Tuesday, September 30, 2008

If I Ran the Debates...

...Alongside Jim Lehrer would be a small panel of folks sitting in front of computers with connections to LexisNexis, the Congressional Quarterly, and Google.

Whenever one candidate says something like "My opponent said X," or "My opponent voted against Y," or whatever, and then his opponent objects that this is not true, Lehrer would cut both their mikes and hand it over to the panel. They would look up the relevant records and find out who is right.

Whichever candidate turns out to be lying would be instructed that, if he repeats or references that lie again, he forfeits the remainder of his time to answer questions.

I also think they should be strapped to polygraphs.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

In Defense of Big Government

Most of the conservative discourse in which anti-government sentiment arises is economic, not social. The government is despised by conservatives mainly when it is placed in opposition to the free market.

There are several perspectives from which to critique the free market, and they've been explored far more ably by others. There is just one point that I'd like to make about it.

An article of faith among the free-marketeers is that the public sector is always inefficient, slow, incompetent, corrupt, and wasteful when compared to the private sector. I firmly believe that was true when Adam Smith first wrote about the invisible hand, but at this stage of capitalism's development, I don't think it is true any longer.

The notion of government bloat and waste versus private industriousness and efficiency was conceived centuries ago, when it used to be the case. It was the case then because it was when the private sector used to be made up of nothing but family businesses and local merchants -– what we now call “small business.” The advent of the multinational corporation has not just changed that, it has left it behind.

Billion-dollar multinational corporations didn't exist when The Wealth of Nations was written (except maybe the Vatican -- anyone dare to hold them up as a nimble, efficient, transparent organization?). Adam Smith could never have imagined that a single business, a single merchant, a single vendor could grow to the size that modern technology has allowed.

The only way to organize a human enterprise above a certain size is to make it a bureaucracy. Three or four generations ago the government was the only easily visible domain of bureaucracy. Now the corporate bureaucracy is at least as substantial.

It is bureaucracy that is the source of inefficiency and waste. It is bureaucracy that rewards incompetence and fosters corruption. These are innate characteristics of bureaucracy, regardless of which sector it occupies. To ascribe these characteristics to public bureaucracies, but exempt from them private bureaucracies, is a logical leap not supported by the facts. Doing so is the result of an attempt to apply notions of capitalism to a market that only passingly resembles the markets that existed when those notions were conceived.

If both private and public sector are just a pair of distinct arenas within which the Nerf-and-PVC gladiators of bureaucracy battle for surrogate glory, then what makes one innately better than the other? They are both structured identically, so why would one be orders of magnitude more or less lean or nimble? It’s like watching two champion sumo wrestlers running the hundred-yard dash with the expectation that whichever one wins will do so by a wide margin.

I would argue that if our lives must be shaped by enormous, bureaucratic concentrations of wealth and power, it is better for those concentrations to be democratically accountable to us. Corporate boardrooms make just as many decisions that affect our lives as do the White House and the halls of Congress, but none of those corporate bureaucrats can ever be voted out of power when they fuck things up. At least the government bureaucrats can.

It's time for conservatives to stop basing their economic judgments solely on a Scottish polemic written in 1776. Times have changed. No one doubts the invisible hand still exists, but with the advent of the multinational corporation, it spends more time than ever clenched into a bludgeoning fist.

Conservatives and Government

I was watching this talk again (if you haven't watched it yet, please, please do), and noticed that Haidt says something about conservatism that seems at odds with my understanding of it.
He says "Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed; they want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions; they want order even at some cost to those on the bottom."

At first blush, this makes sense. But it highlights a contradiction: if conservatives honor institutions that promote order, then why is there such widespread loathing and disdain for government in conservative circles? Why aren't conservatives staunch defenders of government, given that it is the ultimate order-promoting institution we have?

Haidt seems to be saying that, at root, the distinction between liberals and conservatives isn't so much that they have different morals per se; it's that they have opposite polarities with respect to order and chaos. So how come it's the pro-chaos group that respects government, and the pro-order group that wishes it would just go away?

The word "institution" has multiple meanings:

2a: a signficant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture
2b: an established organization or corporation (as a bank or university) especially of a public character

So there is a more concrete, organizational interpretation, and a more abstract, behavioral interpretation. People who speak of marriage, for instance, as an institution, are relying on the abstract interpretation.

Perhaps conservatives do honor and respect the idea of government, as an institution in the abstract, but dislike the concrete organization that currently fills that role?

That's possible, but it's a perspective not unique to conservatives. There are plenty of liberals who also honor government in the abstract, but dislike, say, the Bush administration, or whatever other concrete incarnation of that abstraction currently exists.

The conservative attitude seems to go deeper. They don't seem to honor or respect even the idea of government. "That government is best which governs least" doesn't discriminate -- it's a statement of principle that applies equally well to representative democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship, whatever.

So we're back where we started: government is vital to stability and order, yet it's also the favorite whipping boy of those whose morality is wired to value order and stability over fairness. How can this be?

Check the Comments!

Although I haven't put up any new posts since Friday the 19th, the last week has seen a flurry of activity in the comments section. Check out "The Masculinity of Taxes" and "McCain" for some interesting back-and-forth in the comments.

P.S. Another actual post is on the way.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Masculinity of Taxes

Although it is only seldom explicitly mentioned by conservatives, it does seem to be a pretty well-established theme on the right -- call it a broad-based subconscious belief -- that liberals are effeminate and weak. From Schwarzenegger's "girlie-men" quip to the neocons' relentless warrior-worship, the unstated message of the right's rhetoric seems to be: real men are conservatives, and liberals are a bunch of pussies.

At the same time, by far the most popular plank of the Republican party is a call for minimal taxation. Liberals often get so caught up in the debate over social issues that they forget that 50% of Republicans have no particular ideology or belief system at all, other than "I don't like taxes."

Granted, taxes are a pain. In the financial world, taxes are pain. In terms of this metaphor, 50% of Republicans have dedicated their lives to the avoidance of pain.

Imagine a person whose only concern in life was the avoidance of physical pain. At best, this would create a very stressful, brittle way of living; at worst, it would be a form of retardation. Such fear of the inevitable, such a desperate unwillingness to reconcile oneself with the existence of a such a simple, albeit admittedly unpleasant, fact of life, is the ultimate in abject weakness.

Pain can be good. It plays a vital role in maintaining our health. You can feel pain even when doing things that are good for you, like growing or exercising. Pain is a reliable indicator that something noteworthy is happening.

If such paralyzing fear of the slightest pain weren't a pathological condition, a form of OCD, then I would be uncharitable enough to say: those people are the ones who really sound like a bunch of pussies to me.

So, die-hard fiscal conservatives, it's time to man up. We obviously can't leave control of the markets to a bunch of girlie-men like you.

Psychology of Conservative-Liberal Continuum

Norbert Ohlenbusch alerted me to the existence of an extraordinary talk by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. It's less than 20 minutes long; I highly recommend it. It provides a very useful vocabulary that both ends of the political spectrum can use to understand why people can hold positions other than theirs and still claim the moral high ground.

The first few minutes can be rough going if you're a conservative; the live audience is mostly liberal, and so Haidt caters to that with a few cheap shots. But once he gets going, the substance of the talk is extremely valuable to thinkers on both sides.

The fact that people are doing research on this sort of thing gives me hope that we might someday be able to push the competitive mindset out of politics and replace it with something better.

Muslim In Moderation

One of Charles Johnson's repeated talking points goes something like this:

We keep hearing that not all Muslims are terrorists, that there are many more moderate Muslims than radicals, that we shouldn't judge the moderates on the basis of the radicals. That's fine in theory, but how come we never hear anything from the moderates? Where are the news conferences and opinion polls and press releases from Muslim moderate organizations condemning the acts of the radicals?

I've always thought it was a valid point; I've been on the lookout for such dissension in the Muslim ranks as well. And it looks like we finally got some.

Charles Johnson will probably think this is too little, too late, but there is one aspect of it that greatly reassures me that we have a lot more in common with Arab Muslims than we might think: the one issue that roused them from their slumber and sparked genuine outrage was an authority figure trying to interfere with their ability to watch TV.

Take away rights and freedoms, we won't blink. But fuck with our TV, and we'll take to the streets.

Don't Just Regulate -- Reward Self-Regulation

Few things flood the streets of American punditry with disclaimers like a good financial crisis. The economy is just so technical and esoteric that nobody gets it all. Of course, that doesn't stop the pundits from rendering opinions. I heard an interesting combination of exaggerated disclaimer followed by ridiculous claim on Jay Severin's WTKK talk show the other day.

(Aside: Why do I keep listening to Severin? Every once in a while, he makes a good point, but more importantly, he knows how to enunciate. Is there an unwritten rule that 90% of the broadcasting industry has to have some sort of speech impediment?)

He said that the overall financial crisis is rooted in the collapsing mortgage market. So far, so good. Then he says that the bad mortgages were allowed because of changes in lending policy introduced by Democrats years ago. This doesn't sound right to me.

My understanding was that a spike in loan defaults wasn't itself anything out of the ordinary -- it was the fact that Wall Street had figured out a way to repackage mortgages as a new type of investment vehicle, the CDO or collateralized debt obligation, that created the ripple effect. That repackaging technique flooded the market with CDOs which were then snapped up by all kinds of banks and other financial services firms.

Without CDOs, I'm sure the housing collapse would still have had serious repercussions, but I'm guessing they would have been confined strictly to banks, not investment houses and other financial institutions.

(Another Severin point: government bailouts are bad because they'll force us to either raise taxes or engage in further deficit spending. "$85 billion to bail out AIG!" Well guess what, Jay: $85 billion is the price tag of only 34 weeks in Iraq. At this point in the war's progress, we've bailed out AIG 7.6 times already. In this way, I feel fiscal conservatives' pain: they don't get to bang their usual drums, because the single most fiscally irresponsible thing we've done in
the last decade was on their own party's watch. If fiscal conservatives vote their conscience this year, Bob Barr will get at least as many votes as Ross Perot did.)

Back to CDOs. Reading Wikipedia's article about them, I learned they are a type of synthetic
"Any combination of financial instruments producing a market instrument with different characteristics than could otherwise be achieved, for example, higher yield, better liquidity, or interest rate protection."

A "natural security" would be a stock or a bond -- investment vehicles that have been around for centuries and are understood well. A synthetic security is made up -- an artificial construct that had to be designed by some financial genius, composed of more basic parts.

This strikes me as being very similar to computer programming. In programming, you're given a few basic operations, and expected to put them together in ingenious ways to create software whose overall behavior exhibits the desired characteristics. A synthetic security is to the rules of finance what a software program is to the rules of computer science.

Now, as we've learned through years of painful experience, software can be good or bad. It can be reliable or buggy. It can be deliberately installed or contracted like a virus. It can follow the paths of least resistance in networks to propagate itself throughout an entire system.

The computer security guru Bruce Schneier has described in several of his essays an "arms race" between the "black-hats" who write malicious software and the "white-hats" who write software that defends against it. The black-hats are constantly inspecting and examining the technology landscape, looking for loopholes and vulnerabilities that they can exploit. Once they develop and popularize an exploit, the white-hats figure out how to detect it, motivating the black-hats to just look elsewhere for new holes.

Or as Schneier puts it: "improvements in detection technologies lead to improvements in...detection evasion, which in turn spur the development of better detection capabilities." And so on.

The advent of synthetic securities has brought that arms race to the financial world. People can argue about whether increased government regulation is (part of) the answer to our current problems, but one thing that everyone has to agree on is that the capabilities of regulation -- any amount of regulation -- are constrained by the knowledge of the regulators. You can't regulate what isn't yet known to be a threat.

S&Ls, junk bonds, CDOs -- these are all exploits that were developed by financial black-hats who spent years scrutinizing the workings of financial markets looking for loopholes and vulnerabilities. Those black-hats were strongly motivated, because if they could find just one working exploit, they could make themselves mega-rich. So what if it had disastrous downstream consequences for everyone else?

After each of those exploits became popular and caused a problem, regulations were changed to prevent them from working. In other words, the vulnerabilities that enabled the exploit were patched. But this patching is simply another change to the system -- and every change has the potential to introduce a new vulnerability. Fix one bug, introduce another. The black-hats will never stop looking for them, and never stop coming up with new exploits.

David Brooks recognized this and declared: "We’re going to need regulators who can anticipate what the next Wall Street business model is going to look like, and how the next crisis will be different than the current one."

That might work. But it's just a continuation of the arms race. There is one technique, one dynamic, that could be borrowed from the computer security world and implemented in the financial world, that could potentially bring the arms race under control.

Instead of having "squads of low-paid regulators who can stay ahead of the highly paid bankers, auditors and analysts who pace this industry," why not grant one-time amnesty to whichever black-hat notifies the regulators of a new exploit?

Think about CERT, the Computer Emergency Response Team at Carnegie Mellon University. CERT is a neutral clearinghouse for computer security information. Software makers who find security vulnerabilities in their own products can notify CERT so that its users can protect themselves. But the majority of information that flows into CERT comes from black-hats
who have actually developed an exploit for whatever vulnerability they've found.

Imagine this dynamic in finance. A black-hat financial genius scrutinizes the market and discovers some vulnerability. He cooks up a synthetic security that exploits that vulnerability. The exploit makes him shitloads of money. But instead of allowing other financial folks to notice this and quietly pile on, creating a new bubble based on that synthetic security, the black-hat notifies the regulators. The regulators immediately outlaw or otherwise restrict the new synthetic security -- and as a thank-you to the black-hat for doing the responsible thing, he's allowed to keep all the money it earned him.

This harnesses the behavior of the blackhats and allows them to satisfy their primary goal -- to get wildly rich through insidiously clever means -- while shielding the overall market from the unintended consequences of their cleverness. It's introducing a new set of incentives that motivates the market to police itself.

We still need traditional regulation to take care of the practices that are known to be disruptive. But until we introduce a channel through which regulators can be alerted to new, unknown practices, those regulators will remain blind to them until they explode in another crisis like the one we're dealing with now.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Terminological Inconsistency

If born-again Christians believe that life begins at conception, why don't they refer to themselves as "conceived-again" Christians?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sweeney Responds

After I wrote the last post, I included it in a comment I left on Dan Sweeney's post at The Huffington Post, primarily as a shameless grab for more readers. It ended up sparking a rebuttal from Sweeney. It's interesting that the shape of discussion arising from the article so closely mirrors the article's actual content.

Sweeney said:

I'm afraid you've misread the article. The WaPo article states that there is some tendency in liberals to get their backs up in the face of refutation, but that the percentage still falls. For example, this paragraph:

"Bullock then showed volunteers a refutation of the ad by abortion-rights supporters. He also told the volunteers that the advocacy group had withdrawn the ad. Although 56 percent of Democrats had originally disapproved of Roberts before hearing the misinformation, 80 percent of Democrats disapproved of the Supreme Court nominee afterward. Upon hearing the refutation, Democratic disapproval of Roberts dropped only to 72 percent."

So, there is a drop in the percentage of Democratic disapproval after hearing the refutation. But with conservatives, there is actually an increase in the percentage of people buying into lies after they hear the refutation -- indeed the percentages almost doubled. It is not the same thing.

anyway, thanks for the feedback, and I hope that clears things up.

And I replied:

Well, it certainly would be the ultimate irony for me, a liberal, NOT to recant my outrage after being presented with a rebuttal on THIS, of all issues!

I do stand by my assertion that your post was somewhat biased, although not as badly as I originally thought. The way I read the article, there are really TWO unfortunate phenomena being observed: (1) being presented with a rebuttal does not completely erase the damage done by the misinformation, and (2) being presented with a rebuttal enhances the damage done by the misinformation. To focus on (2) regarding conservatives, without mentioning (1) regarding liberals, makes conservatives seem even weaker-minded than the facts would seem to support.

In general, I try to be about fairness first, political points second, so you can see why my original misreading so aroused my ire.

Having waxed philosophic about fairness, I will say that I'm the first to believe that there are psychological differences between the most common breeds of liberal and conservative. Given that neither side seems to fully respect rebuttals, why does one seem to treat them like further evidence of the rebutted proposition?

I think it comes down to a person's comfort level with self-doubt. For instance, someone with complete intolerance for self-doubt would undoubtedly have rephrased the previous sentence as "I think it comes down to whether a person is strong or weak." When people challenge our positions, it causes doubt, instinctively -- our brains can't help that they're wired that way. Our response to that doubt is programmable, though. People who can overcome their fear of doubt and face its unpleasantness head-on will seek to end it through further research and reflection.

People who can't overcome that fear get angry at whatever caused the doubt.
The first kind of person, when presented with convincing evidence that they are wrong about something, will say "Thank you." The second kind of person will say "Fuck you."

The statistics in the original Washington Post article seem to support this. Obviously the fearful people exist on both sides (indeed, they are the reason we speak in terms of "sides"), but the numbers do indicate a greater proportion of them on the conservative side. I suppose this makes sense -- "conservative" is supposed to mean "cautious," and caution is a practice best informed by fear.

This is an interesting twist on the liberal mantra that the Republican Party is "the party of fear." Usually this is meant to imply that the Republican Party leaders themselves, while not being fearful of anything, are masters of instilling in voters the fears of their choosing. I agree that Republican leaders are masters of instilling in voters the fears of their choosing, but I also legitimately think the leaders are scared of those things, too.

I take them at their word. No one can have such precise mastery over fear without having experienced a lot of it.

Dan Sweeney Should Be Ashamed of Himself

So liberal playground Huffington Post has an article by Dan Sweeney titled "There's No Arguing With Conservatives... No, Seriously, Scientific Studies Prove It." The first paragraph:

A new study out of Yale University confirms what argumentative liberals have long-known: Offering reality-based rebuttals to conservative lies only makes conservatives cling to those lies even harder. In essence, schooling conservatives makes them more stupid.

He then cites a Washington Post article that describes the study. If you read the entire article, you'll see that the psychological effect of misinformation cuts both ways equally. Yet Sweeney omits the entire first half of the article, which exhibits liberal susceptibility to the very tendency he's decrying:

In experiments conducted by political scientist John Bullock at Yale University, volunteers were given various items of political misinformation from real life. One group of volunteers was shown a transcript of an ad created by NARAL Pro-Choice America that accused John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court at the time, of "supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber."

A variety of psychological experiments have shown that political misinformation primarily works by feeding into people's preexisting views. People who did not like Roberts to begin with, then, ought to have been most receptive to the damaging allegation, and this is exactly what Bullock found. Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to disapprove of Roberts after hearing the allegation.

Bullock then showed volunteers a refutation of the ad by abortion-rights supporters. He also told the volunteers that the advocacy group had withdrawn the ad. Although 56 percent of Democrats had originally disapproved of Roberts before hearing the misinformation, 80 percent of Democrats disapproved of the Supreme Court nominee afterward. Upon hearing the refutation, Democratic disapproval of Roberts dropped only to 72 percent.

Republican disapproval of Roberts rose after hearing the misinformation but vanished upon hearing the correct information. The damaging charge, in other words, continued to have an effect even after it was debunked among precisely those people predisposed to buy the bad information in the first place.

Bullock found a similar effect when it came to misinformation about abuses at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Volunteers were shown a Newsweek report that suggested a Koran had been flushed down a toilet, followed by a retraction by the magazine. Where 56 percent of Democrats had disapproved of detainee treatment before they were misinformed about the Koran incident, 78 percent disapproved afterward. Upon hearing the refutation, Democratic disapproval dropped back only to 68 percent -- showing that misinformation continued to affect the attitudes of Democrats even after they knew the information was false.

But of course Sweeney includes the two corresponding experimental procedures in which Republicans were first given misinformation, and then a rebuttal (about the WMDs in Iraq issue and the Bush tax cuts). He seizes upon their continuing to believe the misinformation as evidence of conservative "rigidity," even though the conservatives were exhibiting exactly the same behavior observed in liberals.

This study is valuable because it sheds some light on the psychological processes that make rational argument difficult for everyone. But to try to paint it as something that affects only conservatives, and leaves liberals unscathed, is false, immature, and counterproductive.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Athleticization of Politics

A common liberal talking point is that religion exerts undue influence over modern politics. While I certainly don't disagree, I do recognize that the influence religion can have is limited strictly to the content of political discourse; it does not seem to shape the form or structure of political discourse. Religious belief may cause one to take a particular side on a given issue, but the fact that the issue is equipped with "sides" in the first place is traceable not to the hand of God, but to the juggernaut that is modern professional and collegiate sports.

The ubiquity of televised competitive athletics is the single most pernicious and destructive force ever unleashed on American civic life.

In this country, people are generally introduced to pro sports before they are introduced to politics. This naturally causes them to try to fit politics into the pro sports worldview. The problem is that there are two fundamental mismatches between the athletic and democratic mindsets: (1) competition versus cooperation, and (2) self-containedness versus integration.

Sports are competitive. They require winners and losers. Representative democracy was intended to be cooperative, not competitive. The founding fathers realized that the system could not afford to designate losers, because even the losers would still be part of the nation; the promise of the nation was that it would include, as much as it could, everyone within its borders. (The only political system explicitly based on the notion of winners and losers is totalitarianism.)

Applying the competitive mindset of athletics to a system intended to be cooperative totally perverts that system's dynamic. The ultimate goal of political discourse is to make policy, not score points for your team. Take the debates, for instance. A debate is supposed to be a collaborative search for common ground. It is supposed to be an exercise in compromise that answers the question, "Given that we have differences, what should we do?" Thanks to sports, though, debates have degenerated into mere opportunities for both sides to trade zingers and witty one-line putdowns. They are showcases for each side to emphasize how different they are from the other -- something that we already fucking knew! At the end of the debates, everybody argues about "who won the debate" instead of focusing on the fact that, in reality, everybody lost the debate, because the debate didn't resolve anything -- it didn't result in any actual compromises being made.

Sports teaches people that compromise is synonymous with losing, but in a representative democracy, compromise should be synonymous with winning. Failure to compromise is the losing outcome. If people didn't come to politics with their worldview already irreparably warped by pro sports, they would be capable of recognizing this.

This brings me to the second mismatch. Sports are self-contained, while politics is integrative. The consequences of winning or losing an athletic competition are confined mainly to the record books; the outcome of a game does not dictate how the players are henceforth allowed to live their lives. (Imagine if, after losing a game, a team were exiled from its home city, or its members imprisoned or fined; conversely, imagine if, after winning a game, teammates were given special tax breaks, or granted immunity from prosecution for crimes they haven't yet committed.) If the Yankees win the World Series, New York City doesn't suddenly qualify for additional federal funding; if the Cowboys lose the Super Bowl, Dallas doesn't suddenly see a decline in its sanitation. (The amount of money athletes earn is the only real-world variable directly correlated to their win/lose ratio.) The lack of real-world consequences trains people to think the strife is valuable in itself.

Politics is not self-contained. The "game" is played, but its outcome has a direct bearing on how not only the players, but indeed every person in the entire nation, are henceforth allowed to live their lives. There is a larger point to the interaction; the interaction itself is not the point.

In a previous post I mentioned Daily Kos and Little Green Footballs. These sites basically ignore each other except when one says something so offensive to the sensibilities of the other that the other is obliged to ridicule it. Daily Kos will say something intended simply to rabble-rouse within its base, and LGF will single it out for ridicule. Meanwhile, another liberal site, LGFWatch, exists simply to engage in this exact same process with Little Green Footballs. This chest-thumping juvenilia is what passes for contemporary political debate.

Imagine how this dynamic would be transformed if both sides were the true patriots they claim to be. Instead of constantly being on the lookout for the fuckups of an opponent, they would be constantly on the lookout for the valid points of a partner. This would be in keeping with the mindset of a true democratic republic. But because it conflicts with the mindset of pro sports, it will never actually occur.

Until this nation grows up and realizes that pro sports are a vapid triviality, with no bearing on the realities of life, our political discourse is doomed to vacuous, knee-jerk, back-and-forth "point scoring." Which is a polite way of saying, as long as sports are popular, we're fucked.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Of course I'm voting for Obama, and I hope he wins, but to be honest I don't think the country will be too terribly off if he loses. There are things about John McCain that I like, and even as a liberal, I'm not ashamed to admit it. (But note how I don't go so far as to say I'm proud to admit it.)

Many claim that McCain, at age 72, is too old to be President. That may be true. On the other hand, nobody is claiming that John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg (all of whom are at least McCain's age if not older) are too old to continue serving on the Supreme Court. If the founding fathers had concerns about the influence of age on public service, they wouldn't have allowed those to be lifetime appointments.

A decade ago, liberals loved McCain. We're the ones responsible for creating his much-ballyhooed "maverick" image, not him, and certainly not the Republican Party (who probably spent his entire Senate career prefacing any mention of his name with the honorific "that cocksucker"). He earned that reputation through real bipartisan efforts -- McCain-Feingold, siding with the Clinton Administration in taking on Big Tobacco (to Republican chagrin), voting against the Bush tax cuts in May 2001, being the first high-profile Republican to check himself into rehab for his addiction to global warming denial. He's not perfect, but he's done good things, and he's exhibited willingness to break from his party to do what he thinks is right.

Now that he's earned the nomination of his party, though, liberals are demonizing him full-force. I find this unfortunate, but understandable. It is true that he has changed his position on a number of issues with apparently purely political motives. He suddenly claims to care strongly about things that there was little evidence he gave a shit about before, like abortion, nuclear energy, continuation of the Bush tax cuts, etc.

This could indicate one of two things:
(1) He fought the machine and lost. The Republican establishment crushed his mavericky spirit and transformed him into just another Bible-thumping, bombing-brown-people-is-fun, free-market-uber-alles fuckwit.
(2) He's swindling the machine. He has his own ideas about how to govern, a portfolio of positions that lines up 100% with neither party, and he's recognized the need to pander to certain voting blocs just to get himself elected. Once he's in office, he'll tell those blocs to go fuck themselves (postmaritally, of course) and set about governing his own way.

Many on the left have dubbed a McCain presidency "Bush's third term," and if option (1) above turns out to be true, then they'll be right. That would suck. The fact that I'm not willing to risk that outcome is why, despite my overall positive impression of the man, I just can't bring myself to vote for him.

However, there is one good indication that option (2) could occur -- one critical factor separating McCain from Bush. It has nothing to do with policy positions or even temperament. It has to do with the fact that Bush, from birth, has allowed others to manage his career. His abortive foray into the oil business, his stint as Texas governor, his bumbling, monosyllabic presidency -- all of it was coordinated, shepherded, guided, orchestrated by others. If there's one thing that even the fiercest McCain detractor has to give the man, it's that he's always been at the helm of his own career. He may make mistakes, or hold foolish positions, but it's always him at the wheel.

Any Republican willing to give Karl Rove the finger can't be all bad.

P.S. Prediction: if option (2) does in fact take place, that will seal McCain's fate as a one-term president. That would create a fascinating race in 2012: Clinton vs. Palin!

Pope Condemns... Uh... Himself

Nothing incites the unsheathing of my poison pen quite like religion. The ultimate in denial and intellectual blindness, religion (or even a vague, unstructured, personalized "belief in a higher power") is a psychological contagion that has left few areas of human endeavor uninfected.

Witness the Pope's latest exhortation, in which he "condemned unbridled 'pagan' passion for power, possessions and money as a modern-day plague" and "decried 'insatiable greed' and said 'the love of money is the root of all evil.'"

This from the leader of a privately held multinational corporation whose net worth is estimated to be somewhere around $10 - $12 billion dollars, with significant investments in banking, insurance, chemicals, steel, construction, and real estate, and which has been called "the biggest tax evader in Italy."

The Catholic Church has a long and illustrious history of glorifying poverty in the abstract while in actuality accumulating vast wealth. The Middle Ages were characterized by exceedingly pious men pointing out this hypocrisy, thereby inviting the papacy's wrath.

What makes this latest papal miasma-expectoration especially disgusting is that the largest population of devout Catholics in the world is in Central and South America, regions not known for their economic prosperity or conspicuous consumption. The risk of those particular Catholics somehow jeopardizing their souls through a money- or possession-induced sickness of the spirit seems rather low to me. (Although I suppose it's hard to disagree that "the love of money is the root of all evil" when you live in a world where the two most profitable industries are kidnapping for ransom and cocaine production.)

There are many valid reasons to deride Catholicism as the cruel, witless, anachronistic joke that it is, but I have a hard time imagining even the most ardent of its brainwashees denying the hypocrisy intrinsic in these words coming from their ancient, cloistered, pompous leader.

Fuck the Pope and the two-thousand-year-old horse he rode in on.

Friday, September 12, 2008


This word is a fine example of how conservatives and liberals can use the exact same vocabulary to talk past each other. Both sides accuse the other of harboring "elites," and of course, the favorite pastime of all "elites" is "elitism," i.e. ignoring or ridiculing non-elites.

The problem is, what qualifies one as an elite? The dictionary definition is "a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence." Liberals seem to focus on the "position" half while conservatives seem to focus on the "education" half. Meaning, liberals use "elite" to attack rich people, while conservatives use it to attack smart people.

Now, all things being equal, who do you think exerts more "power or influence" on the affairs of this country -- the rich or the smart? Granted, there exists some group of indeterminate size that happens to be both rich and smart, but we're talking generalities here. If you're not an elite, and you're determined to hate the elites, who makes a likelier target?

If you answer "the smart" then you definitely do not qualify for your definition of elite.

Newfound Respect for David Frum

I'd never heard of the American Enterprise Institute's David Frum until last spring, when he appeared on Bill Maher's fabulous HBO show. I came away from that episode disliking him pretty strongly.

However, he has written a very thoughtful piece in the New York Times titled "The Vanishing Republican Voter" in which he engages in the same kind of "I'm on your side but I'm still going to point out what you're doing wrong" reasoning, directed at Republicans and conservatism in general, that I try to direct at Democrats and liberalism in general.

Check it out if you get a chance.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ayn Rand Is Remedial Reading for Women

I've never read anything by Ayn Rand, but not for lack of trying. People have accused me of writing stories that are thinly veiled philosophical tracts, but nobody can beat Ms. Rand for sheer transparency of agenda. I found the going rough. It took me a while to realize that she didn't write any of her books with male readers in mind. Her ouvre is one giant shout-out to the ladies.

I've known a number of people who have found Rand's writings transformative, and they're all women. I think there is a pretty simple reason for this, although I'll admit I'm venturing onto (even) shakier ground than I have with my more exclusively political posts thus far.

Her central philosophical tenet seems to be that self-interest, selfishness even, are virtues to be celebrated. Women have reported receiving this idea as if it were news. But as far as I can tell, males embrace the notion sometime around age zero. They don't need to be sat down and lectured about it at length and subjected to contrived dramatizations of it in order to start acting accordingly. It's either built in, or socialized into place right from the getgo.

In shaping the attitudes and personalities of young girls, this civilization does not place a premium on self-interest. (Self-absorption, maybe, but that's a distant second in terms of value.) Selflessness, service, duty to others -- these are consciously and unconsciously inculcated as feminine virtues, but not self-interest.

So, thank you, Ayn Rand, for helping correct this lopsided double-standard. You've performed a valuable service to humanity. (How unselfish.)

Pride and Slavery

Pride is just about the most abused emotion in politics. It may manifest itself in all areas of human endeavor, but only in politics is it applied to things that just don't deserve it.

Pride is "faith in one's own abilities based on merit." You can be proud that you got an A in calculus, or proud that you came in first in the 100-yard dash, or proud that you managed to pick up two girls simultaneously at that bar the other night, or proud that your azaleas have flourished so beautifully under your care. You can be proud that you earn as much as you do, or that you volunteer in a soup kitchen as often as you do. You can be proud of your achievements. You can be proud of what you've done.

You can't be proud of what you are. You can't be proud of an innate characteristic over which you have no control. You can't be proud of your gender. You can't be proud of your race. You can't be proud of your ethnicity or nationality or religious belief (sort of -- most religious folk adopt whatever faith they were born into). It would make no sense. It would be like being proud to be tall or being proud to have blue eyes or being proud to have blond hair.

This is why phrases like "Proud to be an American" annoy me. So you were born with US citizenship -- how is that an achievement of yours? On what basis can you derive pride from something in which you had no hand? The only people who have actually earned the right to say "Proud to be an American" are legal immigrants. The only people who have actually earned the right to say "Proud to be a Christian" are converts from Islam or Judaism or Buddhism or whatever. The only people who have actually earned the right to say "Proud to be a woman" are those who paid the reconstructive surgeon for the multiple sex-reassignment operations.

This cuts both ways. Gays had better stop talking about "Gay Pride" unless they want to tacitly concede that sexual orientation is a choice, as opposed to a genetic characteristic.

Now, perhaps I'm being a tad linguistically rigid here. It occurs to me that some people might be using pride as a refutation of shame. This alchemy produces "Gay Pride" from the base metal of "Lack of Shame at Being Gay." But is that really what people are trying to communicate? "I'm Not Ashamed to be an American"? What kind of statement is that?

Maybe (and this is what I think) people derive their pride from the achievements of other individuals that shared the innate characteristic being celebrated. "Proud to be an American" really means "Many Americans have done great things, and I'm an American, too, so I'm proud by transitivity!"

That transitivity is a very interesting phenomenon. It requires a willingness to vicariously take ownership of acts that were perpetrated by others to whom you're somehow related. It's a slippery slope.

I would bet that the vast majority of people whose SUVs sport "Proud to be an American" (or, even worse, "Power of Pride") bumper stickers are opposed to the idea of reparations for slavery. But this, too, is an idea that requires the very same willingness to vicariously take ownership of acts that were perpetrated by others -- in this case, one's slaveowning ancestors. Suddenly, transitivity seems like a bad idea.

So, you can't trumpet your pride in being American unless you're ready to pay back the descendants of any slaves that your ancestors owned.

It will be a happy day when both flipsides of this moronic coin vanish from public discourse entirely.

Another Missed Opportunity for the Democrats

I would love to see a graph that depicts the relationship between an issue's actual importance (the X-axis) and the number of times it is discussed or even referenced in American political discourse (the Y-axis). It would be a logarithmic curve that would very tightly hug the two axes, I suspect.

A good example of this is the McCain mantra to drill offshore for oil. It's just a retarded issue. Both sides are equally retarded. It's retarded to oppose offshore drilling, and it's retarded to be so strongly in favor of it that you make it one of the primary planks in your platform. Drilling for oil offshore should be something that some working group deep in the bowels of the Department of Energy proposes and submits to some subcommittee deep in the bowels of Congress, which, after cursory review, sends it off to the Environmental Protection Agency for comment, and if it ever gets passed, it gets mentioned on page 6 of the Wall Street Journal. This should be a governmental background task, not a focal point of policy debate.

But if the Republicans can take such an obscure, back-burner issue and successfully drag it into the spotlight, to their benefit, then I've got a similar issue with which the Democrats can do exactly the same. And that is asserting sovereignty in the Arctic.

There's another Cold War brewing, and that was true even before the Russian invasion of Georgia. It is estimated that 13% - 25% of the world's untapped oil and natural gas reserves are locked beneath the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean. There are five nations with coastline along the Arctic Ocean -- the US, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia. The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf has been busy for years with proposals from one or more of these five nations, each trying to ensure that future shipping lanes, commercial fishing zones, and petrochemical extraction fields are divided up to their advantage. Russia recently planted a flag under the seabed of the North Pole. The world in general is realizing that, if it must piss off backward locals in order to extract oil, it would happily trade away Arabs with rocket launchers in favor of Eskimos with homemade kayaks. All the elements are there to make the Arctic the premier battleground in the 21st-century war for global economic supremacy. And we shouldn't waste time in asserting our intent to dominate.

This would seem like the perfect Republican talking point: it involves saber-rattling and whipping up of nationalistic furor; it furthers the interests of domestic Big Oil; it gives hawks a new angle from which to demonize Russia. But Republicans never mention it, and there's one hilariously good reason:

It presupposes the validity of global warming.

The only reason all these issues are coming to a head is that the ice is melting. Pretty soon the Arctic Ocean will truly be exploitable like a real ocean, instead of being this frozen vacant lot stuck on top of the planet.

Obviously the other four Arctic nations agree about global warming, or they wouldn't be rushing now to stake their claims. What good would such claims be without massive melting of the ice? They'd own closed shipping lanes and wells whose weatherproofing and maintenance costs would exceed the value of the petroleum they extract. The region is valueless without global warming.

If Democrats were to start talking about this, it would help them in a couple ways. First off, it would help explode their image among conservatives as a bunch of namby-pamby pacifists who never want to exert military might to further the country's goals. It would also allow them to not merely fold to the "drill now" mantra, but in fact do it one better. And it would force Republicans to acknowledge the reality of global warming.

Fuck Canada! The Northwest Passage is ours for the taking! Who's with me?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Global Warming

There are four possible positions on the issue:

(1) The globe is not warming.
(2) The globe is warming, but its primary cause is not man-made. Sunspot fluctuations, variations in the Earth's orbit, etc. are the culprit.
(3) The globe is warming, but there has not been enough data yet collected to reach a decisive conclusion either way as to its primary cause.
(4) The globe is warming, and its primary cause is man-made.

I hold the fourth position, but there are many who do not. The (1) position is almost more understandable than the (2) position, if only from a psychological perspective. If you agree the globe is warming, then you have already demonstrated an ability to trust scientists at all -- why would the next logical step, of agreeing to humanity's involvement, cause you to suddenly decry as bureaucrats suffocated by institutional orthodoxy the very same scientists you already listened to? At least (1) is consistent in its rejection of scientific consensus. It's more honest in its devotion to dishonesty.

Less honest in its devotion to dishonesty is (3), which almost sounds like a reasonable thing to say. The existence of (3) as an option in the first place is due to a rhetorical masterstroke on the part of global warming skeptics: by intertwining the issue with its debate about itself, skeptics have replaced a scientific decisionmaking process with a political decisionmaking process. "We don't trust the scientists to make such a declaration at this time." So when exactly do you plan to start trusting the scientists? The unstated answer is "Only when the scientists start agreeing with us," which rejects the scientifically required possibility that further data will only confirm what the scientists are already saying. Hence, the debate has been sequestered into a place beyond the reach of science. Genius.

What positions (1) through (3) all share, though, is a response to the question "So if global warming's primary cause isn't man-made, how come the vast majority of respectable scientists say it is?"

Global warming skeptics sieze on our use of the word "respectable" to shape their answer. This is where the depictions of scientists as bureaucrats suffocated by institutional orthodoxy come in. Science, we are told, is nothing but an extension of academia, where concerns over gaining tenure or finding a thesis advisor or having a friend on the grant allocation committee at the National Science Foundation exert at least as much influence over how science is done as does the desire to pursue knowledge.

Basically, the global warming skeptics are saying that there is a conspiracy in the scientific community to convince the public that position (4) is true.

I'm certainly not one to automatically reject conspiracy theories out of hand, but I do subject them to a few rudimentary plausibility tests. The first of these is to ask, "Qui bono?" Who would such a conspiracy benefit?

I don't see how it could benefit the scientists. Even universal public acceptance of position (4) would not significantly increase their material wealth, certainly not like lobbying for, say, an oil company. I suppose it might boost public opinion of scientists -- the extreme form of this would be for the public to venerate scientists as "the saviors of humanity," although that's a very generous exercise of imagination.

The next rudimentary plausibility test would be to ask, what would the costs be to the organization perpetrating the conspiracy if its true conduct were to become known? We've seen that political scandals involving conspiracy rarely have any lasting fallout: if they did, Watergate alone would have ensured the demise of the Republican party. Scandals can end the careers of individuals, but they never do more than temporarily disrupt the organizations to which the involved individuals belong.

But that's in politics, where scandal is to forever be expected. Science is the only area of human endeavor when the number-one concern is to make sure that one really knows what one thinks one really knows. Its only goal is to be honest. A concerted effort to distort the truth within the scientific community would spell the absolute suicide of science in the world, and I don't think any scientist would be willing to risk that for the remote prospect of being regarded as humanity's savior.

Bottom line, the reward is too paltry, and the risk too enormous, for scientists to be involved in such a conspiracy. If individual members of the scientific community find themselves shunned and ostracized because of their statements on global warming, it's because their thought processes are somehow flawed, not because they're heroic whistle-blowers.

I have yet to hear a convincing argument in favor of a scientific conspiracy to promote position (4). I hereby invite anyone from positions (1) - (3) to advance such a case in the comments section. I guarantee I will issue some sort of reply.

Cognitive Dissonance, Only Two Posts In?

So my first post says, one should never deliberately narrow one's scope of interests in politics. The second post says, deliberately narrowing one's scope of interest can be politically helpful. Huh?

Individual people, in making their voting decisions, should be as broad-minded as possible, consider as many different angles and issues as possible, and are irresponsible for doing otherwise.

Political organizations, in struggling to make progress toward their goals, must narrow their scope to focus on an achievable set of goals. To do anything else isn't irresponsible, necessarily, but it sure is ineffective.

TRIVIA FACT: What I just engaged in -- i.e. elaboration of nuance -- is referred to in the media as "flip-flopping."

Little Green Footballs vs. Daily Kos

These are my two favorite political blogs. I'm mostly liberal, so one would think I'd spend my time agreeing with whatever's on Daily Kos and getting pissed off at whatever's on Little Green Footballs. But over the last year, the opposite reaction has developed. I've accrued a great deal of grudging respect for Charles Johnson and his digital stomping ground.

The source of this respect can be characterized in one word: focus. There are tons of issues in politics, and there's a traditional conservative viewpoint on all of them, but LGF doesn't waste space banging the drum on each one. There are really only two issues that Johnson seems to care enough about to post about them repeatedly:

(1) Islamic fundamentalism is really bad and needs to be eradicated.
(2) Creationism is utter bullshit, and evolution is the way the (biological) world works.

Let's ignore the fact that (2) runs counter to the opinion of a significant portion of the conservative base, because it muddies the point I'm trying to make. The point is not the specific content of either of these agenda items -- the point is that there are only two of them. LGF exhibits focus.

Daily Kos, on the other hand, is a disorganized grab-bag of issues, all of them treated with equal importance by their various authors and advocates, regardless of how important they truly are ranked against all the other issues vying for our attention and action.

Nothing is more frustrating and eyeroll-inducing than the Daily Kos "Diary Rescue" posts. Here's a distillation of all the issues raised in the latest one:

(1) Media silence on Hurricane Gustav's aftermath
(2) Fate of German Jewry after the Holocaust
(3) A defense of the virtues of big-city living
(4) The ACLU urges a letter-writing campaign on behalf of a falsely convicted man on death row
(5) A rumination on the effect Bob Woodward's latest book will have on the careers of the current military brass
(6) The case for libertarian Democrats
(7) A snapshot of the current presidential race viewed through the lens of the electoral college
(8) A primer on how best to use Letters to the Editor as a tool of political proselytizing
(9) A mini-documentary on election fraud
(10) A rumination on the likelihood of government intervention in the future failures of large financial institutions, given the precedent set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
(11) A piece decrying the Republican attempt to co-opt the "change" campaign theme
(12) A list of suggested Obama campaign ads
(13) A series of videos revealing "the real John McCain"
(14) A piece claiming that Palin is worse than Cheney

Think about the contrast in scale between the two sites. On one site, dozens of posts over months tend to adhere to a list of themes two items long. On the other site, a single post adheres to a list of themes fourteen items long. (Actually fifteen items long -- there was one item whose description clashed with its title so strangely that I didn't know how to summarize it, so I left it off.)

Now, I understand both the theoretical intent and the practical cause of this discrepancy.
The practical cause is that, while Kos is the titular head of his site, he has delegated editorial authority to a panel of trusted associates who oversee and/or author what gets posted. LGF, on the other hand, is Charles Johnson's baby. He is the sole author and editor of everything that gets posted on the site. That difference in approach is naturally going to yield a difference in focus.

The theoretical intent of Daily Kos is to create sort of a clearinghouse of progressive thought, painting the left as a big tent inside which all different subspecies of liberal are welcome. Naturally the items that grab my attention will be different from those that grab the attention of, say, a fortysomething black mother who lives in New York City and works at a nonprofit mental health hospital for children, even though we might both proudly proclaim the title of liberal.

The problem with it is, the purpose of politics is not to preach to the choir. The purpose of politics is to focus one's rhetoric on the people who aren't already convinced by it -- to cast one's positions in terms of beliefs, values, and attitudes that one doesn't necessarily have.

When I looked at Daily Kos solely with liberal eyes (oh those halcyon days), I loved it. But when I look at it with nonliberal eyes, all I see is further evidence of a longstanding conservative talking point: that liberals just like to bitch about everything.

Conservatives like to paint themselves as fundamentally optimistic, happy people -- hey, things are pretty much fine the way they are, except for the following handful of problems. Conversely, they like to paint liberals as fundamentally pessimistic, unhappy people -- everything is falling apart, there's injustice everywhere, economic inequality, needless military aggression, etc. (It's an effective tactic, too -- if you're an undecided voter, or someone only vaguely aware of the daily back-and-forth of modern politics, which group would you rather be associated with?)

Even the most casual glance at these two extremes of the political blogosphere will serve to further this conservative talking point. The overall impression one gets from LGF is, things are pretty much fine the way they are, except for creationism and Islamic fundamentalism. The overall impression one gets from Daily Kos is, everything is falling apart, and here, we'll enlist fifty different equally impassioned people to prove different aspects of it to you.

LGF definitely has its problems -- I get the feeling Charles Johnson has a mild case of megalomania, and would be a rather irritating guy to hang around with. (A few months ago he posted an email exchange he had with a reporter that was presumably intended to make the reporter look bad, but to my eyes just made Johnson look like his namesake.) And a significant number of commenters in his "lizardoid army" seem to be prognathous knuckle-draggers (I won't use "mouth-breather" as a pejorative because I'm one too).

But, Daily Kos, there is a lesson to be learned from Charles Johnson: FOCUS. Focus, focus, focus. As painful as it may be to your delicate progressive sensibilities, you have to stop claiming to give a shit about everything. Prioritize. Make the tough decisions. Pick the right battles. And stop playing into the hands of conservative pseudo-psychologists.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Cunningham's Fundamental Theorem of Electoral Politics

There is no lower form of political life than the single-issue voter.

Doesn't matter if the issue is abortion, or gun control, or gay marriage, or global warming, or immigration, or proliferation of free markets.

It's a complex world, and a complex nation. Lots of decisions about lots of issues need to be made. They're going to be made by the officials we elect. Those officials won't have the luxury of single-mindedness. They're going to have to make decisions about issues that affect you, even if they aren't issues you feel particularly strongly about. To narrow one's scope deliberately to a single issue, at the exclusion of all else, is essentially an abdication of civic responsibility.