Let’s All Laugh With Curt Clawson!

Curt ClawsonI have a soft spot for losers and comically idiotic people. That’s especially true when they are blissfully unaware of what they are doing and when what they are doing is in no way mean. And so, I do not present Representative Curt Clawson to laugh at but rather with. But laugh you should, because this is like something straight out of Monty Python.

Clawson just got into the House, having replaced Trey Radel who was forced to resign because he was arrested for cocaine possession. Now he’s a Tea Party guy, and a businessman who I’m sure will tell you, “I did build that!” And I’m sure in the future I will have many bad things to say about him because he probably does hold the vilest of opinions. But yesterday, there he was, the newest person on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And testifying before him were Nisha Biswal from the State Department and Arun Kumar from the Commerce Department. But Clawson was confused; he thought they were representatives from India.

Now, it is true that they are both Indian-Americans. Indeed Kumar clearly was not born in this country. But Biswal just as clearly was, based upon her casual American accent. But Clawson was actually very sweet. He waxed about how much he loved India. According to John Hudson of Foreign Policy, “During the hearing, he repeatedly touted his deep knowledge of the Indian subcontinent and his favorite Bollywood movies.” I just want to hug him!

The interesting thing though, is that no one contradicted him. But when the ranking Democrat, Eliot Engel, got to speak, he pointedly said to the two administration officials, “Thank you both for your service to our country, it’s very much appreciated.” But the best part is when Clawson asked Biswal if India would be as open to capital flows as the US is to capital from from them. She responded, “I think your question is to the Indian government. We certainly share your sentiment, and we certainly will advocate that on behalf of the US.” Clawson was not at all moved from his delusion. He smiled and said, “Okay, we’ll see some progress!”

There is, of course, the possibility that he’s drunk. He certainly looks it. I don’t mean really drunk, but just far enough gone that the world seems like a damned fine place. And if he was drunk, I don’t think it takes away from the beauty of the moment. (If you don’t know what I mean, watch this skit from That Mitchel and Webb Look, The Inebriati.)

More seriously, however, it does show just how clueless rich people are. They so cut themselves off from the rest of the nation, they don’t know that it isn’t 1820 anymore. It reminds me of an episode of the television show MASH where some tribunal is taking place and the judge says to the prosecuting officer who is African American, “But first: a song!” The judge is so out of it that he thinks the officer is a minstrel.

Today, Clawson released a statement apologizing, “I made a mistake in speaking before being fully briefed and I apologize. I’m a quick study, but in this case I shot an air ball.” Clawson played basketball at Purdue University from 1981 to 1984. Go Boilermakers!


H/T: Ed Kilgore

Guaranteed Minimum Income

Dylan MatthewsAs regular readers know, I idealize economist Dean Baker. But there is one issue that I have a frustrating disagreement with him. He argues that technological advances will make the economy better for everyone. This is true if you assume that the increased productivity that is brought about by these advances will be somewhat equally shared. Baker, of course, knows that they won’t. But he’s committed to making the argument that the problem is not the technology but the government policy (such as patents but also taxes and an almost endless list of other things) of taking or keeping money from the poor and giving it to the rich.

He is absolutely right about this. My frustration comes from the fact that he constantly attacks those that note that increases in technology are putting people out of work and making the lives of the poor even worse. The technology will continue to improve. Nothing is going to stop that and we can all be glad for that. But the fact remains that in the existing political-economic system, this is making things worse. And an end to patent protections won’t even begin to deal with the problem.

Another solution he’s fond of is work sharing. This is where, instead of laying people off in a recession, a company just cuts back on everyone’s hours and the government makes up the difference in pay. This seems to work rather well in Germany. In the United States, it has always been suffocated with so much red tape that companies rarely use it even when it is available. Regardless, it too isn’t going to solve our problem.

This has lead me to be in favor of something that Baker never talks about: guaranteed minimum income. And although I think Baker would be in favor of it, I think he also would consider it pie-in-the-sky and Loser Liberalism. But I was very pleased to see that Dylan Matthews over at Vox is taking the idea very seriously, A guaranteed Income for Every American Would Eliminate Poverty—and it Wouldn’t Destroy the Economy.

Pascal-Emmanuel GobryUnfortunately, the article is mostly just a response to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. And his argument is just that a negative income tax wouldn’t work because in the hand full of small tests, people didn’t work as many hours. Matthews responded with two main points. First, it wasn’t even true in all the tests. Second, the “not working as much” was basically just people staying unemployed slightly longer so they could get better jobs. Gobry seems to think that if everyone were guaranteed $5,000 per year, they would all stop working because, wow, with $5,000 per year, you’re riding high! Gobry is known for making big proclamation based upon nothing. And note what he’s actually saying here: giving workers more choices is a bad thing.

Matthews big point is that a guaranteed minimum income would not actually cost the economy that much: between 5% and 15% of GDP. Of course, it would mean that rich people would not be quite as rich and, let’s face it, they don’t need people like Gobry to stop this from ever happening. But the truth is that an end to poverty is available right now, and we don’t need any of Paul Ryan’s new bag of tricks to do it.

Matthews also made the point that people working less is not necessarily a bad thing. Let me take that further: people working less is the point of productivity growth. This idea that paid work is the only thing of value in the economy is madness. What especially makes me angry is that social conservatives should be in favor of this. Providing a guaranteed minimum income would necessarily mean that employers would have to pay people more because they could get a basic income by doing nothing. People making more money would allow, for example, one member of a marriage to stay home, manage the house, and raise the children. That’s a good thing!

Also, much of the greatest art and science ever created was done so by people who (because of the circumstances of their birth) had some kind of basic income. This is why advances in art and science have not traditionally been made by plucky youths born into poverty, even though there have always been a whole lot more of them. Gobry, like all conservatives, only ever wants to look at the down side of such policies. I think fathers and mothers being able to spend more time with there kids would be a great improvement. I think more great artists and scientists and thinkers would be a great improvement. Of course, so do conservatives. They simply aren’t willing to stop their immoral shifting of money from the vast majority of people to those who already have far more money than they can ever productively use.

Diffracting Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind FranklinOn this day in 1920, the great British physical chemist Rosalind Franklin was born. If you haven’t heard of her, it is simply because she’s a woman. Really. The sexism against her was unbelievable. Although Francis Crick said that her X-ray diffraction work was critical to his Nobel Prize winning discovery of the structure of DNA, the Nobel committee didn’t even mention her. What’s more, Crick’s partner Watson made repeated attacks on her as a scientist and generally minimized her contributions to the science—after she had died, of course.

Born to an extremely influential Jewish family in Britain, she showed academic greatness at an early age. Then she went to Cambridge where she received Second Class Honors. She did not receive a Bachelor’s degree, because at that time, Cambridge didn’t give them to women. It did allow her to go on and do more advanced work. She eventually got her PhD for work on the physical chemistry (especially porosity) of coal. This was during World War II, and the work had special military applications like coal’s use in gas masks. What’s perhaps most interesting about this, is that it had nothing much to do with her later work.

After the war, she got a job working with X-ray crystallographer Jacques Mering in France. She applied the new techniques to coal and published a number of significant papers. But the main thing was that she became an expert in the use of X-ray diffraction on complex organic compounds. So in 1951, she was brought to King’s College London where she started her work on the structure of DNA. Also working there was Maurice Wilkins, who would go on to share the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick. Wilkins and Franklin did not get along, partly because of the usual academic politics, but also because they were such different people.

I wish that I could explain to you the work these people were doing. Sadly, I can’t. To begin with, organic chemistry is still very much a mystery to me. And embarrassingly, even though I’ve done some work with X-ray crystallography, I never really understood it. Basically, you bombard an object with X-rays and look at how the object changes the X-rays’ directions. This allows you to infer the structure of the object. But really, stuff like this has always felt very much like black magic to me. So I have a great respect (and awe) for those who pioneered the work.

But about that sexism. The truth is that by all accounts, Franklin was a difficult person. But this is hardly unusual. I’ve met more than my fair share of great scientists and as a group they are arrogant and impatient—generally not the kind of people you want at cocktail parties. But had Franklin been a man, everyone would have just accepted this. But she was a woman and as a result, she wasn’t seen as just another difficult genius, but someone with “problems.” And in addition to everything else, Watson minimized her work. Still, had she lived, even Watson admitted that she should have shared the Nobel Prize with the three men.

Unfortunately, at the age of 35, she was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer. She got treatment for it and continued to work right up to two weeks before her death at the age of 37. At that point, she was working on the polio virus. She did an amazing amount of outstanding work in her short lifetime.

Happy birthday Rosalind Franklin!

Hazlitt on Henry V

William HazlittHenry V is a very favorite monarch with the English nation, and he appears to have been also a favorite with Shakespeare, who labors hard to apologize for the actions of the king, by showing us the character of the man, as “the king of good fellows.” He scarcely deserves this honor. He was fond of war and low company:—we know little else of him. He was careless, dissolute, and ambitious—idle, or doing mischief. In private, he seemed to have no idea of the common decencies of life, which he subjected to a kind of regal license; in public affairs, he seemed to have no idea of any rule of right or wrong, but brute force, glossed over with a little religious hypocrisy and archiepiscopal advice. His principles did not change with his situation and professions. His adventure on Gadshill was a prelude to the affair of Agincourt, only a bloodless one; Falstaff was a puny prompter of violence and outrage, compared with the pious and politic Archbishop of Canterbury, who gave the king carte blanche, in a genealogical tree of his family, to rob and murder in circles of latitude and longitude abroad—to save the possessions of the Church at home. This appears in the speeches in Shakespeare, where the hidden motives that actuate princes and their advisers in war and policy are better laid open than in speeches from the throne or woolsack. Henry, because he did not know how to govern his own kingdom, determined to make war upon his neighbors. Because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France. Because he did not know how to exercise the enormous power, which had just dropped into his hands, to any one good purpose, he immediately undertook (a cheap and obvious resource of sovereignty) to do all the mischief he could. Even if absolute monarchs had the wit to find out objects of laudable ambition, they could only “plume up their wills” in adhering to the more sacred formula of the royal prerogative, “the right divine of kings to govern wrong,” because will is only then triumphant when it is opposed to the will of others, because the pride of power is only then shown, not when it consults the rights and interests of others, but when it insults and tramples on all justice and all humanity. Henry declares his resolution ‘when France is his, to bend it to his awe, or break it all to pieces’—a resolution worthy of a conqueror, to destroy all that he cannot enslave; and what adds to the joke, he lays all the blame of the consequences of his ambition on those who will not submit tamely to his tyranny. Such is the history of kingly power, from the beginning to the end of the world—with this difference, that the object of war formerly, when the people adhered to their allegiance, was to depose kings; the object latterly, since the people swerved from their allegiance, has been to restore kings, and to make common cause against mankind. The object of our late invasion and conquest of France was to restore the legitimate monarch, the descendant of Hugh Capet, to the throne: Henry V in his time made war on and deposed the descendant of this very Hugh Capet, on the plea that he was a usurper and illegitimate. What would the great modern catspaw of legitimacy and restorer of divine right have said to the claim of Henry and the title of the descendants of Hugh Capet? Henry V, it is true, was a hero, a king of England, and the conqueror of the king of France. Yet we feel little love or admiration for him. He was a hero, that is, he was ready to sacrifice his own life for the pleasure of destroying thousands of other lives: he was a king of England, but not a constitutional one, and we only like kings according to the law; lastly, he was a conqueror of the French king, and for this we dislike him less than if he had conquered the French people. How then do we like him? We like him in the play. There he is a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant. As we like to gaze at a panther or a young lion in their cages in the Tower, and catch a pleasing horror from their glistening eyes, their velvet paws, and dreadless roar, so we take a very romantic, heroic, patriotic, and poetical delight in the boasts and feats of our younger Harry, as they appear on the stage and are confined to lines of ten syllables; where no blood follows the stroke that wounds our ears, where no harvest bends beneath horses’ hoofs, no city flames, no little child is butchered, no dead men’s bodies are found piled on heaps and festering the next morning—in the orchestra!

—William Hazlitt
Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays

Republican Abuse of Representative Democratic Norms Has Made Them Impotent

Ted CruzIf it weren’t for all the pain and suffering they cause, I would love the Republican Party. But I wouldn’t love them they way I love Iago in Othello or Richard III in, well, Richard III. Because they are both brilliant in their evilness. Instead, the Republican Party is more like Cosmo Lavish in Terry Pratchett’s Making Money. He is the evil subgenius whose machinations fail completely because he greatly underestimates his adversaries and greatly overestimates himself. This isn’t to say that Lavish didn’t have his victories, but in the end, he lost and went insane to boot. As I discussed earlier this week in Pessimistic Conservatives, conservatism constantly loses as long as civilization doesn’t collapse. And, just in case you haven’t been paying attention, the Republican Party is insane.

Let us consider the filibuster for a moment. For decades people of all political persuasions used this drastic legislative tool quite selectively. And then in the 1970s, it started to get out hand. And from there, basically every time the Republicans were in the minority, its use went up. I’m not saying that the Democrats’ hands are clean on this. But it is pretty much true, Republicans Caused All Filibuster Abuse. And it got so out of hand during the Obama administration that Harry Reid really had no choice but to get rid of it.

Actually, the filibuster didn’t go away; it is just that it only takes a majority to end one now, so it doesn’t take a supermajority to get Obama’s moderate judges confirmed. So what did the Republicans, those evil subgeniuses, do? Well, they simply filibuster every judicial nomination. So instead of the filibuster being a tool for individual senators to use to at least create some news and slow down an appointment, it is simply used as a standard procedure to slow down the entire governing process. The case is slightly less strict with executive branch nominations, but it is still largely true that the Republicans just slow down the nomination process by default.

This leads us to everyone’s favorite Republican subgenius, Ted Cruz. (Okay, maybe it’s a tie with Rand Paul.) As you may have heard, the FAA has banned American airline flights into Israel, because, as you may also have heard, they are at war. Now, the obvious explanation for this is that since Israel is at war, it is best not to fly commercial airplanes there. But if you are an evil subgenius, you know the real reason: it is because Obama is trying to destroy Israel’s tourism industry! So Cruz has decided that he will put a hold on all State Department nominees. Now imagine him laughing maniacally.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t matter. Jonathan Bernstein summed it up well in an article today, Ted Cruz Renders Himself Impotent. As he summed it up:

The upshot, as I’ve said before, is that the Republicans’ collective decision to “punish” majority leader Harry Reid by delaying all nominations also has the effect of depriving individual Republicans of any leverage over individual nominations. Consequently, what Reid must do to overcome Cruz’s holds is pretty much what he does regardless.

The Republicans long ago decided that they were going to throw out all the norms of representative democracy and use every technicality they could to their advantage. But all that’s done is make the government not work as well. When punishment because de rigueur, it also becomes useless.

The Extinct Pride of California

California State FlagA fairly common thing for college students to do is to write parody lyrics to the fight song of a rival. Just such a thing was done by some creative student or students at Stanford University with the Berkeley fight song. It goes:

That poor old Golden Bear
It’s losing all its hair
It’s teeth are out
It’s got the gout
It don’t know what it’s all about!

If only it were doing that well!

The bear in question is the California Grizzly (Brown) Bear , which is also known as the California Golden Bear. It is the mascot of the University of California, Berkeley. But it is also the symbol for the whole state. It is on our state flag, and was on the California flag even before it became a state in 1850. But within 75 years of statehood, the subspecies had been hunted to extinction. A lot of that was understandable: the bear was very dangerous to humans and their farming operations. It was also a food supply. But much of it wasn’t understandable, as in the once popular sport of grizzly bear versus bull fights. (Sadly, I’m sure there are many Californians who would enjoy watching such events today.)

The California Black Bear, on the other hand is doing just fine. But it is a much more adaptable animal. It is also a small bear. The largest California grizzly bears weigh well over a ton—arguably the largest of the brown bear species. Typically the California Black Bear weights one-tenth that. And the largest black bear of any subspecies ever was barely one-third the size of the largest California Grizzlies.

I’m not suggesting that the size of an animal is that big a deal. I’m rather fond of those cocky little smooth-coated otters myself. But clearly, we Californians put the California Grizzly Bear on our flag because it was big and strong. And then we proceeded to hunt it to extinction. I think we should add one of those red circles with a line through it to our flag.

New California State Flag

Truth in advertising.

Scholarship, Infidelity, and Robert Graves

Robert GravesOn this day in 1895, the great British scholar and writer Robert Graves was born. The volume and diversity of his work is overwhelming. He probably thought of himself as a poet. But he did an enormous amount of pure scholarship: critical analysis and translation. But I believe he paid the bills by writing the historical fiction that he is most remembered for, I, Claudius, Claudius the God, and other books like Wife to Mr Milton: the Story of Marie Powell, which is about the wife of John Milton.

I don’t have a great deal to say about Graves beyond relating my intense jealousy of him. My standard line about my own education is that if I had it all to do over again, I would study mathematics and not physics; but if I were starting now, I would study classics. I remember reading in a biography of Christopher Marlowe that originally, the term “illiterate” meant that one could not read Latin. And that a basic college education at that time (late 16th century) meant you were fluent in Latin. When Marlowe got his Master’s degree, that meant he was fluent in Greek as well. Graves did quite a lot of Greek and Latin translating, although I don’t think anyone was paying him, which makes it all the more cool.

The first thirty years of his life were something of a muddle where he went to school, then to war, got married, went back to school, was unsuccessful at business and then abandoned his wife and children for poet Laura Riding. His career kind of started there with the two of them publishing poetry and academic works. Things really got going when Graves published his autobiography, Good-bye to All That. Much of it was about his experiences in World War I, which was not laudatory and even discussed the murder of German prisoners of war. He also managed to offend a lot of people with the book, but I get the impression that Graves was generally rather good at that.

In 1934, he published I, Claudius, which has hugely successful and probably set him for life. Five years later, his turbulent relationship with Riding ended. Then he took up with Beryl Hodge, the wife of his collaborator Alan Hodge. They married and Graves went on to have a more boring life befitting a successful writer. But it is hard not to think that Graves was kind of jerk to many of the people in his life. Not that it matters. And none of us are perfect.

The gods, it would seem, did punish Graves. In his mid-70s, he began suffering from severe memory loss and for the last ten years of his life, he was able to do no work at all. It is a sad way to go, although actually rather typical. The mind tends to see a distinct diminution in its abilities in the early 70s, although it doesn’t seem to get notably worse even if you live to be 124 (which seems to be about the maximum possible age for humans). But it must have been particularly hard on a great mind like Graves. It is one of the reasons that I think it is best for me to die at around 75, even if I don’t have a great mind like Graves. What I do have is my mind and when that starts to go, what will be the point? Moving on…

Happy birthday Robert Graves!

Watchlist Is Government Wishlist

Watchlisting GuidanceJeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux have just written a very scary article, Blacklisted: the Secret Government Rulebook for Labeling You a Terrorist. Basically, it documents that it doesn’t take much of anything for the government to label you a terrorist. Being associated with someone who the government suspects of being a terrorist can be enough. But the problem really isn’t how broad a net the government is casting. It is how vague a net it is casting.

The problem here is that this is how the Soviet Union worked. Basically everyone there was guilty of multiple crimes against the state. You couldn’t really get through life without doing things that were technically wrong but which everyone did. And it was just fine—as long as you didn’t bother anyone in power. Once you did that, then you were screwed. The law came down on you hard. I’m not suggesting that this is the case in the United States, but it is certain that we are moving in that direction, and have been for at least a century.

One line from the article really got to me, “They also define as terrorism any act that is ‘dangerous’ to property and intended to influence government policy through intimidation.” It is the second part of that sentence that really bothers me. The reason is that I kind of agree that intimidation is a form of terrorism. Remember when Sharron Angle said, “I’m hoping that we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems.” That was intimidation: elect me or there will be armed revolt. Remember when Ted Nugent said, “If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, again, I will be either be dead or in jail by this time next year.” That was intimidation: if Obama wins re-election, I will try to kill him. Remember when Sarah Palin tweeted, “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!”? That was intimidation. Do you want more? Media Matters provided a small list in, Conservative Media Figures Have History of Violent Rhetoric.

But you know you will never see Sharron Angle or Ted Nugent or Sarah Palin labeled a terrorist. The biggest reason is that they are part of the power elite and so are effectively untouchable. But it is also that they are on the right wing. The government has a history of being more worried about non-violent peace protesters than the Second Amendment brigade. (And maybe they should be; I think most of the Second Amendment shouters are actually cowards.) So you can depend upon whatever rules the government comes up with to be used against anyone working for change that the power elite doesn’t want.

Consider this wonderful sentence from the rule book, “Although irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary, to be reasonable, suspicion should be as clear and as fully developed as circumstances permit.” In a strictly legal sense, I think this means that someone can be reasonably suspected of being a terrorist just because someone wants them to be. Given that I am not only not a terrorist, but a person committed to nonviolence, the circumstances would not permit any evidence being obtained to suspect me of terrorism. Therefore, the government ought to be able to label me as a suspected terrorist with no evidence at all. They won’t, of course; I’m no threat to the power elite. But this kind of wide open legalistic rule book for labeling terrorists is already being misused and will only be misused more in the future.

You question me? Read:

The system has been criticized for years. In 2004, [Senator] Ted Kennedy complained that he was barred from boarding flights on five separate occasions because his name resembled the alias of a suspected terrorist. Two years later, CBS News obtained a copy of the no fly list and reported that it included Bolivian president Evo Morales and Lebanese parliament head Nabih Berri.

Evo Morales is not terrorist, but he is a leftist, which appears to be close enough. And while Nabih Berri is a conservative, he’s also Lebanese. Need I say more?

If this all sounds like I’ve lost my mind, go read the whole article. It’s even worse than I’m making it out. The “Watchlisting Guidance” document should be called the “Wishlisting Guidance” document, because it pretty much allows the government to target anyone they want for any reason they want. But I don’t suppose that comes as a shock to any of my readers. To give you an idea, let me quote from the end of the article at length. While you’re reading it, ask yourself if it doesn’t sound like something out of a Kafka novel:

The government has been widely criticized for making it impossible for people to know why they have been placed on a watchlist, and for making it nearly impossible to get off. The guidelines bluntly state that “the general policy of the US Government is to neither confirm nor deny an individual’s watchlist status.” But the courts have taken exception to the official silence and footdragging: In June, a federal judge described the government’s secretive removal process as unconstitutional and “wholly ineffective.”

The difficulty of getting off the list is highlighted by a passage in the guidelines stating that an individual can be kept on the watchlist, or even placed onto the watchlist, despite being acquitted of a terrorism-related crime. The rulebook justifies this by noting that conviction in US courts requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas watchlisting requires only a reasonable suspicion. Once suspicion is raised, even a jury’s verdict cannot erase it.

Not even death provides a guarantee of getting off the list. The guidelines say the names of dead people will stay on the list if there is reason to believe the deceased’s identity may be used by a suspected terrorist—which the National Counterterrorism Center calls a “demonstrated terrorist tactic.” In fact, for the same reason, the rules permit the deceased spouses of suspected terrorists to be placed onto the list after they have died.

For the living, the process of getting off the watchlist is simple yet opaque. A complaint can be filed through the Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, which launches an internal review that is not subject to oversight by any court or entity outside the counterterrorism community. The review can result in removal from a watchlist or an adjustment of watchlist status, but the individual will not be told if he or she prevails. The guidelines highlight one of the reasons why it has been difficult to get off the list—if multiple agencies have contributed information on a watchlisted individual, all of them must agree to removing him or her.

If a US citizen is placed on the no fly list while abroad and is turned away from a flight bound for the US, the guidelines say they should be referred to the nearest US embassy or consulate, which is prohibited from informing them why they were blocked from flying. According to the rules, these individuals can be granted a “One-Time Waiver” to fly, though they will not be told that they are traveling on a waiver. Back in the United States, they will be unable to board another flight.

The document states that nominating agencies are “under a continuing obligation” to provide exculpatory information when it emerges. It adds that the agencies are expected to conduct annual reviews of watchlisted American citizens and green card holders. It is unclear whether foreigners—or the dead—are reviewed at the same pace. As the rulebook notes, “watchlisting is not an exact science.”

Remember: when they hand you the knife, you are expected to kill yourself; but you don’t have to; if forced, they will do it for you.

Can the Democrats Hold Senate?

The UpshotOne of my many minor addictions is checking The Upshot‘s Senate Forecast every day. And it is not the simple thrill of seeing what “today’s number” is. For the record, today’s number is 53%—the Republicans have a 53% chance of retaking the Senate, which The Upshot classifies as a “toss up.”

There is much more, though! They also provide up to date forecasts from five other organizations that do this kind of work. These include the Cook Political Report, which does old fashioned analysis and is never, it would seem, willing to go out on a limb. For example, it says that Montana leans toward Republican Steve Daines and against Democrat John Walsh, even though Walsh’s own mother wouldn’t think he has a shot—barring Daines having a fatal heart attack.

Also on the list is Five Thirty Eight, which is what The Upshot replaced at The New York Times. They tend to agree rather well with The Upshot, but it seems that Nate Silver just isn’t that interested in politics anymore. They don’t run their model all that often.

But the real outlier is The Monkey Cage model, now sadly supported by the Washington Post. It is a political science driven model and it does not paint a rosy picture of the Senate come next year. They currently give the Republicans an 87% chance of taking the Senate.

For a long time, I’ve said that the Democrats have a 50-50 change of keeping the Senate. But I am also a “fundamentals” guy. And political scientists have gotten really good at predicting elections—especially from a long way out. And I have to say that I go along with the fundamentals. It is looking more and more like the Republicans will take the Senate in November. But it is important to remember a two things.

First, if they take it, it isn’t going to be a “wave” election. They will have 51 or 52 seats. So it isn’t going to be that big a deal, and they are going to lose the Senate come 2016. Barring a Supreme Court opening, there isn’t likely to be much in the way of change, regardless.

Second, it does not mean that “the people” have turned against Obama or the Democrats or liberalism or anything else. It means that there were roughly twice as many Democrats running for re-election as Republicans. And it also means that angry old rich white people show up to the polls for midterm elections a lot more than calm young poor multi-ethnic people do. Forgive me while I rant for a paragraph.

I am so tired of this idea that Americans are constantly changing their minds about politics. This year they like the Democrats! Next year they like the Republicans! No, no, no! Pretty much year after year, people are the same. They don’t change. All that really changes is who is willing to make the effort to vote. And in this country, we have decided that we don’t believe in a fair democracy. So we make it far easier for rich people to vote than for poor people. So it isn’t even that liberal voters are less inclined to vote, it is just that in general, it is harder for them: they have less time and their polling places are poorly staffed. Regardless, whatever the election result, it doesn’t mean that anything has changed in the mind of the typical American from 2012.

Having ranted that, there is one thing that gives me hope. The Democrats are spending a lot more money this election on efforts to get out the vote. If this works and the electorate looks more like it does during a presidential election, then all the models will be wrong and the Democrats will do much better—almost certainly holding onto the Senate. We will have to see. I’ve been arguing for this for a long time. All this business about attracting the “swing” voter is just madness. You want to know my definition of a swing voter: a Democrat (Republican) who just isn’t yet willing to say he is going to vote for the Democrat (Republican). So the new Democratic approach is a good one. We will have to see how effective they are at it.

Cause of Every Israel-Palestine War

Gershom GorenbergThe war isn’t a hurricane; it didn’t happen by itself. Leaders on both sides made choices. In Israel, despite an unusual number of protests so early in a war, most of the public seems to think the government is doing the right thing, perhaps too timidly. I doubt anyone can judge public opinion accurately amid the chaos and fear in Gaza, but credible estimations are that support for the Hamas government rises in proportion to Israeli attacks.

Maybe just to keep my own sanity, I have to ask: How do leaders believe that such flawed decisions were the only reasonable choices? How can masses of people keep supporting those policies even as they prove disastrous? What’s wrong with our heads? By that I mean not just the heads of Israelis and Palestinians but of human beings, since I don’t have any cause to think that the sides in this conflict are being uniquely irrational.

In a 2007 article that now reads as if written to explain the 2014 Gaza war, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and fellow psychologist Jonathan Renshon succinctly gave some answers. Human minds, they said, have hard-wired biases that favor hawks. People are too optimistic about their own strengths, including the strength of their armies. They prefer to double down rather than to cut their losses. They’re sure that other people can read their thoughts and understand their good intentions—even while they misread their opponents’ intent.

You can go down this list and find painful proofs in the events of recent weeks: Hamas appeared absurdly overconfident that rocket fire would force Israel to stop air attacks and loosen its siege on Gaza. When that didn’t work, rather than accept a ceasefire, it upped the ante by sending gunmen through tunnels to surface in Israeli territory. Israel thought Hamas would surely fold in the face of air strikes. When that didn’t happen, it quintupled its bet with the ground invasion. The Israeli government thinks the world has to understand that it’s acting in self-defense, even as whole families die in Gaza. This isn’t just a PR ploy Or rather, the PR is sincere, which doesn’t make it more convincing outside Israel.

—Gershom Gorenberg
This Is Your Brain on War: A Dispatch From Jerusalem (I recommend reading the whole article.)


H/T: Ed Kilgore

Obamacare, Republicans, and Rich People’s Money

Jonathan CohnSometimes, I think I’m too hard on myself. There really is a big difference between being cynical and simply seeing reality clearly. This came to mind this morning reading Dean Baker, Why Would Anyone Think Republican Opposition to Obamacare Is Based on Ideology as Opposed to Just Money. It is in reference to an article by Jonathan Cohn. Now, as regular readers know, I think Jonathan Cohn is absolutely essential reading on healthcare issues. But he made the mistake of claiming, “[Republicans] simply don’t believe in universal health care.”

The truth is that no one knows for certain why Republicans absolutely, positively think Obamacare is the end of freedom in America, when it was their idea in the first place and they were all for it before the Democrats agreed to it. There are actually two parts to this, that I have discussed at various times in various ways. The main thing is that the whole Heritage Foundation plan that Obamacare is based on was never meant to be actual policy. It was only used to shoot down any more liberal policy like single-payer healthcare. This is what Jonathan Chait labeled, The Heritage Uncertainty Principle. The idea is that conservative healthcare reform only exists as long as it has no hope of implementation. The moment it becomes plausible, it is denounced by the very same conservatives as, “Socialism! Socialism, I tell you!”

Dean BakerBaker takes on the other half of the issue. But I’ve been talking about the same thing for years: the reason that Republicans hate Obamacare has nothing to do with the individual mandate or “freedom” or any of the dozens of other reasons they claim the law is Satan’s spawn. The reason they hate it is the one reason they never talk about explicitly: it raised taxes on the rich. Now it is true, that occasionally, a Republican will talk about how it raised taxes, but they will imply that it raised taxes on everyone and it didn’t. It didn’t raise taxes on a single person I know, and one of them is a millionaire.

Baker provides the scenario:

Suppose they don’t have deep convictions about universal health care insurance, but do have deep convictions about money leaving the pockets of rich people. Of course taxes were raised on the rich to cover part of the cost of subsidies in the exchanges.Suppose also they like a cheap docile labor force. The type that fears unemployment and also needs a full-time job just to get health care insurance. (This makes it easier to get good help.)

In this respect it is worth noting that the number of people working part-time by choice has increased by 800,000 over the last year. This is consistent with a story where people who don’t need to work full-time to get health care insurance will work less. This is great news for workers and bad news for “it’s hard to get good help” crowd.

If my suppositions are true then the Republican leaders would hate Obamacare even if they never gave a thought to universal health care and the government’s obligations to individuals. It’s a question of taking money from rich people, end of story.

Is this cynical? Actually, no. Political parties have constituencies. The Republican Party’s main constituency is the rich. They also pander to social conservatives and racists, but this is just out of necessity. There aren’t many rich people. And the social conservative and racist appeals don’t bother the interests of the rich, and (as with welfare “reform”) can often be used to further the interests of the rich.

I’ll admit: looking at the the world this way is Machiavellian. But the point of The Prince is to show a young ruler how to stay in power. It’s not like I think that all people would kill you as soon as look at you, if they thought they could get away with it. I actually believe in altruism and that it is a big part of how our species has managed to make it this far. But political parties survive by serving constituencies. This is how they are supposed to work. The only reason the Democratic Party is better than the Republican Party is that it serves a much bigger and more diverse constituency.

Rick SantelliSo yeah, Republican opposition to Obamacare is all about money. Most of the people who vote for Republicans don’t realize this of course. But all you have to do is look at the Tea Party to understand. A lot of the Republican base was very unhappy about the TARP bank bailout. (So were a lot of the Democratic base!) They grumbled but nothing happened. Then, when a Democrat was in the White House and actual homeowners were going to be helped, the group sprouted. It didn’t sprout because Rick Santelli ranted—he does that five days per week. It sprouted because the conservative elite took that same grumbling and pushed it via Fox News, hate radio, and well funded events!

But it’s all about what the rich want. And maybe someday, the people in the poorer classes who vote Republican will realize that the party doesn’t actually represent them. But that’s a different issue. In terms of looking at actual Republican Party policy, all you have to do is look at what the super rich want.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Raw Emotion

Philip Seymour HoffmanThere are a lot of good birthdays today. Last year, my way of doing the birthday posts was to do a whole bunch of people, but to “give” the day to a certain person. Last year today, it was Raymond Chandler. It’s kind of interesting, because a couple of night ago, I was going back over as much of my second novel as I have written. I was trying to convince myself to burn it. And reading it, I realized that much of it is straight out of Chandler. Of course, the whole point is that the novel pretends to be one of those kind of books without actually being one of those kind of books. And it also tries to be Moby-Dick. And this may, in the end, be the problem. I should probably aim lower. I am neither a Chandler nor a Melville—even a pretend one.

On this day in 1967 the fine American actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was born. Normally, I wouldn’t pick him, but he just died. I was never an especially big fan, but he was a good actor. And unlike a lot of actors, I actually saw him get better over time. But this is probably just because I saw him act from a pretty young age. A lot of actors are very serious. However, it is hard to look at Joseph Gordon-Levitt and think anything but that he doesn’t have any depth. Hoffman, even from his earliest roles seemed like he was on the edge, emotionally.

I first saw him in Scent of a Woman, where he perfectly captured the fear and silliness of the privileged class. Next I saw him in Twister, doing a role that he could easily have become type cast into. It was his portrayal of Lester Bangs in Almost Famous that really made me take notice of him. For one thing, I had been a huge fan of Bangs since I was a teenager. But Hoffman added an emotional layer that I never got from Bangs’ writing. But I think it was right. I think that’s how Bangs probably was. I think people make the same mistake reading me. On the page, I’m downright bombastic, but in person I’m shy with a dread of conflict. (Admittedly, Cameron Crowe actually knew Bangs and so that is in the script.)

The high point of Hoffman’s career was undoubtedly Capote, even though I think that Toby Jones was better in Infamous. It was, however, interesting to see Hoffman play a part that I would have thought him completely unsuitable for. But any time an American actor can hold his own against a well trained British actor, you know you are dealing with a great talent.

But what I liked most about Hoffman was his raw and honest emotionalism. I’ve never seen him better than in A Late Quartet, a film I only managed to see a week before he died. Another good one is The Savages.

When he died recently, I was very upset with the coverage and wrote, Leave Philip Seymour Hoffman Alone! Perhaps the worst thing that people do to drug users is to define them by that one activity. Even though Hoffman’s fame pushed against that narrative, that didn’t stop all kinds of people from trying to define him as a drug addict. It’s no less ridiculous than had he been hit by a train, creating a narrative where being hit by a train explained the arc of his life. It is sad that he’s dead, because he did good work. Of course, we aren’t exactly suffering from a lack of fine actors. But Hoffman was special in that he was overweight and not terribly attractive. And we do have far too few ugly and fat people in the movies.

Happy birthday Philip Seymour Hoffman!