Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Critical Thinking: More Than Finding Fallacies

I like this article by Neo-neocon in which she shows how an article in the Washington Post is written to create the impression of Obama suffering from events that have hurt him.

The article goes on to describe the precipitous decline in Obama’s standing in approval polls this year:

His position is all the more striking when compared with his standing a year ago, as he was preparing for his second inauguration after a solid reelection victory. That high note proved fleeting as the president faced a series of setbacks, culminating in the botched rollout of his Affordable Care Act two months ago.

I offer the above as another demonstration of the care with which these things are written. Some may think reporters and editors are simply clumsy or indifferent writers, and sometimes they are. But much of the time they choose their words (and photos) with exquisite and subtle care. They also realize that most people only look at the headlines and photos of most articles, and that those are therefore the most important, and that even people who do read the article often read only the first few paragraphs.
In this article, the headline and photo have been chosen to suggest that Obama is a suffering victim—in fact, the greatest victim—of a series of unfortunate circumstances that have befallen him. Nearly a martyr. And the copy (the paragraph I’ve quoted here is the second one in the piece) reinforces that idea by this phrase, “faced a series of setbacks.” Passive voice; no actor.
I know not everyone will agree with Neo-neocon's analysis, especially if you're an Obama supporter. I offer this example because critical thinking doesn't rely just on finding fallacies. Critical thinking isn't just about analyzing arguments. It also involves identifying premises buried in choice of words that are chosen (consciously or unconsciously) to influence us.
Years ago I taught a course on critical thinking with a friend. While we did cover logical fallacies we also used articles from weekly news magazines to show how the stories were crafted to get the reader to buy into their hidden and not-so-hidden agenda. We had absolutely no problem finding examples for our class. Actually we could have picked any page at random from the typical news magazines or newspapers.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

On Getting To Keep The Insurance You Like (or maybe not)

About this time last year I was visiting one of my accounts based in Toronto when one of my customers, who is a strong advocate of the Canadian health care system, asked what I thought of Obamacare. My answer: I thought there were far better ways of helping the 10 or 15% of Americans who didn’t have health insurance than forcing the other 85 – 90% to change what they had. She repeated what Obama and his minions have been saying: that we could keep our insurance (and doctor) if we liked it so what’s the big deal? Well, after the initial October roll out we’re learning that we could keep our insurance ONLY if it met the criteria laid out by Obamacare. The news media has been reporting that thousands of people have been receiving notices from their insurers that, oh, their plan doesn’t meet this minimum criteria and that the plans available on the exchanges are much more expensive and have higher deductibles.

Who could have seen that coming? Anybody with a basic understanding of Economics 101. By that I mean that the package of promises sold to us like a miracle balm (or snake oil) contained contradictory claims. We were going to save money, lower the national debt, reduce overall medical spending while covering people with pre-existing conditions and adding millions of folks who previously didn’t have insurance.

How did this happen? I think a constellation of factors made it possible for politicians to sell some people on Obamacare. (Notice I didn’t say most people because the polls have consistently shown a lack of strong public support for Obamacare. It is dropping like a rock since October 1.) One is the lack of understanding how a market works and particularly how distorted the healthcare market is. Second, the mammoth bill was too complex even for its supporters to fully understand. (Hence, Nancy Pelosi’s infamous comment about needing to pass the bill in order to find out what is in it.) Third, I think a lot of people harbor animosity for insurance companies precisely because (a) we don’t know how much medical services truly cost (see examples below) and (b) insurance companies delay or deny payments to protect their bottom line. And lastly, I’m sure there is a minority of people who think they were going to get something for almost nothing while tucking it to the big insurers. Several Obamacare supporters have voiced dismay that they didn’t think they would be the ones footing the bill only to find out, to their dismay, that the bill collector tolls for them too.

During the discussion with my customer I also mentioned that the health care system in the U.S. was far from a true free market system for a number of reasons (best covered at another time) and that having insurance cover most of normal medical expenses hides the true price from the user. I likened it to going into a grocery store and for a $20 co-pay you could fill your cart with anything you wanted, from cheap hamburger to caviar (if the store would carry it). Or it would be like going to the car dealership to get whatever work you wanted done on your car for the measly co-pay. So you could have an oil change or rebuild the engine for the same out-of-pocket cost. As a result of this arrangement there is no incentive for the customer to shop for the combination of best price and quality like we do for other goods and services. But that too is a topic for another post. For more information on this I highly recommend John Goodman’s Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis.

For a much deeper analysis I recommend Robert Tracinski's article.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

George Zimmerman and the Power of Bias by Megan McArdle

As readers of this blog should know by now I like to link to articles that I think exemplify objective thinking. In the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial I've read a lot of articles on both sides of the political fence. I think McArdle takes a balanced approach, recognizing that no one but Zimmerman knows exactly what happened between him and Martin that fateful evening. I believe at some point in their encounter someone was going to die, either Zimmerman or Martin. If Zimmerman hadn't been armed he probably would not have survived. Of course, some would claim that if Zimmerman was unarmed he would have been more likely to leave the scene rather than risk a face-to-face with Martin. Maybe.

In any case, I recommend reading McArdle's article.

And for some background on why Zimmerman might have decided not to leave the area after he called 911 this Reuters article provides information on what happened in the days and months before the shooting. (Hat tip to neoneocon.)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel: Brief Comments

This review by Ari Armstrong captures pretty much how I feel about Man of Steel (MoS), which I saw yesterday with my family as part of our Father's Day celebration. I liked MoS primarily because it had a villain truly worthy of Superman. I liked the mythic elements of the original Superman movie but felt it was undermined by the banality of its villain Lex Luthor. MoS plays it straight with no campiness or tongue-in-cheekiness (if there is such a word).

It's been interesting reading the various reviewers who have criticized for MoS not being light hearted like the original. It's almost as though they object to MoS for taking itself so darn seriously. On the other hand I agree that the epic fight scenes at the end were a bit long and repetitive. I mean, how many times can you plow each other through skyscrapers before the combatants conclude that this isn't working?

Bottom line: I loved MoS and it left me hoping there will be more to come as long as the sequels stay true to the mythology reaffirmed by this movie. It was fitting that I saw the movie on Father's Day because the scenes of the young Clark and his adopted father resonated with me.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why the President Lost on Gun Control - The Daily Beast

Megan McArdle has an interesting take on why the campaign to strengthen gun control laws in the aftermath of Sandy Hook failed. She doesn't talk about whether this latest ploy was right or not in terms of individual rights. Her focus is on how Obama and his gang employed a wrong bargaining strategy. In doing so she make some good observations that we could apply in other negotiations, such as buying a car (an example she uses to make her point).

Why the President Lost on Gun Control - The Daily Beast

Monday, February 25, 2013

When facts and narratives collide. (When facts contradict beliefs, challenge the facts.)

The title is meant to catch your eye. I'm not saying that thinking objectively means we should deny facts that challenge our beliefs.

I generally don't start political discussions with people I know disagree with me. I don't enjoy getting into arguments partly because I know there is no true “winner” in these disagreements. As a libertarian in liberal Massachusetts that means I almost never start such discussions because few people share my point of view.

For instance, during the NFL football season my wife and I watch the games at a friend's house where the wife is as avid a fan of the Patriots as my wife. However, I knew that our host, let's call her Jane, is fairly liberal. During the election she had signs along her driveway for Elizabeth Warren. Need I say more? Sometime after the election Jane brought up politics even though she had a good hunch that I didn't agree with her. I said that I was neither a Republican nor a Democrat but a libertarian. Our talk was quite civil for a while until Jane said she didn't understand why the economy wasn't doing better despite the stimulus package. I told her that every one of my customers have said that they are sitting on tons of cash but don't want to hire people. (In my job I often meet with the treasurer or CFO of my accounts.) Why? Because they're afraid of what additional regulations will be coming and the effects of ObamaCare when it starts being implemented. Jane burst out with “Bullshit! I don't accept that!” She stood up, added that she also didn't think the wealthy or businesses were really responsible for job creation, then started to storm out of the room. I said, “It looks like this conversation is over.” (To give her credit Jane did apologize later for her outburst although she didn’t change her mind.)

This incident opened my eyes to an interesting facet, not just of liberalism but probably of all ideologies: the denial of facts that contradict cherished beliefs.

In this case pointing out that businesses were reluctant to hire people challenged the policies and politicians that Jane supports. It also violated the liberal narrative. This narrative says that the wealthy and business owners have infinite resources that can be taxed and regulated without negative consequences. I think there also is the belief that we have the right to tap these resources because the rich and business owners didn't earn their wealth. After all, they didn't build that, as Obama angrily asserted.

I recall seeing a skit on Bill Maher’s show in which a conservative is sitting inside a sound-proof bubble while Maher and another liberal shout “truths” at the conservative. Conservatives feel the same about the filter liberals have installed in their ears. Rather than get into all of this here I highly recommend Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Haidt explains how each side (including libertarians) focus on certain aspects of morality while filtering out others so that both sides in a debate talk past one another.

By the way the very next day I was at the airport when I heard a story on TV about the $1 trillion US companies are sitting on rather than using it to expand their business. The reasons given were the exactly same reasons I cited to Jane.