Response to Scott Adams on Tom Perkins, Godwin’s Law and Stigmatizing the Wealthy

by MugaSofer

What the heck. I know I don’t update this place enough, and here’s a ready-made thing I was already ranting about over there, dashed off after I read the article in question.

This is the post I’m replying to:

Scott Adams Blog: Nerds Are Taking Your Lunch Money

And here‘s a example of the stuff he’s responding to – it’s among the most popular examples, and it’s from the Huffington Post. In case the words “Godwin’s Law and Stigmatizing the Wealthy” in the title doesn’t let you predict what they’ll write. In other words, it’s not all wrong, but … pretty much content-free stuff you could generate by the page without needing to know the issue in question or believe a word of it, and possibly without human intervention – never let it be said I didn’t represent an opposing side in an argument fairly.

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“For starters, using a Hitler analogy is almost always a self-refuting argument. And by that I mean that if you need to invoke a Hitler analogy, there’s probably something deeply wrong with your point of view in the first place.

“But I said “almost always.” Interestingly, the Hitler analogy actually works in this particular case.”

Scott, the problem with Hitler parallels isn’t that they’re factually incorrect – they’re usually true – it’s that the negative connotations are just noise, noise that drowns out any information that was present in the discussion. That’s why they’re the last refuge of the desperate.

The poor and middle-class rising up and dragging the wealthy and powerful from their homes to answer to sham “justice” – this is a legitimate concern (obviously). But if that was his point, he would have used the French Revolution, not Nazi Germany.

Instead, he tried to FORCE the point that demonizing a subsection of your population = BAD BAD BAD, using a cheap trick. No-one can seriously argue that the Nazis were right, and as long as you’re factually correct, arguing that they didn’t do it is doomed. An argument that can’t be defended against no matter if the thing under discussion is actually bad or no – rendering what could be a valuable discussion utterly useless for determining something.

And everyone knows it, so it backfired immensely. Tricking people who know they’re being tricked is hard, especially when you’re too busy tricking them to notice how obvious you’re being.

Now, in my fairly certain opinion, it IS bad bad bad BAD. And while I don’t share your assessment of the odds, there are clearly serious points in favour that need to be discussed – maybe even enough to raise the probability to 5% from the prior.

But that’s not what he tried, is it?

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This simple comment is already way too long, so I may as well put my money where my mouth is and actually discuss some of those points that need discussion. Obviously, the same disclaimer applies to my discussion of them as to the article itself, for those likely to start taking anything I say here the wrong way.

[EDIT]: the disclaimer:

Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.”

[/EDIT]

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“I interpreted his analogy to mean that if the demonization of the rich continues there is a non-zero chance it could escalate into violence. That’s far from saying rich people are exactly like Jews in concentration camps. The willful misinterpretation of his point (or perhaps confirmation bias) is strong evidence of his point.”

Not really. Godwin’s law leads to this result more or less inevitably – the opposing side can always point to it in the case of a Hitler analogy, unless the connection is already well-established (eugenics, fascism, swastikas, basically.)

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“I often hear it said that the rich are torpedoing the U.S. economy by shipping jobs overseas or introducing robots […] the idea that the rich are, on average, subtracting jobs from the economy is economic illiteracy, not an opinion.”

Unless economists are economically illiterate, then I’m afraid yours is the illiterate opinion here (sorry, your term) – and if they are, well, considering your opinion originated with some economists … perfect Ricardian reimployment and the notion of “the Luddite Fallacy” is losing support, and frankly the reason is probably that the effect used to be small, not nonexistent, and is now larger as we’ve gotten better at it.

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“The angry contempt shown to Perkins’ opinion piece supports his opinion.”

Again, how? Moist robots, remember? Of course this is the response it would receive. No malice is necessary to explain people reacting according to their programming – and you know as well as I do what that programming entails when someone compares their group to the Jews in NAzi Germany.

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“The rich have already been dehumanized to the point where an offensive analogy seems the bigger crime against humanity than the possibility that the rich could someday be slaughtered by mobs.”

This was always the case. (OK, OK, I’m going to stop repeating this. Stupid article continuing as if it can’t hear my objections.)

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“Much of the public believes the economy is a zero-sum game and therefore the rich are stealing their money from the poor. That is economic illiteracy, not opinion.”

Yup, it is. Got no counterargument here. Nothing to see, folks, Scott is right about his. (Figure I should at least acknowledge that instead of only voicing my disagreements.)

However, Scott – while you’re right that this is a very common mistake and a dangerous one – you can still argue that wealth should be distributed differently without considering it fixed. So you may want to watch out for accidentally strawmanning people when you “recognize” their position as yet another fixed-pie idiot. Genuine rationality tip there, people – we all fall into this trap, so watch out!

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In case I need to point this out, the conclusion depends on the stuff leading up to it. Just in case there’s somebody reading this and saying “yes, the links in the chain are weak, but the chain as a WHOLE is strong/the conclusion is strong”.

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