Terrorism Works, but it Doesn’t Have to Work So Damn Well

(Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)

Thoughts after Paris:

–I fear one of the most consequential results from the attack is the end of the Schengen open border system in Europe, which is another way of saying the end of the EU. Following the attack, the French government reintroduced systemic border checks at all entry points in conjunction with their declared state of emergency. Belgium has also introduced checks on the French frontier. Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and Slovakia have all put in place various degrees of border checks. Most of this is deemed “temporary”, but these sorts of security decisions tend to have a one-way ratchet effect. I fear “temporary” will stretch into “indefinite.” You can say the European currency union has been a rotten idea, but the idea of a right of free movement of people, capital, and goods in Europe is revolutionary, and its demise is worth lamenting. How will the curtailment of open borders affect the flow of capital and goods over time? How will it change the political and economic relationship between European countries? Sad, sad.

–I know there are clear psychological reasons why we fear rare, violent, spectacular deaths from terrorism more than we fear far more common deaths from car accidents. And we fear a mass shooting from a jihadist far more than from a random troubled white dude, even though the latter is far more likely in this country. This error leads to unbelievably clouded thinking. Right-wing commentator Erick Erickson displayed this fear bias in its purest form this week on his radio show:

I’m really glad I didn’t get tickets on opening day to see Star Wars. Seriously.

I have no confidence in this Administration to keep us all safe, particularly in light of President Obama’s statement today that there’s really no way to stop this stuff.

There are no metal detectors at American theaters.

I think I’ll wait till Star Wars is less a threat scenario.

Brian Beutler had some fun with this: a self-proclaimed “alpha male” who advocates universal concealed-carry laws so good guys with guns can have heroic shootouts with bad guys with guns, basically begging his government to protect him from hypothetical violence at the movies. But Erickson didn’t cower at home in fear of violent death after James Holmes non-hypothetically shot up a movie theater in Aurora, nor after the hundreds of mass shootings in this country in 2015 alone.

It’s unclear exactly how far Erickson would want his government to go to reduce or remove the “threat scenarios” he perceives in his life.

But it remains the case that anything short of going the full North Korea will leave our society with an acceptable violent death risk well above zero, from terrorism or other means. By “acceptable” I mean that life amid and in between the risk goes on much as before. This “acceptable” violence level is different for different societies. Pakistan has a different level than Israel, which is different than Switzerland. Like Erick Erickson, many Americans have agreed that the baseline risk of white men amassing personal arsenals and using them to murder people in theaters or children in schools is at acceptable levels right now. But for other sources of violent death, any risk above zero is unacceptable. Terrorism works.

One factor surely explains a lot about the current American freak out: We are in the middle of a Republican presidential primary while a Democrat sits in the White House. So you’ve got Trump and Carson setting the outer bounds of acceptable discourse to “super crazy/fascist”, which makes the “moderate” position set to “medium crazy/fascist.” It’s not a dynamic amenable to reasoned and rational thought. And remember, this is in response to violence 4,000 miles from America! Just imagine the forces unleashed if there is an actual American attack.

The terrorism fear is bringing all sorts of latent reactionary/authoritarian impulses to the surface, and it’s fusing with the GOP electorate’s general cultural and ethnic anxiety. (The Erickson example is instructive again: he’s not just afraid, but he seems to want big government to impose security measures on private businesses to protect him exclusively from the threat of brown-skinned violence. Authoritarianism plus ethnocentrism.) It was remarkable watching last week how quickly GOP candidates sublimated a fear of terrorism into a fear of Syrian refugees, even though there were no Syrian nationals or refugees among the Paris attackers. And it was a quick side step from there to calling for databases and searches and surveillance targeting adherents of one religion. It’s almost as if people were looking for any pretext to express their more general ethnic anxieties. I mean, Trump moved like a hundred dog-whistles away from terrorism pretty quickly, maneuvering expertly to pure anti-black racism over the weekend. Lee Atwater would be very impressed.

I know that we humans are primed to fear and react irrationally to terrorism. I just wish we didn’t do so much of its work for it.

The GOP Debate Awards

Has Ted Cruz considered the inflationary impact of a madman irradiating Fort Knox with lasers if we were on the gold standard?

Okay, right to it.

Most Illiterate Economic Statement: Ted Cruz

[W]hat the Fed should be doing is, number one, keeping our money tied to a stable level of gold.

This guy and the gold standard, my god. Why is this idea so seductive to people? Does it sound like common sense? Is it just nostalgia for an imagined past? Does fiat currency just sound too good to be true? And we should pick some arbitrarily harder and more unworkable way of doing things because life is hard and suffering makes us flinty? Or is the language of stability and order just too seductive to conservative ears? It’s a hard one to understand. Later Cruz expanded on why it’s so great, especially combined with tax and regulatory reform:

And the third element is sound money. Every time we’ve pursued all three of those — whether in the 1920s with Calvin Coolidge or the 1960s with JFK or the 1980s with Ronald Reagan — the result has been incredible economic growth.

Hmm, did anything else happen in the 1920s that’s relevant to economic growth and the super stability of tying our economy to a random yellow metal? Or rather, it was the opposite of growth. It was like, a crash, a big crash, no, a great crash, that made a big impression, no, a DEpression, a big depression; wait I got it, a Great Depression? No that can’t be right. Because yellow metal.

Second Most Illiterate Economic Statement: Tie, everyone.

The entire discussion about bank bailouts and whether we should let depositors lose their shirts when banks fail, without anyone mentioning that the FDIC exists.

Most Plutocrat Admission Ever: Donald Trump, by a landslide. On rejecting an increase in the minimum wage:

But, taxes too high, wages too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world. I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is. People have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into that upper stratum.

Wages are too high! Inspiring message! We would really make this country great again if we could lower our per capita income to Vietnam levels and devolve this bloated prosperous information economy back into an agrarian and textile-exporting powerhouse!

This is actually off-message for Trump, who at least rhetorically has been not-awful on  working-class issues. But comments like these expose his true interest. He’s a billionaire executive and he’d like it if his labor costs were lower.

Most Hysterical Warning of Impending Apocalypse/Dystopia: Tie

Ted Cruz: “The Obama economy is a disaster.” Cough…5% unemployment…cough…64 months of consecutive private sector job growth.

Ted Cruz: “America is in crisis now.” Ibid.

Donald Trump: “We are $19 trillion dollars [in debt], we have a country that’s going to hell, we have an infrastructure that’s falling apart. Our roads, our bridges, our schools, our airports, and we have to start investing money in our country.” And our wages are too high!

John Kasich: “If Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders were to win this election, my 16-year-olds, I — I worry about what their life is going to be like.” Hmm, daughters of a millionaire governor? They might be okay!

Carly Fiorina: “Imagine a Clinton presidency. Our military will continue to deteriorate. Our veterans will not be cared for….The rich will get richer. The poor will get poorer. The middle class will continue to get crushed.” Eek.

The difficulty of making a case for change, when we are in the midst of relative peace and increasing prosperity, is an unsolvable problem for the GOP. Jon Chait has a good piece about this. Hey, so do I!

Most Nonsensical Word Salad on an Important Topic: Ben Carson, on ISIS. Too long to quote, but read this here. It’s a thing of beauty.

Most Terrifying Commitment to Induce World War: Carly Fiorina, with this gem:

I would start rebuilding the Sixth Fleet right under [Putin’s] nose, rebuilding the military — the missile defense program in Poland right under his nose. I would conduct very aggressive military exercises in the Baltic States so that he understood we would protect our NATO allies…

…and I might also put in a few more thousand troops into Germany, not to start a war, but to make sure that Putin understand that the United States of America will stand with our allies. That is why Governor Bush is correct. We must have a no fly zone in Syria because Russia cannot tell the United States of America where and when to fly our planes.

First, President Fiorina will immediately provoke a war with nuclear power through a belligerent military buildup on Russia’s border. Then we will wait to see what Putin does with his proven power of reverse psychology over President Fiorina, normally used most successfully on 4 year-olds, in which he can get the U.S. to do anything so long as he first tells us that we definitely cannot do it.


Overall, I think Rubio and Cruz and Rand Paul helped themselves. In an instructive, substantive discussion, Rand challenged Rubio on whether you can consider yourself fiscally conservative if you commit yourself to unfettered U.S. militarism and global hegemony. It’s an important debate, though suffice to say, it is not one that Rand will win during this particular primary. I think I agree with the growing CW that this is shaping up to be a Rubio/Cruz final. Though if you don’t understand the appeal of Ben Carson (I don’t!), you probably shouldn’t be making predictions.

Senators vs. Governors, and a Theory About Presidential Cool

“Who’s got two thumbs and no national appeal?”

The first candidate to drop out of the primary was a three-term governor of the second largest state which had one of the best job and economic growth records in the country. The second to drop out was a very conservative governor of a blue state who managed to win three elections in four years, while showing enough political savvy to demolish the democratic opposition on an issue of key ideological salience to conservative voters.

Tim Pawlenty, another accomplished governor of a Midwestern state, met the same ignominious fate four years ago. The eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, while a former governor, distanced himself from his tenure in the MA State House and focused almost exclusively on his business acumen. And of course, Barack Obama was the first sitting senator to be elected president since JFK.

Chris Christie is now the only viable current governor left in the race (sorry John Kasich). It’s senators as far as the eye can see (okay, and a couple CEOs.) What’s happening? A Governorship has been the official path to the presidency for half a century. All that executive experience! All those concrete accomplishments! But is there a new trend developing at the national level that’s selecting for senators over governors? What’s driving it? Some ideas:

  1. Polarization and dysfunction in Congress deemphasizes domestic policy as a fruitful field of play for a president, encouraging him to focus where he has the most power: foreign affairs. (There’s only so much you can criticize the president’s budget policy in an age where budgets never get passed; nor anything else.) The more the president acts in the world, the more salience these issues have in the media and in the electorate, and the more campaign fodder there is for the next round of candidates, who will be expected to have a certain basic mastery of the policies they are purporting to criticize. Senators deal with these issues every day in committee, and receive top-level briefings and go on CODELs to regions of interest. Governors are mostly clueless about foreign policy because their jobs don’t require it, nor did their likely preceding jobs as local politicians or businesspeople. This leads to a massive disadvantage in an age where the spotlight turns on you eight months before the first primary vote. There’s no time to “hit the books” and “catch up” in the midst of a heated primary. But there’s plenty of time for you to be exposed as a fool.
  2. Increased polarization in the electorate and in Congress is causing every issue to be filtered through the lens of the national partisan divide. That divide is the increasingly dominant way in which people access and makes sense of political life. (Look at the reaction to the Pope’s various opinions. We can’t even consider that they might not spring from, or be a direct comment on, our specifically American national partisan bullshit. Part of that is pure solipsism, but it’s also that national politics and partianship is swallowing up all the bandwith.) Governorships are following suit: state level arguments are increasingly mirroring the national partisan debate. This trend toward nationalization increases the relevance of senators who spend all their days swimming in the fetid waters of the national partisan divide. Even though they accomplish nothing concrete, they help define the parameters of this divide, which then filter down to governors. In this way senators wield great influence, while governors are being marginalized in this trend. Also, perhaps the demise of local media and the rise of national outlets both on cable and the web further privileges politicians operating at the national level.
  3. Executive experience is important, and governors have it, but this seeming advantage is not as relevant as it used to be. In the age of the billion dollar campaign that lasts 2.5 years, anyone who wins a primary and general election has de-facto earned and proven superlative executive experience, regardless of their previous job. Managing such a massive national organization is not easy, and it exposes character and managerial flaws. Being a sitting governor is no guarantee that you’re up to this task (hello Scott Walker).
  4. Midwestern governors, at least in the Pawlenty/Scott Walker mold, tend to be a bit boring and parochial in their thinking and experience. Here’s my theory: The age of boring and parochial is officially over in national politics, and Barack Obama has hastened it, whether you like his politics or not. Republicans loved to mock Obama’s cool factor as evidence of vacuity and lack of seriousness. But I think his (and Michelle’s!) evident cosmopolitanism has upped the game permanently in terms of what the nation expects of a president re: their cultural relevance, charisma, and relative sophistication. I wrote this about Scott Walker a month and a half ago:

“Part of the reason why I think Scott Walker is finished: his self-embrace as being “aggressively normal” has totally misread the zeitgeist. He thinks we want the opposite of Obama now. But Obama has made the White House a place for cool people with interesting backgrounds and well-fitting suits. I think this applies doubly, triply, to Michelle. I think even people who hate their politics have nonetheless internalized this aspect of the presidency.”

I just have a feeling that we’re not returning to old dowdy white guys who seem proud of their provincialism. It’s telling that after deriding Obama as a mere “celebrity” 8 years ago, the current GOP frontrunner is an actual television celebrity from New York City, whose consumption habits are gauche to say the least, but probably signal as sophisticated to many GOP primary voters.

This is a tangential point, but conservatives crave cultural relevance. Here’s how I put it in a recent post: “That Trump is a bonafide celebrity is key to his appeal: He gives his supporters the vicarious cultural status they (tepidly) pretend to disdain, but from which they desperately seek membership and validation.” I think even downscale voters now cringe at someone like Walker bragging about shopping at Kohls. They want a touch of glamour in the presidency, and whether they’ll admit it or not, the Obamas are a big reason why.

Elites and Public Opinion: How Trump Trumps the Party

“FFFFffffff! Fpfffffffffffffff!”

It’s mid-August, which is officially the second-worst time in the worst month for American culture or political news. (The worst time, of course, is late August.) So I’m doing what every writer on Earth is doing. Yep, MOAR TRUMP.

Josh Barro in the NYT notes an interesting and under-remarked upon aspect of Trumpism: behind all the bluster and macho affect, Donald Trump is actually a pretty squishy moderate on several issues, displaying a pragmatism and lack of ideological purity in areas that we’ve been conditioned to believe are non-negotiable for a 21st century Republican politician.

As perhaps befits someone who lived in Manhattan their entire life, Trump doesn’t seem very interested in the social conservative trinity of god, guns, and gays. Nor abortion. As Barro points out, Trump has also expressed qualified support for single-payer healthcare, and opposes cuts to Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. He’s also refused to sign Grover Norquist’s silly tax pledge. Finally, perhaps most dissonant with party dogma, he doesn’t advocate smaller government for its own sake, but just says we need smarter (i.e. Trumpier) leaders in charge.

While this serial apostasy has made his opponents for the nomination furious, the Republican electorate doesn’t seem to mind. A northern candidate with his record of heterodoxy and moderation would normally be a classic New Hampshire-or-bust candidate. Yet, here we are approaching late August and not only is the “single-payer health care works great in Canada” guy leading big in New Hampshire, he’s leading in Iowa too.

How can it be that Iowa Republicans, fresh from voting ultra-reactionary Joni Ernst into the Senate, also seem enamored with a moderate blowhard from godless liberal New York City?

Part of it is the delivery. Trump’s macho affect and his deliberate rudeness “code” as super conservative, allowing him to get away with more moderate underlying policy ideas. (There is a related, but inverse effect happening with someone like Scott Walker, who holds a raft of very extreme right policy views but makes them palatable with his sheepish midwestern bland persona.)

There is also an effect at play in which ideological deviation in one sacrosanct policy area  (abortion say, or entitlements, or taxes) can be “made up for” merely by out-crazying everyone in some other sacrosanct issue (in Trump’s case, illegal immigration). Voters (for now) give him the benefit of the doubt on his deviations because (to them) he just sounds so damn sensible about immigration, not to mention the way he sticks it to all those…well, whomever they want it stuck to.

His seemingly inexplicable support among very conservative voters also reveals a truism in the political science literature: public opinion is shaped by the views of elites, not the other way round.

Are voters so sensitive to elite opinion? Pretty much. Most normal people don’t spend much time thinking about public policy, or developing a coherent ideological worldview. They need reliable quick cues from trusted sources so they can go on with their lives. The strongest shortcut we have is the political party. Once you do the minimal upfront work of picking a side (or you can even skip the upfront work by just picking the party of your family or friends), you can pretty reliably go to the polls, mark all the names with the -R or the -D, and know that you’re doing a decent job trying to promote your likely somewhat incoherent and not-strongly-held policy views.

We can see the strength of parties in cuing public opinion from the fact that parties flip-flop on issues all the time, largely dependent on whether they are in power or in the opposition. And their voters generally flip and flop right along with them. The deficit, the filibuster, wars, executive power, entitlements, all perfectly flippable. The two sides then shout hypocrisy at each other and we rinse and repeat. Fun times.

So parties are indeed powerful. But Trump’s success, very much in spite of universal party opposition, suggests that it’s not merely the parties themselves that matter. No, perhaps the base units for transference of policy cues to the electorate are individual trusted elites, not the party line per se. As the party normally contains within it your favorite trusted political elites, it usually acts as a good proxy in this regard.

But right now that’s not happening. For whatever reason, the GOP establishment is having a rough time claiming collective Trusted Elite (T.E.) status. And due to some magical admixture of Trump’s cultural celebrity, nativism, economic populism, and dickish affect that somehow comes off as truth-telling, he is the T.E. alpha dog right now, and Republican voters are following him wherever his truly dizzying intellect takes them. This is further evidence that people’s specific political beliefs are rather conditional, and often receptive to change at the slightest plausible-sounding justification offered by a T.E.

Now the usual caveat that this glorious Trumpist epoch of American politics could all end tomorrow, rendering the above analysis irrelevant. But for now America, today, Trumpism lives, Trump is your trusted elite, your molder of minds, and we are face to face with something commensurate to our capacity for wonder. Oh August.

The Anti-Establishment, Outsider Election? Bah, Three Cheers for the Status Quo!

Or at least pretty okay!

In the Washington Post we learn:

Across the ideological spectrum, candidates are gaining traction by separating themselves from the political and economic system that many everyday Americans view as rigged against them.

It’s taken for granted that this is the ultimate “outsider” election, with the early success of the Trumps and Carsons and Bernies all reflecting Americans’ deep frustrations with the status quo, with career politicians, and with elite institutions writ large.

I don’t doubt this is what’s happening. But why? Why this cycle? What is extra rigged and frustrating in 2015 that wasn’t felt to be so rigged and frustrating previously? Am I completely blinkered to say that we Americans seem to be living in a time of relative peace and prosperity? And more relevant from an electoral standpoint, that the trajectory over the past 7 years has been consistently in the more-peace, more-prosperity direction? And that perhaps this should reflect at least somewhat positively on our elite institutions, and dare I say, on the “establishment”?

You’d expect to see this sort of voter alienation and backlash during times of economic downturn and distress. But things on that front are… pretty good? Unemployment is 5.3% nationally, down from 10% in 2009, and still falling for all demographics and every level of education. There have been 65 straight months of private sector job growth. For you capitalists out there, the stock market is up near 200% from the lows of 2009. Wage growth is still anemic, but so is inflation, and you’d think the employment situation alone would be enough to keep people from flipping the fuck out.

But instead:

“There’s a disquiet, discomfort and angst that so many people are feeling,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who advises Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). “They’re scared economically, they’re scared about what’s happening with our adversaries, and it makes them really, really uncomfortable with where the country’s going and where the leaders are going.”

Scared! Angst! Disquiet! So much disquiet.

If it’s not the economy, could it be Obamacare? That certainly motivated a lot of voters in 2010 and 2012. Are we still angsty and disquieted about that? I know in ConservativeLand, Obamacare is a job-destroying freedom-eating boondoggle monster. But the lived experience of humans in the real world shows that uninsured rates are now below 10% nationally for the first time in at least 50 years. And CBO cost projections keep falling. Really, falling. Even if you’re still clinging to the freedom-eating bit, it’s just objectively true that the law is basically working as intended, and in terms of cost it’s better than intended. Point is, if Obamacare was an outright failure, with ballooning costs and no one getting coverage, I could see that as a source of massive disaffection for voters in both parties, and reason to want to punish elites for a big policy failure. But we are just empirically not there.

“Our adversaries”? Well we still have adversaries, it is true. It does seem that the public is rapidly warming to the idea of sending U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But this would appear to favor the establishment candidates who advocate such a policy, like Jeb Bush, Rubio, and Lindsay Graham. The “anti-establishment” candidates who are enjoying success in the polls–Trump, Carson, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders–are not the war candidates, or at least not conspicuously so. ISIS is a sensationally barbaric group, and I think ultimately their continued existence on the planet is incompatible with civilization. But they have no ability to menace beyond the physical land they control.

People may feel concerned about regional powers Iran and Russia. But in what way is either country better able today to project power outside their respective region? Russia pursues its revanchist fantasies in Crimea and Ukraine. Iran pursues its revanchist fantasies of Shia domination in the Middle East. Both regimes do so murderously. But do they threaten the U.S. militarily or economically or culturally? I mean, you may support various policies to counter some of their destabilizing regional power projection, buttress Ukraine or the Kurds or Israel or whichever rebel faction you favor in Iraq or Syria. But are you extra fearful or anxious about any of this? Compared to the bad old al-Qaeda days? Or the Cold War? Or when we were losing close to a thousand troops a year in Iraq? In all, it just really doesn’t seem like a particularly geopolitically threatening time to be an American voter.

Illegal immigration: This was of course Trump’s signature issue which gained him traction in the first place. But what’s bizarre is you only really see an uptick in immigration anxiety during times of economic distress, which emphatically is not the case today. What’s causing this latest groundswell? It’s not that the number of illegal immigrants is increasing. The unauthorized immigrant population is down from its 2007 high, and has been static for the last five years. Why the overflow of immigrant angst now?

Well, though the undocumented population is static, the non-white proportion of the country continues to grow. I know there is a large percentage of Republican voters who are very anxious about that. Perhaps they are using anti-illegal immigrant sentiment as a stand-in for their more general nativist fears. And they are more vocal now merely because Trump’s prominence gives them “permission” to be so? I don’t know.

Maybe, just maybe, all this angst and anger is fleeting. Maybe, come this winter, the much vaunted “outsider” election will instead be what many have predicted all along, the most insidery election imaginable: a Bush v. Clinton battle for the throne of the seven kingdoms. That would be disquieting for a whole host of other reasons, but at least it would comport with the reality that things are going pretty okay out there.

Debate Recap: A Wall With a Big Beautiful Door


Trump to Mexico: Winter is coming

Well that was entertaining television. Thematically, I agree with Brian Beutler, who noted that, “Republicans are still tripping over the long tail of the 2012 election.” In the ensuing three years there have been fits and starts of real policy innovation on the GOP side, reflecting the wide-ranging analyses of What-Went-Wrong the last time around. But despite this ferment of reform, here we are in the campaign and there remains a distressingly familiar consensus around regressive tax cuts, escalating belligerency abroad, repealing health care, and restricting immigration. There was some heterodoxy sprinkled in, largely provided by Rand Paul’s anti-interventionism and John Kasich’s Huntsmanesque outbursts of reasonableness. Perhaps we’ll see more policy innovation as the candidates roll out their official platforms. The most conspicuous departure from 2012 came on gay rights: Anti-gay animus was mercifully absent last night, which I take to be a confirmation that such views now, finally, unequivocally, offer diminishing electoral returns.

A few candidate observations:

Scott Walker: Walker is the most overrated consensus “top-tier” candidate in the race. His squinty midwestern-bland bit has admittedly taken him this far, but on the big stage it just played like he’s out of his depth, which he is on any topic other than the apparent perfidy of Wisconsin public-sector unions circa 2011. His union bashing has always been a tenuous claim-to-fame. I’ve seen him give charismatic set speeches, but he seemed diminished and lost on a stage filled with competent debaters and knowledgeable policymakers. Prediction: Go short on Walker. He won’t be a finalist in this thing.

Jeb Bush: Bush seemed tentative and nervous, and a bit tepid. Part of this is rustiness, he’s been gone a long while. Always important to remember: these were not fully-formed candidates up there last night. Being a good national candidate requires a bizarre set of idiosyncratic skills, which require practice to master. Mitt Romney got immeasurably better at this over time, and we forget how raw President Obama was in his first few debates in 2007. Bush will sharpen up. I think his main problem is his most obvious one: I think he still hasn’t reckoned with the red-toothed id of this Republican primary electorate. Jeb has vowed to avoid being pulled into the vortex of crazy which so doomed Romney in the general election. We’ll see about that. But while Romney was also the “reasonable one” back in 2011, he was also quite combative and ruthless when he needed to be. Does Jeb have sharp elbows? Last night he had an air of scholarly distance, like he’d make a great cabinet secretary. He needs to president himself up. Prediction: He has the money and institutional support to last a long while. But he’s not your nominee.

Ted Cruz: Polished as always, despite his bizarre praising of Egypt’s butcher military dictator. He didn’t have many opportunities to break through. For the life of me I can’t understand who goes in for this insufferable smarmy affect of his. But he’s such a good politician he’ll stick around for quite a while, and get a boost when Trump flames out.

Trump: “Build a wall with a big, beautiful door.” Love it. Trump’s inadequacy is beside the point. Or rather, his success is not in spite of, but because of, his inadequacy. He, like Sarah Palin before him, is the candidate of ressentiment. Like Palin, the worse he performs, the more qualified his core supporters believe him to be. Conservative cultural status anxiety is an extremely powerful and underrated force in American politics. That Trump is a bonafide celebrity is key to his appeal: He gives his supporters the vicarious cultural status they (tepidly) pretend to disdain, but from which they desperately seek membership and validation. Importantly, political power alone will not satisfy this anxiety. Conservative political power is not hard to come by: they run Congress, had eight years of the White House under Bush, dominate the State houses, etc. Yet they still produce Trumps every cycle. Because, as Julian Sanchez writes in his classic linked piece above, “there is no political solution to a psychological problem.” There will be a ressentiment candidate on the GOP side for many years to come.

Marco Rubio: Here is your debate winner. He had easy questions (“How will you help small businesses?”), but he nailed them all. He is by far the best at explaining Republican policy in a concise and genial way, and he’s the most knowledgeable on foreign policy by virtue of his membership on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees (For a taste of his fluency, read his engrossing interview about the Iran deal in the Atlantic. Now picture Scott Walker answering those questions.) He has the best biography of the group, and is the best at presenting it. He’s young, exudes optimism and confidence, and had the only well-fitting suit on stage last night. Prediction: Go long on Rubio, he’s going to cream the rest of these chumps.


All Hail the Civil Rights Act of…1875?

In his recent amazing interview in New York Magazine, Chris Rock gave a concise history of race in America. "When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy."

I think when we think about the entire scope of the civil rights struggle for black Americans, it’s easy to flatter ourselves (we white people) that it represents a sort of linear progression of enlightenment, culminating in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. One certainly has to admit there’s been a progression. The 250 years or so where we abducted and enslaved human beings was worse than the subsequent era where we didn’t do that. And that ushered in the more enlightened period where we were merely engaged in a coordinated campaign of white supremacist terrorism married to the coercive power of the state to disenfranchise and pilliage and plunder the property, opportunity, and wealth of black Americans. Ending that period was better still! By 1964 we could all congratulate ourselves on our moral sophistication and laugh at our barborous ancestors.

But here’s one thing I learned from reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction. Every provision in the "landmark" 1964 Civil Rights Act relating to racial discrimination had either been enacted into law, or introduced in Congress, nearly a century before. 

The Civil Rights Act was not even close to the first bill that shared that name.

Let’s start in 1866, with the passage of, you guessed it, the Civil Rights Act. This was vetoed by History’s Greatest Monster President Andrew Johnson, but Congress overrode it. The contents of the bill presaged the soon-to-be-ratified 14th Amendment. First, the bill conferred citizenship on all persons born in the United States, yes, including all freed slaves. Then it defined the rights and privileges of that citizenship:

Such citizens, of every race and color, and without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, … shall have the same right in every state and territory in the United States, to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens….

So after 1866, at least statutorily, state and federal discrimination in application of the laws was illegal. And the right to make and enforce contracts was taken to include prohibition of employment discrimination on the basis of race.

These were expansive protections, but left out a lot. These provisions relating to contracts, labor, and property were classified under the rubric of "civil" equality, as distinct from political equality (voting and holding office, etc), or social equality (public access to commerce, etc.) Private discrimination was untouched. As was school segregation, right of access to public accommodations, right to serve on a jury, voting rights.

Racial political equality came with the 15th Amendment in 1870, which prohibited federal or state governments from denying a citizen’s right to vote based on race.

In 1875 we managed to fill in most of the other legal deficiencies in social equality, with, yes, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, signed into law by President Grant. This represented the last gasp of Reconstruction-era action on behalf of black rights. The bill was the culmination of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner’s legacy; as he lay dying following a heart attack in 1874, he whispered to a visitor, "You must take care of the civil-rights bill, …don’t let it fail." The bill was passed and signed following his death:

Be it enacted, That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.

For the first time in American history, it became a federal crime for a private individual or business to discriminate on the basis of race. Violators were subject to fine and imprisionment under a federal court of law. And this momentous legislation was actually the watered-down version. Sumner’s original Senate bill had also outlawed racial discrimination in public schools, and in churches. The Senate passed the bill without the church provision. Over in the House, the school integration provision was deeply contentious among southern whites, to say the least, and it didn’t survive into the final version.

One problem with both Civil Rights Acts was that they didn’t empower the federal government to initiate investigations and prosecute violations. The burden was on the victim to sue for his rights. (The Department of Justice wasn’t established until 1870, which might have had something to do with it.) Eric Foner describes the problem relating to the 1875 Act:

The law left the initiative for enforcement primarily with black litigants suing for their rights in the already overburdened federal courts. Only a handful of blacks came forward to challenge acts of discrimination by hotels, theaters, and railroads.

Alas, it became irrelevant anyway. In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was the last major piece of civil rights legislation taken up by Congress until the mid-20th century.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 basically stitched together various provisions from the Acts of 1866 and 1875, including those bits excised during debate. It outlawed discrimination in "any place of public accommodation," and included a very similar list of public venues to the 1875 Act. It finally desegregated schools, and began correcting the previous enforcement impediments by empowering the Justice Department to initiate investigations. And of course, crucially, in addition to race and color, it outlawed discrimination based on religion, sex, and national origin. 

How did a similar list of protections suddenly become constitutional between 1883 and 1964? The ensuing evolution of the interpretation of the Commerce Clause deserves much of the credit. Our racial moral intuition was perfectly functional a hundred and fifty years past. And not just our intuition: These provisions were enacted, they were the law of the land! 1875 had empassioned black civic leaders. It had a congressional majority willing to fight. It had a president willing to give his signature. The Civil Rights Era just had to wait around for Commerce Clause jurisprudence to catch up.

There is a slight tongue-in-cheekiness here. Of course we’re getting better at this. "White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy." And our kids’ll be even less crazy. But we are not discovering or independently innovating new, more humane, more cosmopolitian codes and ideals. We’re just making manifest the codes and ideals we’ve known were just and true for a very, very long time. "It was a different time" almost never passes as a viable argument, and is almost always a crutch for the ignorant. We know right from wrong perfectly well now. We knew it perfectly well then.

Election 2014: Mixed Results for America’s Favorite Dynastic Political Families


Ignore all the meaningless spin about "vote counts" and "democratic outcomes". This is America, and American elections are about one thing: The ups and downs of our wealthy political dynastic families.

So, how’d they do on Tuesday? What’s the status of heritable oligarchy in the ol’ Republic? Robust? Teetering? Well, there were a few setbacks and a few triumphs. First, the Nunns and Carters of Georgia are clearly fading. And both showed that the heralded purpling of that state is still years away. Jimmy Carter’s grandson Jason lost his race for governor. And Sam Nunn’s daughter Michelle tanked in the Senate despite expectations of a close race.

But all is not lost for the misguided dynasty lovers out there, because huzzah, the Kennedys and the Bushes are back in business. Which means the Clinton-Bush presidential race of 2024 is still on track (laugh, but you just wait and see). George P. Bush, pictured above, the 38-year-old son of Jeb, won his lopsided race for Texas Land Commissioner, a somewhat obscure position but one that will allow him to quietly plot his future world domination. (The 2024 Clinton, of course, will be Chelsea, who can do the same from her perch as vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, which is now called (seriously) the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.) George P. Bush’s Democratic opponent, former mayor of El Paso John Cook, didn’t know he would be running against a Bush when he got in the race for Land Commissioner. “That made it a little more challenging,” Cook said. I bet it did. 

For those enamored by the rank nepotism and perverse nostalgia that keeps the necrotic Kennedy dynasty going, last night was a pretty good night. The Kennedys started their political rennaisance in 2012 when Joseph Kennedy III , RFK’s 34 year-old grandson, won Barney Frank’s old Congressional seat in Massachusetts.

This cycle the clan seems to have tempered the scope of their ambition quite a bit, sending no one new to Washington. Ted Kennedy’s son, Ted Jr., a 53 year-old Connecticut lawyer, won a seat in the Connecticut state Senate. Bravo.

The other Kennedy angle is definitely the most bizarre Beltway story of the election In DC, Joseph Kennedy Smith, the 53 year-old nephew of JFK, RFK, and Teddy, won a spot on the DC Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, to represent his neighborhood of Foggy Bottom (he lives at the Watergate, fittingly). The ANC is DC’s lowest rung of hyper-local governance. Commissioners wield no actual power but their recommendations to the DC City Council are supposed to be given some sort of unspecified weight. Most candidates run unopposed for the unpaid position. Kennedy did have an opponent however, a lawyer named Thomas Martin, who like George P. Bush’s hard luck opponent, also entered the race before he knew who he’d be up against:

Martin said he learned about his opponent while circulating ballot petitions in his apartment building. A neighbor asked him if he had met the competition, Martin said. “She said his name, and I just paused for a moment, and I said, ‘Kennedy, Kennedy?’

Oof, tough luck. In America you can be whoever you want unless a Kennedy or a Bush wants to be the same thing you want to be.

There was one key setback in Kennedy-land though. Bobby Shriver, son to Eunice Kennedy, lost his race for the LA County Board of Supervisors, despite high-profile celebrity support in Hollywood. Clearly, his key impediment is that he doesn’t actually have the word Kennedy in his name. When a voter is looking to conjure up the false glamour of the execrable "Camelot" myth, a Shriver just will not do. 

Elsewhere, the Udalls of the American West are a member down, with Mark losing in Colorado and his cousin Tom prevailing in New Mexico.

Other notable items:

  • Three lawmakers under federal indictment got reelected in New York on Tuesday, including Republican Congressman Michael Grimm, who in addition to his 20-count indictment for tax fraud, famously threatened to throw a reporter off the Capitol balcony and "break him in half like a boy." He won by 13 points. Staten Island.
  • 18-year-old Saira Blair became the youngest lawmaker in the country on Tuesday when she won a seat in the West Virginia state legislature. As a 17-year-old high school senior last May, she primaried the 66-year-old Republican incumbent. Perhaps a dynasty in the making: her dad is the state senator for the area.
  • Elections-Have-Consequences Part Eleventy-million: The most vigorous climate denier in all of Congress, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, will now be your new Chairman of the Senate committee responsible for, yep, environmental and climate policy. You might want to brush up on his nuanced view of the subject in his 2012 book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.

Election Roundup: Ouch!

Last night was basically a massive dumpster fire for Democrats. The structural issues get you pretty far toward an explanation—young people and poor people didn’t vote, as usual, and the president is extremely unpopular, particular in the red states where Democrats were already playing panic defense. But even those headwinds don’t get you all the way there. Democrats underperformed in every state-wide race, got wiped out in state legislatures, in deep-blue state governorships, and of course the Senate was a bloodbath. Every supposedly "embattled" Republican prevailed, including the deeply unpopular Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts in Kansas, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and certifiably insane Maine Governor Paul LePage.

I don’t know what it all means. The Republican party favorability remains far underwater. The economy has improved steadily in the two years since the president won a resounding reelection. Yes, the stock market highs and corporate profitability haven’t yet translated into wage gains for ordinary workers, but the economic trend is unequivocally positive. Europe is still a drag, but their troubles also highlight how far superior our recovery has been. It’s a massive success story. The Affordable Care Act is more or less working as expected, despite many people’s preference for that not to be the case. Gas prices are low. The Ebola theat was squashed. ISIS hasn’t invaded Texas. Things seem…pretty okay. I’m trying to reconcile that with the deep cavern of dissatisfaction and anxiety out there in the electorate. I’m a little stumped.

One way to synthesize it is to recognize that maybe two-party politics is just a never-ending iterative process of essentially inexplicable back-and forth. As Matt Yglesias wrote today:

The presidential and non-presidential electorates look too different for either political party to optimize for both of them. Democrats have built a coalition that’s optimized for presidential years, while the GOP has one that’s optimized for off-years. And so we’re set for a lot of big swings back and forth every two years.

Seems right to me. I think it’s also a basic validation of Mitch McConnell’s grand evil genius strategy of sowing dysfunction and obstruction with the expectation that the American people would blame the president for it all. It worked beautifully, and got him to power. I don’t know if that basic dynamic works now that his party controls all of Congress. But I don’t dare underestimate that guy.

Scottish Independence, Group Identities, and Institutional Status Quo Bias. And Groundskeeper Willie. And The Proclaimers.

The internet is full of overnight Scotland experts this morning, I’ll try to not join them, promise. For the record, I was a very solid No on independence, though I must admit, the blockbuster Yes endorsements by Groundskeeper Willie and seminal ’90s light-rockers The Proclaimers made me waver a bit.

I’m thinking through a few theoretical ways to try to understand what happened. I’m hugely influenced here by Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, which I very highly recommend.

There are two factors of human nature to think about: First, the base motive for recognition and dignity and status; and second, the fact that human institutions have a massive conservative bias, and tend to be preserved, all things equal.

First, the base human motive underlying the history of political development is the demand for recognition and status, which can occur on an individual level or collectively on behalf of groups. At the individual level it takes the form of the assertion of individual dignity, which has undergirded every attempt to expand individual political and civil rights throughout history. See the picture to the right, with the phrase "I Am a Man" serving as an incredibly powerful distillation of the entire civil rights movement. There is a direct lineage from this idea back to the Enlightenment, the revolutionary concept of human equality, and the Rights of Man. Though it’s also worth noting that the demand for individual recognition also inspires road rage murders and other violent encounters stemming from perceived "disrespect", as well as all sorts of dissolute status-seeking and face-saving behaviors. So it goes.

Beyond our demand for individual recognition, we quirky humans also seek recognition and respect for groups with which we identify, and membership in which contributes to our self-conception of our identity. These can be sports franchise fandom, ethnicities, religions; or on topic for today, nationalisms. We will act desperately to secure recognition at both the individual and group level, but we tend to endorse behaviors on behalf of a group, particularly a nation-state, which we would never consider or countenance as individuals (See Neibuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society). This explains  endorsement of, or merely indifference to atrocities committed by one’s state, as well as apologetics for profound institutional failures like the Catholic Church rape scandal. The individual morality of a non-psychopath would reject and abhor such acts, but when rallying round the group one may come to other moral conclusions. 

Back to Scotland. One reason the independence vote failed is because a majority of Scottish people consider being "British" as one of their concentric circles of group identity association. You would think the Yes voters were the group seeking recognition and respect and primacy for their identity. But the Nos were voting for group recognition in their own way just as much as the Yeses. There seems to be a wide age gap in the voting breakdown, with youngs overwhelmingly voting yes and oldsters voting no. This makes sense, as older voters either lived through or were much closer to the formation of the post-war institutional order which they see as a triumph of British unity and solidarity, and something well worth preserving. Gordon Brown’s tremendous speech on behalf of the union includes this stirring passage:

Let us tell the undecided, the waverers, those not sure how to vote, let us tell them what we have achieved together. We fought two world wars together – and there is not a cemetery in Europe that does not have Scots, English, Welsh and Irish lying side-by-side. And when young men were injured in these wars, they didn’t look to each other and ask whether you were Scots or English, they came to each other’s aid because we were part of a common cause. And we not only won these wars together, we built the peace together, we built the health service together, we built the welfare state together, we will build the future together. And what we have built together by sacrificing and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder ever.

It is easy to see how these words would resonate with voters of a certain age. If the vote was fundamentally a contest for recognition between competing group identities, this appeal to the larger concentric circle of Britishness won out.

The human demand for recognition trumps other base-motive contenders like the instincts for self-preservation or economic self-interest. Sometimes the instincts are complementary. The struggle for civil rights and integration into mainstream institutions for African Americans and other minority groups throughout history also clearly improved their respective economic prospects, not to mention their prospects for not being summarily murdered by the state or by members of the ruling majority. 

But at the nation-state level the instincts are often in conflict, and recognition usually wins. Just the other day Dan Drezner wrote about this in the context of Russian aggression and the economic price it is paying.

Even back in the spring, it was clear that Russia’s economy was not doing well (matters have only gone downhill since). Nevertheless, when Pew polled Russian attitudes about their economy back in the spring, they got a startlingly different message. Despite a slowdown in the Russian economy, the percentage of respondents who said that their economy was good increased by 11 percentage points. […]

Notably, Russian satisfaction with their nation’s direction has improved 19 percentage points, from 37% to 56%, in the last year.

This seeming irrationality holds for many global hotspots, where ongoing conflicts, violent or otherwise, only make sense as expressions of and struggles for group recognition, since it’s often impossible to argue that anyone involved is improving their material well-being (except, as ever, defense contractors). Even in Scotland, 45% of the country voted for independence despite widespread agreement that it would be an economic calamity.

The independence vote also failed because of what Francis Fukuyama calls "the enormous conservatism of institutions." He writes, "Institutions once formed tend to be preserved, due to the biological proclivity…to conform to rules and patterns of behavior," and further, to "invest [such] rules and mental models with intrinsic significance." Beyond the original conditions that once justified the creation of particular institutions, over time, the institutions are "further reinforced by strong social norms, rituals, and other kinds of psychological investments in them." Gordon Brown’s passage is a perfect example of an institution (the UK) inspiring strong psychological investment far beyond the original justification or circumstances of the British union.

You can also call this conservation phenomenon path dependency or status quo bias. Basically nobody ever likes to change anything, and so whenever there’s a motion to change something big, you can immediately credit the no-change side with a massive built-in advantage even if you know nothing about the underlying issue. The Scottish Yes coalition was well aware of this aversion to changing the status quo, and did all it could to override this basic biological proclivity. It couldn’t.

An ominous concluding note: The main trouble with nationalisms and secession sentiment is that it inspires the resentments of other competing nationalisms. This assertion of Scottish nationalism, even though it was defeated, has stoked the nationalism of the other constitutent parts of the UK:

As it became clear that 55% of Scottish voters had said no to independence, [Prime Minister Cameron] demanded a new English settlement that would exclude Scottish MPs from ever voting on English matters such as health and education.

The English now have their own punitive demands for recognition. This doesn’t seem like a salutary development.

But now, The Proclaimers:

Ferguson; the Militarization of Police; the Dark Side of Federalism

I am trying to make sense of the events in Ferguson, Missouri.

1. Why do these civilian police officers look like an invading military force? Their camo, their M4-like rifles and their mine-resistant armored personnel vehicles, their masks, sidearms, body armor, extra high-capacity magazines. It’s insane. (Several soldiers on Twitter noted that they had less gear on them while invading and occupying Iraq.)

As these photos from Ferguson come out, the militarization of civilian law enforcement has been getting a lot more needful attention this week.

This is a useful primer on the issue from the NYT just a few months ago. Like so many other absurdities and outrages introduced into our civic life, this phenomenon is a relic of the war on drugs, when in the early 1990s Congress created the military-transfer program because local authorities felt outgunned by drug gangs. The post 9/11 War on Terror ramped things up for good: A flood of surplus military equipment and generous DHS grants to localities who wanted to beef up their counter-terrorism capabilities a bunch of new macho toys have led to a drastic—and operationally unnecessary—militarization of our local police forces.

During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.

The equipment has been added to the armories of police departments that already look and act like military units. Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs. […]

This militarization has had an insidious effect on how police officers view their mission and their relationship to the communities they are sworn to protect. It’s clear the officers in Ferguson are suffering from this distortion.

The ubiquity of SWAT teams has changed not only the way officers look, but also the way departments view themselves. Recruiting videos feature clips of officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons. In Springdale, Ark., a police recruiting video is dominated by SWAT clips, including officers throwing a flash grenade into a house and creeping through a field in camouflage.

In South Carolina, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s website features its SWAT team, dressed in black with guns drawn, flanking an armored vehicle that looks like a tank and has a mounted .50-caliber gun.

This is not healthy. I understand the recruitment aspect here, but these young men should join the army if they want to play soldier. Civilian law enforcement depends upon symbiotic trust with the populace they serve. Soldiering depends upon identifying and killing enemies.

And as we’ve seen the last few days, just because these officers have the look and gear of skilled warriors, their tradecraft is appalling. I’ve seen several photos of these guys aiming their loaded assault rifles directly at unarmed civilians. There was nobody rioting or looting last night. Who in the community were they trying to protect, and from whom? They’ve also arrested journalists, told people to stop recording and taking photos as is their constitutional right, and attempted to enforce a likely-unconstitutional evening curfew by using tear gas and rubber bullets in residential areas, even in the backyards of private homes. They’ve also withheld the names of the offending officers, including the one who murdered Michael Brown; by what right I do not know. Actual military professionals expert in crowd control have derided and lamented what they are seeing in Ferguson. Something is very wrong here.

There is a dangerous mix of ultra professional deadly equipment married to bumbling amateur-hour tactics. Who is this police chief? Why is he comfortable admitting that some of the officers under his supervision "probably don’t know better"? When will they all be looking for new jobs? Why was Missouri Governor Jay Nixon tweeting about education policy last night? Are there any adults in charge here?

1b. This is the crucial context for this militarization shift over the past few decades: Violent crime in the U.S. is at half-century lows, and has been falling all over the country.


It’s one of the best and most confounding public welfare developments of our time. Yet somehow police forces have convinced political leaders to keep giving them more more more.

2. We needn’t be obtuse when wondering why it might be that there is no sense of trust or solidarity between the population of Ferguson and its police force. St. Louis has a deep history of racial segregation and animus. Ferguson today is 67% black and its police force is 94% white. The police chief, the mayor, and all but one of the city councilors is white. Blacks are at the receiving end of 86% of all police stops and 92% of searches. Police have failed their communities in every way when the alienation runs this deep. 

3. You wouldn’t know it from our national political climate, but the federal government is not the source of most quotidian tyranny and suppression of citizens’ rights. Particularly for African Americans, "federalism" and "states rights" have meant more freedom for states and localities to coerce, repress, and discriminate with impunity. Local coercion can be as banal as onerous licensing requirements to sell your labor, or as horrific as an organized violent campaign of state terrorism such as that against black Americans in the 100 years between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era. It occurs to me that in both the banal and horrific versions, the state is aligned with incumbent business elites. Lovely. 

I’m currently reading Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, and just the other night I happened to read a relevant passage, on whether there’s a relationship between the relative strength of a central government and the amount of freedom enjoyed by the populace. Looking at test cases through a millenium of state-level political development, Fukuyama concludes:

"Political freedom is not necessarliy achieved by a strong, cohesive, and well-armed civil society that is able to resist the power of the central government. Nor is it always achieved by a constitutional arrangement that puts strict legal limits on executive authority. […]

"The twentieth century has taught us to think about tyranny as something perpetrated by powerful centralized states, but it can also be the work of local oligarchs [as in contemporary China—jd]…. It is the responsibility of the central government to enforce its own laws against the oligarchy; freedom is lost not when the state is too strong but when it is too weak. In the United States, the ending of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation..was brought about only when the federal government used its power to enforce the Constitution against the states in the South. […]

The degree to which [states within a federal structure] can maintain their independence from the central government depends on how they treat their own citizens. A powerful central government is neither intrinsically good nor bad; its ultimate effect on freedom depends on the complex interplay between it and the subordinate political authorities.

Remember that as you wonder if all those Gadsden flag patriots who came out to protest the tyranny of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 will now support the residents of Ferguson who are under seige from their local law enforcement. Somehow I doubt it.

Human Volition and the Rise of the Machines

In Tyler Cowen’s book Average is Over, he makes two related predictions about how machine intelligence may interact with human behavior and affect human success in the near future. First, there will be an increasing sophistication and use of methods of tracking and measuring human performance in a wide range of endeavors, including but not limited to one’s job performance. Already of course a prospective employer can check your credit score and look you up on social media. Once on the job, the capacity to constantly monitor and measure and quantifiy your true performance value will increase over time, and the results may not turn out very kindly for a lot of workers.

In addition to employment metrics, maybe this trend of data collection and quantification will encroach on other areas of life, marking us as good or not-so-good dating prospects perhaps, or giving universities many more ways to predict a prospective student’s academic performance, or giving our doctors a picture of how compliant or trustworthy we are as patients, and likewise giving us better information on the performance of our doctors, etc.

Cowen sees this ubiquitous measurement trend as unsavory and disquieting, but he sees no way to stop it. It may end up delivering many benefits, but people generally do not like being surveilled and weighed and measured in everything they do. (FYI, here is a great interview transcript with Cowen summarizing many themes of his book.)

Like Cowen, I think a lot of people find this sort of constant measuring uncomfortable. Maybe we will eventually recoil from this over-quantification, this empirical obsessiveness, which when extrapolated reduces all human pursuits to a sort of sabermetrics calculation. Though I wonder how we will react when the price of access to a good and prosperous life is acquiescing to this constant invigilation by our data-hungry metric overlords. Will this "entry fee" clash with other more basic human psychological motivations?

Dostoyevsky, in his Notes From Underground, warns that attempting to reduce human behavior to a set of algorithms or "tables" is bound to fail and backfire. He, like Cowen, would concede that such sophisticated quantification may indeed be able to reveal where our own best interests lie, and allowing others access to this data jackpot may be the best move for our professional and personal flourishing. But the human will is not primarily interested in following the course of rational best interest, nor in flourishing.

A man, whoever he is, always and everywhere likes to act as he chooses, and not at all according to the dictates of reason and self-interest; it is indeed possible, and sometimes positively imperative, to act directly contrary to one’s own best interests. One’s own free and unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness, that is the one best and greatest good.

Dostoyevsky writes that a man will always commit abominations counter to his interests, “just so that he can assert, as if it were absolutely essential, that people are still people and not piano-keys.”

More than that: if men really turned out to be piano-keys, and if it was proved to them by science and mathematics, even then they would not see reason, but on the contrary would deliberately do something out of sheer ingratitude in order, in fact, to have their own way.

We can all agree, Dostoevsky says, that two-and-two-make-four is an excellent thing; “but to give everything its due, two and two make five is also a very fine thing.”

In this future quantified world, rejecting the measurements of the machines, and refusing to be defined and played upon by these metrics, will be asserting 2+2=5 against our own revealed best interests, in order to assert our "own free and unfettered volition." 

But Cowen has another prediction about the future ability of machines to reveal to us a best course of action, and it might lead to a very different conclusion.

As our personal devices collect and collate ever more individualized information from every facet of our lives, they may come to develop strong opinions on our behalf regarding dating advice, career advice, investment advice, leisure advice, and so on. Cowen thinks that a key predictor of success in the future will be one’s willingness to defer to the machines. But will this satisfy our demand for self-volition and recognition?

Because of their ability to synthesize an unlimited amount of data from disparate sources, and unfettered by emotion and fear and anxiety, computer recommendations for an individual’s decision-making could in fact be more creative, more nimble, and at least superficially appear to be against our best interests. If the computer is thinking with such advanced abstraction using far more information than humans can process, its behavior recommendations my seem full of caprice and even "inflamed to the point of madness." But in fact the computer will be merely asking us to override our human intuition, which is so often faulty and unreliable and beset by bias and superstition. 

So this inverts the Dostoyevsky aphorism: It is human intuition that is often limited by staid 2+2=4 thinking, and the computers which may insist to us that 2+2=5 is the best course of action.

Cowen has an illustrative story about this: Imagine you are on a date in the future, and at a key point in the evening your phone or equivalent device starts buzzing at you, and it starts flashing, "kiss her now!" Depending on your intuition and mood at that moment, perhaps that recommendation strikes you as 2+2=5 thinking, essentially inconceivable and maybe anti-rational, and surely counter to your own current best interests. But the device has been listening to your conversation, measuring your heart rate, calibrating the vocal timbre of you and your date, and analyzing the entire literature and history of male-female romantic interaction, etc. Maybe you should listen. Cowen argues that those willing to heed their device in these sorts of circumstances may find better relationship success. And in many other areas of life, those willing to override their often-terrible human intuition and listen to the capricious machines may prosper more than those who stubbornly refuse.

But will this hectoring by our devices offend our pride and our demand for self-volition? Or will we see the device as an ally and in fact an extension of our own volition?

If the former, in order to continue to assert our own volition in the Dostoyevsky sense and prove we are not piano-keys, we will have to reject the computer’s innovative 2+2=5 thinking, and affirm the old boring predictable 2+2=4. In these cases, following our 2+2=4 intuition will become the revolutionary act, the radical departure from our own true best interests revealed through the computer’s peculiar genius. Dismissing something on your notification bar could become the height of human protest. How radical.

The base human desire for self-volition and recognition will not go away. But what counts as an assertion of human volition and individual recognition will get tricky. In the face of ubiquitous quantification, and beseiged by machine advice about our best self-interest, how people come to define what qualifies as a successful satisfaction of these base desires may affect the future trajectory of man-machine interaction in profound ways.

The Terms of Their Surrender

Anyone feeling dejected or frustrated by the Hobby Lobby decision needs to read this Andrew Sullivan post, in which he places this perceived "setback" in proper perspective. The basic point: Social liberalism is triumphing wherever you look, and it’s a rout. The progress of marriage equality is the most prominent example of course, banking yet another victory yesterday, this time in that bastion of liberalism, Kentucky. But there’s a lot more:

[U]niversal health insurance, to take an epic example; the shift in drug policy away from mere law enforcement; the speed with which marijuana legalization marches forward; the rise and rise of women in the economy and the academy and politics. Then consider the broad demographic shifts – the sharp increase in the religiously unaffiliated, the super-liberal Millennial generation, the majority-minority generation being born now, and a bi-racial president possibly followed by a woman president. When I see the panic and near-hysteria among some liberals in response to the Hobby Lobby ruling, I have to wonder what America they think they’re living in.

Regarding Hobby Lobby, first recall those dark days before the ACA, when there was NO federal requirement for contraceptive insurance coverage. None! Then, suddenly, there was a universal requirement (yay!). But now, it’s been pared back to a near-universal requirement (boo!), in which there will likely be some provision arrangement for those women left out. But, perspective please:

[L]ook at it this way: with the ACA, for the first time ever, all insurance covers a wide array of contraception options. That’s a huge step forward for social liberalism, and it was allowed by the Roberts court.

Progressives still are having trouble taking yes for an answer. Through hard experience, they still seem to think they are beseiged by a dominant American reactionary culture, hostile as ever, implacably committed to mobilizing its silent majority to roll back every inch of liberal social progress.

Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

And rather than validating the paranoid roll-back view, the Hobby Lobby decision actually further undermines it. These are the terms of surrender. It is social conservatives, unable to prevail at the ballot box, facing demographic irrelevancy, who are left appealing to the courts to help wall themselves off from what they consider the most offending aspects of the ascendant progressive culture outside their gates. As Andrew notes, it is they who are now desperately seeking some small accommodation, some protection, from the victorious majority. The Supreme Court gave them an accommodation this week. So be it.

Yes, there are some companies that can make the provision of certain contraceptives a little more difficult. Just as while gay marriage triumphs faster than even the most optimistic scenario, there are still businesses which can deny service to same-sex weddings; still private citizens who can harbor grotesque bigotry toward their fellow man.

There are surely other areas where cultural anxiety and grievance, or yes, genuine religious conviction, will lead some to try and quarantine themselves from modernity’s encroachment. And they will sometimes be successful, through the courts or other means. So be it. None of this is evidence that progress is tenuous, or that magnanimity in victory is naive or misplaced. These are merely rearguard forces, protecting a vanquished army in full retreat. The victors needn’t give chase.

Climate Scientists Have a Major Branding Problem

The President spoke to the League of Conservation Voters yesterday, and to this friendly audience he continued his recent rhetorical tactic of flat-out mocking climate change deniers. It’s a perfectly valid tactic. Mocking and ridicule get a bad rap in political discourse. There is a place for both as part of an overall pursuasion/mobilization strategy.

"’Folks will tell you climate change is a hoax, or a fad, or a plot, it’s a liberal plot,” he said. “Many who say that actually know better and they’re just embarrassed. They duck the question. They say ‘I’m not a scientist,” which really translates to, ‘I accept man-made climate change is real, but if I say so out loud I’ll be run out of town by a bunch of fringe elements … I’ll just pretend I don’t know, that I can’t read.’”

That sounds about right to me. There’s also the religious motivation, that god is inerrant and man can’t possibly undo what He Hath Wrought (Adam and Eve’s little indiscretion notwithstanding).

Obama also tried the logical analogy tactic. He spoke about the need to defer to expert consensus, as we do in so many other domains:

“I’m not a doctor either, but if a bunch of doctors tell me tobacco can cause lung cancer, then I’ll say, ‘OK.’ It’s not that hard,” he said.

Sounds okay, but here’s where the problem lies I think. We hear often that 97% of climate scientists agree on anthropomorphic climate change, and that it’s absurd to discount such expert consensus. But I’m pretty convinced that when deniers hear "climate scientist", they don’t think "high-status expert". They think "witch doctor". It doesn’t register as "reputable elite" in the same way as do experts in other academic fields, and certainly not like the president’s hypothetical team of pulmonary oncologists above. In short, climate scientists have a major branding problem.

Of course, a core part of the strategy of professional climate deniers has been to undermine the credibility and integrity of these poor scientists. And they’ve been quite successful in this effort, not because they’re such great spinsters, but because people are simply predisposed to think "climate scientist" sounds a little like a bullshit job. And I admit, it does! But why?

Some ideas: You don’t really learn about the career at any stage of schooling (perhaps kids do now?). It’s not readily apparent where you would go to study it and become an expert in it. Almost nobody has personally met a climate scientist. You only ever hear the word as part of the "controversy" over climate change. There’s no cool or badass factor (think astronauts). They have no popular culture presence whatsoever (they need an "ER" for climate science). There’s no climate Einstein, or climate Watson and Crick. It’s not apparent what they do all day. And the problem is not merely that the field is arcane and inaccessible to normal people. I feel like other disciplines that register as completely eggheaded nonetheless enjoy very high status, like quantum physics or nuclear engineering.

But for some reason, compared to other professional elites they basically have nothing going for them in terms of public perception. It’s why the president’s doctor analogy will never pursuade anyone. They have a massive status problem. What to do? For starters, the word "climate" has been thoroughly spoiled by politicization. Maybe officially rebrand as Environmental Scientists. Also, they need a lobby. They need a guild and a PR firm. Mostly they need to pay George Clooney to play a heroic and charming but slightly brooding climate environmental scientist in his next film. And tell Al Gore to never say another word on the subject.

Turkey’s Got Problems But the Kurds Ain’t One

Ever since Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan came to power, he and his foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu have promulgated a foreign policy doctrine they call "Zero Problems." This is supposed to mean that they seek harmonious relations with all their neighbors and make decisions primarily on that basis.  

But as I’ve noted before, just because Turkey declares it has zero problems with you doesn’t mean you’re going to have zero problems with Turkey. In practice their doctrine usually means that, depending on your relative status on the world stage, you’ll be somewhat okay as long as you acquiesce to a baseline level of Turkish ethnic chauvinism. This has defined all of their historical dealings with the Kurds of Iraq.

However, as long-time Kurdophile Peter Galbraith notes, after years of outright hostility motivated by Turkish fears of its own restive Kurdish population, things are changing. Lately, Turkey has not only been resigning itself to the existence of a fully-autonomous, if-not-quite independent Kurdistan in Iraq, they’ve been active boosters and enablers of the idea. Much of this has to do with economic opportunity: the two sides do a massive amount of trade, and Turkey is the largest foreign investor inside Kurdistan. Also, Turkey has been happy to share in the fruits of landlocked Kurdistan’s oil ambitions: They’ve signed a 50-year energy deal, and a pipeline from Kurdistan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan is now operative.

Turkey has now taken the bromance to the next level. For those at all familiar with the toxic history between these two peoples, these quotes are just unbelievable:

The Kurds of Iraq have the right to decide the future of their land, said Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Friday.

“The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in,” Celik told Rudaw in an interview to be published soon. […]

In case Iraq gets partitioned, said Celik, “the Kurds, like any other nation, will have the right to decide their fate.”

Zero Problems indeed! This is bizarro world stuff.

Speaking of oil, recall that as of last week the Kurds now control Kirkuk, in which resides 40% of Iraq’s total oil reserves. Not a bad dowry for a fledgling nation. They’d be smart to move quickly to link Kirkuk’s oil to the main pipeline to Turkey. Oh what’s that? It’s done already?

Iraqi Kurdistan has built a link connecting Kirkuk to its newly-built pipeline to Turkey, its minister of natural resources said, potentially cementing Kurdish control over the northern oil hub and reducing its reliance on Baghdad.

Well then. Let’s recap. The Kurds have their preferred, long-coveted national boundaries under peshmerga control, they have an independent source of revenue that will guarantee self-sufficiency, and they have the full support and partnership of a regional superpower who just a few years ago were threatening their annihilation with regularity. I suppose with a psychopathic militia on the loose, they’re not in the clear just yet. But it’s pretty exciting, and worthy of celebration, particularly in a region with so many dark days still ahead.