Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Free market fundamentalism--more pathos, less logos

"Free market fundamentalism" is one of the catch phrases used by many proponents of socialist-type government intervention in the face of the current economic crisis. The phrase seems immensely powerful at implying that free market policies are evil and should not even be considered in a discourse on solving the current crisis.

I recently did a search using the ABIN/Inform Global Database (which contains full-text articles from thousands of periodicals around the world) for the word fundamentalism. The search returned 1,823 results, organized chronologically, with the most recent articles listed first.

Seven of the last ten articles were on economic or free market fundamentalism, the remaining three were on religious and Islamic fundamentalism. Of the next 50 (older) articles only one tied fundamentalism to free markets, in all others the association was with religious (Islamic in particular) fundamentalism.

Islamic and religious fundamentalism have been synonymous with something threatening and evil in recent years. Now the loaded term fundamentalism is transferred to free market policy ideas, infecting them in the public's perception with the same sense of threat and evil as is associated with terrorists.

As a rhetorical technique this is likely to be effective since it plays on people's emotions (pathos). Unfortunately, it doesn't contribute to a reasoned debate about what we should do next. That takes more logos.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Naomi Klein: A rhetorical criticism--ethos, pathos, but no logos

Among my work duties is coaching the university's speech & debate team. One type of presentation my students develop is rhetorical criticism. It identifies the pattern, a so-called communication model, used by a speaker or a writer of a message; it lists the steps that the communicator takes: from getting an audiences attention to 'closing the sale' in conveying a persuasive message. The analysis culminates with a judgment about the effectiveness the communication.

I recently watched author Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism) in several discussions on the current economic crisis. She seems to be one of the preeminent critics of free-market ideas (and of Milton Friedman) and a proponent of expanded government intervention. Listening to her I noticed a pattern in the way she communicates her radical socialist ideas to her audience. She employs a five-step model:

1. Legitimate criticism of recent policy failures
2. Stirring an emotional response from the audience
3. Proposing a radical socialist policy idea to the impassioned audience
4. Stating a positive (by anyone's standard) desired outcome

Capitalizing on humans' natural tendency to seek causal relationships, her model effectively implies that it is her radical socialist policy that would lead to the desired positive outcome.

5. Repeating steps 1 through 4 in the same order.

As a communicator, she seems very effective at winning audiences to her side using her communication model. She earns legitimacy (in rhetoric we called that ethos) by starting off as a journalist and making good, critical observations of policy failures. Then she uses emotions (pathos) to suggest that her radical socialist policy ideas would lead to better outcomes than the failed recent policies. What is lacking is the third element of rhetoric--logos--logic.

Two out of three "ain't bad" in swaying a friendly audience's opinion. But the lack of logic means that Ms. Klein's position, while helping her sell books (nothing wrong with that), doesn't make a meaningful contribution to the public debate on future policies. She's merely "preaching to her choir" as most free market proponents do to their friendly audiences.

Why can't we have a serious public discussion and a reasoned debate about how to deal with our crises and challenges?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Fidel Castro on globalization, circa 1985

In today's world, in the economic arena, noone is absolutely independent, not even the United States, nor Japan, nor Western Europe. They depend on oil, raw materials, and from many other countries they need markets, they need trade. No country is totally independent economically.

Fidel Castro
February 11, 1985 interviewed by Robert MacNeil for MacNeil Lehrer News Hour on PBS.

One hopes that economic protectionists today listen, at least, to Fidel.