Friday, April 8, 2016

Argument and authority in politics and economics

I have a troll!  My very own troll!  A blog isn't a blog until it acquires a troll, you know.

Yes, I'm going somewhere with this.  But first, epistemology!  How do we know what we know?  The two primary forms of argument that are epistemologically valid are deductive arguments and inductive arguments.  Deductive arguments are basically math.  You start with a premise, and see what logically follows from that premise.  Euclidean geometry, a lot of economic theory, etc.  That's deductive reasoning.  Inductive reasoning is trickier.  Essentially, what has happened in the past is likely to repeat itself.  In my opinion, these forms of reasoning complement each other well.

Then there are the fallacies.  My favorite?  Argument by authority!  Im rite cuz Im tha prof!  (That was actually hard to type since I am using my iPad right now, and auto-correct didn't want to let me do that).

That leads me to my favorite riddle:  what do John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman have in common?  They were both smarter than me.  Authority is tricky.  If you look, you can always find someone who has some form of authority taking whatever position you want to defend.  So, inductive and deductive reasoning only, right?

Unfortunately, that isn't always practical.  Economics, for example is a technical field.  Just because it is filled with ideological hacks and insufferable douchebags doesn't mean the subject isn't technical.  So, what do you do if you know you don't have the technical expertise to evaluate something as complicated as, say, an economic plan?  And that leads me to my troll!  My very own troll!

If you are reading this blog (hi, me!), you know I don't think much of outsider candidates, like Bernie Sanders and Tony Clifton, I mean, Donald Trump.  Well, someone is attempting to get me to feel the bern.  Yeah, that'll happen.  Recently, I posted an article at The Conversation about the problem journalists face when covering liars.  I went after Mr. Clifton, sorry, Trump, pretty hard, but it was the criticism I leveled against Sanders that got me my brand new troll.  The thread is here.  In fairness, he is the most polite troll I have ever seen, but what's the deal here?  The deal is that I think of Sanders as the mirror image of Paul Ryan-- someone committed to a set of policies regarding wealth redistribution for moral rather than practical reasons, and hence willing to fudge the numbers because macroeconomic growth isn't really the point anyway.  So, Sanders and Ryan are both willing to lie about the macroeconomic and budgetary effects of their policies.  You can read a longer version here.

Sanders people don't like it when you criticize their savior.  Really, though, what should you do here when faced with an economic plan that may or may not be hogwash? In strict, epistemological terms, you should study economics.  But, what if you don't want to spend years of your life reading about economics to prepare yourself to evaluate politicans' economic plans?  Unfortunately, that brings us back to authoritah... sorry... authority.  Whom do you trust?  Therein lies the problem of lies.

We are psychologically predisposed to believe those with whom we are otherwise in broad agreement.  We are also psychologically predisposed to assess authoritah, sorry, authority by whether or not someone agrees with us.  Round, and round we go!

And that leads me back to my troll.  I called Sanders a liar.  Why?  Cuz he's a liar.  His economic plan is based around voodoo.  In order to make the numbers add up, you have to make ridiculous assumptions.  One way to do that is with an assumption of 5.3% growth.  Ridiculous?  Yes, but that's how ridiculous things have to get before Sanders' numbers add up.

Should you trust me?  Fuck, no.  I'm just an asshole with a blog that nobody reads.  Whom should you trust?  Ummm..  That's the problem.  Here's something to consider, though.  A very wide ideological range of economists, from John Cochrane to Brad DeLong think that Sanders is full of shit.  If you look hard enough, you can find a left-wing hack willing to defend Sanders, but if you look hard enough, you can find a biologist who rejects evolution, so, well, look at the range.

Could every economist from Cochrane to DeLong be involved in an anti-Sanders conspiracy? Well, I can't disprove it, but that's not a compelling argument. Not to me, anyway. Then again, argument by authority is far from proof anyway.  What am I really saying here?  Just ask yourself, at what point do your decisions about whom to accept and whom to reject start to look conspiratorial?

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