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Does Irrationality Doom America?

How rational problem-solving has ceased to be "serious" among US elites.

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Once you embrace the Principle of Seriousness, the way is clear for rigorous BipartisanThink. If the parties fail to agree because one party is being unreasonable and the other party is failing to cater to their unreasonable demands, then the apparently reasonable party is in fact failing to be serious. After all, a serious proposal is one that stands a chance of passing. Reasonable proposals will not pass a Congress in which one party is being unreasonable, so by definition the Principle of Seriousness allocates the blame equally to both sides. Balance is restored to the Force.

This passage captures the essence of "seriousness" perfectly. But it says nothing about how or why we got here, or where it will lead - all vitally important topics to consider, but impossible to focus on accurately as long as we're subjected to the rule of "serious" discourse. For now, we need to tease out a few more points from Yglesias's insight.

Serious and viable

Let's begin by noting that what he's described is a form of fallacious reasoning, specifically, the  fallacy of equivocation, in which one word is used with two different meanings. In its most basic form, one meaning is replaced by another: "Feathers are light; black is dark; therefore no feathers are black". Or "Nothing is better than eternal salvation. A ham sandwich is better than nothing. Therefore, a ham sandwich is better than eternal salvation". You don't have to observe a dietary law against eating pork to see something fishy about such "logic". But what Yglesias is describing is a less patently ridiculous form, in which the two different meanings are essentially welded together - without, of course, acknowledging what has been done.

Yet, the fundamental fact remains: the basis of what's going on here is a commonplace logical fallacy. That alone is reason enough to reject it out of hand - but not to understand how and why it works. And so we continue with three more points teased out from Yglesias's insight:

  1. If unreasonable positions ensure that the other side gets equal blame in the centrist's scorekeeping and resulting media coverage, then they are inherently "can't lose" positions. This provides a basic floor which biases the entire process against being reasonable.
  2. If some sort of action is eventually necessary (as it is with budget issues, and most other governmental questions as well), then the unreasonable side - which by definition cares less (perhaps not at all) about real-world consequences - has an increasing advantage the longer that the issue remains unresolved, thus further motivating them to remain unreasonable. If they start at 50 percent (equal blame), things only get better for them over time, as the blame burdern remains constant, but the cost pressure to do something rises much more accurately on the reasonable side.
  3. The realm of conceivable alternatives is heavily skewed to the unreasonable side, for at least two main reasons identifiable as distinct forms of bias. First off, there's an enormous gap between what sounds reasonable initially and what can actually work - as any inventor, engineer, or even songsmith knows. If there's no workability test, then the fantasy-based side can crank out alternatives far faster and more easily than the reality-based side can ever dream of. Secondly, because of the bias against "politically unviable" ideas, there is a prohibitive bias against reasonable alternatives that might respond to claims, complaints or positions of the unreasonable side, and thus exert pressure on them to respond, change, or even yield. 

A classic example of this second bias against reasonable alternatives is the Progressive Caucus's repeated offerings ( 20112012) of a budget that would balance in ten years - unlike Ryan's - provide pro-growth investments for the future, preserve popular welfare state programmes, and include a diverse mix of tax increases that still leave tax burderns well below historic highs. The Progressive Caucus budgets have been routinely ignored, despite having significant support (read about their most recent offering, an alternative to the sequester  here - when people were polled on it,  it swamped the competition, even edging out the GOP plan among Republicans). The obvious "reason" is that they have no chance of being passed by intransigent Republicans - ie, "they are not serious" in the "politically viable" sense. But, of course, they are serious in the "solves the budget deficit" sense - which the Republican's Ryan budgets never have been before now (his 2011 version  balanced the budget in 2063 and his 2012 version  balanced it in 2040 - despite deceptive claims to the contrary, neither accomplished any significant deficit reduction in the first ten years). If the Beltway media had initially decided that actually solving problems ought to be given a high priority, then the Progressive Caucus budgets would have gotten vastly more coverage, Ryan's would have been laughed off-stage and - voila! - the Progressive Caucus budgets would magically become "serious" in the "politically viable" sense as well.

 
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