Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Clear Thinking

My post yesterday about a fairly prominent pontificator who is unencumbered by the thought process was like sweeping the beach. Our public discourse is mostly a farrago of well-crafted BS. Here is a useful guide to critical thinking, the provenance of which is not revealed to us but which, as far as I can tell, is entirely trustworthy.

Stossel's argument is an example of Circular Reasoning. If you think about it, you will realize that its essential form is "nobody spends somebody else’s money as wisely or as frugally as he spends his own, therefore nobody spends somebody else's money as wisely or as frugally as he spends his own specifically on health care." But that isn't an argument at all, it's just an assertion. And once you recognize that, it's obvious that it just isn't true. Stossel combines this fallacy with the equally fallacious Appeal to Authority. By citing the false premise as the pronouncement of a famous person, he seeks to forestall us from evaluating its truth.

There's another little trick here, which is the word "nobody." That makes this an assertion of non-existence. When we first read the statement, our inclination is to nod our head and think, "That's right, I certainly prefer to decide how to spend my own money," because we don't notice that it purports to be absolute and universal. But then Stossel hopes we won't notice when he universalizes the assertion to a realm in which it clearly does not apply.

In the debate over reforming our medical financing, there is far more fallacy than reason. This is not fundamentally a debate over values, about which we might differ, it is a debate between sense and nonsense. And there is a very good reason for that: most resistance to meaningful reform comes from a small minority of wealthy and powerful people who stand to lose some of their existing, undeserved privileges.

They obviously can't go around proclaiming their real motives, so they have to muddy the waters. They do this using the standard tool in the rhetorical arsenal of the economically advantaged, the Gospel According to Friedman, which purports to be scientific and logical and wise. Actually it's a vast edifice of fallacy which begins with its innumerable glib yet either false or essentially meaningless premises. The particular Friedman aphorism at issue here is entirely typical. Economists just make assertions, treat them as axioms, and off they go. Checking in with reality is for the naive and untutored, who are too limited to comprehend the ineluctable power of their faith.

Of course there are additional fallacious arguments available. Here Media Matters runs down an RNC ad for us:

Republicans want health care reform that reduces costs across the board.

Republicans believe every single American deserves quality health care.

Republicans also believe another government takeover would diminish health care choice and quality.

President Obama talks about a, quote, public option. When he says "public option," that means putting government bureaucrats in charge, instead of patients and their doctors. It's a bad idea.

Republicans want bipartisan health care reform, a responsible plan that we can afford, where people are free to choose the best care for their families - without a government takeover.

Tell President Obama to work with Republicans, and to stop rushing into another government takeover.

Saying that "Republicans believe" something obviously doesn't make it true. Labelling the president's proposal as a "government takeover" is just name calling. Presumably we're supposed to think that's bad, just because. But what has Obama really proposed, and what will it actually do? Does the "public option" put bureaucrats in charge of something that patients and doctors are in charge of today? What specifically is that? (Hint: It's nothing that Aetna and Blue Cross/Blue Shield bureaucrats aren't in charge of right now.) Would the purported "government takeover" mean that people aren't free to choose the "best" care for their families, compared with the freedom they have now? How would it do that?

On the contrary, of course, right now your freedom is limited to physicians and hospitals who accept your insurance. (And by the way, if you had Massachusetts Blue Cross Blue Shield, you would not have been free to come to my hospital or see my doctor a couple of months ago.) With a "government takeover," you would be free to go to any doctor, hospital, or other health care insitution in the country -- which you demonstrably are not free to do today, even if you're lucky enough to have insurance at all. But words like "freedom" and "bureaucrats" and the implied threat of communism have built-in resonance.

Painfully, however, all this bamboozlement is likely to be effective. All the reactionaries have to do is throw labels around and spout theological sophistry from economics textbooks. The reporters are either too ignorant or too cowardly to call them out on it, and the Democrats -- well I don't know what the heck their problem is. They just won't confront the BS head on, all they do is duck and cover. It's pathetic.

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