On the Use of Political Pejoratives

Reading this tweet by Luke Dockery prompted some thoughts on uses of the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.

Claims like "racism has deeply-rooted, ongoing effects" and "masks are helpful in limiting the spread of COVID" are true or false, not liberal or conservative. Assuming realism, the position that reality is what it is, independent of our beliefs, desires, etc., believing one of these claims does not, in itself, make a person either liberal or conservative, but only right or wrong with respect to the relevant facts.

Uses of the terms, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ seem to me to be so different now than what they traditionally were, that I’m not sure what they even mean anymore. Maybe it’s best to think of them as frameworks of fundamental commitments used to justify normative claims about political structures. If so, what makes one a liberal or conservative is not so much the normative beliefs that are held, but the reasons one has for holding those beliefs.

I’m confident that there are normative claims that are logically incompatible with a given set of reasons, but it’s important to understand that many normative claims can be justified on several different sets of reasons. So, both a conservative can reasonably believe something that is traditionally associated with liberalism, but believe it for different reasons than a liberal might. A good example is the belief that we should preserve the environment. A traditionally conservative reason for environmentalism would be the commitment to a Burkean social contract that includes, not just the present generation, but past and future ones as well, such that no single generation is a tyrant over others.

A rational conservative is unlikely to ever advocate abolishing the police, because another traditional central conservative doctrine is a commitment to established laws and institutions, insofar as they have served us well in the past. A conservative could, however, advocate "defunding" the police, on some proposed meanings of defunding — that is, making changes to existing police forces insofar as they have not served us well. (I grant that ‘defunding’ is an unfortunate term, but to assume that everyone means "completely defunding", especially when it has been made clear that they do not, is to commit a straw man fallacy.)

That means that, for most normative claims one cannot know if a person who holds them is a liberal or conservative unless one knows the reasons for which the claims are believed. Which means that inferences like "You believe X, therefore you are a Z" are rarely, if ever, examples of good reasoning. What is needed is "You believe X for the reason that Y, therefore you are a Z." Unfortunately, even when we reason like this, the reasons are often simply attributed to the interlocutor, not gained from them in dialogue. A memorable line from a former colleague is relevant here: "Labels are libel."

For non-normative claims, like the ones above about racism and the use of masks, the important question is not whether holding them makes one a conservative or liberal. The important question is whether they are true. Our responses to the facts may be liberal or conservative, but the facts themselves are neither. So, in both cases, the normative and the non-normative, the reasonable thing to do when a person claims something is not to immediately label them, the reasonable thing to do is to engage in dialogue, to discover the reasons, or evidence, for the claim.

What is going on when a person says, "You believe X, therefore you are a Z"? I can think of three possibilities, ranging from the best to the worst, although none are good:

  1. It is a charge of cognitive bias. There is no doubt that features of our particular psychologies, such as our beliefs, desires, emotional attitudes, etc., incline us to believe certain things. We consider these things to be cognitive biases to the extent that they incline us to believe falsehoods. So, again, the important question is not, ultimately, what biases tend to result in this belief, but whether the belief is true. Even more, imagine that you believe something only because you are biased to do so. That, in itself, does not give me good reason to dismiss your belief as false. Just because you have no good reasons for the belief does not imply that there are no good reasons for it. (Incidentally, one of the best ways to diminish the role that our biases are playing is to engage in honest, open dialogue with people who disagree with us.)
  2. It is a case of an ad hominem fallacy. "Since you believe X, you are a Z, and I shouldn’t believe anything that a Z says, include your claim of X." Dismissing someone’s belief by labeling the person as a liberal or conservative is an often persuasive ad hominem, but it is an hominem nonetheless. Ad hominems have their usefulness, however, especially when one doesn’t have good evidence for one’s own position.
  3. A third reason for dismissing a claim as false by labeling the speaker as liberal or conservative is because it’s simply not the way I want the world to be. This, unfortunately, seems to me to be more and more common. Consider one of the claims above, "masks are helpful in limiting the spread of COVID." Evaluating a hypothesis is a function of two things, initial plausibility and confirmation by evidence. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that any reasonable person should assess the initial plausibility of the claim as very high for two reasons. First, it’s a relatively weak claim — it does not claim that mask-wearing completely prevents COVID, but only that it is helpful in limiting its spread. Second, COVID is a respiratory disease; does it not make sense that wearing masks covering our noses and mouths would limit the spread of respiratory diseases? If not, then why cover our mouths when we sneeze, simply because it is polite? A high initial plausibility of a hypothesis does not guarantee that the hypothesis is true, but it does mean that greater evidence would be required to show that it is false. So, responses like, "this can’t be true, because one respectable scientist is saying that…" or "this can’t be true, becuase there is one study showing that…" are simply not enough. It strikes me as more likely that claims like this are rejected because we simply don’t like the inconvenience of wearing masks. This, however, is a kind of naïve anti-realism, demanding that the world conform to the way I want it to be. This is especially unfortunate for conservatives, for one thing that conservatives formerly prided themselves on was their commitment to realism, by recognizing that we have to deal with the world as it is, not simply the world as we want it to be.

A final point: it is useful to be able to sort beliefs, positions, etc. into typological categories. Such categories help us to predict behavior and better understand each other. It’s important to realize that these categories, though, are simply models, and that models are, at best, approximations of the landscape of reality, and, as approximations, will always have exceptions. Once those category terms become pejoratives, it strikes me that they are no longer useful for anything except for asserting power — the power to create a world that conforms to my desires, or the power to make others believe what I want them to, regardless of the evidence. The first is not a power that we finite beings have. The second is something we might have, but shouldn’t exercise.

Family Separation at the Borders

I tend to find most political issues to be difficult and intricate, requiring complex and nuanced responses. So, I believe that there is generally room for rational disagreement when evaluating particular policy decisions.

This, however, is not the case with the current administration’s family separation policy — it is simply heinous, cruel, inhumane, and contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

We should not return to the Obama administration’s lesser evil of locking up children with their mothers. It is past time for Congress to undertake the difficult task of immigration reform.

If God is both just and good, then justice and goodness are not incompatible. We could develop an immigration policy that is both just and good, if we were but willing to do the work.

I expressed this today to the offices of my congressional representatives. To find yours, go to whoismyrepresentative.com.

Thoughts on Trump and the Johnson Amendment

Some thoughts on President Trump’s Executive Order on “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” that was recently issued:

First of all, the President’s executive order doesn’t change anything about religious leaders engaging in political action from the pulpit. This is from section 2, the relevant part of the order:

The Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury.

All it says is that speech that has so far been considered consistent with the law should continue to be considered consistent with the law. Nothing changes, so foes of the Johnson Amendment should be severely disappointed. It is, like much of what seems to be coming from Washington these days, Shakespearean: “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Given recent discussions, it appears that the current law is severely misunderstood by many. Most political activity by churches is, and has always been, completely legal. Churches and leaders have always been allowed to speak on issues, legislation, and most matters of political concern. What pastors are not allowed to do is to campaign, in their role as pastors, for candidates. That is, they are to refrain from partisan campaigning in exchange for the tax-exempt status of their churches.

Regardless of Johnson’s motivation for desiring this (which, knowing Johnson, was likely not altogether virtuous), it is a good thing. Granting tax-exempt status is subsidizing religious activity – churches, synagogues, and even mosques get services from the city for which they pay nothing, services like police and fire protection. For these free services, only one accommodation is required, that is to refrain from campaigning for candidates.

The law in no way restricts the free speech rights of anyone. Churches are always welcome to give up their tax-exempt status. Churches should just not expect citizens to pay for their campaigning by means of that tax-exempt status. If the current law is changed, then note that citizens will be subsidizing, through the taxes which pay for police, fire departments, etc., the political campaigns of candidates that they do not support.

Obama’s Economic Record

In a recent discussion, one participate claimed that the “last eight years of Obamanomics has crippled our struggling state,” which I suspect is supported more by a political narrative than an analysis of the data.

The new administration is at least fortunate that the problems handed to them are not at the same level as those handed to the previous administration. During the Obama administration, economic growth was admittedly slow, but considering that he took office on the precipice of what could have been the second great depression, these national numbers look pretty good:

  • Longest streak in US history of private sector job growth, the difference can be noted by comparing 2008 and 2016 numbers:
    • In November 2008, the economy lost 533,000 jobs.
    • In November 2016, the economy gained 178,000 jobs.
  • Unemployment dropped from 10% to 4.6%.
  • 800 billion dollar decrease in deficit.
  • Deficit as percentage of GDP dropped from 9.8% to 3.2% with no increase in middle class taxes.1

To be fair, the economic numbers for the Obama administration are not all rosy, however. A significant worry is the increase in the national debt. Obama’s policies added 983 billion dollars to the national debt. The budget deficits under his administration increased the debt by 6.5 trillion.2

If the economy of Oklahoma has been crippled, surely the state government, dominated by the right, has played a significant role.

  1. I originally saw these numbers here. Since the article contained no citations of sources, I corroborated and made some adjustments to them using this piece by Patricia Cohen. [return]
  2. Determining how much of the national debt a president is responsible for is a tricky matter. One could just look at the total increase in the national debt, but that unfairly saddles a president with a debt increase during the first year that results from the previous president’s final-year budget. One could also add up the deficits of the president’s budgets, which is fairer than the first method, but saddles the president with deficit spending that was either out of the president’s control or not a result of the administration’s policies. The third method, which is the most meaningful but hardest to calculate, is to determine how much the president’s policies contributed to the national debt. Kimberly Amadeo provides a clear explanation of these methods, along with the resulting numbers, here. [return]

Usury in Oklahoma

Yesterday, the House of Representatives of the State of Oklahoma passed HB 1913, a bill giving lenders the ability to charge an Annual Percentage Rate of 205.92% on a $1,500 loan.1

This bill is inconsistent with historical Christian values and should be opposed by conservatives and progressives alike. The practice of taking interest on loans is expressly forbidden in several passages of Scripture:

  • Exodus 22:25-27
  • Leviticus 25:35-38
  • Deuteronomy 23:19-20; 24:6
  • Psalm 15:5
  • Ezekiel 18:7-8; 22:12
  • Nehemiah 5:6-132

Before 1500, every Christian writer who discussed the practice expressly condemned the practice of charging interest. Ambrose called it wicked, and Augustine, in the Enarration on Psalm 129 said that the person who loaned at interest would “…go into the flame.” Like the church fathers, every church council that discussed loaning at interest condemned it. Luther also condemned charging interest, although Calvin did not. Calvin saw interest as a necessity in a fallen world, since the lender is risking non-payment. Interestingly, though, in his Commentary on the First Twenty Chapters of Ezekiel, he said “It is always wrong to exact usury from a poor man.” For Calvin, it looks like interest can be charged, just not to the poor.

Note that the Bible and the Church for the first 1600 years of its existence defined usury simply as charging interest on a loan. We now define it as charging excessive interest, which shows a compromise to the modern world. Regardless, taking a stand against this bill is taking a stand for traditional Christian values; something the right should certainly support.

  1. The full text of the bill in its various versions can be found here. It was sponsored by Rep. Chris Kannady. It is surprising that a veteran should sponsor a bill like this, given that young soldiers are often targets for predatory lenders. The bill passed 59-31. Note that the bill allows a 17% monthly rate, equivalent to a 206% annual rate. [return]
  2. Strictly speaking, these passages forbid taking interest from fellow Israelites. Christians should be willing to expand this, given Jesus’ expansion of our understanding of neighbor. [return]

The Rise of Fake News

NPR has a fascinating, if not troubling, interview with a creator of various fake news sites that began to profilerate during the 2016 presidential election. This part of the interview was particularly telling:

Well, this isn’t just a Trump-supporter problem. This is a right-wing issue. Sarah Palin’s famous blasting of the lamestream media is kind of record and testament to the rise of these kinds of people. The post-fact era is what I would refer to it as. This isn’t something that started with Trump. This is something that’s been in the works for a while. His whole campaign was this thing of discrediting mainstream media sources, which is one of those dog whistles to his supporters. When we were coming up with headlines it’s always kind of about the red meat. Trump really got into the red meat. He knew who his base was. He knew how to feed them a constant diet of this red meat.

We’ve tried to do similar things to liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You’ll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.

Interesting Times

There are three statements that have become known as the “Chinese” curses, although I should point out that there is no record of any Chinese equivalents. They are three things to wish upon one’s enemies. Three things that, on the surface, seem like things that a person should surely want; but appearances, as we all know, are often deceiving.

The first, and the mildest:

“May you live in interesting times.”

There are worse things, however, than simply living in interesting times. It is far worse to be at the center of those interesting events. Hence, the more severe curse:

“May you come to the attention of powerful people.”

There are times, though, when even that is not enough. For those times, you need the most severe curse, something devilishly cruel and viciously twisted:

“May you find what you are looking for.”

Early this morning, Donald Trump delivered his acceptance speech after winning the 2016 United States presidential election.

These are interesting times indeed.

Confirmation Bias and the Clinton Foundation

Yesterday, I showed that claiming that only 5.7% of Clinton Foundation donations goes to charity is essentially false. Although that is indeed the percentage that goes to other charitable organizations, it ignores the fact that the Clinton Foundation is itself a public charity, unlike the Trump Foundation, which is a private foundation.

In response, a friend said that, although my claim was technically true, the majority of Clinton Foundation money goes back to the Clintons through the its two largest program expenditures, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and the Clinton Presidential Library.

It is true that CGI and the Library are two of the largest program expenditures of the Clinton Foundation, ranking second and third, respectively. They are not even remotely close to the majority of expenditures, however. Even together, they account for, at most, only 18% of the Foundation’s annual expenditures.1

Now, I’m not defending the spending of the Clinton Foundation.2 I have no idea how effective its charitable work is. The point is that too many people (myself included, to be honest) simply share, retweet, or repost anything that is consistent with our own biases without checking the material for accuracy, even when verification would be relatively simple. This is called confirmation bias, something that we all must take care to minimize. Remember Reagan’s dictum, “Trust, but verify.”3

  1. The annual reports and audited financial statements of the Clinton Foundation show that CGI and the Library combined accounted for 14.8% to 18% of program expenditures over the last three years. The Foundation publishes financial reports back to 1998. [return]
  2. I’m also not defending the Clintons. I have long thought them to be a symptom of the major problem of American politics, the undue influence of money in politics. [return]
  3. There’s a nice piece on that phrase in the Washington Post. [return]

The Uselessness of Political Fact-Checking

I’ve decided that political fact-checking is largely useless. Either people completely ignore the work of fact-checkers, or the fact-checkers ignore the relevant facts. Today, I saw a claim that Clinton had leaked classified information about the nuclear response window. What was curious was that the post included a link to a snopes.com story explaining that the supposed leak was not classified, but was already public information. The person evidently failed to read the very story to which they had linked.1

Now, I’m seeing many claims that only 5.7% of Clinton Foundation donations go to charity.2 Unlike the claim about the classified leak, this is at least partly true. That is indeed the percentage that is given by the Foundation to other organizations that do charitable work. What it ignores is that most of the money is kept by the Foundation for the charitable work that it does directly. The Foundation spends 12% on overhead costs, compared to the average charity which spends nearly 37%3. This earns the Clinton Foundation an “A” rating by the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch. That doesn’t mean that Clinton’s claim that 90% of the Foundation’s money goes to charitable causes and work is true, though. According to Charity Watch, it’s only 88%. I suppose one could criticize Clinton for rounding up from 88% to 90%. That strikes me as a bit petty, but at least it would be true.

  1. It is more than a bit ironic that the writers of the many stories expressing shock and outrage over Clinton’s broadcast of the response time are broadcasting the time themselves. [return]
  2. The first six pages of results from a Google search of “Clinton 5.7%” were entirely about this. [return]
  3. The NonProfit Times. [return]