Damned Lies and Employment Statistics

Yes, some “real” unemployment rate is roughly double the official 5.1%. But there’s nothing sinister about that, and the job market really is gradually improving.

Some 19th-century wit — maybe British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli or American humorist Mark Twain or somebody else — once said that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics“.

This week the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued its monthly jobs report, in which it asserted that the economy added a good-but-unspectacular 173,000 jobs in August, bringing the unemployment rate down to 5.1%, the lowest it’s been since early in the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

As happens every month, a number of pundits and politicians then blew a lot of hot air about how these numbers hide the “real” unemployment rate, which is much higher than 5.1%. Some even made it sound as if an evil government conspiracy is trying to fool the public into thinking things are getting better when they’re actually getting worse. Ben Carson expressed this idea in May:

What you have to know is that you can make the unemployment rate anything you want it to be, based on what numbers you include and what numbers you exclude.

Well, pretty much whatever you want to include or exclude, the BLS tracks that too, and publishes it for everybody to see. The wonks at the BLS refer to the “official” unemployment rate as U-3, but they also keep track of  U-4, U-5, and U-6, each of which defines unemployed more broadly than the previous U. U-4 includes people who would like a job, but are too discouraged to look for one; U-5 adds people who want a job, but haven’t looked recently for some other reason; and U-6 adds people who are working part-time when they would rather work full-time.

U-6 is what people (like the conservative Washington Examiner and liberal Bernie Sanders) are pointing to when they say the “real” unemployment rate is 10.3%. And that’s perfectly reasonable thing to say: 10.3% of potential workers wish they could work full-time, but haven’t found jobs that let them do so.

What isn’t reasonable is the conspiratorial that’s-what-they-want-you-to-think attitude that Carson and others are promoting. For example, The Daily Caller quoted Sanders’ comment accurately, and then inaccurately claimed: “That dose of reality is like a wet blanket on President Obama’s recent claims that the economy is improving.” It was nothing of the sort.

You see, the 10.3% U-6 number wasn’t smuggled out of the BLS by some whistle-blower; it was published in the same report as the 5.1% U-3 number. And while 10.3% unemployment sounds a whole lot worse than 5.1%, in the context of similar measurements taken over time, it tells the same story: The job market has been getting consistently better since very early in President Obama’s administration.*

unemployment2This graph (constructed with tools at Macrotrends), shows U-3, U-5, and U-6 over the last ten years. All three measures of unemployment bottom out in March, 2007; climb sharply to a peak October, 2009 (nine months into the Obama administration), and then decline to a level that is still a bit above the March, 2007 low.**

So U-3 is 5.1%, down from a peak of 10.1% but still not at the 4.4% pre-recession low. And U-6 is 10.3%, down from a peak of 17.4% but still not at its 8.0% pre-recession low. The two stats tell the same story.

But if you really want to make the slow-but-steady economic uptrend sound like smoke and mirrors, you selectively quote another stat openly published by the BLS: the labor participation rate, the percentage of people over 16 who are either working or looking for work.

The LPR has been going down throughout the Obama administration and now stands at 62.6%. So Carson, Paul Ryan, and other Republicans like to point to it as proof that things have actually been getting worse.

The problem with using the LPR as a measure of economic health is that good news can drive it down too, as people who have some economic slack choose not to work: older people retire, younger ones stay in school, couples let one spouse focus on raising the children, and so on.

If you just show a graph of the plunging LPR during the Obama administration, it looks like something must be going horribly wrong. But you see a different pattern if you take a longer view.

This half-century graph makes it apparent that the major trends in LPR don’t have a lot to do with the ups and downs of the business cycle. Otherwise, you’d have to conclude that the 1960s were some economic hellscape, rather than the relative good times they actually were.

What you’re mainly seeing in that big hump-in-the-graph is the life cycle of the Baby Boom generation, added to the effect of middle-class women entering (and staying in) the job market through the 1970s and 1980s. That Boomer-retirement trend is affected on the margins by the economy (as 60-somethings decide whether to retire this year or next year), but barring some catastrophe that keeps 80-year-olds looking for work in large numbers, the LPR should continue its downward trend for years to come, independent of who is president or what policies they implement.

So yes, there are some damned lies going around in the guise of statistics. But the notion that the economy and job market have been slowly getting better for the last six years is not one of them.

* If you really want to get wonky about this, we’re talking about the difference between a quantity that varies with time and its first derivative. Slightly less wonky: the difference between the raw total and the trend.

As far as I’ve noticed, Sanders has been using these numbers responsibly, to claim that the economy still needs a lot of jobs, and so could use the massive infrastructure project he has proposed. I haven’t exhaustively searched his speeches, but I haven’t seen him question the reality of the upward trend in the job market.

** It’s arguable that the 2007 low isn’t a fair comparison, since a lot of those jobs depended on the soon-to-pop real estate bubble.

Is Kim Davis a Martyr?

Thursday, the story of the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses (now that same-sex couples can marry) reached its inevitable conclusion. Having been turned away by the Supreme Court, Davis was out of legal options for delaying the moment of truth: She had to either obey a court order to issue marriage licenses, including licenses to same-sex couples, or be in contempt of court.

She chose contempt and has been jailed, while her office has begun issuing licenses in her absence. Federal Judge David Bunning had the lesser option of fining her, but concluded (correctly, I think) that fines would simply delay the resolution of the case: Davis would not pay them and would continue showing contempt for the court’s order, forcing Bunning to jail her at some later date.

Response. Presidential candidates courting the religious-right vote immediately began characterizing Davis as a martyr for her beliefs. Ted Cruz issued a statement beginning with this line:

Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny. Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith.

Mike Huckabee compared Davis to Abraham Lincoln, who “disregarded the Dred Scott 1857 decision that said black people aren’t fully human.” [1] He also tweeted that “Kim Davis in federal custody removes all doubts about the criminalization of Christianity in this country”, and is planning a rally tomorrow outside the jail where she’s being held. (Some other Republican candidates have been less supportive. Lindsey Graham has been the most blunt: “As a public official, comply with the law or resign.”)

Other voices on the right portray Davis in larger-than-life terms. RedState.com founder Erick Erickson sees her case as a harbinger of civil war. Conservative Review‘s Daniel Horowitz casts Davis as this era’s Rosa Parks, and Steve Deace wants her to run for president. (Critics compare her to a different character in the civil rights movement: George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama, unsuccessfully trying to block integration.)

Martyrdom. The Christian tradition is rich with martyr stories, going all the way back to the stoning of Stephen and the imprisonment of Paul in the New Testament. In the Lutheran school I attended through eighth grade, we were sometimes asked to imagine facing a choice between denying our faith and punishment or death. (I have heard similar stories from Catholics.) Like Muslim suicide bombers, we were promised glories in Heaven that would more than compensate for any earthly suffering.

But is that what’s happening here? Does Kim Davis deserve the enthusiastic admiration of conservative Christians, and even the grudging respect of those who disagree with the stand she’s taking? Or is she undermining the rule of law and usurping the powers of her office to implement her personal religious agenda? [2]

What the judge said. Before deciding that question, it’s worthwhile to examine the court order she’s defying. In that order, Judge Bunning considers Davis’ arguments and explains why he is rejecting them.

Davis argues that by signing a license for a same-sex marriage, she would be expressing approval of such marriages, which her religion denies. Bunning counters:

The form does not require the county clerk to condone or endorse same-sex marriage on religious or moral grounds. It simply asks the county clerk to certify that the information provided is accurate and that the couple is qualified to marry under Kentucky law. Davis’ religious convictions have no bearing on this purely legal inquiry.

(Let me amplify that a little: Marriage-under-the-law and marriage-in-the-eyes-of-God have always been two different concepts. No one is asking Davis to affirm that same-sex marriages are valid in the eyes of God.)

A footnote spells out what the legal qualifications are:

A couple is “legally qualified” to marry if both individuals are over the age of eighteen, mentally competent, unrelated to each other and currently unmarried.

Davis also protests on free-speech grounds, claiming that an order that she sign the license form is compelled speech banned by the First Amendment. Bunning disagrees:

Because her speech (in the form of her refusal to issue marriage licenses) is a product of her official duties, it likely is not entitled to First Amendment protection.

In support of this view, he quotes a precedent from 1971:

When a citizen enters government service, the citizen by necessity must accept certain limitations on his or her freedom.

And Bunning does not see a violation of the First Amendment’s free-exercise-of-religion guarantee:

Davis remains free to practice her Apostolic Christian beliefs. She may continue to attend church twice a week, participate in Bible Study and minister to female inmates at the Rowan County Jail. She is even free to believe that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, as many Americans do. However, her religious convictions cannot excuse her from performing the duties that she took an oath to perform as Rowan County Clerk.

Bunning does not mention this quote, but the principle goes back to an 1892 decision in which Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled against a policeman fired for something he said:

The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.

Davis is perfectly free to practice her religion in her personal life, but when she assumes the role of a public official, she has to act according to law. [3]

Cashing in? Hypocrisy? It’s a safe bet that St. Paul’s imprisonment wasn’t part of his grand plan to become a celebrity and get rich. But Dan Savage has been making this prediction since Davis first hit the headlines:

No one is stating the obvious: this isn’t about Kim Davis standing up for her supposed principles—proof in a moment—it’s about Kim Davis cashing in. There’s a big pile of sweet, sweet bigot money out there waiting for her. If the owners of a pizza parlor could raise a million dollars just by threatening not to cater the gay wedding no one asked them to cater… just imagine how much of that sweet, sweet bigot money Kim Davis is going to rake in. I’m sure Kim Davis is already imagining it.

In an interview on MSNBC, Savage spelled it out:

She will have written for her a ghost-written book, she will go on the lecture circuit, and she’ll never have to do an honest day’s work again.

Savage’s “proof in a moment” is a reference to Davis’ own checkered marital history: She’s been married four times and divorced three times, a practice which (unlike homosexuality) is explicitly condemned by Jesus in the Gospels.

Ad hoc purity. I have a more general complaint than hypocrisy, one that applies not just to government officials like Davis, but also to the baker [4] and florist who have been claiming persecution when they are not allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples: Their position relies on two principles, and one of them they just made up for this purpose.

The first principle is the one right-wing Christians always want to focus on: Homosexuality is sinful. Whether or not the rest of us agree, it’s incontestable that they believe it and have for a long, long time.

But since no one is asking them to commit homosexual acts, that principle by itself doesn’t create an issue. Their position requires a second principle: Christians should live according to a standard of purity that doesn’t allow them to involve themselves in other people’s sins.

Kim Davis has to imagine a pretty broad purity zone around herself, if verifying that two men are “over the age of eighteen, mentally competent, unrelated to each other and currently unmarried” involves her in the sin of their homosexuality. And the bakers who won’t sell a cake to a same-sex wedding reception — giving them no connection whatsoever to the actual marriage ceremony — must have an even broader purity zone.

Religious purity.

Now, there are religious people who try to live their lives according to extremely high standards of purity (like the Jain monks who wear masks so as not to kill any tiny insects they might otherwise breath in). But that does not include any of the right-wing Christians who are claiming persecution. Their Christian practice did not require an expanded purity zone until now, and even now it only applies to situations that involve gays.

For example, apparently the clerks who gave Kim Davis her marriage licenses didn’t balk at the fact that (according to Jesus) some of those marriages were adulterous. I’ll bet she didn’t have any trouble renting a hall or buying flowers or cakes. Even the most conservative Christians simply didn’t care about this kind of purity before same-sex marriage became legal, and still don’t care about it in any other context.

Here’s what that says to me: This isn’t about religion, not when it depends on a “sincerely held belief” that was invented solely for this purpose. So either it’s about personal animus against gays, or it’s about protesting the politics of same-sex marriage. Neither is the kind of moral or constitutional issue that Kim Davis’ defenders want to make it.

[1] I’m not sure which act of Lincoln’s Huckabee is referring to, and I suspect he doesn’t know either. Dred Scott laid out some general principles about slavery before Lincoln was elected, but what specifically did the Supreme Court order Lincoln to do? How did he defy that order?

[2] As satirized in this image and this story from The Onion. I suspect conservative Christians are picturing a world in which only conservative Christian public officials have the right to bend their duties around their religion. But a friend suggested this example, which corresponds pretty well to the Davis case: What if a Jewish meat inspector decides that his religious convictions require him to reject all pork? I’ve also seen this example: What if an official refuses to issue hunting and fishing licenses, because he takes “Thou shalt not kill” literally?

Some of the Kim Davis satire doesn’t have a political point, it’s just funny. For more humor, check out the hijacked #FreeKimDavis tag on Twitter.

[3] A common complaint by conservative pundits is that liberals are fine with liberal officials ignoring laws. President Obama’s recent executive orders on immigration are a frequently cited example. But there are some significant differences between the two cases, as becomes clear when you compare the justifications.

Obama’s action is justified in a memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (which I summarized at the time). Unlike Davis, the OLC memo never appeals to an authority higher than the law.

Instead, the memo outlines the executive branch’s strategy for handling the impossible situation Congress has created: The law would deport 11.3 million undocumented immigrants, but Congress has provided funding for dealing with only a tiny fraction of that number. Consequently, the administration must prioritize whom to deport.

When a court disagreed with the administration’s reasoning and issued an injunction against parts of the order, the administration stopped implementing it — except for one mix-up, which is being rectified without the judge needing to fine or jail anyone for contempt.

[4] As Dan Savage might have predicted, the bakers have made out like bandits. In the United States, being persecuted as a Christian is extremely profitable.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Of course I had to write about Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for contempt of court when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Religion, gay rights, the law, competing ways of framing the same event — a bunch of the topics I care about intersect in that story. Expect “Is Kim Davis a Martyr?” to appear around 9 EDT.

And what better time than Labor Day to write a somewhat wonky article on employment statistics? So, the monthly employment report just came out, saying that the unemployment rate fell to 5.1%. Meanwhile, people to both the right and left of the Obama administration claim that the “real” unemployment rate is double that: 10.3%. Where does that number come from, what does it mean, and does it undermine the administration’s things-are-getting-better talking point? (Spoiler: No, it doesn’t.) Expect “Damned Lies and Employment Statistics” around ten or so.

Also in the weekly summary: Denali, the backlash against Black Lives Matter, refugees in Europe, and startling new theory about the origins of Willy Wonka. (I mean, wasn’t that elevator a dead giveaway? Who else has a magical little box that can go into space?) That should be out before noon.

What Goes Around

Conservative media and Fox News in particular have spent years – decades, if you count talk radio – training their audiences to believe that exhortations against sexism and racism are nothing but the “political correctness” police trying to kill your good time. … You can’t tell people, day in and day out, that nothing is more fun than putting some mouthy broad in her place and then get upset when they continue to think it’s fun, even when the mouthy broad is one of yours.

— Amanda Marcotte “Why Fox News’ Defense of Megyn Kelly is Going to Backfire

This week’s featured articles are “Hey, Nerds! Politics is a System. Figure it out.” and “Protesting in Your Dreams“.

This week everybody was talking about Hurricane Katrina

which hit New Orleans ten years ago Saturday. A bunch of interesting retrospectives have appeared.

Slate posted “The Myths of Katrina“, including the notion that “no one could have predicted” what happened. In fact, the gist of the disaster appeared in a local newspaper article three years earlier: the levee failures, and what would happen next:

Amid this maelstrom, the estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive. Some will be housed at the Superdome, the designated shelter in New Orleans for people too sick or infirm to leave the city. Others will end up in last-minute emergency refuges that will offer minimal safety. But many will simply be on their own, in homes or looking for high ground.

… Hundreds of thousands would be left homeless, and it would take months to dry out the area and begin to make it livable. But there wouldn’t be much for residents to come home to. The local economy would be in ruins

The anniversary is an ambivalent moment. New Orleans is a viable city again, so that’s worth celebrating. But the recovery has been uneven, with upscale neighborhoods rebuilding quickly and many poorer areas still full of abandoned homes.

The new New Orleans is a smaller, somewhat wealthier, and definitely whiter city; about 100,000 of its black Katrina-refugees never returned. As 538 elucidates, these losses were concentrated among middle-income and upper-income blacks, particularly the young professionals. Among whites it’s the reverse: young white professionals and entrepreneurs are flocking in. Jacobin comments about one gentrifying neighborhood:

The declining poverty rate does not speak to some miraculous redistribution of wealth to working-class families, but rather to their forced exit amid a corresponding influx of high-income residents.

and another shooting

This one happened on live television.

With every new shooting, we go through the motions of trying to put gun control back on the agenda. But (as Dan Hodges summed up in a tweet) Newtown really kicked the life out of that movement. If massacres of white professional-class school children are acceptable, requiring not even a smidgen of change, it’s hard to raise energy to try again.

If you do decide to try again, Vox has collected data for you and presented it well. Two things stood out for me:

  • We’re averaging about one mass shooting (i.e., 4+ victims) per day. So if the aftermath of a mass shooting is not an appropriate time to talk about gun control (because that would “politicize tragedy”), then there will never be an appropriate time.
  • States with a lot of guns have about the same number of suicides-by-other-means as states with fewer guns, but quadruple the number of firearm-suicides. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that guns cause suicides. Remember that the next time you think about buying a gun. Someday you’ll be depressed, and you’ll know that gun is sitting there.

and 2016

A second poll confirms that Bernie Sanders really is ahead in New Hampshire. Another poll suggests he’s making serious gains in Iowa.

I’m getting increasingly annoyed at the media coverage of both Sanders and Clinton.

You know which 2016 candidate is consistently drawing the biggest crowds? Not Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders. (BTW, Sanders beats Trump 45%-37% in a head-to-head match-up. So which one is the more serious candidate?)

And yet Bernie’s ability to draw a crowd is not news. Whether Trump’s recent rally in Alabama was bigger or smaller than Sanders’ rallies Portland and Los Angeles is open to interpretation. (Some estimates of Trump’s crowd were marginally larger than Sanders’.) But what’s not open to interpretation is the coverage: The news networks hyped Trump’s rally before it happened and treated it like a major event afterwards. But the sizes of Sanders’ crowds, when they get mentioned at all, are presented as weird little factoids.

When Sanders gets encouraging poll numbers, like the recent NH and Iowa ones I just mentioned, nobody says, “Wow! People really like this guy.” Nobody focuses on what he’s saying or why it’s inspiring so much enthusiasm. Instead, the story is about Clinton’s weakness: Democrats are so dissatisfied with Hillary that even Bernie Sanders might beat her in New Hampshire and Iowa.

And that brings me to the Clinton coverage, which has been even worse. The only stories you hear about Clinton consist of something-might-be-wrong-somewhere speculation about her emails. And yet, if you stick to the facts, it’s hard to justify the claim that anything actually is wrong. I’ve had a hard time finding a clear statement of what might be wrong, or a clear accusation whose truth or falsehood could be established. Quite likely this is Benghazi or Filegate or Vince Foster all over again.

I don’t see the media applying this maybe-something-somewhere-might-turn-out-to-be-bad standard to any other candidate. Rick Perry is under indictment. Scott Walker had an election-fraud investigation quashed under questionable circumstances by Wisconsin’s partisan Supreme Court. Like Clinton, Jeb Bush used a private email account while governor, and decided for himself which emails to release to the public. Marco Rubio has received “hundreds of thousands of dollars” of personal assistance from a billionaire he’s done political favors for.

Is any of that getting Clinton-style coverage? Coverage based on imagining what might turn out to be wrong (if new incriminating evidence somehow appears) rather than restricting attention to what we actually know? I’m not saying those stories should get that kind of attention, but why is the Clinton-email story getting it?

Frank Bruni explores the mystery of why Donald Trump seems to be the choice of the GOP’s Evangelical Christian wing:

Let me get this straight. If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America, I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed?

Has anybody seen a camel pass through the eye of a needle lately? That would explain it. Crooks and Liars compares Trump’s indifference to religion in his own life to Dick Cheney’s draft-dodging:

Right-wingers … don’t really care about whether a candidate or elected official has lived in accordance with their values. What they want is a candidate or elected official who will use their values (or, frankly, use anything) as a club to beat the people they don’t like — Democrats, liberals, immigrants, Muslims.

A standard applause line at Trump rallies is when he says the Bible is his favorite book, but when pressed in an interview to pick out one or two favorite verses, he had no answer. In her recent interview with Trump, Sarah Palin referred to this as a “gotcha” question — I suppose because you can’t expect a good Christian to remember phrases like “the 23rd Psalm” or “the Sermon on the Mount” off the top of his head.

Trump hasn’t produced any TV ads yet. (Whether or not he’ll spend the serious money necessary to buy TV time is my main criterion for determining whether he’s seriously running for president or just using his campaign to build his brand.) So Jimmy Kimmel made one for him:

Kimmel satirizes of the vagueness of Trump’s message, but that’s precisely what makes it dangerous: Trump’s vaguely targeted anger allows his audiences to imagine him railing against whatever makes them angry. Hence the calls of “white power” from his Alabama supporters.

The New Yorker has more:

On June 28th, twelve days after Trump’s announcement, the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, endorsed him for President: “Trump is willing to say what most Americans think: it’s time to deport these people.” The Daily Stormer urged white men to “vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.” …

Jared Taylor, the editor of American Renaissance, a white-nationalist magazine and Web site based in Oakton, Virginia, told me, in regard to Trump, “I’m sure he would repudiate any association with people like me, but his support comes from people who are more like me than he might like to admit.”

Trump also has earned the support of David Duke and various other white nationalists. He hasn’t sought their endorsements, but he doesn’t have to. He’s angry at a lot of the same people they hate. The exact why doesn’t matter.

Another implication of vagueness is even scarier: Without a lot of specific policy ideas, or a coherent political philosophy, or a political viewpoint expressed consistently through the years, the Trump campaign by default becomes a cult of personality. Trump’s America will be “great again” not because of any specific thing it will do, but because of him. Our greatness will follow from the greatness of our leader.

I think that’s why words like fascist are starting to crop up, and comparisons to Europe’s far-right movements.

and you also might be interested in …

When talking about the poor, it helps to have data about who they are.

Here’s the scariest thing I saw this week.

A front page contributor on Red State comments:

There is no vocal advocate of Donald Trump’s GOP candidacy in 2016 that would tell you this publically, but I’ll bet $20 that a significant plurality of Trump’s backers feel what the women in this Youtube video below feel on a daily basis. They would only demur because they are sick and tired of being accused of racism for feeling the way they feel.

and let’s close with some reassurance

Whatever you did this week, you didn’t screw up this badly.

Protesting in Your Dreams

Ben Carson knows exactly what BLM should be doing.

The biggest obstacle a protest movement faces isn’t resistance from people on the other side. Quite the opposite: One purpose of protest actions is to make your opponents come out of the shadows and demonstrate the previously hidden power dynamics that hold the status quo in place.

So when Sheriff Clark deputized all the adult white males of Dallas County and met protest marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, he didn’t break the Civil Rights movement, he made it. He showed the world that the relationship between the races in Alabama was predicated on officially sanctioned white violence.

Clark didn’t know it, but he was following the script Martin Luther King had laid out two years earlier in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

Drama needs a villain, and Clark had unwittingly signed up for the role.

So if people like Sheriff Clark and Bull Connor are not an activist movement’s biggest obstacle, what is? The people who say, “I agree with your goals, but you’re doing it all wrong.” They compare an actual social-action movement, one that is organizing in the real world and doing things, to their own fantasy movement, which they are not lifting a finger to make real. So what their criticism actually promotes is not a competing real-world program of action, but a passivity that says: “Not this. Not here. Not now.”

In MLK’s day, the criticism centered on timing: Wasn’t King pushing for too much too fast, without giving his white moderate allies time to take the smaller, more deliberate actions that seemed reasonable to them? His Birmingham-jail letter answered:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

This is the proper context for reading Ben Carson’s recent op-ed in USA Today: “#BlackLivesMatter misfire“. Carson’s objection to the BLM protests isn’t time, it’s target. But his message is otherwise very much the same as the pseudo-sympathetic moderates who bedeviled King: Not this.

Carson’s fantasy protest movement (which he is not lifting a finger to make real) would find a better target than police violence against blacks.

The notion that some lives might matter less than others is meant to enrage. That anger is distracting us from what matters most. We’re right to be angry, but we have to stay smart.

Of course, the protesters are right that racial policing issues exist and some rotten policemen took actions that killed innocent people. Those actions were inexcusable and they should be prosecuted to deter such acts in the future.

But unjust treatment from police did not fill our inner cities with people who face growing hopelessness. Young men and women can’t find jobs. Parents don’t have the skills to compete in a modern job market. Far too many families are torn and tattered by self-inflicted wounds. Violence often walks alongside people who have given up hope.

He goes on to list some better targets for protest: school boards that don’t educate black children, entertainment corporations that glamorize black thuggery, city governments that tolerate unsafe black neighborhoods, crack houses in black neighborhoods, and the two major political parties.

And you know something? There’s no point in arguing with him about those targets, because they’d all be good. In the same way that Carson can say “the protesters are right” about racial policing issues, I can likewise support his fantasy protesters.

But you know who is perfectly positioned to start such protests in the real world? Ben Carson. He is a presidential candidate with a considerable following — second to Donald Trump in a lot of recent Republican presidential polls. TV crews and newspaper reporters follow him wherever he goes. They’re just waiting for him to make some actual news.

Imagine if Carson had closed his op-ed by announcing a march on Baltimore’s city hall or a sit-in in front of the Chicago Board of Education. Unlike most BLM leaders, Carson could absolutely guarantee coverage on all major TV networks. Pundits all over the country would talk about his demands and the problems they addressed.

Who knows? If Carson is right in his criticism of BLM, if they have legitimate grievances but are misguided tactically, then his better-targeted protests might change the whole national conversation. He might make BLM irrelevant by drawing bigger crowds, raising more energy, and having a more direct impact.

Or consider one of the other things he says needs to be done:

Finally, we need to go over to the Republican Party. We need to tell them they have ignored us for too long. They need to invite us in and listen to us.

But Ben: You just appeared in a Republican presidential debate that 28 million people watched on TV! The GOP invited you in and they were listening to you. Why didn’t you raise any racial issues then?

Imagine if Carson had used his closing statement to call out the Republican Party for ignoring the black community and minimizing its issues — exactly what he says needs to be done. That clip would have been replayed on every news network in the country. It might even have taken Donald Trump out of the headlines for a day or two.

But he didn’t do that.

Here’s the point Carson’s op-ed glides over: There’s room for more than one protest in the world. Nobody has given BLM the monopoly on expressing black frustration or fighting for social justice, so nobody has to stop BLM before starting a rival movement. Just because one group picks one set of targets doesn’t stop another group from picking different ones.

Anybody who thinks he has a better way to promote change and racial justice is perfectly free to go that way. If you think BLM is doing it wrong, then go out and do it right.

If that’s really what you want to do.

But what if your purpose is to support the status quo, and maybe to gain the gratitude of the Powers That Be by helping derail and delegitimize the only effective action that’s currently happening? Then you should do what Ben Carson is doing: Fantasize about protest movements that could be happening, but aren’t.

Because that’s one thing the Powers That Be can always count on: Fantasy protests never change anything.

Hey, Nerds! Politics is a System. Figure it out.

What 20th-century high school taught me about 21st-century politics.

I’m even older than David Roberts (who recently posted the very important article “Tech nerds are smart. But they can’t seem to get their heads around politics.“), so I also grew up in the days before nerds became cool.

Let’s just be friends, R2.

In the popular action dramas of my youth, nerds were never the heroes. We had no equivalent of, say, Neo from The Matrix or Hiro Hamada from Big Hero 6. At best, the heroes we were offered were jocks open-minded enough to tolerate the occasional nerdy associate or sidekick, like 007’s Q or Captain Kirk’s Spock. (Nerds particularly loved Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch, because he knocked people out by knowing stuff about physiology rather than decking them with a right cross.) Even in the defining nerd-fanboy film of my college years, the jockiest character (Han Solo) was a hunky action hero while the nerdiest (R2D2) was a beeping blinking machine. No matter how many times he saved the day, was there ever a chance R2 would get the girl?

20th-century high-school nerds. One thing I remember clearly about the uncool nerd subculture of my youth: We were bitter about our unpopularity. We returned the disdain of high-school society with interest, and saw its social system as a scummy, irrational thing. Figuring out its rules and mastering its processes was beneath us, no matter how much we wished we could enjoy its fruits (or at least stop being its victims).

So we told ourselves and each other that it wasn’t a system at all. There was nothing to know about how to dress or make conversation, no reason to map the social structure or look for possible points of entry, nothing to gain from identifying and cultivating potential allies.

We weren’t just un-strategic about the society around us, we were anti-strategic. If you had taken 16-year-old me aside and tried to explain how things worked and how they could work to my advantage (if I mastered the appropriate skills), I would have argued with you: High school society represented pure irrationality. That fact was the only thing worth knowing about it. Imagining otherwise wasn’t a necessary pre-condition to figuring stuff out, it was surrender. I’d be opening my pristine mind to corrupting nonsense.

21st-century nerds and politics. I have it on good authority that high school isn’t that way any more, at least in the professional-class suburbs. I’ve watched a math geek and a dungeon master go through public high school. Each has had a diverse group of friends — i.e., not just the chess club — and girl friends whose attractiveness to non-nerds went well beyond any aspiration of mine at that age. (There must have been jocks who wanted to go out with these young women, but couldn’t raise their interest.)

Despite that progress, though, Roberts’ article points to an arena where the familiar patterns of my youth still apply: politics.

The text for Roberts’ sermon is the nerdy Wait But Why blog of Harvard-educated Tim Urban, particularly a 26K-word post about the history of cars and energy and climate change that Urban wrote at the request of arch-nerd Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla. Climate change is Roberts’ bailiwick (I’ve often quoted from climate-change articles he wrote for Grist before moving to Vox), so he read Urban’s long post with great interest, and mostly approved.

Except for one thing: politics. Urban expresses a disdain for politics that is common, not just among the current generation of nerds, but among young people in general:

I’m not political because nothing could ever possibly be more annoying than American politics. I think both parties have good points, both also have a bunch of dumb people saying dumb things, and I want nothing to do with it. So I approached this post—like I try to with every post—from a standpoint of rationality and what I think makes sense.

Roberts comments:

Indeed, politics is one area where the general science/tech nerd ethos has not exactly covered itself in glory (I’m looking at you, Larry Lessig). And it’s a shame, because if tech nerds want to change the world — as they say with numbing frequency that they do — they need to figure out politics, the same way they’re figuring out solar power or artificial intelligence, in a ground-up, no-preconceptions kind of way. They need to develop that tree trunk knowledge that enables them to contextualize new political information. Currently, they lack a good tree trunk, as Urban’s post demonstrates.

Unexamined frames. Instead, presumably because he wants “nothing to do” with politics, Urban doesn’t look too hard at his basic political frames, like this one:

Here, Republicans and Democrats are symmetrically distributed around a rational center, with mirror-image crazy zones at the extreme left and right. If you picture the political spectrum this way, then it’s obvious what you hope for: Rational moderates on each side should get together, reject their crazy compatriots, and construct a reasonable compromise around known realities and theories supported by evidence. The fact that this almost never happens just emphasizes how irrational politicians are, and why nerds like Urban want nothing to do with them.

Roberts points out the embedded assumption:

That vision of the political spectrum implies that one is partisan precisely in proportion to one’s distance from rational thinking. It defines partisanship as irrationality, as blind, lemming-like behavior, the opposite of approaching things “from a standpoint of rationality and what I think makes sense.”

He offers a counter-narrative: In current American politics, the center isn’t defined by shared rationality, but by money and power. As a result, when we do have the kind of bipartisanship Urban would like to see, it’s not rational, it’s corporate. He illustrates with climate change:

The right-wing base has a coherent position on climate change: It’s a hoax, so we shouldn’t do anything about it. The left-wing base has a coherent position: It’s happening, so we should do something about it. The “centrist” position, shared by conservative Democrats and the few remaining moderate Republicans, is that it’s happening but we shouldn’t do anything about it. That’s not centrist in any meaningful ideological sense; instead, like most areas of overlap between the parties, it is corporatist.

The ones talking about ambitious policy to address climate change are mostly out in what Urban has labeled crazy zones.

Two asymmetric parties. Political-science research — there really is such a thing — has shown that the two parties are not mirror images, but “different beasts entirely”. Republicans are united by ideology (or abstract principles, if you prefer a less pejorative formulation), while the Democratic Party is a coalition of groups each of which centers on a particular issue and its corresponding policies — immigration reform with a path to citizenship, Blacks Lives Matter, feminism, the environment. Democrats represent growing urban-centered demographics that can be discouraged from voting and gerrymandered out of full representation in the House, while Republicans are mostly older, better-off whites who are no longer numerous enough to control the presidency (if Democratic constituencies vote).

So that’s where American politics stands today: on one side, a radicalized, highly ideological demographic threatened with losing its place of privilege in society, politically activated and locked into the House; on the other side, a demographically and ideologically heterogeneous coalition of interest groups big enough to reliably win the presidency and occasionally the Senate. For now, it’s gridlock.

Roberts illustrates with a policy that Urban thinks is so sensible that it should appeal across the political spectrum: a revenue-neutral carbon tax that fights global warming without shifting money from the private sector to the public sector. Roberts characterizes Urban’s expectation as “political naiveté” resulting from envisioning politics “as a kind of ideological grid, with certain sweet spots where all of both sides’ criteria are met.”

It ignores the fact that the GOP is not a policy checklist but a highly activated, ideological demographic that views Democrats as engaged in a project to fundamentally reshape America along European socialist lines. A coalition that will trust Democratic promises of revenue neutrality about as far as it can throw them. A coalition of which virtually every member has signed a pledge never to support any new tax, ever.

Who’s crazy now? If Urban wants to further the goals he espouses, he needs a better understanding of where he is:

Urban supports what Musk is trying to do, which is accelerate a transition away from fossil fuels. As it happens, out of America’s two major political parties, about a half of one of them supports that undertaking. That half a party is concentrated on the Democratic Party’s left flank, over in Urban’s crazy zone. Turns out he’s in that crazy zone too, but he doesn’t realize it.

Use your powers for good. Roberts closes with a plea for nerds to direct their nerdly powers of intellectual hyper-focus towards politics:

There is no subject more ripe for the dissection of an obsessive nerd than American politics. It is ridden with myths and outdated conventional wisdom. And the kind of people who read Wait But Why are among those most in need of tree trunk knowledge of politics.

Nerds want to make the world better, but they cannot do so without allies in the public sector. They should roll up their sleeves, hold their noses, and try to get a better sense of the complicated web of historical, economic, and demographic trends that have shaped American public life. Only when they understand politics, and figure out how to make it work better, will all their dreams find their way into the real world.

I’ll amplify that with my own perspective: The biggest weakness of the nerd mindset is a tendency to fall in love with a vision of how the world ought to work, and (from that Olympian height) to pass negative judgment on the world as it is. Once you do that, you’ve cut yourself off from constructive action and made yourself powerless. Having decided that the World-That-Is is not worth understanding, you will never learn its rules or master its mechanisms.

When my generation of nerds did that with the social system of high school, it didn’t work out well for us. If the current generation of nerds cops a similar attitude towards politics, it won’t work out well for them either — or for a world that desperately needs well-intentioned people who can understand and organize complex systems.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week I’ll have two featured posts.

One adds a little of my own experience and insight to a great article David Roberts wrote this week about tech nerds and their alternating disdain and naiveté towards politics. His article is “Tech nerds are smart. But they can’t seem to get their heads around politics.” Mine is “Hey, Nerds! Politics is a System. Figure it Out.” Nerds have respect for facts and a way of getting their heads around complex systems — two things the world needs a lot of right now. They just can’t seem to grasp that politics is exactly the kind of system that deserves their hyper-focused attention.

Ben Carson’s critique of Black Lives Matter inspired the second featured article, which I’m calling “Protesting in Your Dreams”. I find it fascinating how the people who aren’t actually protesting anything always think they know best. The Powers That Be love it when the fantasies of people on the sidelines draw public concern away from the protests that are actually happening.

The weekly summary still needs a quote and a name. It covers the Katrina anniversary, this week’s horrifying shooting on live TV, my disgust with the coverage both Sanders and Clinton are getting, and the dangerous vagueness in Trump’s message, before closing with a mistake that will put your various screw-ups in perspective.

The nerds article should be out sometime in the next hour, and the Carson article by 10 EDT. The weekly summary should appear about 11.


I just thought I had a few weeks left. But I was surprisingly at ease. I’ve had a wonderful life and thousands of friends, and I’ve had an exciting, adventurous, and gratifying existence. … Now I feel that it’s in the hands of God, whom I worship, and I’ll be prepared for it when it comes.

Jimmy Carter, on the prospect of dying of cancer

This week’s featured post is “The Do-Something-Else Principle“.

This week everybody is talking about the stock market

The Dow fell more than 3% on Friday and has continued falling this morning. It’s down more than 10% from its highs. This could mean one of three things:

  • A normal market correction of the type that happens periodically. The market comes back over the next six months or so with no appreciable effect on the economy. An extreme example was the Crash of 1987, which looked like the start of another Great Depression, but wasn’t. The next recession didn’t hit until 1990. AP writes: “Corrections are natural in a bull market, a pause in the market’s march higher, and this one is long overdue. They usually come about once every 18 months. The last one was four years ago.”
  • A signal that a normal recession is starting. The economy is depressed for about a year and then starts growing again. It’s a little early for a normal recession, but not that early: The business cycle has been running at around 7-9 years, and it’s only been six since the end of the last recession. Also, growth has been sluggish during the expansion, which usually would point to a longer cycle. But the economy isn’t a clock, so maybe the business cycle is running faster this time around.
  • A signal that a global economic catastrophe is beginning, like the Great Recession that began with the market collapse of 2008. A global catastrophe happens when the market realizes that everyone’s economic projections have been built on sand, and so all plans need to be re-evaluated. For example, the real estate bubble, which was based on the idea that people with no money and no prospects would make good on the mortgages they should never have been given. Financial “innovation” had over-leveraged the economy, so that once the dominoes started falling they fell faster and faster.

Everybody’s concern is focused on China: Maybe they’re having their first real recession since their economy grew large enough to affect the world economy. Maybe the long-term China growth story is an illusion; if that’s the case, that would be reason to expect a catastrophe.

Personally, while I could easily believe we’ve all mis-estimated China’s growth rate (given the opacity of its economy), I still believe the underlying story that China is growing spectacularly over the long term. So I’m picturing either a market correction or a normal recession.

The disturbing thing about the prospect of a recession is that governments around the world — not just ours — are still stuck in an austerity mindset, so they’re unlikely to do the kind of stimulus spending that would shorten the recession. Only the Chinese and Japanese governments look philosophically prepared to do the right thing.

and Jimmy Carter

People can argue about whether Carter was a good president. (I think a lot of his decisions and proposals look better in retrospect than they did at the time.) But to me it’s beyond all argument that Carter has been the best ex-president ever. Humble, caring, active for human rights and democracy, and never just cashing in on his fame and former influence … he’s consistently been out there trying to do the right thing as he saw it, without a lot of ego getting in the way.

All in all, I think Carter makes a better advertisement for Christianity than just about any of the high-profile Christian leaders I can think of. That came through once again in the press conference he gave Thursday about his cancer diagnosis. One of the selling points of Christianity is that the prospect of salvation should allow a believer to face death with equanimity. Well, here’s Jimmy Carter, facing death with equanimity.

and the Iran nuclear deal

Somebody must be putting big money behind the following ad urging Congress to reject the agreement, because I’ve been seeing it over and over.

The speaker is a former Iranian political prisoner, and he tells a story of being tortured, even though Iran has signed a treaty against torture. He draws the parallel:

Now they have signed a deal promising no nuclear weapons, but they keep their nuclear facilities and ballistic missiles. What do you think they’ll be doing?

It’s an effective ad if you don’t think about it too hard. If you do think about it, though, its argument starts to fall apart.

First, Iranians who want their government to reject the deal could make the same commercial about us. We also signed a treaty against torture and tortured people anyway. Why should they trust us to keep our side of the agreement?

The reason the United States has been so cavalier about violating the Convention Against Torture (and Iran in violating whatever treaty it is supposed to have signed; it isn’t party to the CAT, so I’m not sure what agreement the ad is referring to) is that its enforcement mechanisms are weak. The U.N.’s Committee Against Torture is supposed to monitor the agreement, but it has no power to punish violators. (That’s why members of the Bush-Cheney Gang are still at large.)

By contrast, the nuclear deal contains provisions for detecting and punishing any Iranian cheating, and insures that the economic sanctions against Iran would “snap back” into effect. You can, of course, imagine some magical way Iran could evade this detection or interfere with the snapback process, but you could similarly imagine a loophole to any agreement. If vague fears were enough to derail a treaty, there would be no treaties.

The people who do arms control for a living are satisfied with the enforcement provisions. So are numerous retired American generals and admirals, as well as former Israeli security officials. (Current military or intelligence officials in either country are usually reticent to make public statements opposing the position of their government — and may be fired if they do — so former officials play a larger role in such discussions.) However, as Josh Marshall points out

that’s only the opinion of people who actually know what they’re talking about.

When the issue is detecting hidden nuclear facilities, those people are so far from a majority that they barely matter politically.

And that brings us to the Associated Press’ “scoop” that Iran will do the inspecting itself, under a secret agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That sounds very shocking and makes the whole deal seem like a sham. But again, that’s only if you are an AP reporter who is fed a leak by an interested party and doesn’t bother to check the story with anybody who has real expertise.

Vox‘ Max Fisher consulted an actual arms control expert (Jeffrey Lewis at Middlebury College’s Monterey Institute of International Studies), who has been following the agreement as it developed. He was neither surprised nor appalled by AP’s “discovery”.

The bottom line here is that this is all over a mild and widely anticipated compromise on a single set of inspections to a single, long-dormant site. The AP, deliberately or not, has distorted that into something that sounds much worse, but actually isn’t. The whole incident is a fascinating, if disturbing, example of how misleading reporting on technical issues can play into the politics of foreign policy.

Econ blogger Noah Smith punctures the myth of Iran’s growing regional dominance. His argument for Iran’s weakness has four main points: Iran is committed to proxy wars it can’t win; it has many rivals and no allies; the outlook for its oil-dominated economy is bleak; and its low fertility rate will keep its population from growing.

and 2016

This seemed to be the week when everybody started asking “What if the Trump candidacy isn’t a joke?” It was supposed to collapse after he characterized Mexican immigrants as rapists, and again after he insulted John McCain’s war record, and again after he had to debate the professional politicians, and again when his post-debate comments insulted Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.

But none of that dented his popularity among the Republican electorate, so this week Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi wrote “Donald Trump Just Stopped Being Funny” and The Atlantic started looking seriously at why people support him. VoxLee Drutman offers the most sensible explanation of the Trump phenomenon I’ve seen yet: The Republican donor class wants to increase immigration and decrease Social Security. But rank-and-file Republicans want the opposite. Trump is speaking for them. This also makes sense of the attraction of a self-financing billionaire candidate: He seems outside the power of the donor class.

Vox points out the horrifying truth contained in a recent Fox News poll: Collectively, the crazy Republican candidates are out-polling the supposedly rational ones. If you add up the totals of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee, you get 53%. Support for the “establishment” candidates that the voters are expected to get in line behind eventually (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Chris Christie) adds up to a mere 26% — barely more than Trump polls by himself.

Simply consolidating everyone behind one of the candidates who is acceptable to elites isn’t going to get the job done. Party leaders need to find a way to actually pry support away from one of the candidates who’s unacceptable to them. So far, they have no idea how to do that.

Things look a little better (but still bad) for the establishment in the latest CNN poll: Trump-Carson-Cruz-Huckabee is at 40% and Bush-Walker-Rubio-Kasich-Christie at 36%.

Jeb Bush explained away his unexpected single-digit poll numbers by saying, “I’m the tortoise in the race.Jay Leno then quipped that the race was “between the Tortoise and the Bad Hair”.

Carly Fiorina’s recently expressed views: against mandatory vaccinations (“when in doubt, it is always the parents’ choice”), against doing anything about climate change (“All the scientists that tell us that climate change is real and man made also tell us this: a single nation acting alone will make no difference at all. So we can destroy every job in this nation, we can destroy the coal industry, we can destroy the agriculture industry … But here’s the truth, ladies and gentlemen: those livelihoods and lives are being destroyed not at the altar of science, but at the altar of ideology. … This is about ideology — it is not about science.”), and against having any federal minimum wage (“minimum wage should be a state decision, not a federal decision”).

On that “no single nation” point about climate change: A candidate who is serious about that view would push for international agreements on climate change. But in April Fiorina told the Christian Science Monitor that any international deal on greenhouse gases “would not be effective”. So in any practical sense, Fiorina wants to do nothing to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Fiorina has never held elective office, but her claim to fame is from the business world, where she was CEO of Hewlett-Packard. However, she wasn’t a particularly good CEO. David Nir assembles the evidence; to me the most striking detail is that HP stock soared when the board announced it had forced her out, at one point getting 10.5% ahead of the previous day’s closing price.

“The stock is up a bit on the fact that nobody liked Carly’s leadership all that much,” said Robert Cihra, an analyst with Fulcrum Global Partners. “The Street had lost all faith in her and the market’s hope is that anyone will be better.”

If another Republican president (not to mention another Bush) is such a great idea, you have to wonder why the GOP has dropped the last one down the memory hole. If you only listen to the GOP presidential candidates, you might imagine that Ronald Reagan was the last Republican president.

Historian Aurin Squire observes:

This upcoming election marks the latest great GOP purge of history. … The RNC solution to a mountain of damning evidence is a campaign to erase and displace—that is, erasing Bush from the public memory and displacing as many disasters on to Obama. This is a test of the RNC propaganda machine to see how many people they can get to believe whatever they want. Case in point: Almost as many people blame President Obama for the Hurricane Katrina fiasco as the president in office at the time. Anyone with a smart phone and opposable thumbs could figure out that Obama was not president during Katrina and had nothing to do with the aftermath. But if you can alter the memories of 40 to 45 percent of Louisiana Republicans through constant propaganda, the whole country can’t be far behind. It’s a great way of being wrong, and therefore never learning from bad decisions.

Rolling Stone‘s Tim Dickinson points out a disturbing intersection of harsh policies: five Republican candidates (Cruz, Paul, Walker, Jindal, and Huckabee) are against both rape exceptions on abortion bans and against birthright citizenship. That produces the following result:

It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which an undocumented woman in America is raped by a man (perhaps a relative) who is also not a citizen. GOP politicians holding both views would force this woman to give birth to her rapist’s baby — and then deny that child citizenship.

The best version of the Republican debate comes from Bad Lip Reading.

If you want to understand how the magic of BLR works, ThinkProgress explains.

and you also might be interested in …

A touching story about end-of-life care.

OK, I admit this is kind of geeky, but I think it’s fascinating: Mathematicians have discovered a new tessellating pentagon. In other words, you could tile an infinite plane using only that one pentagonal shape, leaving no gaps. (To grasp what’s special about that, make yourself a few identical regular pentagons, and see how far you get before you start leaving gaps.)

It’s said to be only the fifteenth such pentagon ever found and the first new one to be found in 30 years. Finding one is a bit like discovering a new atomic particle, Dr. Casey Mann, associate professor of mathematics at the University of Washington in Bothell and a member of the team, said in a written statement.

Even if the sheer mathematical wonder of that escapes you, you have to admit it’s kind of pretty.

and let’s close with something I’ll never do

I’ve never written down a formal Bucket List, but if I did I’m pretty sure “jump off the Princess Tower in Dubai” would not be on it.

Not even with a zip line or a pretty girl.

The Do-Something-Else Principle

Why Republicans don’t want to run on policy.

Back in 2012, Ezra Klein noted an interesting distinction between the two major candidates for president:

The central difficulty of covering this presidential campaign — which is to say, of explaining Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s disparate plans for the country — is the continued existence of what we might call the policy gap. The policy gap, put simply, is this: Obama has proposed policies. Mitt Romney hasn’t. …

Romney’s offerings are more like simulacra of policy proposals. They look, from far away, like policy proposals. They exist on his Web site, under the heading of “Issues,” with subheads like “Tax” and “Health care.” But read closely, they are not policy proposals. They do not include the details necessary to judge Romney’s policy ideas. In many cases, they don’t contain any details at all.

That distinction between the parties has continued into the 2016 presidential cycle. Rarely does a week go by without some Democratic candidate announcing a policy detailed enough to put a price tag on and assess who would be helped or hurt. Hillary Clinton has a plan to address student debt. Bernie Sanders has drafted a bill — Congress could enact it tomorrow if it were so inclined — to create jobs by rebuilding infrastructure. Democratic candidates are competing to make detailed proposals to increase renewable energy, promote racial justice, raise the minimum wage, limit the power of money in politics, guarantee the right to vote, and do dozens of other things. Sanders likes to propose fully drafted laws, while a Clinton proposal is more typically a list with a price tag and maybe a funding mechanism. But the details are there.

You may hate these plans, and think the proposals that implement them are terrible. But if you don’t know exactly what Democrats are proposing, it’s probably because you haven’t bothered to find out. The candidates (or their web sites) would love to tell you. [1]

On the other side, though, details are scarce. Republicans want to “shrink the government” and “secure the border” and “defeat ISIS” and “repeal and replace ObamaCare” and “promote a culture of life” and enact “a growth agenda” and “make America great again”. But when you ask exactly what any of that means in this case or that case, things get iffy.

Why? When a pattern like this persists over multiple elections, the cause has to be more than just the style of particular politicians.

On some issues, the cause is obvious: Republican candidates aren’t going to have point-by-point plans to deal with global warming, because their ideology won’t allow them to admit it exists. [2] Likewise, they’re not going to have a plan to deal with racial injustice, because (according to them) there is none: Blacks are a disproportionate share of the prison population because they commit more crimes, and police gun them down more often because they are more threatening. Likewise, Republicans are not going to have a minimum wage proposal (other than maybe getting rid of the minimum wage) because setting wages is the market’s job.

But that doesn’t explain why so few Republicans have detailed their plans for cutting the federal budget [3], or replacing ObamaCare, or reducing entitlement spending [4]. Republicans say they want to do all those things. They just don’t say how.

The reason, I believe, is what I am calling the Do-Something-Else Principle:

When a public problem is genuinely hard, and has so many moving parts that the average person has a hard time holding them all in mind, any realistic detailed solution will disappoint the general public. Consequently, a politician who gets identified with any particular solution is at a disadvantage when running against a rival who wants to do something else.

No matter who proposes it or what kind of principles they base it on, once a solution gets nailed down well enough for the nonpartisan wonks at the Congressional Budget Office to estimate what it will cost and how well it will achieve its goals, most Americans will get disenchanted, thinking “There has to be a better way.” So a canny politician — particularly one who is out of power and has no responsibility to actually govern — will align himself with that longed-for “better way” and avoid getting pinned down on specifics as along as possible.

Examples of do-something-else are legion: ObamaCare is a specific program, while “repeal and replace ObamaCare” is a proposal to do something else. [5] The Iran nuclear deal is a specific agreement that Congress can vote up or down, but the “better deal” that Republicans support is something else. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform that the Senate passed (with votes from Republicans like Marco Rubio who have since retreated from it) is a specific plan, but “securing the border” is something else.

So far, the campaign has only two complex issues on which Republican candidates have taken definite stands: abortion and immigration. On both issues, they have been dragged kicking and screaming into policy commitments, and it hasn’t worked out well for them.

Abortion. Republicans run best when they can maintain a vague abortions-are-oogy position without getting drawn into individual examples. But the Christian Right fell for that back in the Reagan administration and has been wise to it since. Today’s pro-lifers demand clear commitments.

Consequently, everyone who isn’t a religious extremist finds Republican candidates’ abortion positions disappointing, or maybe even horrifying. Mike Huckabee has supported the government of Uruguay in forcing a 10-year-old to give birth, even though the pregnancy resulted from rape by her stepfather. Huck has also pledged that as president he would “invoke the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution” to protect a fetus’ right to life, a position that would justify sending federal troops to abortion clinics in much the same way that Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy sent troops to the South to enforce school desegregation. Scott Walker won’t support abortion even when the life of the mother is at stake, and Marco Rubio has come out against rape and incest exemptions to abortion bans.

Hillary is eagerly awaiting her opportunity to run those videos in the general-election campaign.

Details kill you. Stick with “abortion is oogy”.

Immigration. Republicans were doing fine with “secure the border” until Donald Trump came along. Trump is operating by his own rules, and I’m not completely sure what they are. But one rule seems to be that he can put out detailed plans where the details make no sense.

For example, consider the first reprisal he lists if Mexico refuses to pay for the wall he wants to build on our southern border:

impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages

A “remittance payment” is money that a worker in the United States sends back to his family in Mexico. Both documented and undocumented immigrants do this, totaling more than $20 billion. But these are not drug kingpins and we’re not talking about the kind of large-scale transfers the government is set up to trace. Even National Review, no fan of Mexican immigrants in general, doesn’t see a practical way to block the undocumented guy washing dishes at your local diner (for $3 an hour) from sending $20 to his mom, much less block only the payments from undocumented workers and allow remittances from legal employment. (The work-arounds would be simple. Maybe I’ll take the $200 I’ve saved up and wire it to my cousin in Toronto, who can wire it from there to our grandma in Oaxaca.)

Anyway, though, the idea that Trump has a detailed immigration plan is forcing the other candidates to comment on it. They’re taking positions on birthright citizenship and using derogatory terms like “anchor babies“. It’s not doing any of them any good with the non-Republican electorate.

Why only Republicans? The Do Something Else Principle generally works to the advantage of the party out of power. The president has to govern; he can do something or do nothing, but he can’t stand for doing “something else”. (You might think that controlling Congress would give Republicans a similar interest in governing, but apparently not.)

But there is also a subjective element in the Do Something Else Principle that makes it more applicable to Republicans: It only works when the issues are complicated. When a simple proposal would do exactly what it’s supposed to do in a perfectly understandable way — like raising the minimum wage, for example — you’re either for it or against it. Supporting “something else” doesn’t make a lot of sense.

For years, Republicans have been pushing the idea that governing should be simple: There’s right and wrong, principled and unprincipled. We just need simple, good-hearted leaders who have the will to do the right thing, not brainiac experts who design complicated systems. (No Sarah Palin speech is complete without a reference to “common sense solutions“. George W. Bush once pushed a nominee for the Supreme Court — a job normally thought to require expertise — by assuring us that “I know her heart.”) Voters shouldn’t need to study an issue or understand anything difficult, nor should they have to yield to people who do study and understand things. “I’m not a scientist” is a reason to ignore climate change, not a reason to listen to the people who are scientists.

Consequently, the voters of the Republican base, particularly those who live inside the Fox News bubble, have been trained to throw up their hands quickly when things get complicated. Undoing structural racism? An insurance mandate? A tax on carbon? There has to be a better way!

Republican candidates, by and large, are not stupid. They just pander to voters who have been over-indulged in their intellectually laziness. Those base voters don’t want to understand complex issues, they just want to be told that the solution follows easily from the common-sense principles of their ideology. If no actual solution is simple or ideologically correct, then you shouldn’t present one. Just tell them that you’re going to do something else.

[1] The exception that proves this rule is Clinton’s position on the Keystone XL Pipeline: She hasn’t announced one, and that’s a serious problem for her campaign. Democratic voters expect to know what their candidates plan to do.

[2] That’s not entirely true. Republican candidates are split between those like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, who think the Earth is not warming, those like Marco Rubio, who believe the Earth might be warming, but don’t care because “the climate is always changing”, and those like Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, who acknowledge the reality of global warming, but don’t believe political leaders should do anything about it, beyond crossing their fingers and hoping for “innovation”. But all the candidates are united on the don’t-do-anything conclusion.

Given that, “do nothing” actually is a fully detailed description of their intentions.

[3] In previous years, Rand Paul made headlines with detailed descriptions of how he’d cut federal spending. However, a plan to slash the CDC doesn’t look so good in light of the recent Ebola scare, so Paul has de-emphasized the specifics now during his presidential run.

In his announcement speech, he stated his intentions in a more do-something-else way:

Currently some $3 trillion comes into the U.S. Treasury. Couldn’t the country just survive on $3 trillion?

Three trillion is a number beyond the ken of most of us. So who can say why the sum total of all the stuff we expect out of our government costs more than that? Isn’t there some other way to spend that $3 trillion that would do everything we want?

That sounds a lot better than slashing the CDC or cutting back on food safety or the national parks.

[4] Chris Christie is virtually unique in presenting a detailed plan for cutting Social Security benefits and raising the retirement age. He thought this would enhance his image as a guy who tells it like it is, even if it means delivering the bad news. That message seems to be working for about 3.3% of the Republican electorate. He will probably be out of the race soon.

[5] The polls that show ObamaCare is unpopular usually measure it against doing something else. It would be interesting to poll a question like: “Do you want to keep the Affordable Care Act or go back to the way our health care system worked in 2009?”

Likewise, if Republicans offered a detailed replacement plan — they’ve controlled the House since 2011 and the Senate since January, so if they had a plan they could have passed it in the House and forced the Democrats to either filibuster it in the Senate or have Obama veto it — polling that plan against ObamaCare would be a fair comparison. But if they had a plan, the burden of public disappointment would shift to them: Is their plan really the best we can do? Why isn’t the problem simpler than that?

Scott Walker and Marco Rubio have talked about their ObamaCare replacement plans recently, but they have produced exactly the kind of “simulacra of policy proposals” Klein was talking about. As Politico observed about Walker’s “plan”:

Walker leaves many other questions unanswered about his plan, including how many people might be covered and how he would pay for it, except to say it would require no new taxes or fees.

Rubio’s “plan” is presented in an op-ed. It includes no numbers. (The numbers in the op-ed are all about ObamaCare, not his own program.) The ObamaCare tab on his website is similarly non-quantitative and unanalyzable, containing statements like “we must save Medicare and Medicaid by placing them on fiscally sustainable paths” without saying what such paths might look like in terms of decreased benefits or increased taxes.

The last time Republicans floated a healthcare proposal detailed enough to be analyzed was in 2009, when ObamaCare was still being debated. The CBO found that the Republican alternative would lower the 2019 federal budget deficit by a small amount ($18 billion), while doing essentially nothing to cover the uninsured: 3 million more people would be covered in 2019 than if Congress did nothing (no ObamaCare, no Republican alternative), but 52 million non-elderly adults would remain uninsured.

If somebody wants to run on “I stand for an America where in 2019 you will have a 1-in-7 chance of being uninsured”, the Democrats will eat them up.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I’m just back from a vacation where I got less done than I expected. (I know, “getting something done” contradicts the whole notion of “vacation”, but my inability to sleep late usually allows me to keep the Sift going on trips without inconveniencing my fellow travelers that much. When I cancel a Sift, it’s usually because I have some other deadline.) So today the Sift will run a little later than usual.

The featured article defines “The Do-Something-Else Principle”, which explains why Republican candidates resist turning their rhetoric into detailed policy proposals.

The weekly summary has a lot to cover: the ongoing stock market crash, Jimmy Carter’s response to cancer, my response to the ad you’ve been seeing against the Iran deal, and a variety of 2016 developments, including my general disgust with the way the Democrats are being covered in the media.

Expect the do-something-else article by 11, and the summary by noon.


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