April 2012 Archives

outlier party

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Mann and Ornstein point out that Republicans are the problem in our current system:

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenges.

They also point out that "under the presidencies of Clinton and Obama, the Democrats have become more of a status-quo party:"

They are centrist protectors of government, reluctantly willing to revamp programs and trim retirement and health benefits to maintain its central commitments in the face of fiscal pressures.

David Atkins points out that both sides don't do it, and reminds us that "Mann and Ornstein are employed by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. They're not exactly liberal activists:"

The authors speak fondly of the Democrats for compromising with George W. Bush to pass his tax cuts for the rich and No Child Left Behind. They also forget the bipartisan eagerness to invade Iraq. These were bad policies, policies that the American people would have been much better served by Democrats opposing en masse. Back in the Clinton years Democrats and Republicans joined forces to pass NAFTA, banking deregulation, and "end welfare as we know it." Those were also terrible, misguided policies. [...]

It's not just that the Republican Party has veered far right: the entire policy apparatus in America has done likewise. It needs a sharp, heavy tug to the left just to make it reasonable again.

update (5/2):
Kevin Drum provides evidence that Democrats have moved to the Right, not the Left. One critique of Ornstein that he discusses "doesn't even mention education policy, civil liberties, or crime, all areas where Democrats have also moved to the right since the end of the 80s:"

So where have Democrats moved to the left? Gay rights is one area, I suppose. Climate change is another: at least Obama tried to pass a cap-and-trade bill. And you could say that compared to the Clinton/Rubin era, Democrats are a bit more willing to regulate the financial sector than they used to be. Beyond that, there are maybe a couple of other arguable cases, but nothing of much significance. [...]

Nevertheless, the truth is that both sides haven't moved away from the center. Only Republicans have, and Democrats have spent the past 20 years chasing them in hopes that eventually they could reach some kind of reconciliation. But it never did any good. The Democratic move rightward was interpreted not as a bid for compromise somewhere in the middle, but as a victory for a resurgent conservative movement that merely inspired them to move the goalposts even further out.

self-made myth

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AlterNet's Sara Robinson calls out the "self-made myth" as "one of the most cherished foundation stones of the conservative theology [and] it provides the essential justification for a great many other common right-wing beliefs:"

It feeds the accusation that government is evil because it only exists to redistribute wealth from society's producers (self-made, of course) and its parasites (who refuse to work). It justifies conservative rage against progressives, who are seen as wanting to use government to forcibly take away what belongs to the righteous wealthy. It's piously invoked by hedge fund managers and oil billionaires, who think that being required to reinvest any of their wealth back into the public society that made it possible is "punishing success." It's the foundational belief on which all of Ayn Rand's novels stand.

She notes that "we probably won't be able to change the national discourse on taxes, infrastructure, education, government investment, technology policy, transportation, welfare, or our future prospects as a country until we can effectively convince the country of the monumental wrongness of this one core point." Factors such as educations earned at public schools, help from the SBA and other agencies, strong regulatory protections, intellectual property laws, robust physical infrastructure, a government-supported Internet, and "a fair, reliable, regulated marketplace" for issuing stock--are swept under the rhetorical rug:

The self-made myth allows us to deflect our attention from these critical factors, undermining our determination to level the playing field for those who don't start life with a pocket fat with advantages.

[The book, Miller, Brian & Mike Lapham's The Self-Made Myth: And the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed] also makes a far more compelling philosophical backdrop against which progressives can argue for increased investment in infrastructure, education, a fair minimum wage, a strong social safety net, and better anti-discrimination laws.

"This isn't just another point of contention between progressives and conservatives; it's somewhere near the very center of the disconnect between our worldviews," she concludes. Speaking of myths, Paul Krugman's piece on the death of a fairy tale examines that "destructive economic doctrine" of austerity, where "governments should respond to a severely depressed economy not the way the textbooks say they should -- by spending more to offset falling private demand -- but with fiscal austerity, slashing spending in an effort to balance their budgets." He notes that "the failure of austerity policies to deliver as promised has long been obvious:"

So we're now living in a world of zombie economic policies -- policies that should have been killed by the evidence that all of their premises are wrong, but which keep shambling along nonetheless. And it's anyone's guess when this reign of error will end.

The specter of wrong premises brings to mind the ghost of Joe McCarthy via Congressman Allen West's allegations that "78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party [sic] are members of the Communist Party." West thus represents "the ghost of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin farm boy who grew up to become one of the most contemptible thugs in American politics."

So beware, Congressman West, beware: In the flammable pool of toxic paranoia that passes these days as patriotism in America, a single careless match can light an inferno. You would serve your country well to withdraw your remarks and apologize for them. But if not, perhaps there are members of your own party, as possessed of conscience and as courageous as that handful of Republicans who took on Joseph McCarthy, who will now abandon fear and throw cold water on your incendiary remarks.


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Wired reports that the House passed CISPA, a bill that "seeks to undo privacy laws that generally forbid ISPs from disclosing customer communications with anybody else unless with a court order:"

The bill immunizes ISPs from privacy lawsuits for voluntarily disclosing customer information thought to be a security threat. Internet companies are also granted anti-trust protection to immunize them against allegations of colluding on cybersecurity issues. The measure is not solely limited to cybersecurity, and includes the catchall phrase "national security" as a valid reason for turning over the data.

CISPA also allows ISPs to bypass privacy laws and share data with fellow ISPs in a bid to promptly extinguish a cyberattack.

CISPA paranoia is justified, writes The Atlantic:

Which is to say, if we're going to allow private companies and government to snoop into our private information for the narrow purpose of protecting national security, there needs to be a way to monitor what goes on so that there's at least the possibility that abuses could be caught.

"Critics of CISPA are right to be wary," the piece continues, "because of the abysmal record that government and industry have amassed lately:"

The Bush Administration engaged in illegal warrantless wiretapping for years. All the while, the National Security Agency collaborated with America's major telecommunications companies. AT&T gave government officials unsupervised access to all data flowing through major hubs, including email messages, phone calls, web-browsing data, and private network traffic.

Declan McCullough explains how CISPA would affect you with this Q&A:

Q: Who opposes CISPA?

Advocacy groups, including the American Library Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and the libertarian-leaning TechFreedom, launched a "Stop Cyber Spying" campaign in mid-April -- complete with a write-your-congresscritter-via-Twitter app -- and the bill has drawn the ire of Anonymous.

A letter (PDF) from two dozen organizations, including the Republican Liberty Caucus, urges a "no" vote on CISPA, and over 750,000 people have signed an anti-CISPA Web petition. Free-market and libertarian groups have opposed it. The Center for Democracy and Technology flip-flopped twice on CISPA as the result of a short-lived deal with the bill's authors not to criticize it.

There is hope, as Mother Jones notes:

On Wednesday afternoon, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a veto threat detailing the ways in which the current bill "fails to provide authorities to ensure that the Nation's core critical infrastructure is protected while repealing important provisions of electronic surveillance law without instituting corresponding privacy, confidentiality, and civil liberties safeguards."


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In my Quote of the Day, Charles Rosen's piece on freedom and art notes that "Conventions are the bulwark of civilization, a guarantee of social protection:"

They can also be a prison cell. Of course, any art has its conventions, too, just like every other activity, and an artist is expected to fulfill them. Traditionally, however, for at least three millennia and possibly longer, the artist is also expected paradoxically to violate conventions--to entertain, to surprise, to outrage, to be original. That is the special status of art among all other activities, although it may indeed spill over and make itself felt throughout the rest of life. It is the source of freedom, prevents the wheels of the social machine from locking into paralysis. From our artists and entertainers, we expect originality and resent it when we get it.

In Lawrence Krauss' the consolation of philosophy, he defends his interview for The Atlantic, saying that it "has been interpreted ... as implying a blanket condemnation of philosophy as a discipline, something I had not intended:"

"I am not a philosopher, nor do I claim to be an expert on philosophy [and] the level of my knowledge, and ignorance, will undoubtedly become clearer in what follows."

"When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality," he continues, "ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile:"

Moreover, arguments based on authority, be it Aristotle, or Leibniz, are irrelevant. In science, there are no authorities, and appeal to quotes from brilliant scholars who lived before we knew the Earth orbited the Sun, or that space can be curved, or that dark matter or dark energy exist do not generally inform our current understanding of nature. Empirical explorations ultimately change our understanding of which questions are important and fruitful and which are not.

I particularly enjoyed this caveat:

I regret sometimes lumping all philosophers in with theologians because theology, aside from those parts that involve true historical or linguistic scholarship, is not [a] credible field of modern scholarship.

truth matters

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In how to talk to a Republican, Jason Stanford writes that "From the think tank to the phone bank, from the church pew to the floor of Congress, the Republican Party has adopted as gospel a litany of lies that stops just short of declaring the Earth to be flat:"

Obama is Kenyan; Obamacare has death panels, increases the deficit, and pays for health care for illegal immigrants; Abortions give you breast cancer and cause pain in fetuses as young as 20 weeks; Iraq had WMDs and Saddam Hussein collaborated with Al Qaeda; Tax cuts increase government revenue; Obama's stimulus created no jobs, and in fact government spending is hurting our economic recovery; If we don't raise the debt ceiling, we can simply prioritize payments and avoid disaster; We are a Christian nation whose forefathers "warned the British" about our gun rights, "worked tirelessly" to abolish slavery, debated Creationism before Charles Darwin even thought of evolution, and never intended to separate church and state; Evolution is not real, and global warming, if it's even happening, isn't our fault. [...]

In The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality, Chris Mooney tackles the growing field of political psychology and finds that while liberals value accuracy, individuality, and cognition, conservatives seem happiest when finding closure by achieving coherence with their prior beliefs. This makes it very hard to have a rational discussion with a Republican if they damn the facts and go full speed ahead into their happy place where Sarah Palin doesn't sound stupid.

He continues by pointing out that "conservatives are immune, if not allergic, to reason," [I have said "impervious"] and "the best advice he gives is for liberals to stop bludgeoning people with facts:"

"Rather, liberals and scientists should find some key facts--the best facts--and integrate them into stories that move people," writes Mooney. "A data dump is worse than pointless; it's counterproductive. But a narrative can change heart and mind alike."

When your brother-in-so-and-so forwards you one of those emails, resist the urge to send him Snope.com's latest refutation. Next time, try sharing your beliefs instead of your knowledge.

"Again and again, liberals have the impulse to shout back what's true," writes Mooney. "Instead, they need to shout back what matters."

You know what matters?

The truth matters...just not to all of us.

three questions

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Psychology Today discusses a study from Columbia psychologists William Gervais and Ara Norenzayan entitled "Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief" (PDF). "According to one theory of human thinking," writes the LA Times, "the brain processes information using two systems:"

The first relies on mental shortcuts by using intuitive responses -- a gut instinct, if you will -- to quickly arrive at a conclusion. The other employs deliberative analysis, which uses reason to arrive at a conclusion. [...] Both systems are useful and can run in parallel, the theory goes. But when called upon, analytic thinking can override intuition.

The piece summarizes: "his research team had college students perform three thinking tasks, each with an intuitive (incorrect) answer and an analytic (correct) answer." The paper's abstract notes that "analytic processing is one factor (presumably among several) that promotes religious disbelief," not to mention that, as noted above, analytic reasoning leads to the right answer--and intuition to an incorrect one.

The three questions used were:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? ____cents

If it takes 5 machines 5 min to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? _____minutes

In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? _____days

The intuitive answers are 10, 100, and 24; the analytic ones are 5, 5, and 47. The paper concludes:

...the hypothesis that analytic processing--which empirically underlies all experimental manipulations--promotes religious disbelief explains all of these findings in a single framework that is well supported by existing theory regarding the cognitive foundations of religious belief and disbelief. [...]

...although these results indicate that analytic processing promotes religious disbelief, we again emphasize that analytic processing is almost certainly not the sole cause of religious disbelief.

Scientific American notes that "People who are intuitive thinkers are more likely to be religious, but getting them to think analytically even in subtle ways decreases the strength of their belief:"

Analytic thinking undermines belief because, as cognitive psychologists have shown, it can override intuition. And we know from past research that religious beliefs--such as the idea that objects and events don't simply exist but have a purpose--are rooted in intuition. "Analytic processing inhibits these intuitions, which in turn discourages religious belief," Norenzayan explains.

Harvard University psychologist Joshua Greene writes:

"Obviously, this study doesn't prove the nonexistence of God. But it poses a challenge to believers: If God exists, and if believing in God is perfectly rational, then why does increasing rational thinking tend to decrease belief in God?"

The announcement from the University of British Columbia says that:

Gervais says future studies will explore whether the increase in religious disbelief is temporary or long-lasting, and how the findings apply to non-Western cultures.

shared reading

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Clay Shirky's Interview on the subject of how we will read makes some interesting points:

The question isn't what happens to publishing -- the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn't one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers. [...]

Institutions will try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution. Now publishers are in the business not of overcoming scarcity but of manufacturing demand. And that means that almost all innovation in creation, consumption, distribution and use of text is coming from outside the traditional publishing industry.

Shirky's response to this question

I know that you're very invested in collective action. How can social reading connect to activism?

makes the point that "Books are historically lousy calls to action because they tend not only to be produced slowly but consumed slowly:"

The number of people who've read, say, The Coming Insurrection is tiny. But it used to be impossible for us to find each other, and now it's easy. So -- if you go to Occupy, and if I go to Occupy, and we've both read David Graeber... that sensibility suffuses the crowd, and that crowd is better able to act than it would have been previously. And that synchronizing effect, not so much of time but of shared awareness, that's a big part of the present change, and one that's going to be amplified in the future.

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