Thursday, May 8, 2008

Absolutism

I've been having an interesting discussion in the comments based on my Monday post, where I commended Paul Krugman for understanding that the technical definition of recession is largely irrelevant when many Americans are hurting, threatened with the loss of their homes or their jobs, uncertain as to what to do to dig themselves out of increased uncertainty (Megan McArdle is currently writing a set of posts criticizing Elizabeth Warren's ubiquitous talk on the "Coming Collapse of the Middle Class"; my guess is neither is totally right, which leads us into the topic of this post).

A person named sbvor has taken issue with the post, arguing that we are not in a recession (I'll take the liberty of assuming that sbvor is male; pardon me if I am wrong). He cites the definition of the National Bureau of Economic Research:
A recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales.
[I stop here to point out that this definition is wholly insufficient; it fails in several places, mainly in its use of ill-defined terms like "significant" and "a few," and its lack of guidance as to what to do when two of their five measures are positive, three negative. It leaves far too much room for interpretation of when a recession actually occurs, rendering it close to irrelevant.]

Without going into the entire exchange, I'll touch on one part of sbvor's comments (and my response):
I also sense in your initial post a disillusion with what is most obvious about the Capitalist system (that it produces disparities of wealth). What the media never tell you, least of all, Paul Krugman and The Old York Times, is that, as the disparity grows, all are all lifted up. Any attempt by government to “redistribute” the wealth inevitably drags everybody down. Sure, the gap is reduced. But, the net result is grinding poverty for all. If you’ve never visited a Communist country, do so. There, you will see your idyllic vision of fiscal equality (except, of course, for the Communist Party members who live in luxury).
My answer to that:
I also know that communism is a far inferior system, but you are creating a false dichotomy and ascribing it to me.

To say that capitalism is not perfect and requires some non-free market mechanisms is not at all the same as saying that we must move to communism.

Additionally, it takes a misreading of the equations of the free market to contend, as you do, that disparity inevitably creates greater wealth for those at the low end (or even in the middle). There is nothing that guarantees that, and one can easily posit a kind of neo-feudalism that is entirely consistent with free market principles.

You and I probably disagree on what the American Dream constitutes, and, until we can define that, I have to assume that your view of it is thriving, mine not so much.
What this post is about is the "false dichotomy" I mentioned. sbvor believes we are not in a recession, which is his right; I was arguing (as was Krugman) that the term was irrelevant to what most Americans are experiencing.

He goes on to argue that government action inevitably "drags everyone down." That is also his right, there are many people who believe that to be true. I believe that to be simplistic, and easily disprovable.

But the objectionable part, to me, is the belief that, if I believe that sharing some amount of the common wealth is desirable, I automatically become a Communist. And that's just the kind of thinking that has made the politics of this country contentious and unpleasant. sbvor has chosen to adopt a philosophy (I have the impression of libertarianism) that colors his views of not only economics but of people who do not share his "pure" stance. Any deviation from that orthodoxy implies that the person willing to consider other options is a Communist.

Of course, this is a form of the ad hominem fallacy coupled with a straw man argument, but, what is worse, it forestalls all further discussion. I'm willing to concede that the level of government intervention in the economy is open for discussion and negotiable, but the absolutist mentality will not allow for that.

Similarly, the discussion as to whether or not we're in a recession falls apart as soon as we realize that one side is saying that a recession is the only way to define economic trouble; if we're not in one, by the definition, we must be doing OK. I just don't believe that.

Earlier, I mentioned Megan McArdle, who is currently trying to dismantle the arguments that Elizabeth Warren is making about the increasing threats to the middle class. McArdle somewhat self-importantly has anointed herself as the person who must stop this ("Mine is a high and lonely destiny").

This post is not the one to go into the two sides: my point is with the attitude, as McArdle assumes that, in taking down specifics of Warren's points, she invalidates the premise, that the middle class is struggling. Once again, we see absolutism, the idea that either the middle class is heading for disaster, or that this is just alarmist talk, not worth consideration.

Most complex issues do not allow for simplistic, one-size-fits-all solutions, and we desperately need to elevate the level of discourse beyond that. Instead, we stake out our positions on one side of the big wall or the other, and we're done, content in our eternal rightness (leading to self-righteousness). Thus, we solve no problems, find no room for compromise, and make no progress. That's a pretty sad turn of events in a country that prides itself on its can-do attitude.

5 comments:

sbvor said...

Androcass,

As a man I greatly admired once said, “there you go again”.

I never called you a communist.

But, if you ever take the time to read The Communist Manifesto, you will find the root source of most, if not all, of the political ideology you are parroting (be you a registered Dem or not).

If you understood the definition of “ad hominem”, you would understand that I did not engage in any ad hominem attack and that this blog entry of yours is purely ad hominem.

You imagine some invented “name calling” offense to be an ad hominem attack. In truth, diverting the discussion from the question of what constitutes a recession to a ludicrously fictitious personal assault on a person you don’t even know is what constitutes ad hominem.

Shame on you!

P.S.) This post of yours is dripping with pseudo-sophisticated, pseudo-intellectual elitist arrogance.

Androcass said...

sbvor:

Let's see, "Communist country" is equated to "your idyllic vision of fiscal equality." Seems close enough to me, but, if you contend that a statement like that is not calling me a communist, I will defer to what you intended.

I would say you don't understand ad hominem, but that won't get us anywhere. I certainly will not feel any shame.

As for your P.S., I can only conclude that you would prefer to argue style over fact, and I would rather not. If you have anything to offer beyond a vague definition and umbrage-taking, I welcome hearing it; otherwise, I don't see how we can progress.

I do wish you would read what I have actually written, however, but you continue not to do that.

sbvor said...

Androcass,

I should have known better than to engage anyone who would write:

the recession is here, and most of us can feel that

I’ll leave you to wallow in your “feelings” about world events and fellow bloggers.

I prefer to engage those who rely on their intellect rather than their feelings.

In parting, I will simply remind you, one more time, that it is increasingly unlikely that we are currently in a recession:
================================
The Recession of 2008 That Wasn’t?
================================

Androcass said...

Well then, I hope you're right, and I hope that's a comfort to everyone who's going through rough times.

sbvor said...

The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of the blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.

-Winston Churchill

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