Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Scholars have probably accounted for your obvious point

Earlier this week, a couple of guys criticized Matt Bruenig's standard poverty analysis on the grounds that he failed to account for the dynamic effects of transfer programs.

Their objection is demonstrably incorrect, as Bruenig has already pointed out. Having established that, a second thing worth pointing out about their objection: it's hilariously obvious. It's so obvious that David Henderson didn't even feel the need to articulate it directly, and instead spent his "Spot the Problem" blog post dropping smug hints. It's so obvious that Scott Sumner explicitly asks, "How could Bruenig overlook the obvious?"

Sumner seems to think he is being rhetorical here, but if he had taken his own question seriously he might have noticed a problem. Insofar as his point was obvious, Bruenig almost certainly did not overlook it. If Henderson can merely gesture towards it to a general audience and expect them to know what he's talking about, it's relatively unlikely that a prolific scholar on the topic would be in the dark. Snark about how progressive brains might be wired differently may make for self-indulgent ridicule, but it's hardly a credible defense for this theory that Bruenig missed his point.

I bring up the incident because it reminds me of a similar episode that took place last week:
"How can you have the wobbling of the earth cooling the earth, but it not be included in any projections [of climate change]?" - Rep. Steve Stockman [R-TX]
The answer, of course, is that wobbling has been accounted for in the projections. As they have with cyclical warming, volcanic eruptions, and all of the other obvious and easy to understand factors that climate science deniers like to pretend the scientists haven't noticed. Stockman is relying on the same ploy that Henderson and Sumner rely on: appealing to an objection in all of its obvious self-evidence, while simultaneously suggesting that his critics have somehow missed it.

All of this plays into the psychology of the counter-Enlightenment - which foments contempt for scholarship (to the point of ridiculing reading) while fetishizing the semi-erudition of unearned knowledge. The right cultivates intellectual arrogance, insisting that people who have dedicated much of their lives to particular fields of knowledge are just "ivory tower elites" who don't actually know any more than the rest of us.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Female hysteria is not an actual thing

It's been a long time since anyone considered "female hysteria" an actual medical condition, with actual physical causes and actual pathological symptoms. There's a gross history - equally hilarious and sinister - of pre-modern doctors inventing bizarre theories about women's sex organs doing crazy things to angry up the blood, and if you still buy into any of it you probably also spend a lot of time worrying about the humors, too. For the empiricists among us, the best reason to dismiss the idea of female hysteria is that it turns out to be factually, demonstrably dumb.

That's a great reason - but it's not the only one.

Noam Chomsky, writing about another nineteenth century pseudoscience - racist anthropology - noted that when it comes to this sort of thing,
a rational person will ask two sorts of questions: What is the scientific status of the claims? What social or ideological needs do they serve? The questions are logically independent, but the second type of question naturally comes to the fore as scientific pretensions are undermined.
The answer to the second question seems obvious as well. Operationally, the diagnosis of female hysteria functioned as a way of oppressing women. It provided a medical rationalization for withholding power and responsibility from them: they were morally and intellectually weak. It played into all kinds of horrific reactionary arguments. Women couldn't be trusted with the right to vote. Their sexual behavior needed to be governed by men, because they were depraved and completely malleable. They certainly couldn't be permitted to run their own lives.

What's important to note about female hysteria, today, is that the medical details are mostly irrelevant. Even if it had a modicum of scientific legitimacy, it's perfectly clear today that its diagnosis, treatment and politics were entirely animated by its role as a pretext for oppressing women.

The progressive response should have been - and remains - extreme skepticism of any rationale for depriving women of their moral and intellectual agency. Even when such arguments are mobilized in a woman's defense, the idea that she cannot control herself, or meet ordinary standards of decency and rationality, cannot be historically severed from the claim that she must therefore be controlled or segregated. We must certainly never assume that this is necessarily a noble or benevolent thing to say about women, because we know perfectly well how destructive it can be.

Case in point:
Months ago, Twitter personality Sarah Kenzior got some threats on Twitter. Her "non-perfect" response, documented at length, was to aggressively and demonstrably libel multiple people, and to maintain a smear campaign against them that persists to this day. As Matt Bruenig points out, her defenders have a curious explanation for this:
...many of her supporters...ultimately came around to the position that, although she’s clearly lying, the spewing of lies is driven by the trauma she is currently experiencing. The argument was that Jacobin running a post that links to her public tweet about bros sending rape threats was so traumatic an experience that she just could not control herself.
Bruenig adds that "given the fact that she has continued to [lie], now months later...it would seem the 'trauma-responding' theory...doesn't really hold up." This may read like snark, but it's really quite decisive if we take the history of female hysteria at all seriously. "Trauma," as a rationale for relieving Kenzior of moral agency, is not a diagnosis to be thrown around casually by internet psychologists. It should refer to an actual medical condition; and as Chomsky put it, "if the scientific status is slight, then it is particularly interesting to consider the climate of opinion within which the claim is taken seriously."

Here, the climate seems entirely obvious - and extremely sinister. People with no clinical expertise have developed an ad hoc rationalization for Sarah Kendzior's behavior, but are in no position to evaluate whether or not it is actually correct. There is little thought for the monstrous history of using this sort of rhetoric about women, or for its entirely predictable consequences.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Liberals are still buying into Tea Party propaganda

Most of the Tea Party's credibility, such as it is, depends on their posture as a faction of principle running against a decadent establishment.

This of course is complete nonsense. The Tea Party is most accurately described as a Republican brand marketed by some of the most powerful and entrenched interests in the US. The establishment is mostly whoever those interests happen to run against. GOP primaries are better understood as raw power struggles rather than ideological contests. The Kochs would prefer to run the show rather than the Chamber of Commerce. To an unappreciated extent, that's all there is to it.

So it's vexing when otherwise savvy liberals like Brian Beutler post stuff like this:
Most people think of the GOP primary campaign as a contest between conservative hardliners and establishmentarians. But it’s actually more like two different contests: One in which a group of undisciplined hardliners undercut each other’s bids to take on the favorite; and another in which elders rally around the most conservative of the party’s disciplined, accomplished veterans. These lines never cross. Conservatives are far too exacting to accept a conservative who curries favor from the donor class, and the donor class won’t favor a candidate who panders to the far right too much.
Structurally, he's mostly right - power struggles within the GOP are better understood as two parallel struggles within two factions. But that's as far as the analysis goes. The 2012 Republican primaries only lasted as long as they did precisely because the donor class frantically funded any and every Tea Party candidate that posed any kind of threat to Romney, no matter how transient. Romney, meanwhile, spent the entire primary campaign pandering to the right as a "severe conservative," and only tacked to the center once the nomination guaranteed him a monopoly on funding.

The "establishment" is really only the "establishment" insofar as they are typically incumbents with significant experience campaigning and governing. Sure, spending a lot of time in office is associated with all kinds of disagreeable tendencies, for instance the tendency to sell out the interests of your constituents to big business. But how does that distinguish the establishmentarian from the Tea Partier who deliberately sets out to do the exact same thing?

Jennifer Rubin does not understand how elections work

In the United States, candidates typically win the presidency by earning a plurality of votes in the electoral college. This, in turn, generally depends on winning the popular vote in strategically crucial states. And for decades, political scientists and laymen alike have understood that winning at the state level depends on the good graces and open wallets of our campaign financiers.

None of this is even remotely controversial, or even particularly difficult to understand. So it's baffling that the Washington Post employs a chronically wrong columnist who even manages to prove herself chronically wrong about obvious things like how elections are won. Jennifer Rubin thinks that Sen. Jim Webb can win the presidency because of multiple dumb reasons that have nothing to do with the basic factors that allow one to win the Presidency, like "funding" and "polling". It is a testament to the absolute intellectual poverty of our pundits that any analysis ignoring these basic considerations could ever see the light of day.

Even on their own terms Rubin's points are almost unanimously wrong. She thinks Webb can win because:

1. He has no ties to a floundering administration. Rubin directly contradicts this in point nine, but that's beside the point. Any Democratic candidate will be tied to his Obama in the 2016 campaign whether the ties exist or not. And that is not, as Rubin assumes because she is a partisan hack rather than an actual analyst, necessarily a bad thing.

2. He is candid about the faults of the president. Every candidate running for President has voiced and will voice criticism about the President. To the extent that this is a coherent litmus test, it's one that every candidate will pass.

3. Dems love a veteran who turns dove. Rubin then goes on to list two veterans-turned-dove, Kerry and Hagel, who 1) lost and 2) was always presumed unelectable at the presidential level. There is no reason to take this as a compelling reason for Webb to run, since it has not in recent history proven an asset at the national level.

4. He is not overexposed. It's unclear what Rubin means by "overexposed" or why she thinks this is an asset. Are there candidates in recent history who lost because they were overexposed? Rubin would likely say Clinton, but Clinton lost to Obama because she was tactically outmaneuvered by people who, among other things, understood how primaries work. It's easy enough to argue that Clinton's exposure is also an asset insofar as it contributes to her name recognition and make her a familiar choice to voters. There's no reason to assume that Webb's relative obscurity will help him overcome that.

5. He is from a swing state he won before. This is as close as Rubin gets to a relevant point, but she's still incorrect. It is indeed important for any Democratic candidate to win Virginia, but there's no reason to suspect that Clinton is likely to lose it. Virginia is only purple insofar as its district-level representation fails to reflect the popular vote. At the state level, Virginia passed that threshold in 2006 and is now decisively blue, thanks to the growing Democratic stronghold of Northern Virginia. There is no reason to suspect that a home-state advantage for Webb is likely to spell the difference between victory and defeat.

6. ...he can play the "maverick" and "outsider" role. Electoral history, in the US, is for the most part a long and glorious history of outsiders and mavericks challenging the establishment - and losing. Rubin and the Tea Party's anti-establishment fetish may have blinded them to the historical realities of that role, but there is no reason to simply assume that this is an asset.

7. He is smart and knowledgeable enough to challenge Hillary and has nothing to lose politically (he would never be her VP) by going full-throttle. This describes almost every candidate currently mulling a run against Clinton, from Biden to Warren to Sanders. If at this point you are so opposed to a Clinton presidency that you would be willing to run against her, and ambitious / credible enough to stand a chance in hell of winning, you are probably not likely to serve as her VP. More to the point, there is basically no reason to assume that being knowledgeable enough to challenge Clinton and ambitious enough to do so would actually make it more likely for anyone to win, since she will just outspend you and outpoll you in the end.

8. He opposed the Iraq war in 2002, a litmus test for the left. This is not a litmus test for the left. Democrats continue to vote for and support politicians who supported the Iraq war. For example John Kerry, who Rubin just finished praising as a credible candidate. Moreover, if Dems "love a veteran who turns dove," why would they hate an Iraq war supporter who regrets that vote? Finally, it's unclear if this is even as significant an issue as it was in 2008, when it arguably was (but probably wasn't) a decisive liability for Clinton.

9. Webb was there for liberals 87 percent of the time and always when it really mattered. Rubin then goes on to list several initiatives that Webb supported. Did Clinton oppose any of these? Are there any likely Democratic candidates who opposed any of them?

10. He is not a clueless millionaire. Why exactly does Rubin think this is an asset rather than a liability? Being a clueless millionaire typically means that you will have the kind of access and resources that are absolutely necessary for a credible national campaign. Most of our sitting politicians are clueless millionaires. It may make for an inspiring story when a 99%-er wins public office, but this is hardly a campaign model for success.

11. He is a prolific fiction author. ...

12. His vote on [issues] check the boxes on liberals' social issues. This is just a rephrase of 9, and dumb for the exact same reasons.