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.



Pet Peeve: Pre-Emptive Refusal to Apologize

Imagine that you were the head of a family-owned business that went bankrupt. At your closing board meeting, someone screams at you for putting aside some of the remaining funds for severance packages for long-time employees rather than devoting all the money to paying off bondholders.

So denounced, you might say “If you want an apology, forget it! I am not ashamed of helping people who loyally worked for my family for decades”.

You have been condemned for doing something of which you are not ashamed and indeed something you think is wrong to condemn at all. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for you to explicitly refuse to apologize as a way to stand up for your values.

BUT, refusal to apologize sure grates when no one has requested the apology.

Example #1: During the 2012 Presidential nomination race, Governor Rick Perry ran television spots in Iowa saying that he wasn’t ashamed of his Christian faith.

Who in Iowa ever said he *should* be ashamed of his faith? Who in the whole country said so? When in the history of the United States has *any* candidate been asked to apologize for being religious?

This is pre-emptive non-apology as self-flattery. Perry portrays himself as bravely facing down hordes of opponents who never condemned him in the first place. I didn’t know Saint Stephen, but Governor Perry, you are no Saint Stephen.

Example #2: In a widely circulated email, a college professor says “It’s about time we had a U.S. drug czar who is a person of color. I make no apology for my radical stance.”

Wow, that is so unapologetically *radical*. Where is my black beret when I need it? The problem for this rebel in ivy is that two of the six white house drug control policy office directors were people of color (Lee Brown and Bob Martinez), and no one ever said that was in any way problematic.

Again, pre-emptive apology as self-flattery. She is the one person brave enough to shock the complacent bourgeosie and their bigoted fellow travelers by proposing that the U.S. finally do something that it has done already. Would that we all had her courage and moral vision.

Summary of my old man’s rant: I want self-aggrandizing people to start apologizing for pre-emptively refusing to apologize when no one asked them to apologize in the first place.

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.

In Praise of Shameless Political Debate

“Shame on you!” has become a tired and meaningless declaration in political debate

Harold Pollack and I have both written about feeling fatigued by “fauxrage”, the political tactic of trying to shut down a conversation or individual by ginning up self-righteous anger about how offended one is by a putative slight (Harold gives the pluperfect example: Senator Al D’Amato’s fake tears in reaction to an insult by Bob Abrams during a brutal re-election campaign).

I am becoming increasing weary with a variant of fauxrage, namely calculated pronouncements of “shame on you!”. It seems to have caught on more on the left than the right, which is odd because the people who do it sound like morally scolding Catholic Bishops in the 1950s.

In my local newspaper I see an open letter to the city council: “Shame on you for not supporting high-speed rail”. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Clinton said “Shame on you, Barack Obama” for criticizing her health care plan. Policy and politics-oriented websites attract “Shame on you” comments when for example the blogger has — brace yourself — expressed an opinion with which the commenter disagrees or even simply discussed a subject that the commenter feels is a needless distraction from the central issues of the day (those would be the issues that the commenter considers important, of course).

I am comfortable with “Shame on you!” admonishments when someone has violated a clear moral/ethical guideline. If a Congressman robs the church poor box and spends the money at a strip club, by all means let’s as a community denounce his turpitude. But shaming declarations are increasingly being used for something far more self-serving: As a sanctimonious way of muzzling legitimate political debate with which one is uncomfortable.

None of this to deny that there are historical examples of shaming being a useful tactic to bring down an extremely horrific public policy (e.g., slavery). But when shame is invoked with comparable fervor to protest, well, every public policy, any beneficial impact of the tactic evaporates.

Those doing the shaming might say “The political stances I oppose are clearly immoral in all cases — every thing I am against is equal to slavery and should be shamed!”. If that’s you, please get over yourself post-haste. Assuming that you are not a deity in your spare time, your political opinions are not immutable moral principles handed down over the centuries that everyone else should be ashamed to oppose. And while you might believe that repeatedly calling down shame on your opponents is a compelling argument, in most cases it actually makes you look like a prig.

Opposing high-speed rail isn’t shameful; neither is supporting it. Ditto Obamacare, prayer in schools, Keynesian fiscal stimulus, automotive emission standards, the earned income tax credit, Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley and Smoot-Hawley. Healthy democracy requires open debate about these and other public policies, not the attempted shaming into silence of holders of all but one’s own viewpoint.

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.


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.”