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Front Page » Authors » Bio for Peter Herbert » Archives for Peter Herbert

By Peter Herbert on December 20, 2012

It was gratifying to see Jon Stewart visit the topic of logic on last Thursday’s Daily Show. I would have blogged about it sooner if I could have. Logic is a topic we too often ignore in this country; yet a little attention to it could enormously improve our public political discourse.

The context of Stewart’s foray into logic was as follows. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham gave a common conservative argument against gay marriage, that it would open the door to three-person marriage, person-animal marriage, and things like that. Stewart accused Graham of committing the slippery slope fallacy (a common reasoning error). Graham’s friends countered that his argument was an argumentum reductio ad absurdum, a valid argument form highly respected in mathematics and philosophy. Despite all that impressive Latin, Stewart won this round of amateur logic hour, not only in the eyes of his audience, but really.

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By Peter Herbert on November 10, 2012

Just after the election, social- science-minded liberal and conservative pundits seem to agree about why President Obama won and Mitt Romney lost: changing demographics. The U.S. electorate is no longer dominated by ethnocentric, semi-literate white males and their obedient, loyal wives. The GOP can no longer afford to ignore or insult women, academia, urban America, Christian liberals, Hispanics, African Americans, gays, and just about everyone else. They are going to have to reach out to at least some other people or else they will cease to be nationally important and become a regional party – primarily a party of the deep South and the Great Plains. Soon even Texas, where the deep South and the Great Plains meet, will be a swing state.

I hope that all of that is right. But I think the Republicans, and Romney in particular, also lost on the issues. The only clear, consistent themes in Romney’s campaign were that he was going to give tax breaks to the wealthy, cut spending, and repeal “Obamacare.” A large number of Americans understood that if Romney was going to give tax breaks to the wealthy and cut spending, then he was going to have to hurt most other Americans to pay for it. As for Obamacare, many Americans who hated it must have known that even as president, Romney wouldn’t have the power to repeal it, and many other Americans do not hate Obamacare. Indeed, most Americans like Obamacare, when it is presented to them piece by piece. Finally, it wasn’t just liberals who noticed that Romney was the ultimate weather-vane, changing positions according to whatever he thought his audiences wanted to hear. Many moderates, and even some conservatives, noticed it too. By election day, Romney had two special messages. His message to the general public was that he did not mean the things he told conservatives. He had to say those things to win their support. His message to conservatives was that he did not mean the things he said to the general public. He had to say those things to win their support. Who was supposed to believe him, the general public or conservatives? It is not surprising that Romney lost. What is surprising is that he was not far behind in the popular vote.

By Peter Herbert on October 5, 2012

Great analysis, Darrell. Concerning the upcoming debates, I wonder: what is the much touted Romney foreign policy surprise going to be? Buzz on the Internet is that it will be a promise to bring back torture. If so, that hardly counts as a surprise, since all signs so far indicate that he plans to rely on former Bush/Cheney folks to run his foreign policy. (Sickeningly, experts on undecided voters say that a return to torture will appeal to many of them.)

I doubt the buzz. I predict that Romney will borrow a page from Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign: he will announce a grand plan to get us out of Afghanistan both sooner, and with greater success and honor, than Obama’s plan. The proposal will be thin on details, since those of course have to be secret (like the details of his economic plans). I further guess that he already has right wing generals and foreign policy people lined up and ready to say that it’s a great plan and they know how to get it done. Obviously, they will say that they would have won in Afghanistan already, if only Obama had let them. That is essentially what Nixon did in the 1968 election, regarding the Vietnam War. It got him elected. Whether it will work for Romney I don’t know. This election is far more about the economy and far less about foreign policy than 1968. But it is the best foreign policy shot the Romney Campaign can take.

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By Peter Herbert on July 8, 2012

Excuse me, Republicans. How can you spend all of the Obama years resisting and sabotaging every attempt by government to do something about our jobs, homes, and health care problems, and then claim that those same years prove that government can’t do much about our jobs, homes, or health care problems? The current impotence of our government is something you’ve done to us, not something you’ve suffered because of us. Stop pissing on us and telling us it’s raining! That ought to be President Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan.

As for a campaign slogan for the Republican candidate, how about one of these?
1) Mitt Romney: he wants to be your president. As for everything else, he’s flexible.
2) Mitt Romney: he has a great record, so long as you ignore the personal, financial, business, and political parts.
3) Mitt Romney: he’s just like you, except for EVERYTHING!
4) Mitt Romney: his record doesn’t matter. He deserves your vote, just like he deserved to be born a multi-millionaire with strong national political connections
5) Mitt Romney. He’ll bring a fresh, new perspective to foreign policy: he knows nothing about it and cares even less. (Oh, wait! George W. Bush did that already.)
6) Mitt Romney. They say that recycling is good for the environment. So let’s recycle the George W. Bush approach to government.
7) Mitt Romney: let the U.S. auto industry die.
8) Mitt Romney: he was for expanded, lower cost health care coverage before his friends convinced you that you don’t want it.
9) Mitt Romney: he stands for whatever he thinks you want him to stand for.
10) Mitt Romney. The American middle class are struggling. Isn’t it time we finished them off!

By Peter Herbert on June 16, 2012

From a purely rhetorical point of view, the value of an argument depends on how it affects the audience. Does it get them to do what the speaker (or writer) wants them to do? From a purely logical point of view, the value of an argument depends on whether the reasons support the conclusion. Do they make the conclusion likely to be true, or just? It is possible to get an A+ in pure rhetoric and an F in pure logic, or vice versa. Politically, the best arguments are good from both points of view: they motivate people to do what the speaker wants, and the reasons given have real merit: they really support the truth or justice of the conclusion.

A deep problem in American democracy today is that we ignore the logical side of this too much. Our press focuses almost entirely on the rhetorical point of view. Case in point: yesterday President Obama granted extended, renewable visas to illegal immigrants who came here with their parents as children and have always played by the rules, so that they can stay in school, on the job, or in the military. As I will explain below, the merits of the argument are strongly on Obama’s side, from the logical point of view. But the press focused almost entirely on the rhetorical side of the issue: how many Latino votes will this win for the President, and will they be worth it – will they offset the white male votes this may cost him in swing states? Hardly a word about whether this is good policy. Worse, most mainstream press outlets insinuated (or simply claimed) that the President must have done this only for political reasons, since this is an election year.

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By Peter Herbert on April 1, 2012

Back during the health care debate, I argued on these pages that a mandate without (at least) a public option was a mistake. I thought that forcing people into the private health care market, without at least giving them a public option, was immoral. Little did I imagine that it might also be unconstitutional. But now the Supreme Court may rule that way. They seem to be leaning that way. Then what will we do? What is our Plan B?

I’m sure the President and Senate Democrats have people furiously working on that now. I hope different people than the ones who advised them to give up on single payer and the public option without a fight! Meanwhile, since no one has blogged on this site lately, I’ll throw out a half-baked idea – I’ll think out loud for a moment. Let’s let states decide by referendum whether to join one of two blocks. One block will adopt a single-payer system, or at least Obamacare with a public option. The other will adopt a Paul Ryan plan – one that is exactly like the status quo, only without Medicare and Medicaid. Joining one block or the other will have to be binding for a long time, at least a decade, and we may have to restrict the benefits of moving between blocks, so that refugees from the red states don’t bankrupt the blue ones, or (ha ha!) vice versa.

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By Peter Herbert on March 10, 2012

Who can forget the video of John McCain croaking “Bomb Bomb Iran” to the tune of Jan and Dean’s “Barbara Ann?” It’s election season again, time for all good Republican candidates since Reagan to call for immediate war with Iran. Of course they don’t mean it. Never have. Iran intentionally leveraged the hostage crisis to help Reagan get elected, and the grateful Reagan administration sold arms and technology to Iran in order to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. While talking tough about Iran, George W. Bush did them the greatest favor in their history: he turned Iraq, Iran’s former nemesis, into a satellite of Iran. Now, as usual, we have Iran acting especially aggressively during an election year. Who knows what the Republicans have promised them this time? Or maybe Iran still owes them for the Iraq War. Or maybe Iran just likes the Republicans, since Iran and the Republicans share the same social agenda and the same theory of the (NON-) separation of church and state.

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By Peter Herbert on February 20, 2012

For many years candidates from the American far right have claimed exclusive ownership of Christianity. Rick Santorum, who recently called President Obama’s Christianity “phony,” is only the latest example. Many Christians who are not on the political far right, including me, find this offensive. But from our point of view it’s really far worse than just offensive; it harms Christianity, which is our religion too, both from within and without. It harms it from within by cheapening it, turning it into an instrument of secular power, dividing the Christian community in novel new ways, and teaching millions of Christians to read the Bible through party-colored glasses. It harms it from without because millions of non-Christians accept the far right’s claim to own Christianity, and for that reason they see Christianity as a great enemy of reason and progress; they see Christian leaders as insincere demagogues; and they see ordinary Christians as narrow-minded simpletons.

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By Peter Herbert on November 16, 2011

That political power can be bought and sold in America is nothing new. Most of our founders were local financial elites who rebelled against the advantages held by the greater financial elites who controlled our mother country: Great Britain. In order for their rebellion to succeed, they needed a great deal of help from non-elite American colonists, most of whom were small farmers, small businessmen, and artisans, with no skin in the game. To get their help, Congress (which was then, as now, mainly representative of only the wealthiest Americans) had to offer ordinary people exciting new political rights. Although it tried hard, Congress couldn’t completely withdraw these offers at the end of the war, and the resulting compromise – thanks especially to George Washington – was the basics of what we now know as the United States of America.

Since then the U.S.A. has always been more or less schizophrenic in its attitudes about distributive justice (who deserves which parts of our financial pie). This can be traced to the majority of the founders, who were the wealthiest colonists. They were sure that they deserved to be much wealthier than their fellow Americans – even if they inherited most of their advantages (as they usually did) – yet they were also sure that they did not deserve to be small fry compared with their counterparts in Great Britain, who also inherited most of their advantages. Their arguments were incoherent. How can a minor noble, or freeman, maintain that his heredity makes him far more deserving than his subjects but also complain because it makes him inferior to his hereditary superiors? The only thing that got America past this logical incoherence was a practical alliance between our wealthy and middle classes. The American wealthy have always had undo political influence, but they have had to maintain a strong middle class in order to defend their practical position. Now, for the first time in our history, this is no longer true. In the new global economy they no longer need American workers, and they rarely need well-informed American votes. Most of the time they can simply purchase the political outcomes they desire. Candidates for office cannot get elected without their help, and through ownership of the media they have near total control of the majority of public opinion. Recognition that this is our current situation is the root cause of the “Occupy” or “99%” movement. The future of our country as a democracy depends on the success of this movement.

By Peter Herbert on November 3, 2011

President Obama was a successful candidate for office on the proposal that he would end the Bush tax cuts for those who earn more than $100,000 per year. Soon the proposal moved to $250,000. Now it’s over a million and rising, and still the Bush tax cuts haven’t ended for anyone. I think that $100,000 was a generous number and we should get back to it.

Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY was a big part of the push to raise the bar above a million. He said: "it is hard to ask more of households that make $250,000 or $300,000 a year. They are not rich, and in large parts of the country, that kind of income does not get you a big home or lots of vacations or anything else that's associated with wealth in America." According to the New York Daily News, he went on to say that taxing those who earn less than $1 million would hurt small business. This is all pure nonsense, although I think Schumer may not know it. Like most Senators from both parties, he is too wealthy to know much about American life.

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