Lawyerly Reasoning

by F.

When you go to law school, you learn some important lessons in intellectual integrity, the most important of which is not to have any. For instance, when you are arguing a case and you know you are wrong, you don’t admit defeat. You dig in and attack twice as hard. Another lesson: caricature the other side’s argument, then attack the caricature. In other words, set up a straw man whenever possible.

The opposite tendency is sometimes called “using the principle of charity,” long out of fashion. It was expressed by Mortimer J. Adler (the Great Books guy) in the maxim, “Before you can say ‘I think this is wrong’ you must first be able to say ‘I understand this.'” I think this principle is particularly apposite when one is describing another person as a candidate for “Stupidest Man Alive,” as economist Brad DeLong (of Berkeley) did the other day on his blog.

DeLong criticized a New York Times reporter for saying that the US Treasury Secretary “presided over” a growing, slowly inflating economy. This, to DeLong, is beyond the pale. He fulminates:

“The Treasury Secretary doesn’t control the economy. To begin an article assuming that he does is profoundly stupid.”

When I read this, I certainly didn’t take the reporter (Floyd Norris) to be saying that the Treasury Secretary “controls” the economy. Obviously he doesn’t. No one person could possibly “control” an economy, and it is highly unlikely that any reporter for the New York Times would think otherwise.

“Preside” can mean “control,” but it can also denote a ceremonial function, as when you preside over a meeting. A quick check of dictionary.com bears this out. When you “preside over” a meeting, does that mean you control the meeting? Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. A presiding officer can have a merely titular role.

What’s worse, the reporter flat out says this later in the piece:

“The reality, of course, is that neither the Treasury secretary nor his boss, the president, really bear much responsibility for short-term changes in the economy. Mr. Snow entered office after the recovery from the 2001 recession was well under way — a recovery he never failed to credit to the tax cuts. Giving him credit for the recovery, and blaming his predecessor, Paul H. O’Neill, for the recession and stock market plunge, is not fair to either man…”

So…let me get this straight. DeLong calls the reporter a candidate for “stupidest man alive” for thinking the Treasury Secretary “controls” the economy, even though the reporter says—explicitly—that the Treasury Secretary doesn’t control the economy. Have I got that right?

And, what’s worse, DeLong cites this second passage, but adduces it to show that the reporter “claws his way back to reality,” which I take to mean “flip-flops.” Why didn’t DeLong use the passage instead to illuminate the lead paragraph (“presides over”)? In other words, it is obvious given the context of the entire piece that the reporter is not “the stupidest man alive”—he knows that the Treasury Secretary doesn’t “control” the economy. He says so right in the article.

But the straw man has been set up and DeLong attacks. Lawyerly, unprincipled, and ridiculous. Like most political discussions in America. Like most arguments. The liberals have taken a page from the conservatives and no one has the high-ground anymore. Except maybe Chomsky.

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