Thursday, May 26, 2011

the inexplicable GOP support for Ryancare

Ezra Klein asks why on earth Senate Republicans voted en masse for the Ryan budget not two days after it cost their party a normally safe seat and despite knowing that it will never become law. His hypotheses:
1) They thought the pollsters were wrong and the plan either wasn’t unpopular or wouldn’t be unpopular once they explained it.

2) They were less worried — at least at that moment — about what would be unpopular with the electorate and more worried about what would be unpopular with the base.

3) They really believed in the Ryan budget, and were willing to lose seats, and perhaps even the majority, over it.

4) They believed that the details would matters less than their conviction. That is to say, being seen as “making hard choices” would be more popular than the choices themselves would be unpopular.

5) It fit the individual needs of key actors at a particular moment in time: Boehner needed to support something bold and conservative, Cantor needed to be pushing something more conservative than Boehner seemed comfortable with, Tea Party politicians needed to show they weren’t getting sucked into Washington dealmaking, Ryan needed to make good on his promises to take on entitlements, etc.

All good ideas, I think, though I think the true mixture of motives involves some of these more than others. I think the first part of 3 is true, for instance, but I do not believe the Republicans think it will cost seats. In fact, I'm starting to think a combination of 1 and the first part of 3 may be the key.

The worldview of the Republican party, and in particular the psychology of Republican politicians, is something very foreign to me, but I think I'm starting to get some aspects of it. I'm coming to the conclusion that class affects the Republican worldview much more than I've thought before, and may in fact be the primary hermeneutic by which Republicans create their ideology and take stances.

I got to this point by starting from the principle that people are motivated primarily by self-interest and emotion. For all our arguments and complicated rationales, the vast majority of the time people choose their political stances according to fear, resentment, anger, compassion, and loyalty. And almost nobody is aware of this fact.

Our emotional investment in politics, usually grounded primarily in self-interest, combines then with our natural, well-established psychological tendency to take special notice of things that corroborate our views and not notice things that don't. Add in people's natural desire to avoid conflict and thus associate most often with people who agree with them, and we can see how all this leads inevitably to the acceptance of false or inconsistent ideas as absolutely true. Now let's throw in a media that views politics as sport, and that intentionally avoids any attempt to address the substance of complicated political issues for fear of taking one side (more specifically, of being forced to admit that the left is right on any subject).

Now throw in the particular plight of Republicans politicians, who are rich and white almost to a man, and overwhelmingly male. Their most important backers are all rich, white men, and their main intraparty opposition (i.e., the teabaggers) are rich, white men. Being powerful, they are surrounded by coteries of yes-men and sycophants.

In this light, it becomes clear and unsurprising that Republican politicians would come to the conclusion that what's best for the rich is always best for everyone. This explains why even the most seemingly conscientious Republican believes the only thing better than cutting taxes on the rich during boom years is cutting taxes on the rich during bust years. It explains why the answer to every problem is "cut taxes on the rich and gut social programs." It explains why every term of Republican dominance is marked by the attempt to destroy either Social Security or Medicare, no matter how popular the two become. It explains why conservatives cannot separate cutting the deficit from cutting the size of government. And it perhaps explains why Republicans can, in the process of creating a budget with the sole and specific intent to cut the deficit, cut taxes on the rich and not see any inconsistency there.

I'm coming around to the belief that Republican politicians vote for Ryancare because it fits their ideological, emotional, and cynical predispositions so perfectly that they have convinced themselves that its premises are intellectually unassailable. If it is unpopular, it is only because its genius hasn't had time to sink in yet.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

NY-26: well, yes and no

Democrat Kathy Hochul wins.

1. Again, I remain baffled by the Ryan budget, and in particular by the gratuitous destruction of Medicare written into it. What the hell were the House Republicans thinking?

Then again, I guess we should remember that the Village idiots in Washington are still convinced that the Ryan deficit reduction plan was "gutsy" and "adult" even though it doesn't even lower the deficit. This is perhaps a lesson more in the incredible classism of the Washington cocktail circuit than anything else. They're the only people in the country who appear entirely unbothered by a plan to replace Medicare with vouchers that won't even cover the cost of insurance.

It also exposes a curious blind spot among even conscientious conservatives like Andrew Sullivan and David Frum. How do you look at a deficit plan like the Ryan one, one with exactly zero options for revenue growth, one that includes a tax cut for rich people, and that boots the elderly into the private insurance system with nothing but an inadequate and slowly depreciating voucher, one that's composed almost entirely of longstanding right wing boilerplate, and come to the conclusion that it's "adult" and "serious?" How can one as concerned as Sullivan is with critical introspection be so blind to such obvious fraud in pursuit of class warfare?

2. I want to take a few moments to ground the various narratives regarding this race in a little reality. The Democrats are contending that they won a "heavily Republican" district that the GOP has held since 1960. NY-26 is an R+6 district, meaning they generally vote about 6 points more for Republican presidential candidates than Democratic ones. That's hardly a bellwether district, but still a pretty moderate conservative edge compared to what many of us think of when we think "Republican district." For reference, it has the same partisan rating as MI-3 (Grand Rapids). IN-2 (South Bend) is only an R+2. TX-19 (Lubbock and Abilene) is R+26.

I will also point out that the district had a Democratic representative from '93 to '03, so the line about "the Republicans holding it since the '60's" just isn't true.

3. My other major point is that it's easy to overstate the predictive power of special elections. Pete Session (R-TX) is right when he says, “If special elections were an early-warning system, they sure failed to alert the Democrats of the political tsunami that flooded their ranks in 2010,” though that's not exactly what Republicans were saying after the Scott Brown victory. Every district has its idiosyncrasies and local issues even when larger national debates subsume the race.

Of more interest to those looking for a better Democratic year is the generic congressional ballot, which flipped back to the Democrats last week after being solidly Republican for the last two years:

The generic ballot's predictive value is similarly limited, but it's at least a more accurate sampling of national opinion than a single House election.

It's entirely possible that the Democrats will have a good year in 2012, and certainly better than the last one. We're still a year and a half out, though, and these elections turn pretty quickly on current economic and political trends. Until we have a better sense of what the economy is going to look like in October 2012, and how that economy is going to be reported, I don't think there's much point in forecasting.

That being said, there is one race that's much closer: the GOP presidential primary. Nate Silver has already demonstrated that Republican presidential candidates leading 6 months out from the primaries usually win (though, interestingly, not Democratic ones). Polls currently show Mitt Romney with a significant lead over everyone but Mike Huckabee, who isn't running. I know, it's hard to imagine Mitt Romney winning, but it's not really any easier to see Gingrich, Pawlenty, Huntsman, Paul, Cain, or Santorum winning, either. The Republicans have to nominate somebody!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"sex scandal"

This strange episode in New York involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn is probably going to make headlines over and over again for the next few years. During this time, can we maybe refrain from calling it a "sex scandal?" Despite the urge European (a to a lesser degree American) journalists will feel to make this about French electoral politics, this isn't run of the mill philandering. The man stands accused of raping a hotel cleaning lady.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

teaching grammar in high school

Interesting article in Salon. She laments the structure of both the regular and accelerating English classes she describes, but I'm not sure I agree. I'm thinking in particular of this passage:
As for the students who did make it to more accelerated English courses, their recollections are a little less disheartening, but only a little. They read Shakespeare, they tell me, usually "Romeo and Juliet," sometimes "Macbeth." They read "Catcher in the Rye" or "Huck Finn," "The Sound and the Fury," a little Melville or Hardy. They read these works and then they talked about them in class discussions or small groups, and then they composed an essay on the subject, received a grade, and moved on to the next masterpiece.

This describes my honors English classes in high school to a T. We read MacBeth, Huck Finn, the Sound and the Fury, and some Melville and Hardy (among other things, of course), then, yes, the discussions and small groups, the essay, and the next book.

And you know what? It worked. I fell completely in love with those books, and with fiction in general. Between my junior year in high school and moving to South Bend six years later, I probably watched less than four hours of television, and filled a bookshelf or two with the "classic" books that make jaded English grad students roll their eyes. I also apparently absorbed enough grammar from seeing the masters do it to string coherent sentences together in college. Admittedly, I probably could not have told you what a direct object or perfect tense was until I began taking Latin, but I didn't need to because I knew what "looked right." Grammar had become intuitive.

This description of regular courses sounds much less helpful, admittedly:
Those who didn't make it onto the honors or A.P. track hardly mention writing or reading at all. They talk about giving oral presentations and keeping reading journals evaluated with a big, meaningless check. They reveal putting on skits, reenacting some scene in a novel or play whose title they can't recall. One student recounts a month of junior English class in which she and her classmates produced digital short film adaptations of the trial in "The Scarlet Letter."

"Sounds fun," I say to this student, a girl who would not know how to summarize a source or correct a sentence fragment if her life depended on it.

I go back and forth on whether this increasing emphasis in pedagogy on "making learning fun!" has been a helpful corrective to centuries of schoolmarm-ey villainy or ultimately done more harm than good. The classics taskmaster in me rolls his eyes at these pointless attempts to make kids enjoy something they're going to be graded on and that still requires being in school. Learning is work, kids. Deal.

On the other hand, teaching five sections of high school grammar and composition, grading hundreds of papers and homework assignments every week and having to drag the students kick and screaming along with you every class, sounds like the kind of godawful teaching load that burns out even the most enthusiastic teacher.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Faulty Towers

Great article from The Nation on dysfunction in higher education, much better than the many less-than-realistic diagnoses offered by the likes of Hacker et al. over the last couple of years.

Students, particularly at state universities, have noticed some of the symptoms for a long time now: graduate students and adjuncts teaching many of their classes, run-down classroom buildings flanked by immaculate, brand new athletic facilities, and a constant carousel of university presidents using the gig to add a feather to their cap and moving on after two years, among other things.

This article, unlike many of the books written on the subject, also deals substantively with issue of adjunct professors. I maintain that is not just a symptom of poor leadership for a university to load up on "academic lettuce pickers" and treat them the way universities do rather than hiring proper faculty for their lower level courses (or, hey, promoting their long-time adjuncts), nor is it merely bad policy; it's unjust, and Deresiewicz is right to fault everyone from university presidents to tenured and tenure-track professors for allowing the exploitation of current and former students.

Much as I hate to say, college football is a parasite to the system as well, leeching countless millions of dollars just on the head coach's salary, nevermind the truckloads of cash spent on assistant coaches, facilities, stadiums, and bowl games (yes, schools usually end up losing money on bowl games even despite the payout from the bowl).

It's interesting that many of the structural problems facing colleges right now are echoed in their football teams: mercenary executives with astronomical salaries seeking success according to a laughably flawed ranking system, and doing so on the backs of overworked, virtually uncompensated kids, whose scholarships can be stripped from them with little to no warning and on no account of their own performance, and the majority of whom will never get the opportunity to make a living wage plying their trade.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Proud Edward's army getting sent homeward again?

While bin Laden's death is sucking all the air out of the room stateside, it's worth taking note that the Scottish National Party just took an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament, clearing the way for a referendum to leave the UK. Alex Salmond, SNP leader, has already promised such a referendum within the next five years.

Meanwhile, in England in a stunning reversal of political trends elsewhere in Europe, the right-wing anti-immigration British National Party was utterly crushed in the midst of a massive debt scandal, losing 7 of its 11 seats (so far!) and likely dooming it as a national party. Good riddance.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Google gets better

Love Firefox, but this really makes me want to switch to Chrome. Google ran this commercial on primetime television during Glee this week.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


On Wednesday, Obama releases his long-form birth certificate, totally annihilating Donald Trump's story about private investigators digging up all sorts of "interesting" things about Obama. On Saturday, he tears into Trump at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, mocking Trump's attempts to pose as a serious candidate who can make important decisions.

And then the big play on Sunday, when Obama reveals that, while he had been mocking Trump's weighty Celebrity Apprentice choices at the dinner, he was himself waiting for word on the hit he'd just put out on Osama bin Laden.

And he had NBC switch to White House coverage 45 minutes early, which meant the program he interrupted was... Celebrity Apprentice.

I didn't know it was even possible to get served that hard.

reality has a liberal bias

Poynter Institute study analyzes pundit economic and social predictions since 2007 and finds that liberals and people without law degrees are more accurate. Leader of the pack? Paul Krugman.

Monday, May 02, 2011

bin Laden is dead

There's way too much hand-wringing on the left, grudge-holding and partisanship on the right, and cynicism and feigned apathy in the middle over last night's incredible news.

Sure, this doesn't mean the War on Terror is over or that Al Qaeda is dead. Yes, we know bin Laden's command over Al Qaeda has been weakened over the last several years. Yes, we know the soldiers and intelligence community are the ones who put this all together.

C'mon, guys. American soldiers just put two in the noggin of the mastermind of 9/11. It's something to celebrate. It's okay to call that justice, to allow it to pass for a little bit of closure for 9/11. It's okay to feel a little patriotic.

Some cool pictures from around the intarwebs:

(Photo: Michael Appleton for the NYT, taken in Times Square)

hiring competent people: Miss Chanandler Bong edition

Kevin Drum points out that FEMA is acting swiftly in Alabama and getting high marks from state and local officials. For those keeping score, that's FEMA garnering praise under Clinton and Obama, and being ridicule as a dumping ground for incompetent cronies under Bushes I and II.

I've said before that I think one of George W. Bush's biggest failures as a president was his inability (or perhaps lack of will) to hire competent administrators, opting instead to pack various agencies with cronies and fellow travelers. Hence FEMA's helplessness during Katrina, but also the malfunctioning, politically craven Department of Justice and the various foxes guarding the federal government's regulatory hen-houses.

Obama, on the other hand, has been reversing this trend for several years now.

Voters are charged with electing executive officers at every level of government -- mayors, governors, and presidents -- and too often the candidates' views of narrow political issues or overwrought-yet-still-vague 12-point plans distract us from appraising the person's administrative skills, their ability to make smart hires and run a large organization effectively. Every president probably has to reserve some positions for patronage, but some people are just better at putting good people in important places, keeping bureaucratic machinery running smoothly and inspiring competence throughout the administration.

The wife and I have been going back and forth a bit about our upcoming mayoral primary, for instance, and she noticed something interesting about the candidates. My wife kept her maiden name when we married. When the Mike Hamann campaign mails out flyers, they only send us one, addressed to "Mr. and Mrs. X," which she testily points out every time is not her name. When Pete Buttigieg sends them out, we get two, one for each of us, even though we're married, we both live at the same address and we're both registered Democrats. The extra flyer, always received on the same day in the same handful of mail, is wasted extra paper. Only Ryan Dvorak's people seem not to be tripped up by spouses who don't share a last name, always sending us one flyer addressed to both of us using our correct names.

The same thing happens with the phone staff: Hamann's people get flummoxed when they ask for "Mrs. el ranchero" and she adamantly argues that no such person lives here. When the Buttigieg campaign calls for me, I hand the receiver to my wife after I hang up, since we always get a second call from them five minutes later.