Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
Several articles have been published in the wake of studies that show how presenting people with evidence that their view on a topic is wrong will not dissuade them but make them hold even more tightly to their view. Here’s one such article by Ezra Klein.
If the finding holds up—and the evidence so far is strong—then I don’t see what we can do. Since evidence and reason are pretty much useless (or, indeed, worse than useless), we are left with power, force, and violence as the way to win arguments. Indeed, in looking at history, those are how religious debates have been settled (since evidence is immaterial to a faith-based position).
And perhaps it is the case that power, force, and violence are the only way to settle disagreements on matters of fact—a depressing thought. I have the idea that I am open to evidence and rational argument, but I am by nature a loner and those who seem most unable to accept evidence and argument against their positions have, as Klein points out, much of their identity derived from belonging a group: changing their position would exclude them from the group, and group membership is essential to who they are. I don’t belong to groups, so I experience less pressure to conform, which makes it somewhat easier to consider evidence and reasoning.
At any rate, one gets the feeling that it’s hopeless: those who are in error on an issue will stick with their position to the death (thus religious wars), and no amount of contrary evidence or obvious inconsistencies in their position will have any effect beyond making them more certain of their position.
Perhaps Voltaire was right: There’s nowt to do but cultivate our gardens.
UPDATE: I’ve continued to ponder this question, which seems extremely important if we are to retain the gains of the Enlightenment. A few points:
Evidence-based arguments using reason does work in many instances: look, for example, at the success of science and technology.
Logical, reasoned argument based on evidence is a skill, not something innate that we can simply do. That means doing it well requires training and practice. Without training and practice, conclusions may well be based on desires, conformity with a social circle, or other factors irrelevant to the evience and the argument (cf. Klein’s example of Hannity and climate change). Desiring to remain in good graces with one’s social group is irrelevant to reasoned argument from evidence.
Some positions are contradicted by evidence and arrived at by flawed methods (e.g., wanting something to be true because it fits with the beliefs of your church or other social group). While restricting the argument to evidence and reasoning from that may be difficult—particularly for those untrained in reasoning from evidence—that nevertheless is more likely to reach correct answers (i.e., answers in accordance with reality).
It does seem that many people do not reason well and do not understand how to use evidence—and many may place a higher priority remaining in good graces with their social group than arriving at conclusions that match reality. This is indeed a problem: when policy decisions are based on fantasies, even well-intentioned fantasies, the results are not good.
The root cause is that we are social animals, so social needs have high priority. But that does not mean that reasoned argument from evidence is wrong or something we should abandon. And I think, in a proper education, students are taught to aspire to sound reasoning from evidence as the most productive approach and the best chance of matching solutions to reality.
UPDATE 2: Paul Krugman has a very good response to Klein’s article. He points out that, when your tribe’s beliefs are inconsistent with demonstrated facts, then choosing to go with one or the other is not symmetric between Conservatives and Liberals: although the experiment seems to suggest that the phenomenon is equally common on both sides, in fact it is not: as Krugman states, there is no liberal example of something on the scale of climate change denial (in which the stakes are so high), of vaccines causing autism, or the like. And I think this is because Conservatives are much more tribal in their orientation. You will recall how loyalty and authority rank very high with Conservatives and not with Liberals, whose major concerns are harm and fairness. (See this post for more information on the study.) If loyalty is a primary value, then taking a stand against a group belief is intolerable. And indeed you see that if someone takes a stand that’s different from the group’s views, s/he is often ostracized and strongly criticized by their group if the group values loyalty: dissent and standing apart from the group is not accepted in groups in which loyalty and authority are paramount. And those are exactly Conservative groups; Liberals are perhaps more tolerant, and in any event judge things by different primary values.
Because Conservatives value loyalty and authority so highly, they look to the group and its leaders for guidance; Liberals put less weight on those virtues and thus look instead at the evidence, less concerned about whose apple-cart they might upset.
Francis Bacon wrote essays,the first of which is Of Truth, written, I take it, to establish the ground rules for rational conversation and dialogue. That essay begins with a famous line, but it’s in taking that situation seriously—taking the view that Pilate was simply joking, and thus missed the (vitally important) answer—that it becomes interesting. It is indeed vital to know the truth, so it’s an important question. Certainly the description provided by the second sentence applies, I think, to Pilate, as one of those who see truth as merely another tired old convention to be flouted and flung away. Truth, as the Governor of Wyoming so perfectly illustrates, can be proclaimed to be whatever we want it to be: we can legislate truth. (King Canute need not apply.) We live in a post-truth era, which sets up an inevitable crash when reality conflicts with cultural construct: reality always wins, long term.
What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. Certainly there be, that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting. And though the sects of philosophers of that kind be gone, yet there remain certain discoursing wits, which are of the same veins, though there be not so much blood in them, as was in those of the ancients. But it is not only the difficulty and labor, which men take in finding out of truth, nor again, that when it is found, it imposeth upon men’s thoughts, that doth bring lies in favor; but a natural though corrupt love, of the lie itself. One of the later school of the Grecians, examineth the matter, and is at a stand, to think what should be in it, that men should love lies; where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets, nor for advantage, as with the merchant; but for the lie’s sake. But I cannot tell; this same truth, is a naked, and open day-light, that doth not show the masks, and mummeries, and triumphs, of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights. Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?
The quoted portion certainly seems to apply strongly today.
UPDATE: I continued to mull over the Lindsay Abrams column linked above, and I was wondering what on earth could so strongly drive a decision like that—something that the Governor alluded to (costs to business, etc.)—and it occurred to me that what was driving that ability to maintain a counter-factual position strongly would be fear—really serious, profound fear.
Also, you’ll note that Bacon’s prose is tougher and thus requires more chewing over: a big slowdown for those who have grown accustomed to having things pretty much pre-masticated so that it can be slurped down at speed. I refer again to the excellent history of English prose style, with plentiful and substantial examples, in The Reader Over Your Shoulder, by Graves and Hodge. (The original edition, not the one where most of the book has been cut.)
UPDATE 2: It may help open people’s eyes to ask them what it would mean if climate change (or evolution or the safety of vaccines or whatever) were, in fact, true? That is, assuming that it is true, what follows? And then perhaps they could be asked for ideas on what would show it to be true? or what evidence contradicts that thought that it might be true? Probably it gets tricky right about there.
When you disagree with someone about evolution, global warming, vaccines, or the like, I believe that you’re likely to encounter a way of thinking that is sufficiently foreign to me that I just now figured out what might be going on. What I have experienced in such arguments has convinced me that some people view a strong belief as in itself evidence that the belief is true (presumably because “if it wasn’t true, I wouldn’t believe it so strongly—duh!”). In other words, belief is treated as though it were evidence, and the intensity of the belief measures the evidence for it: intense belief equals strong evidence, just by itself.
When you try to argue against such a belief, you probably usewhat we normally think of as evidence, namely facts. You then run into another problem. The person who views beliefs as constituting evidence for the beliefs also views facts as opinions. Thus when you point out a fact that contradicts their belief (for which they have loads of evidence, in their sense: that is, they believe it strongly), a common response is, “That’s (just) your opinion.” That is, just as they weigh beliefs as we normally weigh evidence, actual evidence—that is, verifiable facts—is weighed as we normally weigh opinions: an opinion being something that’s perfectly fine for you to accept, but really has nothing whatsoever to do with whether I accept it—that is, whether it is also my opinion/fact. Just as someone can have an opinion on something without affecting my own opinion on the same thing, so the facts you present (which are viewed as merely your opinion) don’t really effect what the other believes. Daniel Moynihan specifically warned that, while you are entitled to your own opinions, you are not entitled to your own facts, and that was not an empty warning: some, I think, do view facts as opinions (as shown by their reasoning).
That does seem to describe what happens and shows why the arguments go nowhere: the rational person has been offering something that simply has no weight for the believer—the rational one thinks he’s offering evidence, but the believer views him as offering opinion, and of course his opinion is beside the point: “I have my own opinions.”
So: the question becomes, what does have weight for the believer and thus triggers a change in view? It may be couching ideas in terms the believer already accepts: e.g., “I say to you in the name of Jesus our Lord and Savior, send a donation now.” The demand for money is accepted because of the accompanying incantations from the belief system: the system passwords, in effect. And as we’ve seen from a long string of huckstering ministers, those incantations actually work: when the ministers demand money, they tie in salvation, and so it sounds like a pretty good deal: something real and of paramount importance (salvation) for mere money. I recall that Oral Roberts once advised his radio audience that God was going to take him if his listeners didn’t contribute $44 million before some date. (I believe this may have been for Oral Roberts University.) The listeners came through (or at least the Rev. Roberts said that they did, and it’s certainly true that he did not die at the time, which sort of proves it). The response seems a little odd given that the penalty—God taking Oral Roberts into His Kingdom and Arms—actually sounds like exactly what Roberts claims to want and has been working toward.
At any rate, perhaps we must cast our case for evolution, global warming, and vaccines in theological terms—invoking the name of our Savior liberally, but also sticking with the facts: rational Christianity, in effect. And isn’t that exactly what the Moral Mondays in North Carolina are all about? Aren’t the Moral Mondays an effort to get people to look at recent public policy and legislation and view the effects in religious terms. This seems natural enough: it’s what Jesus Himself did when facing in His time circumstances similar in some ways to the US today: helping and caring for the poor and humble—and, you will recall, He condemned wealth harshly. In effect, He was head of the Occupy Jerusalem Movement. And He suffered for it, as is often the case for those who try to help the poor and humble and protect them from the wealthy and powerful.
So it’s been done before. That indicates it might work.
With our adventure in Iraq—a completely unprovoked war based on lies from the Bush Administration—having ended so recently, it is curious to see so many in the US expressing outrage that Russia sent troops into Ukraine—which, it may be pointed out, is on Russia’s doorstep, whereas Iraq is far removed from the US. Worse, those expressing outrage never so much as allude to the US invasion of Iraq to explain what is different this time. They simply act as if the Iraq war never happened. It’s as if they have air-brushed that from their memory.
Glenn Greenwald points out this discrepancy and also applauds a reporter on RT who spoke against Russia’s invasion. (When reporters in the US spoke against the Iraq invasion, as did Phil Donohue (who had the most popular show on MSNBC), they were summarily fired. The US often does not, in practice, believe in free expression if the expression is contrary to government propaganda.) Greenwald writes at The Intercept:
The vast bulk of the commentary issuing from American commentators about the Russian military action in Ukraine involves condemning exactly that which they routinely advocate and which the US itself routinely does. So suffocating is the resulting stench that those who played leading roles in selling the public the attack on Iraq and who are still unrepentant about it, such as David “Axis of Evil/The Right Man” Frum, have actually become the leading media voices condemning Russia on the ground that it is wrong to invade sovereign countries; Frum thus has no trouble saying things like this with an apparently straight face: “If Russia acts the outlaw nation, can it be expected to be treated as anything but an outlaw?”
Enthusiastic supporters of a wide range of other US interventions in sovereign states, both past and present and in and out of government, are equally righteous in their newfound contempt for invasions – when done by Russia. Secretary of State John Kerry – who stood on the Senate floor in 2002 and voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq because “Saddam Hussein [is] sitting in Baghdad with an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction” and there is “little doubt that Saddam Hussein wants to retain his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction” – told Face the Nation on Sunday: “You just don’t in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext.” The supremely sycophantic Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer – as he demanded to know how Russia would be punished - never once bothered Kerry (or his other Iraq-war-advocating guests, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) by asking about any of that unpleasantness (is it hard at all for you to sermonize against invasions of sovereign countries given, you know, how often you yourself support them?)
American invasions and occupations of nations halfway around the world are perfectly noble, but Russian interference in a part of a country right on its border is the supreme act of lawless, imperial aggression. Few things are worse than watching America’s militarists, invasion-and-occupying-justifiers, regime-change enthusiasts, drone-lovers, and supporters of its various “kinetic military actions” self-righteously wrap themselves in the banner of non-intervention, international law and respect for sovereignty. Does anyone take those denunciations seriously outside of the class of western elites who disseminate them?
American media elites awash in an orgy of feel-good condemnation in particular love to mock Russian media, especially the government-funded English-language outlet RT, as being a source of shameless pro-Putin propaganda, where free expression is strictly barred (in contrast to the Free American Media). That that network has a strong pro-Russian bias is unquestionably true. But one of its leading hosts, Abby Martin, remarkably demonstrated last night what “journalistic independence” means by ending her Breaking the Set program with a clear and unapologetic denunciation of the Russian action in Ukraine: . . .
Continue reading. Video at the link.
Well–written. And note the sub-text: to fix so many things—environmental, societal, legal, financial/jobs—requires fundamental and enormous changes in our society. And she describes exactly such a change as it happens: you can practically see the wave curl over in triumph. So perhaps other such changes are possible.
I am certain that the man described in this post believes firmly that he is fair, and sees the policies he espouses as being fair. That’s another example where one would love for him to write exactly the specific criteria that define a policy or action as being “fair.”
I confess that I found some of his reasoning surprisingly immature—for example, his pointing out that he never actually used the word “shot,” as though that somehow mattered. Swallow a camel, strain at a gnat.
Read Kevin Drum’s post for a brief description and some good insights.
I think it would be interesting for each party to state explicitly what it means by “fair”—that is, what criteria an action or policy must satisfy to be deemed “fair” (and thus, by implication, what criteria identify an unfair action or policy). It may be that one or both parties are not acting in good faith—i.e., instead of choosing the course that seems to the party to be fair, the party instead chooses a course it views as being unfair). With an explicit definition, we can then judge each party according to its own criteria. That would be interesting, don’t you think?
Fairness looms large because it is a (perhaps, <i>the</i>) basic (deep, primal) value for a social animal. And indeed we find that most people try to be fair: that is the inevitable response of a successful social animal. Violators may gain temporary advantage, but ultimately, I think, basic social-animal drives tend to prevail (because if they didn’t, that trait would not still be here).
UPDATE: And, regarding the notion of fairness and good faith, read this Kevin Drum post.
UPDATE 2: It occurs to me that a shared strong sense that fairness is important is required in order to have trust, and complex societies require trust in copious amounts.
I think Alyssa Rosenberg has a good point in this post at ThinkProgress. I found myself drifting away from the series before I finished the first season because of the lack of actual politics: the decisions and positions that affect the lives of the public. Office politics is to a degree interesting—we root for the protagonist—but real (Congressional and Executive) politics matters because the decisions being fought over don’t simply affect who gets a particular post but determine whether jobs will be available, whether corporations will be forced to act responsibly, affect our safety. The outcomes from actual politics has real-world consequences that extend far beyond those directly involved in a dispute, and that part of the iceberg is completely invisible in House of Cards. The fights in Congress are about big issues, quite apart from personal advancement.
UPDATE: And is House of Cards realisticd? No, according to Seth Masket in Pacific Standard:
I am a rather devoted fan of House of Cards (U.S. version), as are many of my friends and extended family members, both inside and outside the political world. And from what I gather, the show has a large following among the country’s political class. President Obama watches it, and Slate’s Political Gabfest actually devoted one of their three segments last week to a discussion of just why people watch it. Interestingly, one of the questions I hear most about the show, mainly from people who don’t work in politics or academia, is, “How realistic is it?”
The answer: Not remotely! OK, let’s just concede that the show is roughly based on Washington, D.C., politics, and that the writers have some familiarity with the basic features of the Constitution and the layout of the District of Columbia. And let’s also concede that there are some venal people in politics who use issues to gain power rather than using power to advance issues. And maybe, just maybe, there are people who are so hungry to hold high office that they would literally kill for it.
All of that stipulated, the show is still about as ridiculous as Kevin Spacey’s accent. The basic conceit is that Frank and Claire Underwood are pretty much the only strategic thinkers in all of Washington. Everyone else on the show, including the president, has simplistic motivations (I care about Alzheimer’s research! I want a wine museum in my district!), can either be bought off for a song or can’t be bargained with at all, and can’t see more than one branch down a game tree. If there were somehow another strategic member of Congress, the whole Underverse would collapse in on itself.
What’s more, . . .
Gandhi’s Seven Sins: Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Commerce without morality; Science without humanity; Worship without sacrifice; Politics without principle
A good article in the NY Review of Books by Elizabeth Drew:
During the 1973 Watergate hearings, Howard Baker, the Republican Senate leader and a close ally of the Nixon White House, asked repeatedly, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” This was and continues to be widely seen as the definitive way to establish a political leader’s innocence or guilt of misdeeds within his administration. And so the question is now being echoed in the case of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in particular on television—it has even led a national network news broadcast. This is a big break for Christie.
Christie himself has helped set up this question—leading reporters on a merry chase to pin down precisely what he knew when about the infamous closing of two of the three traffic lanes leading into the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, New Jersey for four days last September. According to the received wisdom, if Christie was found to have participated in the plotting or to have known at the time why the lanes were closed, it would make all the difference in assessing his culpability. Deliberately or not, the governor’s fingerprints weren’t on the order to close the lanes, which was given in code—“time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”—by his deputy chief of staff to his special appointee to the Port Authority, who replied, “Got it.”
But this isn’t really the issue. The issue is whether the governor can be held accountable for what happened at very high levels in his administration.
Christie has already had to walk back his assertion in January that he didn’t know about the closures either beforehand or while they were in effect, which would seem to have required willful ignorance of an event that was drawing a lot of attention in his state; but later he said he didn’t know about the closings prior to their taking place. Despite contemporaneous news accounts, and desperate attempts by the mayor of Fort Lee to reach him, and by some of his top allies to prevent disclosure to the public of the controversy, Christie insists he knew nothing until The Wall Street Journal published an angry email from the New York-appointed director of the Port Authority, to New Jersey officials in the agency, saying that the closings involved illegalities and that the director was going to reverse them. But the story of the email didn’t appear until October 1, almost a full month after the closings. And yet on another occasion, Christie said that he had first learned about the closures in September, after the lanes were reopened. (The state legislature is looking into the testimony of a Christie appointee at the Port Authority that the purpose of the closure was to conduct a traffic study—under suspicion that this was part of a cover-up. Anyway, what was the point of the study? You close lanes, you get a traffic jam.)
Christie is widely described as a hands-on governor. Yet according to him, he was oblivious of a transportation crisis that backed up traffic for miles over four days, and risked people’s health, their livelihoods, their kids getting to school; he brushed it all off, saying that there’s often a lot of traffic in New Jersey and that the back up “didn’t rise to the gubernatorial level.” His first public reaction was insouciance: “I was working the cones.” It was ridiculous for the press to even be bringing up such a mundane subject. By his account, this man who is clearly not to be messed with had been duped by his staff.
Christie, who often says a little too much when he talks, also remarked last December that the fact that the tiny town of Fort Lee, population 36,000, has three “dedicated lanes, that kind of gets me sauced.” In fact, the lanes are open to anyone in the area. Christie claimed he hadn’t known about the dedicated lanes until after the closings, but why was he so worked up about them afterward? Since he was angry at Fort Lee’s mayor, is it out of the question that he said something along those lines to his aides earlier?
The governor would be more stupid than he seems if he hadn’t established plausible deniability of any direct part in the affair. Could it be that the mayor of Fort Lee was Christie’s “turbulent priest”? At the least it’s evident that his aides didn’t fear the governor’s wrath if he found out what they were doing.
Nixon was a master of misdirection and deniability: directing John Dean to prepare a report for the public about the White House role in the Watergate affair, Nixon said, “You have got to maintain the presidency out of this.” When he fired chief of staff Bob Haldeman and top domestic advisor John Ehrlichman, on June 30, 1973, Nixon said he hadn’t learned that his staff had been involved in the Watergate cover-up until May 25 of that year—though he had discussed it with Haldeman three days after the burglars were caught, when Nixon returned from his Key Biscayne vacation home. (The tapes were rolling and as it happens this is the conversation from which eighteen and a half minutes were deleted; the evidence was that this was probably by Nixon himself.) He also announced that he had asked his staff to get to the bottom of the scandal and that he would cooperate with prosecutors. Christie said remarkably similar things in early January when he announced firing of some of his top aides and allies. . .
And see also this article by Alec MacGillis in The New Republic:
Has there ever been a political reversal of fortune as rapid and as absolute as the one just experienced by Chris Christie? At warp speed, the governor of New Jersey has gone from the most popular politician in the country to the most embattled; from the Republicans’ brightest hope for 2016 to a man with an FBI target on his back. One minute, he was releasing jokey vanity videos starring Alec Baldwin and assorted celebrity pals; the next, he was being ridiculed by his lifelong idol, Bruce Springsteen. Mere weeks ago, Christie was a straight-talking, corruption-busting everyman. Now, he is a liar, a bully, a buffoon.
What is remarkable about this meltdown is that it isn’t the result of some deep secret that has been exposed to the world, revealing a previously unimagined side to the candidate. Many of the scandals and mini-scandals and scandals-within-scandals that the national media is salivating over have been in full view for years. Even the now-infamous Bridgegate was percolating for months before it exploded into the first major story of the next presidential race.
Case in point: Last year, just before Thanksgiving, I traveled to Trenton to see Bill Baroni, Christie’s top staff appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, get grilled by state legislators about the closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September. It was clear that something fishy was going on. Baroni gave a command performance, defending the closures as part of a traffic study, but more than that, as a matter of justice. Discussing whether Fort Lee deserved three dedicated lanes during rush hour, Baroni demanded, “Is this fair?” His voice actually cracked with emotion. “And if it is not fair, how do you not study it?” But there were only a handful of reporters in the room to witness his melodramatics, and it was six weeks before the national media caught on to the story. Outside New Jersey, at least, it seemed inconceivable that Christie, good-government evangelist, scourge of Soprano State shenanigans, could preside over a piece of payback so outrageous and so petty.
Now, of course, we know that there was no traffic study and that the lanes were deliberately shut to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, who had declined to endorse Christie for reelection. (“Is it wrong that I’m smiling,” crowed a Christie aide in a text message, even as congestion got so dire that ambulance workers were forced to respond to an emergency on foot.) We also know that this act of retribution wasn’t an isolated incident: The mayor of Hoboken, to name just one example, has claimed that Christie’s office pressured her to approve a big development project represented by a Christie crony—or risk losing recovery aid for damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.
And yet, even post-Bridgegate, the prevailing interpretations of Christie fundamentally miss the mark. He has been so singularly successful at constructing his own mythology—as a reformer, a crusader, a bipartisan problem-solver—that people have never really seen him clearly. Over the past three months, I talked to more than 50 people who have crossed paths with Christie throughout his career—legislators, officials, Democrats, Republicans, lawyers, longtime New Jersey politicos. (Christie himself didn’t respond to a detailed request for comment.) The problem with Christie isn’t merely that he is a bully. It’s that his political career is built on a rotten foundation. Christie owes his rise to some of the most toxic forces in his state—powerful bosses who ensure that his vow to clean up New Jersey will never come to pass. He has allowed them to escape scrutiny, rewarded them for their support, and punished their enemies. All along, even as it looked like Christie was attacking the machine, he was really just mastering it. . .
Here’s the review, which includes reviews of current reporting. The quotation:
Though the theory of evolution and the threat of global warming are still viewed with skepticism by large numbers of Americans, polls show that both Darwinism and climate-change science nonetheless enjoy roughly twice as much credibility among the public as the Warren Commission.
The above is by Frank Rich, who in the article also quotes JFK:
What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”
In the latter part of the article he demonstrates the interesting fact that today’s Tea Party is a direct continuation of the John Birch Society (through the Kochs).
If we could move to publicly financed political campaigns, so that members of Congress are not required to spend 5 hours of each day in fund-raising for the next campaign, we might get a government that works better, in part because the tilt toward following the orders of big donors would be rectified.
The memo, from “the governor’s office” (so presumably vetted by Christie, though of course it was that same office that ordered the lanes closed, so who knows?), has quite a few bad things to say about how bad and untrustworthy David Wildstein is, which of course raises the question of why Christie relied on him so much and appointed him to high office. This makes Christie look bad no matter how you cut it.
Read the NY Times article and see whether you agree.
And I would think sensible members of Congress would agree: who wants to spend 5 hours every day begging for money? Let’s free them from that burdensome task and let them focus on governing, without having to consider how their decisions will affect the inflow of funds, simply on how it affects their constituents.
Elias Isquith writes in Salon:
“Mitt,” Netflix’s recently released documentary chronicling the two failed presidential campaigns of Willard Mitt Romney, has, on the whole, been rather well-received. And not just by the New York Post’s reliably wingnutty film critic, Kyle Smith. Business Insider’s Brett LoGiurato called it “fantastic,” Sahil Kapur of Talking Points Memo described it as a “fascinatingly personal” portrait, Time’s James Poniewozik said it was “interesting” and “humanly sympathetic.”
Not everyone believes that the film succeeds in giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at two presidential campaigns — but most seem to have found it, at the very least, a humanizing depiction of a seemingly decent man. A few have even gone so far as to argue that “Mitt,” had it been released during the 2012 campaign, could’ve helped Romney shed his image as a robotic plutocrat. Maybe it could’ve even helped him win the election. (Vanishingly unlikely, if one believes in political science; but at this point, it feels somewhat churlish to point that out.)
Even if the man in “Mitt” is not so charming and sympathetic a figure as to counterbalance the woeful policies on which he ran, there is the lingering question of why there is such a great distance between Candidate Romney and Mitt Romney. How could the same guy who at one point in the film acknowledges the immense privilege he was born into repeatedly insist, on the campaign trail, that he was a self-made man, a testament to the American meritocracy? How could the guy who infamously sneered that roughly half of the country were irresponsible, entitled, greedy moochers seem, in another context, to be kind, thoughtful, polite and fundamentally well-meaning?
Sure, people are complicated; and yes, the intensity of the politico-media complex often renders us incapable of seeing the men and women on the other side as fully formed human beings until well after the final ballot is counted. That’s all true. But I think there’s another explanation, one that has more to do with power and economics than ideology and partisanship.
To explain, allow me to turn for a moment to another one of January’s most talked-about happenings in the political world: The debut (to a wider audience, at least) of Thomas Perkins, an octogenarian venture capitalist and multimillionaire.
Last Saturday, Perkins kicked off a full week’s worth of outrage, befuddlement and frustration when the Wall Street Journal published a letter to the editor he had written in which he compared liberal America to Nazi Germany, and the wealthiest 1 percent to the Third Reich’s Jews. Making matters worse, Perkins subsequently appeared on Bloomberg TV, ostensibly to apologize, but in truth to argue that while his warnings of a looming “progressive Kristallnacht” were hyperbolic, his fundamental point — that the nation’s economic 1 percent was demonized and oppressed — held true. (The impetus for all of this, for what it’s worth, was the fact that some people had made fun of his multi-millionaire ex-wife’s oversize hedges.)
While Perkins’ ahistorical and narcissistic ramblings were roundly mocked, they also inspired greater interest in discovering whether or not his fellow members of the 1 percent felt the same way he did. As it turns out, many, if not most, of them do. Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green explained how in the Obama years, “a class of financiers whose wealth shields them from the effects of practically any government policy has come to develop … a powerful persecution complex.”
Politico’s Ben White took it further, reporting on how the 1 percent is seized with a consuming anxiety in response to the public’s new focus on income and wealth inequality. As one psychologist who works mainly with the hyper-rich told White, the disruption of Occupy Wall Street and the resurgence of (a mild) class-consciousness in American politics has created “a worry among our clients that they are being judged and people are making assumptions about who they are based on their wealth.” . . .
Continue reading. The good stuff is later in the article.
Probably because of his well-documented problems with the GOP’s Tea Party base, Chris Christie never benefitted from a ton of high-profile Republicans offering their support and defending the governor in public. But after former NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s comments on Thursday — supposedly given in Christie’s defense — the governor of New Jersey may decide having Republican friends in high places is more trouble than it’s worth.
Here are the latest developments in the Chris Christie saga:
- Speaking on the radio with Geraldo Rivera, Giuliani estimated the chances that Christie knew of the lane closure at the George Washington Bridge to be dead even. “”It’s 50-50, it leaves you with no possible way of knowing did [Bridget Anne Kelly] discuss it with him or didn’t she discuss it with him,” said Giuliani. “I like Chris very much and he’s being unfairly treated, and he’s a good friend,” he added.
- Not long after Giuliani’s comments had made the media rounds, however, the former presidential candidate was back-tracking, furiously. Saying he was “offended” by how the media characterized his remarks, Giuliani insisted he was only commenting on the chances that a recent New York Times article — which described Christie’s operation as obsessed with winning over Democratic mayors’ endorsements, and Christie himself as a micromanaging, details-oriented leader of the team — proved Christie knew about the George Washington Bridge payback scheme. If this strikes you as a distinction without a difference, join the club.
- Meanwhile, folks involved with Christie’s reelection campaign are hoping to use their leftover funds to pay the legal fees associated with the Bridgegate investigation.
- In other legal-financial news, the Christie administration has agreed to pay $650 per hour to a law firm to represent some of the top Christie advisors who find themselves embroiled in the Bridgegate scandal.
- The Rockefeller Group, the developer who sought to build an office complex in Hoboken — a vision Christie allegedly agreed with so much that he was willing to blackmail Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer to get it — has severed ties with the law firm Wolfson & Samson, whose founder, David Samson, was chairman of the Port Authority when Bridgegate happened.
- In political news, Christie continues to see his poll numbers drop, with the latest poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents from the Washington Post finding New Jersey’s governor in third place among likely candidates for the 2016 GOP nomination. Before Bridgegate happened, he was in first.
When you have an administration that begins like this, you can be pretty sure that the bottom is nowhere in sight. It really does as if he just assumed, having at hand the power to do a lot of things, that he was immune and could do anything he wanted to anyone he wanted, because, by God!, he’s in charge now. A fantasy that in the reality is not so fantastic. Possibly fun while it lasted. “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power.” Seems quite true.
UPDATE: Another step in the descent. And if something was illegal, it really doesn’t matter that the story is buried in the media. We have district attorneys exactly for those cases in which active public interest is small, but a serious crime may have been committed. They go to work anyway. Especially when there’s a target-rich opportunity.
Sometimes I get to thinking about something and it leads in various directions. One recently started in this NY Times story by Sabrina Tavernise from 20 Jan:
Sharon Mills, a disabled nurse, long depended on other people’s kindness to manage her diabetes. She scrounged free samples from doctors’ offices, signed up for drug company discounts and asked for money from her parents and friends. Her church often helped, but last month used its charitable funds to help repair other members’ furnaces.
Ms. Mills, 54, who suffered renal failure last year after having irregular access to medication, said her dependence on others left her feeling helpless and depressed. “I got to the point when I decided I just didn’t want to be here anymore,” she said.
So when a blue slip of paper arrived in the mail this month with a new Medicaid number on it — part of the expanded coverage offered under the Affordable Care Act — Ms. Mills said she felt as if she could breathe again for the first time in years. “The heavy thing that was pressing on me is gone,” she said.
As health care coverage under the new law sputters to life, it is already having a profound effect on the lives of poor Americans. Enrollment in private insurance plans has been sluggish, but sign-ups for Medicaid, the federal insurance program for the poor, have surged in many states. Here in West Virginia, which has some of the shortest life spans and highest poverty rates in the country, the strength of the demand has surprised officials, with more than 75,000 people enrolling in Medicaid.
While many people who have signed up so far for private insurance through the new insurance exchanges had some kind of health care coverage before, recent studies have found, most of the people getting coverage under the Medicaid expansion were previously uninsured. In West Virginia, where the Democratic governor agreed to expand Medicaid eligibility, the number of uninsured people in the state has been reduced by about a third.
America ranks near the bottom of developed countries in health and longevity, and many public health experts believe that improving that ranking will be impossible without paying more attention to poor Americans. It is still an open question whether access to health insurance will improve the health of the disadvantaged in the long run, experts say, but the men and women getting the coverage here say the mere fact of having it has drastically improved their mental health.
Waitresses, fast food workers, security guards and cleaners described feeling intense relief that they are now protected from the punishing medical bills that have punched holes in their family budgets. They spoke in interviews of reclaiming the dignity they had lost over years of being turned away from doctors’ offices because they did not have insurance.
“You see it in their faces,” said Janie Hovatter, a patient advocate at Cabin Creek Health Systems, a health clinic in southern West Virginia. “They just kind of relax.” . . .
That struck me. (And for an even more striking account, see Stephen Brill’s report in Time of an Ohio couple who have two children and are trying to start their own business. This one is particularly worth reading because it shows the effects on strong Republicans—that is, on people who truly believe what the GOP tells them—of the GOP’s dishonesty and bad policy.)
That “great sense of relief” sounds a lot as though people are emerging from clinical depression and regaining a modicum of hope.
Martin Seligman, for a long time a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote one of the books I return to often in thought: Learned Optimism (link is to inexpensive secondhand copies). Like several other books in that category, the book discusses his (and others’) research: what he learned and how he learned it. (Another example: Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. But that’s not directly relevant to this thought cluster.)
For Seligman, his learning began on his first day as a psychology graduate student (as I recall): he walked into the lab and another grad student started telling him his duties, when they saw an experiment in which a dog in a cage is administered a shock through the floor, and jumps to the other side of a small barrier—only one dog was just lying there, urinating and not moving, as the shock was administered. Seligman asked why, and the older student shrugged. “Sometimes they just stop working, so you have to replace them.”
Seligman instantly wanted to know more: Why? What made them “not work”? And so his research began. He learned much about the phenomenon (which he named as “learned helplessness”). On a plane flight some years later, he brought along his usual protection against conversation (a big book), but the affable guy in the next seat, that terrifying creature known as a “self-made man,” more or less insisted on talking: What is it you do? Tell me about it.
So finally Seligman gave up and described the research he did, using the story above. The stranger listened attentively, thought about it, and asked, “Do all the dogs do that?” No, Seligman replied. Some never do show learned helplessness. “Those are the dogs you should study,” the stranger said, and Seligman realized he was right.
One thing I picked up from the book is that learned helplessness seems to be a state identical with clinical depression. Seligman describes other experiments with human adults, using acrostics: some were easy and then gradually became harder with one group getting acrostics that, unknown to them, had no solution at all. The people repeatedly failing at the impossible acrostics exhibited all the markers of clinical depression from DSM except for suicidal ideation—probably because they were, after all, merely trying to solve acrostics.
But the depression that has lifted from many Americans who now have health insurance: could it be that Americans in general are nowadays suffering from learned helplessness? It would certainly make sense. For example, see David Lightman’s report in McClatchy this morning:
Americans aren’t confident about officials’ efforts to deal with the country’s problems, a new George Washington University Battleground poll found.
The poll, a joint effort by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster Ed Goeas, found more than 55 percent strongly feel the nation is on the wrong track.
Fifty-four percent think Washington officials can’t work together to solve problems.
The news for the upcoming election is ominous for incumbents: Among likely voters, the poll found 54 percent thinking a new lawmaker should have a chance at the Capitol, while 29 percent say their incumbent deserves re-election.
“2013 certainly took a toll on the public’s view of Washington,” said George Washington University Professor Chris Arterton in a statement. “Performance ratings are down across the board and a general sense of discouragement has set in. The public is clearly focused on jobs and the economy and doesn’t feel that the politicians are addressing their issues.”
Republicans see a big opening with the Affordable Care Act–they keep reminding voters of its troubles. The poll found 56 percent are against the law, while 40 percent favor it. Support for the law has decreased slightly since December.
That sounds like learned helplessness: No matter what we do, we cannot improve things. (I believe the GOP is not facing reality about the Affordable Care Act: stories of how it has helped people—like the woman in Stephen Brill’s report in Time—will become a LOT more common over the next few months as people discover how much better things can be for them with the law. One exception: States like North Carolina that refused Medicare expansion in order to keep their low-income citizens from getting healthcare. And that feeds back into the depression.)
Only this morning an announcement from John Boehner’s office promises a new threat to shut down the government unless Congress passes and the President signs various legislation that is supported only by a minority: an effort to run the government from a minority position, the will of the majority be damned. And there’s still time this month for another mass shooting of unarmed Americans—not by a terrorist, just by another American. And time for another wedding celebration in some foreign clime to be blasted by a missile from a US drone, people killed with surgical precision.
It’s easy to understand how learned helplessness arrives, and of course that condition undermines effective action. It seems that our entire society has been resting on norms of behavior and understanding that have now been discarded (because it turns out that they’re easy to discard, though very difficult to regain). For example, consider trust: it’s a key component of a strong society, but it is ebbing rapidly. Pacific Standard has a very interesting article by Jesse Stingal on how, for example, low-income women are extremely distrustful:
Americans are certainly running low on many things. Depending on who you ask, we don’t have enough time, money, sense of collective responsibility, or any of a million other goods and virtues. One researcher, though, argues that at the low end of the income scale, the lack of an even less tangible commodity—trust—is causing all kinds of problems.
“Trust is really valuable,” explains Judith Levine, a sociologist at Temple University. “It makes everything smoother, and everything more efficient. It’s a shortcut, and people who trust each other are able to cooperate to achieve ends. So when there isn’t trust things don’t run smoothly. And I found that low-income women have every palpable and very high levels of distrust in many of the people they interact with.”
Levine’s research has most recently taken the form of a book released this past June, Ain’t No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends, and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why It Matters, and an adapted article in December’s Boston Review. What she’s found is that the day-to-day interactions many of us take for granted—easy back-and-forths and transactions with significant others, bosses, and employees at stores we patronize—are made much more difficult in the absence of trust as a social and transactional lubricant. Low-income women, having often been deceived or otherwise failed by various people and institutions tend to find it much harder to engage in various exchanges—some of which should be straightforward.
Low-income women are often justified in their lack of trust, Levine says. “I argue in the book that most distrust comes from actual experience and is learned over time.”
Take welfare. Since welfare reform was signed by then-President Clinton in 1996, many case managers have been under “tremendous pressure,” as Levine puts it, to move their clients off of the welfare rolls. Welfare recipients know this, and as a result “don’t really trust anything that case workers say to them,” she explains. This, of course, makes it harder to administer the program, and for case workers to give their clients advice. But from the woman’s point of view, it’s arguably adaptive: if you know someone’s trying to take away the check that is help keeping you afloat, why would you trust anything they say? As Levine puts it, “This largely is women assessing the system and maybe often being right that those around them don’t share their interest and hence aren’t going to be reliable.”
But without this trust, the system itself can crumble. In Illinois, for example, . . .
And it’s not just trust that’s gone. Another stark example is found in the opening of a blog post at the New Yorker by Maria Konnikova:
When Jonah Berger was a graduate student at Stanford, in the early aughts, he would make a habit of reading page A2 of the Wall Street Journal, which included a list of the five most-read and the five most-shared articles of the day. “I’d go down to the library and surreptitiously cut out that page,” he recalls. “I noticed that what was read and what was shared was often different, and I wondered why that would be.” What was it about a piece of content—an article, a picture, a video—that took it from simply interesting to interesting and shareable? What pushes someone not only to read a story but to pass it on? . . .
The utter lack of concern or thought about the needs of other users of the library, with a narcissistic focus only on his own desires, Jonah Berger reflects a change in the attitude of the public: “Screw others, I want to get mine.” Unfortunately, that leads to the kind of society now being developed in the US. Easy to break a sense of community—Jonah Berger clearly has no sense of community at all, and the mere fact that he so blithely reports his vandalism (presumably in the view that anyone would act as he did) reflects how little remains. Obviously no one in their right mind will trust this guy now that he has so clearly revealed his (lack of) character, but there are many like him.
In discussing the effects of the influenza epidemic of 1918 in a discussion thread recently, someone brought up the idea of a “cytokine storm“: an uncontrolled immune-system response that is itself deadly. He speculated that the 1918 pandemic’s death toll was due to that strain of influenza triggering such a reaction, which is why those with the strongest immune systems—young adults—were the most likely to die. (And here I must mention another of the several books I find myself using as touchstones: The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague in History, by John Barry: a book that is fascinating on every page. Take, for example, how in New Orleans men apparently in good health would get on a tram car and then die before they reached their stop.)
I think that what we have now is something like that: a cytokine storm of sorts kicked off by the 9/11 attacks. The attacks themselves did not do much damage: 3000 people were killed, about as many as killed each month due to gun violence in the US, and some large buildings were destroyed. But the vivid images—watched by many in real time, as though we had television coverage of (say) Pearl Harbor—and the intense hatred the attack signified triggered our fears and a cytokine storm of responses, and it is that reaction that has brought the US down to its current state. Not to put too fine a point on it: The attack succeeded. It destroyed the US we once new and launched a new vision that included torture programs, immunity for war crimes, and a universal surveillance of all citizens by an increasingly secretive government.
Indeed, Martin Seligman himself indicates the direction we’ve gone. In the aftermath of 9/11, Dr. Seligman turned out to be one of the Joseph Mengele sort of doctors, perfectly willing to experiment on humans if the government allows/supports that effort. Dr. Seligman was of great help to the Bush Administration in figuring out how best to torture people: the most efficient steps to push them deep into a state of helplessness so that they would just lie there, answering questions, having completely given up. Why experiment on dogs when you can have people? And Dr. Seligman kept the American Psychological Association from passing a code of ethics that would forbid such behavior. (Google will help you learn more.)
So far as I can see, we are on a one-way street. Entropy runs downhill and picks up speed: stirring the batter backwards does not unmix the ingredients; the egg, once broken, cannot be made whole. That’s why it has been so very important to protect those aspects of our society and community that made life worth living, by providing bonds of trust and support and a feeling of working together as part of a greater whole. When those invisible commitments are destroyed, the road back is difficult if not impossible.
Perhaps I’m merely writing from a jaundiced view from having an illness of some days, and perhaps the US will recover—the notion in the McClatchy story above, of throwing out all the incumbents, would be a good start—but the infection is now deep within all our institutions, and it’s hard to see how it will be eradicated.
In the New Yorker Amy Davidson writes about the Hoboken scandal now developing:
“The bottom line is, it’s not fair for the Governor to hold Sandy funds hostage for the City of Hoboken because he wants me to give back to one private developer,” Mayor Dawn Zimmer told Steve Kornacki, of MSNBC, this weekend. By Sunday, she said she was meeting with the United States Attorney’s office, showing them diary entries and other notes she made last May. That was when, she says, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno pulled her aside in a ShopRite parking lot (why is so much New Jersey state business conducted in parking lots?) for a few words about large sums of money.
There were two pools of cash: what a developer called the Rockefeller Group and others might make from four acres of North Hoboken, and what the city might get from a quarter-billion-dollar Sandy relief fund that Chris Christie had a say in distributing. At ShopRite, according to Zimmer, “with no one else around,” the Lieutenant Governor
says that I need to move forward with the Rockefeller project. It is very important to the Governor. The word is that you are against it and you need to move forward, or we are not going to be able to help you. I know it’s not right—these things should not be connected—but they are, she says, and if you tell anyone I will deny it.
Christie officials have now denied it, though the protestations have been flustered and, at times, demonstrably disingenuous and off point. They say they thought Zimmer loved them and that they know MSNBC hates them. (In fact, Christie has got a lot of affection from the channel.) “What or who is driving her only now to say such outlandishly false things is anyone’s guess,” Christie’s spokesman said. (Guadagno herself, however, has yet to say anything.)
If Sandygate or Hobokengate (or whatever it ends up being called) is borne out, it will be a lot worse than Bridgegate. Christie’s response to Sandy is what many people love him for, and what those who are less charmed fall back on when they wonder about his character. People can forgive a blustering bully if they decide he’s a big-hearted tough guy; not so a greedy bully who surrounds himself with shakedown artists. And it’s just low—eighty per cent of Hoboken was underwater after Sandy. Unlike in Bridgegate, farce is not a defense; this scandal can’t be explained away as a political prank that went too far because adults forgot that emergency vehicles get stuck in traffic, as well.
Zimmer isn’t saying that she heard this from Christie—just from his Lieutenant Governor, who said the message was straight from him. Perhaps we are in for another press conference in which the Governor talks endlessly about how he’s the one who was betrayed. Zimmer said that, in addition to the ShopRite exchange, she was told by a second official that helping the Rockefeller project was the way to get Sandy money “flowing.”
When the first Bridgegate allegations emerged, one of Christie’s responses was that Fort Lee had all the traffic lanes it deserved—maybe more. With Hoboken, his officials have been out saying that the city got plenty of Sandy money. Zimmer said the city got only three hundred and forty-two thousand dollars out of the hundred million it asked for from funds the state had allocated—two hundred and ninety million dollars in all—for projects meant to keep it from drowning during the next storm. Christie officials all but called her a liar, saying that Hoboken got seventy million dollars after Sandy. This was an odd answer, since, as Zimmer noted, this sum came from entirely different sources, mostly federal flood-insurance policies that were paid out. If anything, the size of the insurance claims are a measure of the city’s need for hazard management, which, again, is what the money they didn’t get was for. According to the Times, when pressed on the numbers, “State officials could not point to any large sums that they had decided to grant to Hoboken from that $290 million.”
There was too much money involved for Christie to make an argument similar to the one he made in his two-hour Bridgegate press conference—that it just “didn’t make sense” that he’d punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing him, since the guy was nothing to him, a nobody. Zimmer’s allegations open up a larger field of alternative motives (some are already out there) suggesting that the Christie Administration regarded retribution as a versatile tool. “I don’t know what they were trying to get in the Bridgegate, but I do know what they’re trying to get in Hoboken. They’re holding our Sandy funds hostage in order to get pushed through and expedite the Rockefeller project,” Zimmer said.
The Rockefeller project involved a skyscraper and surrounding complex across from Manhattan, in a densely populated area a short PATH train ride from the city. Hoboken is one of those places claiming to be the next Brooklyn, and maybe it is. Brian Murphy, at Talking Points Memo, has some of the dubious background of the project. Nineteen blocks were candidates for redevelopment. Strangely, a study commissioned by the state found that only three blocks were appropriate—the very three owned by the Rockefeller Group. As Murphy describes, the other property owners went to the planning board and “asked why ‘a redevelopment plan for the exclusive benefit’ of the Rockefeller Group would ‘[favor] a single property owner to the detriment of all other property owners in the North End Area.’ ” The board then voted not to accept the study, holding up the project. This was the heart of the problem, Zimmer said, that she was told to make go away. . .
What’s weird is the interpretation being set forth by the Christie people: “She really likes Christie. A lot. That’s why she’s saying these things, because she likes him so much that she’s trying to either (a) expose a particular odious and overt form of open corruption or (b) do malicious damage to the governor’s career for no reason whatever. For me, only one choice makes any sense at all: that it did happen as the mayor says, and for quite obvious reasons the Christie camp—and probably most fervently the indictable members of the Christie camp—that is, those who would very likely face indictment if what the mayor says is true—are trying the tack of denying everything, but they are trying every possible distraction, like the argument that the mayor likes Christie. That one doesn’t fly, but they’ll be trying everything. For obvious reasons.
The story in the NY Times is titled “Christie Hires Counsel for Bridge Inquiries as Lawmakers Prepare to Issue Subpoenas“. Ostensibly, the lawyer is being hired to help with “an internal investigation,” but I would bet dollars to donuts that the lawyer’s actual job is to assist with the cover-up: coaching staff members before they testify, shredding documents, and other tasks to ensure that as little as possible comes to light.
I hate to be cynical, but I believe in this case I’m justified.