...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Day 3830: Either Or-ery


Over the weekend Mr Mark Reckons wrote a piece I'd recommend reading on "Whataboutery", which is the way to play politics dirty so that you can attack someone who's proposing a policy you actually agree with.

This is the FALLACY of the RED HERRING: introducing an irrelevant case into an argument.

I'd like to give you a companion to Mr Mark's piece with one on another FALLACY, the fallacy of the FALSE DICHOTOMY.

Most famously presented by the former-Monkey-in-Chief, President Dubbya, as "you're either with us or against us", we've been seeing a LOT of this at the moment.

The most common occurrence is the "NHS fallacy": any reform is to be opposed with cries that the "only choice" is between the status quo and "privatisation", usually "privatisation by the back door" (to get around the fact that whatever it is clearly ISN'T going to be an actual privatisation). In fact, of course, the Hard Labour government oversaw the genuine privatisation of great swathes of our NHS through their Public Finance Initiative, which saw hospitals bought up by private companies and leased back to the public at often excessive rents (which is one of the things leading to the embuggerance of the NHS in spite of above inflation increases in government spending).

Topical this week, the public sector unions are going to go on strike over pensions because the "only choice" is between their current arrangements and "absolute daylight robbery".

Although SOME people might say that it's the UNIONS' position that is: "your money or your life public services"! I mean, just WHO is holding the "gun" saying "don't make me hurt the children" here?

Actually, the double standards employed by the Unions in this "debate" are outrageous. First, the Unions announce that they are going to go on strike. Then Mr Danny sets out the government's position. Now I call that being open and honest with the public, but the Unions call it "deeply inflammatory". They call it deeply inflammatory AFTER they've already announced that – regardless of the ongoing negotiations – they've decided to call a strike. Check the dates on the last two quotes: "Public sector workers back mass strike": 15th June; Danny Alexander's speech: 17th June. Deeply inflammatory. Right.

And now we have Ms Mary Bousted, leader of the ATL teachers' union, accusing the government of a "doing a Robert Maxwell on our pensions". So that would be saying that the government is illegally taking money OUT of the teacher's pension funds and using it to prop up, what, the rest of government spending?

Well, at the moment there is NOT ENOUGH money in those pension funds to meet the expected needs of the teachers (and other workers) who are paying in. So the government has to top that up from general taxation (that's ON TOP OF the employers contributions that we make).

So that would basically be the EXACT OPPOSITE of "doing a Robert Maxwell". That would be keeping the pension fund afloat at the expense of everyone else.

They tell LIES and they call us NAMES and then they have the CHEEK to try and distract your attention from it by saying that WE'RE traducing THEM!

I'd call Ms Mary a Bousted Flush!

Meanwhile, here is another example, this time from the Labour Conspiracy website:

"Our choice is to treat people with dignity or go back to the 1930s"

Is it actually USEFUL to polarise a very difficult debate about benefits and disability into "basic dignity" versus "1930s work programmes, institutions and eugenics" (and that's really not sufficiently coded to avoid cries of Godwin's Law, now is it)?

Could we not start from a basic recognition that the government isn't TRYING to be evil?

The aim of Mr Drunken-Swerve's reforms is SUPPOSED to be to enable people who want to work to be better off if they go to work, not - as the quote implies - to euthanase the disabled.

For the last thirty years, governments have been hiding unemployment among the genuinely long-term ill. It seems to me that one thing that could actively harm the interests of those who are ill is having to support the long-term unemployed out of the same pot of benefits. So, I have to ask: would a benefit system that undid that be better able to provide basic dignity for those in genuine need?

(You COULD reasonably argue "no"; e.g. you might argue that a sort of quasi-universal provision might be more effective, but you would need to justify that as a position, rather than just start from the assertion "any reform must be bad for the long-term ill".)

And if you are going to undo that hiding of unemployment, how are you to do it?

Again, it seems that either you let anyone claim disability-related benefits and accept that the benefit will be spread so thin that it helps no one, or you accept that at some point there's going to be some kind of medical testing involved.

At which point we're down to a question of degree.

So, the proposed tests sound to be too intrusive and too impersonal. And they sound like they are FRIGHTENING people (which I have to say language of "eugenics" exacerbates, which if you think about it puts you on the same side as the scary people - even though the LabCon author is clearly also one of the ones who are scared). Surely the useful question then is: "how do we conduct any testing that we have to in the most sympathetic and dignified manner?"

Clearly there ARE problems on the Coalition side here, almost certainly stemming from a terror at the department of benefits of seeing a huge spike in unemployment claims. So clearly they want to do the undoing by not jumping people from disability benefits to unemployment benefits, but by jumping them straight from disability to work, and that's just impractical. Equally, this is clearly a terrible time to be doing any forward thinking reform because the overriding need for spending cuts will at best muddle your thinking. Like, WHICH target is your main aim? Making sure that sickness benefits go to the sick? Making sure that work actually rewards the worker? Or cutting the overall benefits bill? (And your opponents are ALWAYS going to come back at you with "it's about the cuts" "it's ideological" (yawn)!)

Wouldn't it be better to think about OUTCOMES rather than INTENTIONS? The road to the toasty place being notoriously paved with the latter (as anyone who experienced the last government can testify), saying that a policy is wrong because it does this, or because it fails to do that is both more PRACTICAL and more HONEST than saying that it is just "evil".

The biggest false dichotomies, of course, are on the ECONOMY. And BOTH SIDES are guilty of using 'em.

"We must do this or the economy will fall over!"/"We must not do this or the economy will never recover!" is the now too-familiar battleline between the Coalition and Opposition, and this obfusticates the fact that the policies of both sides are REALLY VERY SIMILAR.

"It was the fault of the last Labour government"/"it was the fault of the bankers", is another.

OF COURSE it is in the Coalition's political interest to portray the Labour Party as credit-crazed spendthrifts, ruinous wastrels who would have us in penury and our children in hock forever. We, after all, are the ones who have to be in power while the agonisingly painful policies of deficit reduction are enacted.

But equally, the Coalition has to have an answer to Hard Labour's naked political opportunism when they seek to pin every scintilla of economic agony to Master Gideon's incompetence at the reins (a "bad news" policy by the Shadow Pocket Money Thief that leads to some frankly bizarre doublethink: for example, when there is a fall in unemployment, apparently, it's because unemployment is a "lagging indicator" when it goes down but "evidence of why we need a plan B" when it goes up).

(This of course was Mr Balls recent interview with Mr Marrmite, the one where he said that "the trade unions must not walk into the trap of giving George Osborne the confrontation he wants" because he spotted that choosing between supporting strikes or supporting the government was a trap for HIM!)

Any half-way decent economist (I do NOT include Mr Bully Balls in that category) will tell you that the cuts have neither begun to bite nor had nearly enough time to change the direction of the economy. The two main things affecting the economy are that MASSIVE RECESSION that happened in 2008 (in case you somehow missed it) and the fact that the government printed like a GAZILLION POUNDS leading to inflation and devaluation. (Though neither of these things are NECESSARILY as bad as they are painted either – another false dichotomy. E.g. inflation reduces the national debt as a share of GDP – as any property owner who survived the Seventies will tell you, it didn't half make their mortgages a doddle; though, flipside again, long term it started the inexorable house price inflation that leaves us now so overburdened.)

The truth is, the policies of Labour and Conservatories (and Liberal Democrats!) are not that different – in fact, given for example the discovery that Mr Alistair Dalek was secretly planning a VAT rise, you can bet your bottom dollar (which may be the only one you have left by now) that had they been returned to power, Hard Labour would have conducted a swift spending review and said "oops, it's worse than we thought, guys, have you SEEN what's happed in Greece? We have to cut faster and deeper!", and done EXACTLY what the Coalition is doing.

The MYTH of Labour's "pain free" cuts… their airy assertion that they would cut 80% of the deficit that we would but their tactical oppositionalism against every single £ reduction in spending… their repeated false dichotomy of "our way or the evil, ideological inflicting of pain on the poor"… it makes it VERY DIFFICULT to have anything approaching a RATIONAL DEBATE.

"We'd like to cut this."


"Well, maybe if we only cut it by half."


I'm sure it plays well to the Labour Chorus, but it gets the country nowhere.

Regrettably, Mr Millipede's response to talk of a leadership crisis is a power grab for control of Shadow Cabinet appointments showing that Hard Labour are turning more INWARDS than looking outwards. While Mr Bully Balls, apparently, no longer even sees the need to run policies by the Shadow Cabinet before launching them. And sofa government worked so WELL for Lord Blairimort, after all.

In an equation where it is EITHER the Coalition OR the Labour Party, Labour seem intent on making themselves IRRELEVANT.

But even THAT is a false dichotomy. The Coalition of course consists of TWO Parties, and the true clash of ideas is now between Conservatories and LIBERAL DEMOCRATS.

You see, the ULTIMATE "either/or" is the MEEJA's HEADS WE WIN-TAILS YOU LOSE game of EITHER "on message" OR "gaffe". If you're "on message" you're a ROBOT, no to be trusted, only lying when your lips move, enemy of the people. If you" gaffe" it's even worse. Hence all this recent fuss over "U-Turns", as though LISTENING to people, DEBATING policy even, shock, CHANGING YOUR MIND were BAD THINGS for a government in what we still LAUGHINGLY describe as a DEMOCRACY (leading to the UTTERLY INSANE suggestion from a Questionable Time panellist that governments should do what is in their manifesto and only what is in their manifesto and the people should shut up for five years and only judge them at election time). DEBATING policy – in CABINET as well as in PARLIAMENT rather than at intimate tête-a-têtes with Fleet Street Editors – reduces the meeja's POWER to dictate the agenda. That's why, for them, a thinking government is a "weak" government and one that does what it's told (by a Prime Monster who does what she or he is told) is a "strong" one.

Obviously the REAL truth is the reverse, and that is why the Liberal Democrats bring real STRENGTH to this Coalition.

We are used to having Government and Opposition. In the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats are BOTH.

And how LIBERAL is that? Liberalism has NEVER been an EITHER/OR; it's always been BOTH: one and many; individual and community; local and global.

That is how I can write a big old self-important diary about "great big, important-y things" like the ECONOMY and SPACE and STUFF, and Auntie Caron, bless her heart, can read it and bring it right down to the REALLY important and PERSONAL with a post about the need for a real Liberal Voice. And they are BOTH what Liberalism is ABOUT.

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