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Figaro rips the innards out of things people say and reveals the rhetorical tricks and pratfalls. For terms and definitions, click here.
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    Tuesday
    Apr292014

    Define Lines

    A reader of Thank You for Arguingwrote saying he had been tongue-tied during an argument over the minimum wage. “My opponent, whom I had only just met, claimed 7 million Americans would lose their jobs if we raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, while I said that number wasn’t supported by the data. We both claimed the same CBO study as our reference point, which made for a “yes it will/no it won’t” farce. Attempts to move the argument along kept being brought back to the fanciful job loss number. It wasn’t fun, or convincing, for anyone. And now I think my colleague’s wife hates me.”

    When a spouse is nearby, the best thing to do is simply to pour more wine and ask about the kids. But if you really want to argue in a situation like this, try skipping the statistics. One technique the Greek sophists used—it helped get Socrates a death sentence, mind you—is to seek definitions.  I sent the reader the following suggested dialogue. Let me know what you think.

    Opponent: Raising the minimum wage would cost 7 million jobs.

    You: 7 million! That’s a lot of jobs.

    Opponent: Right.

    You: So what do you mean by “jobs,” exactly? What defines a job in your view? And is a job always a good thing to have?

    Opponent: What kind of question is that? A job, obviously, is work that earns a paycheck.

    You: So work that doesn’t earn a paycheck isn’t a job? I have a friend who runs a hospital. She works seventy hours a week for a dollar a year; she doesn’t need the money. Yet she works really hard running an important institution. She doesn’t have a job?

    Opponent: You’re splitting hairs. Most people work for a paycheck.

    You: My friend gets a paycheck. It’s one dollar.

    Opponent: Your friend is a volunteer.

    You: So if she made $50 a year, would that make her employed? Would her work count as a job?

    Opponent: Not really. What’s she going to do with $50?

    You: I guess what I’m trying to establish is how much money counts as a paycheck that defines a job.

    Opponent: That depends on the work, of course. A kid in Bangladesh might be happy to earn $3 a day in a sweatshop.

    You: So that kid would, by your definition, have a job.

    Opponent: Sure. 

    You: My son is 12 years old. He doesn’t work in a sweatshop. In fact, he doesn’t have a job at all, by your definition. He just goes to school.

    Opponent: So?

    You: If given a choice between going working in a sweat shop and going to school, I would guess he’d prefer school.

    Opponent: Of course he would.

    You: So in his case, not having a job is better than having a job.

    Opponent: Well, that’s different. He’s a kid. He’s a student.

    You: My parents are retired. They don’t have a job either.

    Opponent: Well, they earned their retirement.

    You: The Koch brothers don’t have a job either. They just invest.

    Opponent: What’s your point?

    You: I’m wondering why jobs are so important to you. 

    Opponent: Without jobs we wouldn’t have an economy.

    You: But the economy has risen above pre-recession levels, while jobs haven’t. So the health the economy doesn’t necessarily depend on jobs.

    Opponent: OK, not entirely.

    You: And if people get money in other ways—from parents, or investments, or retirement income, or the government…

    Opponent: The government shouldn’t pay people not to work!

    You: Including my parents? Half their income comes from Social Security, and their health care is almost entirely paid for by the government.

    Opponent: That’s different.

    You: OK. You said that raising the minimum wage would cost 7 million jobs. But you never fully defined a job. Is a job work for a paycheck someone could live off? And if the person can’t live off it, what’ the point of the job? And if the economy doesn’t depend simply on the number of people employed…tell me again why jobs are the highest priority.

    Opponent: So people can work.

    You: Whether they want to or not? 

    Opponent: Every able-bodied person should be required to make a living.

    You: Except for my able-bodied son and my able-bodied parents, presumably. OK. But we still haven’t established the definition of a job. If a job is nothing but work, then millions of slaves lost their jobs after the Civil War. Most of them didn’t seem to mind.

    Opponent: I said that a job is work for a paycheck! We’re not talking slavery!

    You: But when I mentioned my friend’s one-dollar paycheck, you said that wasn’t a job. You mentioned the sweatshop pay. Is $3 a day the minimum that defines a job?

    Opponent: I don’t like talking about minimums at all!

    You: Well, then you need to do better in defining what a job is. You still haven’t, you know. And while you’re at it, you might define what a job is for. Is it because you’re offended by able-bodied people—certain able-bodied people—not working? Why does that offend you?

    Probably, you’d drive him crazy. So there’s that.

    Wednesday
    Feb052014

    Monkeys! Aliens! Naked Creationists!

    We’ve just posted a set of fallacies on our sister site, ArgueLab.com. If you’re interested in following what Figaro is doing these days, that’s the place to go. Also follow @Jay Heinrichs on Twitter. Figaro is much, much more concise there.

    Wednesday
    Oct092013

    Socrates Concludes that the Government Must Stay Closed!

    A shocking development: The philosopher has concluded that opening the government and raising the debt ceiling would be morally wrong. After interviewing Boehner, Reid, and Cruz (Obama has remained aloof so far), Socrates learned from Congressman Raoul Labrador that the gift of opening the government would actually damage Reid. Labrador’s words come from today’s Morning Edition on NPR.

    Socrates: Your name pleases me. It connotes a passion for returning thrown sticks and continuing resolutions.

    Labrador: I’d personally be willing to give the president a one-year CR, and a lot of conservatives are there with me, which would be good for the president, in exchange for a one-year delay in the implementation of Obamacare. And I think that would be something where both sides would actually be able to get something out of these negotiations.

    Socrates: You fetch something good for each side! That sounds very reasonable, Labrador. The Republicans receive a halt in the insurance exchanges. The president, in return, receives a government and the ability to pay its bills. But I do not understand how having a government or paying bills is a gift to the president. My understanding was that Congress is equally responsible for the government. Perhaps you think you in turn are getting very little in a mere year’s delay of Obamacare.

    Labrador: If it were up to me I’d completely repeal the act. I think we need to get rid of Obamacare. I think the Affordable Care Act doesn’t make healthcare more affordable. We’re hearing more and more people that are losing their health insurance right now, and they’re being told, unlike the promise Obama gave the American people, that if you like your current health insurance that you could keep it, they’re actually losing their health insurance and they’re being told that they’re going to have to pay more for their health insurance, so that’s what happening.

    Socrates: Then it is very accommodating of you to accept a mere year’s delay of this evil law. Explain to me how people are losing their health insurance and still having to pay more for it. Do you mean they are losing their insurance because the law is making that insurance too expensive to buy? And this is happening throughout the land? Those who have not been able to get health insurance in the past—they, too, are being denied this promised insurance?

    Labrador: I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for a one-year delay of a program that’s clearly not working.

    Socrates: If a program is not working, that must mean the program exists. And if it exists already, how can you delay it? Do you mean that you wish to pause or dismantle an existing program? How would such a pause or dismantling work? And will this act bring insurance back to the people who are being denied it through the evil law?

    Labrador: You know, there’s a lot of ideas that are floating around, and I’m not going to reject any of them, but in order for these ideas to come to fruition, what we need is to sit at the table with Harry Reid and Barack Obama.

    Socrates: The table of which you speak must be an extraordinary piece of furniture; I have heard your Republican companions sing a paean to it. You are highly sociable to wish to share it with Harry and Barack. So your dinner gift to him would be an offer not to re-open your government.

    Labrador: We’re not the ones who wanted to shut down the government, and you need to remember that. We wanted to keep the government open. This entire battle is about Harry Reid making sure that he keeps the Senate and that he wins the House of Representatives. That’s why he wants the shutdown, and I fear that that’s why they want actually to breach the debt ceiling at some point.

    Socrates: Then your proffered gift to Harry would be an insult! By your own reasoning, Labrador, opening the government and raising the debt ceiling would do damage to your enemy. That is a moral wrong and I would not condone it. If Harry wishes to keep the government closed, then you must not pretend that it is a gift. You must keep the government closed for his sake. 

     

    Tuesday
    Oct082013

    Socrates Interviews Ted Cruz

    Our favorite Greek teacher has been wandering the Agora interviewing politicians about the government shutdown and impending default. This afternoon he ran into Senator Cruz, who for some reason thought he was speaking to Megyn Kelly. As usual, Cruz’s words are real, and Socrates’ ought to be.

    Socrates: You have said that ending Obamacare is essential to keeping the government open and paying its bills. I find this a fascinating relationship. But the Democrats tell me that the relationship is a false one.

    Cruz: Most Americans don’t care about politicians’ bickering. They’re looking for people to solve the problems.

    Socrates: By “people” do they mean Congress?

    Cruz: The House of Representatives is passing bills to fund the priorities of government.

    Socrates: I see. Funding “priorities” is better than funding government. That is an imaginative way to solve Americans’ problems! They must be very proud of you. Yet a poll recently shown on Fox news claims that only 26% of Americans favor you. Does the poll mean that you are not one of the problem-solving people for whom Americans are looking?

    Cruz: At the end of the day it doesn’t matter.

    Socrates: What is it that does not matter? Public opinion?

    Cruz: What matters is responding to the American people.

    Socrates: In Athens the appropriate way to respond to citizens’ opinion of you would be self-banishment. Pericles was more popular, and he was ostracized.

    Cruz: Millions of Americans are losing their jobs or being forced into part-time work or seeing skyrocketing health insurance premiums and are losing their health insurance.

    Socrates: So healing the people is more important than their dislike of you. You are a good man, Ted. You hear their lamentations. Have Democrats not also heard the people’s cries?

    Cruz: The Democrats’ answer is they will not talk, they will not negotiate.

    Socrates: And, by your logic, the purpose of this talking and negotiating will make insurance affordable and provide more health insurance to people. Will you instruct the Democrats on how to provide health insurance to all the people? And will this instruction lead to full time jobs?

    Cruz: The problem is that you’ve got the House of Representatives that is repeatedly compromising. It has compromised on Obamacare starting from wanting to repeal it, to going to defunding it, to going to delaying it, to going to just delaying the individual mandate and the congressional exemption. Throughout it all, President Obama and the Democrats have said that they won’t negotiate, they will not compromise, they want 100 percent of everything.

    Socrates: Compromise is a good thing in a democracy. But the “everything” the Democrats want: do you mean the law you call Obamacare? The House of Representatives passed that law, which must have been a very grievous act. Do they wish to repent of it? And would their repentance lead to Americans regaining their health insurance? That would be a great victory.

    Cruz: I think a victory is if we prevent some of the enormous harms Obamacare is inflicting on millions of Americans.

    Socrates: Of course, if that harm is already being inflicted, then you cannot prevent it. Your victory has already been lost. But a good man bears his losses well, and you are clearly a good man.

    Cruz: It’s great to be with you.

    Tuesday
    Oct082013

    Socrates (Insanely) Interviews Reid

    Yesterday, the logical Greek tried to make sense out of Speaker of the House John Boehner. Today he spoke with Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. The Reid quotes are real, taken from an Esquire interview over the weekend. Socrates’ words are not real, but they ought to be.

    Socrates: What are you doing to open the government back up and ensure that the nation pays its bills? Will you negotiate a compromise with the Republicans? 

    Reid: We cannot leave the full faith and credit of the United States subject to a fight over whatever the issue of the day may be. That has never, ever, in the history of the country been done before. This is the first time.

    Socrates: So the issue here is to protect the nation’s full faith and credit. Judging from other recent comments, you also think the issue is insanity. You said that the Tea Party representatives in the House had lost their minds. Was that helpful in restoring America’s full faith and credit?

    Reid: The reason I said that is that Einstein said the sign of insanity is when you do something over and over again and expect a different result. They’ve voted forty-four times to defund Obamacare. Is that insanity? I think so.

    Socrates: Yet this latest Republican action, tying Obamacare to resolving the government shutdown and the debt limit, seems to prove that the Tea Party members have recovered at least some of their sanity. “It has never been done before,” you said.

    Reid: Look: Republicans opposed Social Security. It’s a government program, and they didn’t like it. They hated Medicare.… Now Social Security and Medicare are widely popular. They know that the same is going to happen with Obamacare. And just like Social Security and Medicare, they don’t want it.

    Socrates: Do you believe that if something is popular, it is inherently good? I can think of times when popular government decisions turned out not to be so good.

    Reid: I said on the floor that this is Orwell’s 1984: Up is down, black is white.

    Socrates: Permit me the insanity of repeating my first question and expecting a different answer: What are you doing to open the government back up and increase the debt limit? Is any attempt being made to speak with the Republicans—if not in black and white, then in living color?

    Reid: No, no, no, no. What is there to talk about? We gave Boehner the number that he wanted. Then he said he wanted a conference. We gave him that, and he still couldn’t accept it. The only thing they want is to get rid of Obamacare. And let me tell you, that is not gonna happen. What is there to talk about?

    Socrates: Other than the future of your republic? Very little, apparently.

    Monday
    Oct072013

    Socrates Interviews Boehner

    What would Socrates do if he interviewed the people responsible for shutting down the government and threatening our nation’s credit? We start with Speaker John Boehner. (The Boehner quotes are real, taken from his interview yesterday with George Stephanopoulos. The Socrates quotes are not but should be.)

    Boehner: The House has passed four bills to keep the government open and to provide fairness to the American people under ObamaCare.

    Socrates: A worthy endeavor! I am eager to know more about fairness. How would you define fairness, and how does fairness open the government?

    Boehner: Listen. ObamaCare is a law that’s gonna raise the cost of health insurance premiums and make it almost impossible for employers to hire new people.

    Socrates: So you define fairness as having to do with the cost of things, and with employers hiring new people. If everything cost less, and employers hired new people, then there would be fairness and the government would open. Would you say that the government is an employer?

    Boehner: [ObamaCare] is a law that the American people do not want and cannot afford.

    Socrates: Ah, so fairness is not about the cost of things or employment after all. It is about popularity and affordability. If laws were more popular and affordable, then the government would be open? Frankly, John, I fail to see the connection between fairness as you define it and government opening back up.

    Boehner: Why wouldn’t the president provide fairness to the American people? He’s given exemptions and waivers to all kinds of groups of people, but he hasn’t given one to the American people, who are gonna suffer under this law.

    Socrates: I sense that your definition of fairness has changed yet again. It now appears to mean treating groups of people the same as the American people. Who are these “groups of people” to whom you refer? They are not from another country, are they?

    Boehner: They give big businesses a waiver. They give unions a waiver.

    Socrates: If businesses were given a waiver, doesn’t that allow them to hire new people? So isn’t that fair, and won’t that open the government again?

    Boehner: We’re interested in having a conversation in how we open the government and how we begin to pay our bills.

    Socrates: What do you mean by “conversation”? A negotiation, or a dialectic over an amphora of wine? How will this conversation resolve the crisis? Personally, I have found that too much wine among enemies can lead to violence as easily as to friendship. But what do I know? I am interested the second topic of your proposed conversation, about paying bills. Raising the debt limit allows the paying of bills. If Congress simply voted to raise the debt limit, wouldn’t that allow the government to pay its bills?

    Boehner: So it’s my way or the highway. That’s what [the Democrats are] saying. Complete surrender, and then we’ll talk to you.

    Socrates: You misunderstand me, John. We are having a conversation now, are we not? I simply wondered why a conversation is necessary to allow the government to pay its bills. Isn’t this simply a matter of raising the debt ceiling to permit the payment of bills Congress has already approved?

    Boehner: I and my members decided that the threat of ObamaCare and what was happening was so important that it was time for us to take a stand. And we took a stand.

    Socrates: You did not take a stand before this? You opposed the Affordable Care Act when it was first proposed. Or was that opposition not a “stand”? Does your opposition become a “stand” only when Congress passes that bill, the president signs it into law, and the Supreme Court declares it constitutional? And tell me more about the “threat” of ObamaCare? Does the law threaten fairness? I remain unclear about your definition of fairness, and how the lack of fairness is keeping the government shut down. Or is a shutdown more fair than an open government?

    Boehner: I’ve made it clear to my colleagues. I don’t want to shut the government down! We voted to keep the government open. But providing fairness to the American people under ObamaCare is all we’re asking for.

    Socrates: I admire your desire to bestow fairness upon the people of America, John. Before you do that, I hope you discover what fairness is. Ask an oracle. Do it quickly, though, so that your fairness can open the government.