On Blaming Black Leadership

This fine piece in In These Times  reminds us how instrumental Federal policies on homeownership and road construction were in killing Detroit, and gives the lie to those who want to blame the city’s bankruptcy on corrupt leadership–specifically, corrupt Black leadership.

Certainly there were, and are, Black leaders whose personal weaknesses interfere with the progress of the entities they seek to lead; but the pattern of blaming Black leaders comes from the same bag of racist tricks as the suggestion that the President isn’t really an American because he has black skin.

Detroit is not struggling because its leaders, or its people, are Black.  Its troubles lie at the door of white legislators who made abandoning cities a winning proposition for white families, and white regulators who contributed to the same flight, and white car company executives who decided they owed nothing back to the city of their birth.

To claim otherwise is simply to blame the victim.

 

 

Don’t Get Snookered by Statistics with Arbitrary Ranges

The time frame for statistics are often edited to mislead the listener

I was watching a baseball game with a mathematician friend, during which the announcer said of a batter “He’s been on a hot streak, with 6 hits in his last 19 at bats”.

My friend said “Which means he has 6 hits in his last 20 or more at bats”.

Of course this was true, because if the batter’s hot streak went back farther than his last 19 at bats, the announcer would have extended the range of his statistic accordingly. The announcer was trying to make a point, and a 7-for-20 or 8-for-21 run of hitting sounds hotter than a mere 6-for-19.

Pundits often use this trick to make ominous sounding prouncements that are in fact content-light, for example when forecasting who will or will not get elected president. Hillary Clinton will never be in the Oval Office, by the way, because no candidate whose first name starts with an H has been elected President in the past 64.5 years.

Arbitrary ranges can also be used to make the case for a historical trend that may not actually be substantive. At the end of the 1980s, some Republicans crowed that Democrats had lost “5 of the past 6” presidential elections. Today, some Democrats brag that Republicans have failed to win the popular vote in precisely the same arbitrary timespan.

Politicians also snooker voters with arbitrary ranges. If Mayor Jones says that crime is down for 5 straight months, s/he may well be covering over the fact that crime was up in the months before that. Be particularly sceptical when a politician’s long-ago launched pet initiative is said to have “not really gotten off the ground” until the precise moment that the referenced time range of an upbeat statistic begins.

Obviously, range-based statistics have to have some starting point, and that’s fine as long as they are meaningful: A new person comes into office, a new law is passed, the fiscal year’s budget comes into force, a war begins or ends etc. If there isn’t a qualitative demarcation point like that at the start of a referenced time range, the person quoting the statistic is probably either fooling himself or trying to fool you.

Why Debates About Public Debt Are Often Unproductive

What we really argue about when we argue about government debt

In the past few years, there have been countless op-ed pieces and spirited debates about the level of government debt in the U.S. and in the Eurozone, whether it is a problem, and what to do about it. But rarely does it seem that anyone changes their mind as a result of all this arguing. Indeed, many people walk away from debates about government debt frustrated or even hopping mad.

My experience as a marriage counselor taught me that for a discussion of a disagreement to be productive, the parties have to have a shared understanding of what is being debated. If a husband thinks a marital debate is about leaving the toliet seat up or not, and the wife thinks it is about why her husband never listens to, appreciates or loves her the way he should, expect fireworks and frustration. If you are in an argument that you think is about government debt and it’s going nowhere, it may be because the person you are debating isn’t really arguing about the current level of government debt. Rather, they are arguing about the size of government.

If you get into a debate that is ostensibly about the level of government debt, try the following tactic (or try it on yourself in your own mind): If your opponent says that government debt is too high and we therefore need to cut public spending, ask whether s/he has EVER favored under ANY economic conditions a nice, fat increase in public spending. If you are debating someone who says that government debt is no big deal and that we should be increasing public spending, ask if s/he has EVER favored under ANY economics conditions a big, fat cut in public spending. You are going to get a no answer most of the time; maybe almost all the time.

Why does this matter? If you think an argument is about public debt per se, but to the other person it’s really about the size of government, you are going to waste time hauling out debt data from Estonia and Swaziland and the U.S. Great Depression and whatnot that you think will advance the discussion. But it won’t, because the other person doesn’t care about debt really, they just believe government is too big or too small, and any debt-related data will be attended to only to the extent it supports that stance. Maybe you are in the same boat when you argue about debt, only caring about it as a proxy for what really matters to you: the size of government.

Is that wrong? No, it’s just frustrating when you are arguing about one thing and the other person is arguing about something else (or, when BOTH of you are actually arguing about something other than what on the face of it you think you are arguing about). The solution?: Drop the charade and get down to business. How big government should be is an essential political argument for the members of a society to have, so why not just have it up front? Such a debate will be more productive (and honest) if it isn’t filtered through the Kabuki Theater of excel charts on public debt.

On Orwell’s Rules for Writing

I’m a fan of George Orwell. I think one of the most important pieces of writing in the English language, for example, is his set of rules for how to make the perfect cup of tea. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether people can really make a cup of tea, and therefore participate in civilised society, without following those rules; I often ungraciously request that my friends read Orwell’s piece before I permit them to hand me a brew.

Because of this general affinity for Orwell’s work, it’s always with some sadness that I look over his prescriptions for what constitutes good writing. He distils these into six rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

They cause me sadness because I know full well that I violate rules one through five fairly regularly – a violation that I justify by appealing to rule six. I recognise that my own style of writing – my modus scribendi – is all-too-often characterised by florid and pleonastic writing. ← There you have it: twenty-one words in a sentence that would make Orwell spill his impeccably brewed tea all over his morning copy of Pravda. Cliché? Check. Aureate prose? Unquestionably. Prolixity? Naturally. Passive voice? Colour me checked. Argot? Affirmative. And yet, aside from being inelegantly constructed, I don’t see much of a problem with it. It conveys the point clearly, albeit pretentiously.

Ed Smith’s last column from the New Statesman argued that Orwell’s rules have been co-opted and deployed for precisely the nefarious purposes Orwell had hoped to prevent:

Orwell argues that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words.”

I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

The argument seems plausible to me. Indeed, the Guardian has a lovely infographic that illustrates how SOTU speeches have adopted increasingly simpler vocabulary and syntax over time. You can decide for yourself whether this has accompanied more political duplicity, as Smith argues.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2013/feb/12/state-of-the-union-reading-level

I enjoyed Smith’s post not just because I think the argument seems accurate. It’s because I’d like to think that in my own case, grandiloquent writing isn’t really the problem. Orwell’s concern was not with the choice of words (a stylistic concern); it was with the way words can be used to manipulate thoughts (a substantive concern). Hence, the dispositive sixth rule.

My take-away from Orwell’s writing rules, then, is that the sixth is the only true ‘rule,’ as it is the only one with substantive content – not to write anything barbarous. The preceding five ‘rules’ aren’t really rules at all. They’re more like suggestions, and Orwell didn’t have much of a bee in his bonnet for those.

Oops – a cliché. Damn that pesky first rule…

How We Talk When We Talk About Taxes

Imagine that a politician announces a plan to cut local/state/federal taxes on income up to $20,000. Is this policy:

(A) A tax cut for struggling working class Americans?, or
(B) A tax cut for all Americans?

Now imagine a different politician announces a plan to cut local/state/federal taxes on income up to $200,000. Is this policy:

(A) A tax cut for all but the wealthiest Americans?, or
(B) A tax cut for all Americans?

If you answered based on how the policies would likely be described in American political discourse, you probably chose A as the best answer for both questions. But answer B is factually correct in both cases.

When we talk about taxes we tend to talk about groups of people when it would be more accurate to talk about income. If you make $80,000 a year and taxes are cut on the first $20,000 of income, you pay lower taxes because of a policy that “cuts taxes on America’s struggling working class families”. If you make $800,000 a year and taxes are cut on the first $200,000 of income you pay less tax due to a policy that “benefits all but the wealthiest Americans”.

The explanation for this disjunction between description and reality may be that it plays better politically for some political actors to speak of groups with putatively non-overlapping incomes (e.g., “the wealthy”, “working families”, “the poor”) than it does to acknowledge that no gets to the higher tax brackets without passing through the lower ones shared with the rest of population.

To a short order cook making $20,000 a year, it may seems appealing to think that an income tax cut that has been capped at $20,000 uniquely benefits people like him, and the politician who proposed the policy may try to foster that perception. But of course people making more than the cook also get a tax cut on the first $20,000 they make. Likewise, a sociopathic millionaire lobbyist may make political hay by saying that a tax cut on incomes up to $200,000 does not help America’s “job creators”, when it fact it is a handsome tax cut for people such as himself.

Sabl’s law is safe: the Obama vote is sociotropic, not subjunctive.

A survey that’s being glossed as showing that voters are thinking subjunctively in fact shows that they’re voting sociotropically (voting based on what they see as the country’s economic condition, not their own).

A recent Heartland Monitor poll commissioned by the National Journal has gotten a lot of attention. Ezra Klein (in a take seconded by Ed Kilgore), calls it the “poll result that explains the election.” More important, though he for some reason doesn’t note the fact, Ezra’s reading would require upending one of the most important and respected laws of social science, namely Sabl’s Law: “No argument can succeed in American politics if it contains a subjunctive.” Needless to say, Ezra is wrong and the law is still infallible. Continue reading “Sabl’s law is safe: the Obama vote is sociotropic, not subjunctive.”

The tragedy of Mitt Romney: a smart man trying to fit in to the party that loves stupid.

Why is there no Republican who can explain policy as well as Bill Clinton does? Jonathan Bernstein knows the answer: if there were, Republicans wouldn’t want to hear it. And this explains a lot about Romney.

I watched Bill Clinton’s speech last night with my wife, an immigrant who didn’t grow up following American politics. As someone who knows much more about policy than I do, she loved the speech and said, “if only more politicians would explain policy like that!” I doubt many students of American politics would contest my reply: “There’s only one American politician who can explain policy like that.” In particular, the Republicans have nobody who’s even close.

Jonathan Bernstein nails the reasons this is no accident. Read the whole thing, but here’s the kernel:

Granted, political talent could show up for either party. But a Republican these days couldn’t do what Clinton did tonight, because Republican gatekeepers and, probably, Republican audiences don’t want that kind of thing.

It’s not that there are no solid, factual, arguments for the policies Republicans prefer. There certainly are! But a politician who tried to stick to those would be competing with the Glenn Becks of the party, and the Rush Limbaughs, and the Newt Gingriches, and the “facts” that those party leaders constantly trot out. Democrats, to be sure, have to compete with some fringe voices who have a dubious grasp of facts and policy, but for whatever reason those voices are kept on the fringe. That’s just not the case for Republicans.

It’s not always been that way. But that’s how it is now.

And so Paul Ryan gets a reputation as a substantive Republican…while repeating the most nutty myths about budgets and health care reform (yes, a David Obey would or a Henry Waxman will give a very partisan interpretation of contested facts; how often do they just make stuff up?). And so Republicans celebrate the policy ignorance of a Herman Cain or a Sarah Palin. And so Republicans don’t even bother forcing George W. Bush to show he knows anything about policy or government before they nominate him; to the contrary, they argue that he’s a better president because he’s not bogged down by all of that stuff and can better govern from his instincts.

You’re not going to get a Bill Clinton if your party gives no incentives at all for a smart youngster to try to become that sort of politician. Truth is, a Republican who really knew policy well enough to make the arguments Clinton made tonight would have to hide it.

One of Jonathan’s commenters (“swain”) notes that Romney illustrates the thesis perfectly. I’d expand on that. Continue reading “The tragedy of Mitt Romney: a smart man trying to fit in to the party that loves stupid.”

Romney’s speech: Adam Smith would be proud (obliquely).

Prediction of Romney’s strategy going forward: a retrospective voting frame from the candidate, ugly lies about welfare from the ads.

I don’t have anything very new to say on Romney’s speech. I agree with Nate Silver and Jonathan Bernstein that the speech was aimed at returning the campaign into straight “retrospective” (or “referendum”) mode, at making Romney into a generic Republican and a plausible alternative to a president who’s presided over tough times.

This is of course different from the recent ad strategy of using lies about the President’s welfare policy to make this a 1980s-style Republican campaign for the souls of working-class white. But that doesn’t mean the latter strategy is going away. Romney presumably intends a division of labor whereby he’ll push the generic frame in his rallies while the dark artists of his own campaign and the SuperPACs use the racial one in ads.

Will this work? In a limited sense, I don’t see why not. The kind of voters Romney is aiming at are the kind who think that welfare contributes to their economic woes in the first place; and I’m not confident that the press will stick with their recent practice of calling out lies (reporting truth, as opposed to reporting both true and false assertions of truth, makes them so uncomfortable). But I don’t think either strategy, or both combined, will be enough to save him.

There’s a reason that Romney began his speech with an evocation of what I’ve called (.pdf) “Democratic Sportsmanship”: the civic virtue of, at minimum, acquiescing in the loss of elections (though there’s much more to it). It’s a virtue that he thinks his party may need to practice.

 

Poor little rich girl neglects to mention the stock portfolio that paid for the tuna fish

Ann Romney’s convention speech: doubling down on the absurd premise that living frugally on vast inherited wealth counts as struggle.

I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Ann Romney’s convention speech doubled down on a gaffe from her past: the claim that she and Mitt had very little money when they were going to college:

We were very young. Both still in college. There were many reasons to delay marriage, and you know? We just didn’t care. We got married and moved into a basement apartment. We walked to class together, shared the housekeeping, and ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish. Our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses. Our dining room table was a fold down ironing board in the kitchen. Those were very special days.

As Mitt might say, she’s got to be gosh-darned kidding me. As I blogged a few months ago, the way she and Mitt paid for their pasta and tuna fish, and the desk that was a door, was by SELLING STOCK, given to them by his family, that on a conservative calculation was worth in current money almost FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS [Update: or at least two hundred thousand; see below]. The only difference between the disastrous interview that helped lose Mitt his first election and the convention speech was that the story contained in the latter conveniently left out the huge nest egg. But the nest egg matters more than a little. Its presence guaranteed that this family’s early life would be the antonym of struggling.

Reminding viewers of the facts ought to be the press’ job. But it’s not doing it. The reports I’ve seen—including the New York Times—have made no mention of Ann and Mitt’s vast gifted wealth (and the much vaster wealth that they could of course have drawn on if in trouble). A speech eagerly reported as humanizing and successful actually had a fabricated reality at its center. Self-styled journalists who are letting Ann get away with this ought to be deeply ashamed of their alleged selves.

Worse: I doubt that Ann realizes that her tale of struggle is a fabrication. She probably really believes that living relatively frugally on a huge stock portfolio counts as economic struggle and anxiety about one’s prospects. No wonder she and her husband are so insouciant about slashing programs to benefit the poor. If I thought that’s what poverty was, I’d slash aid to me too.

[Update, 8/30/12, 11:15 a.m. EDT: given the debate from the comments below, I’m willing to amend the conservative estimate of Ann and Mitt’s stock wealth in college from $400,000 to $200,000 in today’s dollars–though it could have been much more. That was still enough to see them comfortably through several years of modest living, and to place them at something like the top one percent of students or young families. And it was of course backed up by so much wealth on both sides of the family in case of true need that, unlike everyone else in their alleged situation, they had absolutely no need to worry about economic reverses or health problems.]