An informal fallacy that is committed so often it has become part of our daily discourse is called the “post hoc” fallacy, or the “false cause.” The full name is “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” and I used to tell my students to remember that so they could parade the phrase before their parents to convince them that their money was well spent on their kids’ education! (Echoes of Stendhal!) The reasoning goes as follows: since B follows A the latter must be the cause of the former. The natives in Bobka throw virgins in the volcano to appease the volcano gods and the volcano remains calm. Therefore, since we all want the volcano to remain calm, we need to make sure we have a plentiful supply of virgins on hand. Absurd? You bet. But common, especially in politics these days. Consider the following story:
WESTERVILLE, Ohio (AP) — Mitt Romney on Friday encouraged young Americans facing bleak job prospects to “take risks” — and even borrow money from their parents — to help improve their economic fortunes.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee noted that the nation’s economy is recovering but blamed President Barack Obama for presiding over the “most anemic and tepid” comeback since the Great Depression. Continuing his recent focus on younger voters, Romney said Obama’s policies are making it harder for college graduates to be successful.
There are so may things wrong with this story one hardly knows where to begin. But let’s take the “false cause” first. Romney has always taken the line that since the economy is weak and Obama is President, therefore Obama is the cause of the weak economy. Now, surely, even he knows this is absurd. The weak economy is the result of multiple factors and the sitting President cannot be singled out, given the fact that he has little to say about the course this country takes with the majority in Congress in the opposing party. Obama hasn’t been able to do much of anything, in fact, much less make the economy worse — or better. The economy is improving, though slowly. But while he is willing to blame Obama for the weak economy in the first place, Mitt is reluctant to credit Obama with the recovery, calling it “anemic.” Sometimes you can’t win for losing. And you’ve got to love the claim that Obama’s policies “are making it harder for college graduates to be successful.” There’s that post hoc fallacy again!
But then Mitt goes on to urge students in college to borrow $20,000.00 from their parents to start a business — like Jimmy John. He forgets that not all American kids have fathers who can cash in a few stocks to send their kid to college, as Mitt’s father did for him. More typical is the American family that has to go into debt to send their children to college in the first place; they cannot afford to cough up $20,000.00 for a 21 year-old kid who may (or may not) be the next millionaire. Surely, it would be better to address the issues of (a) the growing debt facing college students and (b) the exploding cost of tuition and fees. The two issues are not unrelated. A bill was introduced in the House recently by Rep. Hansen Clarke (HR 4170) that would forgive the student loans. But as Clarke is a Democrat it stands to reason that Mitt would not speak in favor of such a bill even though it might win over some young voters and give the economy a much-needed boost.
Romney mentions “divisiveness” in this speech and he is certainly correct about that. And he is part of it, as suggested above. The divisiveness in politics these days has positively crippled government, making it impossible to get anything done. There has always been party strife, going back to the founding of this country. But the idea was that the two sides could come together and work out a compromise. As things stand today, the two sides cannot come together because they are loyal to their own party and their corporate sponsors rather than to the nation they are sworn to support. This is a real problem, and it can hardly be laid at the feet of Barack Obama. Or even Mitt Romney. But it is a problem that all politicians should address — though they almost certainly will not.