Monday, August 27, 2012

If You Have No Logical Defense, Why Not Embarrass Yourself

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, "the president of the American Action Forum, was director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2003 to 2005", signed a letter to the Washington Post that, frankly, I'm amazed he would want associated with his name. Holtz-Eakin led the CBO during the lead-up to the housing bubble, is an economist and was an adviser to John McCain in 2008, so he's not in a position to claim ignorance of the basic facts of how the recession arose or why we presently have large deficits. Yet there he is, refusing to acknowledge basic facts.

Holtz-Eakin is offended by Peter Orszag's criticism of Paul Ryan's budget flimflammery, but rather than attacking Orszag's analysis he... attacks Orszag:
Certainly, it is unsurprising that a leading Democratic thinker such as Mr. Orszag would put forward the particular criticisms of the budget that he did. But Mr. Orszag’s attempt to shellac Mr. Ryan raises eyebrows. It was Mr. Orszag, after all, who, together with his boss, helped saddle the country with four consecutive $1-trillion-plus deficits. With such a record, a little humility would serve Mr. Orszag well.
With his background in the CBO, Holtz-Eakin should be familiar with CBO projections of how various Bush-era policies, such as tax cuts, unfunded entitlement expansions, and two wars of choice, along with the financial industry collapse and economic downturn that arose under Bush, have affected the deficit. For somebody with his background to whine about "" is difficult to regard as anything but a lie by omission. Perhaps even a lie by commission, given that he suggests that something else was possible.

But Holtz-Eakin's abuse of the facts is not offered in defense of Ryan. It's offered as an attack on Orszag, in effect, "Anybody who was part of a White House that ran up large deficits shouldn't be taken seriously." Perhaps Holtz-Eakin would have us turn to Clinton's economic advisors, the ones who left us with a budget surplus? Yeah, right.

The essence of Holtz-Eakin's comment is that nobody who has been associated with the Obama Administration on budget or spending issues should be taken seriously, no matter what they say, no matter what the facts, no matter what the merits of their argument, because of that past association. An unadulterated presentation of the logical fallacy of guilt by association - "Orszag is associated with Obama, I don't like Obama's budget policies, therefore nobody should listen to Orszag".

But hold on a second,
Mr. Orszag contended that “most serious tax analysts don’t think” that the reforms proposed by Mitt Romney and Mr. Ryan “are politically feasible.” He might be right about such experts — although Erskine Bowles, a co-chairman of the president’s own fiscal commission, called the Ryan budget “sensible,” “honest” and “serious.”
The letter is a whopping four paragraphs long - four short paragraphs - yet Holtz-Eakin can't even maintain internal consistency. Why can't we trust Orszag? He's tainted by his association with Obama. Why should we ignore "serious tax analysts", even though they may be right, and listen to Erskine Bowles? Because Bowle's is associated with Obama and is therefore more trustworthy than the experts.

Had Holtz-Eakin wanted to present an actual critique of Orszag's column, he might have taken a different tack on the line about what "most serious tax analysts" think. The use term "serious" is a rhetorical trick often used to diminish those who disagree with you. Your opponent is put immediately on the defensive by the implicit argument that he's not qualified, not serious, or both. The fact that Holtz-Eakin did not challenge Orszag's statement, though, does not suggest to me that he missed the implicit poisoning of the well. It suggests to me that he agrees with the statement and thus, rather than attempting to refute it, instead makes an ad hominem attack against tax analysts and upon the President:
Fortunately experts do not decide what is politically feasible in this country.

American history is replete with instances of strong leaders accomplishing great things that experts deemed impossible. Presumably, President Obama refrained from taking bold steps to address the deficit precisely because he was listening to such experts, including Mr. Orszag.
It is true that policy in our nation is often formed by people with no expertise on the subject matter they're addressing, whether through legislation or regulation. It's also true that sometimes the experts get things wrong. But on the whole, it is a good thing for people who are ignorant of how something works to consult with the experts and form a policy that is more likely to work than something they extract from their posterior. It's not clear why Holtz-Eakin believes that we are better off being governed by political leaders who know nothing of the subject matters they're addressing than it is for those leaders to attempt to first educate themselves before passing legislation and regulations that, if misguided, could have profound, negative effects. But there he is, unambiguously arguing in favor of our being governed by the willfully ignorant.

Since Holtz-Eakin is speaking in defense of Paul Ryan - sure, a weak defense given that he fails to make even a single substantive point that would support Ryan's plan or refute Orszag's criticism - it's worth noting that in addition to the internal inconsistency it creates, his appeal to authority by reference to Erskine Bowles belies his implication that the President has not attempted to address the deficit. After all, if it weren't for Obama's deficit commission, Bowles would not merit mention. And let's note, the only qualification Holtz-Eakins deems worth mentioning is the association with Obama, apparently because he does not believe that Bowles has bona fide expertise that could stand against the positions of the aforementioned experts.

Further, Paul Ryan served on that commission - and voted against its proposals. And when Obama attempted to negotiate a "grand bargain" on the deficit, it seems that Ryan was one of the Republicans who scuttled the deal. Why? In the former case Ryan claims that he didn't want to vote for a plan that didn't slash Medicare, and that seems possible given his barely disguised plan to transform Medicare into an underfunded voucher program. But more realistically, it's because in both cases he would have had to sign on to tax cuts, and he found it better to have huge deficits than to raise taxes.

If Holtz-Eakin has read Ryan's plan, he knows that's one of its biggest failings - even if we assume that the cuts Ryan is afraid to specify become reality, his insistence upon cutting taxes for the wealthy means that his plan will increase the deficit.

Holtz-Eakin is no fool - I find it difficult to believe that he is unaware that his response to Orszag is anything more than a partisan screed. I can only surmise that this is what he believes will lead donors to give money to his organization.

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