Saturday, May 6, 2017

Candy bars and false equivalence

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

When I was a young child it was a regular experience to share the last piece of something, candy, cake, watermelon, mostly anything that tasted good, with a friend or sibling.  These moments of reasonable civility did not come naturally, as I recall.  Most times the sharing was done only after a few things happened.  First there may have been an effort by one or all parties present to surreptitiously snake the last sweet treat into one's palm or pocket without being seen. Sometimes there was just a bold, outright grabbing.  This was normally followed by a hue and cry from the other party.  The hue and cry escalated into a brouhaha (sorry, I just love this word).  At some point another presence entered the scene. An adult. A parent or a teacher, or a friend of parents and teachers seemed to be inherently attracted to these moments.  

"If you can't share the last piece, then nobody can have it,"  was the gist of what the adult normally said.  Sometimes that would result in the adult confiscating the goody, and, I always assumed but cannot prove, eating it themselves.  But usually all parties took a breath, weighed the options, and entered into negotiations.  

"Each of you take half of the last piece," the adult would say.  The wisdom of years is priceless.

Begrudgingly the parties would enter the process of carefully dividing the object of our desire.  Another argument might ensue.  It was quickly obvious, even to the young eye, that dividing something equally is difficult.

The adult voice might suggest, "Okay, one of you gets to divide it into two pieces.  The other one gets to choose which piece you want."   I could only hope to achieve that kind of maddening, Solomonesque wisdom someday.

Another crisis averted. 

 I learned a lot from those experiences. Eventually sharing in times of scarcity became natural, and all of those machinations of assuring exact equality seemed like a waste of time, not because it was not important to be fair.  It's just that it was impossible for things to be exactly equal. 

But sometimes, in the midst of the above scenario, another strategy was executed. 
The quicker, usually older party might grab the last precious prize, break off a small piece and with an exaggerated gesture of magnitude, give it to the other.  "There, you can have that.  Now we can both have some.  That's fair."  Even a slow, younger kid knows that ain't right and another hue and outcry would ensue.  "But you got some, I got some, we both got some, you can't get more fair than that," the older might protest. I laugh at that childhood memory now.  It was my first introduction to a concept called "false equivalence."  

False equivalence is a logical fallacy in which two opposing arguments appear to be logically equivalent when in fact they are not. This fallacy is categorized as a fallacy of inconsistency.  I got this definition off of Wikipedia, and it is a little high minded.  But bear with me.

A good example is in the news right now.  During the recent discussion and votes on the new health insurance bills passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this week many of the proponents of the quick vote publicly defended the rapid movement, saying it was no different than when the Affordable Care Act was passed during the Obama administration, saying that Obama's ACA was rammed through without input or discussion in a short time.  In other words, the Republicans who supported the new act said they were handled the same, so why should anyone complain?  

 The ACA was debated, in Congress, and in the public forum for almost a year, from the time of President Obama's address to Congress in early 2009 until it was signed into law in March, 2010. Changes were made at the suggestion of Republicans that were concessions by President Obama.  More than fifty Congressional hearings were held. Groups of insurers, medical providers, government and business entities were brought in to discuss and have input.  Citizens groups had almost a year to make their case one way or the other. The Congressional CBO did a cost-analysis of the bill.  Private think tanks of all stripes and persuasions had ample time and published their own studies. It was a long, laborious, public process.

In contrast the new American Health Care Act (AHCA) was not publicly proposed until March 6, 2017. It failed on its first vote in late March due to a split in the Republican majority in Congress. An amendment was proposed in late April. The bill was passed by the House on May 4, 2017, less than two months after it was first made know to the public, and less than three weeks after it was dramatically amended. There have been no hearings, no systematic input from business, healthcare providers, insurance companies, or other government entities, no CBO cost analysis or opportunity for private groups to do cost analysis. There has been little time for the public to digest the content of the legislation and express opinion, although some have done the best they could.

Forget policy considerations for the moment.  The point is, the process by which these two pieces of legislation were handled could hardly have been more different.  To suggest the rapid action by the House of Representatives was justified because President Obama's ACA was passed in the same manner is a false equivalence.  

And the reason for the creation of that false equivalence is worthy of pause and examination. 

We use false equivalence to justify our thoughts and actions. But if they are false, shouldn't we be concerned about the harm we are causing?  Or even if we believe the cause we are supporting or protecting is right and good, have we lost our moral compass in accepting, even promoting lies to get what we believe to be correct?

For another example, a politician lies on a daily basis.  His or her opponent, who does not lie often is caught in a lie.  The politician who lies daily stands up and calls his or her opponent a liar and that he or she cannot be believed.  The pundits and supporters who favor the politician who lies daily adopt the argument, "both of them have lied, that's just politics. How dare you criticize my candidate.  Your candidate lies too."  Regrettably it is true that both have lied. But clearly one lies much more than the other.  The acceptance of the false equivalence without question prevents a real examination of the respective character and qualifications of the candidates.  All politicians lie.  Don't get too smug. All of us normal people have lied too.  But the candidates are not equal in their propensity to lie.  It is a mistake to disregard a true inequality in character. But that is what we do when we accept a false equivalence without pause or examination.

Statements of false equivalence pop up in all of the political and policy issues that we face today.  Equal opportunity. Equal justice. Gender equality. Tax policy. Crime and punishment. Poverty. Even health and pre-existing conditions.  Nothing is simple.  These problems cannot be addressed by a dismissal of reality that comes with false equivalence. The truth is, equivalence is usually impossible to achieve. Perhaps theoretically, as in mathematics, it can be done.  But in the real, physical world, and in the world of thought and ideas, perfect equivalence is difficult.  It would have been virtually impossible for us kids to perfectly divide the candy bar.  We can get close to equivalence, and learn to accept the slight imperfections in our calculations.  But some inequalities are significant and are worthy of examination in dealing with problems.  

This notion of declaring a false equivalence disturbs me more as an adult than it did as a child on the wrong end of the candy deal.  The use of false equivalence in our public discourse is an insidious obstacle to the identification, discussion and resolution of serious problems that face us.  At best it is a misguided effort to appear fair, an intellectual laziness or willful ignorance.  At worst, it is like the older, smarter kid trying to justify his or her unfairly large hunk of a candy bar, hoping that no one challenges the lie he has perpetrated, even criticizing the other child for complaining after he received his "share" of the candy.

It's time to grow up.  It's our turn to be the adults in the room.


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