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Sunday, March 13, 2016


Thomas Frank is well-known for his earlier book What's the Matter With Kansas?,  which contained,  among other things, the unforgettable image of the peasants armed with their pitchforks storming the castle and shouting, in a furious rage, "We won't take it anymore!  We demand cuts in the marginal tax rates of the rich!"  Now Frank has published a new book,  Listen, Liberal, or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People. I have ordered it [the publication date is actually next Tuesday], and will say more about it when I have read it.  What motivated me was a very interesting review in the Washington Post

The reviewer, Carol Lozada, writes in part: 

"Bill Clinton was often described as the leader of his generation,” Frank writes, “but it’s more accurate to say he was the leader of a particular privileged swath of his age group — the leader of a class.” He ran as a populist alternative to George H.W. Bush, but once in office, Frank complains, he bowed to financial markets, globalization, and the professional class and self-serving meritocracy that this Arkansas boy had joined at Georgetown, Oxford and Yale.
For that class, Frank argues, income and wealth inequality is not a problem but an inevitable condition. Those who reach the top ranks of academia or Wall Street — or even Democratic Party politics — fully believe that they’ve earned their perch. “For successful professionals, meritocracy is a beautifully self-serving doctrine, entitling them to all manner of rewards and status, because they are smarter than other people,” Frank writes. “. . .­ For those who have just lost their home, for example, or who are having trouble surviving on the minimum wage, the implications of meritocracy are equally unambiguous. To them this ideology says, forget it. You have no one to blame for your problems but yourself.”

There is much more, and, as I say, I shall write about it after I read the book.  But just this much prompted me once again to write about something I have returned to on this blog on several occasions, namely the fallacy, fully embraced by so many "serious" people, that the scandal of income inequality can somehow be addressed by improving the educational attainments of those at  the lower end of the income hierarchy.

This, as I have often pointed out, is an example of what we in Philosophy call the Fallacy  of Composition -- the mistake of inferring, from the fact that something is true of each member of a group, that it is therefore true of all members of the group together.  [Example:  From the fact that each member of a concert audience could be the first person to leave when the concert  is ended, inferring that therefore all members of the audience could together leave first.]

It is certainly true of any particular person in the American workforce that improving his or her educational credentials [not at  all the same thing as learning more, of course] is a good way of improving his or her employment chances and probable income.  There is a really cool BLS chart illustrating this.  

But, as I have frequently observed on this blog, if all the unskilled laborers in America go to night school and earn MBAs, employers will not respond by eliminating the jobs now held by the unskilled workers and instead create millions of new upper and middle management positions in their firms.

I am reminded of my experience in the army at Fort Devons in 1957.   Here is what I wrote in my Memoir

"When I got to Devens, I discovered that I had been placed in a training platoon of six monthers lodged within a regular Army Company.  My platoon mates were all members of the Mass National Guard, and many of them were college graduates.  Our first sergeant was Dooley, a bullet-headed by-the-book lifer who actually was a college graduate himself.  When he heard that I had a Ph. D., he set me to work typing passes for the men in the platoon.  Josephs came in and asked to help, telling Dooley that he had an M. A.  Dooley was unimpressed, and told him to sweep the floor."

More on this topic when I have read Frank's book.


Seth said...

This is a very important topic. The entire elite response to the working class jobs crisis has been "get more education". On the one hand I'm tempted to think popularizing the Fallacy of Composition would help. On the other, I suspect the absurdity is reasonably obvious to the Trumpenproletariat without fancy jargon. And the elite folks don't so much fall into misplaced confidence in "more education" as they JUMP into it as a deliberate evasion on an issue where they've got nothing.

The globalization process for the US has been a bit like river rafting through rapids. The Republicans eagerly aim for the rocks in hopes of dumping some of the rafters without life jackets into the water, and the Democrats mildly suggest maybe we should try to avoid the rocks a bit -- or maybe give some life jackets to the weaker swimmers. But then go quiet and let the rocks/capsize/drowning cycle continue.

s. wallerstein said...

If they believe that more education is the key to a juster society, why don't they make public universities free and regulate the price of private education?

Juhani Yli-Vakkuri said...

"...the Fallacy of Composition -- the mistake of inferring, from the fact that something is true of each member of a group, that it is therefore true of all members of the group together."

I looks to me like you need a modal operator to state it, actually. Isn't the fallacy that of inferring (2) from (1)?

(1) (x)<>Fx
(2) <>(x)Fx,

or more generally (2*) from (1*)

(1*) (x: S)<>Fx
(2*) <>(x: S)Fx,

where <> is a possibility operator, (x) a universal quantifier, and (x:S) a universal quantifier restricted by the condition expressed by S. Here <> can be interpreted as expressing any kind of alethic possibility you like: metaphysical, political...

I. M. Flaud said...
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Juhani Yli-Vakkuri said...

OK, that's what I thought. Can it be expressed in non-modal (quantified first or higher order) logic? I suspect not.

I. M. Flaud said...
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AlanHug said...

RH Tawney's tadpoles. (Equality 1930)

I. M. Flaud said...
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Juhani Yli-Vakkuri said...
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Juhani Yli-Vakkuri said...
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Juhani Yli-Vakkuri said...

[I’ve tried to post this twice but I haven’t succeeded. The reason may be that there were some unusual symbols in my post. Let me now replace all unusual symbols with standard characters.]

I. M. Flaud: This is interesting. I struggled a bit to understand your reply, but then a logician friend of mine offered the following reconstruction:

“On the von Neumann definition, OMEGA is the union of all finite ordinals. So you have a case in which (For all x: x in OMEGA) (x in OMEGA) holds, but of course OMEGA in OMEGA doesn't hold. So it's a counterexample to the inference (which I guess no one would ever think valid anyway) (For all x in s) F(x) to F(s).”

This could be understood as a set-theoretic analogue to an instance of a putative principle of plural logic that sort of resembles the modal version of the fallacy composition: if, for each x in the plurality yy, F(x), then F(yy). This, however, isn’t well-formed. My friend suggests that we make sense of it by thinking of individuals as one-element pluralities.

If we go with this interpretation of your remark, it’s still a little unclear why

If (x) <> F(x) then <> (x) Fx


If, (for each x in yy, F(x)) then F(yy) (understood as above)

should count as instances of the same fallacy.

I. M. Flaud said...
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Charles Pigden said...

The fallacy that Professor Wolff diagnoses is surprisingly common in public life and hints of it can be found even amongst philosophers. Here's an except from a long post I wrote commenting on Allen Wood's series on the APA blog about what aspiring philosophers ought to do to avoid getting eliminated by search committees.

There’s a further point to note. Suppose that a survey of the first kind (on what search committees do) or an investigation of the second kind (into what successful applicants tend to look like) turns up really useful results. That is, they suggest winning and workable strategies that are open to all. These are widely publicized and the advice is taken to heart by every aspirant philosopher. Will this improve everybody’s prospects? Obviously not. Though some might do better than they did before (by avoiding some obvious pitfalls), this would bring about NO overall an improvement in the job situation. Think of all those conservative employment ministers (we have got them in both the country of my birth and the country of my adoption), who endeavor to improve the unemployment statistics by incentivizing get-up-and-go on the part of jobseekers. It is true of course that in the present environment jobseekers with get-up-and-go are more likely to get a job than those without. But it does not follow that you can cure unemployment by instilling get-up-and-go in all the unemployed. Even if you succeed, the net effect will be that jobs go not to the go-getters but to the super-go-getters. Thus the conservative strategy is foredoomed to fail. If you improve the overall quality of the applicants but don’t improve the supply of jobs you simply raise the standards for a successful applicant. Similarly with philosophy. If there is good, readily-available and easy-to-follow advice that gives those who take it a competitive advantage, it is an advantage which will soon dissipate since everybody will start to follow it. If everyone writes pithy CVs the writers of pithy CVs will lose their competitive advantage. If everybody gets to the point with their writing samples it won’t do you any extra good to get to the point (though it will do you harm if you don’t.) Of course, the competitive advantage to be derived from following the advice won’t dissipate if the advice is sound but DIFFICULT to follow (e.g. ‘Write really good papers and get them published in top journals’; ‘Impress the hell out of everyone you meet.’). If the advice is hard to follow, not everyone will follow it which means that those that do will continue to be one up on their competitors. Thus advice which is easy to follow will not confer a long-term competitive advantage while advice which continues to confer a long-term competitive advantage will not be easy to follow. So even if something useful (to most applicants) comes out of the research it not likely to stay useful for long.

Juhani Yli-Vakkuri said...

I.M. Fraud: Yes, I agree that the example Prof. Wolff was discussing conformed to the modal fallacy paradigm I described above (i.e., from '(x:S)<>Fx' infer '<>(x:S)Fx'). It's clearly a fallacy. It just wasn't clear to me that that fallacy had a *form* that could be described in non-modal terms. The other fallacy you seem to be describing seems to have a different form.