Watching Jonathan Chait Flail

Jonathan ChaitThis morning I saw that Jonathan Chait had a new feature in New York Magazine. Normally, that is something to celebrate. He’s an excellent writer with a lot of great insights. But this article was, The Color of His Presidency. It is about race in politics—an issue that Chait hasn’t exactly distinguished himself on recently. And more than anything, it is an example of his own special genre of articles, “See how liberal I am? I’m beating up on liberals!”

Jamelle BouieIt is kind of hard to get to the bottom of the article. It’s something like this. The very basis of the Republican Party is racism. Pretty much everything they do has racist motivations to one extent or another. But talking about this just makes the Republicans claim that all accusations of racism are invalid. So we shouldn’t criticize them for their racism or the criticisms we don’t level against them won’t be effective. Or something. It’s hard to say.

Joan WalshNot surprisingly, the article is being eaten alive by liberals. Ed Kilgore wrote, Conservatives, Race, and “Winners” and “Losers.” His basic argument is that conservatives are determined to be resentful of liberals, so trying to make them less resentful is a ridiculous goal. Jamelle Bouie goes after the whole white-liberal-elite focus of the article, Color Blind. He doesn’t say this explicitly, but his argument is that pretending that these racial issues are nothing more than ideological battles just cedes the battle to the white power elite.

Ed KilgoreThe most vicious attack against Chait comes from Joan Walsh, Jonathan Chait’s Epic Race Fail: How a Story About Racism and Obama Goes Horribly Wrong. She meets him on his own terms and, frankly, tears him apart. She summarizes his argument, “If only MSNBC would stop crying racism, then…” To which she responds:

Then what? What would change? Would the Republican Party drop its opposition to anything President Obama supports? Would it stop pandering to a base that’s more than 90 percent white? Would it stop lying about Obama wanting to cut Medicare to fund Obamacare? This is the same Jonathan Chait, by the way, who argued in 2012 that the GOP was staring down “demographic extinction” because of its over-reliance on white voters, and who also insisted that “the entire key to the rise of the Republican Party from the mid-sixties through the nineties was that white Americans came to see the Democrats as taking money from the hard-working white middle class and giving it to a lazy black underclass.” It’s OK when Chait says that, but when it comes from MSNBC, it’s like McCarthyism?

I agree with everything written by these three writers. And I am so tired of Chait’s efforts to claim the liberal high ground by attacking other liberals. It’s just his own personal way of being a Serious Centrist. But what’s especially horrible is that tomorrow (assuming he’s working), he will post an article in which he defends himself against all his attackers. And if Ta-Nehisi Coates decides to weigh in, it’s going to get bloody, and I’m not going to enjoy watching Chait flailing around impotently.

Update (9 April 2014 8:56 am)

Chait is back with this obligatory defense, Obama, Racism, and the Presumption of Innocence. There’s not much to it except that he attacks everyone I quoted in this article. Poor Jonathan.

Government Oppression and Billie Holiday

Billie HolidayBillie Holiday was born on this day in 1915. After all these years, she is one of my very favorite singers. Here musical phrasing was entirely new and it continues to fascinate me. And I’m hardly alone. I love both Frank Sinatra and Madeleine Peyroux. But in a fundamental way, they are just ripoffs of Holiday.

But there is more to Holiday than the music. There is the outrage that her life was made by the government of the United States. After social conditions pushed Holiday into prostitution while still a young teen, she was imprisoned for it. And then, after she became famous as a singer, she was harassed by the police resulting in federal prison for a drug charge. And then, while dying in a hospital, the police searched her apartment and allegedly found drugs. Her hospital room was searched and she was placed under arrest. There was an officer guarding her like she was Dillinger.

It’s hard not to conclude that Holiday was treated like this because she was black. After all, all of her crimes were cultural. She wasn’t harming anyone else’s property or person. Meanwhile, while the government did a great deal to harm her, it did nothing at all to protect her. I can’t see a 14-year-old prostitute as anything but a victim. And as for her use of heroin, that wasn’t what killed her. Her excessive drinking caused her liver and heart disease. If the government had spent one-tenth the effort on helping her that it spent on oppressing her, she might have lived a good deal longer and better.

One could argue that she wouldn’t have been such a great singer if it hadn’t been for her hard life. That’s nonsense. First, it’s just a rationalization. Second, there is really no reason to think that being a child prostitute is any more likely to produce great art than having your heart obligatorily broken in high school. And most of the abuse came long after she had perfected her art. No, it’s just another example of how America does everything it can to destroy outsiders. We claim to value the individual in this country, but it is only true in is much as the individual decides to conform.

Now is the time when we enjoy a Billie Holiday song. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of good video of her online. But this version of “Travelin’ Light” is pretty good:

Happy birthday Billie Holiday!

People Who Know Where Ukraine Is, Don’t Want to Go to War Over it


Now you know where Ukraine is. But maybe you already did. Most readers around here are pretty liberal and are not inclined to think that going to war over the slightest provocation is a good idea. I say this because a The Monkey Cage conducted a new poll that found that only 16% of Americans could locate Ukraine on a map, and the further off they are, the more likely they are to think that we ought to “intervene with military force.”

According to the article:

Even controlling for a series of demographic characteristics and participants’ general foreign policy attitudes, we found that the less accurate our participants were, the more they wanted the US to use force, the greater the threat they saw Russia as posing to US interests, and the more they thought that using force would advance US national security interests; all of these effects are statistically significant at a 95 percent confidence level. Our results are clear, but also somewhat disconcerting: the less people know about where Ukraine is located on a map, the more they want the US to intervene militarily.

They also indicate (if you look behind the numbers) that more Americans think that Obama is a Muslim (18% as of 2010) than know where Ukraine is. So it is very sad indeed. Just the same, they did find that college graduates were 50% more likely to know where Ukraine was, with 22% being able to find it on a map. But being a college graduate doesn’t make someone smart. I suspect that what is driving the correlation between “location ignorance” with the “go-to-war mentality” is general stupidity. I mean, what are we to make of the people who thought that Ukraine was inside the United States?

H/T: Political Wire

Elite Power Trumps Ideological Rigidity

Ezra KleinI’m still not clear what exactly Ezra Klein’s project is, but he has now published a very interesting article, How Politics Makes Us Stupid. It focuses on the work of Dan Kahan, who has shown that political ideology and tribal identification affect how we perceive data. I have some problems with his work, but the general conclusions can’t really be denied because of work by others on this issue. My main response, however, is that this is actually a marginal issue. And even Kahan admits this. There is a much bigger issue: many people simply never see the data.

Let’s look at it from the perspective of global warming, because that is the issue that Klein focuses on. While it is true that Fox News viewers see their tribe as being in the denier camp, it was not always so. At one time, conservatives were very much accepting of global warming. It was only after a concentrated propaganda campaign that global warming denial became a litmus test for conservative identification.

Dan KahanFor many people in my life, I am the person to come to in order to determine what smart opinion is on a subject. This is cultural identification in its best sense. After all, there is a whole lot of noise out there and they know me and they know that I am honest. Even on issues that I have very strong opinions, I provide the opposing position. Because I am a scientist by nature, I don’t just provide the information that confirms my side. That doesn’t mean that I’m objective—just that I try to provide a full, if ideologically colored, picture.

Compare this to Fox News. Their slogan “fair and balanced” is an outrage to all reasoning people. I have nothing against flaming rhetoric coming from any source. That is an art in and of itself—an art I proudly participate in. But to claim that such rhetoric is “just the facts” is disingenuous. More than any other television news sources, Fox News defines belief rather than reflects it.

So with global warming, the issue is not that we humans are so ideologically rigid that we can’t see the overwhelming weight of the evidence. It is that most of us never even see the evidence. People who watch Fox News think global warming is a hoax because the only people they see are people who say global warming is a hoax. This is the same as during the last election when Fox News viewers though that Mitt Romney was going to be the next president. But in that case, reality came crashing down on them on the night of 6 November 2012. Sadly, the global warming denial will last for years as our climate comes slowly (and perhaps catastrophically) down on us.

The problem with our society is that it is not equal enough. Some people and groups have enormous power. There’s no problem with people making ideologically driven decisions. But there is a very big problem when the ideology itself is defined by the power elite. That’s what we have to do something about. Democracy in America? I think it is an excellent idea!


I was very pleased to see that Klein’s article ended with, “Editor: Eleanor Barkhorn.” I don’t expect it to last, because online, even paying writers is a big deal. Having a proper editorial staff is right out. But the writing was definitely tighter than Klein provided at Wonk Blog. A world without editors is chaos!

Update (7 April 2014 4:45 pm)

Paul Krugman raises a reasonable exception, Asymmetric Stupidity. He offers up two reasons why in the real world, liberals are not nearly as prone to this as conservatives. The second reason goes right along with what I argued above:

One possible answer would be that liberals and conservatives are very different kinds of people—that liberalism goes along with a skeptical, doubting—even self-doubting—frame of mind; “a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument.”

Another possible answer is that it’s institutional, that liberals don’t have the same kind of monolithic, oligarch-financed network of media organizations and think tanks as the right.

Why Low Inflation Is Bad

Paul KrugmanFor roughly the last week, Paul Krugman has been focused on the recent International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook report and its suggestion that our current inflation target of 2% is too low. He talked about it in his column today, Oligarchs and Money. The point is that having such a low inflation target is currently keeping our economy depressed. Let me explain the basics here.

I remember reading a libertarian book many years ago. One chapter advocated the gold standard. It countered the idea that the economy needed more money as it grew, because if the money supply remained constant, the value of money would go up. There would be deflation rather than inflation that we are more familiar with. Problem solved! It is entirely typical of libertarian arguments because it is so neat and tidy while also being completely wrong.

Deflation is a bad thing for a number of reasons. The first is that it discourages economic growth. If you can make money by just stashing dollar bills in your mattress, there is a real disincentive to buy stuff. And that leads to much lower demand and fewer jobs. What’s more, it discourages investment and borrowing. Because of inflation, just by paying the interest on a loan, the principal is reduced over time. In an economy with deflation, you would owe more and more over time. It also makes it very hard for people who are in debt to get out of debt.

There is a group that loves deflation, and this is what Krugman is primarily on about. People who already have a lot of money like deflation because it effectively rigs the system in their favor. Their bonds and loans and cash just go up in value without doing anything. But they haven’t managed to get deflation as a stated policy, but they’ve been very good at getting super low inflation which is almost as good.

But here’s the thing. There is nothing especially different between low inflation and low deflation. Inflation is a statistical measure. So an inflation rate of 0.1% might indicate that 51% of goods are rising in price while 49% are falling. A deflation rate of 0.1% would be the reverse: 49% of good are rising in price while 51% are falling. So right now, Europe has an inflation rate of less than 1%. In the United States, it is less than 2%. These are both bad because they are stifling economic activity in the same ways I discussed above about deflation.

The situation is very clear, but don’t expect anything to be done about it. This is because we really don’t live in a democracy. The interest of the rich are pretty much all that matters. And in case you haven’t noticed: the last five years have been really good for the rich. It’s probably the main reason that I find politics so depressing. Humans are really smart and can generally figure out solutions to problems like global warming or a bad economy. But nothing is done because we can’t figure out how to equitably distribute power.