Thursday, July 28, 2011

Debt Ceiling "Crisis"

[The following is a print version of the audio podcast available in iTunes or by download (click the title of the post)]

This week, we look at Mark Hyman's commentary on the debt ceiling "crisis" (suggestion for discussion: this issue is neither about the debt ceiling nor a crisis--discuss).

I continue to play around with format.  This time, in both the print and podcast version, I am reproducing the text of Hyman's commentary with observations from me intercut with them to point out the rhetorical moves being made.   We'll then touch on the content, with a rebuttal from a special guest blogger.

The world ends on August 2nd

That's what Washington politicians want you to believe. 

Note the use of the demon phrase "Washington politicians."

Supposedly, that's the date America hits the national debt ceiling.  Previously, we were told the deadline was March 31st, April 15th, May 16th and May 31st.

Here's an example of a hasty generalization. Hyman suggests that because these previous dates did not prove to be "deadlines," the August 2 one is similarly arbitrary.   However, many financial experts point out that the August date truly is a deadline, because all the wiggle room available has already been used.  The can we've been kicking stops rolling on the second.

It’s like the old joke.  A doctor gives a man six months to live.  The man tells the doctor he can’t pay his bill.  So the doctor gives him an additional six months to live.
This is an argument by analogy, and a faulty one at that.  As just noted, the premise that the August 2nd date is an arbitrarily chosen date is false.

It’s Washington gimmicks.

Here, Hyman uses "Washington" as a metonym for meaningless government action, and uses the word "gimmicks" to suggest a lack of substance to the issue and its consequences.  Note, however, that using this phraseology doesn't actually prove anything.  

Most media equates the debt ceiling with automatic default.  Untrue. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner - the man who cheated on his taxes for years - is obligated to make debt payments.  And we have enough money to pay our debt. We default only if the White House orders us to default.

A lot going on here--first, Geithner did not "cheat on his taxes for years" (he apparently made an embarrassing-but-quickly-corrected mistake regarding wages paid to a household employee).  Even if he did, it's a red herring.  Nothing about Geithner's personal tax situation is relevant to the statement that Hyman makes (that he's obligated to make payments on the debt).  Additionally, Hyman leaves out an important fact--while the government *could* continue to make debt payments, it could only do so if it cut about 40% of the budget.  This, by the way, is the true motivation behind the created "crisis;"  it has little to do with the debt being a particularly dangerous to our economy at present (unemployment is the much bigger issue), but because of opposition to the very idea of social spending.   The statement that we only default if the president orders us to is simply a nonsensical bit of fluff that's only there to attempt to put the onus for the issue on the back of the president, despite the fact that the law says it is Congress that must act.

Now the White House argues we can’t afford our debt.  And we should take on more debt to pay off the debt we already can’t afford.  Got it?

Argument by ridicule: present opposing points in ways intended to deny any actual validity or seriousness to them.  Here, Hyman attempt to make it seem as if the current White House administration is doing something different and novel, unlike the dozens and dozens of other times the ceiling has been raised as a simple matter of economic policy.

A catastrophe does await our children and grandchildren.  We are saddling them with debt they can never hope to repay.
Argument by fear ("catastrophe") and pity (we "are saddling [our children] with debt").  Again, this suggests that the current situation is in some way novel.  It also ignores that the majority of the debt we are "saddling" our kids with came about during the Bush administration (going back to Clinton-era tax rates would, by itself, all but solve the whole problem).

This is no time to compromise.  You compromise on china patterns. And on which movie to see.  You don’t compromise on principle. One side wants to live within our means.  The other side wants to spend us into bankruptcy.  You don’t meet in the middle and just wildly overspend.

Perhaps the most dangerously mistaken passage in the whole commentary, shot through with Manichean black/white, good/evil binary thinking.  You can have principle or you can compromise, but not both.  Even a suggestion that compromise, or finding a "win/win" solution, would itself be principled is not allowed.  Nor is it acknowledged that framing a conflict in binary terms in which your opposition is portrayed as lacking any legitimate principles might itself be an unprincipled approach to conflict resolution.

Hold the line. Principled people shouldn’t allow this White House to turn our country into Zimbabwe.

An appeal to fear based in a faulty analogy (U.S. to Zimbabwe) and a restatement of the "we're principled, the other side is not" trope.

Okay, but what about the substance?  Rather than blathering on myself, I have a guest who wants to respond to Mr. Hyman's commentary.  His name?  President Ronald Reagan (who presided over 18 raises in the debt ceiling):

Congress consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility. This brinkmanship threatens the holders of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits. Interest rates would skyrocket, instability would occur in financial markets and the federal deficit would soar. The United States has a special responsibility to itself and the world to meet its obligations. It means we have a well-earned reputation for reliability and credibility—two things that set us apart from much of the world. (September 27, 1987)
This country now possesses the strongest credit in the world. The full consequences of a default or even the serious prospect of default by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate. Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and on the value of the dollar in exchange markets. The Nation can ill afford to allow such a result. The risks, the cost, the disruptions, and the incalculable damage lead me to but one conclusion: the Senate must pass this legislation before the Congress adjourns.  (Letter to Howard Baker, 1983)

And that's Behind "Behind the Headlines" for this week!

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Ethos of Armstrong Williams

Before we get started, let’s play some “Behind the Headlines” Mad-Libs.  Think of two adjectives—words that describe things.  Got ‘em?  Okay, keep those in mind.  They’ll come in handy in a minute.

With Mr. Hyman gone for the week, "Behind the Headlines" features a comment on the importance of character from conservative commentator Armstrong  Williams.

What I want to do is offer a critique of the commentary from a rhetorical perspective, then touch on a more personal response to the substance.

Thinking primarily in rhetorical terms, the issue that this commentary foregrounds is ethos—the character and credibility of the speaker.   In fact, Mr. Williams specifically invokes his personal credibility at the start of his commentary, saying, “My parents set an example that showed my siblings and I the benefits of personal accountability and character.”

Most obviously, Mr. Williams’ identity as an African American plays a role in his credibility.  The commentary is an attack on the celebration of “lower class” values in our culture, which he sees as “antithetical to creating wealth and success.”  While never using the terms “African American” or “Black,” Mr. Williams is clearly alluding to what might be termed “gangsta” culture, referring to its celebration of accomplishments in music and sports, and assuring us that it is not “prejudiced” to critique this culture.

If Mark Hyman, a white man, had said these things, it would be easier to dismiss his comments as bigoted and racist.  The fact that Mr. Williams is African American gives him a particular ethos—to see a Black man critiquing a segment of Black culture (even if he lacks the candor to call it such) is much more persuasive than seeing a white man do the same thing.  This is a matter of ethos.

But ethos is largely constructed (Aristotle would say completely constructed) by the actual words used by the speaker.  At this level, Mr. Williams’s ethos suffers.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

School Reform

In his recent commentary on “improving the public schools,” Mark Hyman uses a timeworn rhetorical technique: state something that everyone thinks is a good thing (in this case, improving our schools) and then state, unproblematically, a series of things we should do to make this good thing a reality, as if these specific items are as self-evidently good as the goal itself.  The idea is to color the specific proposals with the glossy sheen of the glittering generality we can all agree on.  Of course, the devil, as they say, is in the details.
Not that there are many details in Mr. Hyman’s list of suggestions.  Most of them are vague and murky, as one might expect in a commentary meant more as a political diatribe than a sincere effort to engage in a meaningful discussion of how to make our schools better. 

Some of Mr. Hyman’s remarks actually border on being sensible (such as reducing numbers of administrators in favor of increasing the number of classroom teachers and encouraging physical fitness).  Others  are predictably partisan, such as his comments attacking teachers.  For example, he mocks the notion of teachers getting a whole week for “Teacher Appreciation Week.”  He also claims (without any explanation or evidence) that unionized teachers have “no motivation” to teach America’s children.   Making the bold statement that we should “keep the best teachers,” he suggests snidely that we should “let the bad ones go work for the post office or the DMV.”  Frankly, if we could achieve the educational equivalent of allowing me to put a letter in my mailbox and have it show up half way across the country in three days, our education system would be in fine shape in my opinion—but I digress.

And a number of Mr. Hyman’s observations are, frankly, risible.  According to him, one big problem is that schools are medicating boys so that they will act more like girls.  Another is that our school system is rife with corruption because students are encouraged to buy gifts for their teachers.  Again, there’s no evidence given for this claim, or even any rational explanation as to how giving teachers an apple is supposed to be rotting the core of our schools.  By the way, Mr. Hyman says this practice is akin to employees being asked to give employers gifts.  Note to Mr. Hyman: employees *do* give their employers gifts—it’s called the “margin of profit.”

If we want some actual concrete ideas as to how to improve our education system, we’d probably be better off looking at the recent documentary film, The Finland Phenomenon, than listening to Mr. Hyman.  Finland has transformed its education system over the last 30-40 years, going from mediocrity to being perhaps the best system in the world.  Based on the Finnish experience, here are some steps that, while not self-evident, are worth considering:

·         Stop testing kids to death.  In Finland, they have virtually no standardized testing, yet schools are almost uniformly excellent.  High stakes testing stresses out kids and teachers and is often counterproductive.
·         Pay teachers more.  As a percentage of GDP, teacher salaries in the U.S. rank lower than those nations with the best academic performance, including Finland.

·          Build up the professional standards of teaching.  In Finland, teachers all get master’s degrees.  Incentive and subsidize educators to seek out higher degrees.
·         Reward schools for student improvement, not student performance.  Given the preexisting inequality in our schools, using static benchmarks won’t work.  

·         Allow teachers to teach.  Currently, we ask teachers to not only teach their subject, but serve as security, coach sports, act as counselors and therapists, be disciplinarians, tutor outside of class, meet with parents, lead field trips, take tickets at sporting events, and on and on.  All this while coming up with innovative lesson plans and giving individual instruction to their students. 
·         Sure, restore recess and physical education where they’ve been cut, but do the same for the arts.  These broaden the minds of students and have proven to improve academic performance in other areas.
·         Don’t shirk our collective responsibilities.  Finland didn’t go from a lackluster education system to the world’s best by “letting the market decide” who deserved an education and how good it would be.  They created a national plan to educate all citizens.

·         Don’t focus on low-level learning; teach critical thinking.  In Finland, the focus of their education system has been not on memorization of facts but on creative and inventive thinking skills that can be applied throughout life and in any career.  These don’t lend themselves to assessment on standardized tests, but they do lend themselves to thoughtful, creative, productive, and intelligent citizens.

·         Fund schools equally.  In the U.S., academic performance in schools is tied closely to the economic status of the students in those schools.  The education system is constructed so as to perpetuate class divisions.  In Finland, greater economic equality leads to greater academic consistency.  If we really believe the U.S. should be a meritocracy, where the best and the brightest rise to the top, we shouldn’t rig the system so that a percentage of our most promising kids aren’t given an equal chance to have these gifts fostered.
·         Don’t let corporations and their lobbyists dictate educational policy.  When it comes to education, much of the debate in Washington  is based on the interests of huge corporations whose interests are not necessarily to have the most thoughtful and intelligent employees, but rather the ones most likely to perform specific tasks that help them maximize profit.  

·         Don’t demonize teachers.  In Finland, teaching is literally the most respected profession in the country.  Belittling teachers (as folks like Hyman do) makes bright young people less likely to go into teaching.

This last point, I think, is the most salient.  Those who deride the entire profession of teaching and know nothing of what teaching involves have little ethos when it comes to dispensing wisdom on how we should change our educational system.   It’s kind of like having a vegan commenting on how to cook a better beef brisket.  It just doesn’t make much sense. 

And that’s Behind “Behind the Headlines with Mark Hyman” with Ted Remington

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Education Reform

Behind "Behind the Scenes With Mark Hyman" with Ted Remington

This week, we take on Mr. Hyman's comment on needed education reform.