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9/30/14

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.

9/26/14

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.

9/25/14

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?

9/25/14

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.

8/24/14

Conservatives, the state, and the presumption of innocence

The American government owes every citizen the presumption of innocence. The logic here is straightforward, particularly for conservatives: since the state maintains a monopoly on the use of force, we should be skeptical of the justifications that it provides for doing so, and it should affirmatively satisfy our scrutiny. In cases of ambiguity or uncertainty, individual liberty must prevail over government exercises of power.

This situation is complicated when police officers are on trial - but again, for conservatives, the logic should be straightforward. Legally they must retain the presumption of innocence, since the police will be prosecuted in their capacity as American citizens. But politically, conservatives have no business taking at face value the state's judgments of its own actions against citizens. They should assume that these rulings are at least unreliable and often corrupt and self-interested, for all of the exact same reasons conservatives assume that other government actions are corrupt and self-interested.

So it's extremely telling when, outside of the jury, an endless parade of "conservatives" demand we give armed agents of the state a benefit of the doubt against (black) citizens:



























8/14/14

Rand Paul's facile spin on Ferguson

Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem [in Ferguson]. Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement. - Rand Paul, Time.com
Police militarization is definitely part of the problem here, but it doesn't follow that police militarization is necessarily an outcome of a powerful democratic government, or that it can only be addressed by the massive abolition of democratic governance that Paul has in mind. These are the unargued, non sequitur leaps of an opportunist transparently attempting to hijack a tragedy as a vehicle for an unrelated political agenda.

Rand Paul unwittingly draws attention to this a few paragraphs later when he notes - quoting The Heritage Foundation's Evan Bernick - that "federal agencies...as well as local police departments...come equipped with SWAT teams and heavy artillery."

To elaborate: big government may have militarized the Ferguson police, but it has also militarized government authorities that can serve as a check on the Ferguson police. At any given moment, President Obama and Governor Nixon can mobilize the National Guard or even active military to intervene on behalf of Ferguson's citizens. They are perfectly capable of doing this, not in spite of the power of the government but because of it. In fact, it is precisely because the President and the Governor are so powerful that it likely won't come to that at all. When the Ferguson police stand down, it will be because the massive, armed hierarchy of the state and federal government have given them no other choice.

The reason this hasn't already happened is obvious: Republicans won't let it. They are already decrying the President's call for an investigation by the FBI and the DOJ, and spinning further intervention as an egregious imposition on the local sovereignty. A deployment of troops - the reasonable and proportional solution - would have ignited all kinds of outrage about federal tyranny.

Who will police the police? Liberals have a pragmatic answer for this: a careful system of checks and balances, regulatory, enforcement and military agencies, all ultimately subject to popular control through democratic elections. Demilitarization can ameliorate some of the system's worst abuses, but as a final solution it's just incoherent: the whole point of a police force is that we militarize some people more than others in order to enforce the law.

8/14/14

Remember Al Sharpton

For all of his squishiness in recent years, Al Sharpton is doing the Lord's work in Ferguson right now, and it's the exact same thing he has been doing for decades: rallying the black community against an obvious injustice.

Anyone who has paid any attention to Sharpton's career knows that there is nothing at all unusual about this, and indeed, at this point the unusual thing would be if he didn't show up given the magnitude of the events in Missouri.

But what is unusual, once you notice it, is the almost absolute radio silence among his critics in the Republican party. Just do a quick Google search and you'll find an endless parade of grievance among GOP crackers about Sharpton's "race-hustling" during the Jena Six or Trayvon Martin controversies - just to name two. Look at his actual involvement in those cases, however, and you'll see him doing exactly what he's doing right now.

The point is worth making because the silence isn't gonna last. It's just too embarrassing to come after Sharpton while he's standing shoulder to shoulder with grieving parents against Ferguson's hyper-militarized goon squad; it's obvious that Sharpton's on the right side of history on this one, and no one in their right mind is going to take him on while everyone's paying attention.

But give it a few weeks, and the GOP will weave this one back into a vague narrative of Sharpton as an opportunity who allies himself with shady criminals and radicals. Republicans won't explain what exactly changed between now and then - they'll just appeal to some common-sensical perception of Sharpton as some sinister guy whose ideas about race should never be taken seriously.

So watch what Al Sharpton's doing right now. Remember it when Republicans change the story. And ask yourself, "Just how much of the history of black activism in the United States even remotely resembles the story that Republicans tell us today?"

8/12/14

The lesson of the Obama years

"The Obama years have taught us the sometimes frightening lesson that our Constitution and legal structure alone don't secure the Republic. We also depend on norms - or an implied understanding of what behavior is acceptable."

This is true enough, but Chait then proceeds to exactly the wrong conclusion. We have only become aware of our dependence on "norms" during the Obama years to the extent that they have utterly failed to constrain political power. Republicans have departed from precedent by enforcing the supermajority rule, politicizing the debt ceiling, obstructing routine appointments, and filing suit against the President through the House. From these infamous and unambiguous violations of institutional convention, Chait concludes that Obama needs to maintain another convention, if only to constrain future Republicans?

This is not to say that these conventions are irrelevant - simply that they aren't decisive. It turns out that a Republican president could decide to stop collecting the estate tax whether or not Obama pursues his immigration plans, and that he could decide not to even if Obama does pursue his immigration plan. Historic precedents may play a role here, but if the Obama years have taught us anything, they've taught us that things like partisanship and immediate incentives and a whole host of other dynamics may be even more relevant.

8/10/14

Libertarians do not get credit for social liberalism

Robert Draper in the New York Times Magazine:
Today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side. An estimated 54 percent of Americans now favor extending marriage rights to gay couples. Decriminalizing marijuana has become a mainstream position...[libertarians support] the drive to reduce sentences for minor drug offenders...The appetite for foreign intervention is at low ebb...deep concern over government surveillance looms as one of the few bipartisan sentiments in Washington...
It's gratifying to see so many Americans take up these causes, but that doesn't change history. All of these are liberal positions advocated by liberals for decades and decades. Crucially, liberals have fought for these positions when libertarians have been unwilling to, and often in the face of fierce opposition by libertarians. Liberals often maintained these positions at their own political expense, and it has largely been through their sacrifice and dedication that these causes even became viable.

Draper's reference to foreign intervention is just the most obvious case in point.

Consider the most significant instance of foreign intervention in modern history: the invasion of Iraq. Liberals didn't merely oppose this - they led the opposition, and it was the central rallying point of their politics throughout the GWB presidency. The Democratic party was a major vehicle of their opposition, though a glance at contemporary protests show the heavy involvement of organizations even further to the left: the A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition, United for Peace and Justice, the Green Party, and so on. Accordingly, opponents of foreign intervention were overwhelmingly associated with the left, and defended and criticized on those terms. Opponents of the Iraq War were routinely attacked as Communists, Socialists, Big-Government liberals, and even sympathizers with the notion of a totalitarian Islam Caliphate. Rather than disavow their acceptance of liberal governance, critics of the war routinely maintained that government funds being wasted in Iraq would have been much better spent on welfare programs and maintenance.

It's become a political truism that Libertarian opponents of intervention were missing-in-action during the Bush years - but really, that's far too polite. In reality Libertarians supported foreign intervention, as they often have. Not just passively, though they did that too - as when CATO repeatedly maintained radio silence on the issue to the point that even allies started criticizing them. And not just from the top down, though they did that too - as when CATO fired anti-interventionalist Charles Pena. Nope, they did it actively, and at the level of individual voters: for instance, supporting Bush against Kerry by an overwhelming 59-38 margin in 2008.

Does any of this mean that Libertarians aspire or intend intervene abroad?

Libertarians typically respond to these points by insisting that they were making pragmatic trade-offs to advance things they cared more about - supporting the Iraq War because Bush also promised tax cuts, for example. But that's not a counterpoint. Politics are about what positions you support in theory - they're about what trade-offs you actually make. You do not get to call yourself an anti-interventionist if every time the issue comes up you are willing, for whatever reason, to support intervention and oppose the people who oppose it.

This line of criticism holds across the board. There's an old joke on the left that Libertarians are just Republicans who want to smoke pot - but it's worth noting that they haven't been doing this by actually advocating legalization. For the most part, Libertarians have spent the last fifty years voting for the party that regularly uses "pot-smoking hippies" as a way to insult liberals. When they want to smoke up, they just do it, because they're privileged and they can get away with it. Sometimes, as Draper reports, they even brag about it in contests!

Ironically, the emergence of the modern Libertarian movement has mostly been an outcome of widespread acceptance of the liberal agenda. Left-wing opposition to war, discrimination and the war on drugs have been so successful that right-wing capitalists have had to accommodate to these realities. Far from representing a "purer" or "more-principled" version of Republicans, Libertarians are mostly Republicans who have capitulated to pressure from their left.

Predictably, the losers in this contest are now trying to re-write history and insist that they were the winners all along. Its the exact same revisionary move we see today among opportunistic Republicans trying to claim the legacy of the Civil Rights; their strategy may seem implausible now, but the Libertarian rebrand seemed implausible too - at first. When writers like Draper invoke these talking points without criticism, they quickly move from implausible to truism pretty fast.

8/4/14

How hypocrisy works

Jesse Myerson got robbed yesterday. Right wing bozos have taken this misfortune as their opportunity to make two points:
  1. JM is a hypocrite for criticizing private property rights and theft
  2. JM's beliefs, which allow him to consistently criticize both property rights and theft, are BS
Both accusations are dumb for reasons spelled out ad nauseum elsewhere, but here it's enough to point out that they happen to be completely at odds.

JM believes that the collectivization of private property is not a form of theft. Insofar as he believes this, we should expect him to criticize private property while simultaneously condemning theft. That is the logically and morally consistent expression of his belief.

There is nothing hypocritical about any of this, as maintained in point one. It may be a naive or illogical or incoherent or dumb position, as maintained in point two, but that is different from the allegation of hypocrisy. One can obviously act in perfect consistency with a flawed belief.

This is pure kettle logic. It's what happens when you oppose a position first, and then come up with reasons to oppose it.