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.

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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.

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Long Live Kurdistan

The Kurds’ strong short-term interests are to consolidate the territory they’ve obtained, maintain security particularly around the oil, and prepare for their growing independence as Iraq disintegrates around them. A course of action most definitely not included on this list is to join a massive sectarian war for the fate of Iraq (and Syria, and…).

While this inward-looking approach is eminently reasonable now, it’s clearly not compatible with their longer-term interests to have jihadist barbarians settled in right across their border. And to reiterate a point I hope doesn’t require much further emphasis, it’s also incompatible with the interests of everyone else on Earth to abide as these enemies of civilization engage in a nation-building experiment in the heart of Mesopotamia.

Despite talk of a truce between ISIS and the Kurds, and a mutual interest in avoiding an all-out war, here’s the thing about jihadist barbarians: they are not known for their reasonableness. Jihadists be jihadin’.

Today, ISIS advanced into a Shiite villiage south of Kirkuk, apparently too close for comfort for Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk. There was a skirmish and the Kurdish forces drove ISIS out of the area.

[A Peshmerga major] told VICE News that, despite sporadic clashes, he did not think ISIS planned on engaging them heavily. “They don’t have the courage,” he said. “They’ve tried. They know now.”

I think that’s right, I’d be very surprised at a heavy engagement. And it doesn’t seem that ISIS encroached on Kurdish territory. Yet this is also right:

Nevertheless, the major did not rule out a fight, admitting that the informal detente now in place could easily end. “We’re not naive to believe they’ll stay away,” he said. “If they kill infants, how can we trust them?”

Indeed.

The Kurds can take care of themselves, largely because they rightly ignored U.S. entreaties to subordinate themselves to Baghdad for the sake of "stability" over these last ten years. And good thing, since our president is not particularly fond of enforcing his red lines. After a century of neglect and betrayal and cynical manipulation by their Western "patrons", the Kurds have no right being such staunch and loyal partners as they are today, having implausibly carved out a refuge for pluralism and democracy against a permanent seige by successive authoritarians and religious fanatics. Today our stalwart Kurdish friends and allies deserve all the solidarity we can muster, because it’s moral and because it’s just.

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On the Kurds’ Plans for Kirkuk, and Their Relationship with ISIS

ISIS has taken the small city of Tal ‘Afar in northwest Iraq after a two-day battle with Iraqi security forces, seemingly continuing to shore up its supply chain from Syria before pressing on to Baghdad and the Southern Shiite-majority areas. You can also see its strategic control along the Tigris and Euphrates. Just a reminder, presented without comment: These Iraqi forces have been trained and equipped by the United States for nearly a decade.

This is one hell of a scary map. It’s my understanding that ISIS isn’t just militarily occupying these cities, but rather it has full administrative and governing control. They are deeply embedded in these areas, and I can’t see how they will be easily dislodged. The only hope is a cleaving of the alliance of militias comprising the insurgent fighting force, which along with ISIS includes former Baathists and various secular Sunni groups who just want to be free of Baghdad’s rule. The latter may find rule under crazy jihadi extremists not as delightful as they imagined. 

What you’ll also notice in this map is that ISIS has no presence in Iraqi Kurdistan or in the Kurdish areas of Northeast Syria by the Turkish border. The Kurds, of course, have been making their own territorial gains lately.

The Daily Beast‘s Eli Lake spoke with Qubad Talabani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s former representative in Washington, and now the incoming Deputy Prime Minister of the KRG. (He’s also the son of Jalal Talabani, a founding father of modern Kurdish politics and current President of Iraq, though the latter title may not mean so much right now). Qubad confirmed that the Kurds consider Iraq functionally dissolved:

Iraq, in a sense, has broken apart from us,” he told The Daily Beast. “Geographically we practically have to cross another country to get to Baghdad. We have to cross through territory that is governed and secured by forces that are not loyal to the federal government in Baghdad.

Genuine news to me, Talabani also said that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces were deployed to Kirkuk with the approval of Prime Minister al-Maliki:

“No one has asked us to abandon those posts in Kirkuk,” Talabani said. “On the contrary, the Iraqi prime minister’s office gave us the green light to do what we can to protect as much territory as we can in the north.”

So this was not merely an opportunistic, if well-earned, land grab. Al-Maliki, now under existential threat, has realized (after years of antagonism toward Kurdish aspirations) that the more territory and oil under Kurdish control and protection, the better. I can only assume the U.S. feels the same way.

Though Talabani was equivocal about the KRG’s permanent plans for the newly-occupied areas, other Kurdish officials are stating the obvious:

Late on Friday, the Kurdish ministry of Peshmerga (defense) stated that, except for some areas, “The entire Kurdish territories outside Kurdistan Region were now in the hands of the Kurdish forces.”

The statement confidently reassured that “the Kurdish troops have no intention of leaving the area.”

“We are here to stay,” it declared. “Basically, all Kurdish villages and localities are now protected by the Peshmerga forces.”

So what is the relationship between the Kurds and ISIS? Will the Kurds come to the aid of the Maliki and the Iraqi forces? Will they take up arms against ISIS? On the aid question, doesn’t look like it:

The Kurds say they received no formal request for help from in Baghdad. But even if Baghdad were to ask, it no longer has much to offer the Kurds in return for the favour, since the Kurds have already taken prizes like Kirkuk for themselves.

What about ISIS? Well ISIS seems to want no part in fighting the far superior Peshmerga forces. They appear to have no designs on Kurdish territory, and no grievance with Kurds or Kurdish aspirations in general. In fact, they’ve asked for a truce:

A Peshmerga officer in the area also told Rudaw that the ISIS have contacted them by courier, saying, “If you don’t attack us, we would not attack you.” […]

According to information provided by the Peshmerga forces, the ISIS checkpoint is only half a kilometer away from the Kurdish forces and that via taxi drivers on the road, the militants have asked for reassurance that they will not be attacked from the north.

Now I highly doubt that it is compatible with Kurdish interests, and with human civilization more generally, to have Islamist homicidal psychopaths governing vast swaths of Iraq and Syria. We may be seeing the final unraveling of Sykes-Picot, but I’d say this is most definitely not the last chapter.

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Iraq is Dissolving, The Kurds are Thinking Big

One of my more riskless predictions on the blog has been my repeated insistence that there is much bloodshed to come before the dispensation of Iraq’s disputed territories, let alone its larger sectarian divide, is finally resolved. Like economists who do nothing but predict recessions or inflation, my sagacity has at last, inevitably, been vindicated.

It’s a goddamn mess over there. ISIS, al-Qaeda-inspired Sunni militants who also control territory in war-torn Syria, are overrunning Iraqi cities, with their sites set on Baghdad and Shiite areas in the South. Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces have arrived to help the government fight back, all while Prime Minister al-Maliki asks the U.S., Iran’s mortal enemy lest we forget, to intervene as well. President Obama has not ruled out U.S. assistance.

At stake for Iran in the current tumult in Iraq isn’t only the survival of an Shiite political ally in Baghdad, but the safety of Karbala and Najaf, which along with Mecca and Medina are considered sacred to Shiites world-wide.

An ISIS spokesman, Abu Mohamad al-Adnani, urged the group’s Sunni fighters to march toward the "filth-ridden" Karbala and "the city of polytheism" Najaf, where they would "settle their differences" with Mr. Maliki.

That coarsely worded threat further vindicates Iran’s view that the fight unfolding in Iraq is an existential sectarian battle between the two rivaling sects of Islam-Sunni and Shiite—and by default a proxy battle between their patrons Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Existential sectarian battle, great.

And what of the Kurds, and the slightly-more-prosaic dispute with Baghdad over administrative control of the contested territories bordering Kurdistan, including oil-rich Kirkuk? Amid the chaos, the Kurds have stumbled upon one way to resolve the issue:

Kurdish officials said on Thursday that their forces had taken full control of the strategic oil city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, after government troops abandoned their posts there and disappeared, introducing a new dimension into the swirling conflict propelled by Sunni militants pressing south toward Baghdad.

It was just two weeks ago that Prime Minister al-Maliki thought he had the political clout to threaten the Kurds with reprisal for piping Kurdish oil to Turkey without Baghdad’s approval. Now his troops are abandoning their posts and surrendering without a fight to the ISIS, and Baghdad’s only hope for stemming its advance in the north is the assistance of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Before this is over it might be Baghdad begging to be under the administrative control of an independent greater Kurdistan, with the U.S. and Iran celebrating their great cooperative Iraqi military campaign. The Middle East is a weird place.

Kurdish leaders have long feigned a commitment to remaining part of a federal Iraq, so long as the state was stable enough to maintain security and be responsive to Kurdish interests. Well with an "existential sectarian battle" raging across multiple national borders, and promise of a protracted civil war, I’d say the idea of a viable centralized Iraq may be over.

I asked journalist Michael Weiss if the Kurds are now thinking big regarding their ambitions for independence, in light of these new developments. He responded, "Hint: They’ve been thinking big for 100 years." Indeed, who can begrudge them at this point if they decide to not let a good crisis go to waste.

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Losing Your Congressional Seat is Not Really the Same as Surviving the Holocaust

Well good riddance to Eric Cantor. He was a cynical, smarmy, clicking-eyed obstructionist, supplicant to big business and champion and appeaser of lunatics in his party. I think he lost simply because no one believed he was actually on their side. Not the Tea Party, not the establishment, not his constituents. He operated and maneuvered and positioned himself to universal loathing. That’s actually an impresive feat of failure for a politician.

sherman 

In the GOP meeting at the Capitol today in which he announced that he’s stepping down as Majority Leader, Eric Cantor appears to have compared his disappointment at losing an election to the suffering of a Holocaust survivor. Now we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, he was emotional and it’s probably a really, really big personal disappointment.

But this is a good time for a reminder: being a former Congressman is not a very big hardship. Being a former Majority Leader with strong ties to the defense and financial industry? Well, there’s a chance he may just bounce back from this.

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Remember, we shouldn’t allow politicans to prioritize their reelection over all other considerations. We shouldn’t excuse or accept craven "positioning" as a reason for their actions in defense of their seat. The streets are not littered with homeless ex-Congressmen. I have a feeling that when Cantor walks out of the Capitol building for the last time next January, he’ll use the revolving door.

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The Hypocrisy Angle Putin Is Looking For: That Time the U.S. Tried to Annex the Dominican Republic

As we wait to see the extent of Vladimir Putin’s plans for destabilizing and annexing the sovereign territory of Ukraine and pillaging its economic resources, it’s also worth taking a brief look at the hilarious way Russia is spinning these deplorable acts to the world.

Putin has several tactics. The main one is the classic autocratic statecraft game of "Lie, Deny, Counter-Accuse". Some examples:

"Russia accuses Ukraine of intervention in Crimea"—Remember, Crimea was PART OF Ukraine. This was also the same day that Russia took total military control of Crimea. That is how you counter-accuse.

"Russia accuses Kiev of violating Ukraine peace deal"—Russia starts a war of conquest then accuses the victim of not being peace-minded enough. Genius.

"Russia never annexed Crimea, no plans to intervene in Ukraine, it’s a Western delusion" – Putin, three days ago. It’s hard to even process this one. The annexation vote by the Russian Duma is on video.

Apart from Lie, Deny, Counter-Accuse, Putin also likes to accuse the U.S. of hypocrisy and of having no moral standing to complain about Russian actions in the world. For instance:

"The entire world remembers the US secretary of state demonstrating the evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, waving around some test tube with washing powder in the UN Security Council. […]

"We have almost no military forces abroad, yet look: everywhere in the world there are American military bases, American troops thousands of kilometres from their borders. They interfere in the interior affairs of this or that country, so it is difficult to accuse us of abuses."

Elsewhere he’s used the examples of Afghanistan and Libya as other "illegitimate" Western interventions. These analogies are weak, weak, weak. He can do better. I am here to help Putin out.

I’ve just finished reading historian Eric Foner’s masterpiece, Reconstruction, and while I’ve learned something new on virtually every page, there’s one episode that seems particularly relevant for Russia’s hypocrisy trolling purposes: That fun time in 1870 when the U.S. tried to annex the Dominican Republic.

First, recall the pattern of Russia’s behavior in Crimea: Putin makes up all sorts of pretexts for intervening, citing various dubious vital Russian interests at stake, including maintaining the Russian military base at Sevastopol. He invades, then drums up a referendum in Crimea under conditions of intimidation and military occupation. The referendum succeeds, and he formalizes the annexation in the Duma. Done.

President Grant’s plan for the Dominican didn’t end quite as smoothly, but not for lack of trying. Here’s Foner:

A number of factors came together to produce this disreputable scheme. The navy desired a Carribbean base, American businessmen who owned property on the island pressed for annexation…. In addition, the ruling Dominican political faction hoped to save itself from overthrow in a continuing civil war, and Grant’s private secretary Orville Babcock, who…negotiated the agreement, owned land on the island that would appreciate in value under American rule. Nobody considered the wishes of the people who lived there, although a plebiscite, held with four days’ advance notice and coupled with a warning that opponents of the treaty would be exiled or shot, producted a resounding vote in favor of annexation.

Unfortunately, President Grant didn’t have autocratic powers or a rubber-stamping Duma at his disposal. The U.S. Senate rejected the treaty, handing Grant a humiliating defeat. His annexation idea died.

But, c’mon, the desire for a military base, the various shady economic interests, the bogus, rushed referendum under threat of violence. THIS is the Crimea analogy Putin is looking for. His propaganda minister needs to get on this. You’re welcome comrades.

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Nice of Him to be Explicit About It

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

Seventy-six year-old Thad Cochran has been Mississippi’s (do I even need to specify the party?) senator for thirty-six years, and he’s in the midst of a likely career-ending primary challenge that looks to be heading to a runoff after last night’s inconclusive result. Cochran is old, genteel, an institution guy, and proud of the deals he’s made and the federal money he’s brought back to his state over the last four decades. He’s soft-spoken and not taken to inflammatory culture war rhetoric. In other words, he could not be more out of step with the recent tone and trajectory of his party.

His opponent, Tea Party-aligned Chris McDaniel, is a new-breed firebreather, all distilled cultural rage, furious at the establishment, and intent on awakening anyone who doesn’t realize there’s a life-or-death struggle for America’s soul happening out there.

There are no major policy differences between the candidates; the Republican Party civil war (the Tea Party/Establishment one anyway) is mostly about affect, style, tone, anger. As Jonathan Chait notes, this race is between Cochran, "a hard-line conservative who votes with his party on everything" and McDaniel, "a hard-line conservative who will also vote with his party on everything but will say a bunch of crazy stuff as well."

One of those crazy things appeared in Molly Ball’s excellent Atlantic recap of the race. All the cool kids know that cultural and demographic anxiety is the animating force of the modern Republican party. But you don’t see Republican politicians speaking openly about this anxiety. It’s uncouth, and it’s hard to rhetorically pull off a complaint about a "changing America" without sounding like a bigot, a crank, an anti-modern. So the good politicians couch these complaints in deep euphemism, or else they advocate policies that just happen to disproportionally affect the groups they’re most anxious about. The talk-show and television demagogues can come right out with it, stoking the passions of their septuagenarian audience. You can hear it all the time, the America we grew up with is gone, wink wink. But for politicians, that stuff’s risky.

Well Chris McDaniel is not bound by your stogey rules. Coincidentally, he’s also a former talk-radio host. Here he is on the campaign trail, being refreshingly explicit about the theme of his campaign and his worldview:

"Millions in this country feel like strangers in this land," he says. "An older America is passing away. A newer America is rising to take its place. We recoil from that culture. It’s foreign to us. It’s offensive to us."

Ironic that it’s the 41-year old McDaniel, not the oldster Cochran, speaking fearfully about the older America passing away and the foreign, offensive modern culture that’s ascending. I wonder what aspects of the newer rising America he finds particularly foreign and offensive? Hmm. I don’t think it’s the kids and their loud rock music. But really, nice of him to make his repellent reactionary mission so explicit.

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Russia and Crimea: This is Not a Cold War

In the last few days I’ve seen about a dozen headlines declaring the start of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia. This interpretation of events is very silly, not least of all because it mistakenly implies that everything a foreign leader does in the world is somehow a reflection of either American strength or weakness. This just isn’t so; I know this is hard for some neocon-minded foreign policy analysts to contemplate, but it’s the case that sometimes things happen in the world without regard to the United States at all! (Somehow I bet this won’t be John McCain’s message on Meet the Press, which I just assume he’s on this weekend; it could more accurately be titled, Meet John McCain with guest David Gregory.)

However, the Cold War interpretation is perhaps understandable if you read Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Duma yesterday, announcing his annexation of Crimea. The speech is an extraordinary litany of sophistry, nostalgia, U.S. bashing, misplaced historical analogy, and if I read it right, it’s also an announcement of more menace to come for Russia’s neighbors. A couple quotes and annotations:

–"Unfortunately, what seemed impossible became a reality. The USSR fell apart." Nothing new there; an ongoing refusal to reckon with the human suffering of Soviet Communism, the purges, the famines, the fear and subjugation. No, the real tragedy is that Russia lost a bunch of territory.

–With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, "the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders." Again, the USSR was good because it at least united all ethnic Russians (in abject misery). Does this statement suggest a longer-term goal of incorporating other ethnic Russians into the Russian Federation? 

–"After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability." Yes, totalitarianism combined with nukes was super stable for everyone.

This is all bizarre, troubling stuff, but it is not some sort of reactivation of Soviet-style power projection. First of all, to paraphrase Moe Green, Russia just doesn’t have that kind of muscle anymore. Putin’s lament for the loss of US-Russian bipolarity is fascinating. It’s as if he thinks that nothing has changed about the global order in the past twenty-five years other than Russia lost control of a bunch of peripheral territories. I think China would disagree; they’re probably reading this speech and laughing at their poor sad delusional neighbor to the north, thinking it’s still the premier Asian power. In fact, perhaps this meager projection of force reveals more Russian anxiety about the rise of China, rather than whatever fake rivalry it believes it has with the United States.

And not to get all Fukuyama on you, but another problem with Cold War analogies is that it implies some sort of parity on the world stage and parity in terms of delivering welfare outcomes to citizens. This is, well, not quite the case with modern Russia. The old USSR was indeed able to project quite a bit of military and economic power for a while, as well as offer Communism as a genuine (if awful) rival organizing ideology. But Russia lost all those bets. Today, Russia does not provide much of a salutary political/ideological example, to, well, anybody on earth. It has no governing ideology I can discern. It’s primarily a petro-kleptocracy ruled by a mafia clique of oligarchs and former intelligence agents. Journalists and political rivals are murdered and imprisoned without process. Gays are persecuted and the state subscribes to discriminatory retrograde gender norms.

BjLl8uQCMAAmB0f.jpg large

How about outcomes for citizens? Economically, Russia’s GDP per capita $14,300, making it slightly poorer than Estonia and Uruguay. Nearly three-quarters of its total exports rely on digging oil and ore out of the ground. In 2013, Russia ranked 127th out of 175 countries in corruption, tied with Pakistan and Nicaragua.

Since so much of the country’s economic resources are captured for the benefit of the ruling elite, it’s not surprising that Russia is experiencing a quarter century-old public health crisis. Russia’s life expectancy is the same as that of Bangledesh (70 years), with male life expectancy of only 64, tied with Cambodia. It has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, one of the highest alcoholism rates, and the highest AIDS rate in the industrial world, slightly worse than Liberia and Cape Verde.   

The point is, rather than being enmeshed in a grand contest with the United States or "the West", Russia’s more befitting geopolitical rival would be a small developing country in Central America or Africa. Putin is allowed to pretend otherwise because his country has nukes, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, and is not shy about using his petro resources as a geopolitical weapon. These are nuisances to be sure, but we elevate Russia far above its weight class with absurd Cold War talk. Putin’s ethnic chauvinism and nostalgia for territorial conquest should be seen for what it is, a rather sad revanchist obsession with past glory, by a dictator with a litany of domestic dysfunctions to distract from.

The U.S. really did win the Cold War, which among other things means Apollo Creed didn’t die in vain.

Relatedly, I bet John McCain is watching this montage on repeat:

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Yes David Brooks, Politics is Important

David Brooks says that "politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun." This is because political change is inherently a "slow trudge", and so government should limit its goals and oriented itself around "essential but mundane tasks" mostly concerned with maintaining a "background order".

Brooks has done this trick before where he purports to advocate a limited government defined by a few modest tasks, but when he lists those tasks we find they encompass the entirety of human experience.

Today, his boring, mundane, and gradual government should only do things like "keeping the peace and promoting justice and creating a background setting for mobility." Though the pursuit of these modest goals should not "deliver meaning" to the pursuer. All of this is nuts.

First, his list of non-political pursuits is a lot more political than he thinks. Enjoying family and friends does indeed sound like more fun than obsessing about politics. But what if you can’t even create the family you want to subsequently enjoy because you’re gay and your government severely limits your family-formation options? And in decades past, what if your preferred romantic arrangement didn’t conform with the majority culture and there was no legal right to live how you liked? To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in politics but politics is interested in you.

Similarly, consuming and thinking about culture is indeed something I love to do: but how much vital art and culture is borne of political strife, struggles for justice, etc? And it’s hard to separate the story of cultural expression from the fight to strike down puritan obscenity and decency laws, not to mention racial segregation. Again, politics is interested in you.

As to his list of proper government functions which should not "deliver meaning": "Keeping the peace" is in fact very meaningful if your urban neighborhood, say Chicago, is wracked with gang violence. It might also intersect with the political system through complimentary issues like racial discrimination, education policy, and local labor market conditions. And do drone deaths of civilians in Pakistan "keep the peace"? Does TSA? Do our current gun laws? In each case, are there better ways to "keep the peace"? Tough questions! Should I concern myself with them? Or would that indicate misaligned priorities? 

And maybe Brooks thinks the proper pace of promoting justice should be set at "boring, gradual, orderly", but I bet those on the receiving end of systemic injustice may prefer a more vigorous pace. Fair enough, that’s a difference of opinion on the way forward! If only there were some outlet, some communal process, by which we could argue and adjudicate those viewpoints and a lawful resolution could be found? I know, how about politics?

Finally, Brooks wants to task the government with "creating a background setting for mobility." Well "mobility" can be a rather expansive concept. I think even a modest definition would encompass tax policy, issues regarding the pace and scale of redistribution, the provision of social insurance and public services, student loan and housing policy, and a big-but-boring one, the efficiency and effectiveness of government bureaucracy itself.

It really depends on where you stand whether you believe any of these issues belong in the "background setting" or the foreground setting of your life, and subsequently, how much time you want to devote to learning about these things and trying to effect change. And again, the venue where we decide the relative priority levels is the political process!

What about Brooks’s list of government inadequacies and limitations? I have a problem with those too:

[Government] is not nimble in the face of complexity. It doesn’t adapt to failure well. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive behavior. In any federal action, one administrator will think one thing; another administrator will misunderstand and do something else; a political operative will have a different agenda; a disgruntled fourth party will leak and sabotage. You can’t fire anybody or close anything down.

Now of course there is some truth to these critiques. Bureaucratic in-fighting and status-quo bias are indeed features of large organizations like governments, and employee protections can be distorting. But here he’s engaging in the very fatalism he rejects earlier in the piece. This is mistaken for two reasons. First, some governments are better than others. Some are more nimble and adapt to failure better than others. Some bureaucracies are more efficient and less corrupt than others. Some governments enact policies that lead to more successful outcomes for citizens than other governments. Right here in the U.S. there are fifty state governments making all kinds of different decisions on a range of policies: education, health, housing, etc. Some states seem to perform better than others. Residents of low-performing states shouldn’t just give up on politics because, oh well, government sucks; they should push for change to more optimal policies! Likewise, around the globe we find that East Asian countries have phenomenally successful education systems. And Scandinavian countries have amazingly efficient bureaucracies. In response, should Americans permanently downgrade the importance of politics in their lives and read more philosophy with friends? Well, I guess they can. But they can also try and make our bureaucracies, schools, etc, better!

Second, throughout the piece Brooks equates "politics" with "government action", and that’s myopic, particularly for a self-identifying conservative. Though government is the primary vessel for the manifestation of collective political action, it’s not the only vessel. Our civil society is rich with venues for political expression and impact: non-profits, charities, local associations and guilds. Is it okay with Brooks if people derive meaning from these pursuits, and spend more than 10% of their attention to non-governmental political action?

If you don’t care about any of the above policy issues, fine. But don’t let David Brooks rationalize your willful ignorance by saying that it doesn’t matter anyway, and perversely, that to be disengaged is what it means to be a "good citizen". It’s nonsense. 

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Worthwhile Filibuster Punditry: See if I can Avoid Writing "Filibusted!" and Other Terrible Puns

Welcome to the new dystopia in which (fragile readers please gird yourselves) a simple majority of Senators can sometimes pass certain things through the chamber depending on what we’re talking about. I notice Republicans have been using that term, "a simple majority!" with scare quotes around it, as if the tyranny of it was self-evident. But as someone on Twitter noted last night, that term sounds a whole lot more sensible and innocuous to people outside the beltway than it does to legislators. What looks absurd and antidemocratic to normal people are endless headlines like, "Measure fails on 56-44 Senate vote in favor of measure."

So, why did Harry Reid pull the trigger now? Three interesting ideas:

1. Jon Chait:

The main reason for this odd, partial clawback of the filibuster is that President Obama has no real legislative agenda that can pass Congress…. That reality means two things. The first is that President Obama’s second-term agenda runs not through Congress but through his own administrative agencies. His appointees are writing rules for financial reform, housing policy and — the potentially enormous one — climate emissions.

A consequence of an increasingly polarized and dysfunctional Congress is that the real policy action moves to the executive branch, as the president looks for ways to implement his agenda despite legislative obstruction. Republicans have anticipated this change—indeed they precipitated it—and have sought to kill the "active executive" scheme before it begins, by preventing the president from staffing key agencies in his administration or filling vacant seats on the all-important DC Circuit Court. This filibuster move is natural Democratic counterplay: If Republicans are permitted to deny the president of not merely legislative initiative, but also his constitutional executive and judicial prerogative, well that is essentially a nullification of his presidency and could not be countenanced.

2. Harry Reid and Democrats were convinced that Republicans would do away with the filibuster themselves the next time they’re in a position to do so. This is a safe bet. Republicans have shown no interest in sticking to long-held institutional norms, and their willingness to embrace procedural extremism in the Obama era is impossible to deny (see these harrowing charts). Do you think a Republican president and Republican-majority Senate would put up with half of the level of obstruction that Democrats have been subjected to in recent years? Republicans are already promising to do away with the filibuster entirely when they get the majority, which shows their fealty to institutional stability. And they will; the logic of escalation is now inescapable. But Harry Reid decided, rightly, that the breakdown of the current absurd equilibrium was inevitable either way, so may as well give the president a year to maneuver a bit more freely.

3. Is it really only for a year? The 2014 Senate elections are not favorable to Democrats. In a low-turnout midterm, Republicans will need six pickups to take the majority. Dems have to defend 21 seats, at least eight of which are very tough, while Republicans are defending only 14 of their own, almost all of them in completely safe red states. It’s a toss-up, but everything has to go well for Dems to hold.

But even if Reid is conceding 2014 in his mind, he is confident that 2016 is far more favorable: Republicans will have to defend 24 seats to the Dem’s 10, with several Republican seats coming from blue states. With presidential turnout, things look good for 2016.

But beyond the next few cycles, Harry Reid is banking on the long-term ascendancy of the Democratic coalition. Democrats have won the national popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections. This is not a statistical quirk. Demographic and cultural shifts (an excellent essay, do read) have made national elections an absolute nightmare for Republicans, and they portend harder times to come in the ensuing decades. Heartland identity politics are finished as a winning electoral strategy, but there is no easy way out for Republicans, who risk alienating their white rural base every time they even attempt to broaden their coalition.

4. Anyway, one thing we know for sure is that Republicans have been epically FILIBUSTED! Damn so close.

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Shutdown: The Perils of Presidentialism, Cont’d

Dr.-Linz1

Political scientist Juan Linz died yesterday. This is a tremendous news hook believe it or not, as Linz’s ideas on the problems inherent in a presidential democratic system are unfolding right now inside the U.S. Capitol. I wrote about him a few months ago. His basic idea on this is that in a presidential system with unified and ideologically coherent parties, there is an inevitable clash of legitimacy between the executive and legislature, and no legal or constitutional mechanism to resolve it. For this reason presidential systems almost always devolve into dictatorship.

We’ve avoided that fate thus far, but we do have some experience with existential constitutional crisis in our history. You may remember that mid-19th century skirmish between the states. Linz’s ideas are highly relevant there. A cohesive legislative rump, rejecting the legitimacy of an elected president, forcing by extortion what they couldn’t earn through the ballot, with no constitutional mechanism to resolve the impasse. Didn’t turn out well. 

In an odd way, the Civil War, more specifically the quirky race politics it engendered postwar, was the reason the country managed to avoid another constitutional crisis over the following 160 years. The phenomenon of the Southern Democrat was a historical anomaly. The fact that there were so many political liberals (liberal relatively speaking!) who were also tremendous racists made our two parties into an ideological mish-mash for decades. This incoherence made it difficult for one party to seriously mount a challenge to the legitimacy of the executive. But in the past few decades, we’ve self-sorted more efficiently, both ideologically and geographically: all the liberals finally lined up to one side, and all the conservatives to the other. This is the normal evolution of such a system as ours, and it’s only because of our country’s cross-partisan fondness for white supremacy that it took so long to develop.

So here we are. And here is Linz in action: I read a piece yesterday, I’m sorry I can’t recall where, but the reporter asked a House Republican why he feels his views should prevail, when President Obama was just reelected by five million votes in a race that centered on these very issues of budgetary and health care policy. Good question. His answer: "I won my election in 2012 too." And he’s right!

You may ask, the polarization of the parties has been going on for many years now, so why such dysfunction now? I think there are a few structural causes that I’ll address in a subsequent post. But one thing that’s prevented this current level of crisis and sabotage is various procedural norms and institutional gentlemens’ agreements that militated against such behavior, and discouraged the parties from exercising the maximum power technically available to them. The Republican party has simply mowed down these norms and procedural impediments over the past few years. The filibuster, the policy of total legislative obstruction, the routine threatening of national crises to exact concessions. Their radical policy agenda is troubling enough, but it is their process extremism which makes the whole thing scary.

I don’t know what else to call the current iteration of the Republican party but a manifestation of group psychosis. This revanchist cohort shares much temperamentally with its forebears of 1861: United in its desire to nullify the enacted policy agenda of the elected president, and so alienated from the dominant and ascendant cultural, demographic, and economic forces that they lack any feeling of solidarity or empathy for the giant mass of the country they associate with these forces. And when base tribalism ablates all out-group fellow-feeling, an embrace of chaos and crisis becomes palatable, even preferential. This, admittedly, is the least charitable interpretation I can think of, which is all they deserve.

Bottom line: A coherent radical opposition, unbound by civilizing institutional norms, can make as much mischief as it pleases in our system. I have a feeling we’ll be finding out how strenuously such a system can bend while staying intact.

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U.S. Realpolitik in Syria: The Enemy of my Enemy is Something Something…

I read this post by Dan Drezner on U.S. policy in Syria last month, and its thesis was just too cold-blooded for me to internalize at the time. This was at the height of the Obama administration’s genuine-but-not-particularly-strenuous push to start directly arming the Syrian rebels, while also making clear that no larger escalation—no-fly zones, troops—was forthcoming. After some initial opposition in Congress to the idea of arming the rebels, it looks like the administration will get its way after all. Where others have seen this plan as evidence that the liberal interventionists in the White House were finally winning the internal argument about how best to help the beleaguered rebels, Drezner instead saw some brutally cold-hearted realpolitik at work in U.S. strategy:

To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible.  This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished…. at an appalling toll in lives lost.   

This policy doesn’t require any course correction… so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources.  A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict. […] 

So is this the first step towards another U.S.-led war in the region?  No. […]  This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare.  For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East. 

Drezner notes that this calculus only works so long as the rebels are doing well enough to maintain the stalemate with this minimal level of U.S. support. Oh, and it goes without saying that this policy is morally monstrous. But, dear reader, let’s be Kissingerian sociopaths for a moment. Is it working? Is Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsor ensnared in a protracted, resource-draining conflict? Is the conflict forcing our enemy factions in the region into uncomfortable, legitimacy-sucking alliances and sectarian fissures? You bet.

First, Hezbollah has finally, very belatedly, publically taken sides in Syria, and they’ve committed to an all-out fight to help Assad’s regime survive. It took them two years to announce this because it’s a public relations nightmare for them. It’s fine to support Assad—who provides a conduit for weapons that Iran sends to Hezbollah—when he’s just thumbing his nose at the Great Satan or the hated Zionists to the south. But when he starts indiscriminately murdering his own people because they are fed up with his oppressive dictatorship? Hezbollah likes to fashion itself as the people’s resistance movement, a humanitarian group that also heroically manages to find time to make war with the oppressor Israel every few years. Though Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is trying to rationalize his group’s support for Assad in the civil war by saying it’s all about countering Israeli aggression as well as countering U.S. support for the rebels, he can’t escape the fact that he’s joined a battle in which the goal is the mass killing of fellow Arab Muslims. Some popular resistance movement.

Ordinary Sunnis across the Arab world who have deep ideological disagreements with Shiite Hezbollah, but nonetheless find much to admire in the group’s antisemitic enthusiasm, now see Hezbollah as enabling the subjugation of a popular Sunni rebellion, and as the military aggressor against fellow Arab civilians. For this reason alone I doubt they’ll ever recover their previous level of popular legitimacy.

But it’s worse. Today we have more head-spinning evidence that Drezner is on to something, and that this conflict is completely up-ending the Iran/Hezbollah narrative in the region, scrambling the various factions, gnawing at their popular legitimacy, and exacerbating Sunni/Shiite tensions. Shit is getting weird:

Lebanese officials say CIA warned them of imminent al Qaida attack on Hezbollah

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning a campaign of bombings that will target Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria, Lebanese officials said Monday.

The unusual warning – U.S. government officials are barred from directly contacting Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated an international terrorist organization – was passed from the CIA’s Beirut station chief to several Lebanese security and intelligence officials in a meeting late last week with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah, Lebanese officials said.

Hezbollah officials acknowledged the warning and took steps to tighten security in the southern suburbs that are known locally as Dahiya.

“Yes, a warning came from the CIA,” said a Hezbollah internal security commander.

First, let’s appreciate the vertiginous irony here: The U.S. is tipping off its sworn terrorist enemy Hezbollah to imminent attacks by its sworn terrorist enemy al-Qaeda, all while the U.S. and Hezbollah fight a proxy war on opposite sides in Syria, where al-Qaeda factions are also making mischief. Okay.

But Hezbollah/Iran’s headache continues. In two short years of Syrian conflict, Hezbollah has gone from "Popular resistor of U.S and Israeli hegemony", to "Overt U.S. collaborators and murderers of Arab civilians." It’s a complete nightmare from which they can’t escape regardless of who ultimately prevails in Syria.

I have no idea if Drezner is right and somewhere in the West Wing basement today everyone is rubbing their hands together and evil-genius-laughing. But if one believes that even with best intentions, there was never much the U.S. could do, or was realistically willing to do, to tip the balance in Syria and end the loss of innocent life; or, as I believe, that it’s now just too late and too complicated for the U.S. to effect a good outcome, well, disorienting and undermining our enemies is a notable consolation.

(After writing this, for some reason I feel the need to link to the PiV definitive Kissinger take-down.)

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The Courts Bail Out Congress: The BRACification of Government

With every court decision we get roughly half the country invoking "legislative deference" as the reason why the court should have ruled the way they wanted. There’s nothing wrong with that per se: Obviously sometimes the court really should defer to Congress, and sometimes it shouldn’t. There’s no inconsistency in thinking the court should defer on laws you think are okay, and should step in on laws you find objectionable or unconstitutional. Only crazy people say "always defer" which I guess would mean never taking any cases whatsoever.

Ross Douthat has a tremendously incisive post whose main idea I want to highlight/steal. What if the one group who is least interested in "legislative deference" is Congress itself?

Ross argues that on politically fraught issues like V.R.A reform, Congress is all but begging the court to step in and let them off the hook, and quite relieved when it does so. Douthat notes that not only did Congress refuse to modernize the (now-unconstitutional) V.R.A. formula back in 2006, but overwhelmingly voted to extend it for another twenty-five years:

It’s an example of how Congress can effectively invite the judicial usurpation of politics, because that’s what many of the Republicans who voted to reauthorize the V.R.A. in 2006 were kind-of sort-of doing: They favored revisions to the act, but saw no political percentage in picking a fight on such a highly-charged, historically-freighted issue when it could be litigated through the courts at a lower political cost instead. So the Court’s intervention here isn’t just an example of judicial activism; it’s an example of judicial activism in a sphere where many members of Congress clearly preferred such activism to the exercise of their own constitutional prerogatives.

I actually do think that the court should have deferred to the legislature on the V.R.A. case, on the  grounds that Congress is in a better position to judge whether their heretofore successful remedy to prevent voter discrimination should continue or not. At the risk of tautology, updating successful laws should be left to lawmakers, and laws should not be invalidated because they’re somewhat dated. 

That said, this abdication dynamic is absolutely true, and it’s a trend that extends far beyond the courts. Think of Congress’s increasing willingness to defer to the executive on issues of national security, war-making powers, intelligence oversight. And the president’s decision this week to tackle carbon emissions through the EPA due to congressional (ie. Republican) inaction. Ross concludes:

So while it’s worth criticizing judges for their immodesty and our presidents for their power grabs, it’s also important to recognize the role played by legislators whose abdications have enabled both: Politics abhors a vacuum, and our elected representatives are often far to happy to have someone else step in and fill it.

You can call this process the BRACification of the government. BRAC would be the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, an independent agency charged with deciding which military bases should be closed. In 1988 Congress realized that it was just politically impossible to actually close unnecessary bases through the normal legislative process. DoD operations are spread evenly throughout the country giving everyone a stake in their survival, and the politicians whose districts contained the targeted bases would naturally fight like hell to save them, and they’d always win. Plus no one wants to be "weak on defense." So Congress voluntarily ceded the job to the BRAC to save them from themselves. We’re seeing this dynamic extend now to every issue which contains the remotest political danger or chance for demographic insensitivity.

For this reason I’m betting there are plenty of Republicans who are secretly happy about the DOMA ruling as well. Most Republicans know the issue is a demographic disaster for them, anti-gay animus just doesn’t get you very far electorally any more, and easing up on it is central to even the most anemic party modernization project. But how do you accomplish this when the base is still full of homophobes? The best outcome is for the court to take the issue away, which still allows Republicans from very conservative districts to issue angry defiant press releases about judicial overreach, while also having no recourse to do anything about it. Hey, it’s out of our hands, the despotic court has spoken! (Phew!)

Congress prefers to outsource difficult issues due to a mixture of political cowardice and partisan gridlock. As they continue to cede their authority over important issues to the courts and the executive, they are authoring their own obsolesence, and attenuating the main mechanism by which the people hold their government to account. 

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Opinion Poll: 80% of Americans Admit They’re Bullshitting on 100% of Public Opinion Polls

public-opinion-poll-deception

I’ve written a bit about public surveys and polling questions that seem to reveal a large share of the populace harbors frankly insane ideas about, well, everything. The question about this stuff has always been, what causes these crazy responses? Do people really believe their answers, or are they just bullshitting for some reason? What’s more likely? A) In the 5 second interval between question and answer, the respondents are carefully assessing the available empirical evidence and presenting their best good-faith conclusion? Or, B) Caught off guard by topics they don’t follow very closely, respondents are simply using shortcut partisan heuristics to register their general affiliation, approval, or opposition to the underlying subject in question.

I’ve always gone with option B. Which is nice for me because new research shows that it’s probably right.

There’s a long body of research showing that people answer basic factual questions about politics differently based on partisan affiliation. Contrary to the popular maxims, the American electorate does indeed think that it’s entitled to its own facts, and it doesn’t much agree that facts are stubborn things.

For instance, in 1988 Princeton’s Larry Bartels found that Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to say (falsely) that inflation and unemployment went up during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. And the results were reversed during the Clinton Administration: Republicans were more likely to say that the deficit rose during the Clinton years (it didn’t).

This new paper finds a similar partisan gap on a host of new questions. Republicans were much less likely to say (correctly) that inflation and unemployment went up during the George W. Bush years. And Republicans were much more likely to say that unemployment has increased under President Obama (it hasn’t).

But this time the authors ran another experiment to try and find out if people really believe their false answers: A second group was asked the same factual questions, but told that if they could answer correctly, they’d be entered into a raffle to win an Amazon gift card, with their chances of winning going up with each correct answer.

Did this incentive miraculously change people’s grasp of facts? It sure did. When offered the financial reward for telling the truth, the size of the partisan gap in responses shrank by 55 percent. When the authors also rewarded an answer of "don’t know" (though with a lower payment than for a correct answer), the partisan gap shrank by 80 percent.

Basically, almost everybody was bullshitting, or in the authors’ words, engaging in "expressive cheerleading" rather than reflecting sincere differences in beliefs.

The "don’t know" result is very interesting. When given the option, almost half of respondents chose "don’t know" even though they’d get more money for a correct response. This suggests that people are well-aware of their own lack of knowledge about the world. This is fascinating, as most people won’t readily admit to such ignorance, and it often seems the case that people with lower levels of policy knowledge exhibit greater intensity of opinion than experts. 

This whole study has both good and bad implications for our democratic health. Good is that most people are not sincere about their objectively false ideas. If they were sincere, then politicians would have little incentive to actually pursue policies that lead to increased public well-being, since their constituents are so easily misinformed about objective reality anyway. Luckly this isn’t the case. For a few dollars almost everyone will give you the correct answer or admit that they don’t know.

The bad news is that there is no voting booth equivalent to "a few dollars". So which version of reality are people basing their vote on, the bullshit version, or the objective version? If there’s no mechanism (a few dollars) to make them abandon the bullshit, does that mean people are voting "expressively" rather than based upon the facts they deep-down know to be true?

The other bad thing is that opinion polls really do play a massive role in our policy outcomes. It makes no difference to politicians if the polls they use to gauge public support are largely bullshit, or based on "expressive cheerleading" rather than facts. Whatever the poll says gives them cover to pursue or oppose various policies. But politicians and other elites are not merely responding to the public will; they are largely responsible for shaping that will. There’s plenty of research (for instance, here and here) showing that the main mechanism of public opinion formation in this country is cues from trusted elites. Very few people follow public policy issues closely, so to arrive at an opinion, most of us just look to the politicians, journalists, or special interest groups with which we identify, and adopt their view. This is pretty rational behavior and actually works okay most of the time. But politicians and tendentious journalists and interest groups can take advantage of this power and prime their supporters to adopt a particular "mood" about a policy or a law, then opinion surveys are taken, the results of which unsurprisingly reflect this mood, then the elites claim they have a mandate on the issue! A nice feedback loop.

Frankly I’m not sure if I’m more depressed or heartened by this study. Democrats and Republicans don’t live in complete alternate realities (yay). But then again we will lie gratuitously over and over again unless we are paid not to (hmm). This study found a way to incentivize truth-telling. What we really need is a way to punish purposeful false belief in our politics. Every way I can think of basically amounts to a poll tax of some sort, so I have no idea.

Anyway there are a lot of very important policy debates going on right now, NSA suspicionless surveillance, immigration reform, escalating U.S. intervention in Syria. Your elites will be signalling moods to you like crazy over these issues. And public polling will oppress you by demanding your conformity to those views deemed most popular. But remember, the elites are probably dissembling, and the opinions polls are mostly bullshit. Cheers.  

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