Perhaps Kamala Harris’s favorite tagline during last week’s debate was that, when it comes to questions of policy, “we have to think about how this affects real people.” That might sound grounded and good-hearted, but the emphasis on “real people” so often translates to an emphasis on impassioned anecdotes. These anecdotes then become faulty generalizations and are treated as evidence for the legitimacy of any possible policy proposal — a recurring theme of Harris’s debate performance.
An example: Harris stated that she had “been traveling around the country . . . meeting people who are working two and three jobs.” From these meetings, she concluded that America is in some form of employment crisis under this administration (despite the record-low unemployment rate) because people in America are working two and three jobs just “to put food on the table.”
Harris, however, remained especially vague as to the actual number of Americans forced to work multiple jobs to feed their families. The reality is, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 5 percent of Americans worked more than one job in 2018. Further, only 3.2 percent of that 5 percent work a full-time job alongside of a part-time job (instead of two part-time jobs). And, recorded within that 3.2 percent are freelance artists, moonlight writers, and weekend Uber drivers — in short, it is hard to gauge whether the majority were working multiple jobs simply to “put food on the table” as Harris suggested, or if they were simply unsatisfied with their regular job (as the Census Bureau suggests).
Perhaps what is most telling, however, is that the percentage of Americans who are working two full-time jobs is almost too negligible for the BLS to record, at 0.2 percent. To top it off, the number of Americans working multiple jobs has stayed fairly steady since 1970, and it has been on a noticeable decline since the ’90s.
Her method of reasoning from the premise that she has met people who work multiple jobs to the conclusion that there is an employment crisis in the U.S. is an exemplary case of the fallacy of defective induction: concluding that something is generally the case because it is the case in a few instances. (Of course, Harris certainly was not the first, nor will she be the last, politician to enlist this fallacy in public speech.)
As the campaigning continues over these next 500 days, my plea is this: Beware the stories of “real people” in political debates and the emotionally charged anecdote — this is true across the aisle, by the way — for a fallacy of defective induction is likely bringing up the rear.