David R. Henderson  

Deltas

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I often get the impression from various people's comments on my posts that they think that when I write words to the effect that "Person X didn't do this bad thing," "Person Y did this bad thing," "Person Z did this good thing," or "Person A didn't do this good thing," I'm making an overall judgment about the person.

If you think that, then you don't know me.

I'm a truth seeker. So when someone makes a statement that I think is true, and others are saying it's false, or makes a statement that I think is false, and others think it's true, then, if I comment, it will be to point that out.

My doing so has nothing to do with my overall evolution of the person who makes the statement.

I'll take two examples from recent history.

The first is the deposition of Bill Clinton by the Ken Starr legal team. I'm one of the few people I know who watched every second of that long deposition. One of Bill Clinton's famous lines during the deposition, a line that led to endless ridicule, was "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." I was one of the few people around me who never made fun of him for that. It made complete sense and, although YouTube didn't exist then, so it wasn't easy to find the testimony, it does exist now, and all you have to do, if you want to know the truth, is watch a 3-minute video.

Does that mean I'm a fan of Bill Clinton? No. But I'm not a fan of falsehoods and false interpretations.

Here's another example. Many readers will remember the "Mission Accomplished" banner on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln when George W. Bush landed on that carrier. In the months following, when the situation in Iraq got really ugly, many people criticized and often ridiculed Bush for his too-early celebration of the mission. But that wasn't what the banner was about. How do I know? One of my star students at the Naval Postgraduate School had been a junior officer on the carrier at the time. In the ward room one day, they discussed how to respond to a request from the White House. The White House people had said that they wanted a banner and they would provide the banner, but they wanted input from the ship's officers. So the officers in the ward room decided on "Mission Accomplished." It had almost nothing to do with the Iraq war. It had to do with the fact that the carrier had finished a 10-month deployment, which, according to Wikipedia, "was the longest deployment of a carrier since the Vietnam War."

When I point that out to fellow critics of that ugly war, most of them don't want to hear it. That would be alright if they stopped using that banner as ammo for their attacks on Bush. But they typically don't.

You might say that in the grand scheme of things, these things don't matter. Maybe, but they seem to matter to the people who do the ridiculing. So if it matters to make a false statement, it matters to correct it.

The bad thinking that I'm going after here consists of first deciding, maybe on perfectly good grounds, one's position on an issue ("Bill Clinton is a liar," "George W. Bush messed up big time by invading Iraq and killing thousands of innocent people") and then looking carelessly for evidence that the person who did the bad thing was even worse than one might have thought.

There are also ways to mess up in thinking on the other side. So, for example, one could think a policy is good and then look for evidence that the person proposing or carrying out the policy has done something else good

Thus the title of this post: Deltas. I was a math major and I still use the word "delta" in daily conversation to mean "change." Someone makes a statement that he claims is factual. It's a delta in information. Is the delta true or false? If they think it's true, and they bothered making it, it must matter to them. Which is why I pursue the search for truth: If it matters, I want to know whether it's true or false.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods




COMMENTS (8 to date)
Trevor H writes:

I'll reference another trope from that era, the "fake but accurate" reporting of Dan Rather. Or maybe even Kellyanne Conway telling us not to take Trump's statements literally.

I think if pressed most people will acknowledge that Clinton shouldn't be blamed for narrowly answering a badly formed question by a hostile inquisitor. Or deny the facts of the Bush banner.

But both those examples are symbols of larger ideas that do hold some truth - Clinton was a master at being dishonest without lying. Bush was overconfident and failed to properly plan for the Iraqi occupation. I'm not sure it really matters if those symbols aren't literally true. Use of them enhances communication - they are vivid ways of referencing sophistry or premature celebration.

I'll even reference an example from my own undergrad days as a math major. We had a professor who, towards the end of a proof, would often mash together the final two or three steps and just skip to "Clearly, ..." and write the conclusion. So me and my buddies had the inside joke of using "Clearly" to mean we were stuck on a proof and ultimately it became a funny way for us to reference an unwarranted conclusion. "Oh, that girl sat next to you in class? Clearly she's hoping you'll ask her out." In that case, "Clearly" meant you were joking, that you were making a humorous leap of illogic. But the actual example it was based on was literally the opposite, our professor's conclusions were logically valid just maybe not well enough explained.

So now, if I'm discussing, for instance, language in a contract with a colleague and I say, "It depends on what the meaning of is" then it's obvious I think we are haggling over a technicality when we both know the true intent of the language. Or if we complete phase 1 of a project and I tell the team, "Mission Accomplished" they know what I'm really saying is good job so far, but don't get complacent.

Sorry this got long, I totally get your point. It's annoying to have falsehoods referenced as if they were truths. For me it depends on context. When someone is clearly referencing concepts, don't sweat the details. I would only argue the point if the topic of the discussion is in fact one of the events in question.

pyroseed13 writes:

Good post. This is actually what has been annoying me about this election: Statements are being evaluated based on whether the person likes Trump or Hillary, rather than considering whether the statement actually has merit. Example: Trump said during the last debate that Clinton "would be in jail" if he were President. He preceded this by saying that he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton about her lies and misconduct. This is perfectly lawful, yet the media proceeded to act as if he would literally imprison her because he disagrees with her politically. I've heard some argue that "Well, he's talked about jailing political opponents in the past, so it's reasonable to interpret it that way." Of course, if that were true in the debate, one would wonder why he bothered providing any context all. Trump is pretty much a guy that says what he means after all.

Even though Trump says many false things, that does not mean that everything he says is false.

Phil writes:

If it was the White House that wanted a banner to be in the background when Bush spoke, then the content of the message is properly attributed to Bush and not the crew of the ship. The speaker cannot blame the speechwriter. The PR people should have controlled that message and, to the extent it has been used against Bush, it is his own PR team's fault.

TMC writes:

'Mission Accomplished' was not a new thing. The ship was out on a prolonged and successful mission, and came home. Mission WAS accomplished. It's willful misreading that is the bad actor here.

Bacon Wrapped writes:

It was the USS Abraham Lincoln. I was assigned to that ship, but flew off a month or so before the event because my time was up (discharged).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Abraham_Lincoln_%28CVN-72%29#2000s

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bacon Wrapped,
Thanks. Change made.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Phil wrote:

If it was the White House that wanted a banner to be in the background when Bush spoke, then the content of the message is properly attributed to Bush and not the crew of the ship. The speaker cannot blame the speechwriter. The PR people should have controlled that message and, to the extent it has been used against Bush, it is his own PR team's fault.

I agree in principle. I don't remember enough of the detail of that situation to know for sure, but if the Bush people used it for PR purposes then I think it is fair to attribute statement on the banner to Bush.

pyroseed13 wrote:

Example: Trump said during the last debate that Clinton "would be in jail" if he were President. He preceded this by saying that he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton about her lies and misconduct. This is perfectly lawful, yet the media proceeded to act as if he would literally imprison her because he disagrees with her politically. I've heard some argue that "Well, he's talked about jailing political opponents in the past, so it's reasonable to interpret it that way." Of course, if that were true in the debate, one would wonder why he bothered providing any context all. Trump is pretty much a guy that says what he means after all.

Wow. I disagree emphatically.

"Because you'd be in jail" was a direct quote from Trump. Not, "If my appointed prosecutor finds evidence of criminal wrongdoing, files charges, and you are convicted by a jury of your peers, then you'll be in jail". It may be lawful to prosecute an alleged criminal, it is the epitome of lawless to find a person guilty before the investigtion has even begun (never mind a trial), as Trump did here.

Second, selectively targeting one's political opponents for justice (or "justice") may be legal in some situations, but it also reprehensible and immoral. Mr. Trump probably deserves to have his so-called charitable foundation investigated, but I would have been appalled by Clinton suggesting that in a debate.

pyroseed13 writes:

@Michael Byrnes

In the context of what he said, it strikes me as a reasonable interpretation to say that he would not unilaterally imprison Hillary as a dictator would. And what do you mean before an investigation? There's a lot of evidence already that indicates wrongdoing on Hillary's part. Sorry but this just sounds the halo effect at work here.

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