For Teaching Notes: Political Rhetoric

I teach public budgeting & finance as part of the core in our MPA program. Budgets are a managerial tool, but also a exercise in persuasion. Justifications are required on the terms of the decision makers, not your own. For that reason, I did a segment on political rhetoric (slides annotated with comments downloadable here) with an emphasis on three topics:

  1. Traps in Talking Past One-Another
  2. Logical Fallacies
  3. Diagramming Arguments

I like to imagine these help contribute to a more civil and higher quality discourse. Feel free to make use of the slides (would appreciate knowing if you do), and I would welcome any feedback. A little about each topic…

Traps in Talking Past One-Another

If you and your counter party cannot understand each other you won’t get very far in persuasion. Furthermore, if you have at least a working understanding of the ideology you are dealing with (not their caricature), you can choose the more favorable frames and better anticipate their questions. I had the students read Arnold Kling’s Three Languages of Politics, which is $4 at Amazon or free at Cato, so in lecture we went through a news article on privatized firefighting in California.

Discussions of what constitutes a “Right” is another pitfall, so I provided the positive and negative right dichotomy, which is another good working conceptualization of rights provided you don’t overthink it.

Lastly, I discussed anecdotes. Anecdotes are perhaps the lowest status form of evidence, which is interesting in part because as a professor (a high status position in the world of evidence dispensaries) I use anecdotes all the time to teach. I think the problem is one of conflating the use of anecdotes to make a logical point versus a statistical one. I think gun control and border immigration control are good examples where groups talk past one another (perhaps deliberately) by differences in the intention of their anecdotes.

Logical Fallacies

There are hundreds of fallacies, but I went with ones I felt were most common in public economics debates:

  • Genetic Fallacy
  • Sunk Cost Fallacy
  • Ecological Fallacy
  • Fallacy of Composition
  • False Analogy
  • Ad hominem
  • Motte and Bailey Tactic
  • False Indicator Fallacy (Ok, I made this one up, it probably is already nested in another fallacy)
  • Appeal to Tradition
  • Post hoc ergo propter hoc
  • Politician’s Syllogism
  • Argument from Ignorance
  • Fallacy Fallacy

Diagramming Arguments

We finished with a overview on how to diagram an argument. Of course this is helpful in preparing your own argument and in critiquing others. I distributed the recent NYT op-ed by Saez and Zucman and had them try their hand at it before showing them a rough sketch of my own.

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