Loaded Questions

Loaded Questions October 30, 2018

Loaded question: A loaded question or complex question fallacy is a question that contains a controversial or unjustified assumption (e.g., a presumption of guilt).

A conservative friend sent me the following:

When Joe the Plumber asked Obama if he would favor higher taxes on the rich even if it was counter-productive for all. He said, yes. I think that is crazy.

I can find no confirmation of this question and answer. CNN has the following account of the encounter between them.

In his exchange with Obama, Joe Wurzelbacher asked if the presidential candidate believed in the American Dream. Wurzelbacher said he was about to buy the plumbing company that he works for and was concerned that Obama would tax him more because of it. Families making more than $250,000 could see taxes go up under Obama’s middle-class tax cut plan, while those making less than $250,000 would not see any increase. Obama explained his tax plan in depth to Wurzelbacher, saying it’s better to lower taxes for Americans who make less money so they can afford to patronize his business. “I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Obama told Wurzelbacher.

The apocryphal question that my friend quoted contains the hypothetical premise that taxing the rich will hurt the economy. It is a classic loaded question…a “gotcha” question. The question asks for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, but Obama cannot win no matter which one he gives. If he answers yes, his enemies will portray him as an irresponsible ideologue who wants to play Robin Hood. If he answers no, he hands them a weapon to use against him if he raises taxes.

The actual question that Joe asked is not loaded, and Obama’s answer is not crazy at all. The growing divide between the rich and the poor in our country is profoundly unhealthy, and ultimately harmful to the economy. Poor people contribute little to the economy, and require government expenditures to prevent them from starving while paying no taxes. Also, poverty breeds crime. Desperate people do desperate things. This also has an economic cost.

Loaded questions can go both ways. Here’s a question for conservatives that is the obverse of the plumber’s loaded question: Should government take money from the rich to help the poor if it improves the economy?

If a conservative answers “no” he is showing that he is an ideologue who doesn’t care if the poor starve in the street. If he answers “yes” he is setting himself up for criticism from other conservatives who claim that taxing the wealthy reduces the funds that they have to invest in new or expanded business. Those business create jobs that can employ poor, unemployed people. Furthermore, they say that money given to the poor creates an unhealthy dependency.

Here’s another one: To environmentalists: Should the government take actions to limit global warming if those actions will harm the economy?

All three questions are bogus. They simplify complex questions into a yes/no that backs the responder into a corner. There is no “right” answer unless it is “yes, but…” or “no, but…” And then the questioner will howl, “You are evading the question. Answer it! Yes or no?”

Here are reasonable answers to the three questions:

Government costs money. Who should pay for it, and how much? Wealthy people can afford to pay more then poor people. Helping poor people is not just giving them money, although that will be necessary too. Education and job training will give them the tools to support themselves. Incentives like the Earned Income Tax Credit encourage them to work and support themselves. Free or inexpensive health care will maintain a healthy work force. You can’t work if you are sick. How about free day care for single parent families? In the long run, the taxes that the rich pay to help the poor help themselves will be repaid in an economy that provides markets for the products that come from businesses owned by the rich. Poor people don’t buy much. Furthermore, working people paying taxes and supporting themselves will reduce the need for government support programs.

Here’s a conservative answer to the second question: Just giving the poor money makes the problem worse, especially if they just spend it on drugs, booze and cigarettes. It creates a dependency that propagates from generation to generation with no end. We need to break that vicious circle with programs that encourage education and job training, and incentives to encourage people to work and support themselves. And finally, it needs to be carefully managed to eliminate the waste, fraud and abuse that is common in current programs. But it must be recognized that there will be less money invested in new businesses if taxes on the wealthy are raised. That is unavoidable.

Whoops! Did you get that? It’s practically the same response, with a slightly different emphasis. What it comes down to is that there is no simple yes or no answer to either question. Both sides want the same result: A society where everybody who is able to work has a productive job that enables them to support themselves and their families. The end is the same, only the means are up for debate. It’s gonna cost some money to fix this problem. Some people will benefit, others will pay. How should government apportion the costs so that most people agree that the system is fair and equitable?

To the third bogus question on the environment: Many of the actions needed to combat climate change do not have to be harmful to the economy. Clean, renewable energy sources are becoming economically competitive with fossil fuels. Manufacturing and installing those systems will create hundreds of thousands of jobs. The health benefits of reducing the toxic emissions from burning fossil fuel are well known and significant. The costs of continuing temperature rise will be huge…coastal cities will be inundated, or expensive sea walls will need to be erected. Storm damage is already increasing due to the higher ocean temperatures. Acidification of the oceans due to those higher temperatures is destroying marine ecosystems that are essential to a healthy biosphere. Desertification of prime agricultural areas will reduce our food sources for a still-growing world population. Some economic costs are inevitable in this worldwide struggle to maintain a habitable planet. We need to be prudent in our choices and priorities, but we must get started on this. There is one more question that everyone in the world needs to think about: The costs of fighting climate change will be immediate, while many of the benefits will not be realized for decades, even centuries. How much responsibility do current inhabitants have to maintain the habitability of the planet for future generations? It’s an ethical question that, like the other questions raised here, has no easy answer.

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