Span itself has promised to make it very easy to keep it if he would only agree to do so. The House and Senate bills are being combined in a meeting that not only is not public, its proceedings are actually being kept secret from other members of Congress.

I think it is rather obvious what happened. When he made this promise he thought his reforms would be popular, and public view would shame (a word he used at the time) the legislators into doing what he wanted. But then as the discussion about the measure proceeded and public approval for the measure sank lower and lower the more we learned about it, it became clear that shame would work in the opposite direction from the one he intended. Obama had to chose between the bill and his naive, amateurish promise of democratic transparency. He chose the bill.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Should Tiger Convert?

Is it my imagination, or do the other members of this panel look embarrassed by Brit Hume's out-of-his-depth comment?

Here's what I think is wrong with what he said. It's not exactly that he misunderstands Buddhism. In my outsider's view of the matter, it is true that Buddhism does not promise forgiveness of sins. I also think (though this would be controversial) that it is misleading at best to apply the word "redemption" to any important Buddhist idea.

Isn't that a flaw? How is Tiger, if he is actually a practicing Buddhist (which I rather doubt, but let's suppose for the sake of the argument) going to get forgiveness for his sins?

Well, the real problem with Hume's comment is that he seems to be treating sin and the resulting guilt as if they were facts of nature. In fact, they only exist within the context of world-views like the Christian one. As is pointed out here, Buddhists don't need forgiveness because they don't believe in sin in the first place.

The soothing balm of God's forgiveness is the solution to a very real problem, but it is a problem that is created by Christian morality in the first place.

Woods has made a terrible mess of his personal life and should strive to earn the forgiveness (if it is still possible) of his wife and, one day, of his children. To understand this situation we need certain moral concepts -- such as vice, betrayal, and offense -- which we find in all civilizations and all moralities. To these potent ideas the Christian adds a notion of even greater moral amperage: the idea of sin, which is an offense ultimately, not against human victims, but against God.

I don't mean to be flippant about this. I would imagine that there are people who do derive benefit from this extra dimension, from thinking that, in addition to all the others who are harmed and aggrieved by their wrongs and betrayals, they have also offended the Creator of the universe. Those same people also derive benefit from being forgiven by the Creator. But to offer that forgiveness to Woods is to offer him something that, if he does not already have a personal relationship with a highly moralistic God, he probably cannot use and does not need.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

"You Can't Prove Anything"

Here he is, the great Penn Jillette.

... Well, I just got a new computer that has Windows Movie Maker on it, so I made this. Mainly, it was an experiment: I wanted to learn how to use the program. Also, I wanted to learn how to get it on line, which was the hardest part, as it turned out. I finally managed to upload it by first saving it at a very low level of video and audio quality. I hope it's not too unsightly. Anyway, here it is:

Friday, January 01, 2010

Your Resolutions are Being Made for You

This is the second story I have seen that hints that unusually many of the new laws that take effect today are nagging, niggling nanny-state rules designed to protect us from ourselves and make us feel safer from mishaps from whatever source. Obviously, not all of these rules are a bad idea (texting while driving seems obviously insane to me) but it seems that the whole mass is getting constantly thicker, heavier, more suffocating. I keep thinking of that famous passage in which Tocqueville imagines a possible nightmare future for democracy in America:

Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which government is the shepherd. .  .  .

I have always believed that this sort of regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have just painted, could be combined better than one imagines with some of the external forms of freedom, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.

Happy New Year everybody!