Sunday, September 05, 2010

Proof by pundit

Quaintly Erroneous Demonstration

I am not fond of “slippery slope” arguments, despite their subtle Archimedean underpinnings. The sage of Syracuse enunciated the principle that you can get a lot from a little—provided you can have all you want. Switching from my clumsy prose to an elegant example, suppose you want to be a billionaire. I foolishly tell you that I refuse to give you any dollars, but you can have all the pennies you want. Are you defeated?

I hope not. In order to become a billionaire (in dollar terms), you need merely ask for 100 billion pennies. (Please don't spend it all in one place.)

By the way, I'm not good for it, so you can't be a billionaire after all (at least, not in this way).

The principle holds if you were similarly offered an unlimited number of farthings (each worth one quarter of a cent) or mills (one tenth of a cent).

And, as we all know, if you give certain people an inch, they'll take a mile.

Still, I doubt Archimedes—logical fellow that he was—would have been sympathetic to slippery-slope arguments that say things like:
  • if a city enacts zoning laws, then tyranny is imminent
  • if federal health care reform includes caps, then death panels will run riot
  • if assisted suicide is permitted, then wholesale euthanasia is inevitable
  • if marijuana is legalized, then cocaine kiosks will blossom in shopping malls
  • if same-sex couples are allowed to marry, then Rick Santorum will marry his dog

You get the idea. If a little, then a lot. I was reminded of this while perusing a political column by Debra Saunders in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle. She was doing her best to shore up Carly Fiorina, the wicked witch of Hewlett-Packard, and tear down Barbara Boxer, an icon of fear and loathing for the right wing. Saunders watched last week's debate between Sen. Boxer and challenger Fiorina and discerned an angle of attack:
The Democrats want to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility, but they want to keep spending.

So they've developed this myth that if they support extending the Bush tax cuts for all but the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans—those who earn more than $250,000—they are being fiscally responsible. It's true, that proposal is supposed to reduce the federal deficit by $700 billion over a decade. But note that practically no one advocates ending the rest of the Bush tax cuts, which by that logic, would be the height of fiscal responsibility.
Her argument is clear, right? If fiscal responsibility entails limiting tax relief to those making less than a quarter million, then ultimate fiscal responsibility would involve no tax relief at all. In fact, we should raise taxes on absolutely everybody. Saunders would be sure to endorse it.

Saunders expects us to fall for her coy argument that there is no basis for drawing a dividing line between those who can afford to pay more and those who can't. She obviously thinks all dollars are equal (although Jesus would disagree) and that there cannot be a rational argument for picking priorities. Besides, it's cruel to single out millionaires and billionaires and tell them their Bush tax cuts are going to lapse. (First they came for the wealthy ...) I guess those poor rich folk will have to scrimp and save to get by under the same tax burden that allowed them to be fat and happy in the Clinton years. Remember those years? They were better for just about everyone.

Does it all give you a headache? Take a thousand aspirin and call me in the morning.


Blake Stacey said...

IIRC, a mill was 1/10 of a United States cent, as established when they introduced "Federal Money" in 1792, whereas a farthing was 1/4 of a British penny (i.e., 1/960 of a pound sterling, which would almost be a mill of a pound, so to speak).

"To begin with, 4 farthings make 1 penny; 12 pennies make 1 shilling, and 20 shillings make 1 pound. In addition, there is a virtual farrago of terms, if not always actual coins, such as ha'pennies and thrupppences and sixpences and crowns and half-crowns and florins and guineas and heaven knows what other devices with which to cripple the mental development of the British schoolchild and line the pockets of British tradesmen whenever tourists come to call and attempt to cope with the currency."

— Isaac Asimov, in 1963

Zeno said...

Good old Isaac Asimov. Wouldn't you know he'd have an essay about this sort of thing?

Anonymous said...

In Re: DM: "...a tale; told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Brian M said...

Great Blog! I live in Northern California so am subject to ol' Fairness Doctrine Saunders on a regular basis.

Deborah Saunders is truly descending into idiocy. She suggested the other day that President Obama is not MANLY ENOUGH because he was photographed wearing a bicycling helmet. Being an avid recreational cyclist (who recently crashed and cracked a helmet) I had to laugh at her idiocy.