Thursday, September 22, 2011

What would David Hume Say?

By Gary Berg-Cross

Recently on Bill Maher's Real Time show Keith Olbermann and he engaged in a skit yelling at an unhearing "typical Republican voter" who was encased in a plastic bubble. It makes the point that some Republicans seem disconnected from reality and have their own set of facts. They are seemingly in denial about popular political topics like taxes. The fact is that taxes are at their lowest level in 50 years and that we’ve had relative prosperity with higher rates. They seem to be forgetful and are ahistorical at times, which can make conversation difficult.

They chose not to dwell on the fact that their hero Ronald Reagan raised taxes. They will claim that Obama’s stimulus did not create jobs. This ignores the Congressional Budget Office statement the stimulus created 1 million to 2.9 million jobs in one quarter alone. On climate change they will focus on one or two stats or a scandal and ignore the big picture. Instead they have beliefs that tie to things that seem like flat facts but are not exactly true in context. One example is the Fox news repeated claim as part of the fairness issue that “51% of Americans pay no federal taxes truths.” Well yes, but many of these are elderly and living on unemployment. Others earn less than $20,000 a year and do have payroll deductions.

These type of things are more misleading than true of untrue because they uses slippery categories. They would not pass David Hume’s principles of formalization concepts or based on observations. Long ago Hume warned that many bits of speech pretend to be knowledge, but in fact are part of metaphysical bubbles. He put it this way:

“When we feel compelled to peruse the stacks in libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion! (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Eric Steinberg [Hackett Publishing Company, 1993])

Describing Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" that will vanish for people in their 30s and 40s is one of those grey, slippery statements perhaps generated by ideology more than facts. Social Security is not a fraudulent criminal enterprise designed only to benefit current participants in the program or some wicked set of government officials that want to personally profit from it. The scheme idea ignores Social Security’s reality as a legitimate government program with a proven record and an intent to serve both current and future generations of retirees. The New York Times did some fact checking on this subject and stated that:

“Government projections have Social Security exhausting its reserves by 2037, absent any changes, but show that the payroll tax revenues coming in would cover more than three-quarters of benefits to recipients then.”

There’s lots that Hume would commit to the flames in today’s news stream of talking points. It is perhaps a legacy of modernity to be too far from the Enlightenment to remember to use some of its sounder principles such as critical thinking and respect for testable facts.

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