THE DELUSIONS OF CROWDS

Posted in Rants on November 30th, 2009 by Ed

One of my formative political experiences, and one which almost single-handedly convinced me to pursue political behavior as an academic career, occurred in 1998 in a class I hated. More accurately it was in the class of a professor I hated, the resident expert on constitutional law and chasing 19 year old tail at the University of Wisconsin.

Madison is a remarkably liberal place, so it was no surprise that very liberal and openly lesbian Congressional candidate (now Representative) Tammy Baldwin was extremely popular on campus. Aside from her ideological compatibility with the average Madison resident her campaign was well-organized, hosting "Tammy Baldwin dance parties" that drew huge numbers of students with no particular interest in politics. So it was a safe bet that any classroom at UW in the Fall of 1998 was about 85-90% Baldwin supporters.

Professor X began class one day – a large Con Law lecture of about 180 mostly future law school students – and asked for a show of hands on the question, "Which one of the two candidates for Congress is more likely to vote to lower taxes?" A solid 90% of the hands went up for Baldwin, with only the remaining 10% choosing her Republican opponent (the forgettable Jo Musser, who I remember for some reason over a decade later). Now, Tammy Baldwin was and is many things. But by no stretch of the imagination was she an anti-tax hawk. In fact she explicitly stated that she was not opposed to increasing taxes if necessary to pay for expanded Federal programs. Musser was the typical cut-taxes-at-all-costs Republican who made lowering taxes the cornerstone of her campaign message. So this was not a subjective question. There was a wrong answer, and 90% of the class chose it.

This was the exact moment at which I realized that the mental calculus of the average voter goes something like:

Me like Baldwin.
Me like tax cuts.
Baldwin is for tax cuts.

People who study political behavior understand, from as far back as The American Voter in 1960, that party identification is the key to this kind of "reasoning." Partisanship is a screen through which all incoming information is filtered. Republicans will tell you that everything they like is a Republican idea and everything they hate is what Democrats stand for. After decades of contorting research in an effort to give American voters a little more credit for intelligence, the field has come full circle and once again embraced the idea of partisanship as a "fundamental part of an individual's identity" (Partisan Hearts and Minds) like religion or ethnicity. The overwhelming majority of us acquire a partisan identity in adolescence or early adulthood and interpret the rest of the world through it thereafter.

Why is this relevant? Well, as Krugman pointed out, this is relevant to understanding the folly of pursuing "deficit reduction" as a political strategy by the White House, to which I would add the strategy of appeasing conservative Democrats or any Republicans on health care. Republican voters, most of whom hate Obama, will believe that he made the deficit bigger and that his health care plan is a disaster – even if the deficit is demonstrably smaller. Democrats will say the opposite. Really. How do we know? Because this is exactly what happened to Bill Clinton, as Achen and Bartels demonstrate.

achenbartels

Voters don't actually know anything. This is widely understood and constitutes one of the few points on which political science research is nearly unanimous. If Obama, like Clinton, destroys the deficit, Republicans and "independent" voters will not realize it. Hell, even some Democrats won't realize it. What people DO realize is when their own circumstances improve or worsen. Anything nebulous or intangible like deficit reduction will be lost on them, but they understand unemployment or failing banks. So in political terms, if the President thinks he can jump start the economy by racking up an enormous deficit he should do so. No one will know if it increases or decreases – voters will simply fill in that information according to their partisan identification. But many of them will know if unemployment falls, interest rates for auto and home loans fall, or their 401(k) recovers. If a health care bill provides coverage to people who could not previously afford it, it will be a net benefit.

Do things that improve people's lives and you will find yourself politically rewarded. Achieve abstract goals in an effort to appease people who hate you and you will find the victory quite hollow.

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NP(B)F

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 27th, 2009 by Ed

If any country could make a holiday out of going to the mall, it's the U.S.

On Black Friday I suppose I am expected to deliver some sort of trenchant anti-consumerist monologue. Unfortunately I think that the lack of consumer spending is exacerbating our current economic difficulties. This leads a lot of dolts to claim that spending money is intrinsically good and should be considered a patriotic duty, or they advance the notion that we can shop our way out of a recession. This fails to draw the crucial distinction between spending money you have, which is a good thing, and spending money you don't have, which merely digs us into a deeper hole individually and collectively.

The more interesting question on Black Friday is whether one enjoys holiday shopping as an experience irrespective of ability or desire to buy lots of crap. Since I am financially able to afford some gifts for the first time in five years I would be a candidate to hit the mall tomorrow – if not for the fact that I finished shopping a week ago without leaving the comfort of my home.

You and I both know that internet shopping makes a lot of sense. We get the best prices and devote nearly no time at all to what could otherwise be a long day in and out of the car. For me the choice was simple. But I can't shake the feeling that the last thing Americans really need is another way to avoid having contact with one another. More retail activity migrates online every day, though, and it is only a matter of time until the only people doing in-store holiday shopping are like the people who ride Amtrak or pay for things in cash – people who either fear change or love nostalgia. It's very difficult to construct a valid argument in favor of participating in the Black Friday mob without resorting to one or both.

I'm not criticizing people who choose to join the crowds. If you enjoy it, go for it. I do not. I do wonder, though, for how much longer this phenomenon can hold out in the face of relentless pressure from cheaper and easier online shopping – not to mention from our increasing aversion to leaving our homes and interacting with one another.

FAMILY TIME

Posted in Uncategorized on November 26th, 2009 by Ed

I have a terribly small family. My four grandparents are dead. My parents have one living sibling between them, and she has no children. This leaves me with two parents, a childless aunt/uncle pair, and a married sister with three kids. That's it.

Unlike most Americans, then, I don't have a giant extended family full of knuckleheads with whom I must interact for the holidays. I feel cheated, deprived of the borderline insane Uncle burying silver in his yard and ranting about the coloreds; the Garfield- and Touched By an Angel-loving Aunt who incessantly forwards email after email laden with Bible verses, Teabagger crap, and some non-existent little white girl with leukemia who needs our prayers; the high school dropout cousins hurling child after illiterate child at the world while bravely waging a losing battle against the horrors of paint huffing. Worse yet, what family I have are normal. This perennially deprives me of good anecdotes about the insane people to whom I am related.

So on this most Thankful of holidays, regale me with your best tales – quotes from Uncle Larry, your dad's conspiracy theories, redneck cousins who knock out one another's teeth in billiard hall scuffles, Aunts straight out of a Cathy comic, etc. – of your extended families. I look at Teabagger footage and realize that every one of those people is related to someone normal. If you're lucky enough to be that person, feel free to share with the rest of us. It will be cathartic. Mean, I guess, but also cathartic. And funny.

THE ALMIGHTY

Posted in Rants on November 25th, 2009 by Ed

(To any readers who have taken one of my classes, and I think there are a few out there, this is going to sound pretty familiar. Unless you slept through it or skipped class, in which case you should learn it now.)

Why are the media so ruthless in their mockery of Sarah Palin after six solid years of cheerleading the nation into the Iraq War, paving the way for two terms of Bush, and standing around thumb-in-ass as our financial system galloped toward oblivion? We could make a semantic argument about subtle differences in intelligence between Bush and Palin, for example, and concoct some ostensibly legitimate reason that the most recent President deserved to be taken seriously and Palin is a dipshit suspended over a dunk tank. That would be a waste of time. The answer is media bias.

Media bias is a very real phenomenon, but it isn't a political bias. When people hear the phrase they imagine the media having a political agenda and pushing an ideologically slanted product at unsuspecting viewers. That does not happen. Even at FOX. Media bias is commercial bias. The biggest influence on the product you read and see is the desire to make money – and that's why 'product' is the appropriate term.

You're not believing me about Fox News, are you? OK. So why does Fox News offer the most conservative product, stocked with plenty of "family values" talk and appeals to social/religious conservatives, while the Fox networks offer the raunchiest programming? Think about the crap on the F/X network or Fox – it's cartoons fueled by foul language and sex jokes as far as the eye can see. It's Temptation Island and The Littlest Bachelor. It's mindless T&A at every opportunity. They do it because they have a very keen sense of how to make money. They give the news watching public what it wants and they give people who don't care about news what they want. That it happens to be two different products is irrelevant.

What happened to Palin is little more than a cold business decision (while Fox doesn't outright hammer her very often, their preference for Romney, Huckabee, and other potential candidates in 2012 is explicit). And it's not hard to get out the message when they decide it's time to tear someone apart. Remember who the big-network and Important Print Journalists are – as Matt Taibbi points out, they're overwhelmingly sons and daughters of the wealthy, people who went from boarding schools to the Ivy League to unpaid "internships" on mom and pop's dime. Their entire lives have been one extended exercise in either explicitly kissing the asses of or not having the balls to disagree with their social and economic betters. So our media, being entirely controlled by about five corporate entities, make decisions at the top that are rapidly disseminated to legions of journalists eager to please anyone with editorial or financial power over them.

That is why our media flap so helplessly in the wind, going from rabidly pro-war and dismissive of traitor pussy liberal protesters to fawning over Obama and matter-of-factly discussing Iraq as our greatest national mistake. It's just business. They figure out what their consumers want no differently than The Gap tries to figure out what sweaters you'll buy next fall. Is it really so simple? Yes. I believe it is. The media serve a public purpose but they are not public servants. They are out to make money, and they ride bandwagons. In early 2008, establishment mascot Hillary Clinton was the presumptive nominee and Obama was some inexperienced rookie under the thumb of a racist preacher. When it became impossible to ignore the flaming wreck that was the Clinton campaign they turned on a dime and started the Obama the Anointed One narrative. It happens quickly.

I like Taibbi's conclusion, as it is a far clearer and more succinct version of a point I've tried to make for years: Teabaggers should be taking note of what the treatment of Palin really means. It doesn't mean that a couple of talking heads decided to bash her for cheap laughs and ratings. The entire media are using her as a punching bag. And the Beltway insiders and their corporate bosses in New York don't whack people without getting the blessing of all five families, so to speak. They have received a unanimous signal – from the establishment GOP, Wall Street, campaign donors, and everyone else who matters to big media – that it is open season on the idiot from Alaska. She is poison, and the legions of Beck-Bachmann-Palin acolytes are not to be taken seriously. Like the anti-war left circa 2002, Teabaggers exist only to be mocked and occasionally manipulated for ratings.

Palin would do well to remember the Abe Vigoda's remark to Robert Duvall at the end of The Godfather as the former was about to be executed. It's just business, Sarah, nothing personal.

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BOUNDLESS

Posted in Rants on November 24th, 2009 by Ed

This video, courtesy loyal reader Evan, floored me.

I am generally wary of mash-up videos of this type, as they are obviously edited to achieve hilarity and prove one's point. Take those Jay Leno "Jaywalking" segments, for example. They are often the basis for broad conclusions about how stupid we are. But they probably ask 100 people and edit it down to the three dumbest responses. We all know this, right? That might be what is going on in the Palin video. Or maybe there wasn't a lot of editing required.

We really should be well past the point at which the stupidity of Sarah Palin devotees can surprise us. And I do expect damn close to nothing from them. But when the person conducting the interviews asks them to name a policy or issue position they find appealing in Palin, they stare at him like he asked them to do Chinese algebra. Perhaps they are imitating their idol's response to difficult questions like "Name a Supreme Court case" or "What newspapers do you read?" For christ's sake, how hard would it be for these people to say "She's pro-life!" or "Tax cuts!" in response to such a basic question?

I shouldn't be surprised but I am. Can people really get this excited about a political figure without knowing a single thing about her? It would seem that one would not waste time going to Teabagging rallies without being able to say something – anything – beyond "I'm mad" and "Duh president is a Negro and it's makin' me crazy." To devote one's time to the Palin/Beck/Teabagging universe without having even the bare minimum of political awareness would be like me spending time and money to see Twilight movies.

I'll say one thing for these mouthbreathers: their anger respects no ideology and knows no loyalty. It doesn't take long for them to turn on Palin, does it? It is almost as if they are shocked to learn that Palin does not in fact give a flying fuck about them beyond taking their money and bolstering her ego with their presence.

OX GORING

Posted in Rants on November 23rd, 2009 by Ed

The Federal budget is nearly always discussed in abstract terms – it is "too large" or whatever – or with precision but bereft of context, as billions and trillions and numbers with decimal points are thrown around by people who haven't the faintest idea what portion of our budget those figures represent. The 3.99 trillion dollar FY09 budget, for example, makes almost any individual program look like a drop in the ocean. But I digress.

Where does all of that money get spent? Popular wisdom says Congressmen fight over it and eventually divide it up among the 435 districts in vaguely similar amounts. In reality Federal spending overwhelmingly favors just a few patches of real estate in this country. Note that the figures I am about to discuss are raw dollars, not dollars per capita, and exclude entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Between 2004 and 2009, 11% (10.88% to be exact) of all non-entitlement Federal spending went to six districts, or 1.4% of Congressional districts. Quite logically, four of these six districts include the District of Columbia, two bordering districts in northern Virginia, and one bordering district in Maryland. These districts receive copious Federal dollars because the Federal government itself resides in them. The remaining two, however, are quite a way from Washington D.C.

Over the last five years no Congressional district outside of Washington D.C. itself has received more Federal cash than Texas 12, ably represented by fiscal conservative Kay Granger (R). Since 2004, $32.6 billion tax dollars have been shoveled into this vast, empty swath of land west of the sprawling Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington agglomeration. It is with rich irony, then, that I read tripe on her website like "Granger Decries Healthcare Bill." It mixes cheap regurgitation of Contract With America-era nonsense ("It should include tort reform.") with non-stop whining about the costs. Rep. Granger sure is vigilant about looking out for our tax dollars, no doubt making sure that the encroaching threat won't siphon off her district's gravy train. I mean, that $13.9 billion in 2008 for "Construction of Structures and Facilities – Miscellaneous Buildings" doesn't just grow on trees!

The disconnect between fiscal conservative rhetoric and the reality of Congressional spending is considerable but rarely cast in high relief. Being "opposed to government spending" essentially means being opposed to spending that benefits individuals, and specifically individuals who live outside of one's district. Opposing spending means opposing "welfare" and unemployment benefits (which I believe are about $5000 per month in the minds of Glenn Beck and the idiots who attach themselves to his doughy hide like barnacles). Today it also means opposing healthcare reform, which like welfare and unemployment exists only to suck money out of the pockets of white hard-working people and give it to black shiftless people. The inability or plain unwillingness of voters and elected officials to recognize just how heavily they depend on a steady flow of cash from Washington D.C. is almost impressive. But when that money is threatened we find that their attitude quickly changes. Anti-spending attitudes are meaningful and deeply held only until one's own ox is being gored.

GIBBERISH

Posted in Quick Hits on November 22nd, 2009 by Ed

Apparently when I migrated to DreamHost it created some problems with the character encoding – a quick visit to Dr. Google revealed that many people using the DreamHost/WordPress combo experience this problem. I believe I have fixed it, although it involved code and I haven't the slightest damn idea what I'm doing. Also, if you are using FireFox you can resolve any issues with View->Character Encoding to Unicode.

Please let me know if the problem persists.

11/22

Posted in Quick Hits on November 22nd, 2009 by Ed

LBJ_taking_the_oath_of_office

NPF: EDUCATIONAL STANDARDS

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 20th, 2009 by Ed

A lot of attention has been paid recently to this post on Black Informant showing a scan of a fifth grade civics exam from 1954. The exam is 100 questions and required students to name, among other things, the nine justices of the Supreme Court, the first 22 amendments to the Constitution (!!!), and the definition of the writ of habeas corpus. Most of the reaction has been along the lines of "Oh, look how far we've fallen." If you browse the comments after the link, though, you will also find a good amount of the polar opposite – it's just memorization, it demonstrates no real learning, and today's educational standards are actually far higher. My personal favorite in the latter category has to be:

The comparison of education from the year 1954 to now is completely irrelevant. With the integrated use of smart phones and the internet, it is completely unnecessary to memorize all of these facts that reduce the amount of teaching effort put towards CRITICAL THINKING. Facts are easy things to look up; the connection between these facts and being able to understand the reason things exist the way they do because of the influence of various related factors is what education should be moving toward…and memorizing facts is not something that is necessary anymore for anyone who can look up those facts in 2 seconds on their iphone. It is simply a waste of time.

Our integrated use of smart phones and the world wide hyperweb aside, I do consider this a legitimate question. Should our educational system emphasize information retention or "critical thinking?" Here's the problem. We do neither. Exams like this are no longer given, at least not commonly, but has it been replaced with anything more useful? In my limited experience we are producing wave after wave of students who reach adulthood utterly unable to distinguish between their puckered assholes and a hole in the ground but with access to information they lack the desire or ability to use. They're loaded to the gunwales with iPhones, laptops, and 24-7 access to all of humanity's collected knowledge, and they can't do basic research on Google to save their souls. I just said all of this two weeks ago so I'll stop repeating myself.

There is value in knowing basic facts. Should we be encouraging kids to memorize the 435 members of Congress or pi to 100 places? No, that would be a pure waste of time. But I shit you not – and I wish I could have a student verify this – I just quizzed my Presidency class, all junior and senior political science majors at a college with an average incoming SAT score of 1400, on the Bill of Rights and not one of them named more than half. Not one. Most could only stammer out a partial description of the 1st Amendment, maybe something about the 2nd. This is bad. "Memorization" for the sake of memorization probably would not help our educational system, but can we start sending people to selective universities with a grasp of some incredibly basic goddamn facts? I do not ask a lot. Call it rote memorization if you'd like, but I'm comfortable making a judgment call here: people should know the Bill of Rights.

This is my argument about the educational system in this country as a whole. We have spent 40 years trying to build pretty houses without building a foundation first. If people are not graduating from high school with a grasp of basic math, the ability to intelligibly express a thought in English, and perhaps a rudimentary understanding of American government, nothing else matters. It is all irrelevant if they lack that basic foundation, and trust me, most of the kids I deal with lack the everliving hell out of it. Maybe the student from 1954 was just learning a bunch of facts and never developed the ability to utilize them or put them in context. Is it markedly better to have students who (allegedly) have the latter skills but not the facts? Why is information without skills patently silly but skills without information isn't?

HEARSAY AND CONJECTURE ARE *KINDS* OF EVIDENCE

Posted in Ed vs. Cognitive Biases on November 19th, 2009 by Ed

In early 2008 I wrote the following in the wake of the spree-killing-of-the-week at Northern Illinois University that left six dead and eighteen wounded (such an insignificant number on the contemporary scale of random American gun violence that, admit it, you've already forgotten about it):

Nearly every news item about the NIU gunman has quoted the DeKalb police chief, who noted that friends thought The Gunman’s behavior became “erratic” in the weeks leading up to the shooting. Pure hindsight bias, of course. Let’s say that instead of going on a killing spree, he simply went about his normal day. If you asked all of his friends today “Have there been any changes in This Guy’s behavior?” they would be highly unlikely to note anything or offer any serious concerns. However, knowing that he seemingly came unhinged and shot 20-some people, small (or perhaps even imagined) deviations in his behavior are impregnated with meaning. Every email, every phone call that didn’t get returned, and every day he showed up to work 3 minutes late suddenly becomes a “sign,” obvious harbingers of what was to come.

Hindsight bias is the kind of thing freshman psych majors learn but the media simply can't grasp. So I am unsurprised to say the least that we see much of the same "logic" throughout the reporting on the Fort Hood shooting. The shooter is clearly an individual who had a lot of issues and as we learn more, it may turn out that he threw up some red flags that should have earned the attention of his superiors. For the moment, though, we're getting a steady dose of ominously remembered conversations – and worse yet, second- and third-hand conversations – from a media anxious to hitch a ride on the USS Conjecture. Take this example of Pulitzer Prize-caliber journalism on CNN:

Nidal Hasan's family describes him as a good American, but several people who knew Hasan in his years at this Maryland military university say the high-ranking Army officer expressed extremist Islamic views. One says Hasan openly pledged allegiance not to the United States but to the Quran, and when asked of the constitution was a brilliant document simply responded no, not particularly.

 Our sources asked not to be identified because of the ongoing investigation, and the investigators wouldn't comment on the details they offered.

Whatever "expressed extremist Islamic views" means, to hear the Anonymous Sources Who Knew Him over the last week he appears to have been doing it 24-7. Could that be because a group not known for their sympathy toward and understanding of Islam is suddenly remembering everything about his religion as an expression of extremist fervor? Take for example the claim that he "openly pledged allegiance not to the United States but to the Quran." Here is the actual exchange:

"Is your allegiance to Sharia law or the United States?" students once challenged Hasan, the source said. "Sharia law," Hasan responded, according to the source.

Hmm. Is that a sign of extremism? What do you think the average buzz-cut, Bible-thumping, stereotypical military type would say if he was asked, "Which is more important, God or the United States? If you had to choose just one, would you obey the Ten Commandments or the UCMJ?" If we asked Catholics whether the Vatican is more important to them than the Obama administration, what might the response be? There are literally millions of Christian fundamentalists in this country who openly profess God before country, Bible before written law. My point here is not to debate the right-or-wrong of that. My point is simply that, in context, "God before Caesar" is not an uncommon sentiment among stridently religious people inside or outside of the military. Such a sentiment would only be a red flag in hindsight after the individual did something terrible. Or is Muslim, apparently, since I doubt the military higher-ups receive many urgent warnings about people in their ranks expressing a dangerous devotion to Christianity.

Bless you, Anonymous Sources, for conveniently providing the sound bites for the compelling "We should have known all along" narrative so preferred among the media in these situations.