Sounding Off: Treasurer's arguments were shallow

Chriss Street certainly didn't raise the level of discourse in the Pilot with his attempt to convince us that deficit spending is a bad thing ("Community Commentary: Deficit spending a bad move for U.S.," July 25). Instead of taking on the issues directly, he revealed a weak hand by resorting to well-known fallacious debate tactics.

Interestingly, by using weak arguments, Street implied that there aren't any good arguments against deficit spending. He has, in effect, praised it with faint damns.

A major tactic he used is "evasion" (changing the subject or bypassing critical issues). Street failed to confront the important fact that a majority of economists — liberal and conservative, private and government — agree that deficit spending is needed to fix the recession.

One big reason is to prevent deflation and the potential for descent into a long stagnation, like the one Japanese people are still suffering from long after their nation's economic bubble burst in the 1990s. It's not certain yet; there are arguments on both sides but Street turns a blind eye to this scary downside of allowing the economy to continue to flounder.

His main tactic was to mock a man who supports the use of deficit spending during a recession. He used the ''ad hominem" fallacy — attacking the opponent instead of the idea — against Paul Krugman. Krugman is one of the many economists of all political persuasions who have argued that our recessionary economy needs to be goosed, and that a good way to do that is for the federal government to use its borrowing powers, just as it did to pull us out of the Great Depression.

Street mocked Krugman's Nobel Prize in Economics as being for work that has been superseded by events. If this startling idea takes hold, we will find ourselves having to dismiss Sir Isaac Newton's contributions to physics three centuries ago by noting that his theories of mechanics have been updated by 20th century quantum mechanics theories. (In truth, the Nobel Prize Committee recognized Krugman in 2008 for his groundbreaking work in 1979 to modernize David Ricardo's theory of the early 1800s regarding comparative advantage. Would Street also have us mocking Ricardo?)

Ironically, in the same paragraph in which he mockingly wrote about Krugman having "Nobel credibility" bestowed upon him, Street lost some credibility when he gave a grossly exaggerated figure for the federal stimulus.

He wrote: "If Congress had spent its trillions of stimulus dollars ...."

But a quick click of http://www.recovery.gov shows that The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was funded at $787 billion, far short of Street's "trillions of stimulus dollars." One would have hoped that the Orange County treasurer-tax Collector had a better grasp of big numbers.

Along the way, Street committed a variety of other fallacies. One of these was "oversimplification." (He confused the deficits from current spending on recession recovery with the deficits from past spending on wars, for example.)

He sprinkled in a few statistics about small businesses, but one has to wonder why, since they had nothing to do with the issue at hand (an example of the "non sequitur" fallacy).

Yet another arrow from his rhetorical quiver was the "hasty generalization" in which one draws a general conclusion based on too few or non-representative examples.

Street claimed to speak for the American public as in "The American public is suspicious ...," "... most Americans know ...," and "Americans ... are dissatisfied ..."

How likely is it, though, that a county-level politician can know what 309-plus million Americans suspect, know, or feel?

Finally, it's worth noting that he creatively used two fallacies at one time, "emotive language" (language that preempts reason) and "repetitive reasoning" (arguing by mere repetition of a point). He made frequent use (six, count 'em, six times) of the word "boondoggle" in trying to hang around Krugman's neck a supposed albatross from the Great Depression. But he didn't offer any evidence or examples to prove there were any boondoggles, much less six of them.

Deficit spending in a recession might be a bad thing, but we wouldn't know it from Street's attempt at persuasion.

TOM EGAN lives in Costa Mesa.

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