Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why do people feel they have to lie to enhance a perfectly good argument?

I've said before that lying, even in a good cause, is wrong- and now here's an even more egregious example. First listen to the President speaking about budget proposals:

Sounds compelling to me! How can anyone justify cutting infrastructure spending, when the lack of maintenance caused that bridge in Minneapolis to collapse? 13 people died in that tragedy; what bastards those Republicans are to not care how many more they kill with their penny pinching!

There's just one minor detail, a mere quibble, really: It's a lie! The bridge collapsed because of a design flaw, not poor maintenance. According to the NTSB, the primary structural members, "gusset plates", were too small even for the original design weight, much less the extra abuse they were heaping on it when it fell: "On November 13, 2008, the NTSB released the findings of its investigation. The primary cause was the under-sized gusset plates, at 0.5 inches (13 mm) thick. Contributing to that design or construction error was the fact that 2 inches (51 mm) of concrete were added to the road surface over the years, increasing the dead load by 20%. Also contributing was the extraordinary weight of construction equipment and material resting on the bridge just above its weakest point at the time of the collapse. That load was estimated at 578,000 pounds (262,000 kg) consisting of sand, water, and vehicles. The NTSB determined that corrosion was not a significant factor, but that inspectors did not routinely check that safety features were functional.[135]" (Wikipedia) You could have given the maintenance crews an extra billion dollars, and it wouldn't have saved the bridge, because they were maintaining a fatally flawed structure. Extra maintenance dollars don't mean much when you're loading more than a half a million pounds onto something that wasn't up to code to begin with!

The rest of the President's argument was good enough in its own right- why did he feel he needed to lie to strengthen it? Are politicians unaware that when they're caught at it, people often consider the entire position discredited? Why do they risk it?


Eruonen said...

It just proves the old adage Q:"How can you tell when a politician is lying? A: When his lips move."

The purple, hope and change thing was always just a campaign lie.

Will Shetterly said...

How's that saying go about never assuming malice when ignorance will do?

And, really, who's more ignorant than a politician?

Eruonen said...

I don't think Obama the Anointed One was ignorant about the bridge design issue. He is very polished in the art of disinformation (as are most politicians) being schooled in the Saul Alinsky method.

Rules for Radicals

"The third rule of ethics of means and ends is that in war the end justifies almost any means...." p.29

UUpdater said...

IMO - maintenance schedules should be determined by the engineers, not politicians. But to try and answer Joel's question...

As a resident of MN at the time of the collapse I followed the news on that pretty closely. If I remember correctly the inspection of the gusset plates which might have revealed the stress fractures didn't take place. It is possible that *if* the inspection took place and *if* the fractures were found and *if* the fractures were deemed a high enough security risk to do an analysis of why they were failing prematurely and *if* that analysis was completed in time and was persuasive enough to convince folks to close the bridge and replace the gusset plates then the tragedy could have been avoided. The Democrats take this as enough to say it "could" have been avoided, which is actually a true statement until someone builds a time machine to prove them wrong. The Republicans are happy to point to the report which blames the design, and that the premature buckling of the gusset plates discovered in 2003 didn't close the bridge. The reality is that we don't know what the result of any other course of action would have been, but people feel safer when the leaders lie and say they know how to keep them safe. This is true of Democrats talking about infrastructure and Republicans talking about border security, terrorism, etc.

The reality is that no one would get elected by making technically accurate assessments like "we feel this is the best course of action, but certainly the possibility exists that another tragedy will occur". The lies are far more comforting than the reality so the liars are rewarded.

Painfully stupid lies don't end careers. "Not intended as a factual statement" might make some cute comedy bits but I doubt it will end his political career.

Eruonen said...

P.S. Will, congratulations on being an author. I am not familiar with your books but enjoy sci-fi and fantasy.

Book idea...a Manchurian like candidate becomes a US President and sets his evil plans in motion to destroy liberty and install a statist central planning state in place. His evil hench woman Vice President is working to overthrow him at some point....


Eruonen said...

Minneapolis Bridge Had Passed Inspections

"The bridge has been inspected annually since 1993.." had a score of 4 / 9 with 0 meaning shut down.

There was no lack of inspection. It was a known bad design. The "state" did nothing to close it.

Chalicechick said...

I'm with the UUpdater, at least as far as that I don't understand why regular inspections wouldn't be a part of maintenance.

Also, wouldn't a maintenance crew that was working on the bridge be likely to have noticed the corrosion?

Even if the answer to the above questions is "no" for some reason, I think one could quite reasonably draw those conclusions, which would make the president more likely to be wrong than a liar.


Chalicechick said...


Assuming the NY Times story has everything right, the president still might not have been lying. After all, UUpdater was an MN resident who followed the stories about this closely and he came to a different conclusion.


Joel Monka said...

UUdater and CC: The inspections did take place. NTSB found that they had found the structural failures three years before the collapse, and photographed them. this article from the Star-Tribune has photographs showing the gussets bending dated 2003."One of the photos is stamped June 10, 2003. It shows slight bowing in two gusset plates at U-10 West, underneath the bridge deck. A second photo, stamped June 12, 2003, shows one gusset plate in the U-10 East connection bending in the same upstream direction as the plates in the U-10 West connection.

On the day that the I-35W bridge collapsed, tons of sand and gravel were piled on decking in the vicinity of the U-10 connections and the NTSB is investigating whether the construction loads overwhelmed the bridge."

This Minnesota Public Radio report quotes the NTSB: "On the day of the collapse, 270 tons of construction equipment and material sat piled just above the bridge's weakest spot. MPR news has learned that the weight of the pavement and the equipment triggered a, "cascading effect" that led to the failure of the span. In effect, the structure was pushed beyond its capacity.

MPR News has also learned that NTSB investigators determined that bridge engineers and inspectors did not have a system in place to double check that all factors and safety features of the bridge were sound. NTSB investigators also ruled out one maintenance issue as a factor. The investigators determined that corrosion on the bridge's steel did not play a significant role in the collapse."

The corrosion- and there's damn little of that to see in the newspaper photographs- was not a contributing factor. There was no system in place to analyze and condemn a bridge that had been ok'ed to build. Had they had a billion dollars for maintenance, it would have made no difference- there was no dangerous corrosion to fix, and no system to fix the actual problem. Money was not the cause of the failure.

Joel Monka said...

It was just pointed out to me that not only did a lack of maintenance not cause the collapse, the active maintenance that was performed contributed to the collapse! To fix potholes and cracks, and prevent future ones, they laid an extra 2" layer of concrete on the roadbed of the bridge. That was actually a very expensive procedure- and all those extra tons of concrete erased whatever safety margins the warped gussets had left.

Chalicechick said...

Again, that doesn't mean that Obama understood that and was thus lying. The "maintenance means inspections and inspections would have caught this" line of thinking makes a lot of sense even if it is incorrect.

He may just be guilty of poorly researching his examples, or hiring a speechwriter who poorly researched the examples. Not the lying that is the subject of your post.


Eruonen said...

True Chalicechick, I guess it breaks down on past speech behavior. He has been making a habit of bringing such topics to make a point about spending. There are many examples of "incorrect" statements (nothing new for politicians of all parties).
I believe he knows exactly what he is saying and why.

Will Shetterly said...

Eruonen, thanks. If you're tempted to try my books, Chimera was a finalist for a Libertarian award. Nudge your local library if they don't have it.

UUpdater said...

Joel/Eruonen after 2003 when they noticed the buckling there were suggestions by engineering firms that they do more extensive inspections for stress fractures and there was also a proposal to put in steel reinforcements on the gussets. The administration did not choose to put in the steel reinforcements in part because it would have been funded by the gas tax that Pawlenty shot down. If you are asserting that no amount of money could have prevented the bridge collapse then I disagree, there were proposed alternatives that could have prevented it.

So, if you want to play the "what if" game you could certainly imagine a scenario where the bridge does not collapse. You can disagree with this opinion, you can even imagine your own scenarios where taxing the people has other bad consequences and people die. But since you have abandoned the realm of objective reality and ventured into speculation you cannot say that someone is a liar. There is no objective truth to make that assertion.

Also, please note I am not trying to blame Pawlenty. I am sure that there were a hundred other scenarios where another 2 million dollars would have averted some catastrophe that didn't happen. I am not sure he made the right choice or wrong, but in this specific instance he took a gamble and people lost lives.

Joel Monka said...

UUpdater, I do not understand what you're saying. I'm not leaving objective reality, nor playing "what if" games. I'm talking about what actually happened. The routine inspections and maintenance were in fact carried out. In fact, expensive alterations to the bridge were made that were over and above ordinary maintenance. These are not what if's, that is what happened.
The Governor did not believe the pessimistic assessments of the bridge. How do I know that? Because if he had believed the bridge was about to collapse, and couldn't afford to fix it, he would have closed the bridge to vehicular traffic. That, I admit, is speculation, but as you seem to agree that Pawlenty is not a monster- and you'd know him better than I- I don't think that was speculation beyond the objective reality.
The words actually used by the President in the clip above are, "... our roads, our bridges, our sewer systems are all deteriorating... we're just going to have bridges collapsing everywhere?" That is not what happened in Minneapolis. The bridge did not just deteriorate untill it collapsed; the bridge was defective from the day it opened, then they added concrete to it, making it 20% heavier than the design specs (which it couldn't meet to begin with)... then they parked a half million pounds of construction equipment right on the already buckling junction. It did not deteriorate for lack of maintenance money- they simply overloaded it.

Joel Monka said...

CC- you're right. And in the long run, it doesn't matter. The same thing was true for Bush- and if you say enough questionable things, you'll get a rep as a liar whether you can make a case for deniability or not. President Obama is building such a reputation, from talking about your doctor cutting your feet off for the paycheck if your blood sugar drops to this. He is rapidly approaching the point where when he speaks, people will go, "Yeah, yeah, yadda yadda yadda," and tune him out. Once that happens, his presidency is effectively over, regardless of what year it is.

Personally, I'm starting to believe that he doesn't believe it matters whether it's factually true or not, that he's one of those who waves off that sort of objection by talking about a "higher truth".

Chalicechick said...

I haven't seen Obama caught in all that many lies, but as you note if he were lazy on the details and focused on the "higher truth" of the matter, he certainly wouldn't be the first politician to view things that way. (I'm sure you know about a lot more Obama lies and omissions than I do. My primary source of gotcha journalism on liberals is what you put on facebook, just as my primary source of gotcha journalism on conservatives is what other people put on facebook.)

I was never clear the degree to which Bush actually lied or if he was, like Colin Powell at the UN that time, heavily misled by those around him. If so, it seems to me that Bush was misled into doing some much worse things than calling for more highway funds.

about to drive a SmartCar into the pothole-ridden District of Columbia

Chalicechick said...

Oh, and the answer to "Why do people feel they have to lie to enhance a perfectly good argument?" is that politicians, and most fundraisers, believe that people are inherently emotional creatures and the best way to win them over is to appeal to their sense of compassion or make them angry or otherwise get them emotionally involved in what you are saying.

So they try to make everything personal and connect things to something emotional. Personally, I don't like it and I don't think it necessarily works for me, but judging by my facebook feed it totally works for both sides.


Eruonen said...

Back to the choice options. I think we would all agree that one of the primary purposes of the Federal and state government is to do those things we cannot do better or effectively by ourselves but limited by the constitution. IMHO, rather than blowing billions on mythical green energy it windmills (that slaughter birds, create noise pollution, and are very inefficient) and other boondoggles, I would prefer our bridges and roads kept in tip top shape. Spending limited funds wisely is now a fiscal necessity.

UUpdater said...

Joel - you are not leaving objective reality, that is what Obama is doing. This is why you can't say Obama is a liar. You can disagree with the speculation, but you can not prove him a liar. In the above clip he says in specific regards to the bridge that we ask ourselves "how could something like this happen?" and the answer is "reduced transportation budgets". When the plates were shown to be buckling in 2003 alternatives were proposed to solve the problem, alternatives that were not selected in favor of more cost effective options. This leaves the door open to talk about other paths that could have been taken. Other options that would have required a larger budget. If you handed the MN transportation department a blank check in 2003 it is within the realm of possibility that the bridge does not collapse.

I also think buckling gusset plates qualify as a deteriorating condition.

And CC is right on the emotional appeal. It is why the health care debate was reduced to "ZOMG the liberals want to kill your grandma!!!" vs "ZOMG the conservatives want to kill the poor!!!".

Also, I realize that I am probably trying to make a distinction in political "speak" that most would not recognize. A good example comes from Ralph Nader. In an interview Ralph was asked how he would have handled 9/11. His response was "If I had been President, then 9/11 would not have happened because of my proposed safety reforms". Since he predicates his argument on speculation it can't be proven false. You can certainly disagree, but it is a matter of opinion and not objective truth. I disagree with his assessment since I do not think he would have been able to pass the legislation, but in the fantasy world of "President Nader" perhaps he could have passed the legislation. It is political BS, but I would not call it a lie.

R. Elena Tabachnick said...

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus' disciples wanted to know what to do to experience the Divine. They asked "How should we pray? Should we fast?" J answered, "Do not lie. Do not do what you hate." So simple, yet so very difficult. Even for those of us who aren't politicians.