NEWSFLASH: Clever Similes Are Not “Arguments”

Investor Business Daily provided an interesting artifact for my morning review. In the article, IBD seeks to bolster the key Republican talking point that America has a “spending problem” rather than a “revenue problem” or even a “balanced problem.” It may well melt into the background of so many talking points, conservative op-eds, and ill-informed Facebook rants, but this article contained a couple of particularly clever acts of misdirection that deserve calling out.

When it comes to federal spending, Obama is like the alcoholic who says that the only drinking problem he has is when he can’t get a drink.

Oh snap. I see what you did there. A quick trip to Wikipedia reveals that “a simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things, usually by employing the words ‘like’ or ‘as.'” A simile may provide a clever turn of phrase that enhances the feel of an argument, but it is not an argument itself.

Here IBD employs the comparison of Obama to an alcoholic to disingenuously assert a couple of arguments into the audience’s mind. First, alcoholics are generally regarded as untrustworthy and of low moral character. While the author is explicitly drawing the connection between more spending and more drinking, the line implicitly justifies disregarding the President as a town drunk. This sort of well poisoning is a logical fallacy with no place in serious discourse (indeed, the more explicit attacks of Rush Limbaugh are preferable because they aim to entertain).

The simile also fails to connect with reality. President Obama committed to over a trillion in cuts in the last debt ceiling deal, and offered more cuts as part of his fiscal cliff offers. There is no spending compulsion coming from the White House. He’s actually reduced the deficit throughout his tenure. No wonder IBD tries to gloss over these demonstrable facts with a bad simile.

IBD only makes one attempt at a substantive argument to back up its smug turn of phrase.

Apparently, President Obama never got around to reading the final report of his own deficit commission. How else to explain his belief that federal spending isn’t the cause of the nation’s debt crisis?

Perhaps IBD should go back and read the commission’s report itself. The commission, of course, is the infamous Simpson-Bowles Commission, a group that received ubiquitous praise and zero serious consideration. IBD joins the legions of individuals who refuse to actually read the commission’s report in full by trying to craft a mythology around the report that serves their interests.

IBD quotes the Simpson-Bowles Commission report at length to support its argument, but none of the quoted passages cite a “spending problem” but rather a problem with “federal spending [] projected to increase faster than revenues.” That’s a problem with either spending or revenues or both.

Anticipating that some astute reader might notice this gap in the internal logic of this argument, IBD covers itself by quoting Simpson-Bowles as saying:

We should cut all excess spending — including defense, domestic programs, entitlement spending, and spending in the tax code.

True enough. What IBD overlooks is the commission’s simultaneous recommendation that taxes should increase to 21% of GDP. To put that number in context, tax rates were set at roughly 16% of GDP for the last few years and the “largest tax increase in history” last week will only increase taxes to 19.4% by 2022. It seems the Simpson-Bowles Commission believed we have a serious “revenue problem,” too.

For some reason the liberal counterargument to the Simpson-Bowles myth-making has mostly dropped the ball about the proposed tax hikes, which is a shame because if conservatives thrive on constructing myths to justify their positions and the content of Simpson-Bowles is not a myth liberals can afford to cede to the conservatives.

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