Public Confidence Doesn’t Mean Much

Gallup PollSince 1991, Gallup has been polling people on their opinions about the three branches of government: the Supreme Court, Congress, and the presidency. Today, it published data showing that the number of people who have confidence in the Supreme Court is at its lowest level ever: just 30%. This is still the highest of the three branches. The presidency gets 29% and Congress, of course, gets 7%. These data mean something, but they don’t mean what people think they mean.

It most definitely doesn’t mean that the people are unhappy with the Congress or the Supreme Court or even the presidency. Going back 25 years, reported confidence in the Supreme Court and the presidency have always been pretty much exactly the same. And the reported confidence in Congress has always been about half whatever the presidency was. The only exception to this is the last couple of years when Congress has gotten even less popular. But even last year, although Congress was less than its usual one-half level, it was still more than one-third. This year, it is less than one-fourth, but I suspect this is just a statistical blip. In the coming years, it will come back up a bit.

Gallup Poll: Confidence in 3 Branches of Government

What I find interesting is that from 2000 to 2001, the confidence in the Supreme Court actually went up a bit. This is after Bush v Gore, when most people were appalled by the clearly partisan decision where all the justices who voted Bush into the presidency were appointed by Republicans. I suspect that confidence went up because confidence went up in the presidency. And that has always amazed me: after allowing the most devastating attack on American soil, the “presidency” (not to mention the president himself) was rewarded with an increase in “confidence.” What’s with that?

Along the same lines, the people hated it when the House of Representatives impeached President Clinton. But confidence in Congress went up during that period. And it went up quite a lot: six percentage points, or roughly 30%. And why did it go up? Well, the economy was doing well. Confidence went up for the president and so it went up for Congress. It didn’t matter that Congress was doing stuff that the people thought was wrong.

Also, people may have no confidence in Congress, but term after term, they re-elect the same people. So as a practical matter, they aren’t too unhappy. If anything, they are unhappy that the rest of Congress does not do what their Representatives do. Regardless, what does the current 7% “confidence” number mean anyway. It means that conservatives are angry that Congress isn’t doing the incredibly damaging things they think are necessary to preserve freedom in America. And it means that liberals are angry that Congress isn’t doing anything good. So what?

Regardless, what the graph shows is that confidence in the presidency goes way up when the president starts a war. And then that confidence goes down whether the war continues or not. As Glenn Greenwald said, “Americans are quite good at regretting their past wars but quite poor at applying the lessons to newly proposed ones.” Other than that, we’ve seen pretty steady confidence in the presidency, except that Bush 43 was so bad that he created a new (lower) normal.

That’s the most you could say about these poll numbers. It isn’t that people do or don’t have confidence in these institutions. The numbers indicate how people feel about life in general. During the Clinton years as the economy improved, so did confidence. Then Bush came in and confidence went down until 9/11 and the Iraq War which pushed confidence really high because there’s nothing like incompetence and dishonesty to increase confidence. Then it went steadily down until Obama came in. Then confidence spiked—not because Obama was president, but because Bush wasn’t. And after the shine rubbed off, the presidency went down to a fairly constantly number. So it looks like Before Bush, confidence in the presidency was in the high 40s and after Bush, it was in the high 30s. I think we have bottomed out because this economic downturn has gone on so long. But a couple more years of growth and I think we will be back up to a confidence level of about 40%. If there is another Democratic presidency, it might get back to its old high 40s level.

Another aspect is that the coolness of cynicism changes over time. In the past, optimism and idealism were thought to be good things. Now, grousing about how terrible things are is the default for people. I see this all the time. Last week, I wrote, The Daily Show Fails on IRS—Again. I wrote, “I don’t like it when people claim that there is some big problem with the government bureaucracy.” It’s this generalized idea that the government is just crummy at everything it does. Actually, it was Reagan who really pushed that meme. If we had polling data going back further, I’m sure it would show a big decrease in the confidence level after him than before him.

But the truth is, when it comes to most government functions, things have gotten much better. But if you ask someone for a government bureaucracy that is bad, they always mention the DMV. Well, for one thing, the DMV is a state bureaucracy. But I always imagine that these people haven’t gone to the DMV since 1969. Because I’ve dealt with the DMV in three different states, and they’ve all done a great job.

So over time, confidence in the three branches of the federal government have gone down. It is also true that Americans’ confidence in just about every other institution has gone down. We’ve either become a more cynical people, or we’ve become the kind of people who think it is cool to be cynical. Regardless, it doesn’t say anything about our government institutions. And it only says a relatively small amount about the people who run those institutions.

SCOTUS Says Not All Religions Are Equal

Ruth Bader GinsburgLast week, with the unanimous decisions, I thought, “Oh God! That was probably done to make the coming highly controversial 5-4 decisions more acceptable.” That looks like it is the case. I assume that it is John Roberts who decides when decisions are released. And it should dispel any idea that you may have that the Supreme Court is anything but an extremely political organization. The most upsetting decisions today was Burwell v Hobby Lobby. In it, by a 5-4 majority, the Court found that “closely held” companies that are owned by religious people have a right to not provide birth control as part of their employee healthcare coverage.

If you look at the logic of the case, this really should be applied to everything. The Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in blood transfusions. By the logic of this decision, a Jehovah’s Witnesses employer ought to be able to withhold blood transfusions from the insurance coverage offered to their employees. But that’s not what this decision (pdf) finds. Alito’s decision even says, “This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, eg, for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs.” In Kennedy’s concurrence, he begins, “At the outset it should be said that the Court’s opinion does not have the breadth and sweep ascribed to it by the respectful and powerful dissent.”

The question is, “Why?” There really is no reason. What seems to have been done is that the Supreme Court wanted to allow Christian conservatives to make their stand against birth control and so they worked back from that. It reminds me above all of Bush v Gore. In that case, the Court found that George W Bush’s due process rights were being violated, but it was only George W Bush’s rights who were being violated and if a similar case ever came up, Bush v Gore could not be used as a precedent. Just like in that case, in Burwell v Hobby Lobby, the Court majority is doing what can only be call judicial legislation. It just created a law that more or less says, “Closely held religious companies have the right to discriminate against their female employees with regard to the existing law that says that all insurance policies must include contraceptive coverage.” This is not “judging”; this is not calling balls and strikes; this is legislating, pure and simple.

What was Samuel Alito Thinking?The conservatives on the bench are not idiots. They know that they can’t just say, “If an employer is religious, he doesn’t have to follow any law that goes against his conscience.” That would allow religions they don’t like to gain more power. Rastafarian employers might claim that all of their employees ingest cannabis. But even those Jehovah’s Witnesses: they can’t be allowed to sully the important legislative work being done by the conservative Christians on the Court: creating a special theocracy for their religion and their religion alone.

Ginsburg’s dissent is kind of amazing. Alito spent most of his decision arguing that the finding was minor. He said it wasn’t a broad decision. Kennedy backed him up. They were using a scalpel, for God’s sake! She brooks no such fantasy. Ginsburg goes right at the blood transfusion issue. She notes that this case doesn’t apply to blood transfusions and other silly religious complaints against modernity, but that it also doesn’t rule them out. The courts, apparently, are just supposed to deal with them as they come up. The majority decision certainly makes a Jehovah’s Witnesses employer’s contention that he shouldn’t have to provide coverage for blood transfusions reasonable, even if it doesn’t state that such exceptions should be made.

This brings up a number of practical points. Won’t this open the floodgates to different religions employers going to court trying to get their specific exceptions? Even more important in my opinion is how this will give more power to big employers who have a lot of financial resources. A small business, which may be owned by someone of even greater conviction, will have a harder time even taking a case to court. And then it will only get anywhere if it can hire a good constitutional lawyer. So in addition to everything else, the Supreme Court yet again has decided that the rich and powerful should have more resources in politics. Brilliant.

Ginsburg ends by making a point that should shock the entire country. She writes:

There is an overriding interest, I believe, in keeping the courts “out of the business of evaluating the relative merits of differing religious claims,” or the sincerity with which an asserted religious belief is held. Indeed, approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be “perceived as favoring one religion over another,” the very “risk the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude.”

In other words, the majority decision will necessarily place some religions above others. With minor exceptions, Christian Scientists don’t believe in modern medicine at all. It is certain that the courts will find that this does not give Christian Scientist employers the right to withhold medical coverage altogether. Thus, the government will not be treating all religions equally. They will be claiming certain sects of Christianity are better (More true!) than others.

Think about that. In this one decision that was made by a bunch of conservative Christians in the interest of a single major concern of that group, the majority has set the stage for the government to treat some religions differently than others. We might as well have an official religion at that point.

Con Claims “Epistemic Closure” As His Own

Pascal-Emmanuel GobrySeth Masket calls out Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry for his article, Vox, Derp, and the Intellectual Stagnation of the Left. Masket is making a broader point about what the people at Vox (or even Frankly Curious) are doing. So he argues that Vox is not some kind of insular liberal love-fest, but rather a public effort to define what liberalism is. If you are interested in that, go read Masket’s article. I am interested in Gobry’s article, but really only its subtitle, “Talk about an epistemic closure problem.”

This had to happen, of course. One of the primary rhetorical weapons of conservatives is, “I’m rubber and you’re glue; whatever you say bounces of me and sticks to you!” Over the past several years, liberals have talked a lot about epistemic closure in the conservative movement. Now, in the study of philosophy, “epistemic closure” means something quite different than what it means in political discourse. But the closest you can come to it is the idea that people tend to take on the beliefs of other people they know and trust. This is why argumentation generally doesn’t work. If I’m arguing with a conservative and I mention some fact that is important in proving my case, the conservative will start asking for sources—like my argument is a scientific paper. But two conservatives talking will accept highly questionable “facts” from each other without a thought. This isn’t necessarily a conservative problem any more than it is a liberal problem.

But recently, “epistemic closure” has come to mean: “political belief systems can be closed systems of deduction, unaffected by empirical evidence.” I think even this is not quite right for the way the term is used. Generally, it is a reference to the fact that conservatives have created their own separate information system: the right wing media echo chamber. The issue with “epistemic closure” is not that people just normally trust information from sources they consider reliable. Everyone does that. There is nothing special about that in this context. What is special here is that most people in the conservative movement don’t even hear information except filtered through their separate information system.

Looking at the liberal and conservatives bases, I think an argument can be made that both suffer from this kind of epistemic closure. But the degree of the problem is very different. Conservatives generally get their political information only from conservative sources. The only mention of what other media sources are reporting is when Fox News, for example, complains that no one else is covering Benghazi! or Solynda. And even these reports just reinforce the epistemic closure because it is telling the viewer that he can’t trust anything anyone says other than explicitly conservative media sources.

On the liberal side, it isn’t like that. First, MSNBC doesn’t claim to be “fair and balanced”—providing just the facts. Special Report with Bret Baier—a supposed straight news show of Fox News—ends with, “Fair, balanced and unafraid.” The implication is that the show is not afraid to tell you the real truth—unlike those useful fools on the networks. Second, MSNBC viewers are quite aware that they are getting biased news coverage. And third, let’s face it: as bad as MSNBC is at times, it doesn’t actively deceive.

The real problem with epistemic closure is among the elites. There is no better example of this than the polling leading up to the 2012 presidential election. The conservative elites tuned out not just what the other side was saying, but what actual pollsters were saying. They just talked among themselves and convinced themselves that the polls were wrong. And this led to Mitt Romney coming into election day actually thinking that he was going to win. These is no more pure example of the catastrophic effects of epistemic closure. Yet it hasn’t changed the behavior of the conservative movement.

We see nothing like this on the liberal side. If we did, the history of the Obama presidency would have been very different. For example, there would be no Obamacare. Actual liberals did hate the idea of Obamacare. They saw it is a really complicated way to improve the healthcare system that wouldn’t work nearly as well as their preferred policy. But they did not convince themselves that because Obamacare was a conservative idea, it couldn’t work or that it wouldn’t make things better. Meanwhile, the conservatives themselves turned on a dime, and complain to this very day that Obamacare can’t work. In fact, supposed reasonable Republican Avik Roy continues to provide the right with every possible excuse to continue to say Obamacare is a disaster. And the stuff gets pushed all over conservative media. It doesn’t matter that his work is generally sloppy and doesn’t show what he claims. When it turns out to be wrong, it just disappears without any mention of it being wrong. Meanwhile, good news about Obamacare never makes it into the closed conservative information system.

That is epistemic closure. But Gobry wants to claim that a lack of “new” ideas means that liberals are experiencing epistemic closure because they are only talking to themselves. Well, as I said, the embrace of Obamacare shows the lie in that. But the truth is that there are very few “new” ideas under the sun. Gobry specifically mentions the minimum wage. Well, actually we liberals are not advocating the minimum wage. We’ve had the minimum wage for a long time and it actually worked quite well. But over the last 45 years, it has been allowed to slip to such a low level that we might as well not have a minimum wage. So we are arguing to make the minimum wage an actual, useful policy. But yes, it is an old policy idea. But it isn’t nearly as old as the conservative alternative to it: have no minimum wage.

Of course, what Gobry is really arguing is that liberals are not deciding that conservative ideas are good. That would be kind of hard. The last 35 years have seen almost nothing but conservative ideas enacted. And these have been mostly just rolling back previous liberal policies and coming up with justifications for taking from the poor and giving to the rich. As I wrote about before, Reagan’s Legacy: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest. Conservatives might want to claim that they are all about lowering everyone’s taxes, but the facts are that their project—their one big idea—is that the rich should be richer. And that is not a new idea.

But the fact that the conservatives have few new ideas is not why we say they suffer from epistemic closure. We say it because they only talk to themselves. Any unpleasant information that pushes against what they believe simply doesn’t get considered. Facts from outside the movement itself are ignored. That is epistemic closure. Their total lack of any new and good ideas is the result of epistemic closure. But it isn’t epistemic closure itself. Of course, because of epistemic closure, that distinction will never make its way to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.

H/T: Washington Monthly

Don James Goldman

James GoldmanI am still away from home, but I will be back later today and we’ll get back to normal around here! I have been working in and around the Bay Area this weekend, and it was Gay Pride weekend. That’s all fine, but the whole thing has turned from what was once an important political event to a great big party that draws people from all over the Bay Area. That’s great. I’m happy that gay rights are largely a non-political issue. But dealing with the crowds and all has been a total pain!

On this day in 1927, the great playwright James Goldman was born. Yes, I did him last year. But what can I do: I really love one of his scripts. Of course, he is best known for the film (and play) The Lion in Winter. And here’s the thing: that is a great film. That would have been enough. But no, not for James Goldman!

He wrote one of favorite films, They Might Be Giants. It is the only truly successful modernization of Don Quixote. As I wrote last year:

The film is extremely deep, but I fear that most people don’t understand it. It is basically a modern version of Don Quixote. But in this telling, instead of Quixote thinking he is a knight, he thinks he is Sherlock Holmes. His family thinks he is insane, so he becomes a patient of a psychiatrist, Dr Mildred Watson. Once learning of her last name, Holmes becomes convinced that she is his Dr Watson. As time goes on, Watson is pulled completely into Holmes’ fantasy. On its surface, the film is just a silly comedy. But it is really quite deep and poses all of the most important questions that humans ask. Here is the end of the film (which is about all I could find), which shows the final commitment of Watson to Holmes’ world. It doesn’t completely work on screen, but on the stage it would have been perfect:

And that’s all I have to say about it right now. I should probably write more about the film, because it truly is brilliant. Or at least the script is.

Happy birthday James Goldman!

Ray Harryhausen

Ray HarryhausenOn this day in 1920, the great, great, great special effects artist Ray Harryhausen was born. He is best remembered for his films Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans. His work holds up surprisingly well in this world of computer animation where literally anything can be done. Something to note about his films is that the look of them is not dictated by his special effects. That is a common complaint of mine about many more modern special effects.

Harryhausen was originally inspired by the work of Willis O’Brien on the movie King Kong. And he even managed to meet O’Brien when he was fairly young. After working at the bottom rungs of the film industry—notably under Frank Capra during World War II—he eventually worked as assistant animator under O’Brien for the film, Mighty Joe Young, where Harryhausen ended up doing most of the actual animation while O’Brien worked on the more fundamental technical problems. I suspect this was how things usually worked.

Within four years, Harryhausen got to be in charge of his own film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms—basically a Godzilla film, although the connection goes the other way since Godzilla didn’t appear for another year, and the original screenplay title was “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” By 1958, Harryhausen brought the process to color films with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. He continued this on with other notable films like Jason and the Argonauts in 1963 through to his last film in 1981, Clash of the Titans. In 2010, Clash of the Titans was remade just to prove that more advanced technology doesn’t lead to better films.

Here is a short Turner Classic Movies tribute to Harryhausen:

Happy birthday Ray Harryhausen!

Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul RubensI have to go away for more testing of my high tech project. So there will be limited posting this weekend. Last year on this day, I did Richard Rodgers, one of the great heroes of my youth. And if I had more time today, I would do the theoretical physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer. But I just feel too rushed to get into explaining the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. So I’m just going to take it easy (and short) and talk about a painter.

On this day in 1577, the great Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens was born. He is probably best known today as a nice way to describe women with a bit of meat on their bones, “Rubenesque.” Indeed, other than some portraits of specific named people, I have never seen a painting by him of a woman who was not fairly large. None of them were terribly overweight, but he clearly had his type. I would note, however, that generally speaking, he didn’t pick the most athletic men for models either. So maybe it was all about showing people in all their lumpy beauty.

But what is more amazing about him is the range of his work. He did everything and he did it all beautifully. There really isn’t any kind of painting that was done at that time that he didn’t do. It is hard to pick from it all, but if you click over to Wikipedia, they have a ton of his work. Here is one I especially like: Mourning Christ:

Mourning Christ

Happy birthday Peter Paul Rubens!

Police Can’t but Boss Can Invade Your Privacy

Welcome to you oligarchy!This last week was pretty good regarding the Supreme Court. As I reported on Wednesday, the Court found that the police could not just search the phones of people they arrest. They have to have a search warrant. But the same day, Corey Robin noted that, Supreme Court rules: the Government Can’t Search Your Cellphone Without a Warrant; the Boss Can. That’s right. Four years ago, the Supreme Court unanimously found that an employer could search your cell phone.

Now the case at hand is not all that clear. It involved a police officer who was using an employer provided phone. But as Robin noted, that really wasn’t part of the decision. If it had been a personal phone, the reasoning would have been the same. The Court didn’t say, “Because the phone belonged to the force…” What’s more, the case itself stinks. The officer was given some device that I’ll call a phone that was able to send text messages. He and all the other officers were told that they shouldn’t expect their messages to be private, but that it was okay to use them for personal matters. What’s more, if they went over the allowed number of texts, they had to pay for them.

Well, this officer went over them month after month and his supervisor got tired of collecting the money. So he got all the records, saw that the vast majority of them were personal and disciplined the officer. The real problem I see here is that all the power is given to the employer. The employer never set a level of “personal use” that was unacceptable. The one thing that was required (paying for the overages), the officer did. The Supreme Court said that it was fine to do this if it was for a “legitimate work-related purpose.” I just don’t see this as legitimate.

The supervisor could have changed the rules. He could have said that anyone who went over their allotted number of texts would have them checked to see what they were. That would have given the officer time to change his behavior. But instead, the supervisor was simply annoyed and so pried into the personal matters of the officer. A supervisor being annoyed at a subordinate does not sound like a “legitimate work-related purpose” to me. But to the power elites at the Supreme Court, I guess it does.

The wider point of all this is that oppression by the government is not the only kind of oppression there is. When the United States was formed, that was much more true. If you didn’t like your work options, you could, “Go west, young man!” But now workers don’t really have choices. Pretty much any reasonably sized company infringes on employees in much the same way. Now it happens before you even get hired. Companies want to do background checks, credit checks, Twitter and Facebook checks! That is almost all ridiculous and of little value to the employer.

Yet it seems that the Supreme Court really is stuck in the past. It’s nice that this week they updated the idea of your home to include your cell phone when it comes to government intervention. But more and more it is your employer and not the government that is the greatest threat to your liberty and privacy.

Fighting Global Warming Helps the Economy

Ross DouthatYou all know how much we love reform conservatives around here, right? Or at least, you know how much we would love them if they existed. One of the people who claims to be for reforming the Republican Party but always comes up with a reason why actually, the Republican Party is just fine, is Ross Douthat. In Ryan Cooper’s excellent rundown, Reformish Conservatives, he does not even score as high as David Frum, whose idea of reform is just two things: don’t be openly racist and don’t be against even the smallest of gun control measures. Douthat seems to think he is defending the Pope. But not Pope Francis — Pope Pius XII.

Anyway, earlier this month, Matt Yglesias wrote, The Deafening Silence of “Reform Conservatives” on Climate Change. So after thinking about it for three weeks, Ross Douthat shoots back, “But, but, but…” Well, actually he wrote, Reform Conservatism and Climate Change. It’s total apologia. Basically, he says that he can’t be bothered to talk about climate change because the economy is bad.

Matt YglesiasOkay. Let me say something nice about Douthat. He’s actually not that bad on economic issues. He’s a total social conservative, and in a man as young as he is, I think this really raises questions about someone screwing him up somewhere. But he isn’t one of the usual “screw the poor, love the rich” conservatives. If he really worked at by toning down the social conservatism a bit and revving up the economic liberalism, he’d be a populist. But I’m done now. That’s the last nice thing I’ll say about Ross Douthat.

Just because he doesn’t hate the poor, doesn’t mean he understands economics. Paul Krugman noted this, Depression Economics and Climate Policy. He noted what I talk about around here a great deal. (In fairness: I probably learned it from Krugman in the first place.) When the economy is depressed and there are lots of unused (primarily human) resources laying around, it does not hurt the economy to increase regulations that force industry to invest in clean technology. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. Doing this will actually create jobs.

Paul KrugmanYou may wonder, how can this be? How can there be this win-win situation where we get a cleaner and safer environment while also creating jobs? Simple: not everyone wins. All those rich corporations that are sitting on piles of money that they don’t know what to do with? They are going to see those piles of money shrink. And that is why the Republicans are against doing anything about global warming or for that matter anything at all. They believe it is immoral to hurt the profits of any company by even the smallest amount. On the other hand, they don’t see it as immoral at all to keep many millions of people out of work unnecessarily. That’s the “free” marker!

The question you might be wondering is that now that I (with a tiny assist from Paul Krugman) have pointed out the error in Ross Douthat’s thinking, will he decide that he must start pushing the Republican Party to do something about climate change? Of course not. We will be back to what Yglesias was talking about in the first place. There will be a “deafening silence” from Douthat. As I said, his article was just an apologia — just some fancy footwork to justify his lack of engagement on the issue. He doesn’t want to turn into Josh Barro!

And ultimately, that’s the issue that faces all conservatives who want to make the Republican Party more reasonable. If they start making sense — thinking rationally, accepting facts, striving for consistency — they start to sound like liberals. And then how can they reform the Republican Party? It’s a Catch-22. In order to reform the Republican Party, they must stay crazy and stupid; but if they stay crazy and stupid, they can’t reform the Republican Party. Oh well.

Eric Cantor on Eric Cantor

Eric CantorFrom obstructing a jobs bill to put Americans back to work in 2011, to derailing gun control measures any time they reached my desk, I feel blessed to have had such an incredible run of preventing productive policies, and even a few pieces of landmark legislation, from ever passing… Of course, I’m disappointed because I thought I had many more years of impeding accomplishments ahead of me, and I’ll be the first to admit that I never quite managed to stall environmental policies as much as I would have liked. But at the end of the day, I’m very proud of how I helped Congress accomplish so little during my time in office.

—Satire of Eric Cantor
Resigning House Leader Cantor Reflects On All The Accomplishments He Thwarted


Although satire, this is very close to the rhetoric of the Republican Party. Remember when John Boehner said, “We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal”? Of course, they didn’t succeed at that either, but you get the idea. What The Onion wrote was funny, but I doubt if Eric Cantor would disagree with it.

Two Problems With Hierarchical Class

Mark SanfordIn New York Magazine Jim Rutenberg has written a profile of disgraced and redemed Representative Mark Sanford, Path of Most Resistance. I’m sure you remember Sanford, who while governor of South Carolina disappeared. It was claimed that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail but was really just having an ex-marital affair with an Argentinian woman. He claimed she was his soul mate, but after five years of trying, they have not been able to leverage that into a stable relationship or, you know, marriage. I don’t think I’m out on a limb in noting that the relationship is probably more about flesh than soul. But whatever.

Ed Kilgore explained what the story of Mark Sanford means to him and I think he has it exactly right:

The title of the piece—”Mark Sanford’s Path of Most Resistance”—is supposed, I guess, to connote a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress, if not actual martyrdom, for the former conservative titan. But to me it comes across as a tale as old as the South and as new as its current GOP hegemons: a tale of the power of privilege to salve all wounds and forgive all sins, for those in the right social station with the right ideology.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I wrote about the film Brave yesterday, Brave Is Kind of a Mess but Enjoyable. I bristle at the very idea of class and I think to a lot of people, that comes off as naive. After all, a society is always going to have some people who are smarter, some people who are stronger, some people who are better at macrame, and so on. Isn’t that going to lead to some kind of social order? Well, sure. But there are two important points, one more theoretical and one intensely practical that stares us all in the face every day.

The theoretical issue is that we can have a social order that is not hierarchical. And in fact, our capitalist system is such that certain kinds of social goods (like commodity distribution and golfing ability) are vastly over compensated—both monetarily and socially. I see society needing a whole bunch of people doing a whole bunch of things. We make a big deal out of great football players, but boiler engineers are far more important to the comfort and safety of the people in our society. I don’t envision an economically flat society, but what we have is a society that is ridiculously warped. And that brings us to the practical issue.

Mark Sanford is not an exceptional man. But he was born into the right social class with the right race in the right place at the right time. Sanford’s father was a cardiologist. As Wikipedia notes, “Before his senior year of high school, Sanford moved with his family from Fort Lauderdale to the 3,000-acre Coosaw Plantation near Beaufort, South Carolina.” And then, Sanford married well. His ex-wife’s great-grandfather was co-founding the Skil Corporation when black people of that time and place were living under a terrorist regime. So Mark Sanford’s rise to power was entirely due to the luck of his birth. And then, when he fell in a way that showed that he wasn’t even good at the one thing he was known for (politics), he was given a second chance. And he didn’t need a second chance. Financially, he had long been set for life.

Compare the life of Mark Sanford to that of the vast majority of Americans—to say nothing of the people of the world. Even on its own terms, does our hierarchical class system work? As I discussed yesterday about torture, it doesn’t work because the opportunity costs are so much higher than value we get from the system. But as Frederick Douglass wrote over a hundred years ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” The system we have works very well for Mark Sanford and the rest of the power elite. And things will only change if we demand it.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence DunbarOn this day in 1872, the writer Paul Laurence Dunbar was born. I am fascinated with the stories of African Americans after the Civil War. They were a particularly hungry people, socially and culturally—especially concerned about making better lives for their children. Both Dunbar’s parents had been slaves in Kentucky. But his father escaped during the war and then fought in it for the Union. Both moved to Ohio where Paul Laurence was born. To give you some idea of the hopes and dreams that parents had, his mother learned to read for the very purpose of teaching him to read. I know parents of all times care deeply about their children, but that strikes me as notably heroic.

Of course, despite the wishes for and work on behalf of their children, the white population of the United States was extremely stingy in the chances it provided to them. Dunbar was lucky, in terms of his talent, personality, and environment. He was, for example, the only African American student at his high school. I think that situation worked for Dunbar: one black student is interesting, not frightening to the white majority. And that’s especially true when you are pious and generally brilliant.

Dunbar started publishing while still in high school. And at the age of 18, “Dunbar wrote and edited The Tattler, Dayton’s first weekly African-American newspaper. It was printed by the fledgling company of his high-school acquaintances, Wilbur and Orville Wright.” It helps to know people with money, and the Wright brothers would be lifelong friends. Dunbar’s early career sounds like the careers of writers in the 16th century with rich men providing assistance to him. But truthfully, I’m not sure that’s really very different from the way things work today. Dunbar’s career seems to demonstrate that an enormous amount of talent and a fair amount of luck will take you far.

At first, he was exclusively a poet. But in his mid-20s, he began writing short stories and novels. Although he died of tuberculosis at just 33 years of age, in addition to an enormous amount of poetry, he managed to publish four books of short stories and four novels. He also wrote the lyrics to the historical Broadway musical In Dahomey, which is noted for being the first with an all African American cast. It was a modest hit on Broadway and then toured the United Kingdom and then the United States for four years.

Project Gutenberg was collected all of his poems, two of his short story collections, two of his novels, and a short essay. He wrote poetry in both dialect and standard English. The dialect poems are remarkable for their beauty and accessibility (that could just be me, since I normally have problems with dialect). Here is a short poem in standard English called “Encouraged,” that could mean many things but somehow to me seems like a poem for his mother:

  Because you love me I have much achieved,
Had you despised me then I must have failed,
  But since I knew you trusted and believed,
I could not disappoint you and so prevailed.

Happy birthday Paul Laurence Dunbar!

Conservatives Will Never Get Over Obamacare

Ed MorrisseyRegular readers know that I’m a fan of Jonathan Chait’s writing. It isn’t so much that he’s insightful. He is, of course, often quite insightful. He is also, however, pigheaded about a few issues that he just can’t seem to get his head around. But what I most appreciate is his sense of humor and his great appreciation of hypocrisy. Today, he wrote an article that rather well sums up the latter part of that, Here Is the Most Shameless Anti-Obamacare Argument Yet. But unusually for him, he doesn’t seem to see the humor in the hypocrisy.

The article is about how conservatives saw the increase in first quarter healthcare costs as an indication that Obamacare was going to cause us to go broke. “See,” they said, “We can’t afford to cover all these extra people!” But now, the original estimates have been revised and it turns out that healthcare costs did not spike and as a result, GDP in the first quarter actually decreased. So the conservatives are admitting they were wrong about Obamacare? Ha ha ha! No, of course not! They’ve simply changed what they are saying.

Chait noted that on the first of May, Ed Morrissey at The Fiscal Times published a column, Obama’s Biggest Lie: the ACA Will Lower Healthcare Spending. But then today, Morrissey published a column, Obamacare Will Suck the Life Out of the Economy. In other words, regardless of what happens, Obamacare is terrible. And Morrissey is hardly alone. As Chait put it:

If you suspect there is literally no imaginable set of facts that would make conservatives admit Obamcare is working as designed, you’re right.

But really, I would think that Chait could find something to laugh about in this. I think he may be to the point of exasperation. Is there no end to this? Will conservatives never admit defeat on Obamacare and just get on with other things?

I think the answer to this is quite simple: no. Conservatives are still complaining about progressive taxation! And that is true of just about every other political improvement of the last century and a half. Liberals love to quote Dwight Eisenhower:

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H L Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

But he wrote that in 1954! Since then, that “tiny splinter group” has become the Republican Party. Look at the recent Mississippi Republican Senate run-off. If it hadn’t be for Democratic Party support, the guy who would have won would have been the guy who promised to commit political malpractice by not bringing federal money back to the state. So yes, the Republican Party has gone crazy and stupid, and no, they are not going to stop attacking Obamacare regardless of what the facts are.