Logical Fallacies: 5. Equivocation

 

Madsen Pirie’s series on logical fallacies continues with a look at equivocation.

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Reading Owen Jones at the moment is really rather amusing

His basic contention seems to be that Syriza’s election victory in Greece is a rerun of the fight against the Nazis and this time the left must win. Very slightly overblown that comparison.

Syriza’s posters declared: “Hope is coming”. Its election must represent that everywhere, including in Britain, where YouGov polling reveals huge popularity for a stance against austerity and the power of big business. A game of high stakes indeed: one that, if lost, will mean countless more years of economic nightmare.

This rerun of the 1930s can be ended – this time by the democratic left, rather than by the fascist and the genocidal right. The era of Merkel and the machine men can be ended – but it is up to all of us to act, and to act quickly.

Quite what style he would use to discuss anything actually important is difficult to imagine.

He has, of course, also got the economics of this entirely wrong. Greece’s problems do not really stem from “austerity”. They stem from membership of the euro. The harrowing internal deflation the country has been undergoing are the result of their not being able to conduct a devaluation of the currency. And far from it being us “neoliberals” arguing that such deflation is necessary we’ve all been shouting that the devaluation would have been a better idea. Indeed, the absolutely standard IMF (for which read, in Jones’ language, neoliberal, Washington Consensus, right wing etc etc) solution to Greece’s problems would have been a loan package, some modest budget constraints and a devaluation.

It’s not going to work out well, of course it isn’t. Partly because it’s difficult to see who is going to win that argument over the debt and partly because the actual domestic economic policies of Syriza are so barkingly mad. But before Britain’s leftists start cheering this victory over the forces of reaction they’d do well to understand exactly what we all have been saying these years. If the standard, orthodox, economic policies had been followed the Greek situation would never have arisen in the first place. Sure, they borrowed too much, that happens quite a lot. But the deflation would have been replaced by that devaluation and it would all just be a dim memory by now.

Anti-slavery laws don’t help many sex workers, and may end up harming them

Some people blame sex slavery, or trafficking, driven by pimps for keeping young girls in prostitution. Young girls are drawn in and brutalised by pimps, the conventional wisdom goes, and tackling this is the best way to reduce the number of girls trapped in prostitution. The Modern Slavery Bill in the UK is motivated by this kind of assumption.

A new study of underaged sex workers in New York City and Atlantic City seems to suggest that this is actually very rare. Using the largest data set ever gathered in this kind of work in the US, researchers surveyed pimps and sex workers to find out how common pimping was. Figures 1 and 2 below show how few underaged girls are introduced to sex work by pimps and how few actually have pimps on an ongoing basis:

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 17.57.46

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 17.58.55In fact, poverty and lack of access to work, housing or education seem to be what keep girls in prostitution:

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 18.01.22None of this tells us that anti-slavery legislation is bad, but it does seem to miss the point somewhat. However, one fact cited by the authors does mean we should think twice about anti-slavery laws: only 2 percent of underaged sex workers said that they would go to a ‘service organisation’ if they were in trouble, because ‘the anti-trafficking discourses and practices they would encounter in these organizations threaten to criminalize their adult support networks, imprison friends and loved ones, prevent them from earning a living, and return them to the dependencies of childhood.’

If only a small number of sex workers count as being trafficked, and anti-trafficking laws alienate others from the services set up to protect them, then anti-slavery legislation may end up having very perverse consequences indeed.

 

Markets vs. Mandate: the American energy dilemma

New York State’s fracking ban has evoked strong polarising sentiment. Local anti-fracking supporters welcomed the ban as a necessary intervention against corporations pursuing profits at the expense of local safety. The fracking industry on the other hand, saw it as a political move; an example of political interference in the markets at the expense of jobs, energy security and the principles of enterprise and free markets that America stands for.

This dynamic is symptomatic of a bigger tension between markets and mandate within the US energy industry; one that that lies at the heart of hotly contested issues like the Keystone pipeline and the proposed TTIP EU-US free trade agreement.

And against the backdrop of a President carving out climate action as a top priority, historic US commitments to reducing emissions, a Republican House majority that views Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency as big-government interventionism, and America’s emergence as a global energy producer, how this tension is resolved affects not just the future of American energy, but has wider global ramifications.

Six years ago I wrote in the Financial Times about the need for less interference in European energy markets to enhance competitiveness; a perspective I still find myself inclined towards today, and for good reason.

Take energy security for example. Shifting responsibility for energy security from suppliers to government would reduce, not increase, security. A liberalised market provides strong incentives for producers to diversify supply and respond to consumer demand. OPEC’s current oil price war might even eventually strengthen a fracking industry forced to become more technically innovative and cost efficient to survive, despite the shorter-term challenges.

Then there is the danger of vested interests influencing a wide government mandate and effectively using government as a proxy for their own interests as illustrated by recent alleged links between energy company Devon Energy and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

And of course there is the notion that climate change justifies state intervention to make cleaner renewables more competitive against oil and gas. But while this is a logical argument, its worth noting that government intervention is at least partly to blame for renewables having less market share in the first place. Federal research for US oil and gas as well as tax credits and subsidies totalling $10 billion between 1980 and 2002 dwarfed state support for renewables, ensuring there was never a level playing field to begin with. And modern-day fracking could not have developed without federal research and demonstration efforts in the 1960s and ’70s.

But as valid as all this is, it fails to tell the whole story.

What makes the energy industry unfortunately unique is the speed with which it could environmentally impact our planet; a factor so exceptional it justifies exceptional action in addressing it, including, if need be, some level of market intervention.

The real problem with the US energy debate is its deep ideological polarisation. Energy discourse is too often pulled towards dogmatic extremes; between those who believe strong government intervention is necessary to further centralise and regulate energy markets, sometimes to the point of protectionism, or conversely those who, as economist Paul Krugman put it when describing the GOP, “believe climate change is a hoax concocted by liberal scientists to justify Big Government, who refuse to acknowledge that government intervention to correct market failures can ever be justified”.

A healthy balance is probably somewhere in-between with sound market based interventions that do not plan energy markets or pick winners through polices like the ethanol blending mandate, but instead couple responsibility for environmental damage and carbon emissions with individual companies and consumers. A carbon tax could help achieve this by using market incentives to strengthen cleaner energies and encourage efficient consumption. After all, why should the burden of carbon emissions, which have a cost, not be factored into a transaction?

And just as timely market adjustments within the financial sector could have averted the worst of the 2008 financial crash and subsequent government bailouts, a carbon tax today would prevent a more drastic future government response to disasters that rising CO2 emissions would undoubtedly cause if left unchecked.

Yet with the looming 2016 Presidential elections, the potential for politicised narratives and populist slogans to take priority over any meaningful measured balance in the US energy discourse is all too real and present.

Somewhere between climate deniers, including prominent GOP members, refusing to acknowledge the need for any climate action, and those attempting to address the problem in a vacuum without considering how sweeping interventionist solutions undermine economic competitiveness (an approach that creates an inevitable political, business and electoral backlash), lie more sustainable, effective solutions. It is vital moderates across the political aisle work together to reach them.

Vicente Lopez Ibor Mayor is currently Chairman of one of Europe’s largest solar energy companies – Lightsource Ltd. He is former General Secretary of Spain’s National Energy Commission between 1995-1999 and was previously a member of the Organizing Committee of the World Solar Summit and Special Advisor of the Energy Program of UNESCO (1989-1994).

Unproductive patents

Patents are a state-granted property rights, designed to promote innovation and the transfer of knowledge. They grant the holder a time-limited, exclusive right to make, use and sell the patented work, in exchange for the public disclosure of the invention. This, so the theory goes, allows creators to utilise and commercially exploit their invention, whilst disclosing its technical details allows for the effective public dissemination of knowledge.

However, complaints that the patent system is broken and fails to deliver are common.

Patent Assertion Entities (or ‘Patent Trolls’) buy up patents simply to threaten accused infringers with (often dubious) lawsuits, and are estimated to cost American consumers alone $29bn annually. Another scourge are the ‘patent thickets’ made up of overlapping intellectual property rights which companies must ‘hack’ through in order to commercialize new technology. These have been found to impede competition and create barriers to entry, particularly in technological sectors.

Even thickets and trolls aside, using the patent system can carry high transaction costs and legal risks. Litan and Singer argue that this prevents many small and medium businesses from utilizing the system, with over 95% of current US patents unlicensed and failing to be put to productive use. This represents a huge amount of potentially useful ‘dead’ capital, which is effectively locked up until a patent’s expiry.

There are plenty of ways we can tinker with the patent system to make it more robust and less expensive. However, they all assume that patents do actually foster innovation, and are societally beneficial tool.

A number argue that even on a theoretical level this is false; the control rights a patent grant actually hamper innovation instead of promoting it. Patents create an artificial monopoly, which results, as with other monopolies, in higher prices, the misallocation of resources, and welfare loss. Economists Boldrin and Levine advocate the abolition of patents entirely on grounds the that there is no empirical evidence that they increase innovation and productivity, and in fact have negative effects on innovation and growth.

A new paper by Laboratoire d’Economie Appliquee de Grenoble, authored by Brueggemann, Crosetto, Meub and Bizer backs this claim, by offering experimental evidence that patents harm follow-on innovation.

Test subjects were given a Scrabble-like word creation task. Players could either make three-letter words from tiles they had purchased, or extend existing words one letter at the time. Those who extended a word were rewarded with the full ‘value’ of that word, creating a higher payoff to sequential innovation. In ‘no-IP’ (Intellectual Property) game groups, words created were available to all at no cost. In the IP game groups, players could charge others a license fee for access to their words.

The results are striking:

We find intellectual property to have an adverse effect on welfare as innovations become less frequent and less sophisticated…Introducing intellectual property results in more basic innovations and subjects fail to exploit the most valuable sequential innovation paths. Subjects act more self-reliant and non-optimally in order to avoid paying license fees. Our results suggest that granting intellectual property rights hinders innovations, especially for sectors characterized by a strong sequentiality in innovation processes.

In fact, the presence of a license fee within the game reduced total welfare by 20-30%, as a result of less sophisticated innovation. Players in these games used shorter, less valuable words, and in order to avoid paying license fees would miss innovation opportunities which were seized upon in no-IP games.

The authors suggest that patents could be harmful in all highly sequential industries. These range from bioengineering to software, where the use of patents has been strongly criticized, through to pharmaceuticals, where the use of patents is much more widely accepted. If patents really do restrict follow-on innovation even remotely near as much as suggested, the implications could be huge.

Of course, the study is only experimental and far less complex than real life, but it’s a useful contribution to the claim that patents do more to hinder than to help.