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Our Fallacious World: California’s Proposition 23

BPPtrent-lsat-blog-octoberlsatWhen studying for the LSAT it’s easy to think fallacies are akin to other formal definitions and procedures we learn in college; important for a narrowly specified purpose in the short term, but otherwise largely irrelevant to our lives.

At Blueprint, our view is different. We think fallacious reasoning exists outside of the rarified world of the LSAT and that, at times, it can rear its ugly head and infect even the most level-headed of us.

Various circumstances encourage poor reasoning, but chief among these are politics and religion. Our etiquette conveniently holds that we shouldn’t talk about such things so that we publicly justify our inchoate intuitions about the existence of god or the wisdom of universal health care.

But regrettably, ours is a democracy and therefore some level of social discourse is necessary. Thus, the abundance of fallacious reasoning that swirls around us…

This is not only a midterm election year, but one that falls on some of the hardest economic times in at least a generation. Intuitions are conflicted, and our commitments are tested. In such circumstances, fallacies seem to fall from the sky.

I’d like talk about just a small instance that has itself engendered extensive debate, California Proposition 23.

The Facts:

Proposition 23 seeks to “suspend” Assembly Bill 32, known as the Global Warming Solutions Act. AB 32, passed into law by the state legislature in 2006, requires that by 2020 California cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels.

Proposition 23, if passed, would “suspend” the enactment of AB 32 until the unemployment rate in California drops to 5.5% for at least one continuous year.

Some Background:

California is currently the second highest producer of greenhouse gases in the US and one of the largest in the world. AB 32 is an admittedly rigorous proposal that would give California some of the most stringent emissions standards in the country. Its proponents hope that it would become a model for other states and countries to follow.

If AB 32 is enacted, energy costs in California are suspected to rise (though the amount is uncertain), as businesses will likely pass on the increased regulatory cost for green house gas reductions to the public.

To the extent that AB 32 imposes stiff regulations on industry, it adds to the regulations and taxes that are said to make California an undesirable place for manufacturing. Thus, some people have claimed that AB 32 will result in fewer jobs in California. Others claim that it makes California a leader in green technology and actually produce more jobs than it eliminates. Ultimately, the mid and long term economic consequences of AB 32 are unknown.

Embedded Fallacies:

“Suspend” verses “Eliminate”

One of Proposition 23’s advocates, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, filed suit to (among other things) require the Attorney General’s description of the proposition to describe it as “suspending” AB 32 instead of “eliminating” or “repealing” AB 32. They successfully argued Proposition 23 would simply suspend the Global Warming Solutions Act until California’s unemployment fell below 5.5.%, and thus the language of “suspending” appears on the ballot.

The assumption here is that a “suspension” of AB 32 isn’t tantamount to eliminating it altogether. Interestingly though, California’s unemployment rate has only dropped below 5.5% three times since 1970.

But we should recall that AB 32 only runs until 2020. The California unemployment rate is currently about 12% and economists expect it won’t fall below 8% in the in the next five years, and likely longer. If Prop 32 were passed, the unemployment rate in California would have to drop below 5.5% for at least a year sometime in the next 9 years for AB 32 not to be eliminated altogether. If the unemployment rate didn’t drop that far until 2021 or after, AB 32 would be defunct.

Given the current economic crisis, it seems unlikely that California’s unemployment rate will fall below 5.5% for any sustained period before 2020. If that’s the case, this suspension is actually tantamount to eliminating AB 32 altogether.

The Inverse:

So far as I can tell, Proposition 23 subtly eliminates AB 32 in another way as well, and one that has received far less press.

Prop 23’s text refers to the suspension with curious language. It reads:

38600. (a) From and after the effective date of this division, Division 25.5 (commencing with Section 38500) of the Health and Safety Code is suspended until such time as the unemployment rate in California is 5.5 percent or less for four consecutive calendar quarters.

The propositional logic is actually a bit sketchy, and this is a case where a diagram like those used by LSAT students might be useful. The key word in the quote above is “until” (emphasis added). The proposition above actually asserts:

If unemployment does not fall below 5.5% for one year, then AB 32 will not be enacted.
It does NOT assert:
If unemployment does fall below 5.5%, then AB 32 will be enacted.

At Blueprint we know this inference as the fallacy of the inverse. The rule that AB 32 will be suspended until unemployment drops does NOT imply that when unemployment drops the suspension will end. The language allows that unemployment could drop below 5.5% for more than a year, and AB 32 might remain suspended indefinitely.

By analogy, if a girl says she won’t date you until you cut off your civil war beard, don’t think you’re a shave away from hooking up. It’s entirely consistent for the girl to turn you away even after you shave.

If Proposition 23 is passed, unemployment falling below 5.5% for a year would become a necessary condition for the enactment of AB 32, but not a sufficient one.

Moreover, as discussed earlier, it’s a necessary assumption that’s unlikely to ever be met.

Proposition 23 thus presents a number of fallacies: namely, some ambiguous language that cloaks an embedded assumption and a fairly clear confusion of sufficient and necessary conditions.

Tomorrow is election day, so please do two things. First, actually go out and vote, for candidates and the ballot measures. Second, read the language of the ballot measures closely. You might be surprised at what you find hidden in the obscure language.

Disclosure: I’m in favor of AB 32 and thus an opponent of Proposition 23. But as much as I’d like readers to agree with the substance of my views, I’m far more interested in readers using their own faculties of reason to arrive at positions on these issues.