Archive for the ‘Conservatives’ category

Schadenfreude: It’s What’s For Dinesh

January 23, 2014

Oh, the FSM smiled on me today:

Conservative author Dinesh D’Souza has been indicted on federal charges of violating campaign finance laws, the the U.S attorney in Manhattan announced on Thursday.

William_Hogarth_-_Soliciting_Votes_-_WGA11457

D’ Souza is accused of

“making illegal contributions to a United States Senate campaign in the names of others and causing false statements to be made to the Federal Election Commission in connection with those contributions.”

If I were a much better person than I am, I’d suppress the grin that seems to have pasted itself across my mug since I read that over at TPM.

Still smiling…

Image: William Hogarth, The Humours of an Election:  Soliciting Votes, 1754

Today in GOP Sociopathology

December 20, 2013

We’ve got two headliners today.

First up, child labor cheerleader Jack Kingston, a congressman from Georgia now looking for a promotion to the Senate, claimed that he’s no hater of the poor for saying this:

“Why don’t you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch? Or maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria — and yes, I understand that that would be an administrative problem, and I understand that it would probably lose you money,” Kingston said at a Jackson County Republican Party meeting, according to video surfaced by the Huffington Post. “But think what we would gain as a society in getting people — getting the myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch.”

But nah, that wasn’t aimed at shaming and constraining the poor, swears Kingston (R-eternally misunderstood).  Rather,

“This is not targeted to any one group,” Kingston said. “It would be very helpful for kids in any socio-economic group to do chores and learn the work ethic….I never did say poor kids.”

Over to you, M. Anatole France:

Thomas_kennington_orphans_1885

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

And then there is that noted scholar of the Civil Rights era, Ian Bayne, a Republican candidate running for the nomination to challenge Rep. Bill Foster, an actual smart person and a Democrat representing Illinois’s 11th district.  Mr Bayne identifies the ties that bind two characters most observers of lesser penetration would never have uncovered:

“In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people, and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians,” Bayne wrote in the email. “What Parks did was courageous.”

Bayne added in the email that “what Robertson did was courageous too.”

That would be Duck Dynast Phil Robertson, who, as we all know, is convinced that African Americans with whom he worked in the pre-Civil Rights era were, as he put it “Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”  And who says in the context of a current civil rights struggle, that gay men and women are bound not for equality before the law, but for Sheol:

“Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers–they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right. [via Ta-Nehisi Coates]

So, let’s recap:  Rosa Parks risks jail, bodily harm, quite possibly death to secure the minimal rights of citizenship for Americans who have been subjugated through a reign of terror for a century since the end of outright chattel slavery.  Some guy spouts hate at blacks and gays.

Just the same.

Ladles and Jellyspoons:  Your modern GOP.  A party that does not vomit out such characters cannot be allowed anywhere near the reins of power.

Or, as my man Cato would say, Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est

Image: Thomas Kennington, Orphans,1885.

Where Mike Huckabee Needs To Go

December 15, 2012

Mike Huckabee has never been what you might call my favorite person.  But it’s always depressing to see folks with influence plumb new depths.  By now, I’m sure you’ve heard he had to say about the Sandy Hook School shootings:

“We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools,” Huckabee said on Fox News.”Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”

In other words:  Twenty-eight deaths, including the murder of twenty kids, was the fault not of the shooter, nor of a gun lobby that portrays military weapons as household tools.  Rather, said Huckabee, it was your fault and mine for having failed to appease his angry god by public worship in school.

Saying so is to implicate not just America at large in the crime.  It also adds up to a claim that those involved in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in particular were complicit in this massacre, for the banishment of one deity or another occured in that particular school too.  Lost a kid?  Too bad.  Shoulda prayed harder; shoulda held up a cross; shoulda, coulda, sorry old chum.

I can’t begin to write the rage and disgust I feel for that sanctimonious shit.  (Whether the word “shit” in that sentence applies to the man or the thought I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.) I want to say that it seems to me that there is a special place in hell Mike Huckabee.

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Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say that any more eloquently  than a howl and a “with a rusty pitchfork too!” kind of remark.  Fortunately, there are others who could and did describe exactly the appropriate fate for Mr. Huckabee — from one of whom, with your permission, I will now borrow.

Here’s one possibility that would satisfy my sense of justice:

The sides were crusted over with a mould/Plastered upon them by foul mists that rise,/And both with eyes and nose a contest hold./The bottom is so deep, in vain our eyes/Searched it till further up the bridge we went,/To where the arch o’erhangs what under lies./Ascended there, our eyes we downward bent,/And I saw people in such ordure drowned,/A very cesspool ’twas of excrement./And while I from above am searching round,/One with a head so filth-smeared I picked out,/I knew not if ’twas lay, or tonsure-crowned./‘Why then so eager,’ asked he with a shout, ‘To stare at me of all the filthy crew?’/And I to him: ‘Because I scarce can doubt/That formerly thee dry of hair I knew…

But perhaps that’s not miserable enough.  How’s this?

Then we descended from the bridge’s head,/Where with the eighth bank is its junction wrought/And full beneath me was the Bolgia spread,/And I perceived that hideously ’twas fraught/With serpents; and such monstrous forms they bore,/Even now my blood is curdled at the thought./Henceforth let sandy Libya boast no more!/Though she breed hydra, snake that crawls or flies,/Twy-headed, or fine-speckled, no such store/Of plagues, nor near so cruel, she supplies,/ Though joined to all the land of Ethiop,/And that which by the Red Sea waters lies./’Midst this fell throng and dismal, without hope/A naked people ran, aghast with fear—/No covert for them and no heliotrope/Their hands were bound by serpents at their rear,/Which in their reins for head and tail did get/A holding-place: in front they knotted were./And lo! to one who on our side was set/A serpent darted forward, him to bite/At where the neck is by the shoulders met./Nor O nor I did any ever write/More quickly than he kindled, burst in flame,/And crumbled all to ashes./And when quite He on the earth a wasted heap became/He on the earth a wasted heap became,/The ashes of themselves together rolled,/Resuming suddenly their former frame.

(Dante, Inferno, Canto XVIII, lines 106-121 and Canto XXIV, lines 79-106)

The translation’s a little old-fashioned, I know — but that’s what Gutenberg.org had on hand.

In any event, if I were a believer, I’d be hoping that Dante’s description of the torments of the damned is spot on.  And if it were then I would suggest to Mike Huckabee that he be afraid.  Very, very afraid.

Image: Pieter Huys, The Last Judgement, between 1555 and c. 1560

Republican Brains and Liberal Facts — A Conversation

June 13, 2012

I’ve just finished reading Chris Mooney’s latest, The Republican Brain, and I commend it to you all.  It’s Chris’s best, IMHO, intellectually (though not narratively) a sequel to his earlier best seller, The Republican War on Science. Or, perhaps more accurately, the new work is a response to that earlier one, an attempt to figure out why Republicans have become so (and increasingly) divorced from reality, why as a political movement, the G.O.P. has committed itself to so much that is, simply, objectively, wrong.

Chris and I will be talking about this later today as part of my monthly gig as a host for Virtually Speaking Science.  You can listen here at 5 EDT or later (after about midnight) to a podcast that will also be available through iTunes.  You can also join the live virtual studio audience in Second Life — throwing questions at us from either venue.

We’ll start with Chris’s argument: that a broad body of research from a variety of fields — psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and more — produces a reliable, reproducible nature and nurture account of systematic differences between conservative and liberal brains and minds.  In this account, conservatives act out of the quadrant of motives and neural systems that characterize “Closed” or resistant-to-new-experience personalities…and this renders them less able to respond to facts and/or argument that challenge essential beliefs. Liberals, or those who fall into the”Open” pattern do the opposite.

That’s the most simple minded cartoon of an inquiry into a lot of research that supports Mooney’s essential point:  there are fundamental attributes of how our minds work that shape whether or not we can accept or work very hard to ignore things like the reality of human-caused climate change, or the fact that tax cuts do not increase national revenue.

I find the book really persuasive on that score — but I do have a few points I’m planning to push Chris on.  One’s a historian’s thought — not so much a criticism, as a note that the vigor of reactionary denial of reality always ramps up at times of great change.  I’m thinking of a marvelous, if less-read-than-it-should-be book The Vertigo Years, Philipp Blom’s essayistic narrative of Europe’s schizophrenia from 1900-1914 — that tension between the legacy of Victorian assurance and the reality of massive cultural and social dislocative change.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, we’re smack in the middle of just such a period right now.  The Way It Used To Be is simply unavailable to whole swatches of society who are now terrified by what’s going on with technology, social life, culture, the hierarchy of privilege.  That terror invokes exactly the kind of neurological and cognitive response Chris is talking about — and I’d like to go more into the implications of history, of the contingencies of time and place, especially as they bear on his suggested solutions to the problem of a Republic in which close to half of the political class (and their supporters) are delusional.

The second point I plan to push him on is a bit of “both sides”-ery he permits himself.  He argues that the benefits accrue both from the virtues associated with the conservative mind — he mentions loyalty, decisiveness, perserverance, among others — and those tied to liberalism:  flexibility, openness to new information, invention.  My problem with this is that it is not a symmetrical opposition.  Decisiveness, for example, is an attribute that can accrue to either shoot-from-the-hip types or reflective ones; rejection of valid information or the disdain for expertise is not.  I can guess at what Chris might say, but I’m not sure…so I plan to ask.

That said, the most important part of the conversation, I expect, will be on what to do about the very real problem that the Republican Party now resembles nothing so much as King Canute’s court.  Chris has long argued for better framing of liberal and pro-science arguments, and in this book he points at the need to couch fact in great stories.  He doesn’t go deeply into this — most of the book is laying out the case for the reality of material differences of mind and brain between the ends of the political spectrum — but I think he’s right, and I want to go deeper into what that might mean.

In any event, check out the book, and come listen in (or the other way round).

Image:  Egon Schiele,Agony (The Death Struggle), 1912

“That’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here…” Benjamin Franklin edition

April 20, 2011

I’m working on another volume in my Pequod-like pursuit of Megan McArdle* (see, after what went on here earlier today, I’ve got a Melville mindworm going), but just to show that I’m not dead yet, I thought I’d toss in a little lagniappe to a discussion begun here in John’s post of a day or so ago.

There, I learned that some idiot I’ve never before had the dystopic experience of encountering had this to say about the notion of an intellectual commons:

But Barton says that the Bible, Ben Franklin and the Pilgrims all opposed Net Neutrality because it violates the rights of huge corporations to charge higher rates and discriminate on content, calling it a “wicked” policyand “socialism on the Internet.”

Here’s David Barton’s own words on the subject, just to show that the snark version is, in fact, deadly accurate:

But we talk about it today because it is a principle of free market. That’s a Biblical principle, that’s a historical principle, we have all these quotes from Ben Franklin, and Jefferson and Washington and others on free market and how important that is to maintain.

Well, as it happens, I’m reading a really excellent book:  Common as Air by Lewis Hyde, which is, among much else, a detailed and beautifully written archaeology of what the founders — and Franklin primus inter pares — thought about ideas, ownership, and the commons.

One thing Hyde reminds us of is that Franklin himself did not claim ownership of ideas that he himself saw as the product of many, the inheritance of all, and the property of none.  He did not patent the lightening rod — instead communicating with David Hume, among others, to make sure that the world — at least those with access to learned journals — could make free use of both the research implications and the practical value of his investigations into the behavior of electricity. He didn’t try to hang on to the rights to the Franklin stove.

If he did choose to keep some trade secrets that advantaged the work that made him prosperous — the techniques he used to render early American paper money more secure against counterfeits — that was one exception against a life time of free public dissemination of discoveries and inventions that he understood to have been built on the work of predecessor and collaborators, to be improved upon still further by the efforts of strangers to come.  [FWIW -- I wrote about Franklin's role as a currency innovator in last October's American History. Sadly, the piece itself is not online, though I think a draft may show up in MIT's DSpace archive eventually.

You should all go get Hyde's book for yourselves, but just to shove Barton's ignorant lies back down his slimy, authoritarian-slime-filled cake-hole, consider this quote from the chapter Hyde titled "Benjamin Franklin, Founding Pirate":

Franklin believed that property should not command society, society should command property:  "Private Property..is a Creature of Society and is subject to the Cals of that Society whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing."  The contributions that private property makes to public needs are not, therefore, "to be considered as conferring a Benefit to the Public...but as the Return of an Obligation previously received or the Payment of a Just Debt."   (Common as Air, pp. 132-133.  The Franklin quote is from "Queries and Remarks on a Paper entitled 'Hints for the Members of [the Constitutional] Convention No II in teh Federal Gazette of Tuesday Nov 3d 1789.]

The shorter:  Franklin was down for net neutrality.

You can disagree with his argument, of course.  It’s a wingnut folly to accord the status of revolution to texts that they rarely, if ever read.  Mine are different pathologies, no doubt.

But while the fact that Ben Franklin said something does not make it inerrant truth, still, if I may, can I suggest to the Mr. Barton that before he yaps about what the founders thought about something, it might be a good idea to, you know, actually read what they had to say on the subject?

Just sayin….

*Absolutely no good can come of this metaphor.

Image:  David Martin, Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, 1767.  I’ve always loved this portrait for the fact that Franklin commissioned it while directing that he be painted with the bust of Newton watching over him.

Give The Man One White Chip*

April 15, 2011

Via the NYT we learn what constitutes “big” to a Republican congressman.  (No, children…don’t go there.)

(Hell.  This is the internet.  Go there if the spirit moves you.)

By now, just about everyone with a pulse and an interest in politics knows that the budget debate produced much more kabuki than actual cuts.  Rather the reverse in fact:

According to a Congressional Budget Office comparison, the bill would produce only $350 million in tangible savings this year, in part because cuts in domestic programs were offset by an increase of about $5 billion for Pentagon programs.

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When projected emergency contingency spending overseas is figured in by the budget office, estimated outlays for this year will actually increase by more than $3 billion.

There are longer term effects that restrain spending.  Albert Einstein is said to have said that the only true miracle in the universe is compound  interest.  That’s apocryphal, of course, but it is true that cuts in baseline expenditures in discretionary spending will propagate through the years to come:

The agreement does put the brakes on what had been a steady growth in spending by federal agencies. Future savings would be greater as the cuts took hold — a point Republican aides emphasized by noting that the plan is estimated to cut spending by $312 billion over the next decade.

Sounds like a lot of money.  At least, so says those members of the GOP, who quail before the wrath of the pitchfork brigade that they’ve turned into their base.  Hence nonsense like this:

“Big stuff,” said Representative Tom Price, a Georgia Republican and leading conservative.

Yeah, I know.  A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Except that $312 billion, for all that it could buy is …

__

…a rounding error — or an example of the kind of numerical trick that confidence men use to gull the unwary, the inattentive, the numerically illiterate.

I’ve beaten the drum elsewhere for the importance of getting minimal quantitative reasoning into the electorate.  I’m not talking much math here.  I’d be happy if we got folks using arithmetic on a daily basis  to test claims like Price’s above.  If the country could do that, then there are lots of cons that would become brutally obvious, even to folks as frightened of numbers as tools of reason as our Village press corps.**

Hell, Price isn’t even trying to hide the tell:   that really big, scary number $312 billion. Sitting there, all by itself like a fresh cow patty steaming on a patch of meadow grass.   Everyone here knows what’s wrong with this:  it ain’t the numerator that matters.  It’s the denominator, dawgs.

And this is where both Obama and the Democrats, and the in-the-bag-for-big-money GOPers (most of the Congressional caucus) made marks of the Tea Party.  Even though we don’t know what the 2012 budget will be, much less spending levels of a decade hence, we can still construct a pretty good picture of the whole load of nothing going on:

Just work through a wholly unrealistically low set of assumptions on spending over the next decade.  Take level budgets from the FY 09 request — George Bush’s last budget — of $3.1 trillion.  That’s below expenditures by about a trillion, by the way, for a variety of reasons, and it is substantially under today’s numbers, which are, of course, the baseline for future cuts.  But hey — let’s make the GOP look as good as it can.

So multiply $3.1T by 10, and you get -the implausibly low figure of $31 trillion.

Price’s “big stuff” — $312 billion — is 1% of that fictitious total. One [more] minor war over the next decade and it’s gone.   A few disasters.  An economic downturn, with its upward pressure on social welfare expenditure.  And so on…

Big stuff.

Oh — by the way, I sent a draft of this post to an economist friend of mine  as a check against slips of my calculator or my logic (not an American, btw, so someone who can look at this with at least some a- or be- mused distance).  He reminds me that it is always useful to contextualize public finance numbers by a per-capita measure.  Given that the most recent population figures show the US as home to just a skosh over 310 million people, the projected budget reductions of $312 billion work out to no more than $100/person.  In my friend’s words:

I think most people can see that is not a gnat’s fart but it’s not going to solve anything. Put another way it’s of the order of 1/500 of GDP in round terms.

Consider this another episode in Percentages:  How Do They Work?…

Or else, see it as a reminder of what the GOP is really all about.  Hint:  it ain’t the deficit.

*This title comes from story I heard once, no vouching for its accuracy, about the time some industrialist — a metals guy — came to Detroit to announce his company’s entry into the car business.  He told the assembled automobile journalists about his plans, and his willingness to spend what it would take to compete.

He was, he said, prepared to invest $25 million in the venture.

From the back of the room, an old car hack piped up:

“Give the man one white chip.”

**Numbers as fashion accessory — as above — that’s fine.  But actually thinking with them…

Images:  Victor Dubreuil, Barrels of Money, c. 1897

Gerard van Honthorst, The Cardsharps, before 1656.

April 11, 2011

Via TPM:

“It doesn’t address in any serious or courageous way the issue of the near and medium-term deficit,” David Stockman told [Brian Beutler] in a Thursday phone interview. “I think the biggest problem is revenues. It is simply unrealistic to say that raising revenue isn’t part of the solution. It’s a measure of how far off the deep end Republicans have gone with this religious catechism about taxes.”

Stockman is still on the wrong side of critical issues — the architect of the Reagan deficits loves him some entitlement pain…

…but, as Beutler reports, he

…breaks faith over taxes and the GOP’s unwillingness to slash defense spending. And he laughs off the notion that the plan will do anything about unemployment, let alone dramatically reduce it, which Ryan and his plan claim it will. “This isn’t 1980. It’s not morning again in America. it’s late afternoon, or possibly even sunset.”

Oh noes! Someone dares to suggest that America may be exceptional only in the self-inflicted wounds that mark its decline.

As soon as I recover from my attack of neurasthenia, I’ll be sure to bestow some appropriately framed certificate of Moore-ishness upon this miscreant’s head.

Image: Alejo Fernández, The Scourging of Christ, before 1543

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong: Reading Papers Is Hard edition.

February 16, 2011

(BTW: Apologies in advance for the length of this screed.  You can always think Playboy and/or wherever it was my junior senator offered his cheesecake and “read” it for the pix. ;)

I know that Megan McArdle is a bagatelle in the supermarket of awful opened by the current (and hopefully temporary) right wing ascendancy.  But even if there’s nothing she does that rises to the consequence of our recent theme, for example, in which the forced-birth, pro-rape party continues to advance its claims, she still finds her own ways to damage the Republic.  So please excuse yet another detour into the eternal sunshine of the McArdle mind.

DougJ has already written about her latest — how to describe it? — special attempt to bolster the long standing conservative attack alleging bias against conservatives in the academy.*

I’m completely down with his take on the matter, unsurprisingly, but here I want to add the dimension of McArdle’s continuing failure to attain minimal standards of journalistic competence.  (I’ve got some unfinished business on this btw, given her recent squib of rage at being called out on errors in kitchen history.  If boredom with the company of McArdle’s prose and the day job don’t overwhelm me, I’ll post on that in a couple of days.)  Here, I’m want to pound on the way McArdle misleads her readers on what is clearly a more consequential subject.


That would be her use of citations to scholarly literature that, if read, would reveal profound differences between what she says the research reveals and what in fact you find should you read the stuff yourself.

So, consider this from McArdle:

One of the things the legacy of racism has taught us is just how good dominant groups are at constructing narratives that justify their dominance.  Somehow, the problem is never them.  It’s always the out group.  Maybe the out group has some special characteristic that makes them not want to be admitted to the circle–blacks are happy-go-lucky and don’t want the responsibility of management, women wouldn’t deign to sully themselves in commerce, Jews are too interested in money to want to attend Harvard or go into public service.  These explanations always oddly ignore the fact that many members of the out-group are complaining about being excluded.
More troubling is that these volitional arguments are almost always combined with denigration: the out group is stupid, greedy, mean, violent, overemotional, corrupt . . . whatever. As indeed these arguments are when they’re deployed against conservatives in my comment threads.  In fact, it seems clear to me that many commenters have taken the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia as vindication of their beliefs–if conservatives can’t make it in academia, that proves that conservatives are not smart, and liberal ideas must be better.  This is possible, of course.  It’s also possible that academics are validating their own bias by systematically excluding those who disagree with them.
So while in theory, it’s true that you can’t simply reason from disparity to bias, I have to say that when you’ve identified a statistical disparity, and the members of the in-group immediately rush to assure you that this isn’t because of bias, but because the people they’ve excluded are all a bunch of raging assholes with lukewarm IQ’s . . . well, I confess, discrimination starts sounding pretty plausible.
When that group of people is assuring you that the reason conservatives can’t be in charge is that they do not have open minds . . . when the speed and sloppiness of their argument make it quite clear that they rejected the very possibility of discrimination without giving it even a second’s serious thought . . . well, I confess, it starts sounding very plausible.  More plausible than I, who had previously leaned heavily on things like affinity bias to explain the skew, would have thought.
Moreover, what evidence we have does not particularly support many of the alternative theories. For example, the liberal skew is strongest at elite universities.  This is not consistent with the notion that education is turning all the conservatives into liberals, or that they’re not interested in becoming professors.  I’d say it’s more consistent with the possibility that they’re disproportionately having a hard time getting hired, or retained.

I quote at length to avoid McArdle’s common dodge when caught in hackery that crucial context has been omitted that would reveal her ultimate wisdom.

So, here’s how I gloss the above, trying to ignore the “I never (emotionally) escaped seventh grade” affect of the passage.

She is saying that the dominance of liberals over conservatives in the academy is a fact.  Liberal academics and their defenders assert that mere numerical disparities do not require an explanation of bias or discrimination, but those who discriminate always say that.  Thus, because her commenters have told her that conservatives are excluded because they are stupid, this serves to confirm that liberal academics are simply educated versions of common or garden-variety bigots.  And because, in McArdle’s version her critics only make the worst arguments, this in turn makes the charge of active discrimination “very plausible.”

I leave to the commenters a full dissection of the problems of “research” and interpretation based on the ways in which McArdle presents her critics’ perspectives.  I’ll just say here one of the fundamental lessons we try to teach in our journalism segments of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing is that when presenting views in dispute, the writer has the obligation to present opposing arguments in their strongest possible light.  This does not seem to be a part of the journalistic toolkit with which McArdle is familiar.

But all that aside, look to that last paragraph:  “what evidence we have does not particularly support many of the alternative theories (to bias).”

The “evidence” at that link is a study by two social scientists, Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, titled “The Social and Political Views of American Professors,” distributed in 2007.  A reasonable person would, I think, interpret McArdle’s cite of this paper as claiming that Gross and Simmons’ research supports her statement that the most plausible explanation for the ratio of liberals to conservatives in the academy is bias.

I’m guessing folks know what’s coming next:

What happens when some unruly types (as they have done before) actually read the research in question — in this case a 70 page, 25,000 word article?

I’ve now read the whole damn piece.  I won’t burden you with every last quote I pulled (I stopped at about 2,500 words of excerpts) but it’s there if anyone wants to call me on it.  Here, I’ll try to keep  it down to a dull roar of passages that should have given McArdle pause.

So:  does the paper McArdle relies on for her claims of bias state that the academy is clearly overwhelmingly liberal?

No:

Where other recent studies have characterized the American college and university faculty as not simply extremely liberal, but nearly uniformly so (Klein and Stern 2004-5; Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte 2005; Tobin and Weinberg 2006), we show that while conservatives, Republicans, and Republican voters are rare within the faculty ranks, on many issues there are as many professors who hold center/center-left views as there are those who cleave to more liberal positions, while the age distribution indicates that, in terms of their overall political orientation, professors are becoming more moderate over time, and less radical. [page 3]

What does academic faculty actually look like?:

Collapsing the data accordingly to a three point scale, we find that 44.1 percent of respondents can be classified as liberals, 46.6 percent as moderates, and 9.2 percent as conservatives.  Such a recoding thus reveals a moderate bloc that – while consisting of more liberal- than conservative-leaning moderates – is nevertheless equal in size to the liberal bloc. [p. 27]

Well, maybe that just reflects an aging, embattled cohort of moderation losing ground to ivy-covered radicals.  Or maybe not:

Table 4 shows that the youngest age cohort – those professors aged 26-35 – contains the highest percentage of moderates, and the lowest percentage of liberals.  Self-described liberals are most common within the ranks of those professors aged 50-64, who were teenagers or young adults in the 1960s, while the largest number of conservatives is to be found among professors aged 65 and older (though the age differences in terms of the number of conservatives are small, problematizing Alan Wolfe’s [1994:290] assertion that “the cultural war in the universities is a generational war.”)  These findings with regard to age provide further support for the idea that in recent years the trend has been toward increasing moderatism. [p. 29]

Is there nonetheless a monolithic culture of opinion in the classroom or on tenure review boards?

What overall conclusion can be drawn from our analysis of the attitudes items? What we wish to emphasize is simply that there is more attitudinal complexity and heterogeneity in the professorial population than second wave researchers have attended to.  It seems to us unlikely that a simplistic notion like “groupthink” – more of a political slur than a robust social-scientific concept – can do very much to help explain the specific configurations and distributions of attitudes our survey reveals. [p. 61]

Finally, is bias really the one best explanation social scientists see to explain the political landscape of American universities?    As discussed in Neil Gross’s paper with Ethan Fosse “Why Are Professors Liberal” (2010 – link at Gross’s webpage), the answer is again (guess!)…No:

For example, Woessner and Kelly-Woessner (2009) find that twice as many liberal as conservative college students aspire to complete a doctorate.  In interviews, Binder (2009) finds that conservative students at a major public university regard faculty members disparagingly and do not seek to emulate them in any way. Ecklund (forthcoming), studying the religiosity of academic scientists at elite schools, finds that high levels of religious skepticism result not from professional socialization, but from the greater tendency of religious skeptics to become scientists, a finding that echoes Finkelstein’s (1984) earlier review of the evidence. Gross and Simmons (2006), analyzing public opinion data, find that conservatism, Republican Party affiliation, and evangelical identity are associated with less confidence in higher education and diminished evaluations of the occupational prestige of professors. [p. 50]

There’s lots more, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now.  But I think y’all get the idea:

There is,  contra McArdle, plenty of research out there on academic political attitudes.  That which she invokes, does not conform to the myth she wishes to advance here.  The specific paper she cites explicitly contradicts the thrust of her argument.

In other words, McArdle has chosen to deceive her readers.

That is, the issue here is not that she got simple, quanta of “fact” wrong.**  She advances few in this particular post, preferring instead to remain safely behind the deniability afforded by putting words in the mouths of anonymous interlocutors.  Here it is a matter of false reporting, claiming that research with which she asserts personally familiarity supports her case when, by any reasonable reading, it does not.

Such intellectual dishonesty has to be named and shamed. First and most important, of  course, because McArdle here advanced an attack whose aim is to discredit what academics have to say.  The existence of an even marginal voice independent of the right wing consensus is both a threat and emotionally intolerable.

Thus, I’d guess, McArdle’s “mean-girl” slashes against critics of her original post on this subject.  If it is liberals who are the racist scum here, no need to listen to any actual evidence they might advance on this or any matter.  And as for McArdle, so for the broader right-wing attack on independent expertise and the exercise of reason.

This is, of course, disastrous for a working democracy.

And its not good for The Atlantic either.  I suppose I shouldn’t care, but I do.  In the great scheme of things, the fate of that masthead may not matter much, but each time McArdle  misleads her readers to advance her cause it cuts away at the foundation of trust a reader may have in anything published there.

And when you get flurries of reports of bad journalism — think the latest Friedersdorf craptacular — it gets harder and harder to avoid the thought that the operation as a whole is losing its way.  There are great people who work there — I’ve named some of my favorites before, and I’m not going to keep calling out folks who are trying to produce good work in what must be an often difficult situation.

But the bottom line doesn’t change:  obvious, overt bad craft costs any publication something.  It may take a while for the rot to show, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t griping away at the foundation.  And while it’s none of my business, really, The Atlantic has given me enormous pleasure and food for thought over many years.  I’d hate to see it go the way of The New Republic.

*Here’s my recent take on what launched this latest salvo.  There is a deep history to all this, of course, with one possible start date coming with McCarthy, and another with the Nixon-Agnew attack on knowldege.  But this latest round is an offshoot of the culture wars, and in “scholarly” — sic — form dates back  a couple of decades, and has been pushed by the usual suspects, as reported in the study much referenced above:

It was in this context that a new wave of faculty studies appeared.  Where earlier studies had been thoughtful social scientific investigations, the new studies were closer to thinly disguised works of political advocacy intended to back up the charge of “liberal bias” in academe.  The first to appear and grab headlines – columnist John Tierney devoted an entire New York Times piece to it (Tierney 2004) – involved two interrelated inquiries led by economist Daniel Klein that were initially published in Academic Questions, the journal of the conservative National Association of Scholars.

**Well, she does, a bit.  According to the Gross and Simmons paper, elite universities are slightly less the hotbeds of liberalism that four year liberal arts colleges are, contra her assertion following her cite of this paper.  But the numbers are pretty close, and that claim is published elsewhere, so I’m not going to bang that drum this time.

[Cross posted at Balloon Juice]

Images:  Margret Hofheinz-Döring/Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen, Women Talking in the Rain, 1963.

Pierre-August Renoir, Madame Monet Reading Le Figaro, 1872.

Paul Gaugin, Eve–Bretonne. (An alternate version of this scene is titled Eve–Don’t Listen to the Liar), 1889

Comforting the Comfortable Part Two, or Sullivan’s Follies Redux

October 20, 2010

In the last post, I followed John Cole in snorting derisively at Andrew Sullivan and James Joyner for demanding that we honor the rich and super rich rather than merely tolerating them.  In that post I concentrated on the pure wrongness of the concept of taxation that the two offending writers presented.  Here I want to undermine their larger claim, that we owe homage to the best off among us because it is only through the energy and talents of those individuals that (a) they gained their wealth and (b) the rest of us receive all the boons of modern living.

The shorter of what follows is simple:  Joyner and Sullivan are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.  They need help.

For the reality is that the rich are not Galtian autonomous superheroes. They exist, as we all do, in a context in which a huge range of circumstances conspire to permit them to do whatever specific acts they did to get stinking rich.

Sullivan and Joyner miss this entirely. The tenor of their posts seem to evoke the hero of industry — they thrill to Kipling’s portrayal of folks like Captain’s Courageous’ railway magnate Harvey Cheyne the elder.  So, just to take a first cut, I thought I’d do something radical…like look at some data.

To get a handle on whether this vision is accurate, I took the path of least resistance, a tour through the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans.

And it turns out you can knock out almost a third of the list from the superhero game right from the start:   They, including six out of the top ten richest Americans inherited either all their wealth or the foundations of their fortune.  They are self-made sons and daughters.

The rest, about 280 out of 400, made their money across a range of activities from New York real estate to Facebook. That might seem to suggest that Sullivan and Joyner might be onto something, that the preponderance of the American super-rich are exceptionally hard working creative types building wealth out of sweat, brains, and a determination that should earn our admiration, and apologies for the temerity to ask for Uncle Sam’s cut.

And they’re even kind of right — but only if you suffer from severe mental presbyopia.  Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Charlie Munger — these are people who did great things after investing enormous amounts of time and energy and who knows what else.  They are admirable, and admired — even by stone lefties like myself, noting as I type the three Apple devices at my fingertips.  These people have been central to developments that make daily lives of millions better, and for that they are, and ought to be celebrated.

But we aren’t talking about kudos here, but rather the notion of being “self-made” — and the degree to which we need to grovel when seeking to move the tax rate on the wealthiest from its historic low to its historic near-low.  And when you dig a little deeper into the list, it gets a little funky to say that even so famously visionary a figure as Jobs, for example, got to the billionaire’s club simply on the strength of his presumptive Galtian worthiness.

For example, what of the 40 gazillionaires whose fortunes derive from technology?  How much of that wealth, and all the tools and systems that they’ve been involved in that make our lives richer, derive from critical government expenditures.  The semiconductor industry was famously nurtured by the American defense establishment — especially in the development of ballistic missiles and space exploration.  How about the internet (and the fortunes of Brin, Page and Zuckerman)?  There was this little thing called ARPANET, another DOD expenditure, that had something to do with it — and if you ever happen to do anything on the World Wide Web (like read this tome) then you have the governments of the European sponsors of CERN and the US taxpayer support for SLAC to thank.

And so on.

Go a little further into the list, and you’ll find that 94 of the 400 derive their wealth from a category called “investments” — a tally which includes stock picker/conglomerateurs like Buffett and Munger along with hedge fund types, bankers, stock jobbers (actually, mutual fund merchants, but I like the old term).

That’s a wide range of actually quite different functions, but for this post there are two points:  one is a that a great deal of this wealth is simply not that impressive in the hero stakes.  A lot of the folks on this list may  have performed an essential feat of capital allocation…or they could have harvested a surplus that could otherwise have gone more efficiently into capital formation.  The evidence of the last decade suggests that plenty of the latter fueled many individual fortunes…

…But even more than the argument that some of the super rich in the financial sector basically ripped off the economy and the average American, the key point here is that our financial system, just as much as our technological economy, depends deeply on a strong governmental infrastructure.  Bank insurance schemes, (FDIC etc.); loan facilities (the Fed); extensive research into every corner of the economy (half of the executive departments); market regulation (SEC, many others — known to be highly imperfect, but essential to the system nonetheless) and so on — modern capitalism requires an enormous infrastructure to create markets in which the participants can participate.  I know that this is a little subtle — but the collapse of the banking system in Sept. 2008 and its rescue over the next weeks and months provide an at-the-extreme example of the central role government, supported by taxation, plays in the system through which one quarter of the 400 richest Americans gained their fortunes.  And that role keeps on going even in more placid times.

Self made, perhaps, many of them, but only within a system made workable by, in essence, the willingness of 300 million Americans to pay their taxes and empower their government to guarantee the system.

This has gone on long enough.  You can go on down the list and look for other examples yourself: the medicine-based fortunes, entangled at every turn in a system of government support from direct health care payments to enormous taxpayer investments in drug discovery and basic research; the sports wealthy, whose wallets have been fattened on many occasions by a wide variety of taxpayer-delivered goodies, from roads built around stadia to bonds sold, with taxpayers on the hook, to subsidize “private” business.  Media?  See internet, taxpayer funded, above.  You get the picture.

At long last, then:  all this is to not to deny  that the rich, many of them, haven’t done impressive things that have in many cases dramatically improved one aspect or another of human experience.

It is to say that they have already been very richly rewarded for their accomplishments, that even the most original of them have reached their happy state within a framework of public goods, owned in common, and paid-for-by-others  – and to note that a substantial proportion of them have less reason than others to claim particular personal credit for their fortunate situation.

And that in that context, being obscenely wealthy ought to be its own reward; taxation the fortunate result of success and the down payment made on future prosperity.  It is the price owed, not confiscated, to support a system, a government and a society that however imperfectly did and does so much to create the opportunities in which many of these folks got so rich.

Pace Sullivan and Joyner, the rest of us need reward them not by giving them wet sloppy kisses just for being the exceptional specimens they are (or aren’t), but simply by buying what they’re selling — when and if we want to — and watching them get richer.

And paying a buttload more tax.  Right now.  Lots.

Image:  “Jesus and the Money Changers” from a parish church in Villach, Austria

Comforting the Comfortable, Or Why Andrew Sullivan Isn’t a Reliable Guide To The Pathologies of the American Uber-Class

October 20, 2010

Over at Balloon Juice, a number of posts culminating here, and a gazillion (technical term alert) comments, have fully roasted Andrew Sullivan (and James Joyner) for their whimpering over the hurt feelings of the deserving rich.

That last link from John Cole decisively rends from limb to limb the pathetic straw men trotted out by Sullivan and Joyner.  It is not the rich that require deference for their contribution to the nation’s well being; rather, it is the working stiff who has forked over what John accurately calls “a direct transfer payment to the most well off in the country.”

I have to confess, I simply don’t understand the possible chain of reasoning that would lead someone to write as Joyner does of taxes on the rich (and remember — we are talking about a very minor increase from historically low levels of taxation), that “to confiscate it from the successful without acknowledgment of the sacrifice… is to court resentment.”

I mean, who knows where to begin:  taxation is not confiscation, nor is it a priori an evil, necessary or otherwise, as  Sullivan also proclaims.

It is the price you pay for living in a civil society.  Reasonable people expect to pay for things like the assurance their airplane will be guided safely to a landing, or that traffic lights will reliable regulate the flow of traffic at 33rd and 3rd, that hurricanes will be tracked and volcanoes monitored…and so on.

Just to hammer this point home, consider this miracle of argument from Joyner:

the meaning of confiscate is not controversial.  Merriam-Webster defines it thusly:

1 : to seize as forfeited to the public treasury
2 : to seize by or as if by authority

Surely, when the government takes my money from me on the threat of civil and/or criminal action for non-compliance, it qualifies a confiscation.   That it thinks it has better use for it than I do doesn’t change that.   Nor, even, does the necessity of the services for which the funds are expropriated.

Uh…well no.  This is as completely wrong and wrong headed as it is possible to be in such a short space.

Just to begin, here’s Joyner’s own source on the definition of the word “tax,” verb first:

1: to assess or determine judicially the amount of (costs in a court action)
2: to levy a tax on

and now the noun:

1: a: a charge usually of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes

b: a sum levied on members of an organization to defray expenses

See where this is going: to confiscate is to seize; to tax is to levy.  In the context of a democracy, taxation is a collective decision; confiscation is a particular decision, which may or may not be legitimate.  In the US, the people, through their representatives decide whether to tax themselves. This is not the same thing as a confiscation, as ought to be obvious to Oxford, Harvard and West Point educated thinkers.  The failure to recognize this distinction is, I believe morally deranged and deranging.  It asserts that all attempts to levy the costs associated with securing the lives and property of 300 million people jostling cheek by jowl are at least potentially illegitimate — that’s the implication of Joyner’s “by or as if” — and of Sullivan’s witless cheerleading assent.

Down that road lies Galt’s hell.

I’m like Cole in one thing:   I keep thinking that Sullivan is smarter, or rather, for he’s clever enough, more self-reflective enough than to fall for this kind of nonsense.

But he’s not; this isn’t a new trope for him — and the ease with which he tosses off nonsense doubling down on Joyner’s use of terms like “confiscate” to describe taxation* confirms that this is just part of the essential toolkit with which he approaches the world, a romanticization of the hero (George Bush, back in the day, the lonely entrepeneur now) for whom any criticism, any constraint is anathema.

But just as it was dangerous as hell to indulge in hagiography of W, so it is to mindlessly celebrate the rich as those who will somehow withdraw all their goodness from society if we don’t make sure we tuck them up nicely, with a warm glass of milk, between their sheets of flawless felted Benjamins.

There.  I feel better.

And now…on to part two, where we can actually look at who the super rich are, and decide for ourselves whether they are owed a tongue-bath from the grateful masses.

Image:  Pieter Brueghel the Younger, “The Tax Collector” 1620-1640.


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