Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Logic of “The Ballad of Cliven Bundy”

So I thought, in honor of Stephen Colbert’s promotion, to go over the logic of “The Ballad Cliven Bundy.” Per Stephen Colbert’s report, in a clip Cliven Bundy asserted:

I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.

Colbert formalized this, bless him, into a logical statement:

You can’t pay a government if it doesn’t exist. Especially not with the money that it issued.

Nice. So let’s write it out as a formal syllogism:

1. Consider my grazing fees,
2. I don’t have to pay them,
3. Because the United States government doesn’t exist.

Not bad. Let’s look at it. Does it pass test #1? Okay, if the United States government does not exist, then it wouldn’t make any sense to pay them grazing fees. Right? Of course, you would object: the United States government does exist. Really? Are you sure? Have you seen it lately?

What about test #2? If the United States government does not exist, must it be true that you do not have to pay them? I think that one’s okay too.

So we’re got the makings of a pretty good syllogism here; all we have to do is prove the United States government does not exist.


I imagine Mr. Bundy actually isn’t really saying the government does not exist (although that might be a more interesting debate); I’m expecting he’s saying that said government does not have the right to act as the United States government (I’m guessing he didn’t vote for Obama). So let’s try that. Say you disagree with syllogism #1, because it fails test #1 (the US government, for you, does exist). So you would say to Mr. Bundy, rtags ma grub–your reason is not established (meaning, your syllogism fails test #1).

Okay, so what does Cliven have to do next? The structure of debate is, if the defender (you) says “reason not established,” then the attacker (Cliven) makes a new syllogism: #1 (the subject) stays the same, #3 (the reason) becomes the new #2 (assertion), and then they give a new #3 (reason). So:

1. Consider my grazing fees,
2. It is so true the United States government doesn’t exist,
3. Because I don’t recognize the US government as legitimate.

Okay, what about this one? Test #1: did the government you don’t recognize as legitimate issue you grazing fees? Okay here. Test #2: Is it true that because you don’t recognize something as legitimate, it must not exist? Not bad. If you think that’s not true, what’s your example? Let’s try test #3: If the US government doesn’t not exist, does that mean you must recognize it as legitimate? Okay, well here, I think Cliven is his own example.

But you go Cliven! Beat them with logic.

Poor is ethical?

So my friend Jim asked me to look at this article, 5 Ways the Poor Are More Ethical Than the Rich. So, here goes.

Obviously, this is a loaded subject. The “vanishing” middle class, the percentage of wealth owned by the percentage of wealthy people, the cost of education, crime and punishment, at the cornerstone of all these debates is financial inequity. According to Sociology Professor G. William Domhoff at University of California at Santa Cruz:

In terms of types of financial wealth, the top one percent of households have 35% of all privately held stock, 64.4% of financial securities, and62.4% of business equity. The top ten percent have 81% to 94% of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and almost 80% of non-home real estate.

So can we approach these contentious subjects using logic? Of course.

But of course, where you start and how you look at it is going to determine, to a large extent, where we end up. Because, usually, logically, both sides of any contentious issue are going to be wrong.

So let’s look at one side of it. Is it true that, as “many wealthy Americans believe,” “dysfunctional behavior causes poverty”? Well, first, we have to define what “dysfunctional behavior” is. If dysfunctional behavior is defined as borrowing money that you can’t pay back, then many wealthy Americans would be right. Because borrowing money that you can’t pay back is stealing. And stealing is the cause of not having what you need.

If, however, we define dysfunctional behavior as lacking “good character and a strict work ethic” then you’d be half right. As I discuss in my book, hard work is not the cause for financial success. But what do we mean by “good character”? If that means not stealing, then as above. If that means not lying, then maybe here you have a debate. Because, technically speaking, there is no connection between lying and making money.

Consider money,
I will make it,
Because I lie/tell the truth.

Are either of these two syllogisms true? No, both will fail. Why? Because you know people who have told the truth and made money, and you also know people who have lied and made money. So either syllogism will fail tests #2 and #3.

Which is I guess what bothers me about this whole article. I love the conclusion (more on that later), but people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. If you don’t want to see poor people homogenized and stereotyped, then what would be your correct response? Don’t homogenize or stereotype wealthy people. The article starts off with “many wealthy Americans” and then gives their views as if they were all the same. Really? Warren Buffet believes that all poor people lack character and a strict work ethic? Bill Gates thinks the poor don’t care about each other? But I can tell you where stereotyping those you don’t like will get you; you will just see more people stereotyping you.

Consider stereotyping those I don’t like,
I will see more of them,
Because the third result of a mental seed is I will see that thing in my environment.

So how do we fix the wealth inequity in this country? By bashing rich people? Did you honestly think that would ever work? I just wrote about motivating others recently; changing attitudes is not a successful strategy for change. What is? Changing ourselves.

I’m also interested in how the article starts off berating the wealthy and idolizing the poor, but then point #5 is about the “vanishing” middle class and students burdened by college debt. What were we talking about here?

Then we get this whammy: “Lower-income Americans serve our food, care for our sick, and clean up after us, with minimal benefits and few complaints.” My brother is a nurse; he beat my income last year by triple digits. Talk about myths; the average garbage collector, if they work overtime, can make $60k a year. I’m in the wrong business. And few complaints? Hahahahaha. Maybe some of them, but all of them? Does this author even know any poor people?

I’m not saying the sentiment here isn’t correct; of course I agree that we should not judge people in poverty, but should instead look for ways to help them–like, for example, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. But I don’t see how gross generalization, either way, is going to help anything. If I want to approach the subject logically, I should stop trying to blame others and look for a solution myself.

Consider poverty,
I will eradicate it,
Because the third result of giving is that I will see a change in my world.

Myths of Behavior Change

So I was watching (another) Tedx video, this one on the myths of behavior change.

I was watching this and I thought, “maybe I need to become a social scientist.” Why? They’re speaking my language:

You will be the least successful if you let common sense guide you.

Jeni Cross is a sociology professor at Colorado State University and gives us three myths about behavior change that any social scientist knows, but evidently not every advertiser:

1. Education is not a primary motivator to behavior change
2. Changing attitudes is not generally a successful strategy, because attitudes follow behavior (not the other way around)
3. People don’t know what motivates them (asking people what motivates them is generally unsuccessful)

So watch the video for more information and examples, but I want to talk about the first quote, because I wrote about this in my book. What we think of as “common sense” is often false. Of course working hard means that you’ll be more successful. Or here, let’s use Dr. Cross’s example. Of course educating people motivates them to change behavior! If you tell them that 40% of energy consumption occurs in the home, of course they’ll seal their windows to reduce energy consumption.

Consider educating people about energy consumption,
It will motivate new behavior (get them to weatherstrip their homes),

Because why? One criticism I often hear about logic is that it will eventually fail, because it depends on assumptions. From my perspective, here is a good refutation of that idea. What we’ve done, by writing out what some people would assume is common sense, is identified an assumption. We assume education someone will change their behavior. But why? Why would you think that educating someone would necessarily motivate a change in their behavior? I can guess some of some reasons people might use: “Because education is good,” “Because education is empowering,” or, perhaps being somewhat circular, “Because education motivates behavior.” But does it? Would any of those syllogisms be true?

I think the biggest assumption, and the reason I would use if I were being honest, is “Because people act in their own best interest.” Is that true? Let’s try this one:

Consider educating people about energy consumption,
It will motivate new behavior (get them to weatherstrip their homes),
Because people act in their own best self-interest.

True or false? Run the tests. Test #1: Is there a connection between education and the best self-interests of people? Well, although it could help people to know about how they are wasting energy, do people really act in their own best self-interests?

If that was true, then we wouldn’t have a lot of the problems we have now, alcoholism and cigarette-smoking being the first two to pop into my mind. Just last night, I ate a Dairy Queen blizzard with cookie dough and Reese’s cups. Was that really in my own best self-interests?

Okay, so if this one fails test #1, how can we fix it? Well, sometimes people act in their own best self-interest:

Consider educating people about energy consumption,
It will motivate new behavior (get them to weatherstrip their homes),
Because people sometimes act in their own best self-interest.

Okay, so now we pass test #1. But what’s going to happen when we run test #2? Must it be the case, that if sometimes people act in their own best self-interest, it will motivate new behavior? In avoiding failing the first test, we’ve just set ourselves up to fail the second (and third).

So what’s the point? Uncover your assumptions, don’t believe “common sense” arguments are sufficient, and if you want to change your behavior, figure out what the real cause and effect relationship is.

Sell Your Crap

I was looking up something on YouTube and found a Ted video (it happens to me a lot). It’s a talk about selling your stuff and following your dreams.

The author makes a lot of claims, so I thought we could look at the logic (or illogic) or them. Generally, I’m all for getting rid of your stuff (unless its books) and living your life free. Back around 2000 or so, I was working for the Cornell Computer Science Department, and I decided that I wanted to go to India to explore. So I sent every other check I made straight to my student loan bill until I paid it off (my repayment book went through 2040). Then I sold my truck, quit my job at Cornell, and spent five months living in India.

Is that a logical thing to do? Let’s look at some syllogisms:

Consider my freedom,
I’m not taking advantage of it,
Because I’m in debt.

True or false? Run the tests: Test #1: is there a connection between freedom and being in debt? I would say yes, having debt has implications on your freedom. Test #2: If you’re in debt, must it be the case that you are not taking advantage of the potential freedom you have? No, if you like the “script” (working, raising kids, living the American dream) then you would be taking advantage of the freedom you have, potentially by taking on debt.

Consider living my dream,
I must get rid of my debt,
Because I can’t live my dream with debt.

Test #1: You could argue that it’s not true you can’t live your dream with debt. I have a friend that just did a three-year meditation retreat still owing $40k on her student loans. It’s more stressful, sure, but it can be done. But even if you say that test #1 was true, then test #2 would be, “if you can’t live your dream with debt, must it be the case that you must get rid of your debt?” No, you can go on living without living your dream. Sounds sad, but anyway the syllogism fails.

Does that mean we should run around and run up a bunch of debt? I didn’t say that. I’ve posted on this subject before on my old blog, but what mental seeds do you plant by borrowing money and not paying it back? I always say, “I know a lot of Buddhists that wouldn’t steal, but they’ll borrow something and not give it back.” You tell me how that’s different.

Consider borrowing too much money,
I shouldn’t do it,
Because it will plant the mental seeds for stealing.

Run the tests: test #1, if I borrow too much money, am I planting the mental seeds for stealing? Yes, we just discussed it. At some point you will find difficulty paying the money back, in which case you’ll be stealing. Test #2: if I plant the mental seeds of stealing, must it be the case that I should’t do it? Yes, if you plant the mental seed for stealing then it must be the case that, at some point, you will not be able to get something you need.

But there’s another point Adam Baker makes: we buy things to get over the stress we make for ourselves by borrowing more money.

There are thousands and thousands of people out there living lives of quiet, screaming desperation who work long, hard hours, at jobs they hate, to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like. (Nigel Marsh)

True or false?

Consider buying things,
I don’t need them,
Because ultimately they can’t make me happy.