Friday, May 11, 2012

Your Agreement With the President is Not Rare

Or, at least, I hope not.

Although far from novel, I have no real objection to somebody noting that they have found common ground with a person with whom they usually disagree. Some saying about a stopped clock comes to mind....

But I do take more of an issue with such an expression when it is seemingly made in earnest. In the blog post linked above, law professor Ilya Somin - who is smart enough to know better - writes what he appears to believe:
President Obama’s recent announcement that he supports gay marriage is yet another addition to the short but distinguished list of issues on which the President and I agree.

Previous entries include creating a playoff system for college football, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, ending the home mortgage interest deduction for high-income taxpayers (though I would go further and abolish the deduction for everyone), the president’s authority to forego defending federal statutes he believes to be unconstitutional, the legality of the targeted killing of Osama Bin Laden, the end of the NBA lockout, and that the Obama health care plan’s individual mandate is not a tax. Based on the above, it seems that the biggest areas of overlap between our worldviews are gay rights and sports. But the list is not completely exhaustive, since there are a few other issues where we also agree, but I don’t blog about them because they are too far outside my areas of interest and expertise.

A few issues? I suspect that, upon inquiry, you would find that the President holds such views as,
  • The President should work to uphold the Constitution;
  • Our nation benefits from capitalism;
  • Hitler and Stalin are among history's greatest villains;
  • Genocide is a bad thing;
  • Communism is a proven failure, that has caused significant harm to many societies;
  • Religious freedom is a good thing;
  • Racial discrimination is a bad thing;
  • Education is a good thing;
  • The state should recognize and protect the private ownership of property;
  • Government corruption is a bad thing;
  • People charged with crimes should be given due process;
  • Legal education is beneficial;
  • Women should have equal rights in the workplace;
  • People within our society should, as a general rule, attempt to live peaceful, law-abiding lives;
  • Cigarettes are addictive;
  • People should practice good personal and dental hygiene;
  • Despite its flaws, we have yet to develop a better system of government than democracy;
  • In an ideal world, we would have minimum public debt and would routinely balance the budget;
  • When you need to see a doctor, it's good to be able to afford to see a doctor;
  • Not everybody will become wealthy, but its good for as many people as possible to have the opportunity;
  • Early childhood education is important to future academic achievement;
  • Children should have safe, stable, non-abusive homes;
  • Government functions better when political parties cooperate and work toward sound policy outcomes....
I could, of course, keep going. My point is not that, by his own statement, Somin is either not sufficiently interested in or informed about Hitler, religious freedom and personal hygiene to form an opinion as to their merits, but that he's so focused on a handful of issues that he appears to have blinded himself to the enormous common ground he in fact shares with the President.

Kidding aside, Somin's final point also is the type of self-endorsement for which I don't much care - the implication that he only blogs about areas within his expertise - in essence an appeal to authority with himself as the authority.

I'm reminded of a comment a lawyer made, hearing another lawyer brag about his high success rate at trial. "If you're doing that well at trial it's because you're only litigating the cases you know you can win. You're not pushing yourself or your talents." Sometimes the stakes are such that caution is a good thing. Sometimes you don't want to roll the dice with a client's life. But if you're that cautious when it comes to expressing your opinion, you're not pushing yourself or testing your ideas. You also may not be quite the expert you imagine yourself to be, putting yourself at risk of having people read your blog posts and your self-congratulatory claim that you're an expert and reacting, "If that's his best thinking, no wonder he doesn't want to opine on other issues."

Also, with due respect to the fact that some people do hold special knowledge or well-honed analytical skills relevant to a particular subject or issue, quite often the "experts" are shooting from the hip. Not just the talking heads on television who pretend to be experts on every issue of the day, but also people who work within and specialize in a specific field, or leaders of government who insist that dramatic action is justified by information or intelligence they cannot reveal to the public. We've had some dramatic demonstrations of failure by the so-called "best and brightest" in recent years, and some remarkable incompetence in intelligence gathering and analysis leading up to the Iraq War. There's a reason "The Emperor's New Clothes" resonates as a story, even though it was a child, not a subject matter expert, who pointed out the Emperor's folly.
Update: I see that Ilya Somin has read this post, appending to his original complaint, which I suppose could constitute a lesson in "how to think like a lawyer:
A somewhat overwrought critique of this post takes me to task for supposedly being unaware of numerous largely noncontroversial things that Obama and I agree on, such as that genocide is evil or that Hitler and Stalin were great villains. I’m well aware of these areas of agreement, thank you. But this post was about issues on which Obama and I agree, which means questions that are controversial in modern American politics. The fact that Obama and I agree on many things on which there is an overwhelming national consensus isn’t relevant to that. We also agree that the Earth is round, and that the Sun rises in the East.
I guess Somin believes that the best defense is a weak offense?

First technique in thinking like a lawyer: Misrepresent your opponent's argument. Somin complains that I take him to task for "supposedly being unaware of numerous largely noncontroversial things that Obama and I agree on". Yet I explicitly stated,
My point is not that, by his own statement, Somin is either not sufficiently interested in or informed about Hitler, religious freedom and personal hygiene to form an opinion as to their merits, but that he's so focused on a handful of issues that he appears to have blinded himself to the enormous common ground he in fact shares with the President.
On top of that explicit statement, I also note that I was "kidding" Somin. There is simply no room for ambiguity. If Somin read my post, he knows his characterization of it is false.

Second technique in "thinking like a lawyer" Redefine your terms. Somin complains that he was speaking about "issues" and apparently that I should have guessed that when he says "issues" he means only "questions that are controversial in modern American politics". Yet in his own post, Somin refers to "sports" as one of the two issues upon which he and the President find common ground, belying the notion that he was referencing only "questions that are controversial in modern American politics".

Third technique in thinking like a lawyer: Pound the table, and perhaps people won't notice that you have changed the subject. I expect that if I were to actually list contentious issues for which Somin would presumably agree with the President, Somin would complain that the issues upon which he agrees with the President are not "questions that are controversial in modern American politics" - that the only "controversial" issues are those for which he differs from the President. For example, if he reads his own group blog Somin surely recognizes that gun control is "controversial in modern American politics" - so by insisting that he disagrees with the President on all "questions that are controversial in modern American politics" other than gay rights and sports is Somin stating that he advocates gun control?

Somin's "rebuttal" reinforces my position that he, and people who use similar rhetoric, miss the forest for the trees. The President, for example, proposed a deal last year to balance the budget through a set of tax increases and budget cuts, including significant entitlement cuts. Somin objects to balancing the budget? To any tax increase necessary to do so? To entitlement cuts? There was recent controversy over women's access to contraception, and whether an employer's religious objection should justify the exclusion of any medication or treatment the employer finds objectionable from a job-based health insurance plan. Somin truly takes the extremist position, that for example a Christian Scientist employer should be able to exclude blood transfusions and antibiotics from a health insurance plan? There are national politicians who would be happy to ban contraception - should we nonetheless treat the issue as not "controversial in modern American politics", or does Somin join the anti-contraception faction?

Somin's response reminds me of something I've been meaning to write about - the manner in which many people in our society confuse politics with policy. The horse race is more fun to watch than policy-making, but media focus on every major issue as a contest serves to exaggerate the differences between the parties. If a reasonably intelligent, issue-driven Republican were to sit down with Obama, I expect that they would find a lot of common ground and be able to quickly reach mutually acceptable compromise on some of the most controversial issues of the day. The problem is that in the present political climate, the Republican would insist that the meeting occur off the record and instead of embracing the common ground would instead issue rhetoric that sounds a lot like... what Somin wrote.


  1. A law professor who is convinced that everything he writes comes from the highest authority, and that anybody who disagrees with him politically is wrong, wrong, wrong about everything?

    How... unique.

  2. His retort suggests that he's the sort of law prof who likes to bully students in class but comes across like a floundering fool when that power dynamic is removed.

  3. This post is shit to begin with. Lol. "Overwrought" is a huge understatement for how much rubbish you managed to cram in here, Aaron Larson.. whoever you are. Some random nobody, I suspect.

  4. We already know that professor Somin doesn't have the courage to snipe here -- he would again do that on his own blog and hope it doesn't get noticed. Given that your comment is both rude and unintelligent, I might guess that your initials are "D.B.", but I suspect I'm being too charitable. (To you, in case you were confused.)

    Aaron 1, Anonymous Coward 0.

  5. The ad hominem abusive speaks for itself. If he had the ability to actually defend Somin or his comments, he would have done so. It's a shame, really, because I like a good challenge - come and prove me wrong - and despite a few encounters I've yet to get one from a "conspirator".


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.