NEW MATH

Posted in Quick Hits on May 7th, 2017 by Ed

If you want an example of how American politics have departed from traditional norms to introduce an element of Third World Strongman unreality into our discourse, look no further than what just happened to Medicaid.

Step 1: Campaign on a promise not to cut Medicaid
Step 2: Cut almost a trillion dollars from Medicaid
Step 3: Insist that cutting almost a trillion dollars from Medicaid made it better (alternate excuse: they're not "cuts", they're ways to give states "more flexibility" – presumably the flexibility to kick a lot of people off Medicaid)

And of course it will work. Millions of die-hards, many of whom have no meaningful idea of what Medicaid is or how it works, will from this day forward insist to their last breath that not a penny was cut from it, or any cuts that might have happened made it way better.

It gets sadder by the day that so many voters in this country could not figure out what the French were able to: that a choice between a bad candidate and a candidate who literally threatens the basic institutions of democracy to increase his or her odds of being able to establish authoritarian rule is an important choice and one worth making.

AVOIDING CONSEQUENCES

Posted in Rants on May 4th, 2017 by Ed

I like political science. It's interesting, which is helpful given that I do it for a living. Theories that help us understand the political world change over time out of necessity because the political world changes. Some people find this unsatisfying or use it to argue that the term "science" is not applicable. These people prefer the iron certainty of the hard sciences and their various laws, and that is a valid preference. A social science combining rules, institutions, and human behavior has a different type of appeal and value.

When major events happen in the political world, my social media lights up with a lot of interesting comments from people who know a great deal about the process of legislating, bureaucratic theory, and other specialized topics. I like this a lot. I'm starting to feel, however, that the behavior of the American electorate and the state of the American political system no longer conform to logic or reality enough for any kind of rigorous analysis or application of findings from previous research to be useful. That sounds chicken little-ish, I know. It sounds like an overreaction. It also sounds terrifyingly plausible.

As people who study Congress and congressional elections debate the strategy (and consequences) of the House vote on Thursday, the basic assumption is that voters will respond to decisions made by their Representatives in a way that is predictable. I have doubts about the usefulness of that assumption in modern politics. The post-reality world that a lot of Republican voters inhabit is the culmination of a decades-long process of false equivalence and a Choose Your Own Adventure approach to facts. What does it matter that the bill reduces the number of people who will have health insurance if you can simply say it doesn't and a not-insignificant proportion of voters will accept that and applaud? Does it increase costs? Sure does. But once "This will lower costs!" comes out of the President's mouth, that's Problem Solved for all but the most marginal Republicans in Congress.

Seeing modern American politics as having crossed the Rubicon is no longer a belief confined to permanent pessimists and doom-and-gloomers. There now is a substantial number of us for whom reality and facts simply do not matter, and that turns any attempt to understand or analyze the behavior of political actors on its head. Republicans control the narrative to the point that convincing voters that the economy is better since Trump took office can be accomplished by saying "The economy is better now" and repeating it until it becomes accepted as fact. We have taken a step backward, or maybe sideways, or perhaps through a portal to another dimension. I don't feel like this is temporary, or limited to Trump, or a phenomenon that affects the entire political spectrum evenly (liberals, if anything, insist on Fact Checking everything to death until there is no coherent policy they can be identified with). And I'm dealing with the nagging sense that the knowledge that has been accumulated over the years will be of limited use now.

Imagine if a chemist could combine table salt with mud and declare that the result is 24 karat gold. Or diamonds. Or magical potion. Or anything else he or she felt like calling it. That would render most if not all of the knowledge accumulated by practitioners of chemistry over the millennia useless, would it not?

ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT

Posted in Rants on May 1st, 2017 by Ed

If you want to feel old, teach. That movie quote is not wrong: You get older, the students stay the same age.

Your cultural references are all dated, even when you think things are recent (ex., The Wire is already ancient history. You might as well reference the Marx Brothers). You reference major historical events that they've sort-of heard of but know essentially nothing about (ex. the Cold War, Vietnam, the OJ Simpson trial, etc.) You do the math and realize that they were 3 when 9-11 happened. And of course it only gets worse with time. You get used to it.

One of the saddest moments I ever had in a classroom, though, involved Rodney King and the LA Riots. We are currently approaching the 25th anniversary of those events that left such a mark on everyone who lived through them. Of course "25th Anniversary" is a bold warning that students, both college and K-12, will have only the vaguest sense of what the proper nouns refer to. A few semesters ago in reference to the Michael Brown / Ferguson incident I mentioned Rodney King in an Intro to American Government class. I got the blank "Is that a thing we are supposed to know?" look that I have come to recognize when students hear about something that happened more than six months ago. "Rodney King?" More blinking. "Can someone tell why the name Rodney King is important?"

One student, god bless her, raised her hand. I paraphrase: "He was killed by the police and it caused the LA Riots." I noted that, no, he did not die, but the second part of the statement was indirectly true. God bless technology in the classroom – I pulled up the grainy VHS-camcorder version of the video, as well as a transcript of the audio analysis presented at trial. We watched, and then talked a bit about the rioting following the acquittal of the LAPD officers at trial. They kept doing the blinking thing. I struggled to figure out what part of this relatively straightforward explanation had managed to confuse them.

"Are there questions? You guys look confused."

Hand. "So he was OK?"

"He was beaten up pretty badly, but, ultimately he was. He died a few years ago from unrelated causes (note: in 2012)."

Hand. "It's kind of weird that everybody rioted over that. I mean, there's way worse videos." General murmurs of agreement.

"Bear in mind that this was pre-smartphone. People heard rumors, but it this was the first instance of the whole country actually seeing something like this as it happened. A bystander just happened to have a camcorder" Brief explanation, to general amusement, of what an Old Fashioned camcorder looked like. Big, bulky, tape-based. 18 year olds do not know this.

I do believe they all understood, but as that day went on I was increasingly bothered by that that brief exchange meant. This is a generation of kids so numb to seeing videos of police beating, tasering, shooting, and otherwise applying the power of the state to unarmed and almost inevitably black or Hispanic men that they legitimately could not understand why a video of cops beating up a black guy (who *didn't even die* for pete's sake!) was shocking enough to cause a widespread breakdown of public order. Now we get a new video every week – sometimes every few days – to the point that the name of the person on the receiving end is forgotten almost immediately. There are too many "Video of black guy being shot or beaten" videos for even interested parties to keep them all straight. Do a self test. Do you remember the name of the guy the NYPD choked out for selling loose cigarettes? The guy in suburban Minneapolis whose girlfriend posted a live video on Facebook after a cop shot her boyfriend in the car? The guy in Tulsa who was surrounded by cops and unarmed while a police helicopter recorded an officer deciding to shoot him? The woman who was found hanged in her Texas jail cell leading to the public pleas to "Say Her Name"?

These kids have grown up in a world where this is background noise. It is part of the static of life in the United States. Whether these incidents outrage them or are met with the usual excuses (Comply faster, dress differently, be less Scary) the fact is that they happen so regularly that retaining even one of them in long term memory is unlikely. To think about Rodney King is to imagine a reality in which it was actually kind of shocking to see a video of four cops kicking and night-sticking an unarmed black man over the head repeatedly. Now videos of police violence are about as surprising and rare as weather reports, and forgotten almost as quickly once passed.

(QUIZ ANSWERS: Eric Garner, Phil Castile, Terence Crutcher, Sandra Bland)