Tag Archives: framing

The Real Politics of Envy

Whose message is actually capitalizing on envy and resentment?


Tuesday, Politico reported the latest example of — this is happening so often we need to give it a name — Plutocrat Persecution Psychosis:

“I hope it’s not working,” Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and major GOP donor, said of populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Yes, Langone is echoing fellow PPP sufferer Tom Perkins, who recently warned in The Wall Street Journal that a “Progressive Kristallnact” against the 1% is on its way. (Apparently, only being allowed to vote once — in spite of all his money — chafes on Perkins. Those of us free from the burden of vast wealth can barely hope to imagine what other persecutions he suffers.)

I could sympathize if some terrorist group were burning down mansions, or assassinating “malefactors of great wealth” as Teddy Roosevelt used to call them. But no, this Nazi-like persecution seems to consist mainly of calls to raise our low taxes on the very wealthy (and their corporations), to insist that they pay their employees a somewhat higher minimum wage, and a few rhetorical flourishes that fall far short of having the President of the United States refer to you as a malefactor of great wealth (or, as Teddy’s cousin Franklin put it a few years later “unscrupulous money changers“).

But let’s ignore the over-the-top Hitler reference — many others have taken Langone to task for that — and focus on Langone’s underlying points:

  • There is a growing politics of envy in America.
  • Liberal rhetoric about inequality is based on that envy.
  • The primary push towards envy and resentment in our politics comes from the Left.

I figure this is the venom that is supposed to stay in the public’s bloodstream after the Hitler-barb is plucked out. That’s how these things work: If Langone had compared your moustache to Hitler’s, and you denied it without calling sufficient attention to the fact that you don’t have a moustache, what would stick in the public mind is the vague sense that your moustache is probably more like Stalin’s, or maybe Ming the Merciless’.

Before addressing any of that, let’s spiff up the terminology a little: envy here is actually short for envy-based resentment. By itself, envy is just wishing that some aspect of another person’s life could be part of my life, and it isn’t necessarily destructive. (If I envy a friend’s ability to speak French, maybe I’ll go take a class.) Consumer capitalism couldn’t function without this non-destructive kind of envy. If Americans looked at the neighbor’s fancy new car and just said, “Good for him!” the economy would probably collapse or something

Resentment, on the other hand, wishes others harm, and envy-based resentment means wishing people harm because they have some advantage I wish I had. (Somebody ought to give that fancy new car a dent or two.) So, for example, as a writer I envy Stephen King’s ability to fill a complicated plot with interesting characters. But that’s benign, because I don’t resent him — I don’t wish bad things would happen to him to even the score between us. (If good things would cause him to finish his next novel faster, I’m all for them.)

This distinction is important because of course the rest of us envy the rich. (Think of all the places I would have gone if traveling were as simple as telling my pilot to fire up the jet.) But whether we resent them, and whether that resentment motivates our politics, is another matter entirely.

It’s an article of faith among the very rich that liberal policies (like progressive taxation and regulations that sometimes block the most direct path towards amassing even greater fortunes) are primarily motivated by resentment: We lesser mortals want the government to even the score a little by inflicting some pain on the lords of wealth. Part of Mitt Romney’s core message (said in almost the same words in interviews here and 11 months later here) was: “If one’s priority is to punish highly-successful people, then vote for the Democrats.” And CPAC front-runner Rand Paul echoed that sentiment in his 2014 State of the Union response:

If we allow ourselves to succumb to the politics of envy, we miss the fact that money and jobs flow to where they are welcome. If you punish successful business men and women, their companies and the jobs these companies create will go overseas.

The idea that you might just want to raise revenue by getting it from the people who would miss it the least; or that even though you have nothing against the rich personally, you think that a vast and growing gap between rich and poor is unhealthy for society … that just doesn’t figure. The only conceivable reason you might support a policy the rich don’t like is because you are burning with resentment and want to see them punished for having more than you do.

Jonathan Chait examined this claim and could find no supporting evidence — not even in columns promoting it. (That’s why Langone had to specify “with different words”. You can’t defend his point if you restrict yourself to what people are actually saying.) Politicians, no matter how liberal, are not promising to wreak vengeance on the 1%.

In practice, the politics of class emerge from the context of budgetary choices, where Democrats have positioned themselves against low taxes for the rich for the sole reason that it would come at the expense of more important fiscal priorities. … Gore, Kerry, and Obama were all making the exact same point: Clinton-era tax rates for the rich needed to stay in place not because the rich needed to be punished, but because cutting those rates would create more painful alternatives, like higher structural deficits or cuts to necessary programs.

But does that mean that resentment isn’t a factor in politics or that no one is trying to fan that flame? No, it doesn’t, because resentment-stoking is a constant drumbeat from the Right. Consider, for example, this ad that the Club for Growth ran in Wisconsin in 2011 during Governor Scott Walker’s successful campaign to bust the state employees’ unions.

All across Wisconsin, people are making sacrifices to keep their jobs. Frozen wages. Pay cuts. And paying more for health care. But state workers haven’t had to sacrifice. … It’s not fair. … It’s time state employees paid their fair share, just like the rest of us.

The ad doesn’t promise that anything good will happen to “the rest of us” if the unions are broken. You could imagine an argument similar to the Gore/Kerry/Obama point about taxes: “We’re sorry that we can’t fully fund the pensions of our hard-working teachers and other state employees, but something has to give and we’d rather keep taxes low and spend our limited resources on other priorities.” But instead, this ad is about punishing the state employees, because their unions have shielded them from the kind of employer aggression that has victimized private-sector workers; so let’s bust their union and make them suffer the way other working people suffer.

That’s pure resentment, a political movement very directly trying to “encourage and thrive on envy”. If someone knows of anything nearly that explicit coming from the Left, I’d like to see it.

Or recall the Right’s campaign against Sandra Fluke, when she had the audacity to defend ObamaCare’s contraception mandate. (Rush Limbaugh became the face of this campaign, but he was far from alone, as this timeline makes clear.) Limbaugh’s focus wasn’t that his listeners would benefit from cancelling the mandate. (That would be a hard case to make, since it’s possible that the prevented pregnancies save insurance companies more money than the contraception costs.) Instead, he pounded on the notion that Fluke is a slut: She’s having so much sex she can’t afford her contraception (as if the pill worked that way). He painted a picture in which Fluke has the kind of sex life Limbaugh’s older male listeners can only wish for, so they should want to screw that up for her.

Resentment.

Or consider the way the Right campaigns against the poor. Remember the “lucky duckies” who don’t have to pay income tax (because they’re too poor)? Or the way that Fox News made one lobster-eating surfer a symbol of all Food Stamp recipients? (Jon Stewart’s take-down of this whole campaign is priceless.) Somewhere, “America’s poor are actually living the good life” as a promo for Fox’s “Entitlement Nation” special put it — and all without working like you do. Don’t you wish you could get by without working? Don’t you want to screw the people who (you imagine) do? Take something away from them? Maybe harass them with drug tests that cost more than they save? Because the point isn’t to save money — or to do you any good at all — it’s to inflict harm on people who might be getting away with something you daydream about.

That’s the primary way the politics of resentment affects our economic debate. It’s not directed at the rich by the Left, but at the poor by the Right.

Across the board, one side is trying to encourage and thrive on envy and jealousy: It’s the Right, not the Left.

Subtext in the State of the Union (and its responses)

You can learn a lot about how our leaders (in both parties) view us by observing how they try to manipulate us.


Once upon a time, state of the union addresses contained major policy initiatives, like when President Johnson announced the War on Poverty in 1964. But nobody does that any more, especially not in a gridlocked era where nothing is going to get through Congress anyway. 21st-century state of the union speeches (and opposing-party responses) are about politics rather than policy. They’re about moving public opinion, not moving the country.

So you might ask, “Why watch?” And there’s an answer: You can learn a lot about how our leaders (in both parties) view us by observing how they try to manipulate us. When they try to scare us, they reveal what they think we’re afraid of. When they reassure us, they reveal what they think we’re insecure about. When they try to be likeable, they reveal what they think we like. They emphasize issues where they feel strong and avoid issues they have no answers for.

They have spent months polling and testing in front of focus groups. Each has carefully crafted the message it believes will best appeal to its part of the public. Listen hard, and you can tell what part of the public they see as their own.

President Obama. The best way to watch the SOTU is via the White House’s enhanced video. (Here’s their transcript.) You get the same video everyone else uses, plus elucidating slides.

President Obama focused on two themes: inequality (which I explore in “Occupying the State of the Union“) and the dysfunctionality of Congress. Clearly he thinks Congress’ unpopularity works to his advantage:

For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate – one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy – when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.

I know Ted Cruz comes from an alternate timeline in which Obama and Harry Reid shut down the government and provoked the debt-ceiling crisis, but here’s all you need to know about that: Democrats applauded the President at this point, while Republicans sat on their hands. They all knew who he was calling to account.

The two themes came together in Obama’s executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, something he can do as federal CEO without congressional action. I hadn’t realized the full political import of this until Rachel Maddow pointed it out: Obama has put every executive in the country on the spot. Are governors going to raise the minimum wage for state contractors? Mayors for city contractors? (Yes in St. Louis.) I’ll bet the sound bite (at the 33-minute mark) tested really well:

No one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.

Any time the words Obama and executive order appear in the same news story, Republicans start yelling “tyranny”, as if no previous president issued executive orders. (Sunday Paul Ryan described the Obama administration as “increasingly lawless“.)

Clearly, they have identified a set of voters ready to believe this. In reality, though, Obama has been relatively hesitant about executive orders, issuing fewer of them than other recent presidents. He also has put forward no new theories of executive power, such as President Bush’s sweeping notion of the unitary executive.

Republican response. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington gave the official Republican SOTU response (text & video).

I thought Rodgers’ put forward a likeable image. (The conservative American Spectator protested that her “real message” was “PLEASE LIKE ME”.)  She expressed admirable sympathies, but presented little of substance to back up her good intentions. She talked about working to “empower people … to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be”, but the policies behind those words implement the same old Republican wealth-trickles-down-from-the-rich ideas.

A larger question was: Why her? She’s not a major player in the Republican leadership. She’s not a rising star they’re grooming for bigger things. Nothing about her record in Congress picks her out as the ideal person to speak to these particular issues. But she’s a woman and Republicans want to put a token female face on camera to counter the war-on-women meme.

As Ian Haney Lopez says in Dog Whistle Politics:

The right slams affirmative action for making distinctions on the basis of race, even as it has developed its own perverse form of affirmative action, consciously selecting nonwhite faces to front its agenda.

Rodgers is the female version of Bobby Jindal or Marco Rubio, but without the presidential speculation: Republicans can’t possibly be sexist. Look! They have a woman speaking for them.

But the war on women rages on, no matter who’s in front of the camera. The House Republican majority passed the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, whose purpose is to get private health insurance plans to drop abortion coverage. Last week I pointed to its draconian limitations on rape exceptions.

Rodgers’ talk was also noteworthy for invoking yet another bogus ObamaCare horror story. As Paul Krugman put it:

So was this the best story Ms. McMorris Rodgers could come up with? The answer, probably, is yes, since just about every tale of health reform horror the G.O.P. has tried to peddle has similarly fallen apart once the details were revealed.

Tea Party response. Mike Lee (text, video) did a good job countering the Tea Party’s image as the dangerous lunatics who almost pushed the United States into default last October. The over-arching metaphor of his talk was the journey from Boston (the Boston Tea Party in 1773) to Philadelphia (the Constitution in 1787).

Now, as in 1773, Americans have had it with our out-of-touch national government. But if all we do is protest, our Boston Tea Party moment will occupy little more than a footnote in our history. Hopefully our leaders, reformers and citizens will join the journey from Boston to Philadelphia – from protest to progress. Together we can march forward and take the road that leads to the kind of government we do want.

He mentioned several positive Tea Party proposals in Congress without detailing what they would do. But the mere possibility of “the kind of government we do want” is a significant shift in Tea Party rhetoric. I’ll be interested to see if it catches on inside the Tea Party, or if it’s just for export.

Rand Paul’s response. Rand Paul’s talk was mostly a collection of offensive stereotypes and right-wing fantasies. He used the story of black conservative columnist Star Parker to smear welfare recipients:

She was 23 when she quit her job at the L.A. Times so she could go on welfare. By collecting $465 a month, plus Food Stamps, and by getting a part-time that paid cash under the table, she could rent a nice apartment and earn far more money than working an honest 40-hour week. Later, she said, she had no trouble dropping her daughter off at a government-funded day-care center, selling some free medical vouchers to buy drugs, and hanging out at the beach all afternoon.

It’s Ronald Reagan’s Cadillac-driving welfare queen all over again, or Fox News’ lobster-loving Food Stamp surfer. Are those stories supposed to be typical of the people helped by government anti-poverty programs? Paul seems to think so. After putting a happy ending on Parker’s story — she could only get a real job and climb out of poverty after she gave up her “dependence” on government assistance — Paul says:

I want Star Parker’s story to be the rule, not the exception.

But how is that even possible unless her original situation is the rule? Unless welfare recipients in general are lying, cheating, drug-using, child-neglecting blacks who can get honest jobs whenever they want? I’m sure that’s exactly what Paul’s target audience wants to believe, but is it true? Like Reagan, Paul presents no evidence beyond the anecdote.

Another taffy-pull stretching of the truth was Paul’s claim that Obama has “spent more than a trillion dollars on make-work government jobs”. Actually, that number is somewhere close to zero. For example, a big chunk of the $800 billion stimulus was tax cuts. Some of the stimulus’ other big-ticket items sent money to the states so that revenue shortfalls wouldn’t force them to lay off teachers, and paid for repairs to roads and bridges.

So the next time you drop your kid off at public school or drive across an old bridge, remember that Rand Paul thinks teaching or keeping bridges from falling down are “make-work government jobs”.

Thuggery. The weirdest story of the night was New York Republican Rep. Michael Grimm threatening to throw a reporter “off this fucking balcony” (i.e., the Capitol balcony) for asking a question he didn’t want to answer. “I’ll break you in half,” Grimm warned.

Rudeness to the President. Well, at least this year nobody yelled “You lie!” during the speech, as Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina did in 2009. However, Texas Congressman Randy Webber tweeted:

On floor of house waitin on “Kommandant-In-Chef”… the Socialistic dictator who’s been feeding US a line or is it “A-Lying?”

Another Texas congressman, Steve Stockman (who is Senator Cornyn’s Tea Party challenger in the upcoming primary) walked out of the speech.

Isn’t it an amazing coincidence how Southern Republican Congressmen lost their sense of decorum and their respect for the office of the presidency at the precise moment when a black man was sworn in? Did a memo go out, or did they just know what to do by intuition?

President Obama Tells the Progressive Story of America

What made President Obama’s Second Inaugural the best speech of his presidency was its great theme: He told the story of America as progressives understand it, and connected it with the progressive mission today.

In recent years, liberals have let conservatives own the big-picture story of America. If you hear somebody talking about the Founders and the Constitution, probably it’s Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul or some other hero of the self-styled “patriots” of the Tea Party.

Liberals have been more comfortable talking about peace and justice in the here and now: How are we going to get our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan? What can we do about levels of inequality last seen in the Gilded Age? How are we going to stop gun violence? How can we make sure that the sick, the old, and the disabled get the care they need? Can we stop profit-privatizing/risk-socializing bankers from crashing the economy again? And so on.

Facts vs. visions. I believe liberals actively shy away from this big-picture mythologizing because of our disgust at how conservatives abuse it: They must talk about their grand vision, because when you get down to the nitty-gritty of facts, they are just plain wrong. Rape causes pregnancy. The globe is warming. The rich are getting all the money. The economy has a demand problem. Taxes are low, spending is not out of control, and the federal government can’t go bankrupt.

Let Glenn Beck spin stories about the last 5,000 years, we’d rather point to things that are actually happening and say, “Look! Look!”

And yet … “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Without some larger context, day-to-day political efforts can seem meaningless. Why waste your energy? Make a nice dinner for your family. See a movie. Get ready for that thing at work. The immediate benefits of those efforts are clear. Politics? Not so much.

If conservatives offer their followers a role in the drama of History and we don’t, we will never match their intensity. Worse, by not offering a larger vision, we can seem to consent to the conservative narrative, in which “socialists” from FDR to LBJ to Obama have usurped the “libertarian” Republic of the Founders.

But progressives have their own story of America, and can offer a different role in the drama of History.

Progressive vs. fundamentalist mythology. In general, there are two main ways — fundamentalist and progressive — to turn history into a motivating myth. The generic Fundamentalist Myth begins with a Golden Age of divinely inspired prophets and larger-than-life heroes. From there, we devolved and corrupted their legacy. But deep inside our fallen shells glows the same spark that burned so brightly in them. So if we stoke fire of greatness and scour away the rust of corruption, we can recreate the world they meant for us to have.

a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night

The Progressive Myth reveres its past in a different way. Our legacy consists not of perfect past to which we should strive to return, but of a vision that has shone through the ages, always just out of reach, and of a journey towards that vision.

The Biblical motif is not the Garden of Eden, the Davidic Kingdom, or the Apostolic Church, but the Israelites wandering through the desert: We were slaves in Egypt when Moses gave us — not Freedom — but a vision of Freedom and the hope of a Promised Land. God is with us not as a once-and-future King, but as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, wordlessly marking the direction of our march. We move forward because the only permanent encampment behind us is Pharaoh’s.

It is not hard to see the Fundamentalist Myth in the Tea Party’s version of American history. The Founders are prophets, and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are scripture.

But the Progressive Myth can also apply to American history. And like so much liberal/conservative disagreement, the progressive version stays closer to the facts.

The Second Inaugural Address. President Obama began his speech with the holiest words in the American canon:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

But that was not the establishment of a Golden Age to which we must return. It was the start of a journey with no turning back.

Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.

That journey has had two pieces: Change that became necessary as circumstances changed, and change that became necessary as we reached a clearer vision of the meaning of our founding principles. And so our journey included the abolition of slavery

Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.

the construction of modern infrastructure from the Erie Canal to the interstate highways

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers.

the trust-busting of Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the SEC and other modern regulatory bodies

Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

and Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid

Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

These are not corruptions or usurpations of the Founders’ dream, but its continuing realization.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone.

And we are not done yet.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity — until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.

That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.

Looked at with clear eyes, American history is meaningful only as a place to be from, not a place to go back to. Where would you go? To the slave plantations? To Jim Crow? To the Trail of Tears? To the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory? To Love Canal? To marriages where wives own no property and have rights only through their husbands? To a time when old age and poverty were practically synonymous? Where?

As a nation, we can rightfully take pride in the challenges we have overcome, but not in where we have been. To go back, to give up all that progress, would betray our revolutionary heritage. Our forebears kept moving forward, and so will we.

“Don’t politicize tragedy” is itself partisan rhetoric

Some lines in our political dialog sound non-partisan, but they only come up in a one-sided way. Once the media habit gets established, those unwritten usage rules are very hard to change.

For years now, liberals have been trying to turn judicial activism back against conservatives. But no matter how many Citizens United or Bush v Gore decisions right-wing judges write, judicial activism only has glue on its left side; it won’t stick to the Right.

We shouldn’t politicize this tragedy is similarly one-sided. It is only said in two situations:

  1. To stop liberals from talking about gun control after a mass shooting.
  2. To stop liberals from talking about worker safety after a mine disaster, factory fire, or some other big industrial accident.

It never limits conservatives, who routinely score political points in the wake of tragedy without even a sense of hypocrisy. The possibility that don’t politicize tragedy could apply to them just doesn’t register.

So Fox News’ Megyn Kelly can guiltlessly respond to the Newtown School shooting by asking a security expert:

I have two kids. Now I suddenly want to see an armed police officer in the school. I mean, I never even thought of that prior to now, but what would that take, to have an armed police officer in every school?

Kelly reaching for a more-guns solution is fine, but imagining fewer guns — as Bob Costas did two weeks before — politicizes tragedy.

In any other situation, major loss of life leads to action. The Patriot Act was signed six weeks after 9-11. I don’t recall anyone saying we shouldn’t politicize the tragedy. And as Chris Hayes observed Saturday,

If yesterday we had found out that the shooter’s name was Abdulmutallab and that he had been attending a mosque in Connecticut, everything about the response would be different.

One difference: No one would be shutting down the Islamophobes for politicizing the tragedy.*

The most predictably outrageous politicization of tragedy always comes from the Religious Right. Who can forget Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blaming 9-11 on

the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America

Falwell is dead, but his blame-the-secularists game continues. Thursday, when a Fox News anchor suggested to Mike Huckabee that people might ask “How could God let this happen?”, Huckabee responded by denouncing separation of church and state:

We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? Because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability — that we’re not just going to have be accountable to the police if they catch us, but one day we stand before, you know, a holy God in judgment. If we don’t believe that, then we don’t fear that.

So suggesting any limitation to Second Amendment rights politicizes the tragedy, but it’s fine for Huckabee to advocate against our First Amendment right to be free from an establishment of religion.

Huckabee was not alone. Bryan Fischer also started with “Where was God?”and went the same place with it:

Here’s the bottom line: God is not going to go where He’s not wanted. Now we have spent — since 1962, we’re 50 years into this now — we have spent 50 years telling God to get lost.

He then went through a litany First Amendment cases that limit Christian establishment before concluding:

We’ve kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us: “Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first.”

I’m sure the Amish parents of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania wonder how exactly they banished God from their schoolhouse before five of their daughters were gunned down in 2006. But apparently Fischer’s God** is subject to the same rule as vampires: Even if He wants to help, He’s stuck on the threshold until somebody invites Him in.

In short, liberals: Don’t be cowed by people who tell you not to politicize a mass shooting or a mine cave-in. The don’t-politicize rule applies only to you. Whenever conservatives can spin a tragedy to their advantage, they will, and the self-appointed umpires who criticize you now will be completely silent.


*The same people who blame Islam for any crime by a guy with a Arab name — they twisted themselves into pretzels denying Christianity’s responsibility for Anders Breivik’s mass murder of liberal children in Norway (even though Breivik styled himself as a defender of Christendom). “No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder,” Bill O’Reilly declared.

If you would laugh at a Muslim who said that about believers in Allah, you should laugh at O’Reilly too.


**In some ways conservative Christians preachers are a special case, because their flocks do ask “Where was God?” and the ministers have no answer. The question points to a hole in their theology: If the Universe were governed by the God they describe (all-powerful, loving, good, and personally involved), these things would not happen. It’s that simple. It’s not a paradox or a mystery, it’s just a contradiction.

They can’t admit that, so they have to deflect blame onto someone else.

Believe in America, Mitt

Now available on t-shirts. Click the image.

When Mitt Romney wrapped up the Republican nomination in April, I framed the next phase of the campaign in terms of four narratives: pro/anti-Obama and pro/anti-Romney. The anti-Romney narrative was:

You should vote against Romney because he’s not on your side. His policies favor the rich because he’s rich, he’s always been rich, and the rich are the only people he understands or cares about.

In the last few weeks we’ve seen Obama’s people establishing that narrative and Romney’s people floundering to counter it. The threads of that story are Romney killing American jobs while he was at Bain Capital and Romney maneuvering around taxes by running his money through Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland.

When this stuff came up in the Republican primaries, Romney toughed it out by saying his critics were jealous of his successhe did nothing illegal, and he wasn’t going to talk about it.

Those answers worked then for two reasons:

But Romney should fire whoever told him the same answers would work now. The Republican establishment may have whipped Gingrich and Perry into line, but they can’t make Obama back off. And general-election swing voters do see tax evasion as a moral issue. It’s not enough for Romney’s high-priced accountants to follow the letter of the law. When the rich wriggle out of taxes by using special dodges not available to working people, that’s not clever, it’s sleezy.

Plus, it undermines the pro-Romney narrative, which I phrased like this:

This country is going the wrong way and Romney is a smart executive who knows how to turn things around.

Sure, Romney is smart. But is he Steven Jobs smart or Bernie Madoff smart? Swiss bank accounts, Bermuda shell corporations, deals where Romney walks away with all the money and everybody else gets screwed … what does that sound like?

Once you get past first impressions, the argument over Bain turns technical, which is never good for a politician trying to dispel a bad odor. (That’s what Lee Atwater meant when he said, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing” — a line Romney misquoted and apparently doesn’t understand.) Romney’s defense against the job-exporter charge is that Bain outsourced to Mexico and China only after Romney left in 1999 to run the Salt Lake City Olympics. That answer temporarily convinced New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who, in a remarkably balanced analysis, concluded that Obama’s attacks were false … until the next shoe dropped and he had to write an update.

The next shoe was the Boston Globe uncovering filings with the SEC in which Bain listed Romney as CEO up to 2002 and said he made a six-figure salary for what he now claims was a no-show job. Also, when Massachusetts Democrats challenged his residency prior to his 2002 run for governor (partly because Romney had been avoiding state taxes by listing his Utah home as his primary residence), Mitt claimed he was merely “on leave” from Boston-based Bain, making Massachusetts his real home.

So where Romney lives, who he works for, and the location of his money all vary depending on who’s asking and why.

Shifty. Sleezy. And in retrospect, maybe not as clever as he thought.

On Friday, Romney broke out of his bubble and let himself be interviewed by every major news network other than MSNBC. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t understand the playbook for such situations. Unlike, say, Barack Obama trying to settle the Jeremiah Wright controversy or the Clintons responding to Gennifer Flowers’ charges, Romney offered no deeper insight into himself and no broader frame for the story as a whole. Instead, he just put his own face behind the unconvincing denials his people had already offered.

Two media responses to the Romney interview blitz sum up how ineffective it was. Rachel Maddow (of the spurned MSNBC) laughed at the situation:

And Forbes’ T. J. Walker captured how little Romney had settled in 35 Questions Mitt Romney Must Answer About Bain Capital Before The Issue Can Go Away.

Meanwhile, there’s some evidence that the Bain story is moving the polls in swing states, where Obama is running ads like this one.

But at this stage, the main thing is the narrative, not the polls. Come November, both Romney and Obama will need a closing argument to convince those last few undecideds. That argument will have to build on the stories being established now. “I’m a smart executive” is not going to do the job.

What Happened in Wisconsin?

Short version: The long anticipated recall of Governor Scott Walker fizzled. Walker won the rematch against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by almost exactly the same margin (53%-46%) as their 2010 race.

Longer version: Split decision. The Democrats appear to have won one of the four state senate recall elections. The Republican hasn’t conceded and a recount seems likely, but if the 779-vote margin holds up, Democrats will control the Wisconsin senate.

So the upshot is that the union-busting Walker has already done will stand for another two years, as will his education cuts and the voter suppression law (if it ultimately survives its court challenge). But Walker won’t get any new shenanigans through the legislature until at least 2013, if then. That’s a big improvement on the way things were when the demonstrations started in February, 2011. Then Walker had solid majorities in both houses and could do pretty much whatever he wanted.

What it means. Everybody has been working hard to spin the result. Republicans want it to be a vindication of Walker’s policies and a sign that Romney can win Wisconsin in the fall. Democrats want to read it either as a rejection of the recall process itself, with little meaning for President Obama or even for Walker’s re-election in 2014, or as a sign of the Citizens United apocalypse, in which massive contributions from the very wealthy can buy a result.

Exit polls. The big reason to doubt Obama is in trouble in Wisconsin is Tuesday’s exit poll: Obama over Romney 51%-44%.

Republicans spin this by claiming the poll had a Democratic bias:

Considering the exit polls the media relied on showed a razor-thin difference between Walker and his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the logic behind some huge lead for Obama, produced by the same exit polls, melts away. Walker defeated Barrett by a 7-point margin.

Apply that same analysis to Obama’s 7-point lead in the same exit polls and the race in Wisconsin is actually closer to being dead even.

This point is bogus. The early exit poll, reflecting only people who voted in the morning, showed a neck-and-neck race between Walker and Barrett. But Obama’s 7-point lead comes from the final exit poll, which shows Walker winning by about the right margin. (Atlantic’s Molly Ball describes how exit polls work.)

Doubting the process. Walker got 53% of the vote. But according to the exit poll, 70% of the voters were dubious about whether a recall was appropriate at all. Of the 10% who said a recall was “never” appropriate, 94% voted for Walker. 60% believe in recalls “only for official misconduct”; Walker got 68% of their votes.

I think the wording of the choices skewed this result a little. The only other option — that a recall is appropriate “for any reason” — is too loose.  The actual justification for the recall — that compared to Walker’s radical policies, his vaguely conservative 2010 campaign amounted to fraud — might have gotten more than 27% agreement.

Still, it does seem that many voters set Walker a lower bar than he’d face in a regular election. For them, the question wasn’t whether Walker or Barrett would be a better governor, but whether Walker had done anything so egregious that the 2010 election should be overturned.

A good comparison here was the Clinton impeachment. Many people who disliked Clinton’s policies and thought his sexual escapades were shameful nonetheless believed that impeachment was unwarranted.

Not like Ohio. Another instructive comparison is Ohio, where Governor Kasich’s similarly vague cut-spending/create-jobs 2010 campaign led to a similarly radical ALEC agenda after the election. As in Wisconsin, Kasich’s attack on workers’ rights led to a popular backlash.

But Ohio’s constitution allows the voters to go after laws directly. So last November Ohio repealed Kasich’s anti-union S.B. 5 in a referendum by a 61%-39% margin.

In Wisconsin, the voters’ only recourse was to recall the people it had just elected, and the recall couldn’t begin until the officials had served a year in office. As a result, Tuesday’s recall was the culmination of more than a year of political turmoil: Democratic senators escaping to Illinois to deny Walker a quorum, the April 2011 Supreme Court election, and the state senate recall elections of last summer.

So it’s not surprising that some fed-up voters would be angry the recall itself. As one questioner at Netroots Nation’s Wisconsin post-mortem panel commented Friday: “If Wisconsin had had the same mechanism as Ohio, if we’d been able to go directly after the law, we would have gotten the same result.” (I watched the session’s livestream and haven’t re-watched the tape, so my quotations are only approximate. The fuzzily-sourced quotes below are due to my sketchy notes.)

Madison was the first Occupation

The message disconnect. The massive demonstrations in Madison in 2011 were the prototype for Occupy Wall Street. The Wisconsin protests had the same grass-roots, horizontally organized structure and the same independence from parties and candidates. As Harry Waisbren put it at Netroots Nation:

This movement is not about electing Democrats, it’s about ending the corporate subversion of our democracy.

But that led to a problem: The Occupy-style grass-roots movement was great at collecting one million signatures for the recall-Walker petition. But as soon as that petition was filed, the focus of the process necessarily shifted to electing Democrats — precisely what the movement is not about. Election campaigns continue to be top-down political-consultant-driven operations.

Things got worse after the primary, which was won by the centrist Barrett rather than the activists’ favorite candidate, Kathleen Falk. So rather than a referendum to restore workers’ rights, public education, and environmental protections, the campaign became a generic do-over of the 2010 Walker/Barrett race. As one Netroots Nation panelist put it:

Barrett never really focused on the messages that were coming up from the grass roots.

Now, maybe Barrett looked at his polling and decided those issues were losers. Who knows? But as a result, the logic of the recall slipped away. “The narrative was lost,” Waisbren commented. That led directly to the sense of the recall’s illegitimacy that was expressed in the exit poll.

Walker’s money advantage. This was the most expensive campaign in Wisconsin history, and Walker had an overwhelming money advantage. Mother Jones provides this chart:

In addition to these millions, millions more were spent by outside groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity on “issue ads” that couldn’t directly say “Vote for Walker”, but left little doubt who you should support. All told, the Center for Public Integrity estimates that $63.5 million was spent. Walker’s ads started appearing back in November. As one Netroots Nation panelist said:

No one who lives in Wisconsin could doubt that Walker owned the airwaves.

What money can do. A lot of people are skeptical that it’s possible to buy an election. History is full of well-financed candidates who went nowhere, like Rudy Giuliani in 2008 or Phil Gramm in 1996. As Giulani now says:

Campaign spending doesn’t mean anything because you can spend it incorrectly.

Similarly, Rudy could say that being seven feet tall doesn’t mean anything in basketball, because you might be clumsy. But what if you’re not? What can you do with a cash advantage like Walker’s if you spend it correctly?

Obviously, nobody’s going to vote for Walker just because they’ve heard “Vote for Walker” 100 times and “Vote for Barrett” only 10-15 times. Where Walker-level money comes into play isn’t just in repetition, it’s in re-defining reality.

The jobs issue was a key example. The slogan of Walker’s controversial 2011 budget was “Wisconsin is Open for Business“. His agenda’s whole point was that industry would create jobs if the state cut corporate taxes, broke unions, and stopped protecting workers and the environment.

It hasn’t worked. The Wisconsin Budget Project looked at statistics from the Federal Reserve and concluded:

If we use December 2010 as our baseline for analysis, the newly released data indicate that only one other state (Alaska) has experienced slower growth than Wisconsin.

And Bloomberg News — hardly a left-wing outfit — reported:

Wisconsin was ranked last among states and the District of Columbia in economic health in 2011, the first year of Walker’s tenure, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States.

Walker didn’t like those numbers, so he made up his own. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said Wisconsin had lost 33,900 jobs. But Walker’s re-analysis said that Wisconsin had gained 23,321 jobs. And then he blanketed the airwaves with this ad:

As Netroots Nation panelist Emily Mills pointed out, any state could adjust its numbers in the same way:

Whatever metric you use on jobs, if you apply the same metric to every state, Wisconsin is still dead last.

But nobody had millions of dollars to spread that message across the state, so Walker’s message stood.

That’s Wisconsin’s lesson for the post-Citizens-United era: The best use of money in politics is to define reality. Don’t just tell citizens to vote for you, create a virtual world in which voting for you makes sense.

What it means for November. Mitt Romney has a lot of disadvantages: He’s not very likeable. He’s a bad campaigner who has a habit of saying things like “I like to be able to fire people” and “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” He’s a wooden debater who has yet to appear outside the conservative bubble. He has taken a lot of radical right-wing positions that he’ll have a hard time running away from. And he’s the poster boy for income inequality and financiers run amok.

But you have to give Romney this: He knows how to raise vast amounts of money and bury his opponents with it. And he has no scruples about redefining reality.

Limitless amounts of money are going to be spent in the fall. And while Obama is no slouch as a fund-raiser, he’s going to be outspent by a wide margin, especially if you count the corporate-funded outside groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s Crossroads, whose ads I’ve already seen repeatedly during the NBA playoffs.

The bulk of that money isn’t going to be spent saying “Vote for Romney”. It’s going to be used to redefine reality. Millions already believe (falsely) that Obama raised their taxes, that he cut defense, that he isn’t really an American citizen, that he’s secretly Muslim, that the stimulus didn’t create jobs, and on and on and on. By November, millions more will believe other false things that make it logical to support Romney over Obama.

In Wisconsin, Obama currently benefits a little from Walker’s redefinition of reality: If the Wisconsin economy is getting better, maybe Obama isn’t so bad.

But now that Walker is safe until 2014, the up-is-down campaign will reverse itself. Wisconsinites can expect to start hearing that they’re in a depression, that things were never this bad under President Bush, and so on. It will make a difference.

A 7% difference? Too soon to tell.

Challenging the Inquisition

In April I linked to a Religious News Service article about the Vatican’s attempt to rein in American nuns. Boiled down, Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (or, as it was called in its glory days, the Inquisition) complained that the nuns were thinking for themselves rather than letting the bishops think for them, and letting human suffering distract them from fighting the culture wars.

Rome’s solution was to put a man in charge of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious*, which represents 45,000 American nuns. Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, will (in his own words) “review, guide and approve, where necessary, the work of the L.C.W.R.”

Picking up the gauntlet. Apparently, LCWR will not take this meekly. After a three-day meeting, LCWR’s board released a statement saying (more or less) that the Inquisitors don’t know what the Hell they’re talking about:

[LCWR] board members raised concerns about both the content of the doctrinal assessment and the process by which it was prepared. Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency. Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission. The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.

Unsubstantiated accusations, lack of transparency, and a flawed process, leading to disproportionate sanctions that cause scandal and pain … who would expect this from the Inquisition, given its sterling historical reputation?

LCWR’s president and executive director plan to go to Rome on June 12 to “raise and discuss the board’s concerns” with Sartain and his boss, Prefect (or, as the office used to be called, Grand Inquisitor) Cardinal William Levada.

Even after meeting the Grand Inquisitor face-to-face, the LCWR does not promise to obey, but only to “gather its members both in regional meetings and in its August assembly to determine its response”.

Conscience vs. obedience. So far, the Inquisition show no signs of being worried about the nuns’ response. Sartain’s recent article in the Catholic weekly America reads like the kind of flattery you shower on subordinates you expect to have no trouble with. (“That’s a good girl. Daddy’s proud of you.”**) He refers only obliquely and abstractly to his new role and mission, while effusively praising the obedient nuns of the past.

But in spite of having all the institutional power on its side, perhaps the Inquisition should be worried. A responding America article from Fordham University ethics professor Christine Firer Hines (not a nun) paints a more challenging picture:

Catholics sometimes compare the church to a corporation or a military organization, with clergy, religious, and laity answerable to bishops and pope as their top executives and CEO. From this (ecclesiologically dubious) vantagepoint, “wayward” behavior of L.C.W.R. members or their affiliates endangers the church’s discipline, and requires firm correction …

As Vatican II affirms, the episcopal office uniquely serves the revealed truth of the gospel. But that truth resides in and with the whole church. Beholden to military or business organizational models, pundits who deride L.C.W.R. sisters for posturing falsely as a “magisterium of nuns” disrespect the authentic authority not only of religious communities, but of the laity in their various charisms and vocations. Because the official magisterium does not have a monopoly on gospel truth, office-holders must constantly listen for that truth in the whole church …

From this point of view, the Vatican intervention, intended to “assist the L.C.W.R. in implementing necessary reforms” to bring it more fully in line with “an ecclesiology of communion,” cannot be properly understood as a one-way street. The very meaning of “communion” forbids this. … If bridges toward communion are to be strengthened in this process, what John Paul II calls the “dialogue that leads to repentance” must work in both directions.

In addition to implying that Rome’s treatment of women might have left it with something to repent, Hines’ implicit framing (“the magisterium” vs. “the whole church”) invites lay Catholics to interpret the hierarchy’s disrespect for the nuns as disrespect for them as well: Only the conscience of a bishop is valid; all others must simply get in line.

On the blog Catholic Moral Theology, St. John’s University theology professor Christopher Vogt uses similar framing:

It seems to me that one of the questions at the heart of this controversy is whether acting in conscience is primarily about being obedient to authority or about conscientious discernment.

He quotes the Inquisition’s assessment of LCWR:

Some speakers claim that dissent from the doctrine of the Church is justified as an exercise of the prophetic office.  But this is based upon a mistaken understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in the Church: it justifies dissent by positing the possibility of divergence between the Church’s magisterium and a ‘legitimate’ theological intuition of some of the faithful.

The assessment denies that possibility, leading Vogt to comment:

According to this framework, there is no possibility for the bishops ever to learn anything from the laity.  The bishops are never wrong; they don’t need any help.  Such a view collapses the tension we find in the [Second Vatican] Council documents which try to balance an affirmation of the importance and legitimacy of magisterial authority with the recognition that sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks authentically to the faithful in a manner that doesn’t pass through Rome – in the depths of their hearts.

It’s not just lay Catholic intellectuals who have taken up the nuns cause. The NYT reports:

Catholics in more than 50 cities held vigils and more than 52,000 have signed a petition in support of the sisters, organized by the Nun Justice Project, a coalition of liberal Catholic groups. The project is telling Catholics to withhold their donations to Peter’s Pence, a special collection sent to the Vatican, and give the money instead to local nuns’ groups.

Whose religious freedom? This argument comes at a time when the hierarchy is invoking “religious freedom” against the contraception provisions of Obamacare. But they defend an odd kind of religious freedom that America’s Founders would barely recognize: the freedom of religious institutions, a right virtually unrelated to (and sometimes at odds with) the consciences of individuals who are not bishops.

Meanwhile, Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association — a consortium of organizations more directly affected by the contraception mandate — was happy with the compromise the Obama administration offered:

We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished.

Commonweal, a left-leaning Catholic political journal, described the bishops’ argument as “hyperbolic” and warned:

If defending religious freedom becomes a partisan issue or, worse, an electoral ploy, it will engender enormous cynicism in an electorate in which a significant majority of voters already think religion is too politicized. … In their simplistic rhetoric, the bishops sound more like politicians than pastors.

Catholic Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne commented: “Many bishops seem to want this fight.” And on the NYT Opinionator blog, Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting first dissects the bishops’ arguments, then says:

their often demagogic reaction suggests political rather than religious concerns. There is, first, the internal politics of the Church, where the bishops find themselves, especially on matters of sexuality, increasingly isolated from most Church members; they seem desperate to rally at least a fervid core of supporters around their fading authority. But the timing of their outbursts also suggests a grasp for secular political power.

The wider issue. The Commonweal editorial quotes research from sociologists David Campbell and Robert Putnam showing that the politicization of churches is causing young adults to disengage from organized religion, a message similar to the one David Kinnaman (president of the evangelical Protestant research organization the Barna Group) put forward in the 2007 book unChristian

A similar message based on personal experience was in the blog post “How to win a culture war and lose a generation” I linked to two weeks ago, in which Rachel Held Evans described her 20-something generation as “ready to stop waging war and start washing feet”.

This is an issue that crosses denominational lines. In one sense, it is Christianity’s perennial doctrinal purity vs. good works conflict. But it seems to be striking this generation with particular force. More and more young adults want to know not which religion is winning or even which religion is right, but whether any religion does any good.

Through their lives of service, the nuns are showing one way to answer that question. The bishops seem deaf to it.***


* Translation from the Catholic: religious in this context comes from the Latin religata, meaning bound. In other words, these are not just women who have “got religion”, but women bound by their vows to the Church; i.e., nuns.

** Not a direct quote.

*** Probably you’ve already run into the story of Cardinal Dolan’s threat that Catholic organizations will halt their charitable work rather than comply with the contraception mandate. I’m not linking to that claim because I still haven’t found an unedited tape or transcript of enough of Dolan’s remarks to convince me he wasn’t taken out of context.

Citizen of the highest bidder

When a story is being spun wildly in more than one direction, it’s important to start with facts: One of Facebook’s initial investors, Eduardo Saverin, has renounced his American citizenship in favor of Singapore, where he had already been living as an American ex-patriate. Because Singapore has no capital gains tax, making the switch before Friday’s Facebook IPO may have saved Saverin many millions of dollars.

Apparently he made the switch in September, but it wasn’t widely known until his name appeared on a government ex-citizens list on April 30. That made Saverin the central figure in stories that Right and Left had been writing before they knew he was involved.

The Right’s story. The growing numbers of citizenship renunciations (up about fourfold from the Bush administration average, but still just 1800 in 2011) was already being trumpeted as cause for alarm on April 23 by the Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn. As far as I know, no one has checked who all these 1800 are or asked them why they don’t want to be Americans any more, but McGurn is sure they are rich people fleeing oppressive American taxes.

when it comes to the global inefficiencies of our tax code, these 1,800 ex-Americans are canaries in the coal mine. Our tax code—and especially the onerous reporting requirements that come with it—is turning U.S. citizens into economic lepers.

His conclusion is that the U.S. needs to become “more competitive” by not taxing money that American citizens make overseas. This is related to another popular conservative talking point, but the U.S. should declare a tax holiday to allow American corporations to repatriate profits made overseas either tax-free or at a reduced rate.

On May 8, Bruce Bartlett addressed the ex-citizen issue in the NYT, doubting that any large number of the renunciations were due to taxes, but agreeing that there is a problem. Again, Saverin did not come up.

Saverin got attached to the story sometime in the next few days. Bloomberg was on it by May 11. And then things started to get crazy: Forbes’ John Tamny declared Saverin “an American hero“.

If you’re having trouble follow that logic — how exactly does declaring that you’re not an American any more make you an American hero? —  Tamny explains:

Saverin’s decision will starve the feds of revenue they would almost certainly waste, it will force a rethink of a tax code that penalizes income and investment success, and the unconsumed dollars kept from the hands of government will reach today’s and tomorrow’s businesses. Let’s raise a glass to Eduardo Saverin. He’s a true American hero.

Tamny hopes this will lead us to see the folly of the income tax, abolish the IRS, and institute a consumption tax instead (because apparently you get out of a recession by spending less and saving more, contrary to anything those stupid economists might tell you).

And if the tax is regressive or hits low incomes at the same percentage as high ones, all the better.

And if the world loses faith in the U.S. government’s ability to meet its obligations, that’s good too.

That Saverin has chosen to avoid supporting the Leviathan is a heroic act that will hopefully make investors a little bit more gun-shy about investing in U.S. debt.

Because every patriot wants to see his government default, I guess.

The Left’s story. For the Left, Saverin put a face on the Unpatriotic Rich, who (if they are loyal to anything beyond themselves) identify with their class rather than their country. The Nation’s Ilse Hogue:

[Saverin] has made himself the poster child for the callous class of 1 percenters who are all too happy to use national resources to enrich themselves, and then skate, or cry foul, when asked to pay their fair share.

Saverin’s wealthy Brazilian family moved to Miami when 13-year-old Eduardo’s name turned up on a list of kidnap-for-ransom targets. America kept him safe, and then let him into Harvard, which was generous enough to assign him a roommate with a $100-billion idea. (I wonder who he’d have roomed with at University of Singapore.)

I’m sure Saverin will be eternally grateful for those and many other favors America did him. But gratitude is a mere sentiment, and who thinks sentiment is worth tens of millions? (Did I mention that Singapore has no capital gains tax?)

A quick segue will take you to bankers who spout libertarian rhetoric about food stamps but demand that there be no strings attached to their bailout, or industrialists who want government subsidies to help them move American jobs to China. The rich only care about America if they can make money off of it. If not, bye-bye.

Of course, switching your loyalty for money is not new — it’s what Benedict Arnold did. We used to have a name for such people: traitors.

That’s the sentiment behind Senator Schumer’s proposal to levy a punitive capital gains tax on citizenship-renouncing Americans.

To sum up the liberal point: If we’re going to continue being the kind of country where people can get rich — a country with roads and schools and courts and police and a viable currency and salmonella-free food and a communications system and medical care and sidewalks clear of emaciated corpses — rich people are going to have to pay taxes. If they regard that as an imposition rather than a duty, they’re just proving how unpatriotic they are.

Saverin may illustrate that story, but we were telling it already.

Market society. I think a more interesting conversation comes from another pre-Saverin story: Michael J. Sandel’s “What Isn’t for Sale?” from the April Atlantic.

The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t.

There’s a pretty broad consensus that America should have a market economy. In other words: The price of potatoes and beachfront property and replacement car batteries should be determined by supply and demand rather than set by a bureaucrat. A century ago, intelligent people could disagree about whether a centrally planned economy might work better. But after the bad example of the Soviet Union, we’ll stick with markets.

The problem, Sandel says, is that more and more we have not just a market economy, but a market society, a place where everything is for sale and everything is judged by market values. The problem with selling, say, transplantable kidneys, isn’t whether the price will be determined by markets or regulated by the government; the problem is selling them at all.

Some things just shouldn’t be part of the market economy. But what things?

Let’s suppose that Saverin didn’t just fall in love with Singapore one day, but that his accountant calculated that Singapore offered him a better deal than America. Is it wrong for him to take that deal? Why, exactly? What is the proper boundary between things that ought to be for sale and things that ought not?

Sandel sees that boundary sliding and thinks we need to have a serious conversation about how far it will go. Should first class passengers have a faster TSA line or not? Should rich prisoners be able to buy a cell upgrade or not? Should you be able to hire a surrogate womb to carry your fetus or not? Should parentless babies be auctioned off or not?

Consider privatized juvenile prisons. A decade or two ago, no one would even have suggested such a thing. A decade or two before that, no one would have suggested pushing sugary drinks or fatty sandwichs in public high schools in exchange for funding from Coke or Burger King. Of course you’ve always needed money to run a school or a prison, but schools and prisons weren’t about money. Today, some of them are.

Moving from a drafted citizen army to a professional army was a step towards market society. Moving from a professional public army to a contracted private army would be another. How far should we go?

Once we named parks and arenas for heroes. Now we auction naming rights off to the highest bidder. What values get reinforced every time we go to AT&T Park or Sports Authority Field (both of which I had to correct after remembering their “old” names of Pac Bell and Invesco)?

Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.

When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way.

Is citizenship one of those goods? Why or why not?

How Understanding Should Liberals Be?

In a polarized world, it’s tempting and satisfying to think: My side is right and the other side is wrong. We represent truth, justice, and all that is good; they represent lies, corruption, and all that is evil. So the most direct way to improve the world is for Us to kick the crap out of Them.

As a liberal, though, I sometimes find it just as tempting (and satisfying in a different way) to think: No one has a monopoly on Truth; there are wise and good people on all sides. Democracy doesn’t work without compromise, and for any conflict there’s usually a higher Truth that transcends both poles. So it’s important for the wise and good people on all sides to stay in dialog and work towards understanding and consensus. Only then can we achieve the kind of win/win solutions that move humanity forward.

On one path, anger and self-righteousness provide energy and direction. On the other, identification with the yet-to-be-discovered wisdom of the future yields a softer (but perhaps more lasting) determination.

Each attitude (if I’m being really honest) offers its own kind of ego boost. In one, I’m superior to those stupid and corrupt conservatives; in the other I’m superior to everyone who hasn’t been to the mountaintop and seen my vision – or at least the vision that I plan to see when I get to the mountaintop.

In the blogosphere, kick-the-crap-out-of-them liberals and find-the-higher-truth liberals have their own polarization, which often manifests in bitter fights between idealists and pragmatists. So in this post, I’m doing what any good meta-liberal would do: I’m searching for the higher truth that transcends the conflict between crap-kicking liberals and conflict-transcending liberals.

The text for my sermon is Jonathan Haidt’s recent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Obviously, Haidt hails from the conflict-transcending tribe. He describes himself as a life-long liberal from academia, but living among the common people in India opened his eyes to the worthiness of conservative values like in-group loyalty and respect for authority, and the data he has collected since convinces him that there is wisdom on both sides.

Now if only all the wise and good people could transcend polarization and get into dialog.

Not so fast. If Haidt had completely convinced me, I would write a polemic about how conflict-transcending liberals need to kick the crap out of the crap-kicking liberals who poison the dialog that we otherwise could be having with wise and good conservatives.

But I also read Charles Blow’s post in February, showing that compromise itself is a liberal value conservatives don’t share. In poll after poll, Democrats say their leaders should compromise to get something done, while Republicans say their leaders should stick to conservative principles.

Given that difference, the path of least resistance is for Democrats to compromise and Republicans to move ever further to the right. So the Heritage Foundation’s conservative alternative to HillaryCare begets ObamaCare, which Heritage now denounces as an unconstitutional Marxist plot to take over the economy.

I sometimes imagine inviting the Ricks (Santorum and Warren) to a dialog aimed at finding a truth that transcends both my secularism and their Christianity. It’s a non-starter. To the Ricks, the very idea of a truth transcending Christianity is Satanic. Even liberal Christianity might be Satanic.

Worse, you can’t negotiate with Wisdom and Goodness when Lies and Corruption are in the driver’s seat. Think about climate change: The “controversy” over global warming comes not from the laboratories of dissident scientists, but from the board rooms of Exxon-Mobil and Koch Energy.

Corporations are sociopaths; they aren’t influenced by arguments about truth and goodness. So whatever evidence emerges, fossil-fuel companies (and their PR firms, lobbyists, and senators) will challenge the scientific consensus on global warming until they’ve sold the last trainload of coal to the last power plant to run the last air conditioner.

How do you find common ground with that? Don’t we just have to win?

Haidt’s case. Armored with appropriate skepticism, then, let’s look at what Haidt has to say.

Haidt has very artfully organized his book to illustrate his own principles. He believes people first react to an idea intuitively, and only then engage their rational minds to justify their reaction. So Haidt knows that if he turns people off on page 1, none of the evidence he offers later will get a fair hearing. So instead he engagingly tells the story of how he got to his conclusions while saving the conclusions themselves until the end.

He offers (and supports with data) a model of how this all-powerful moral intuition works: Humans have evolved to ‘taste’ six different moral ‘flavors’. Four are easy to describe:

  • Care/harm. Don’t hurt the innocent, especially if they’re cute and helpless.
  • Loyalty/betrayal. Don’t break your agreements or sabotage the team.
  • Authority/subversion. Don’t get uppity and disrespect your betters.
  • Sanctity/degradation. Don’t break your community’s fundamental taboos.

Haidt spells out the emotions these flavors evoke – violations of sanctity evoke disgust, for example, while violations of loyalty evoke rage – and how these responses (even the ones that contradict others) might have evolved.

Originally fairness was a fifth flavor, but eventually he realized that this word is used ambiguously for two different flavors.

  • Liberty/oppression. Nobody is inherently better than anybody else. Example: Count each person’s vote equally.
  • Fairness/cheating. Rewards should be proportional to contributions. Example: People who worker harder should make more money.

The punch line is that liberal moral arguments focus on Care and Liberty, while conservatives season their arguments with all six flavors. (Again, there’s supporting data.)

Politically, Haidt’s book has two big takeaways for liberals: (1) We should learn how to appeal to a wider palate. (2) Conservatives aren’t evil, they just taste different flavors of morality.

Not so fast, part II. I can buy (1), but I’ve got problems with (2). First, I taste those other flavors, I’m just deeply ambivalent about them, because I understand how they can serve evil purposes as easily as good: Being a team player and respecting authority can be bad (say, when you’re in Nazi Germany). Sanctity provides the ugh-factor that justifies oppression of out-groups like homosexuals. Distributing rewards proportionately to contributions can hide an unequal distribution of the opportunities to contribute.

I love a good strong salty taste, but it makes me worry about the value of what I’m eating.

Second, go back to my Exxon-Mobil example: Corporations don’t taste any flavors of morality, they just know how to manipulate the people who do. Fry up some pink slime, add a bunch of salt, and it tastes great!

How understanding do I want to be? But now I’m leaning too far over in the crap-kicking direction. I promised some transcendence. So here’s how much of Haidt I take to heart:

First, liberals need to distinguish what we’re fighting for from who we’re fighting with.

That dittohead friend from high school or the cousin who forwards right-wing viral emails – you probably already realize that they’re not bad people. If you can stand to talk politics at all with them, Haidt has a lot to tell you: You’re never going to convince them by yelling your liberal values back at them. To be convincing, you need to understand what flavor of morality they find in the positions they’re taking, echo that value to the extent you honestly can, and then detach it from the case at hand while you add liberal flavors to the stew.

But lies are poison, no matter how they’re flavored. You can cut some slack for the woman in the next cubicle who tells you Obama is a Kenyan. But you can’t cut any slack for the lie itself. “Why do you believe that?” invites dialog, but “You might be right” just surrenders.

And that TV-talking-head that a Koch-Brothers astroturf group pays to lie for them? He’s evil. Don’t waste your compassion trying to understand anything deeper about him than his paycheck.

Compromise on proposals, not principles. There’s nothing wrong with supporting the best proposal you can pass, even if the other side also manages to get some of its agenda in as well. That’s how democracy works.

For example, the 15th Amendment guaranteed black men the right to vote. Some feminists opposed it, because it should have given women the right to vote as well.

In principle, they were right: It should have. But I’m glad the 15th Amendment passsed, especially since the 19th Amendment eventually followed.

But no post-Civil-War liberal should have said, “It’s good that the 15th Amendment doesn’t apply to women.” Pass as much as you can, but never surrender your intention to come back for more.

Liberal/conservative isn’t symmetric. Haidt is right that six-flavor conservatism has an inherent advantage over two-flavor liberalism. We just don’t have as many ways to provoke a knee-jerk response. That’s why conservatism corrolates with low-effort thought.

That’s also why we can’t just invert the knee-jerk arguments of the right. The correct response to “Black people are bad” isn’t “White people are bad.” “America is always right” shouldn’t lead to “America is always wrong.”

Our side needs nuance. We need to engage thought rather than shut it down.

In particular, we need nuance when we respond to books like The Righteous Mind. The proper response to “Conservatives are good people” isn’t “Conservatives are bad people.” It’s “In what cases and what ways are conservatives good, and how can we engage them there without betraying our own values?”

Jobs, Hobbies, and Reflections on a Viral Post

Last week I wrote Rich People Don’t Have Jobs to point out one of the most important distinctions in American life: the one that separates the people who work out of necessity from the people who either don’t work or work purely for personal satisfaction.

Usually, a distinction that basic corresponds to a pair of one-syllable words: young/old, boy/girl, rich/poor, black/white, smart/dumb, gay/straight, and so on. People like to talk about important categories, so they give them nice short names.

But what happens when there’s a distinction people don’t talk about? Then the words are longer and sound like scientific classifications. When I was young, nobody was supposed to talk about men who love men or women who love women, so they were homosexuals rather than heterosexuals. I first heard the word gay (in that sense) in the 70s, right about the time it became OK to talk about gays.

You know you’ve really hit a taboo subject when you can’t think of a word at all. Picture Freud laboriously searching his dictionary, looking for the word that describes a boy’s lust for his mother. Sorry, Sigmund, you’ll have to coin oedipal yourself.

That’s where I was. I’m not as creative with mythology as Freud, but I suppose I could have hyphenated something: necessity-workers and satisfaction-workers, say. It would have sounded sociological, an academic distinction rather than something people butt their heads against every day.

The other approach is to be outrageous. Gay was outrageous, back when it was coined. It made boys smirk at the idea of donning “gay apparel” at Christmas, or Fred and Barney having “a gay old time” down in Bedrock. A lot of people hated the homosexual community’s appropriation of a perfectly good one-syllable word – as if homosexuality were something people should want to talk about, as if English should reconfigure itself to make those conversations easier.

I decided to be outrageous. So I called work-you-do-out-of-necessity a job and work-you-do-for-satisfaction a hobby. “Rich people don’t have jobs,” I said, “they have hobbies.”

I heard from a lot of people who hated it. (And others who loved it.) Many wanted to talk about the words rather than what they represented. Some accused me of saying that rich people don’t work. (I didn’t.) Or of denigrating well-to-do “hobbyists”. (Why anyone would feel denigrated to be classed with Warren Buffett and Tiger Woods escapes me.) There were the usual write-offs of “class warfare”. Some of the wilder comments I saw were by Facebook friends of my article-sharing Facebook friends. (One thought the point of my post was to beatify my mother and demonize Ann Romney.)

Here’s what I think is going on: America is in denial about inequality and class. It’s fine to talk (occasionally) about rich and poor, but only as a difference of degree. The one has a new BMW and the other an old junker, but they both get where they’re going. The one eats at a four-star restaurant while the other has a bag lunch, but they both eat.

What’s taboo is to suggest that there’s something qualitatively different about living with money. We’re fine with the idea that a concierge doctor will come out to see a billionaire while a waitress goes to the emergency room — a little more convenience, that’s what money gives you a right to expect. But it’s taboo to suggest that the billionaire will live in situations where the waitress will die.

If we don’t talk about those qualitative differences, though, the conversation gets distorted. Inevitably it tilts towards justifying the privileges of the rich, because they appear to be so much better at life than the working poor.

Take the situation I focused on: the necessity-driven working-class housewife versus the wealthy stay-at-home mom. Picture how each might cook for her family. All day, the less affluent one has been juggling the laundry, the chauffeuring, and the baby-minding. Running out of time, she combines the left-over hamburger from last night’s tacos with a jar of Ragu and serves a spaghetti good enough to keep body and soul together for another day.

Meanwhile the wealthy woman sends her cook home early, shops for fresh organic ingredients, and then spends all afternoon in the kitchen trying out what she’s been learning in her Italian cuisine class. The meal she produces is better in every way: tastier, healthier, more artfully presented. Proud of her achievement, she is a more pleasant dinner companion than the harried working-class mom.

If you imagine that the two women are doing the same thing, then you’re forced to conclude that the rich woman is doing it better. Not only is her product of higher quality, it’s superior for virtuous reasons: She devoted more time, searched for better ingredients, and applied more expert knowledge.

It’s that way across the board. If you imagine that necessity-driven families and surplus-enjoying families are doing the same things, it’s obvious that (on the whole) the richer families do them better. Once you accept that frame, you’ll be driven to the conclusion that wealthier families are just superior at doing the stuff life is made of. From there it’s a short jump to the conclusion that each family gets the life it deserves.

But they’re not doing the same things. In America, class differences are qualitative, not just quantitative. Rich and poor lead different lives.

College students who spend the summer manning a cash register or an assembly line are not doing the same things as the middle-aged people they work next to. Living on ramen while you finish your MBA is not the same as living on ramen from now on. Scrimping to save for your Caribbean vacation is not the same as scrimping to pay off what you owe the dentist. The “jobs” of CEOs who choose not to retire to the Hamptons (yet) bear no resemblance to the jobs their secretaries and salesmen do.

The fundamental difference between the classes in America is not the difference between steak and hamburger. It’s the difference between choice and necessity, between striving for fulfillment and striving for survival.

We need qualitatively different words to express those differences. Jobs and hobbies — not perfect, maybe, but better than any alternatives I can think of.

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