When in Doubt Benghazi!

Scandal?!The last five years have been something to behold. After the financial collapse, the conservative movement convinced itself that the reason things went so wrong was that the Republican Party had not been pure enough. According to this view, it only pretended to be conservative, but it really wasn’t. As a result, the new conservative movement repudiated all of what conservatives have done the past four decades.

In terms of domestic policy, the Republicans have long been for big spending projects that were not paid for. So when Democrats took control of the government, there really wasn’t any policy that they wanted. They just wanted power back. And they decided that the best way to get it back was just to scream about how terrible the Democrats were, regardless of what they did.

The Benghazi HoaxThis led us to years during which the Republicans attacked Obamacare—the healthcare reform law that Republicans had been pushing for two decades before. It wasn’t that they actually had anything substantial against the new law (other than that it raised taxes on the rich). It was mostly that it was a Democratic law and the one thing they know that they agree with is that Republicans should be in power and so the Democrats can’t be allowed to accomplish anything.

Now that Obamacare is turning out to be a success and at most a year away from being actually popular, the Republicans have a problem. If “Obamacare” itself isn’t enough to terrify the electorate, they had to find something else. And what could that be? Luckily for them, the right wing echo chamber has kept alive a number of non-scandals for them to use. The best, of course, is Benghazi, because four people died at Benghazi (No one died in Watergate!) even though the supposed scandal has nothing to do with the events that led up to the attack.

No One Died in Watergate

As Scandals go, Benghazi is a remarkable choice. It would be one thing if the argument was that the administration did too little to protect our embassies. But they can’t make that argument, because they were responsible for cutting funding. So instead, it is all about what the White House said after the fact. That’s what led to the amazing moment in the second presidential debate where Romney embarrassed himself by claiming that Obama didn’t call the Benghazi an act of terror. He was wrong, but even if he hadn’t been: really?! That’s the scandal? That the administration didn’t talk about a tragedy in the right way?

It is almost two years later and this is still all the Republicans have. If the worst of what the Republicans claim is true, it means that the administration tried to put the best spin on the attack as possible. How this distinguishes it from every other administration ever, I do not know. But of course, it is clear that the worst of what the Republicans claim is not true. As is usual in these cases, after the Benghazi attack there was a lot of conflicting information and the administration didn’t get the story exactly right. If the White House had six months to get their story right (as the Bush administration did before the Iraq War), we might find their error less understandable. But they had four days.

So 2014 is going to be the Benghazi! campaign for the Republicans. We may even see an impeachment attempt. But at this point, what else do they have? Over the past two decades, the Democrats have been eager to embrace any but the most loony Republican ideas. And that includes a lot of really conservative and bad ideas like chained-CPI. So the Republicans really have nothing else to campaign on. If it isn’t Benghazi! then it will be something else crazy, designed to appeal to their crazy base: IRS targeting of conservative groups or ATF coming after your guns or Obama coming after Christian religious rights. These are all untrue, but it hardly matters. The Republicans currently have no actual policies to push.

So Benghazi! it is.

How to Make Monopoly Fun

MonopolyJonathan Chait wants you to know, You Don’t Hate Monopoly, You Just Suck at It. And he is right that Monopoly is a wrongly vilified game. In particular, the game does not take hours to play. A big part of what makes the game grind on are common extensions like doubling the starting cash and paying $500 for landing on Free Parking.

When I was a kid, I played Monopoly a lot. So although I never made a study of the game, much of my intuition was right. Here are just a few things I knew that are backed up by actual analysis: don’t buy the dark green properties; avoid the purple properties; generally, try to buy the second group on one line; and the properties on the first two lines are better than the second two lines. The first two rules are just my experience. But there is a “go to jail” spot right before the green properties; and the purple properties are right after Go, so they are less likely to be hit. The third rule is just simple analysis: these properties have higher rents but cost less to build on. And the fourth rules takes advantage of the fact that people are so often transported to Go and Jail.

Jonathan ChaitBut there is a very good reason that most people don’t like playing Monopoly. And Chait knows about it. He explained, “Trading is the key to the game.” When multiple people are playing, there is always one or more people who think that other players are ganging up on them. This is the reason that pretty much no one wants to play the game Risk. Chait is right, of course, without trading, the game is boring and, in general, long. So players have to be willing to trade.

The problem is that the trading is distinctly outside the set rules of the game. If you land on another person’s property, you own them rent. That is all there is to it. But if two of your opponents trade themselves into monopolies and you are left out, you will not see it as the vicissitudes of the game. You will see it as the other players screwing you. And you won’t be completely wrong.

Personally, I find games of pure skill more edifying: chess, checkers, Go. But they also suffer from what is probably the worst aspect of all games: most people (but men especially) are jerks. The joy is in the playing, not the winning or the losing. I’ve noticed a lot that people (conservatives especially) have this problem with little league games where score isn’t kept. This is like enjoying a book only to get to the end. Games should be fun in the playing and winning should largely be irrelevant.

What Chait discussed is valuable. Because what he’s really getting at is understanding the game. It is only by taking the game seriously that we can enjoy it fully. If Monopoly were just a random game, it wouldn’t be much fun. On the other hand, I never mistook chess to be a random game, but it was boring because I didn’t understand it. I had to teach myself how to play it because chess instruction is so horrible. And I think that’s the case because most people who play it are only interested in winning. To this day, I enjoy chess greatly without being terribly interested in winning.

Chait ended his article in an unfortunate way:

Luck matters in Monopoly only if all the players understand the fundamentals of the game’s strategy and understand the varying rate of return of different investments. I’ve never played a game of Monopoly where that’s the case. Players who understand the odds and strategy of the game should virtually never lose to ones who don’t.

This strikes me as a big problem with people who play games. If you were playing Monopoly with someone who did not understand the essentials of the game, wouldn’t you explain at least the basics? Wouldn’t that make the game more fun? And isn’t that the point?

The Booth Civil War

John Wilkes BoothOn this day in 1838, John Wilkes Booth was born. He is one of the great villains of American history. But I think I understand him. He was, after all, only 26 years old when he assassinated President Lincoln. And it isn’t at clear what he thought he was doing, given that the Civil War was over. But how he reached the point of thinking that it was right to kill the president is not so hard to understand. He got lost in his own vision of the world that was, tellingly, dependent upon Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He saw Lincoln as Caesar—a despot that needed to be destroyed. I think it is also possible that there was schizophrenia involved.

Of course, there is a big difference between hating a man and thinking he is a tyrant, and setting about to kill that man. Booth’s behavior pushed him further and further away from his family. His older brother Edwin Booth was a unionist and supporter of Lincoln. By 1864, he would no longer welcomed his younger brother in his home. Shortly before John died, Edwin wrote to his sister, “Think no more of him as your brother; he is dead to us now, as he soon must be to all the world, but imagine the boy you loved to be in that better part of his spirit, in another world.”

So the assassin found himself more and more around like-minded people and they managed to whip themselves up to the point where the murder of a president seemed like not just a good idea but an absolutely essential act. It bothers me today because of Cliven Bundy and the militia people. They’ve all convinced themselves that Obama, rather than being just a president of the opposite party, is a despot that must be destroyed. This kind of thinking brought about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and more recently, and pointedly, the Oklahoma City bombing.

I’ve always felt sorry for Edwin Booth. He was a great actor who was on the cutting edge of moving Shakespearean performance toward a more naturalistic style. And the Booths were probably the greatest theatrical family in American history. John Wilkes Booth really screwed that up. Obviously, he did much greater harm to the Lincolns and to the country. But you are supposed to look out for your family. But when ideology gets out of hand, very basic things get lost like love of your family and respect for the law.

Anyway, happy birthday to the very troubled and horrible John Wilkes Booth.