Classism and the Frighted White Lady

Cathy NewmanThere is some very interesting news out of the United Kingdom from Cathy Newman, a news reader on Channel 4 News. The Muslim Council of Britain does this thing called #VisitMyMosque day. It is an effort for the general public to come and meet Muslims and see that they are just like everyone else. It reminds me of that reality television show a few years back, All-American Muslim. It was canceled, apparently because — What a surprise! — the Muslims were just as boring as everyone else. There was no bomb building going on or grampa shouting about Zionist dogs. I’ve never been inside a mosque, but I suspect that it is very much like the inside of a Catholic church — except with more floor space.

But not all British mosques wanted to invite the general public in, because they didn’t want people to see them building bombs. I’m kidding! My assumption would be that having your mosque descended upon by the public would create various problems and might get in the way of the worshippers — if you have a very busy mosque. Based upon The Muslim Council of Britain’s website, 23 mosques participated in the event. It’s all very sweet if you ask me; I like to see this with all groups. And let’s be frank: most Christian faiths are not that keen on this unless your interest is in joining the faith.

And that brings us to Cathy Newman. She wanted to go check out #VisitMyMosque day. I think her instincts were good. But prejudice runs deep in all of us, regardless of how we fight it. Apparently, she showed up to the South London Islamic Centre. She did her best to be respectful by covering her head and wearing no shoes. The problem was that the South London Islamic Centre was not taking part in #VisitMyMosque day. So a man at the Centre apparently directed her to a nearby mosque that was taking part. But Newman did not perceive the interact this way.

She took to twitter to complain. First, she tweeted, “Well I just visited Streatham mosque for #VisitMyMosque day and was surprised to find myself ushered out of the door…” The South London Islamic Centre is located in Streatham, so that must be what she was referring to. Then she tweeted, “I was respectfully dressed, head covering and no shoes but a man ushered me back onto the street. I said I was there for #VisitMyMosque mf.” And finally, “But it made no difference.”

Later, Huffington Post UK got its hands on security video at the mosque and found that her take on it was mistaken. She came in, a man talked to her, she left. No one ushered her out. In fact, it seems she even understood the situation because she later found her way to Hyderi Islamic Centre, which was taking part in #VisitMyMosque day. She even tweeted it out:

In the end, Newman apologized, was clearly embarrassed, and that’s that. But it just goes to show how our biases affect us even when we are doing everything we can to reach out and be understanding. I’m assuming the best about Cathy Newman, of course. Maybe she just wanted to make a little news. But I suspect it was all a misunderstanding. She is this pasty white woman with an upper class pasty white life. Being spoken to by a swarthy working class man who wasn’t a taxi driver was probably threatening to her. It’s important to remember that England has a class system that is almost as rigid as we have here in the United States. The take away from this is not that Muslims and non-Muslims need to spend more time together. It is that we need to destroy our class systems. But the pasty white people with their upper class pasty white lives are not likely to see that as an acceptable solution to the many problems that plague our societies.

Our Exciting Future Requires a New Economics

David GraeberAbout one conclusion we can feel especially confident: it will not happen within the framework of contemporary corporate capitalism — or any form of capitalism. To begin setting up domes on Mars, let alone to develop the means to figure out if there are alien civilizations to contact, we’re going to have to figure out a different economic system. Must the new system take the form of some massive new bureaucracy? Why do we assume it must? Only by breaking up existing bureaucratic structures can we begin. And if we’re going to invent robots that will do our laundry and tidy up the kitchen, then we’re going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power — one that no longer contains either the super-rich or the desperately poor willing to do their housework. Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs. And this is the best reason to break free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs — to free our fantasies from the screens in which such men have imprisoned them, to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.

—David Graeber
Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit

It Is Stupid to Predict the 2016 Election Now

Alan AbramowitzPolitical science models of presidential elections can bite my shiny metal ass. This statement may come as a bit of a shock to regular readers who know that I have my own political science model of presidential elections that I think is the only thing that anyone should pay attention to. I’ll get to my model in a moment, but let me explain my current annoyance. I just read Alex Roarty’s new National Journal article, Predictive Intelligence. It is subtitled, “Think Hillary Clinton is likely to win? Think again.” I’m fine with that. I’ve been saying that under the right economic conditions, Louie Gohmert could be the next president of the United States. Anyone claiming that the Democrats are sure to win the presidency in 2016 — much less Clinton — is an idiot.

The problem with Roarty’s article is that it focuses on the absolutely stupidest predictive index: the number of years that a party has been in office. Why? Well, because this far ahead of the election, there really isn’t anything else you can base a prediction on. It’s kind of like the drunk looking for his keys under the street the lamp. “Where did you drop them?” “Oh, a half block south.” “Why are you looking here?” “Because the light’s better!” This is just madness.

Let’s look at just what a great predictor length of time in office is. First, there is Franklin Delano Roosevelt followed by Harry Truman. Together these presidents managed to win the White House five consecutive terms. When the Democrats lost, it was to war hero Dwight Eisenhower against anemic uncharismatic Adlai Stevenson. After two terms with Eisenhower, the Republicans only barely lost to Kennedy in the the closest presidential race in history: 49.7%-49.6%. But okay, that’s old news.

What about George Bush winning in 1988, giving the Republicans three straight terms? What about Al Gore winning in 2000, giving the Democrats three straight terms? Looking at the number of terms that one party holds the White House, I see randomness. And this is the problem with political science models. Designers throw in every possible parameter they can think of, do a linear regression and find out what fits bests. This is very lazy — most especially because there just haven’t been that many presidential elections on which to perform the regression.

Consider Alan Abramowitz’s “Time for Change” model that uses three parameters: “the incumbent’s approval rating, economic growth in the second quarter of the election year, and the number of terms the candidate’s party has held the White House.” Well, that strikes me as a little to a lot stupid. The current president’s approval rating and the state of the economy are themselves correlated. And the number of terms the party has been in office is probably just a fluke. Take a coin and flip it a hundred times and perform a correlation. You will find lots of correlations. And Abramowitz doesn’t have close to a hundred coin flips!

My model is simplicity itself: it is based entirely on unemployment. But it only works from the early 1970s onward. But unlike most of the political science models, mine actually has a good justification for that. Before the 1970s, economic gains were reasonably well shared. What’s more, the working class didn’t spend their whole lives worrying about losing their jobs. But since the 1970s, economics has been the defining issue for Americans. The fact that it has been used against them (as during the Reagan years) hardly matters.

I’ve never seen a political science model that was based on unemployment. They prefer the indirect measures of GDP and GNP. This is interesting because everyone knows that the economy can be doing well while the workers can be doing very badly. Just look at the last six years. The stock market is doing well; economic growth is reasonable; corporate profits are sky high. But the employment to population ration of prime age workers is still quite low compared to the anemic economy of the George W Bush years.

My model looks at the unemployment rate for the first nine months of the election year. If the trend is positive, then the candidate of the party currently in the White House wins. If the trend is negative, then the candidate of the party currently in the White House loses. Very simple. And it doesn’t just predict the win; it predicts the magnitude (although not as well). It even shows that the 2000 election between Bush and Gore was almost a dead heat, with Gore having a slight advantage.

The most common way that political science models look at the economy is by looking at the GDP growth in the three full quarters leading up to the election. I think this is a mistake. Voters don’t care what’s going on with the economy’s GDP. They notice if people are getting laid off or if people without jobs are getting hired. Now clearly, the rate of GDP growth is correlated with the growth of employment. But it isn’t correlated that well! So why use it? I think it is because the concerns of the power elite poison everyone’s thinking.

Regardless, it is clear that in a close election, candidates matter. But in 1980 and 2008, the economics were such that the party in the White House was going to lose. But in 1976, Ford had a slight advantage. If it hadn’t been for Watergate, I suspect he would have won. Gore could have lost in 2000, but he was no worse a candidate than Bush was. And Clinton was almost certain to win in 1992, but without Ross Perot running, the race would have been a whole lot closer.

It is madness to try to predict the 2016 election at this point. Even Alan Abramowitz’s model requires waiting until the party conventions before he can make a prediction. The best we can say now is what I always say: if the economy continues to grow jobs through most of 2016, the Democratic candidate will win; if the economy starts to lose jobs, the Republican candidate will win. And not to put too fine a point on it: Democrats should learn from Republicans in the past and nominate candidates they really like rather than candidates they think are “electable.” Because it was the economy and not great political skill that made Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama presidents of the United States.


None of this should be taken as a criticism of Alan Abramowitz or any other political scientist. They are doing careful work trying to figure things out about the nature of politics. But there is no doubt that these models are underdetermined: there are so many variable and so little data that an endless number of solutions would fall within the error bounds. My model is very simple, but I haven’t seen anything to indicate that it is any worse than any other more complex model. And my simple model goes along with what I take to be the psychology of voters. Abramowitz might be onto something about people getting tired of the same old party. But I suspect that was more true in the 1960s and 1970s than it is now in our highly polarized political environment. The main thing is that people like Abramowitz are professionals and I’m just a tinkerer. I will be the first to admit that their models predict past elections better than my model does. But here’s the ultimate question: do they have a model that uses a single parameter to predict elections that works any better? And for the record: I’m sure that many people before me have done exactly what I’m doing now. I am simply skeptical that anyone has improved on this idea.

Pernicious Propaganda in Better Call Saul

Better Call SaulI finally got around to watching Better Call Saul. It’s a mixed bag. Vince Gilligan is now officially the most overrated man in Hollywood. But I’m a big Bob Odenkirk fan. And I assume the show will be fine. But I doubt I’ll watch it. It’s already filled with many of the same comic book fiction problems that Breaking Bad had. But it does have the advantage of being like the early seasons of Breaking Bad in having a main character that is actually likable. Turning Walt into a monster in the fifth season of the show ruined it for me. So I assume that Better Call Saul will be pretty good for a while at least.

There was something in the first episode that totally offended me. Saul has a hugely successful lawyer brother who has not been able to work for the last year because of what seems to be a mental problem — he calls it “electromagnetic hypersensitivity.” But poor old Saul is working as a public defender because he can’t get any better work. I don’t mind fantasy. When Daredevil has a secret high tech lair that he could never have afforded, I have no problem. But Saul’s situation is something different — unbelievable in the context of the world that we know. And pernicious in the meritocratic lie that it pushes on the American worker who really doesn’t deserve to be so deceived.

Saul would not need to be out setting up skateboarding accidents to make money — much less defending three punks who cut off the head of a cadaver and had sex with it. Certainly his brother would get him a reasonable job at the big name law firm — maybe even a partnership. Maybe in episode five, we will learn some important information about how the law film could never hire Saul. But what we got in the first episode was a lecture from the brother about how much Saul will learn from taking public defender cases.

This is just not the way that corporate America works. Sure, there are some parents who might make their children work in the mail room for their summers. And after they get out of law school, those parents might make the kid work as a low level lawyer. But there is never any question that such “indignities” will be short lived and that the child will rise quickly in the company. But no. Vince Gilligan wants us all to believe that Americans make it to the top through their own grit and determination. And they do! But not when they have highly successful older brothers to help them out. The prototype is Arthur Kirkland, not Saul Goodman.

And the show itself has a perfect example of how the real world works. You see, before Bob Odenkirk became a minor star, he was known as one of the best comedy writers around. He is, after all, the brilliance behind Mr Show. Well, Bob has a younger brother, Bill Odenkirk. Now don’t misunderstand me. I think the younger Odenkirk is a brilliant comedy writer — I’ve enjoyed his work on The Simpsons and Futurama. But his first writing job was Mr Show. In fact, his first job on anything was Mr Show. Because he had a very successful older brother, Bill Odenkirk wasn’t living in his parents’ basement sending out short stories to The New Yorker. No, Bill Odenkirk got to start much higher and learn his craft from the best.

Now I don’t really think there is anything wrong with this. Or at least, I don’t think there is any way to stop this from happening. But the fact that Better Call Saul pushes a pernicious lie to a nation of people who can no long expect to live a life even as nice as their parents, is just despicable. I suppose such lies are better than keeping the masses in line by showing convicts eaten alive by lions. But it is the same thing: entertainment designed to blind the people from the unjustness of the society they live in.

The Stained Glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany

Louis Comfort TiffanyOn this day in 1848, the great stained glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany was born. He was the son of the Tiffany. He came from money — much further back than his father. But we don’t need to talk about that. He actually worked in a lot of different forms including painting. But it is the stained glass that really stands out. He did a lot of Art Nouveau, but his most interesting stuff is his religious work — although I don’t think he was a particularly religious person.

So let’s look at some of his work. First, here is Sermon on the Mount from 1902:

Sermon on the Mount - Louis Comfort Tiffany

And here is Girl with Cherry Blossoms from a decade earlier:

Girl with Cherry Blossoms - Louis Comfort Tiffany

There is a lot more of his work you can check out on Google Images. But I think you get the idea. He also did a lot of those stained glass lamps, but that was just part of the family business. Try not to think about it.

Happy birthday Louis Comfort Tiffany!