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!