THE NEW NORMAL

Posted in Rants on May 25th, 2016 by Ed

This is the kind of data release sure to go viral and put the internet into a frenzy, so let me be the first of many to tell you that Pew has done an analysis concluding that "at home with parents" is now the most common living arrangement for 18-34 year olds. It is the plurality winner at 32.1%, edging out the long-time leader "with spouse or partner." The trend is not unique to America but is affecting Europe and the rest of the industrialized world as well.

It's hard to tell where sociopolitical attitudes begin and where one's defensiveness and projection end, but I've been involved in a lot of conversations lately with older adults observing that The Youths aren't buying homes, getting married, or pumping out grandkids like they used to (or are expected to). As a childless, single 37 year old male living alone in a rental unit, it's hard not to engage in such conversations with a broad perspective rather than just making my own excuses. The Pew report predictably – not to say unwisely – includes a discussion of the job market. Logically, young people who can't find decently paid work are likely to be living with someone who can at least partially subsidize their basic costs. This is obvious enough not to merit any in-depth discussion.

What is under-appreciated, in my view, is that the relationship between the economy and the life choices of young adults goes beyond how hard it is to find a job or what said jobs pay. Finding a job is not easy and finding one that pays well is even less so, but the real culprit behind the trend Pew highlights is the lack of stability that young adults have had beaten into them over the past three decades. Everyone is aware that lots of young adults aren't "settling down" because they can't find good jobs. I'd argue that at least as many have a good job but have no job security beyond day-to-day. We've heard all our lives how the days of spending 40 years at one company/employer are over, and that much is obvious. Despite the fact that some of us (OK, I'm 3 years over the limit but I'll lump myself in there nonetheless) are doing somewhere between "OK I guess" and "pretty well." Without anything to rely on for the future, though, who's going to take out a 30-year mortgage and have kids?

The sea change in our economy has not been one of wages and salaries (although those are stagnant since the 1970s outside of the top 1%) but of job security. We've been told that in order to compete in the Global Economy we have to work cheap and hard; to work anything less than 50 hours per week for the good of our employer is a moral failing, a shirking of economic and patriotic responsibility, yet they owe us nothing whatsoever in return. There is no trade-off in terms of stability. If they can find someone to do our jobs for less tomorrow, even halfway around the world, Third Wave capitalism demands that they fire us in the name of Efficiency and Shareholder Value. And that new reality – the knowledge that no matter how hard or well one works, the financial rug could be yanked out from under us at any minute – is one that actively discourages young adults from doing the very things (investing, saving, home-buying, and consuming) that this new economy needs us to do in order to grow. This system doesn't work unless we spend; we don't spend when we're insecure about the future; we have to be kept in fear so we're too afraid to demand better compensation and treatment; we spend less to compensate for stagnant compensation.

And that is why this whole Rube Goldberg machine of cheap credit, disposable labor, and a consumption-based American Dream is irredeemably goddamn broken.

IT QUACKS

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies, Rants on May 23rd, 2016 by Ed

So let's talk about die-hard Bernie fans, without engaging in a subjective debate about which candidate is Better or whether he "should" drop out. My answers for those two questions, on the off chance anyone wants to bias their reading of the following with it (foreshadowing!) are Sanders and after California, respectively.

The problem that has developed for the most strident Sanders enthusiasts boils down to a question that I ask a lot when people make implausible claims with extreme conviction – "Tax cuts create jobs" or "Obesity isn't unhealthy" for example: If this argument isn't bullshit, why does it have all of the characteristics of an argument that is bullshit? If this is true, why does the argument employ all of the rhetorical techniques of claims that are not true? Read enough of the post-May 1 arguments coming from the Sanders fanatics and with the exception of the proper nouns, the structure of the rhetoric is becoming indistinguishable from 9/11 Was an Inside Job arguments.

A few things in particular have become the foundations of all of the pro-Sanders / anti-Clinton rhetoric, at least the rhetoric from anti-Clinton people left of center. Republicans use entirely different "logic" to come to the same conclusions. Pay close attention to the arguments from your most fervent Bernie Friends and you will notice eerie similarities to the "Reverse Scientific Method" favored by conspiracy theorists everywhere.

1. Cherry picking – This is Conspiracy 101: Take all of the available data, pick out the parts that support your argument and throw out all the rest. Go through a list of 250 polls, choose three of them, and pretend the rest don't exist. Complain about Superdelegate counts, ignore that Sanders trails by a healthy margin in pledged delegates too.

2. Appeal to Skepticism / Authority – Alternately praise and deride Experts. One minute, academics and experts don't know what they're talking about and are by definition unreliable. The next minute tout the credentials and authoritative opinion of someone who agrees with you. Denialists love this. "Scientists are full of shit. Also, look at this paper a scientist wrote proving that CO2 emissions aren't real!"

3. Arrogance / Ad Hominem – We are the enlightened seekers of truth, you are the sheeplike masses. We have a monopoly on truth and reality.

4. Moving goalposts – One minute it's about X, the next it's about Y, the next it's really all about Z. Sanders' candidacy at this point has been given any number of purposes without much discrimination. Keeping young voters engaged, helping down-ballot, moving Hillary to the left, serving as a counterweight to Trump, he's actually winning, it's a matter of principle…there is a real grab bag of options out there. When one argument is disproven (assuming the person making the argument is interested enough in facts and evidence to concede that) another is produced quickly to take its place.

5. Sudden Expertise – Like the kid who watched some 9/11 videos on YouTube and suddenly has a Ph.D. in structural engineering, lots of people who haven't paid much attention to politics until recently are able to tell the rest of us in excruciating detail how politics and elections really work. Future events are predicted with great certainty; millions of independents will guarantee a Trump victory if Clinton wins. Sanders will defeat Trump, Clinton cannot. This group of voters will do _____. This other group of voters will do ______. Mind reading is rampant.

6. Straw Man / Impossible Standards – Here is a list of flaws about Clinton, therefore Clinton is unacceptable or cannot win. You think the nomination race is over, therefore you're a Clinton-worshiping moron. The following things about Clinton are terrible, therefore there is no difference between her and Trump. On and on it goes.

7. Rotating, contradictory arguments – We must not nominate Clinton because she will lose to Trump and that will be a disaster. Also, it doesn't matter if my refusal to vote for Clinton helps Trump win because the presidency isn't really all that important or Congress will stop Trump from doing anything nuts.

8. Sinister Forces – Like any sinking ship, the Sanders campaign is developing a rich corpus of Dolchstosslegende to explain how it was cheated. The Democratic Party certainly does exert control over the nomination process in a manner that some candidates can better exploit than others. But citing these factors makes little sense. The primary calendar was established well before Bernie Sanders decided to run, not manipulated in real time to screw him. "The media is against us" is what Republicans say when they lose. Trying to turn the recent events in Nevada – which involved four delegates and is almost entirely bullshit anyway (but Politifact is not to be trusted anymore!) – reads like a textbook chapter on how persecution complexes develop in groups.

The problem is these issues aren't isolated to The Rabble in internet comment sections, a group not usually associated with making high quality arguments based on facts. This rhetoric is coming from high-ranking staffers and the candidate himself lately. After California's primary any scenarios in which Sanders wins the nomination will be so far out there that, were the campaign interested in my advice (note: it certainly is not) it might be more productive at this point to start thinking of ways to make a dignified exit that maintains and consolidates some of the positive accomplishments of the campaign. It seems like there is more to gain from coming out of this with one's credibility in tact than from adopting a down-in-the-bunker mentality. I used this exact same analogy with Clinton when she lost to Obama in 2008: In the short- and long-term, the guys who said "Oh well, we tried, let's go surrender to some Americans" did vastly better than the ones who fought until the Soviets were within earshot and then killed themselves.

BREAKING POINT

Posted in Rants on May 18th, 2016 by Ed

I can't handle much cable TV news these days, and I rarely see any outside of a public setting. Walking past one of the many flat panels in the gym last evening I caught about three minutes of CNN, bringing my total number of CNN-watching minutes in 2016 to approximately five, plus or minus three.

The network was doing what it and every other network have been doing and will continue to do all year: "analyzing" the election. You know the drill. Very Serious People giving the Beltway Consensus take on why this or that happened, who said what, what it all means, and a bunch of nonsense pronouncements about non-events that will be forgotten as soon as others crop up tomorrow to replace them. The pro-Trump pundit was unknown to me, some D-list Howard Kurtz wannabe who bore an uncanny resemblance to a younger, less physically fit Paul Blart. Everyone played their parts well. He said some stuff. The CNN anchor nodded, listening intently. The other pundits waited their turn to say something insipid. The exchange got "spirited," culminating in that throbbing pulse of healthy political discourse that is Crosstalk.

It looked and felt…strained. Everything about it was familiar, both to me as the viewer and to everyone involved directly. Hell, the script hardly changes except for the candidates' names from election to election. This time, however, it really feels like someone is going to snap. One of these people will go full Howard Beale. It's only May and their professional demeanor as a group is already strained to breaking with the thought, "Are we really going to sit here and pretend that we're taking Donald Trump seriously?" That flower of suppressed rage might not bloom until later this year, but – perhaps this is only wishful thinking on my part – it seems ready to happen eventually.

We got close in 2008 when CNN's Jack Cafferty had a moment of brutal honesty about Sarah Palin while seated directly next to Wolf Blitzer, who played the Very Serious Person role to the hilt and got a withering "Don't make excuses for her" for his efforts. "I'm 65 and this is one of the most pathetic pieces of tape I have ever seen" is about as honest as you're likely to hear anyone get in mainstream TV news.

The Trump people are right about one thing: despite the media's ratings-driven infatuation with Trump, not a single news outlet including Fox News is pulling for him. Murdoch & Co. may come around in the long run, but regardless we can already see the strain this is putting on the veneer of Both Sides Do It mainstream Beltway journalism. This unspoken sense of, "Really? We have to pretend this isn't totally idiotic and insane? Are you serious, people?" is the undercurrent to the transition from primary to general election storylines. Nobody wants to say it. Maybe nobody will say it. Plenty will rush to heap insults on him after he loses. Hopefully someone has the courage to do it before that. The odds may not be great, but they're greater now than at any point in my lifetime that somebody is going to lose it on camera when the thought of furrowing their brow and pensively discussing the merits of an asshole reality TV mannequin who once wrestled Vince McMahon and has no issue positions of any kind overwhelms them. Everyone has a breaking point, even the blow-dried careerists who pass for journalists these days.

CHINESE FORK TIE

Posted in Rants on May 16th, 2016 by Ed

(Great song. Really.)

International relations is not my strongest area, but most of you know how much I love me some Cold War era history. And so it is with considerable interest that I've watched China replace the US and USSR in their former roles as patrons of the Third World during that lengthy conflict. For decades the two Cold War superpowers went around the world trying to outdo one another in generosity – primarily with massive packages of free military gear that sketchy leaders of newly independent and unstable nations saw as a means of staying in power – in return for swearing off the competing scourge of (communism/capitalism). Oh the Soviets are offering 100 MiG-17s? Those are obsolete, bro. Call Uncle Sam and he'll send over some F-4s. That's the good stuff.

China isn't providing military aid for the most part. Instead, they offer cheap loans for infrastructure projects and (foreshadowing!) the promise to get to work on them right away. China's view is and always has been, "Screw environmental impact studies. We have too many mouths to feed. You need power? Build a dam." Whereas Western investment often comes with multiple competing goals and interests ranging from social development to economic growth to political stability, China is more narrowly economically focused. If it's good for business, do it. If China's industries need lumber and copper they hand over the cash without asking the pesky questions Western nations tend to ask. China doesn't have environmental groups that matter. And African leaders have a long history of self-inflicted environmental degradation if the price is right.

Despite the Chinese economic slowdown, they announced $60 billion in new loans and investment in Africa as recently as January of this year including a single $13 billion infrastructure project in Kenya alone. This leads us to the $64,000 question: what exactly is it that China wants? The Cold War superpowers didn't lavish gifts on small countries out of the kindness of their hearts; it was quid pro quo aid. Most of the sober analysis agrees that China's motives are economic. That's never a bad guess. A more optimistic view is that Chinese firms recognize the limits of growth within their own borders and are looking elsewhere. Cynically, China sees cheap and abundant natural resources they want to extract and they see these projects as little trinkets that will curry favor with less sophisticated governments.

I'm not sure if this qualifies as a conspiracy theory, but I look at it differently. In the long term I don't think China has its eye on African resources so much as it has its eye on Africa.

For all their recent "Come to Jesus" talk about understanding the importance of sustainability and the environment, there is no nation on the planet that has trashed its own house quite like the Chinese have. Since Mao and his friends took over and put the country on an often calamitous crash course toward industrialization, China has polluted like no other nation on the planet can even hold a candle to – not even the CO2-belching US. The priorities have been feeding a billion people and becoming a modern industrial and economic colossus in record time. The environment wasn't even an afterthought. The growth of China's economy has indeed been impressive and rapid, but there have been costs. About 1/3 of all arable land in the country is heavy-metals poisoned, as is roughly 1/3 of their drinking water. They burn coal like Americans burn gasoline. Their cities are choked in air pollution that is the country's single biggest public health issue. Ever wonder why they were able to take the lead in so many manufacturing sectors, particularly electronics? It's not just cheap labor. Lots of places have cheap labor. It's the fact that in China you can pay someone almost nothing to melt down used motherboards and PC components without protective gear (Because who cares if the worker dies at 37? The government doesn't.) and then dump the results in a river. They simply don't care. Or if they do care now, they waited too long.

So we have a nation with a billion and a half people, and that number is still growing. This nation has exhausted its natural resources for the most part and done staggering damage to its ability to produce food thanks to desertification and toxic soil in industrial areas. Either the nation is going to undertake the single greatest environmental remediation and sustainability turnaround in human history or they're going to need to find someplace else for their population to spread and grow. I don't mean that China will show up, guns in hand, to annex half of Africa. But this steady stream of Chinese emigrating to Africa now is likely to continue growing. While the motivation for that movement ostensibly is economic, I can't help but think there's a strategic long-term demographic strategy at play as well.

The way America pollutes is ultimately of more consequence because our carbon emissions affect the whole planet. China, conversely, has been the primary victim of China's environmental inaction. England went through this on a smaller scale during the Industrial Revolution and Victorian Era, the point at which they had to confront as a nation the possibility that London would be uninhabitable if they didn't stop pumping coal fumes into the air and pouring industrial waste in the Thames. The British certainly looked beyond their own borders as a partial solution to their problems, and China is in the process of doing the same.

OPERANT CONDITIONING

Posted in Rants on May 15th, 2016 by Ed

Salon is running a particularly poorly thought-out piece, even by Salon standards, about the inability of college students to use the English language to express themselves in writing. I'll let the author off the hook for the stupid title ("Death to High School English") and the tagline, as an editor probably chose those. But the argument overlooks such an obvious explanation in favor of a more complicated one that it's difficult to take whoever she is seriously. When the tagline asks, "My college students don't understand commas, far less how to write an essay. Is it time to rethink how we teach?" We could do that, I guess. Or we could rethink how we grade them in high school.

There is a tendency, even among educators, when outcomes are not as they should be to assume that teachers as individuals or the educational system writ large must be to blame. In this case we're hypothetically dismantling all K-12 English education and starting over from scratch with some sort of newer, better method. What this overlooks is the reality that most students in college – the same ones the author rightly points out are terrible at writing – have no idea that they're terrible at writing. They think they are quite good at it, in fact. They do not believe this because of simple arrogance or Those Darn Millennials or any other popular explanation. They believe they are good writers because they have been getting good grades on written assignments and in English throughout their educational careers.

Grade inflation and the reasons for it are too much of a Pandora's Box to open here, but I'll argue to my grave that students are rational even if not "smart" per se. They are very good at figuring out, for example, the least possible amount of work they can do while still getting the grade outcome they want. I have nothing but respect for K-12 teachers, and they face a problem that I have the luxury of ignoring: parents. Parents, students, government regulators, administrators, and state legislators all put constant pressure on teachers (who are told they are overpaid and underworked to boot) to deliver results. Schools that serve wealthier areas have parents who flat-out demand that their child graduate with a 3.9 GPA or there will be hell to pay, while schools serving poorer areas have an incentive to inflate grades to make it look like their students, many of whom are in terrible situations outside of school, are better than they really are. The dynamics are different but the end result is the same: students reach college having received many A and B grades throughout their lives for really mediocre (or worse) work.

I worked with a guy a long time ago who was famous for giving everyone A's. He often complained to me in private how frustrating his classes were – the students didn't read, they didn't participate, they rarely bothered showing up, etc. – yet never made the connection to the fact that they all rationally decided that there is no point in trying if they're getting an A no matter what. In competitive, academically strong high schools students very quickly figure out that the grades tend to distribute in a narrow range from a high of A+ to a low of maybe C+. A and B are perfectly good grades in the minds of almost any student, so when they get to college having gotten nothing but A or B in English and composition classes for their whole lives, why would they even suspect that they might be bad at writing?

In the reality in which K-12 teachers are actually underpaid and overworked, not the opposite that is so often claimed, the only real incentive they have to offer is the grade. If a student doesn't care if he or she fails or gets a D, then the teacher cannot do much to influence that person. If, on the other hand, we create a system in which giving a student a grade lower than B creates such a headache and so much hassle for the teacher that it's easier simply to give everyone A's and B's, then the teacher's hands are equally tied. This doesn't stop at the K-12 level; I wrote just last week about the pressure to do what is easier and less of a hassle, which makes me part of the problem. Students (and parents) understand this and exploit it. Some students learn that if they complain to enough administrators – which creates a headache for the teacher even when the complaints are groundless and the administrators are supportive – they can create incentives in exactly the same way teachers do. We tell students "Do X amount of work and I'll give you a B", and in return now students tell us in so many words, "Just give me a B and I won't cause any trouble."

Again, that's only one angle on the problem of grade inflation, and it's too complex an issue to untangle in a small space. The most obvious issue with English education, though, is not necessarily one of method of instruction, material, or teacher performance. It is that we have created this system of incentives that results in the vast majority of high school students who are likely to go on to college getting high grades for work that is often deeply flawed. We can tell them "Do better!" until we're blue in the face, but if they're walking out of the class with B or A grades they have every reason to believe that whatever level of performance and effort they're at is just fine.

THE LONG RUN

Posted in Rants on May 12th, 2016 by Ed

Anyone who has taught for a living knows that you pick your battles. You can't carry on like you're prepared to die on every single hill because damn there are a lot of hills – more than you realize at first and they seem to multiply whenever you're not looking.

A few weeks ago someone posted a comment that they observed a student cheating on an exam. There's an obvious issue of integrity there, but two others that aren't so obvious. One is the monumental hassle it entails to discipline a student for academic dishonesty these days. The other is the fact, in his words, that the student was well on his/her way to failing anyway. So on the one hand, the instructor could go through a bunch of hoops to fail a student for cheating. That is the Right thing to do. On the other hand, he could save himself the hassle and let it be.

My biggest frustration – and believe me, this happens every semester, every year – is students failing to show up for exams. They forget about them, fail to set their alarms, yadda yadda. Everything about my personality and the way I see my job makes me want to give them a zero. It is the only way they will learn anything from the experience. But there are times when letting them take a make-up exam is just…the easier thing to do. The path of least resistance. I'm not happy about it, but I'm not going to lie and say it doesn't happen.

Here's what we tell ourselves when we let supposed adult students get away with behaving like children in a consequence-free environment: "This will catch up with them in the long run." In other words, a college student might be able to talk some administrator or professor into letting him make up an exam he slept through, but when in the future he sleeps through something important at work…his ass is fired. Because he learned nothing from the experience in college other than "I can get away with anything!", he'll inevitably do it again in the future. And when he does, there will be consequences. Real consequences.

Lately I've wondered, though: Are there? Or is this just a thing we tell ourselves to feel better about the fact that we have a hard time being strict? Part of me believes that someone who lacks the basic organizational and emotional skills necessary to do things like meet deadlines and complete tasks is bound to be chewed up and spit out in the working world. Part of me wonders if the people who skate by on complaining and making excuses now will continue to do it in the future. Sleeping through class is a good gateway drug to sleeping through other things. Failing to do academic work on a deadline seems like a great way to get in the habit of not making deadlines in the future. So I hope there will be consequences, but lately I'm not so sure.

We learn quickly in adolescence that life isn't fair. The rest of life exists to confirm that. If some people can slack their way through one part of life, maybe they can slack their way through others in the future. Conversely, we all live in an At-Will labor environment wherein we can find ourselves laid off or terminated even if we do our jobs really well, let alone if they fail to show up on time and do what they're paid to do. I know some people are really good at working the system, and I (and of course others) have to deal with it all the time. We hope that everyone gets what's coming to them in the long run, but I've been alive long enough to understand how rarely just desserts are served.

MORE LIKE NATE SLIVER AMIRITE

Posted in Rants on May 10th, 2016 by Ed

I don't even know what that title is supposed to mean.

Of interest this election season has been fake pundit Carl "The Dig" Diggler, the creation of two comedy writers, who not incidentally has predicted correctly the outcome of twice as many primaries as Almighty Beltway Knowledge God Nate Silver. Their prediction "method" involves little more than "gut feelings" and comedic stereotypes of the residents of different states, and so to even call it a method is unjustified. But that's precisely the point.

Nate Silver is, on the whole, a force for good. Attempts to provide analysis that relies on empirical data are, and always will be, an unqualified positive. His (at this point it is hard to separate him from his FiveThiryEight colossus, which of course involves other analysts and writers) reputation has taken a blow in 2016, though, and frankly I'm not sorry to see it happen. His analysis has always been terribly basic – on the order of something a good undergraduate statistics course would cover – and the reputation he has built as some sort of data god is a bit much. He has become, intentionally or otherwise, a liberal Bill Kristol; it doesn't matter if he's always wrong, he's still brilliant.

Two aspects of Silver's predictions deserve serious criticism, one of which Mr. Diggler emphasizes. He has a really annoying tendency to hide behind probability – "I didn't say Clinton would win, I merely said there was a 99% chance she would win!" Empirically, this makes perfect sense. Probabilistic analysis is never 100% accurate and does not claim to be. In the face of a large number of incorrect predictions, though, someone treated as an idol should have a better defense of his supposedly brilliant methods than The Simpsons' classic "Well, when you're right 52% of the time, you're wrong 48% of the time" gag. ("OK Jimmy, you're off the hook!")

The part that always has bothered me – and yes, of course I'm jealous – is that Silver became A Genius by predicting the outcomes accurately of two very, very easy to predict elections – 2008 and 2012 – in which a simple average, even an unweighted one, of barely-scientific polls by state was sufficient to see that the Electoral Vote would be lopsided. Those were not especially close elections, and it is not difficult to predict the outcomes of elections that are not especially close. As for his correct predictions of many other statewide races such as Senate and gubernatorial races, his model amounts to little more than averaging poll results obtained by other organizations and which are publicly available. In 2016, so far we see that the same magical techniques that told us McCain was going to get blown out (duh) are of minimal use in predicting an outcome that isn't totally obvious.

Yes, primaries are much more volatile and difficult to predict due to a number of factors like low voter turnout and a large, shifting field of candidates. In that sense we would expect predictions to be less accurate. But that's exactly the problem for Silver; it's becoming very easy to say "Well if you can't predict a race correctly unless all the conditions for making a correct prediction exist, what are you really doing? What good is this?" That has been the thorn in my paw with Silver all along. It's like saying that you can hit a lot of home runs, provided the pitcher throws the ball exactly where you want it, how you want it, with the wind blowing out at 50 mph. The limits of the Big Data approach and worship thereof are becoming very obvious. Like public opinion polling (on which much of 538/Silver is based), it is a useful tool when the gap between or among options is greater than the margin of error. When it isn't, the data don't tell you much at all. At that point you're effectively guessing. And Silver puts a number on his guesses, which gives them the imprimatur of scientific authority ("Clinton has a 63% chance to win!" – so precise!). But in reality he's telling you that Clinton is slightly more likely than Sanders to win a given race; the odds are about 3 in 5. That's an improvement on a coin flip, but it isn't much of an improvement.

It is far better to hear someone talk about data than to listen to some empty suit talk about his hunches or his conversations with various cab drivers. I'll take a Nate Silver column over 99% of what's out there for consumption. But people really need to stop chanting his name like it's a magical talisman that all but guarantees victory. What he's doing is not that complicated and, more importantly, not that useful unless the outcome of a given race is not in doubt. If the new working definition of genius is the ability to avoid being wrong about outcomes that are obvious, then I wish someone had sent out a memo in the mid-00s that the position was being filled. I, or anyone else with a basic understanding of political data, could just as easily have filled it.

LOUD, RACIST, AND SIGNIFYING NOTHING

Posted in Rants on May 8th, 2016 by Ed

Philip Converse was the most important scholar of public opinion in the 20th Century. Even those who vehemently disagreed with his findings and conclusions used his work – particularly "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics" – as the starting point for any academic treatment of how Americans organize political ideas. A portion of his seminal work deserves a closer look, as the current election is giving us daily reminders to its effect.

Briefly, Converse believed that the public fell into one of five groups in terms of how they organized their political thinking. A common criticism since Converse has been his definition of liberal-conservative ideology as the "correct" way to do it, with all other schemas inferior to different degrees. His estimates of what share of the public fall into each category are also easy to poke full of holes. Neither of those criticisms are relevant to the point I am about to make; I'm just preempting the need to point out that Converse's work is 50 years old and a great deal has been said about it in the intervening years.

The first group – people who do it correctly, in the eyes of 1960s political scientists – are Ideologues. They evaluate political ideas by comparing them to a "yardstick" defined by the liberal-conservative spectrum of ideas. Ideologues are consistent; a liberal position on one issue is likely to be found with a liberal position on other issues. Second we have Near Ideologues. These people reference the liberal-conservative spectrum and appear to understand it but do not rely on it heavily – in essence they know how to drive but they prefer to take the bus. Third are Group Interest types, people who see politics in terms of which groups each party represents (Democrats represent labor, Republicans represent business interests). They rarely understand any issue that cannot be framed in terms of which group it serves. Fourth are people barely hanging on to some sense of coherence – "Nature of the Times." They form opinions by assigning credit or blame for anything that happens to the party in power when it happened. Republicans are bad because they caused the Depression, for example.

The final group is where things get ugly. Converse labeled them NIC: No Issue Content. These people have a party they identify with but cannot explain what it stands for. They have opinion, but opinions with "no shred of policy significance whatever." They like individual candidates based on their personal attributes and they have no substantive understanding of any policy issue, so the ideas they appear to support can appear quite random and perplexing to the observer in aggregate.

Re-read that last sentence. Does that sound familiar?

The most incredible thing about the Trump campaign from an academic / political science perspective is that we have the rare opportunity to observe a major party campaign with no ideological content whatsoever. There is no coherence to anything about Trump, policy-wise, and this reflects his supporters' similar lack of meaningful ideology. On what rare occasions that he does put forth an actual idea it 1) makes no sense and 2) bears no identifiable relationship to any other idea he mentioned before or since. It is the definition of random. His appeal, in the eyes of his supporters, is that he is Tough or Bold or some personal characteristic that one could only get from watching and listening to Trump if one does not understand what anything in the realm of ideas in American politics actually means. Moreover, one must explicitly not care what any of it means.

For example, Trump recently stated that his bold plan for dealing with the national debt was that, as a brilliant negotiator, he would convince holders of Treasury obligations to take a haircut – in other words, to accept fifty cents on the dollar or something like that, as a bankruptcy court might force creditors to do during a liquidation or reorganization. This is almost too stupid to bother explaining why it is stupid, as though the Treasury of the largest economy on the planet is no different than a failing casino trying to talk down its debts to a bunch of Mustache Petes who put up the initial investment. It is such a stupid idea that it falls short of qualifying as an idea; it's the kind of thing someone who has absolutely no idea how anything related to the economy works would think is a really brilliant solution.

The problem, from Trump's perspective, is that there simply aren't enough such people in the electorate. Converse estimated (again, his estimates have been subject to much debate) that no more than 1 in 5 voters fall into this category, and since then most analyses have treated that as incautiously high. If there's one thing academics like more than calling people stupid, it's rationalizing ways that apparently stupid people are actually smart. Regardless, on the rare occasions that Trump says anything policy-related my mind automatically goes to Converse, because nothing he says bears any resemblance to a definable political ideology. And that's what Trump supporters like about it. To them it sounds brilliant, because they don't even understand the issues well enough to understand why his proposals are ridiculous.

Think of it this way. Say you're one of those people who is totally ignorant when it comes to cars, and your car is non-functional. I came over looking like the quintessential stereotype of a mechanic from TV – blue coveralls, grease stains, a name across my breast pocket, and wrench in hand. After fiddling with your car for a few minutes – and since you have not one clue about anything car-related, my various taps and fiddles will easily fool you into thinking I know what I'm doing so long as I'm a half-decent actor and I stay in character. I tell you that your car will never run again unless you replace your Pancake Manifold and fill the gas tank with Bensonol. If I've succeeded in exploiting your ignorance by portraying myself as a tough, efficient, brilliant mechanic, there's no reason to doubt me…as long as you don't know a sparkplug from a muffler.

That's how Trump's popularity works. The more he talks, the less anyone with half a brain is willing to support him. But to people for whom the ideas of politics are totally meaningless anyway, every sentence makes them love him more. His ideologically nonsensical ideas aren't a bug. They're his best feature.

POSTMORTEM

Posted in Rants on May 4th, 2016 by Ed

It has happened. After months of being reassured that it wouldn't happen, here we are.

Early in the primary season I said that the weakness of the rest of the (non-Trump) Republican field is a serious problem. But I was wrong too; I thought eventually the non-Trump votes would coalesce around Marco Rubio. He turned out to be one of the worst candidates of all, which is like calling someone one the meanest guards at Auschwitz. Standing out among this group is a feat. But the reality is that Republican voters likely would have voted for just about anyone over Trump, and the party is such a shitshow that finding "just about anyone" turned out to be impossible. In the end they had to pin their hopes on a man so loathsome that not one person who knew him personally or professionally could be found to say something good about him. Oh, and Kasich, whose strategy seems to be to get 8% of the vote in every primary but refuse to quit because something something I guess there's a strategy there but probably not.

The big money and bag men in the conservative movement bet on a candidate (Walker) so marble-mouthed, uncharismatic, mean, and stupid that he didn't even make it to the Iowa Caucus and one so fundamentally incompetent (Bush) that not even a famous name, all the money in creation, and the blessing of the entire GOP establishment could win him better than a third place finish anywhere. The field was so bad and the Republican electorate is so mentally skewed that a man with no elected experience who is quite possibly insane and who never even pretended like he was campaigning seriously (Carson) got 10% of the vote. Red-meat Bible thumpers like Huckabee and Santorum never got off the launching pad. Recycled losers like Jindal, Rick Perry, and Lindsey Graham got so little attention other than mocking laughter that they quit before they too could win their 1% in Iowa. Rand Paul proved that he has a cult following of about 8% of the GOP electorate, just like his dad, and nothing beyond that. Shockingly, it turned out that nobody in any party was prepared to take bloated live-action Nelson Muntz / Tony Soprano hybrid Chris Christie seriously, nor a hatchet-faced sociopath with literally no professional, political, or personal qualities to recommend her to serve as dog catcher let alone president. It was worse than a clown car; clowns are, at least occasionally, funny.

That left three "serious" candidates – Rubio, because he was the only one who could accurately impersonate a human; Trump, because he was winning; and Cruz, because nobody is quite sure why but there he was. Perhaps he was just enough of a bloodless cipher that your average oligarch felt he could be an effective placeholder. Perhaps because someone deluded someone into thinking Hispanics would vote for him. Perhaps because he was just…there. In the end, existing and taking up space seemed to be his strong suit. After Rubio's oh my god this is so embarrassing I can't even watch this software malfunction on live TV, that's what Cruz was. He was Present. If half of life is showing up, I'm struggling to figure out what the other half was for Cruz.

Kasich won one state – his own – and was not a serious candidate except in the minds of people who managed to convince themselves that despite winning 8% of the vote in every primary, the system could somehow be rigged to make him the winner because, well, he doesn't seem like he's going to leave behind a safe deposit box full of preserved skin samples from the people he's eaten. And in this field, that was an achievement on his part not to be taken lightly. But he was never going to sniff the nomination, not even close.

And so Republicans have to grapple with the reality that maybe, just possibly, the reason they couldn't produce a candidate to wrest the nomination away from a con man who isn't even a Republican and doesn't stand for anything in particular but sure is good at getting attention is that everyone they've been electing for the past 25 years is terrible. Almost without exception. By electing anyone willing to say "Obama sucks, we can bomb our way to security, brown people are scary, and the government needs to be drowned in a bucket" without bothering to vet them for, you know, sanity or a modicum of human interpersonal skills, they have loaded their party's ranks of potential candidates for high offices with people who are unelectable without the help of gerrymandering and low midterm election turnout. When it ceased to be important whether a candidate was creepy or insane or borderline illiterate or totally ignorant of the world outside of South Carolina and Fox News, the die was cast and it was only a matter of time until someone came from outside of the party and stole this from them. It turns out that when the system can't be manipulated and rigged to guarantee Republican wins no matter how bad the candidates are, those candidates struggle. Shocking, really. They turned to their party's bench and found nothing there. Imagine a sports team that abandoned tryouts and instead just took the first 20 people to show up and state a loyalty oath with apparent sincerity. What would that team look like on the field? Well, imagine no more. Here you have it.

The best part about this as an outsider who actively wishes ill upon the entire conservative movement is the knowledge that its reaction to this crisis will be to insist that it needs to get even more conservative and vicious. I can't wait.

NEARSIGHTED

Posted in Rants on May 2nd, 2016 by Ed

If it is impossible to understand a place completely without having lived there, then I guess I know the Midwest and not much else. Sure, I've moved around, but mostly around the region. This hasn't been intentional. It's a matter of where my academic and professional opportunities have been. Now that I teach here, there are a lot of frustrating reminders of one of the worst things about Midwesterners: being modest to a fault, and screwing themselves in the process. We aim low for the same reasons we buy shitty American cars even when we can afford better ones: because nothing is worse than being cocky. If we don't revel in mediocrity, our friends and neighbors are more than happy to knock us down a peg.

One thing I like about my current job is doing advising. Many schools have dedicated advising staff, but this way the faculty and students get to know one another a little better. It is, however, endlessly frustrating to try to get students to expand their worldview beyond central Illinois. As I have told them many times, the biggest difference between them and students at a fancy name brand East Coast university is not intelligence but ambition. Given equivalent academic skills, the student from Williams or Villanova or NYU wants to move to The City and be a big shot; my students want to move back home. Those students want to go to law school or to get a Master's and they aim for Ivy League schools; mine apply to unranked programs "close to home", i.e. in the middle of nowhere. It's not a question of resources, either, as the people I deal with are more than average in that area. It's the fact that no one has encouraged them to do anything for their entire lives except to live At Home. Aiming high to them means getting a middling law degree and then moving back home to work at the county courthouse on the square.

If that's the life people want for themselves, then that's great. More often I get the feeling that it's less the life they want than it is the only life they can conceive of, which isn't great. Maybe I can't explain this well enough to make sense to anyone else, but it's hard to hear the same excuses I've made all my life: it's too expensive, it's too far away, I'm not good enough for that. Is going to law school at Stanford or Harvard expensive? Sure is. But for that price you get to do whatever the hell you want for the rest of your life while getting paid well to do it. Which is, you know, a pretty good trade off.

It's not rare for college-aged people to be lacking in life experience and limited in worldview, so in that sense there's very little unique about my experiences. I simply never expected to be in the position of having to inflate their expectations. I assumed they'd all be aiming too high and I'd end up having to talk them down to something more realistic. This is a weird issue for me because more than anything I wish someone would have encouraged me to aim a little higher when I was younger, so I don't doubt that I'm projecting a little. Most of all, though, I want students to give themselves options so that whatever life they end up with does not make them feel trapped.

We tend to dislike people from the coasts for being egotistical and full of themselves, but honestly we would benefit from taking a page out of that playbook once in a while. In grad school a professor explained to me and my cohort that one of the reasons we (public school kids) have a hard time competing with the Ivy League kids is that they've spent their whole lives learning how to talk about how great they are and we've spent our lives downplaying and underselling anything that makes us stand out. It's not a difference in ability – although that factors in as well – it's a difference in attitude. It took a while to appreciate just how right he was.