@adamsbaldwin and Anti-Union rhetoric.
This post is the second in the series “Just add logic: won’t hold water”, only this time my focus is on American Anti-Union arguments and the ways in which they do not stand up to any kind of logical or critical scrutiny. It also is, in some way, an open letter in reply to a brief interaction between actor Adam Baldwin (@adamsbaldwin) and myself (@capitan_typo) over Twitter in the 24 hours prior to writing this post.
A quick backstory – I started following Mr. Baldwin primarily due to my love of the show Firefly, and my respect for his work as an actor. I quickly discovered that he is an outspoken conservative who, in my opinion, reiterated a lot of hyperbolic conservative rhetoric in his tweets.
When I responded to one of his tweets with a question, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a response which in turn led to a brief exchange of tweets in which I enquired after a more detailed reasoning behind his statement that ‘public sector unions are evil’.
In response to these requests, Mr. Baldwin tweeted that he agrees with FDR and Rush Limbaugh, and attached the following URL’s in support of his statements.
The first link is to an article entitled ‘F.D.R. Warned Us’ on realclearpolitics.com, which is actually an aggregate re-posting of a New York Times opinion piece in their Opinion Pages’ ‘Room For Debate’ section.
The second links to a Google search for the four words ‘rush Limbaugh public unions’. When I clicked that search, the first article at the top of the list was the link below, which is a transcript of a series of call-in conversations from Limbaugh’s talk-back radio show, all on the topic of public sector unions.
So it is at this point that my focus shifted from Mr. Baldwin’s blanket statement that ‘public sector unions are evil’ as I had some more significant conservative argument against public sector unions to sink my critically-thinking teeth into.
What follows is an analysis of the many, many, many (many, many, many) logical fallacies and outright false statements present in the two websites that Mr. Baldwin referred me to, which I offer up as another example of how the arguments of ‘conservatives’ just don’t stand up to the expectations of logical and reasoned argument.
To begin with a clarification, this (essay?) will not attempt to disprove the statement that ‘Public Sector Unions are Evil’, nor will I attempt to prove an opposite statement. Maybe public unions are evil, maybe they’re not. My point here is that the attempts to argue or prove such a statement, as represented by the examples provided by Mr. Baldwin, do not possess the logical consistency required to be able to prove the statement original premise, and as such, the original statement remains unproven, and the arguments made in these articles are logically invalid.
The first article, ‘F.D.R. Warned Us’ by James Sherk, was last updated Sept. 16, 2011.
The primary thrust of the article is that Public Sector unions are bad because when they strike, they are striking against taxpayers and voters, rather than against a business. The primary evidence for this premise is that “Franklin Dean Roosevelt Warned Us” (the title of the article) and that George Meaney, a leader of the American Union Movement in the early 20th Century, also spoke against the idea.
Sherk also offers other statements as reasons why public sector unions, and their right to strike, is a bad thing. To an unquestioning mind, this article could be mistaken for a reasoned and supporting argument as it offers a clear premise, with reasons and explanations to support the veracity of that premise.
What Sherk does, probably unknowingly, is base his entire argument primarily around two logical fallacies that render his argument logically invalid. While it may be a structured argument, it is a flawed argument based upon faulty logic, which ultimately results in a series of statements that mean nothing, while making very strong implications.
The first logical fallacy Sherk engages with is the Argument from Authority. This logical fallacy mistakes the authority or a person or their position for the evidence of truth in the things they have said. To put it another way, just because a person in power said something, doesn’t make the thing they said any more true than if another person said it.
In this article, Sherk’s Argument from Authority comes in the form of using FDR and Meaney’s statements as ‘proof’ that public sector unions are a bad thing or a bad idea. If everything that FDR said was to be considered as universally truthful, then shouldn’t Sherk also be arguing that while Public Sector Unions are bad, private sector unions are a good thing? Or perhaps that interning foreign nationals during times of war is also a good thing? After all, FDR did it to the Japanese during World War 2, so maybe America should be interning all Middle-Eastern born residents until U.S. troops pull out of Iraq.
In reality, FDR’s statements that militancy and strike action by public sector unions is “Unthinkable and Intolerable” has no greater claim to truth than the statement that ‘because Ronald Reagan raised taxes numerous times, that is it a good thing for a government to raise taxes.’ Both of those statements need to be considered in their social and political contexts, and do not possess any greater inherent truth because the person who said them happens to be in a position of authority.
The second logical fallacy that Sherk engages in is known as ‘Begging the Question’. The name of this logical fallacy has been somewhat twisted in recent usage, and is often used today to mean ‘repeatedly asking a question’. In its original form, Begging the Question refers to the practise of asking a question that includes a statement or premise that it itself has not been proven to be true.
An example of Begging the Question would be to ask someone “Have you stopped taking drugs?” without first ascertaining that they were actually taking drugs in the first place.
Sherk’s article is full of examples of Begging the Question, though I’ll identify only a few as to do them all would result in something more like a publishable book rather than a blog post. Hopefully once you’ve read this post, however, the other examples of this logical fallacy should become readily apparent.
“The founders of the labor movement viewed unions as a vehicle to get workers more of the profits they help create. Government workers, however, don’t generate profits.” This statement incorporates the assumption that profit shares were the primary motivation of Unions, and does not acknowledge the more-often disputed issue of working conditions. I acknowledge that improved working conditions for workers ultimately manifests as bottom line deductions for business and governments, but to my knowledge, many of the most significant landmark campaigns and victories of the union movement around the world have been on issues of better working conditions, rather than explicitly for a share of profits through direct wage increases. As an example:
In the days before the union movement, pre-pubescent children were used as mining labourers, legally allowed to be employed day or night, and for unrestricted hours (http://www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/laborctr/child_labor/about/us_history.html). It was labour unions that fought to outlaw child labour, during the early years of the union movement. For Sherk’s statement to be true, he would have to prove how union activism against child labour (as one example) was actually an attempt to ‘get workers more of the profits they help create’.
Without actually proving this statement in any meaningful way, Sherk’s assertion is unproven, as forceful as it sounds, and instead becomes an example of unfounded rhetoric.
“Government collective bargaining means voters do not have the final say on public policy.” This is perhaps my favourite example of begging the question in the article, as it is not only a prime example of a logical fallacy, but it also demonstrates an incorrect assertion about the nature of democratic government that seems to be the product of either an incomprehensible lack of understanding about democratic government for someone writing political opinion pieces, or the product of a disingenuous and manipulative misrepresentation of democracy. Or he could just be repeating an argument that he heard elsewhere without giving it any critical thought of his own. Given that this article lacks any citations of other sources despite references to some important and well documented issues and events, the possibility of ‘parroting’ also seems likely.
Anyway, to say that public collectivism means voters have no say on policy, and say it s though it were a bad thing, assumes that voters have ever had the final say on public policy in other issues, and that that is a good thing. The process of democracy does not give voters any direct say on public policy, instead voters get to elect the people they trust to form public policy. If it were true that the democratic process allowed voters to have a ‘final say’ on public policy, then why was George Bush Snr able to raise taxes shortly after taking office, despite his famous campaign slogan “Read My Lips, No More Taxes!”, a slogan that was largely credited with helping him win the election? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Read_my_lips:_no_new_taxes) There is no evidence presented in Sherk’s article, or indeed anywhere I could find to suggest that the democratic process allows voters to have the ‘final say’ on public policy. At best, the democratic process allows voters a ‘preliminary say’, but ultimately once election results are concluded, public policy is primarily in the hands of the elected officials.
“Union contracts make it next to impossible to reward excellent teachers or fire failing ones.” This statement begs a question that ties into a long running debate, which is whether or not the practices of ‘rewarding’ excellent teachers (presumably with bonus payments) or firing failing teachers are worthwhile practices that actually have a beneficial influence on the process of education. PISA, the educational assessment arm of the OECD, conducted a study on the effects of performance based pay (http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/33/16/50328990.pdf) and found that while performance based pay could have some effect, that factors such as respect for teachers in a society was a much bigger contributing factor to ‘improvements’ in teacher performance. Given that numerous states across America seem to be engaged in battles with their teacher unions over pay and conditions, and the rhetoric on the subject of teachers and their unions is pretty volatile (I direct attention to recent happenings in Chicago as my evidence) it does not seem like ‘respect for teachers’ is a likely outcome of these disputes, meaning any implemented performance pay (or punitive firing of ‘failing teachers) is unlikely to have any positive effect on education.
My point is that the premises upon which these statements are made are not inarguable facts, and to treat them as such is a logical fallacy that renders the argument meaningless until the facts can be proven. Alternatively, the argument needs to change.
So, as evidence for the statement that ‘public sector unions are evil’ this article offers no actual evidence at all. The only statements that this article can be used effectively as evidence for is “James Sherk did not make a logically valid argument”.
From Sherk I move on to Limbaugh.
For those of you in Australia reading this who don’t know who Limbaugh is, he is a conservative shock jock of a style similar to Alan Jones. Ultra-Conservative talk-back radio host whose comments… well… you’ll see.
The Limbaugh page was a lot longer, as it was the transcript of a number of phone calls in to his show. Here are some of the highlights.
“Union employment, private sector union employment, the percentages continue to drop. Now in the public sector, government, state, local, federal, union workforces are expanding, of course. But they can print money to pay people. But in the private sector, businesses can’t print money to pay people, nor can states, nor can cities, nor can towns.”
This paragraph here, which follows Limbaugh’s statement that he has a lot of sympathy for unionised workers, is positioned in such a way as to justify an opposition to public sector unions.
First point: ‘they can print money’. I not even sure if this is a formal or informal logical fallacy, but as a statement it is politically, economically and factually incorrect. Assuming ‘they’ refers to the government that hires the public sector employers, this statement, if taken to be serious, demonstrates a greater fundamental lack of understanding of economic practices than Sherk’s apparent lack of knowledge about democracy. That governments cannot just print money to pay debts is such a fundamental principle of modern economics that I don’t even feel the need to find suitable references to back this point up. When governments print money, overall currency is devalued and inflation rises rapidly, and in all the cases I am aware of in which a government has ‘printed money’ to solve a problem, the damage to that country’s economy has been equal or greater than the problem that the extra money was mean to fix.
Beyond this rather astounding assertion is also the self-contradictory logic in the sentences that come before and after. Follow this closely. He leads in by defining the public sector as saying that the public sector is ‘government, state, local, federal’, and that ‘they can print money’. Then in the next sentence he says that businesses can’t print money, ‘nor can states, nor can cities, nor can towns’. So, unless he is trying to argue that the physical bricks and mortar of a city cannot print money, it seems safe to assume that when he says a city can’t print money he means the local government… the same local government he just said COULD print money. He hasn’t even given himself the breathing space of a paragraph before contradicting his own argument.
It is only a couple of paragraphs later that he contradicts himself again on this same point. He says:
“This is about pension and benefits, and the fact that there isn’t any money. I don’t know what to tell people. There isn’t any money. In your own home when there isn’t any money, what do you do? Do you go on strike against your own family? What? What do you do? Well, you go out and maybe you get a second job, or you cut back on expenses, or you change jobs and try to get a raise or what have you.”
So at the beginning of his argument, he said governments could print money, and now he’s saying that there isn’t enough money.
This self-contradiction makes it impossible to draw any actual meaning from what Limbaugh says, and there is certainly no logically consistent argument against public sector unions to be found here. Only rhetoric. And this is just phone call number one.
In the next section of Limbaugh’s transcript, he reads out news item regarding Democratic senators failing to turn up to vote on a bill that would strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, this preventing the bill from being passed.
After reading the article he provides his perspective on the issue, in which he says:
“These public sector unions, folks, let’s just describe them accurately. They are monopolies. They are different than private sector unions and these public sector unions — like we see in New Jersey, like we see here in Wisconsin — are organizing against the taxpayers, the people who pay them.”
Despite my issue with his use of the word ‘Monopoly’ to describe public sector unions, this provides us with another example of a common logical fallacy, which is the Straw Man argument. This logical fallacy is a form of misdirection intended to create an alternate point of argument for the purpose of shifting attention away from the main point.
The Straw Man in this point is the idea that the Unions are organsing directly against the taxpayers. This idea is intended to position the ‘average tax payer’ as the target of union activism and, I assume, try to generate an emotional response by making the average tax paying listener feel that they are personally under attack.
The statement itself is based on the same misrepresentation of democracy that Sherk used to suggest that voters (or tax payers) have a direct involvement in the process of setting policies or writing legislation relating to teacher salaries.
By throwing up this Straw Man idea that the Unions are directly attacking tax payers, it diverts attention from the much more complex issue of the political relationship between unions and government, and perhaps more importantly, the relationship between governments and the public services they provide.
These contradictory statements are not singular, but rather indicative of the quality of Limbaugh’s argument, but I’m going to leave it there with the analysis as with Limbaugh, It really is too easy.
So as examples of arguments to support the statement that ‘Public Sector Unions are Evil’, these two articles don’t hold up to a standard of logical consistency, making them, as I have said previously, effectively meaningless. Most notably, this leaves the original premise unproven for now, and it becomes just another example of unjustified, angry rhetoric lacking reason to back it.
If you’ve read this far, congratulations on your stamina. And to Mr. Baldwin, if you’ve taken the time to read this far, feel free to offer a counter argument, or provide alternate evidence or argument to prove that ‘public sector unions are evil’. Until then, it is just so much meaningless rhetoric.