Edward Bouchet

Edward BouchetOn this day in 1852, the great physicist and educator Edward Bouchet was born. Although he lived a good and useful life, he also lived a tragic life. As most African-Americans of that time and to a lesser extent today, there were not many professional options for him. In 1874, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Yale University. He was ranked sixth out of class of 124 students. He later went on to get his PhD in physics from Yale, writing his dissertation on geometrical optics. He was the first African American to get any kind of PhD from an American university, but he was only the sixth person of any kind to get a PhD is physics.

Given his qualifications, he should have been hired as a college professor somewhere. But he was not. And notice: he was born in Connecticut. He wasn’t trying to get by in the south. Racism was and is a thing all over the nation. As a result, Bouchet spent his entire career working at high schools. Most of his career was spent at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) — a Quaker founded school because most schools in Philadelphia would not accept African-American students.

After 26 years at ICY, he left because the school changed (following the philosophy of Booker T Washington) toward industrial education rather than the traditional classical education. I understand the thinking behind this, but it is wrong. We are going through it now across the nation. The idea is that children should be trained for jobs, but we’ve seen where this leads: poorly paying jobs and more inequality. Regardless, this led Bouchet to a series of teaching jobs in various locations before retiring due to poor health.

Edward Bouchet was clearly a brilliant man who we should have cherished. Instead, we provided him with a kind of torture. We allowed him to show his greatness in education and then denied him the opportunity to utilize it throughout his life. Even still, he doubtless had a huge positive effect on his students. He stands as a proud example of human self-actualization. And he is yet another example of a great man that our nation spurned.

Happy birthday Edward Bouchet!

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Tim Draper Fails to Lower His Taxes With Six Californias

Six CaliforniasFriday brought some good news, “Six Californias” Plan Falls Short of Making November 2016 Ballot. It seems that Tim Draper’s plan to get it on the ballot failed because too many of his paid-for signatures were bunk.

I’m not against breaking up California. For one thing, I don’t like the anti-democratic Senate and the fact that California has the same representation in that chamber as Wyoming does. Also, the state really represents two groups of people: northerners and southerners. Just the same, the northerners share a common culture with Oregon and Washington, but no one is talking about combining them into a single state. And as former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez said, “Six Californias was a solution in search of a problem that didn’t address any of our state’s challenges.”

The question one has to ask is why Draper was so keen on breaking up the state. The answer can be seen in the map above. See the yellow section there in the middle? That’s “Silicon Valley.” Draper wanted to set up his own little state where he would face no regulations (other than the ones the federal government forced on him) and no state taxes. Draper is, in other words, a typical billionaire who, now that he has a whole bunch of toys wants to take them and go home.

So I’m glad that he wasted millions of dollars getting a bunch of bogus signatures. For one thing, it put a lot of money into the hands of poor people who desperately need it. But I also like that it shows that Draper can’t even manage a simple political operation. He is a good example of how being rich doesn’t show that you are smart. Of course, even though everyone talks about Draper as a “venture capitalist,” that’s not really true. He made his money the old fashioned way: he inherited it!

But never fear: Six Californias isn’t dead. It just won’t be on the 2016 ballot. He reportedly spent $5 million on this failed campaign. That’s only a half percent of his estimated one billion dollar net worth. And it is a small price to pay for his ultimate goal of lowering his taxes. And that’s all this is about. For the rich, that seem to always be what everything is about.

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Pity for Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse Statue

This is a statue of the late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse with her father. The life-sized statue was erected for what would have been her 31st birthday. She apparently had struggled with opioid and cocaine addition for much of her young life. Later in her life she gave up these drugs but began doing the socially acceptable but generally more dangerous alcohol. She eventually died two months shy of her 28th birthday because of alcohol poisoning.

I’m so out of it that I didn’t know who she was. So I listened to some of her music. I am very impressed. It is not only great work, it is the kind of stuff that I enjoy. Here is a brilliant song, “Stronger Than Me”:

But the only reason that I took note was the comment that went along with it, written by an otherwise smart and humane person:

No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Junkies are not to be honored. People who make records about defiantly be junkies should not be honored. Period. End of story. Done.

This is an issue that I’ve been fighting against for coming up on two decades. What is it about being a heroin addict that causes everything else in their lives to vanish as far as others are concerned? People don’t seem to have trouble compartmentalizing people in other contexts. Thomas Jefferson has statues built for him all over the nation despite the fact that he was not only a slaveholder but kind of a jerk who left many of them in bondage following his death. But we can’t honor a very talented young woman just because she was troubled?

What’s more, I think her violence is more troubling than her use of illegal drugs. But it is interesting that her violent outbursts did not occur when she was doing illegal drugs. It was only after she gave up illegal drugs (following arrests for cannabis and cocaine) that these became an issue in her life. But I’ve talked a lot about how in our society, the use of illegal drugs have a stigma that is worse than violent acts even including murder.

But what about other highly admired and unrepentant drug users? There is Lou Reed and William S Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. And all of them strike me as having been more in control of their lives. I don’t get that impression from Amy Winehouse. If she had lived longer, she might have gained wisdom and gone on to be the grande dame of jazz singers. But as it is, she seems to have been more like a fragile child. The crime is that our society did not know how to help her.

In the end, she gave far more to our culture than she took. She should be admired for that. And if we can’t do that, we should at least pity her. And we should pity her family.

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Free Market Whack-A-Mole

Whack-A-MoleMatt Bruenig wrote a funny article over at his blog, Capitalism Whack-A-Mole. It is about the shifting justifications for laissez-faire capitalism. When you whack one conservative apologia for capitalism down, up pops another: it is an endless game of whack-a-mole. This is nothing knew, of course. As Bruenig noted in his conclusion, “Most people come to their feverish support of capitalism through unreflective cultural mechanisms first, and their arguments are then filled in later.” In other words, they support the “free” market because they perceive it to be in their own personal interests. This is why libertarianism is almost exclusively the ideology of young guys with good prospects and old guys with piles of cash.

In the article, Bruenig noted that the different justifications are incompatible with each other. Supporters start with the “desert” argument, which says that people should have a right to rewards of their work. When they are countered with the fact that one-third of the economy is based upon rents (people charging for things they own), the supporters shift to the “voluntarism” argument. This holds that this ownership came about through voluntary transactions. When they are countered with the fact that private property itself is coercive because it requires laws to stop people from, for example, just farming fallow lands that someone else owns, the supporters shift to the “utility” argument. This is the old Milton Friedman argument that capitalism makes everyone richer. And when this is shown to be completely false (see, for example: the last four decades), they go back to the first argument: people have a right to rewards of their work.

I suspect I hang out with less sophisticated group of libertarians than Bruenig does. Just the same, the ones I talk to seem to be much more common. They normally start their arguments with the utility claim: in the libertarian utopia, everyone will be rich! Well, it is usually more along the lines of, “The minimum wage kills jobs.” Or, “Raising taxes hurts economic growth.” Such claims are easy to dispatch. So our libertarian warrior runs for cover in some form of first principle argument that the government has no right to interfere with private contracts. (Note: I am making the best case for the libertarians here; most don’t even get this sophisticated.)

The critical problem that they never manage to deal with is the arbitrary nature of capitalism. It simply isn’t the case that everyone starts life with an equal chance of success. And this is true even if you don’t consider that some people are born with innate characteristics that will help or harm them in our society. So even if hundreds of years ago, some white guys bough Manhattan for $26 in a voluntary deal, what does that mean to a poor child born today? Or a rich child? We know that a smart and hard working poor child will generally do worse economically than a stupid and lazy rich child. So this isn’t a question of people getting to keep what they worked for. At best it is people getting to keep what other people who are now dead worked for.

So the political question is always about utility: does the system work for everyone? And we know that it doesn’t. This isn’t an argument for socialism or even an argument against capitalism. Any society is a combination of the two. But what we’ve seen over the last four decades is that productivity growth has become uncoupled from worker wages:

This is why conservative economic rhetoric always comes back to vague notions like “freedom.” Over the last forty years, starting in a small way with conservative southern Democrat Jimmy Carter and really taking off with “freedom” loving Ronald Reagan, our government has pushed more and more conservative economic policy. This has not increased economic growth — just look at the graph. But it has increased profits of those at the very top of the economic system. Clearly, this is not a debate we should even be having. Our government has moved far too much toward capitalism and we need a correction back toward socialism.

The problem we face is that the Democratic Party — the “liberal” party — is largely dominated by New Democrats who think that the best thing is to continue to enrich the rich at the expense of the rest. But I’m hopeful that Democratic voters are finally waking up and that our long national dark age is ending. Because the truth is that it has gotten bad enough that everyone can see the problem. And the happy conservative rhetoric of “freedom” sounds mighty thin today. It doesn’t matter how they massage their rhetoric. The moles are all dying.


H/T: Noah Smith

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The Dangers of Experts in Politics

Ezra KleinThomas Frank is annoyed with Ezra Klein, All These Effing Geniuses: Ezra Klein, Expert-Driven Journalism, and the Phony Washington Consensus. In particular, he has a problem with a recent Klein article, How Political Science Conquered Washington. And I have to admit: Klein’s article is weak. There is much to say about structural factors that affect politics. But there are also major limits.

Frank’s problem is the way that number crunchers often use “hard data” to argue that this or that can’t be done. Frank brought up Nate Cohn’s recent article about how the Democrats can’t take the House back because of natural factors rather than gerrymandering. Cohn’s advice is extremely limited: move to the right or wait for demographic shifts. Frank rightly pointed out that this misses what has really gone on with the Democrats losing rural areas: their shift away from economic populism has allowed the Republicans to gin up cultural resentments to get people to vote for them.

Thomas FrankThe big problem here is that the banner of “science” has a tendency to shut down creative discussion. Cohn looked at the maps and like Estragon announced, “Nothing to be done.” But this is just status quo apologetics. It tends to push out any thoughts that might be bubbling up from real thinkers rather than number crunchers.

Let me give you an example of this that only I seem to have noticed. Political science has shown that at least since World War II, the party that wins the White House is primarily determined by the nation’s economic trend. But as a result of this, people who pay attention (at least on the left) are focused on nominating “safe” candidates who are not going to swamp the economic fundamentals. To me, this means that when elections like 1992 and 2008 come along, Democrats should nominate actual liberals instead of moderate and even conservative candidates like Clinton and Obama. But we don’t get this.

The reasons we don’t get this more radical thinking is that Ezra Klein’s supposed improvement of doing journalism based upon “experts” rather than politicians is no improvement at all. Basically, he’s traded in the politicians for the people the politicians were talking to. And this has the distinct downside of implying a kind of scientific rigor that just isn’t there. There are experts worth listening too. I read Paul Krugman every day. But in a normal world, I would often disagree with him. It is just because the right in this country is so crazy that we still have to fight for intellectual ground that everyone thought was settled forty years ago. But Krugman really is a major creative thinker. And as a result, he too is largely marginalized, even though widely read.

I think the problem is not so much that Washington loves experts. It is rather that there is a kind of affinity fraud going on. Why does Washington continue to listen to Dick Cheney? Because everyone “knows” that he’s a good guy. And he must be smart and knowledgeable. He was the Vice President! Or why do we still hold Bill Clinton in high esteem? He’s the guy that set the policy to allow the mortgage excesses that made the housing bubble so much worse than it normally would have been. But he must be worth talking to because, well, he’s the kind of guy who is worth talking to.

Of course, these aren’t academics. But there are always academics providing the intellectual support for the more public figures. Look at Greg Mankiw. This widely respected economist was for economic stimulus during the Bush administration. But once Obama was in office, he was against stimulus. And then, during Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, when it looked like Romney might be the next president, Mankiw softened his position, getting ready to be completely for it once a Republican was again in the White House.

If political science has revolutionized political journalism, it has been done by the likes of Nate Silver and Sam Wang. But the thing is: neither of them are political scientists. When the actual political scientists at The Monkey Cage put together an election model, it jumped around excessively. If the election turns out to give the Democrats the Senate, it is going to mean that forecasting models that did the best are the ones that paid the least attention to the political science.

Of course, Thomas Frank’s larger criticism is that the experts that Ezra Klein so loves are the ones who for decades have told the Democratic Party to move to the right on economic issues. And they’ve been wrong. The Republicans have done quite well doing exactly the opposite. It is hard not to conclude that the political scientists don’t know much more than anyone. They just have a patina of credibility that actually makes them more dangerous.

Having said all this, I think we can learn a lot from political scientists. But as Sam Wang has noted in election models, a lot of what political scientists think they know is really just noise. It’s important to know what is useful and what is not. But most of all, we shouldn’t forget that political science is fundamentally just history. And we should not use it to limit what we can do politically. That will just keep us moving on the same track that is destroying the middle class, impoverishing the poor, and enriching the rich.

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Allan Bloom’s Important Discussion

Allan BloomOn this day in 1930, the academic Allan Bloom was born. Now, I’m not really a fan of his. But I did read his bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. And it is worth discussing.

If you are very smart and well education and inclined to write an old man’s rant about how everything is going to hell, then you would write The Closing of the American Mind. At its worst, it is a parody of what happens to people when they forget what life was like when they were young. It is also a parody of an old college professor who just can’t understand why his students think he is boring.

Although the book is extremely biased, it deals with an issue that is very important to me: social cohesion through shared cultural touchstones. This is why I think everyone should know Shakespeare and the Bible. It isn’t because I think that as literature goes these are especially great collections. But they are so important to our culture that not knowing them tends to marginalize an individual.

The problem with Bloom is that he hangs on too tightly to an absolutist philosophy. I will admit that the adoration of Shakespeare has something to do with the quality of his work. But it has far more to do with history and the development of the British empire. I take a more moderate view: there is no absolute values but it is a convenient social illusion. The books we know are largely a reflection of who we have been.

As a result of this, I agree with Bloom about the needs for standards. But this must be combined with a commitment to inclusiveness. One of the purposes of education (and higher education most of all) should be shaping what our cultural touchstones are. As a result, I would like to see things like “Chicano studies” courses taken out of the academic ghetto and placed more centrally into the curriculum. At very least, students should get a good introduction in foreign language literature in translation. The focus of literature on British and American writers does us great harm.

There is a bigger problem, however. The very idea of a liberal education is dying. Now the focus of education is on specialization and how it will make the student a more attractive employee. This is a sure way of destroying a civilization. And it is interesting that The Closing of the American Mind got its start as an article in National Review. Because the whole conservative movement is about destroying the idea of liberal education. Providing education as something intended only to enrich the learner is something that is supposed to be limited to the rich. Knowing multiplication and how to read technical manuals is enough for the prols.

So like everything, the closed American mind is yet another result of inequality. And it is a problem that starts before we learn to walk. There are those who are taken to museums and given other intellectually stimulating experiences as young people. And there are those who are not. And that affects everyone for their entire lives. What’s more, it cuts the “have nots” off from the cultural touchstones of our society. Those touchstones become yet another thing that cuts off poor from rich.

So Allan Bloom may think that everyone should read Plato. And I agree! But the reason they don’t has very little to do with relativism and a lack of interest on the part of students. Rather, it is a direct result of the centuries old efforts to keep the poor excluded from all parts of the lives of the rich. And that problem starts long before young people make it to college.

Allan Bloom was right to bring up the issue. It is important and worth discussing. But as usual with conservative thought, his book works the margins without ever coming close to the central issue. But in this age in which Education Reform has come to focus mostly on destroying the liberal nature of education, we dearly need to think about this stuff.

Happy birthday Allan Bloom!

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Bombing Iraq Because We Must Do Something

Karl SharroKarl Sharro wrote a satirical piece at his blog yesterday, We Give the Scottish Independence Referendum the Middle East Expert Treatment. It is along the lines of, If It Happened There… But instead of reporting on domestic affairs the way we would report on them if they happened elsewhere, Sharro is reporting on the Scottish vote to leave the United Kingdom the same way American “experts” report on the Middle East.

I don’t follow events in the Middle East enough to fully appreciate the article. But it is impossible not to get the gist of it. For example, the common confusion in the west regarding the Shai and Sunni Muslims is lampooned with, “The sectarian dimension relates to the independence question in a very complicated way, so for the purpose of journalistic expediency it’s not inaccurate to say that Protestants favor the union while Catholics prefer independence. Or the other way around.” They’re all the same. Am I right?!

But I was most taken with the conclusion to Sharro’s article because it gets to the real problem with the way that anything happening in the Middle East seems to cause otherwise reasonable people to throw up their hands and say, “What else can we do? We must bomb!” What he writes here seems to sum up the full extent of our thinking regarding ISIS, although its ridiculousness is apparent when applied to Scotland:

Finally, and drawing from our collective experience as Middle Experts, we must stress that the US should not and must not continue its policy of non-intervention in the Scottish independence question. We must do something. Things must be done. There is a necessity for the doing of things. It’s also the point at which we normally ask the requisite rhetorical question near the end of the end: should we allow Scotland to exist as a small oil-rich country? (Like, do we need another Qatar now?) President Obama must avoid this by arming the Protestants. Or the Catholics.

This is exactly the logic that I was talking about yesterday in, Education Reform: Help Those Who Don’t Need It. As I put it, “So it’s the same old American idea: it is better to do something, regardless of how bad it may be, than to do nothing at all.” I didn’t think about it much at the time, but when Obama said that the executive branch had not determined a strategy for ISIS in Syria, it was widely mocked — most especially by conservatives. This goes along with the idea that it is better to make a bad decision quickly than a good decision slowly. Of course, it just so happens that a quick decision leads to what conservatives always want: military action.

When it comes to ISIS, it seems that there was an actual reason for some of the bombing: to protect the Kurdish territory. I could be wrong about that, but that was what was reported. And that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do; but at least there was something like a clear objective. The rest of the bombing campaign seems to just be what Sharro was lampooning. We seem to be bombing because we don’t know what else to do. And because it is what we always do. And it is more important to be seen to be doing something than to actually be accomplishing anything. The tragic thing about this is that Obama seems to be doing it to pacify people here in the United States who are broadly of two kinds: ignorant people who have been frightened by the second kind of people who are demagogues.

I’m sure that lots of “bad guys” get killed. But I’m equally sure that at least as many civilians die for the sin of having been born Iraq. One thing is certain: the people of Iraq would be far better off if the United States had never invaded back in 2003. People suffered under Saddam Hussein, and then they suffered more as a result of our war, and then they suffered in the aftermath, and they suffer under ISIS, and now they are being bombed because, hey, we have to do something!


H/T: Zack Beauchamp

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Agrarian Justice Still Ahead of US Political Thought

Thomas PaineThomas Paine’s most visionary work was Agrarian Justice where he called for a Social Security kind of system for everyone over the age of fifty as well as a one-time payment to be made for everyone at the age of 21. It was to be funded with inheritance and property taxes. So it was actually a whole lot more liberal than Social Security, which is based upon a regressive tax and doesn’t provide any starting capital to young people. It was published in 1797, and if it were proposed today, it would be met with screams of “Socialism!”

It was written for the French Republic, although he took pains to note, “The plan contained in this work is not adapted for any particular country alone: the principle on which it is based is general.” In addition to being far ahead of our own time, the pamphlet is notable for its detail. Most of it goes into depth about how the program would be paid for. In roughly 6,000 words, Paine provides far more detail than was found in any of Paul Ryan’s budgets that were so loved by Washington journalists everywhere.

What is most interesting about the work, however, is the logic that he presents. I love it because it shows that he understood the problems with property rights. They provide a good to society, but with a cost: people can’t just start farming or hunting or foraging anywhere they want. He noted that native peoples in America had a standard of living that was greater than the standard of living of the poor in the “civilized” world. Just the same, they had a standard of living that was less than that of the rich. As a result, the rich should offset this deficit suffered by the poor through a small redistributive program.

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal…

Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue.

It’s very simple. Yet even most liberals I talk to don’t understand it without an explanation. To Americans, the idea of property rights seems almost God given. But even on the most basic level, there is a cost to property rights: the cost of a government to enforce them. It is much more than just this, of course. The problem is that in modern America (and I assume most other places at most other times), most of the costs of property rights are hidden because they fall almost exclusively on the weakest people in society.

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of just how generous Paine was being. He offered £15 to people at the age of 21 and £10 per year to everyone 50 and older. I managed to find the United Kingdom Nation Archives calculator for this purpose. But when I put in £15 in 1800, it told me that would be worth £483. This is roughly what £15 in 1960 would be worth today.

Looking at it another way, Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is worth £10,000 per year. That’s in 1813 and he is unimaginably wealthy. But that income is supposedly only worth £340,000 today. That’s a lot of money to someone like me. But that is nothing compared to Mitt Romney (roughly $20 million per year at least), who is a small player — certainly nowhere near as rich as Mr Darcy. Similarly, in Jane Eyre (1847 — fifty years after Paine), the heroine is paid £30 per year as a governess. That’s less than £1,800 per year.

If we figure that the calculator is off by about a factor of fifty (and I think that is low), the lump sum payment at 21 would be roughly £25,000 ($40,000). And the old age pension would be roughly £16,000 ($26,000) per year. Note that Paine was offering a much more generous retirement than we do today in the US. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone; the United States has one of the most stingy retirement programs of any developed country.

It bugs me that politics in the United States have regressed. Of course the Republicans are totally unhinged. But the Democrats have spent the last two decades pushing ever to the right. If he were alive to day, I don’t think Thomas Paine would feel any more comfortable in the Democratic Party than I do. Certainly it is true that since Paine’s time, things have improved. But we seem to be headed in the wrong direction. In 1965, it was easy enough to think that things would only get better. But since then, the economic environment has gotten worse. And more than ever we need Thomas Paine. But we always have. We have still to catch up with his thinking from over 200 years ago.


See also: Property Rights

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Democratic Chances of Holding Senate Keep Improving

United States SenateThere are big happenings in the Senate modeling community: the election is looking better and better for the Democrats. And I think this is excellent news for the country. But not in the way you probably think, coming from a Democrat.

Just two weeks ago, the Senate election model of The Upshot gave the Republicans a 67% chance of taking control of the upper chamber. But it has been coming down steadily since then. It currently gives the Republicans just a 52% chance of taking the Senate. Even the FiveThirtyEight model is down to a 59% chance. But what’s interesting is that it is now the outlier. No one else gives the Republicans that high a chance. Daily Kos gives the Democrats a 51% chance of keeping the Senate. And the Huffington Post model gives them a 57% chance of keeping the senate.

This isn’t to mention Sam Wang. He’s been bullish on the Democrats for a long time. He currently gives them a 70% chance of keeping the Senate on election day. (He gives an 80% chance if the election were held today.) But the most amazing change came from The Monkey Cage model. A couple of months ago, they gave the Republicans an 86% chance of taking over the Senate. That’s because the model at that time was entirely based upon fundamentals. But up into this last week, it still gave the Republicans a slight advantage. At least it did until today. Now they give the Democrats a 50% chance of keeping the Senate.

It is important to remember that none of this means that the Democrats will keep the Senate. But I think it means something far more important. The fundamentals are on the side of the Republicans. There are far more Democrats up for re-election than there are Republicans. The economy sucks. Obama has low approval ratings. Really: the Republicans ought to be looking at gaining ten seats. Instead, they are looking at six if everything goes their way.

What I think we are seeing at long last is voters punishing the Republican Party for its insanity. I think the constant obstruction and doing the bidding of the rich has finally seeped into the thinking of more casual voters. This isn’t a profound realization. It’s more like people preferring Coke to Pepsi: they just have a vague feeling that the Republicans aren’t worth giving yet another chance to. And it is manifested in Democratic candidates doing just a couple of percentage points better than they normally would.

This could be very good news for the nation. I don’t mean that because the Democrats might well hold the Senate. That’s good but nothing exciting. If the Republicans fail to take the Senate after this very favorable election and then they get clobbered in 2016, the party finally will reevaluate its “race to the right” commitment. And that is absolutely a good thing for America. We need two sane parties. The current situation cannot stand. Of course, if the Republicans do not change, there is my old standby: they become a regional party and the Democratic Party breaks in half.

Regardless, that’s what we are looking at. Anyone who cares about the Republican Party should hope that they blow this opportunity. Because you know what will happen if they manage to just get 51 seats in the Senate. There will be people everywhere talking about how this shows that liberalism is dead and how everyone repudiates Obamacare. And if the Republicans only manage 50 seats, the more reasonable but still wrong narrative will be that the country has turned against Republicans. But that’s an exaggeration that could be very good for the nation.

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Teaching PolitiFact How Social Security Works

Social Security: The Phony CrisisIncreasingly, American political discourse is the very worst kind of relativism. This is especially true on the right. Conservatives seem to think that reality is whatever they want it to be. Say it enough times and it is true. Just like in Nineteen Eighty-Four, what two plus two equals depends, “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once.” So everyone was pleased when various media sources came out with “fact checkers.”

But very quickly, it was obvious that they were useless. The television networks followed up the 2004 presidential debates by noting three inaccuracies made by Bush and three made by Kerry. It was always equal, even if Bush had said that there were WMDs in Iraq and Kerry had said there were 50 million uninsured Americans when there were actually only 49. And so the act of false equivalence became high art.

Michael HiltzikSuch ridiculousness has become passé. But now we have the official fact checkers who are with us every day. We have Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post and Fact Check but most of all, we have PolitiFact. To give you just a little taste of the stupidity that is PolitiFact, consider the statement from Eric Bolling who said that the US has “the highest corporate tax rate in the free world.” This is a common conservative talking point. It is intended to deceive and it does deceive. But it is technically true. PolitiFact gives it a “mostly true” rating, saying, “Officially, US rate is high, though firms usually pay less.” That’s right, but that doesn’t make the claim any less true. I hate when they do this, even when it is to someone as richly deserving as Bolling.

But flat out the best example of PolitiFact’s absolute incompetence came this last week, after Jeff Merkley said, “Social Security has never contributed one cent to the deficit. Not one cent.” Note that last sentence: people don’t usually add things like that if they are not 100% certain about what they are saying. And indeed, Merkley is completely right. Yet PolitiFact gave the statement a rating of “half true,” commenting, “Splitting the difference on Social Security.”

On Wednesday, Michael Hiltzik called foul on this one. It would seem that PolitiFact thinks that Social Security only gets revenue from payroll taxes. This is not true. It also gets revenue from income tax on Social Security benefits (from people who have enough extra money from other things to owe it) as well as from interest it gets on the Social Security trust fund. In fact, even though since 2010 Social Security has been paying out more than it has been collecting in payroll taxes, it is still bringing in more money in total than it is paying out. And it is projected to continue taking in more money than it is paying out until the year 2019, at which point it will have to start drawing down the trust fund.

After being so publicly called out, you would think that PolitiFact would note its error and at least change its rating to “mostly true.” But no. As Hiltzik pointed out today, A “Fact-Checking” Website Doubles Down on Its Social Security Errors. Instead of dealing with the criticisms, the writer of the original post, Dana Tims, sets up a straw man and whacks it down. Hiltzik explained:

Tims misrepresents what I wrote in my original critique, claiming: “Hiltzik does acknowledge that the interest he’s relying on to keep Social Security solvent can be viewed as adding to the deficit.” This is incorrect. What I “acknowledged” is that you can only hold that view if you’re wrong.

But there is a fundamental pardox with fact checkers. They have to be seen as unbiased. And in order to be seen as unbiased, they have to always come down somewhere in the middle. It is like the old power paradox of John Boehner where he only has power as long as he doesn’t use it. We live in a nation that has one rather typical political party with all that is good and bad about that. And then we have the Republican Party that has largely moved fulltime to Cuckoo Town where reality is whatever anyone says it is. In this kind of political system, it is only one who let’s facts guide him regardless of how that is viewed who can truly be a fact checker. I don’t know what PolitiFact is. But it doesn’t help anyone figure out what the truth is. And in this case, all it does is confuse people about how Social Security actually works.

Afterword

If you want to know about Social Security, you really should read Social Security: The Phony Crisis by Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot. It is now 13 years old and just as valid today as ever. I wrote a discussion of the book a couple of years ago, if you are interested.

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