3 Memes That Annoy Me

memes-ahead-signI marked all of the following in my feed reader this morning, intending to post on them individually.  But, really, they’re all examples of common tropes that annoy the bejeezus out of me.

1.  Have you read it?

Lots of folks, including Glenn Reynolds, are chortling over about Attorney General Eric Holder’s admission that he hasn’t actually read the text of the Arizona immigration law he’s publicly criticized.  This, despite Holder specifically saying — in the very admission being criticized — “I’ve just expressed concerns on the basis of what I’ve heard about the law. But I’m not in a position to say at this point, not having read the law, not having had the chance to interact with people are doing the review, exactly what my position is.”

It’s perfectly fair to criticize someone for spouting off without knowing what he’s talking about.    But it’s, at best, cheap point scoring to ask whether someone has read a law under discussion, even a relatively short one such as this.  Who cares whether they’ve read it?  Are they wrong in some material way about the law?  If not, it’s simple diversion.

2. Stupid number tricks.

Via Taegan Goddard, I see National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein says that, “If the economy produces jobs over the next eight months at the same pace as it did over the past four months, the nation will have created more jobs in 2010 alone than it did over the entire eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Now, in fairness, Brownstein himself admits this is a specious argument four paragraphs in:  “To compare job growth in 2010 with Bush’s record ignores the nearly 4 million jobs lost in Obama’s first year, during the freefall that began in Bush’s final months. That’s like ignoring a meteor strike.”  And he goes on to argue that his “real point” is to highlight “how few jobs the economy was creating even before the 2008 collapse.

But Brownstein’s headline and lede factoid will doubtless be widely touted without the intended context.  And it highlights an annoying tendency of less numerate or honest journalists: comparing ridiculously incomparable data points.

3.  Military unanimously backs president!

Wonk Room‘s Max Bergmann highlights a WSJ editorial by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that contains this argument:  “The New START Treaty has the unanimous support of America’s military leadership—to include the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of the service chiefs, and the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, the organization responsible for our strategic nuclear deterrent.”

Now, as it happens, I have tremendous regard for Gates’ integrity and agree with him that the New START Treaty is sound public policy.  And I don’t see any reason to think that the uniformed military leaders he cites would think otherwise.

But general and flag officers serve at the pleasure of the president, their Constitutional commander-in-chief, and the SECDEF.   The Chairman is also specifically tasked by Congress to serve as the direct military advisor to the president.    But, whatever their views of the treaty at the outside, these men are going to do what the president orders — there’s no doubt he’s within his legal right to promulgate a treaty — unless they feel so strongly about it that they feel they must resign in protest.   It’s therefore not reasonable to cite their “support” as meaningful.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. mannning says:

    So, whether the AG has read a law he is threatening to sue against is just “Oh, by the way?” Perhaps his minions who have read it can voice such an opinion, though they shouldn’t, but the AG should be far more circumspect. Not this one, however, he is in there with both feet and empty head.

    A goodly percentage of the population probably thinks now that the law will be challenged in court by the feds, which is misleading and improper.

    The law will be upheld, I believe, in any event. Even in the face of fear and dread of racial profiling charges, which is a false issue in the first place, the courts will vote in favor of the AZ law, which, as modified, requires a prior law- breaking event before asking for citizenship ID.

    It pays to read the law first!

  2. JKB says:

    Holder’s claim of not having read the law and speaking out his a–, is simply an attempt to keep a form of qualified immunity. Would a reasonable Attorney General be in doubt about whether a law is constitutional given the decades long Stop and Frisk program run by New York city and a recent First Circuit finding for an Rhode Island officer who made a stop directly in line with the AZ law, developed reasonable suspicion of illegal status and transported the individuals to ICE.

    Should we not expect the top lawyer in the country as well as his formerly constitutional lecturer boss (held the job but proficiency is not in evidence) to be aware of long running, constitutional stop and harass programs being written about in the New York Times as wells the long case law trail governing Terry stops and development of reasonable suspicion well enough to know that you can’t make statements demonizing a sovereign state law developed and designed to pass both US and Arizona constitutional muster?

  3. john personna says:

    Is “half of all Americans pay no income tax” a stupid numbers trick?

    (Yes, total tax burden is the only non-stupid measure.)

  4. Boyd says:

    But it’s, at best, cheap point scoring to ask whether someone has read a law under discussion, even a relatively short one such as this.

    Wait, what?

    It’s apparent from his comments about the Arizona law and its constitutionality that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And it’s cheap point scoring to ask, after his comments, “Have you even read the damn thing?”

    Wow, we’re at diametric opposites (redundancy alert) on this one.

    Who cares whether they’ve read it?

    Seriously? Holder is commenting about its constitutionality, and it doesn’t matter to you if he’s read the law?

    Are they wrong in some material way about the law?

    Umm…yes, he is. Once again, this is what sparks the natural reaction of, “Have you even read the damn thing?”

    I’m confused about your reaction, James. This is far from the first time Holder has expressed an opinion on the Arizona law. He’s backing off here, but only because a congressman called him on it.

    So here’s my bottom-line question to you, James: The Attorney General has been expressing an opinion on the constitutionality of a state law based on news reports, and he hasn’t even read the damn thing or “interact[ed] with people [who] are doing the review,” and you think pointing out that he’s talking out his ass is just a diversion?

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Each of the examples you cite are instances of specific logical fallacies. The first is an ad hominem argument. It argues against the person or persons making the argument rather than against the argument itself. It may be true that they poorly informed or merely reciting talking points for partisan reasons. More important are the arguments they’re making.

    The second is false analogy, comparing apples to oranges.

    The problem with the third depends on the argument being made and what’s actually being said. The joint chiefs can legitimately be considered authorities on defense. If they are expressing their own assessments of a specific policy, citing their views is a legitimate appeal to authority. If they’re repeating the views of the civilian authorities to whom they report, not so much.

  6. JKB says:

    But how can you know if the joint chiefs are expressing their own opinions since public opposition is mutinous or at a minimum unseemly, as when Powell publicly opposed Clinton.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Is “half of all Americans pay no income tax” a stupid numbers trick?

    (Yes, total tax burden is the only non-stupid measure.)

    As with the Browstein example, it depends how it’s being used. I think it’s simultaneously a meaningless stat outside the context of the total tax picture and yet interesting in its own right.

    Federal income tax is the only way people pay for non-entitlement spending of their central government. So it’s meaningful that we’ve excluded such a large chunk of society — well into the middle class — by design.

  8. Drew says:

    I’m not sure I really understand where James and Dave are coming out.

    Dave, correctly points out you shouldn’t attack the man, but the argument. And yet Holder admits he’s not yet in a position to make an argument.

    James correctly points out that “have you read it” is just a gotcha tactic.

    But I think both miss the point. Senior officials in business, not for profit, academia or government should surely understand that their words naturally carry a heavier, more visible, weight. And with that comes a degree of responsibility.

    As a practical matter I seriously doubt Holder will ever “read it,” but will be professionally briefed. Until then, I believe the criticism that he should show a bit more restraint in his public commentary is valid.

  9. Drew says:

    “I think it’s simultaneously a meaningless stat outside the context of the total tax picture and yet interesting in its own right.”

    Or said another way, if the question being asked is total tax incidence, you need to incorporate all taxes.

    “Federal income tax is the only way people pay for non-entitlement spending of their central government. So it’s meaningful that we’ve excluded such a large chunk of society — well into the middle class — by design.”

    I think that’s absolutely correct. Or said another way, if the issue is selling another non-entitlement program, you will almaost certainly get different answers if the burden primarily falls on 20% of the population vs 80%.

  10. john personna says:

    “Federal income tax is the only way people pay for non-entitlement spending of their central government. So it’s meaningful that we’ve excluded such a large chunk of society — well into the middle class — by design.”

    I own some mutual funds. “We” pay taxes in a two step on our economic activity. First Exxon pays corporate tax, then I pay income tax.

    Conservatives rightly call this double taxation, until they want to forget, and claim that only my income tax portion counts.

    (Tricky stuff, this total tax burden.)

  11. john personna says:

    BTW, “cash accounting” is another thing conservatives understand, until it is convenient to forget.

    The Numbers: What are the federal government’s sources of revenue?

    Some neat graphs on that page.

  12. Boyd says:

    Talk about your ad hominem. And generalized to all conservatives, to boot.

    It might be interesting if you actually told the truth instead of sinking to lies, Mr. Personna.

  13. john personna says:

    You need to look up your terms Boyd. It would be an ad hominem attack if I said no one should believe you because you are an obvious freak.

    Comments about what conservatives believe are just fair or unfair generalizations. You only have to worry about them to the extent that the shoe fits.

    In those cases, I think the shoe fits pretty well, as documented by the links and quotes I provided. You can only believe “Federal income tax is the only way people pay for non-entitlement spending of their central government” if you forget other sources of income, and ignore account principles.

    Oh, this mental fallacy also applies: Mental accounting

    When you frame money as “these dollars are different than those dollars” you are deceiving at a minimum yourself, but maybe us here as well.

  14. Drew says:

    “We” pay taxes in a two step on our economic activity. First Exxon pays corporate tax, then I pay income tax. Conservatives rightly call this double taxation, until they want to forget, and claim that only my income tax portion counts.”

    I’m not sure that’s quite the right way to look at it.

    1. You earn income and pay taxes.
    2. You invest a portion of your saved income into the equity securities of a business enterprise. The income from the activities of the enterprise is taxed. The incidence of that taxation comes under great debate: passed on to customers (higher price), suppliers (lower price), workers (lower wages) or capital providers (you, lower returns). To the degree the incidence falls on you, you are double taxed. To the degree it falls on others, it is distributed upon others. (If you start from the notion that the income from the enterprise derives from equity investment.)

    So to the degree that the incidence is on consumers or wage earners, there is a mis-measurement of total tax burden. I don’t “forget,” and I would argue this is the perfect reason for eliminating the corporate income tax and letting this whole tug of war on tax incidence work itself out with transparency.

    I doubt I’ll see support from the left. This is called unnecessarily shooting ones dic…, er, foot off.

    By the way, its gets worse. So then you pay taxes on the return from your capital investment, which was made out of post tax money from your work, and then you pay taxes on your pot of dough when you die. If you really look at the total taxation on your original income production it makes you want to go to that opium den.

  15. Boyd says:

    You’re right, John, I did misuse the term “ad hominem.” On the other hand, my use of the term “lies” was spot on.

    You try to tell us what conservatives believe, when in fact, it’s what you want conservatives to believe so you can attack it. I can provide specific examples of conservatives who don’t believe that. So that’s what I believe is called a “strawman.”

  16. john personna says:

    Drew, I will read that as a mostly friendly concession that currently taxes other than personal income taxes do indeed support our federal operations.

    (I’d be fine with zero income corporate tax(*), but as that would lead to higher corporate holdings, some nonzero capital gains tax for individuals would be necessary to balance. Probably right now the corporate tax allows a low capital gains tax.)

    (* – this would also lead to a clearing out of a lot of BS corporate tax credits)

  17. john personna says:

    Boyd, to the extent that conservatives here never again pretend to forget other sources of federal income, and never again pretend to forget the cash accounting view, I’ll wear that.

  18. Drew says:

    “Some neat graphs on that page.”

    What’s “neat?”

  19. Drew says:

    “Drew, I will read that as a mostly friendly concession that currently taxes other than personal income taxes do indeed support our federal operations.”

    I call’m like I see’m. People or politics notwithstanding. But if you look at the portion of revenues derived from the “corporate” income tax, and at that incidence issue, I don’t think anyone is going to conclude that there is a material change to the original point.

    “……but as that would lead to higher corporate holdings…..”

    I’m not sure that’s true, flow through entities exist today, and would tomorrow.

    “some nonzero capital gains tax for individuals would be necessary to balance.”

    Why? If the gains are bottled up in the corporation until sale, so what?

    “this would also lead to a clearing out of a lot of BS corporate tax credits.”

    Agreed. But politicains will only let this lever of power be pried from their cold, dead hands.

  20. john personna says:

    “What’s ‘neat?'”

    Figure two is interesting because it shows a lot of our tax history in one picture. For all that changes, something stays remarkably the same (individual income tax as a percentage of revenues).

    Things like excise taxes fall out of favor, payroll taxes grow and grow …

  21. john personna says:

    “some nonzero capital gains tax for individuals would be necessary to balance.”

    Why? If the gains are bottled up in the corporation until sale, so what?

    Nobody likes lumpy income. To move tax from corporate income to individual liquidation would require modeling and prediction not just of market capitalization, but fads and trends.

  22. john personna says:

    (It might be better to go the other way to make “single taxation.” Tax corporations once, and then make dividends tax-free. Liberals would hate that because they’d see the rich “not paying income tax” in a variation of the game above, but workers would benefit too, building buy-and-hold portfolios over a working span.)

  23. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I find it delightful when the progressives who infest this site are called on to defend fictional statements attributed to them. If Eric Holder made statements (which he did) suggesting there are unconstitutional issues in the Arizona law, which follows almost to the letter federal law, and then admits he is drawing his information from the media, he is reacting rather than responding. Emotions are the mark of liberals. Facts are in the conservatives bailiwick. Why would James defend Eric Holder?

  24. Drew says:

    “Figure two is interesting because it shows a lot of our tax history in one picture. For all that changes, something stays remarkably the same (individual income tax as a percentage of revenues).”

    But that’s only half the story, and deceptive. Are you being intentionally deceptive?? Who pays those income taxes has become remarkably more progressive over time.

    In addition, we have low income earners bitching about their rising payroll taxes, while being recipients of the rising expenditures of payroll tax funded programs. (And not even to talk about means testing, which means we will have the mother of all Enron-like bait and switches, and we are back to the reality that the upper income earners are paying wildly disproportionately.)

    Any way you look at it we have a huge majority sucking at the tit of the minority.

  25. Drew says:

    “Nobody likes lumpy income. To move tax from corporate income to individual liquidation would require modeling and prediction not just of market capitalization, but fads and trends.”

    Say what? That’s just a jumble of words. I’d posit that the elimination of politically favored corporate tax deductions would make up for any short term shortfall.

    Look, if a guy wants to pile up cash on his balance sheet and not dividend it out I just don’t care. Eventually he pays the piper. But to eliminate the current grotesque distortions, I’d take that bet anyday.

  26. steve says:

    “Any way you look at it we have a huge majority sucking at the tit of the minority.”

    Ahhh, but that tit has grown very large also. (Could we do a whole post with tit metaphors?)

    I would also support getting rid of the corporate income tax. It is at the interface of government and business that there is the most corruption and market distortion. I suspect that Drew is correct that the pols would not want to lose this. I suspect that the very largest corporations would prefer the status quo also.

    Steve

  27. Dodd says:

    It’s perfectly fair to criticize someone for spouting off without knowing what he’s talking about. But it’s, at best, cheap point scoring to ask whether someone has read a law under discussion, even a relatively short one such as this. Who cares whether they’ve read it? Are they wrong in some material way about the law?

    Can’t agree there. Firstly, yes, he’s materially wrong about the law, as any reasonably competent 1L who’s gotten as far as Terry v. Ohio in Crim Pro can tell you (my concerns with it, as I said in my Ebert post, are on different grounds).

    Second, would have taken him less time to read it than it took to answer the (painfully obvious) question about it. If he’s not bright enough to be prepared to answer the question “Yes, and here’s why I think it’s wrong….” before appearing before a body likely to ask it, he’s not bright enough to be AG of the USA.

  28. john personna says:

    Drew, figure one in the pdf below shows what they call “capital gains realizations” being all over them map, year to year.

    http://www.cbo.gov/doc.cfm?index=3108

    That’s not just lumpy, it’s unpredictable, and as the paper explains that makes it difficult for the government to even know where it stands with respect to deficit or surplus.

    One aspect of corporate tax as an alternative to capital gains alone is that it smooths government income, while not of course flattening it. Recessions will still reduce corporate income, and tax receipts, resulting in an “automatic” expansion of deficit in bad times.