ED vs. COGNITIVE BIASES, PART 5: OPTIMISM BIAS

Posted in Ed vs. Cognitive Biases on December 17th, 2009 by Ed

Optimism is an inherently good thing, right?

Be honest with yourself for a moment. How many times have you compensated, consciously or otherwise, for a lousy plan with the phrases "I'll figure something out" or "It'll all work out"? Statistically, you won't and it won't. But our minds are great at convincing us that these phrases are not merely a rapid escape hatch from a conversation we don't want to have; we're hard-wired to believe it.

Optimism bias is one of the oldest and most well-established facts in psychology and cognitive science. Armor & Taylor (2002) run down a list of experimental evidence. But if this seems like a simple phenomenon, it isn't. The problem is not that we underestimate the odds of negative outcomes even when we have full information (contrarily, in fact, we tend to wildly overestimate the odds of unlikely negative consequences – plane crashes, being hit by lightning, satanic ritual abuse, etc.). An example of that kind of reasoning might be, "I know 90% of smokers develop lung cancer, but I'll be one of the 10%." There's no need to give that a fancy name; denial and stupidity work just fine. No, optimism bias is our ability to convince ourselves that we're not in denial of the odds – instead, we tell ourselves we've found a way to change them in our favor.

We know that 75% of credit card holders make a late payment at some point, allowing issuers to impose punitive fees and APRs, but you won't be one of those people because you're very organized and you always pay on time.

Students beginning law or business school (and sinking $100k in the process) wildly overestimate their odds of getting one of the high-paying jobs one gets by finishing in the top 10. It's obvious that only 10% of any class can have that outcome, but the odds are not 9 to 1 against me because I'll study harder than everyone else and I'm smarter anyway.

Smokers routinely convince themselves that the grim statistics about tobacco and mortality are attenuated by some other behavior, i.e. your odds of getting lung cancer aren't really 80% because you smoke but you also jog three times per week and eat lots of organic stuff (or even more hilariously, "because I smoke lights / brand X / etc.")

Confronted with the cold reality that 50% of marriages fail, newlyweds inevitably conclude that their special bond with one another makes their odds of avoiding divorce much better than 50-50.

Gamblers understand that the odds are always on the house, but you have some kind of "system" – counting cards or whatever – that means the odds don't apply to you.

I can't help but think about optimism bias when I look at the daunting statistics about foreclosures and delinquent mortgages. Lazy minds assume that the problem is as simple as poor people taking out loans they couldn't afford, but when we look at the geographic distribution we see the fastest-growing states are leading the way – Nevada, Arizona, California, and Florida. In other words, the places where the upper-middle class buys its vacation properties and eventually moves to retire. Behind every bad loan, "investment property," and second mortgage is a series of powerful rationalizations: I can afford it as long as it keeps going up in value indefinitely (and it will!), I can't afford it but I'll be making more money soon, my 401(k) will never lose value so I'll be OK, or the generic "It'll all work out."

In other words, it's another one of those cognitive biases upon which our entire economic system is based. We invest because we think we're smart enough to do it without real risk and we buy under the assumption that we'll come into the means to pay in the future.

THE DIZZYING HEIGHTS

Posted in Rants on December 16th, 2009 by Ed

I forced myself not to get excited about Obama and overall I was successful. I can honestly say that the only thing that excited me about the 2008 Presidential Election was not ending up with the worst possible outcome. If that isn't the fundamental problem with our politics – maybe our society overall – then I don't know what is. After eight years of trying, eight years of accumulating debts both financial and social that I won't live to see paid, this is the reward: a couple years of Eisenhower Republicanism before the great herds of deranged rubes that make up our electorate inevitably decide that Bad had enough of a go at it and it's time to give Worse another shot.

Matt Taibbi's Obama-broke-my-heart piece has been getting a lot of press lately, and nothing about it is shocking except that he got his hopes up in the first place. What did anyone really expect? We've changed. We've changed on a very basic level. Across the mainstream of the political spectrum we've utterly rejected two ideas – that government can be anything other than evil/incompetent and that there can be any collective solution to anything – in a process that began in the 1960s and came to fruition with the "New Democrat" Clinton era. What the Great Depression and Second World War taught Americans has long since been forgotten. Now we have more problems than we can count and there are only three solutions (which are ideally implemented in unison) in response to all of them:

1. Privatize it. There is not a single thing the government can do – from fighting a war to creating a last-resort insurance option – that can't be done better by a consortium of gigantic private interests with their eternal guiding light of the profit motive. Any and every attempt to "reform" anything turns into regulatory capture writ large, a theater of the absurd of inmates not only running the prison but getting the contract to build it and letting themselves out before filling it with the rest of us.

2. Cut my taxes. Pay for the tax cuts by eliminating every aspect of government that doesn't benefit me directly.

3. Blame substantial problems caused by 1 and 2 on government. Repeat.

Part of me did think that this financial crisis would be a little bit of a bottom, a wake-up call. You'd think that having every state in the union – even conservative Meccas like Texas – desperately filling budgetary gaps and reductions in services with free Congressional bailout cash would get a few folks thinking, hmm, absent the largesse of the Federal government we would be irrevocably fucked. The truth is that we have a long way to go. The 1930s have officially been forgotten, or in some circles conveniently re-imagined with pap that ranges from the highbrow money supply erotica of Milton Friedman to the credential-free, Washington Times op-ed caliber wankery of hacks like Amity Shlaes. Insert pithy reminder about forgetting and being condemned to repeat.

So take a good look at the status quo, people. This is as good as it gets. This is the "prize." These are the dizzying heights we can reach through years of blood, sweat, dollars, tears, and pieces of our sanity we can never get back. We can get the guy who gives us less of what we don't want. And the only way it will ever change is to get ourselves to a point as a society at which we look back fondly at 2009 and remember how good the economy was. Americans are great at turning expectantly to the government for a handout when they fail; I guess we just haven't failed spectacularly enough yet.

SAINT RONNIE vs. SECRET MUSLIN

Posted in Rants on December 15th, 2009 by Ed

I took a few minutes to assemble some data on presidential approval ratings at the 10-month mark, the current President having crossed that threshold about two weeks ago. I was immediately struck by the similarities between Obama and Reagan at the equivalent point in their first terms:*

RR-BO

The similarity is remarkable. Where did Reagan go from here? Well, his low ratings persisted throughout 1982 and accordingly the GOP results in the midterm Congressional elections were mediocre. The majority Democrats added 27 additional seats to their House delegation while in the Senate, the Democrats remained in the minority but picked up one additional seat, leaving them at 46 (they would make additional gains in 1984 before taking the Senate back in 1986). How then did Reagan end up virtually canonized by 1988 after winning a coronation-style re-election in 1984? Well, the simple answer is that his approval ratings took a dramatic swing upward in 1983. Hmm…

RR-vs-Unemp

Coincidental correlation? Maybe. But the link between economic conditions and presidential approval is well-established in political science literature.*** While I recognize – and in fact base my entire Presidency course around – the fact that the President does not have a magic button on his desk labeled FIX ECONOMY, these data should suggest that achieving some tangible improvement in general economic conditions should be Obama's first and only goal at the moment. For some strange reason voters don't seem to worry about the deficit as much when they have jobs.

* Approval ratings are now available daily, whereas in 1981 data were collected monthly. I combined the data by noting the date of each Reagan approval rating and choosing the corresponding Obama rating from that date.

** Unemployment data is the monthly rate calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

***see Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2000 or Edwards, Mitchell and Welch 1995 to name just two.

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THE COOLER

Posted in Rants on December 14th, 2009 by Ed

One of my favorite quotes from the founding era – which, like any tale of the Founders' wit and wisdom, may be apocryphal – is Washington's explanation to a skeptical Thomas Jefferson about the advantages of a bicameral legislature and specifically of a House designed for rapid action paired with a slow-moving Senate. GW is said to have asked Jefferson, "Why did you set your tea on the table before drinking it?" to which Jefferson said, "To cool it; my throat is not made of brass." Having made the point, Washington told his friend, "So it is with the legislature. The House is where we make our tea and the Senate is where we let it cool so we might drink it." I have repeated this tale to many Intro to American Government classes but I am starting to feel like both George and I are liars. The House is still where we make our tea, but the Senate is now where we send it until one of two outcomes: either 40% of the chamber decides that no one will be having tea or it gets so cold that no one in their right mind would want to drink it anymore.

The current debacle with the President's healthcare legislation should be provoking discussion about the efficacy of our legislative system overall, as it is becoming apparent that as the two parties have polarized the Senate has become an all-or-nothing game of Russian roulette in which the majority either rams legislation through the minority or a coalition of just two out of every five Senators can bring the proceedings of the entire body to a grinding halt. In other words, our government is "broken" not ideologically but institutionally; the current political realities have rendered the Senate's rules, well-intentioned and lofty they may be, ineffectual or worse.

The House is designed to produce legislation rapidly; its two-year terms and simple, majority-based rules reflect its character as an institution designed for efficiency and to reflect trends in public opinion. Public opinion being wrongheaded or dangerous much of the time, the Senate exists to apply the brakes. In other words, let's think about this for a second before we make it law. While the filibuster is not enshrined in the Constitution (and was in fact made practical by a change to the Senate rules in 1806 when the option to "call the question" or move the debate to a vote was allowed to expire) it has been an integral part of Senate practice for more than two centuries. But to what end? Aside from some southern racists' futile attempts to block civil rights legislation and Oregon Senator Wayne Morse's one-man crusade to block the Tidelands Oil act in 1953, the filibuster has been fairly invisible. But in recent years, thanks in no small part to the divisive tactics of the "Class of 1994" Republicans in Congress, the filibuster is now threatened at the drop of a hat. It is to the modern Senate what duels were to the Wild West – theoretically a last resort to redress serious grievances that became, over time, a knee-jerk reaction to any perceived slight among hotheads and drunks.

Our system is broken for two fundamental reasons: the electoral incentives for Senate obstructionism are great and the Democratic Party has no ballsack. The first point means that the less the current Democratic majority is able to accomplish, the more likely it is that voters will put the other party back in power. Gingrich figured this one out in the early 1990s. It is in the party's interest, if not the nation's, to do nothing but obstruct at every step of the way. "Those damn Democrats can't get anything done," voters will eventually conclude. The second point means that Republicans do get things done – usually idiotic, harmful things, but things nonetheless. Their leaders are willing to run through the chamber like madmen clutching a detonator, perfectly willing to destroy the institution and everyone in it if they don't get their way. So the voters drunkenly lurch back and forth between the two parties every couple of elections, trying to choose between the Democrats with the attractive policies or the Republicans with stale, ineffective ideas they will successfully implement.

In this hyperpartisan environment, even 60 Democrats (counting "Independent" Joe Lieberman) is not enough to enact the agenda of a Democratic president. Bush didn't even need 55 Republicans to railroad through his appointees, his agenda, and some very poorly thought-out legislation that in hindsight someone should have read before voting to pass. Saddled with Harry Reid and an egomaniacal "Independent" who gets off on being a necessary evil, this party simply has no idea how to lead – how to be the winners. Maybe they have become the Arizona Cardinals of politics, so used to being doormats that they don't know how to handle success when they suddenly find it. In my opinion, 60 Democrats should be enough to pass a Democratic agenda. Hell, 51 should do it. Yes, the majority in our system will always involve some measure of ideological diversity – "ConservaDems" or "Republicans in name only" – but fundamentally, simply, and crudely…it should not be this fucking hard to pass legislation with a 75-seat House majority and 58-60 Senators. We cannot suffer a system that will require either 51 Republicans or 65 Democrats to pass legislation.

So the Democrats must make a painful choice: they must alter the Senate rules and do away with the filibuster. Yes, this will inevitably mean suffering the consequences in the future when the GOP re-takes the majority. But they give the GOP everything it wants anyway. Name one thing the minority Democrats obstructed: a nomination, a major policy proposal (Social Security privatization was deep-sixed in the GOP caucus before even making it to the floor), a war…anything. If they refuse to use it in the minority, why suffer the GOP use of it when in the majority? Better to take the opportunity to pass some legislation now and accept that the GOP will break it off in the minority Democrats' ass at some point in the future than to accomplish nothing in either scenario. The Senate is for deliberation, not obstruction. It is where legislation is sent to be reconsidered, not locked in a cage and starved to death over a period of weeks.

NPF: PRESIDENTIAL MEDIA

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 11th, 2009 by Ed

It has been ages since I've done Obscure Presidential Trivia Friday, although half a year is barely enough time to get over the mind-blowing realization that the 10th President, John Tyler, has two living grandsons. Let's talk about preserving presidents for posterity. Not by freezing their severed heads a la Ted Williams or Lenin-style embalming – through media.

Our first six Presidents are remembered only as oil paintings. Thus we are unable to imagine Washington or Madison doing anything but standing bolt-upright in starched pantaloons, one hand gripping a lapel and the other outstretched in the classic "See this? This means some fuckin' oratory is about to happen" pose. Given the tendency of people who painted the wealthy and powerful to…exercise a good deal of tact, our Founders were probably considerably uglier than we realize. History has a way of making people hotter. Compare this 1923 Silver Certificate featuring Lincoln to a modern $5 featuring Stud Lincoln.

So portrait artists were probably hiding Monroe's wrinkles, Washington's scars, and Jefferson's raging herpes sores. The first President (chronologically) to be photographed was the 6th, John Quincy Adams, who sat for this daguerreotype in 1843. He was photographed once more in 1847. Ornery looking SOB, wasn't he? The first President to be photographed while in office was John Tyler, whose place in trivia is considerably more prominent than in history.

Fast forward a few decades to the next great leaps forward in media technology. Grover Cleveland is the first President chronologically to appear on motion picture film, although ironically he did not do so on two non-consecutive occasions. Cleveland appears in the following film of the inauguration of William McKinley, the first sitting President one can view on YouTube:

The film was silent, of course, and legend has it that Edison himself operated the camera for it. One of Edison's inventions, wax cylinder recording, captured the voices of Presidents as early as Benjamin Harrison in 1892. Michigan State's Vincent Voice Library has thousands of rare, old sound recordings like this, although many of the more notable historical figures have migrated to YouTube. I love their collection; it teaches us, among other things, that William McKinley spoke with a comically affected upper-class accent and Calvin Coolidge sounded like a duck (as evidenced by the first Presidental film with sound). Coolidge was also the first President to give a speech broadcast on radio.

Herbert Hoover was on TV. No, seriously, and look at the size of that noggin!

HH lived to be more than 90, and thus he appeared on live TV at the 1960 GOP Convention. Truman was the first to appear on TV while in office, although by 1950 the public had gotten used to seeing newsreel footage of FDR and TV wasn't much of a leap forward.

The question of the first internet President is disputed, not that anyone's losing sleep over it. Presidents began sending coded electronic messages in the 1960s over the military precursors to the civilian internet. Reagan supposedly sent the first message that was readable on a monitor as opposed to printing out like a fax machine, but undoubtedly the first President to use the internet as we understand it was Bill Clinton in 1993. He sent the first Presidential email and undoubtedly cranked up top secret internet technology available only to the highest levels of government in 1993 – the 56k dial-up modem, I believe – and downloaded pictures of obese hillbilly women.

I'm not sure where Presidents can go from here and still break new ground, since I believe the next step up from existing technology involves teleportation. But when it happens, I'll be sure to make a note of it. And in case you were wondering, Cleveland installed the first telephone in the White House in 1892 and insisted – people, when Grover Cleveland insist on doing something you let him do it – on answering it himself. Which always amused the hell out of me, especially given that there were about 9 telephones in the United States at the time. "Hello, J.P.? This is Grover. Let's crank call Andrew Carnegie."**

** May not be an actual quote

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GRASPING AT STRAWS

Posted in Rants on December 10th, 2009 by Ed

From my perspective the most prominent downside to the "Climate-gate" nontroversy is the fact that every jackass internet commenter and talk radio lemming in the world will resort even more rapidly to "LOL we all know the 'data' on global warming is FAAKE!" What is more interesting to me, though, is the broader public reaction to this "news." No amount of evidence or argumentation can convince Americans to think twice about starting a war, that universal access to health insurance will actually cost less in the long run, or that cutting taxes will not solve all their problems. Yet these same people are ready to believe at the drop of a hat that climate change is a hoax, an elaborate global conspiracy, based on out-of-context quotes extracted from emails among four inconsequential scientists.

First, let's look at the words causing all the pant-shitting. This juicy quote has redneck America reaching for its revolver:

"I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie, from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."

The "decline" in question is not in temperature – it refers to measurements of tree rings. I have no idea what that means, but it seems worth noting that this is explicitly not referring to temperature. That's kinda relevant. As for the word "trick," among my circle of social scientists that term is commonly used to describe statistical techniques, especially techniques one poorly understands. But for all I know, these "tricks" and tree ring measurements could actually contradict the global warming hypothesis. I am not exactly qualified to draw conclusions about this data. That doesn't stop most people.

Second, there is this gem:

"I think we have to stop considering Climate Research as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal."

Half of the editorial board of the journal in question resigned in protest of the decision to publish a global warming denialist article, about which Climate Research itself stated: "(The paper's findings) cannot be concluded convincingly from the evidence provided in the paper. We should have requested appropriate revisions of the manuscript prior to publication." Hmm. An editor also claimed that global warming denialists "had identified Climate Research as a journal where some editors were not as rigorous in the review process as is otherwise common." In other words, this is a shit journal, a grease trap that catches all of the detritus from the real journals in the field. Every academic discipline has a few and they are routinely denigrated as we see in this email – especially if it is known for blatantly ideology-driven editorial practices.

Third, we have:

"The other paper by MM is just garbage. […] I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"

Folks, welcome to academia. Seriously. This has always happened and happens today in every field with a peer-review process. Academics are elitist, catty little bitches. Find me a field – I beg you, any field – where this scenario does not play out. Smith doesn't like Wong's work (no doubt over some petty, irrelevant methodological issue) so Smith calls Davis and Martinez and all three collude to reject Wong's paper from the conference, journal, seminar, or whatever. Being able to identify the petty assholes, narcissists, and would-be gatekeepers is half of being a successful academic…and dealing with their neuroses is the other. Whoever MM is, he/she has challenged the consensus in the field and his/her colleagues, all of whom are ready to defend their decades of published work to the death. Not exactly man bites dog in terms of newsworthiness.

Not terribly impressive "evidence" of a vast global warming conspiracy. So why are people so eager to buy it? Because Westerners, and car-centric Americans in particular, are desperate to avoid having to alter their behavior. Like a terminal cancer patient who chooses to believe in ridiculous miracle cures offered in spam emails, the average American intuitively understands that fossil fuels and habitat destruction must be having some kind of impact on the planet. Warming, cooling, whatever – all that burning coal and hazardous chemicals dumped into rivers have to be doing something. But the problem either seems too large to confront, a situation highly conducive to denialism, or this "evidence" of a hoax is the excuse people need to morally justify driving an empty Durango to the office every day.

These emails are spectacularly unspectacular. It undermines the credibility of about four scientists at a university no one in the US has ever heard of. It specifically does not undermine the entire body of climate research. There is no evidence of a hoax, no conspiracy to fabricate data, and no directives from the cabal of liberal professors and militant vegans who control the entire planet in the minds of paranoid Glenn Beck fans. Yet I'd be willing to bet that a majority of Americans will decide that the emails are in fact evidence of all of that and more. What was that line from the X-Files? Not "The truth is out there." The other one: "I want to believe."

BLAME

Posted in Rants on December 9th, 2009 by Ed

It's no secret that traditional news media are in dire straits. Network television news has become almost completely irrelevant while 24-hour cable networks, the last innovation to revolutionize the way we consume news, are scrambling to recover the audience they're losing to the internet. If you don't believe me, try watching CNN until you hear the word "tweet" or "blog." It won't take more than five minutes. Radio has all but disappeared as a primary news source. And the newspaper industry…good lord. These are the end times for them. Circulation is down 7,000,000 per day since 1985 and in the past 12 months alone ad revenue has plummeted 19%. I've said enough over the years about the sorry state of print media, and it's nothing you don't already know if you've picked up a newspaper in the last few years. Even the New York Times is hurting, and lesser papers, the Chicago Tribune for example, are so thin they could scarcely provide enough square inches to serve as fish wrappers anymore.

Like the railroads or any other industry backed into a corner by technological changes making them obsolete, the traditional media are baring their claws and preparing for a fight – one of the vicious, desperate fight-for-your-life variety. The latest hue and cry focuses on the role of "aggregating" websites, places like Huffington Post or Digg which collect the most interesting bits from hundreds of sources and provide them free and without requiring a subscription. Ms. Huffington herself points out that:

So now sites that aggregate the news have become, in the words of Rupert Murdoch and his team, "parasites," "content kleptomaniacs," "vampires," "tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internets," and, of course, thieves who "steal all our copyright."

It is very convenient for the champions of the obsolete technology to vilify that which replaces them, and frankly their argument is not without merit. The internet is undercutting them precisely by providing more variety, as-it-happens delivery of breaking news, and a user-end cost of zero. Dozens of traditional media websites have attempted to set up "paywalls" – in other words, charging for access to content – and in nearly every instance the scheme failed miserably. Ironically it is the lack of rigor in the print media that undercut the attempts at paywalls; papers have gotten so lazy and so reliant on AP/Reuters/wire/syndication copy that a reader could simply steer away from pay sites and find literally the exact same story elsewhere gratis.

It's a compelling story, and a story as old as industrial society. New technology crushes old technology, the latter of which can offer little more than appeals to tradition and nostalgia. The internet killed off newspapers just as airlines and highways killed off the railroads, which killed off the steamboats, which killed off the keelboats, which killed off the Indians. But this explanation is far too convenient for the traditional media because it allows them to ignore their responsibility for their own demise. Yes, it's time for some victim-blaming.

The internet is not simply killing old media because it is newer-faster-cheaper. It is killing old media because it is providing a far better product. Wha-wha-what, you say? Yes, there certainly is a lot of shit on the internet. But consider this: on the two biggest news stories of this decade, and possibly of a generation, the traditional media absolutely and irrefutably failed us. Compare the performance of internet "news" – blogs, amateur journalists, basement and bedroom analysts – to the paper-and-ink media on the run up to the Iraq War and the 2007-2008 subprime mortgage-driven financial crisis.

Which media provided facts and which one toed the party line? Which media did the digging and fact-checking that is supposed to be the foundation of journalism and which one unquestioningly parroted Official Sources? Which one offered loud voices saying "Um, these claims about Iraq are utter bullshit" or "Hey, people should pay attention to this bomb that is about to detonate under our economy"?

God help me, I am about to use a football metaphor. An American football metaphor for those of you who think soccer is football.

The old media, at least after they decided to stop questioning Official Sources and serve as stenographers, are like one person trying to tackle a runner. If they miss the runner, no one else is there to tackle him. The internet is like a gang of tiny people trying to tackle the runner. One person can't do it. She'll bounce off, but she will slow him down just a bit. And then two more little people will jump on the him. And then ten more. And then a thousand. And before you know it, the runner is buried underneath thousands of little people.

The internet is flatly better at serving the purpose our media is supposed to serve. The traditional media run a headline – "IRAQ WAR CLAIMS MAY BE BULLSHIT" – and maybe it sticks, maybe it doesn't. If it doesn't, that's it. They move on, and their need for ratings and profit demand that they rapidly move on to something mindless but titillating. The internet, on the other hand, greatly reduces the odds of stories falling through the cracks. People swarm around stories that seem to have legs, re-posting and forwarding and generally doing a good job of getting more people to take notice. And therefore important stories might be brushed from the headlines but they don't just disappear.

I don't want to wax lyrical about the glories of internet journalism because I know just how much utter crap and misinformation circulates online. Yet no matter how disappointing the signal-to-noise ratio may be, there is some signal. If a story is relevant or newsworthy, someone will catch it. Someone will ask questions, do the fact-checking (thanks, Media Matters and FactCheck.org!) that the news media are supposed to do, and persist long after the newspapers and cable networks have decided that it is not ratings-friendly or in their financial interest to run stories about things people should know but prefer not to.

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BOXING vs. WRESTLING

Posted in Rants on December 8th, 2009 by Ed

Bruce Miroff makes one of my favorite arguments about the presidency in political science literature in "The Presidential Spectacle" (only available in print, unfortunately). In that piece he described the fundamental dilemma of the modern presidency as its dual nature; the institution requires substance but the public demands style. He uses the great analogy of boxing and pro wrestling. Doing one's job as president is like boxing, a contest of strength, strategy, and will. Passing legislation or making military decisions, for example, are actions with uncertain outcomes. Whether they succeed or fail depends on how good he is. Winning public support, on the other hand, is pro wrestling – it's all about style, gestures, and ridiculously simple morality plays with a clearly identifiable villain and a predetermined outcome. Who wins or loses does not depend on skill. It's about mugging for the camera and making the right gestures.

The invasion of Grenada is the classic example of such "presidential spectacle." We are the Good Guys; the godless Commie Menace is the Bad Guy. Cue the footage of American military might kicking ass and getting home in time for supper. Good guys win, bad guys lose…an outcome that is not only identical to every WWF storyline but one that was never in doubt. The first Gulf War, the War on Drugs, the invasion of Panama, and so on would all be good examples as well. Presidents need this type of song-and-dance routine to reinforce what Americans believe about themselves, just as the wrestling crowd is expected to see itself in the (white, mulleted, profane, "All-American" hillbilly) Good Guy and revel in his trouncing of the (black, Mexican, Muslim, or effeminate) Bad Guy.

It was interesting to see how the right would react to Obama caving in on Afghanistan and agreeing to send 30,000 troops (instead of the 40,000 they asked for – ooh, take that!). You knew they needed to find something to bitch about even though the right got what it wanted…open-ended and escalating commitment. For a while it appeared that the best they could do was whining about "dithering" and taking too long to make the decision. That is a lame complaint, albeit not without merit. The appearance of indecisiveness is always punished in opinion polls. Fortunately Krauthammer came along and said what I knew they were all thinking; it was a simple matter of waiting for someone to say it.

We know that the kind of spectacles I described earlier are popular – an American president striding around in a flight suit and declaring to one and all that America just kicked the Bad Guy's ass. We also have quite a problem with blurring the line between entertainment and war. There is an unreasonably large number of Americans who love war. They get off on it. They watch The Military Channel eight hours per day and believe the appropriate response to everything is nuke those motherfuckers (or at least carpet-bomb them). It is entertainment for them, and it bolsters their lousy self-image and latent self-loathing to picture America as some sort of Charles Bronson / Rambo figure strutting around beating nations who don't Do As We Say with his enormous penis.

That's really what Krauthammer is getting at, what he felt was the fundamental problem with Obama's speech: the President was so dispassionate. Where was the sophomoric bravado, the manly chest-pounding, the cockiness, that America Fuck Yeah swagger that all the doughy, impotent Bush voters need in order to get off? Why didn't Obama look excited about war? Why didn't he don a flight suit and declare "We're comin' to kick your ass"? Why didn't he jump on the podium, stare straight into the camera, and challenge Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik to a cage match at this year's Summer Slam?

It's sad enough that they derive so much pleasure from watching gun camera footage and endless cable TV shows about tanks and bombers blowing shit up (not to mention the endless gun pornography). But to watch the President substantially escalate our commitment to a quagmire – to basically throw 30,000 more people into the meat grinder for no apparent purpose – and then whine about how he didn't look excited enough about it is…well, it's sick. I lack a better or less controversial word for it. Whether they need the image of America-as-Rambo to compensate for their own shortcomings or they simply get a big woody every time they think of war, this portion of the electorate wants Stone Cold Steve Austin as President. Rather than demanding to see more war swagger from Obama they should demand to see a psychiatrist.

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AGORAPHOBIA

Posted in Rants on December 7th, 2009 by Ed

We all marvel at the ability of wingnuts to sell books to other wingnuts. You really have to hand it to people like Malkin, Beck, Coulter, and O'Reilly; they may be lacking in both sanity and brainpower but they know how to sell books. Yes, the sales figures for books like Going Rogue and Slander are fudged – many of the books purchased in bulk by chain stores and internet retailers are eventually returned unsold – but that does not change the fact that a lot of actual sales are taking place.

How do they do it? They do it the same way that McDonald's gets people to spend billions on food that is grotesquely unhealthy and doesn't even taste good – by delivering a cheap, consistent, and utterly predictable product to lazy people who like nothing better than mind-numbing routine. They have identified an audience that is willing to buy books, perhaps even eager to buy books, but insistent that the books contain no facts or opinions that are not already shared by author and reader alike. It doesn't make sense to you or I, but I think it's worth emphasizing that wingnut authors are not merely selling bile and predigested thought to both flatter and inflame the prejudices of their audience. They are also selling predictability. That is an underrated commodity. People don't just watch According to Jim and eat Twinkies because they're stupid; people do it because it protects them from the unfamiliar and delivers a product that will never, ever surprise them or make them think.

Sometimes, however, the wingnut money machine runs into a snag. Case in point: Glenn Beck's "Christmas Sweater" live show. It sold 17 tickets in New York. I know NYC is a tremendously liberal place, but in a city of 17 million it sold 17 tickets. Ditto Boston. Washington proved to be a real hotbed of Christmas Sweater fandom, selling 30 tickets. His best draw was in Seattle (70 tickets in a 450-seat venue). There are but a few potential explanations for the fact that a man who can sell a million books at the drop of a hat cannot attract enough ticket buyers to fill out a football team.

1. Mouthbreathers who buy Beck/Malkin/etc. books have a limit. They aren't bright but they're smart enough to realize that a Glenn Beck Christmas performance is going to be ass-breakingly terrible.

2. The show is guaranteed to flop in big cities but would have more success if it adopted the Palin Book Tour Strategy, i.e. appearing only in forlorn places where hopes and dreams congregate to die.

3. Beck fans simply are terrified of leaving their homes to be near other human beings and refuse to do so without a very good reason.

4. What exactly a Glenn Beck Christmas show might look like is unclear – Is it political? Is it a play? Comedy? Are there musical numbers? – and thus utterly unacceptable to a fan base that demands unwavering predictability.

I lean strongly toward #4, if only that the most logical choice, #1, would require me to give Beck fans credit for having some taste or intellect. That's not happening. No, this is about predictability. Like a McDonald's that decided to sell shepherd's pie and souvlaki, Beck's attempt to pad his wallet and stroke his ego falls flat because he neglected to understand how much of his appeal is tied up in his ability to deliver a consistent ration of shit. To many Americans the fact that it is consistent is appealing enough to outweigh the fact that it is shit.

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NPF: ACQUIRED SITUATIONAL NARCISSISM

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 4th, 2009 by Ed

I tend not to watch a lot of TV, and what I do watch tends toward either surrealist comedy (Frisky Dingo) or non-fiction programming (think Discovery Channel specials about how coffee beans are harvested and processed). For someone who enjoys getting angry at glorified mediocrity and outright stupidity, TV is not a good way to enhance health and sanity. Lots of things on television make me want to punch someone – American Idol, any sitcom with a laugh track and/or on Fox, The Real Housewives of Wherethefuckever, and that show on cable that is honest-to-god called I Want That! – but the programming that has me on my knees every night praying for a comet to hit the Earth is the recent proliferation of bride-themed "reality" shows, namely Bridezillas and to a lesser extent Bulging Brides, Rich Bride Poor Bride, and Say Yes to the Dress.

It's bad enough that we raise girls in this country to believe that getting married is life's ultimate accomplishment, one's wedding is the most important day in life (not because marriage is important, of course), and getting married is a process one must start planning at age six and, when it finally happens, nothing less than Barbie's Dream Wedding will do. Having dipped my toes in the wedding industry during my engagement, I became aware of just how powerful the external factors encouraging this sort of behavior are. Men don't spend their entire lives getting bombarded with this shit, thank god. But that privilege means that it is all the more shocking when we are finally taken behind the curtain. To this day the words "Bridal" and "Expo" used sequentially are enough to make me reach for a weapon. I/we quickly discovered that it is impossible to have a wedding industry wedding for less than $10,000, as ten-cent napkins magically become $4 "wedding napkins" and the scum of the retail world do their best to convince you that conspicuous spending on trivial bullshit will determine your worth as a human being.

Yeah. We're currently planning a very pleasant ceremony in someone's backyard with catered tacos. But I digress. Why do the television shows piss me off so much?

This already unbearable experience has gotten dramatically worse on account of contemporary movies and television that not only reinforce the Barbie Dream Wedding, everything-must-be-perfect-for-your-special-day mantra but they add to it the idea that women have a right (perhaps even the responsibility) to act absolutely psychotic throughout the process. Wedding Time is a twelve month excuse to be, in the common parlance, a complete bitch. To everyone. About everything. Even when the brides on these reality shows are shown at their worst in an effort to get the audience to hate them, I can only imagine what effect it has on the subconscious of a ten year-old girl. Whether or not they realize that the show is no different than Springer or Maury Povich – a freakshow intended to make viewers feel better about themselves – the message is clear: this is how people act when they are getting married. If anything isn't exactly how I want it I can fly off the handle and shriek hysterically at whoever happens to be nearby. He or she will forgive me because I'm planning a wedding. It's OK to act like an asshole. It's OK to engage in behavior so socially aberrant that it fits the definition of an actual psychological diagnosis (see title).

My better half was involved in a wedding party for a Bridezilla a few years ago and it was one of the most unpleasant experiences imaginable. Friendships were strained, money was pissed away, and even those of us who only had to watch from afar could scarcely wait for it to be over. Now that my social circle is getting to That Age I get the sneaking feeling that I'll have a few more of these experiences in the near future. Is it all the fault of some bad cable television shows? Of course not. But if you wanted to present a solid counterargument to the claim that allowing same-sex marriage would in some way be derogatory to the institution, you could do a lot worse than asking what could cheapen it more than the cynical cash grab and bridal freakshow that is a modern American wedding.