Saturday, May 18, 2013

What Mattered This Week?

Barack Obama's Gallup approval rating is back to 51% today, which is back up to the upper part of the range it's been in for the last couple of months. I'm ready to say that the feeding frenzy of this week didn't matter.

There's some sign that the AP warrants may turn out to really matter in policy. I'm going to go ahead and guess it will, so I'll say that that one matters. 

Disagree? Have something else? What do you think mattered this week?


  1. Even at this late date, and after all the GOP scandal-mongering of the last 20 years, I'm still surprised at how clumsily they're playing the hand they were dealt with these latest sub-scandal imbroglios. I continue to predict, as I have here before, that all the scandals will flop if they haven't already. A "culture of intimidation" at the IRS? Really? Then why weren't Tea Party groups singled out for tax audits, instead of merely for screening in a process they started by applying for tax-exempt status? It it was a politically motivated or directed effort, it was a piss-poor one. I think the Dave Camps and Darrell Issas of the world are going to find out that they're holding a big bag of nothing, and that all they can really do about it is demand implementation of the proposals for better training and so forth that the inspector general has already made.

    The reason all this "matters" is that it's going to make the next attempt to monger a scandal a tougher sell to the news media, which is already publicly expressing its irritation with GOP staffers for misrepresenting the Benghazi e-mails. Maybe it will also dawn on someone that two or three stories are not politically related just because they happen to turn up in the same news cycle. So we're back to "Solyndra" and other such FOX-worthy but otherwise meaningless so-called scandals. I expect Republicans can keep that up for the rest of Obama's term, but it's even more likely after this week that nobody else is going to care.

  2. I would say the AP and IRS stories could matter if they lead to actual decisions related to those issues: say, meaningful rules on how to approve/disapprove 501(c)(4) applications, or better yet, a firm line between tax-free social-welfare groups and political organizations; firm rules on the rights of the press, perhaps ones that take new technologies into account. I'm not saying it's likely, but that would make these events matter.

  3. What I think these scandals are, and will continue to be, are a way for Republican leadership to speak to their supporters in language they understand.

    They're very good at letting their base know what they're up to and what they care about. And this allows candidates a sort of buffet of talking points and phrases to choose from when running. Most of the details really probably don't matter. And really, I think it just allows people an easy rationalization for why they are Republicans. Most people really can't admit that they are partisans. The "vote for the person, not the party". Outrage is a really easy way to make a choice seem legitimate.

    Dems and liberals will mostly ignore this stuff. Although plenty will be upset about the IRS thing. That allows them to claim non-partisan motivations, too.

    Certainly, if the White House did do some horrible things (and actually, they are in other areas), they should be called out.

    Lazy mendacity.

    1. phat's analysis is really good. Yes, it gives the base an easy rationalization and a series of rallying cries. If the GOP needs to do that at this point, then maybe all the hyperventilating is accomplishing something for them. Kind of pathetic if that's the case, though -- it speaks to the basic difficulty they're still having either understanding or dislodging Obama's support.

    2. It really speaks to the basic difficulty that they are having creating policy.

      We keep coming back to this issue.

  4. Yeah, the feeding frenzy seems to be dying fast. The New York Times has a big story about how the "scandal" was really more about, "Alienated from the broader Internal Revenue Service culture and given little direction, specialists in a Cincinnati office struggled with the caseload of groups seeking tax exemptions."

    There was all sorts of new about the electric car company Tesla doing very well the week. People having been talking about electric cars forever, but we might see something really big emerging. Also the economic news from Japan continues to show how foolish austerity really was, and that slightly higher inflation and stimulus can really make a big difference.

    This doesn't matter but is fun in terms of blog world news Ta-Nehisi Coates and Andrew Sullivan are having a big war of blog posts about intelligence and race. Here's TNC's lastest response to Sullivan:

    If you like a good intellectual battle royale, here you go. They also had a big fight about this in 2011.

    1. Inflation makes the debt go away....

    2. I love this line from Coates:

      "I've now been out in the world, and seen how other people in other places live. They don't strike me as more intelligent. They strike me as better armed."

      There's this book. Perhaps I have mentioned it? Contrary to the explosive and unsubstantiated suggestions of the eugenics crowd, that book is chock-full of several hundred pages of science proving that in all endeavors, at all times, in all circumstances, the person who does the most of a particular type of work will achieve the greatest excellence. Irrespective of race, creed, you name it.

      It is a bit disappointing that a self-appointed skeptic like Sullivan gets sucked in by the false equivalence of "IQ test score" and "genetically-driven intelligence" (read Colvin's book. No, seriously). A black kid such as Coates' dad may spend his second grade year in the desperate cacophony of the back of a Ryder truck, and he may "graduate", but he may only get about 30 seconds in toward his 10,000 hour excellence. A white kid with three squares and eight quiet hours of sleep and three quiet hours of study each day may also graduate second grade, but the white kid will be 1,000 hours further toward excellence than the kid like Coats' father. The white kid's test scores will show it, but they won't mean anything, at least not genetically, as switching Coates' dad and the white kid would exactly switch their test scores.

      It really is a shame that people who know a bit about science or biology don't come out more strongly against the ridiculousness of the "test scores" = "genetic IQ" false equivalence. There's something weird about the "gene" meme - even a professional (?) skeptic like Andrew Sullivan is easily sucked in by it. It has a weird magic, totally divorced from its underlying meaning.

    3. CSH, totally awesome comment. Thank you.

    4. Yeah, my favorite example of this probably would come from Coates himself. He's obviously a brilliant writer, especially when it comes to essays, but I bet he wouldn't do that well with an IQ test which test things like your vocabulary when it comes to esoteric words, math (he's said before he's not good at math) and problems about spacial geometric shapes, I know I'm not good at those things. But I bet a lot of MENSA people would be terrible at writing 5,000 words on why the Emancipation Proclamation is important, while Coates could easily bat that out in an hour. This is because Coates has spent years reading about, thinking about and writing about the Civil War and slavery and a lot of MENSA folks have been spending years doing the same about IQ tests. This doesn't mean one is dumber than the other or that IQ is a good predictor of life outcomes, it means working hard at something can produce results.

    5. Andrew Sullivan is a fraud.


      Discover Magazine has an expert on genetics who comments on the Sullivan/Coates flame war and explains some of the errors therein. He also shows how genetic differences are mapped between different populations/races.

      Of course, even though African-American 7 year olds all live in a van down by the river, ALL of America's under 10.0 second 100 meter sprinters are from that cohort. Which is funny, because almost every single one of the whole world's best 100 meter sprinters are of W African origin.

      Maybe they all train in the same van.

    7. "He's obviously a brilliant writer, especially when it comes to essays, but I bet he wouldn't do that well with an IQ test which test things like your vocabulary when it comes to esoteric words, math"

      Coates has a conspicuously high IQ. If given an IQ test like the Raven's Progressive Matrices, he would score way over 100. He wouldn't need to have studied any math.

  5. "in all circumstances, the person who does the most of a particular type of work will achieve the greatest excellence."

    This has to be the dumbest comment I have seen on this site.

    So someone four feet tall can be play in the NBA, deaf people can be successful musicians,the blind great painters and retarded people can be brain surgeons all if they work the hardest?

    1. Mercer, your comment gets to the larger question of who would pursue 10,000 hours of excellence, which Colvin doesn't address but is discussed at greater length in Gladwell's Outliers, which otherwise covers much of the same territory as Colvin's book.

      To your question -

      1)He wasn't four feet tall, but Muggsy Bogues was, what, 5'3"? Played 14 seasons and, according to Wikipedia, is still the 17th all time assist leader. Did Bogues lack the genes to be the 17th best anything in a major NBA statistical category?

      2) I was a dude of average height as a kid, not fat or thin (not fat - then), and so it never would have occurred to me that I might be an Olympic champion swimmer, as I never had Michael Phelps' body. Know who else never had Michael Phelps' body? Mark Spitz, a guy of average build (like I used to be).

      3) Finally, you mentioned the one about the blind or deaf being great musicians. Surely we have all seen at least a dozen feel-good stories on 60 Minutes or 20/20 about the blind or (functionally) deaf severely retarded person who is a musical savant, able to produce miraculous performances for a person otherwise so terribly limited.

      Ever noticed what every one of those segments has in common? There's always a bit where the mom or dad says "Jimmy used to be so frustrated because he is severely retarded and unable to communicate. Several years ago he discovered the keyboard, and it provides him such happiness, and he's been practicing several hours a day ever since..."

      Oh, and, we'll never know how successful a retarded person could be at brain surgery since - for obvious reasons - no one is going to sanction the investment in a retarded person taking even the first step on that journey.


    2. I normally don't respond to stuff like this, but this is a little too much. Yeah short people can play in the NBA, there was this fellow named Muggsy Bogues:

      And there was this fellow named Beethoven who was deaf and did some musical stuff:

      Look the point isn't that anyone can be anything, the point is that hard work and determination matter more for success than arbitrary scores you are given because you can't figure out the next number that comes in the sequence.

    3. Overclarifying, Mercer was right about one thing, my attribution to Colvin was stupid in the following...I said:

      "the person who does the most of a particular type of work will achieve the greatest excellence."

      That's dumb. What Colvin actually argues is

      "the person who achieves the greatest excellence in all cases is the one who did the most of a particular type of work".

      I got it backward (I often do). The point, though, is that Michael Phelps is not the most decorated Olympic athlete because he's got awesome genes, he's the most decorated Olympic athlete because he did the most of a particular type of work. Maybe his body type helped him get motivated.

      But he certainly didn't need that physique, as Spitz' success with a decidedly average body pretty clearly shows.


      Here's a video of Mark Spitz in '72. At 01:00 it begins showing his opponents out of the water and in trunks. Most of them have approx the same body as Spitz. If it's important to you that Spitz had an "average" body, it should be important to you what his competitors did too. Only one even looked like he lifted weights a bit. Phelps would have smoked Spitz.

    5. Calling Spitz average at 6'1" with under 5% body fat and oversized hands is silly.

    6. The olympics isn't a good example. The best 0.000...01% athletes in the world compete and the winners are decided by fractions of seconds. They already dedicate their lives to their sports which means it's not possible to meaningfully outwork them (yes if someone slacks off it's reflected in their performance but in general everyone has been working very hard their entire lives).

    7. We simply don't know what makes a brilliant composer, or a superb essayist, or freakishly fast swimmer. Nobody's mentioned Usain Bolt yet, so I will: when he exploded onto the Olympics he was far ahead of the competition. And yet everyone commented on how his physique was so different from what all the trainers looked for in a runner. You would think that by now we would know what to look for in a young runner.

      So all talents are hidden at first. If a person discovers that they have one, it might give them pleasure to practice for hours a day. Hence, they become proficient, and then spectacular. Some talents, like swimming or piano, require a financial investment by the parents or community. Others, like basketball, less so.

    8. To Jason and anonymous - both of your points are good ones, and they are part of the reason the topic is fascinating (to me). My copy of Talent is Overrated is downstairs, and I am too lazy to go reference it, but one particularly interesting study looked at highly accomplished violinists, separating them into 5,000 hour, 10,000 hour, and 15,000 hours of dedicated practice. The violinists were also separated into "world class" (world renowned orchestras), "highly proficient" (regionally significant orchestras) and "pretty good" (local/community orchestras).

      Interestingly, the researchers found that, without exception, the 15,000 hour violinists were world class, the 10,000-hour were regional class, and the 5,000-hour were community class. They found not a single example of a violinist who had worked 5,000 hours making it to an internationally famous orchestra, nor of a violinist who had worked 15,000 hours settling for community performance.

      Point being that there is a remarkable amount of gradation, even at the highest levels of accomplishment. What separates Michael Phelps from Olympic swimmers who don't win 22 medals? Something like 5,000 hours in the pool. (Actually, I peripherally know one of the guys who shared one of Phelps' relay golds in Athens, and I can report - from second-hand knowledge - that the incremental 5,000 hours is probably a conservative estimate for Phelps).

      All very interesting stuff, to me anyway, so thanks to all for engaging.

    9. @CSH, thanks to you for persistently pointing out how much persistence matters. And yes, this is honest thanks.

    10. @MP - thanks for the kind words! My great objective is someday to be a 10,000 hour proselytizer :).

    11. @CSH, I care a lot about this issue, and I see you share the concern. Unfortunately, many conservatives have embraced IQ test results and rushed to attribute the differences to a genetic cause. I'm glad to see your independence from that line of thought and your excellent defense of your viewpoint. I'm confused by the conservatives you support this genetic/IQ thesis. I wonder whether this is a heartfelt belief, or a FU to liberals.

    12. That's a loaded question, MP. I feel extremely passionately on this issue as well, though probably for different reasons than you. I feel that all of us, no matter our race, creed, age, whatever, have an inherent bias toward an apartheid society that favors people that, basically, resemble us. This instinct maps terribly on a multicultural society, and it means that the probability that my dear children will grow up into a full-blown nanny state (ultimately descending into tyranny) is greatly enhanced, it - dreadfully - seems to me.

      If there is any hope for conservatism in the next 50 years, it has to start with the recognition that all citizens must be responsible for themselves, and the understanding that all citizens are equally capable of being such. You start indulging in pejorative memes toward those not like you, you'll get what you want, only to find out you really really didn't want it, after all.

      I'll close with a philosophical observation: 100 years ago a small-time reporter from the hills of Missouri, NW of Kansas City, made his way to NYC to find his fortune. He had nothing, and knew no one, but he worked hard and made his way up until - 75 years ago - he published a book that, in spite of his inauspicious beginnings, would come to be read by more people than any books in history save The Bible and The Sears Catalog. What was this organic idea that became the 3rd-most influential in history, behind only the merchandising power of Sears and the theological power of Christianity?

      Y'all know How to Win Friends and Influence People. Its that everyone you meet, no matter how stupid or immoral, thinks they are really smart and moral, so you win friends by indulging those conceits.

      So you say, ModeratePoli, that certain conservatives think they really are more smart and moral than those other races that annoy them? I don't know. Maybe they have no sense of irony. Or they're just really slow learners. Who knows.

      But the country is still young, you know, and we can't be certain what tomorrow will bring. I'm hopeful. The info is out there. Eventually people will figure it out.

    13. Oh dear, a really bad typo on my part. I meant to write "the conservatives WHO support," not "YOU support."

      In response to your reflection that this is a young country, I'm afraid age doesn't necessarily smooth away bigotry. Much older countries have plenty of it. However, this country has progressed and tried to live up to the promises in its founding, so there's good reason to hope. If not here, perhaps Australia or Canada will be the proving ground.

    14. CSH,

      Do you not see that I've destroyed your reasoning regarding Spitz? He wasn't competing against Phelps types, but others like himself.

    15. I gotcha, backyard. Mark Spitz made himself into the greatest swimmer of all-time by conveying his own, non-optimized swimmer's body down the pool faster than a bunch of other guys with non-optimized bodies. The potential competitors with the optimized bodies were, curiously, elsewhere, unless you believe the emergence of the Phelps morph was a miracle of this generation, a massive and unprecedented mutation. (I say this only somewhat sarcastically, since when it comes to matters of the gene, y'all can convince yourselves of just about anything).

      From your awesome argument we can easily infer that the West African morph is ideal for winning sprint races, unless of course it isn't, in which case (like the Phelps body in the late 60s and early 70s), it won't.

      I got it.

    16. "Michael Phelps is attempting to surpass Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in a single Games. He has won all of his races in world-record time, as Spitz did in 1972. But times have improved so much that, in this Olympics, Spitz would have finished 55th among the 58 swimmers in the 200-meter freestyle heats and 33rd among the 44 swimmers in the 200-meter butterfly. His freestyle relay teams would have finished last."

    17. This short video will show why Bogues is the exception to the rule.

      Many super tall basketball players start in their teens and can still be effective with few skills and little practice time. What Bogues showed was that if you're incredibly fast and dextrous and dedicated and fearless that you can be a middle-of-the-road NBA point guard even when you're short. Height (and therefore genes) FTW.

  6. Two very interesting subthreads since my last visit. A few things:

    > Haven't read the book, but I don't doubt that Colvin's thesis is largely right.

    > Andrew Sullivan is not a fraud, but he wants to comment on everything in the world, which means he sticks his finger into lots of subjects he hasn't really studied. Sometimes, in those cases, he winds up falling back on shibboleths from his Young Conservative days. But he's very good at what he's good at, presumably because he didn't just devote 10,000 hours to it, he devotes (it seems like) 10,000 hours a week to it.

    > I was going to link to the same Discover magazine piece as backyard. Read the whole thing, plus most of the comments. Short version: the issue of DNA and inherited tendencies within groups is really complicated. This itself, it seems to me, refutes simplistic ideas about race, IQ and the like. Defining what we mean by "race," and then identifying any particular race, is complicated; defining what we mean by "intelligence," and then testing for that, is complicated; so finding correlations is going to be complicated-squared, and elaborating those into policy proposals is going to be complicated-cubed. Impressive that that Jason Richwine could do it all in a mere 150 pages or so! They must be really smart, those Harvard guys.

    1. Sorry, by "read the whole thing" I meant "I read the whole thing." Wasn't telling anyone else what to do.

    2. I enjoy the spectacle of conservatives, who, because they detest the policy recommendations of scientists, are usually extremely skeptical of academia and of the social sciences in particular, latching on to IQ scores as if they are the holy grail. The fact that they think that IQ scores uphold their 19th century prejudices about race has, I'm sure, absolutely nothing to do with their about-face.

    3. "I enjoy the spectacle of conservatives"

    4. "I enjoy the spectacle of conservatives"

    5. This is not the first time, or even, I think, the 3rd or 4th time I've run across Andrew Sullivan arguing in public about the matter of race and IQ. After a certain point, his title of professional skeptic (whether or not he gave that to himself) should be questioned if he's going to sit on a hobby horse like this on more than one occasion. I would assume that by "he's very good at what he's good at" you mean something like thinking. In this case, he's not very good at it at all. Skeptics should essentially be testing themselves for biases. Maybe he gets lucky a time or two about other things. But not questioning his bias in this instance leads me to believe it's shear luck in other instances. Maybe he's a wonderful human being, I don't know.

  7. "not a single example of a violinist who had worked 5,000 hours making it to an internationally famous orchestra, nor of a violinist who had worked 15,000 hours settling for community performance. "

    Then there are musicians who make far more money than any violinist:

    "Streisand dropped singing lessons at an early age and never learned to read music. But that didn't stop her from being one of the best-selling female singers in history."

    1. But what we want to know, Mercer, is whether Babs continued to practice (in a meaningful way), even though she stopped taking formal lessons. In Colvin's model there is nothing magical about lessons, other than to the extent they convince people to keep practicing toward their 10,000 hours.

      A good illustration of this comes from (my very favorite band) The National. One of the great things about the National is the extremely sophisticated interplay between guitarists, and twin brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dressner. Bryce has a master's degree in classical guitar from Yale, Aaron does not.

      With all due respect to our friend Jeff, and any others similarly situated, is Bryce 'better' because of his pedigree? (Aaron doesn't think so!) Both brothers have worked endlessly at their craft, the outcome showing in their performances. With due respect to the august offices of Yale, the degree probably has little to do with which one is 'better', if indeed either is.

      If that made sense.

  8. So, big apologies for playing such a central role in leading this thread away from the topic, as a peace offering here's something I was thinking about what (actually) might have mattered this week:

    What's interesting about the IRS and DOJ scandals is that both involve a liberal administration offering the excuse (if you buy such things) that the government is too damn big. Specifically because of government getting too large, it may be that both sides will be half-right on the IRS and DOJ scandals.

    On the IRS side, its possible that, due to general Republican support for Citizens United, plus the groundbreaking efforts to utilize it by guys like Rove, there was a heuristic at HQ saying that certain types of groups were most likely to abuse the system. Unfortunately, Cincinnati is a million miles from DC, and the people implementing these rules may have been so removed from the heuristics that they didn't see the implications of their action. Or they saw and were too far removed to care.

    For the DOJ, given the byzantine appeals that follow a public subpoena, there may have been a legitimate national security interest in protecting the compromised Yemeni's contacts. However, once you've secretly got 10 phone lines, what's 10 more among friends?

    I was thinking this a bit at Buca di Beppo last night, staring at the requisite pope-rphernalia and thinking about Benedict's unusual abdication, driven by (allegedly) unprecedented palace intrigue at the Vatican. Maybe stuff just gets too big.

    Anastasios concluded I was all wet last week, but I'll repeat myself anyway: perhaps these inefficiencies will shift the conversation about the appropriate size of government. To date liberals have often equated bigger government with a nicer society; perhaps these scandals are the first indicators that there is an optimal size of government, beyond which bigger is not better.

    1. Not all wet CSH, but perhaps too given to thinking that different people will give similar weight to events and concerns. People who worry a lot about government size and efficiency will probably agree with you. Then again, most of those people probably don't support Obama to begin with. People who are more worried about poverty or health care or any number of other issues probably will not be much phased - perhaps because they see the problems of government overreach to be a smll price to pay for addressing various problems. There is some cross-cutting, as Dems worried about civil rights might be more worried about some of this than conservatives worried about national security. But overall I doubt the basic nature of the conversation will change much over the long haul. Then again, I am often wrong so if you prove correct I will not be stunned.

    2. To be clear, I said above, "I don't doubt that Colvin's thesis is largely right." Meaning, I expect it is probably right. (note to self: avoid implied double negatives)

  9. I'm horrified by the size and complexity of government. But I'm also boggled by the size and complexity of society. I'm not sure how possible it is to have a smaller government, though I'm certainly willing to start trimming and see how it goes. Unfortunately, no group in power is making clear, concise suggestions of how to trim back government.

    There are also times when I'm overwhelmingly thankful for the complexity, like when my sister-in-law was receiving cancer treatment (which was successful).

    1. What, exactly, is so horrifying about the size and complexity of government? Do those things just make government unwieldy in and of themselves? Is it immoral because taxes are paying for it? What, exactly, is the problem here?

    2. You know, I think you have touched on something, Phat. I think when a lot of people (I won't presume to speak for MP) talk about size of government, what they are really talking about is the complexity. After all, Social Security is a huge program, but most people experience it as a very simple one,and therefore popular.

      Once a few years ago I was having a talk with a European friend that went in a very interesting direction. He said, "No wonder you Americans don't like paying taxes. It's very hard to figure out what you get for it. In Sweden (that was where he was from) things aren't paradise but there is a lot more quid pro quo. We give the government taxes, the government gives us healthcare. We give the government taxes, the government gives us police. And so forth. Furthermore, it is pretty easy to access those services. Usually all it takes is a phone call, and the numbers to access various services are standard, widely published, and easy to remember."

      That is a very good point. After all, even very well informed people in the U.S. don't know what government services are available or how to access them. Myself, I benefited once from a very nice student loan program that I had no knowledge of and only found cruising the net in desperation looking for money to pay for my educational expenses. I certainly could have benefitted from a simpler, more transparent government that clearly announced what education services it offered and how to access them. A smaller government? Not so much.

    3. It's because government holds the monopoly on legal violence and uses that monopoly to force citizens to do things against their will. So the values of the members of government (both the elected element and the basically permanent bureaucracy) need to be in line with the citizens that they violently rule over or the citizens will be permanently at odds with the government and steadily more immiserated by it. This is seen in policies like affirmative action for Hispanics or IRS harassment of TeaParty (wrong kind of white) groups.

      As the scope of the USG has grown, the stakes have grown, because the USG has more say in how citizens live. As the country has been demographically altered, an acceptable government has become less likely because the interests are too different. An absurd non-US example of this is the transformation of Malmo due to leftist fantasizing. A hilarious tragedy that will speed along for a while.

      Now, most of the bureaucracy is leftist, and about half of the elected element, so partisan leftists feel secure in permanent government growth. It allows them to beat the enemy, i.e. the wrong kind of white people. But that element (which will grow as the country diversifies more) will be permanently at odds with its government.

      The USG is for most adults who want low-coercion an implacable, metastasizing evil.

    4. And unless you believe that governments do most things better than people trading with each other freely, you have to be worried about government growth. Every communist country is a good example of what happens in a time of unchecked progressivism.

    5. The problem is, Americans don't actually want less government:

      (Note bonus references to our own JB!)

      That is, people SAY they want less government in the abstract, but on program after program, they actually want the government to do and to spend more. This has been consistently true for a long time. The most notable exception is foreign aid, which they say they want cut, but they're overestimating by an order of magnitude how big a share of spending it is -- so when they're asked what would be an appropriate level, even on foreign aid, they end up calling (without knowing it) for dramatic increases.

      If the polling results aren't evidence enough, there's also the fact that no major party seriously favors large cuts, except the GOP on programs serving the poor. The Paul Ryans of the world talk abstractly about other cuts but know better than to specify any.

      The fact is, the "government has a monopoly of violence" argument impresses libertarians but almost no one else. Most people believe it's legitimate to do what "We the People" did through the Founders -- set up a (democratic) government with the coercive power to tax. Most also believe not only that it was legitimate to extend the reach of that government into social welfare, but that it would be unacceptable not to. Remember, the guy who enacted the New Deal got re-elected three times.

      For most law-abiding people, the real coercive power that's experienced day to day isn't "government," it's private agencies like the bosses they have to keep kissing up to to keep their jobs, the banks that can foreclose on them if they don't pay their mortgages, etc. Yeah, they don't like the IRS, but they keep failing to nominate and elect the people who run for president promising to abolish it or greatly reduce its power.

      Let's recall, finally, that the whole "makers versus takers" business that Romney and company charmed us with last year arose on the right as a way of trying to explain these facts, i.e. that big government continues for some reason to survive the public's occasional grumbling, and that truly libertarian proposals just don't get much support at all. The thing is, you can't have both arguments: You can either say that government is a horrible imposition on an unwilling people who find it oppressive, or, slightly more plausibly, that government has somehow tricked or bought off people into becoming dependent on it -- a kind of reverse-Marxist "false consciousness" argument. The libertarians I personally respect the most reject both these lame arguments and just admit that their view is not one that is widely shared in a modern society.

    6. One more:

      This is one of the recent polls that shows continuing public skepticism toward "Obamacare." We've discussed it before. Skip down to Figure 8, though -- even here, there is big majority support for government subsidies and also for provisions like "guaranteed issue," which is jargon for "big government using its monopoly of violence to force insurance companies to do something they otherwise wouldn't." Why? Because for most people, what's actually oppressive in daily life isn't "government," it's the inability to pay for health care, to get insurance, or to get the damn insurance company to deal fairly with you, to reimburse you when they're supposed to, etc. Most people are quite comfortable with government power when it's used to reduce that kind of actually experienced oppression.

    7. Since I started this, perhaps I should clarify and answer phat's questions. I'm astounded by how much money the federal government collects, and how it also manages to spend all that and even more. It's as though the government had so much money for so long that it rarely said no to any moderately reasonable expenditure. One thing I'm thinking of is the Pigford program that had rules that were an invitation to fraud. We have a huge number of social programs, research programs, a huge, well-equipped military, etc. On one hand I understand how we got here, but on the other hand, holy cow, how did we manage to get here?

      Did you know that the report listing the per-program cuts for the sequester ran 394 pages? And that isn't every cut, just a dollar amount for each program.

      To answer phat, I don't think the size of our government is inherently immoral since we got here with the consent of the governed. Perhaps I should have used the word 'awe struck' rather than 'horrified' because I don't mean to imply a moral dimension.

      I don't agree with backyard and others who focus on coercion by government. Anyone can complain about taxes not being exactly the amount he wants to pay or being spent on what he wants, but that doesn't mean he's living in a tyranny. Those are the requirements of living in a society, so move someplace were it is more to your liking or live off the grid, but stop with the whining that you're forced to comply with democratically passed laws.

    8. Jeff,

      To reiterate, when I talk about the monopoly of violence it's not because I believe that it's unpopular (because government coercion is very popular) but to point out to shocked progressive questioners like phat that they aren't convincing people like me to go along with their plans for endless growth of government. They are literally calling for people to put a shotgun in my face and make me obey. I was once a socialist and was shocked to my senses by considering this and a few other ideas and so I know that many reasonable people have never really considered it.

      And it's clear that many haven't. Many of the progs I argue with can't think of one good reason why there should be real limitations on gov growth or of any good elements of capitalism even with all of the government horrors of the 20th century.

      Your boss may suck, but it's much easier to leave her than to leave your country. And I know that you really believe that health insurance markets suck because they don't have enough gov intrusion, but they have an amazing amount of gov intrusion. Start with the tax advantages that businesses get over you to buy your insurance and go from there. It's bottomless.

      My statements about diversity and government stand. Even JB agrees: it's perfectly normal for people to vote on ethnic and racial lines. I think it sucks because it will make the unstoppable growth of the USG worse than it needs to be because progs will use the votes of people that they intend to import against the people they really hate: non-prog whites. Not that repubs aren't courting the same future voters.

      Very few polls ask people things like "do you approve of a given policy if it costs you X dollars?" They basically ask people if some outcome would be nice.

    9. 51% tell 49% what's going to happen and they use gov force to make it happen. The minority point out that they don't consent, but merely obey to avoid being shot. Then you call them whiners and praise democracy to the rafters.

      I can understand one liking massive gov coercion, but I don't know why you care so much when someone points to the mechanics. It's as if you don't believe that the actual mechanics of governance should be considered a cost when calculating whether a government should do a thing.

      Faith in government is a disturbing thing.

    10. @backyard, what is your alternate suggestion to majority rule on taxation? Make sure you describe the decision making.

    11. It's less about taxation than all of the other costs of legislation that Cathedral cogs like Prof. Bernstein seldom talk about. I would just say that any legislation should CENTER on the costs of gov action instead of saying that we'll find out what's in it once it's passed. These include: historical examples of similar bills and their unintended negative consequences, estimates of the number of citizens who will be directly and indirectly harmed by it, estimates of the overall load of government and how we compare to tragic examples of over-governance, and the demand that there be less legislation and clearer legislation so that "the bastards" can't constantly buy legislation. And a quick rundown of how awful government can be when unchecked. Maybe an anti-commie prayer. I'm saying that citizens need to demand reticence from their legislators and more accountability from the USG's near-to-unfireable bureaucracy.

      This is unlikely because the Cathedral has a love for gov coercion when it is in the best position to know how awful it is.

    12. @backyard, I agree that the costs of legislation is underappreciated and should be a huge concern of people in politics and advocacy. Of course, I'd also extend that to environmental impacts and all kinds of mandates. Some costs are very hard to estimate in dollars, but they still are important, so money mustn't be the only consideration.

  10. It is certainly true that government action ultimately rests on coercion. But then again, so do most human relationships. Physical coercion by government, economic coercion by employers, social coercion by neighbors, even emotional coercion by family. It is not a comforting truth, but truth nevertheless. Perhaps what you see as denial, backyard, is the opposite. Perhaps many of the rest of us accept coercion as an obvious and inevitable fact of human existence, and are honestly mystified by those who find this simple thing offensive or fearful. The government will threaten to shoot you, your employer will threaten to fire you, your neighbors will try to shame you, your family will threaten to break your heart. This is the price of life, and must be accepted as such. No one is free, not ever, not really. And in that simple truth lies the wisdom of civilization.

    1. Hey! Stop coercing us readers with the force of your reasoning, Anastasios. (Which, come to think of it, is a pretty close paraphrase of an interlocutor's angry retort to Socrates in Plato's Gorgias......)

    2. Anastasios,

      You're comparing an employer deciding to stop giving you money and a neighbor or family member saying mean things to you with a government worker shooting you. This is why there's room for people like me to point out the coercive nature of the state; you have no sense of proportion.

      What government action could possibly bother someone who believes that threat of death is not radically worse than the threat of one stream of income or warm feelings ending?

    3. @backyard, almost everyone in the US manages to live here without any government worker taking potshots at them. However, if you're planning to break the law and put up armed resistance, then I can see why you're afraid of government workers shooting you. Or maybe you're not planning that, but you like to shoot off your mouth like the government is coming after you. Why don't you explain why you worry about being shot rather than being vague and sinister about it?

    4. "However, if you're planning to break the law and put up armed resistance, then I can see why you're afraid of government workers shooting you."


      It's like you intentionally miss my whole point. I don't fear that government workers will shoot me because I OBEY. To the best of my abilities, anyway.

      I never take hallucinogens.
      I wear my seatbelt always.
      I can't contract with an insurer for the kind of health insurance that I want.
      I don't ever ride my motorcycle without a helmet.

      I and the businessmen I'd like to trade with don't want some nut cases to shoot us because some clowns in suits told them to. And because the Cathedral runs the show, there's net growth in the size of this list every year.

    5. This has turned into a potentially very large discussion of some basic points of political philosophy, and it's a tribute to JB and to this blog that it attracts a clientele that makes such a rare thing possible. Rather than write the 10,000-word treatise I am tempted to in reply to backyard, let me just say that I would agree with some of his complaints about the present system if I'm understanding them correctly. Certainly government power is misused, and like any human agency, governments have a tendency to entrench themselves and become their own reason for existence, in tail-wagging-the-dog fashion, instead of means of solving whatever problems they were originally intended to solve. Where I would differ from right-libertarians in general is in choosing what, of the many things we can worry about as citizens, should take priority. This in turn reflects differences in how we understand people and the ways of the world, and therefore of what kinds of situations we'd be facing if government "intrusion" in this or that area was removed. Anastasios mentions several other kinds of relationships in which people coerce each other, and backyard is aghast at seeing these equated when clearly it's the government-citizen relationship that's backed up with lethal force. Yeah, well, NOW that's broadly the case -- but that's because of (I would say, liberal) reforms whose good effects the libertarians pocket without recognizing them as "government intrusion." Personal and community and employment interactions WERE settled by sheer force of the weaker against the stronger until very recently in history. "Employment" relationships included slavery, press-ganging and child labor; "community" relationships included exile, witchcraft trials, lynchings, and later, redlining and restrictive covenants; and "personal" relations included wife- and child-beating and marital rape, the latter concept not even recognized in law until a couple of decades ago ( remember the resistance to it). In each case, lethal or near-lethal force was available to the stronger party, either directly or in the person of the local sheriff who would intervene (with guns) on that party's behalf. It took changes in law to, if not end these practices -- because there is no end to bad acts -- at least to position the sheriff, in some cases, on the other side of the dispute, defending the rights of the more vulnerable party for a change.


    6. Concluded:

      I know from previous debates like this one that some libertarians like to say, at this point, that it was somehow government that was responsible for the abuses I've just listed. I think that's just factually wrong. The stronger oppress and exploit the weaker, using all instruments available, which includes the coercive power of whatever governing agencies exist at the time. So, yeah, early modern (i.e. more primitive) governments conducted the witchcraft trials and enforced the rights of slaveholders and so forth. The abuses were, you might say, a perverse kind of public-private partnership. But the conclusion I draw from this is there never was and never will be a libertarian utopia where "government" and the implied threat of lethal force are absent. Human societies will always have a supreme or sovereign authority, whatever it might be called, whether it's called the government or "the Crown" or the United Federation of Planets. The questions are: what will that authority be tasked with doing, who will it intervene to protect against the violence endemic to human relationships, and how will those decisions be made and legitimized, i.e. with what degree of broad democratic input aimed at representing the interests of all? I think the reforms of the past century, while leaving much undone and sometimes creating new problems, have mostly conduced to giving us better answers to those questions than they were getting in earlier generations, when race, gender and class oppression were more overt and unapologetic. Those oppressions and the would-be oppressors are still with us, but now at least they are sometimes on the defensive, and the sheriff with the guns is not automatically their agent anymore. That's my idea of liberal progress.

    7. Another awesome Plain Blog conversation. My $.02 - all of our perceptions are guided by our ideology, the truth is often (embarrassingly) elsewhere. Classic example:

      There's been so much ink spilled about the ACA, but to my knowledge one issue that has been ignored is how Big Insurance will respond to any significant dumping. You have cranks like yours truly sounding the alarm that there will be much dumping, and talking about the impact to citizens, but what about Big Insurance?

      Significant dumping sucks for them too, so you would expect that, in order to make themselves whole, they would find their way into the exchanges and compete to peel back some of the "dumped" former customers of theirs. As a result, the exchanges, which are marketed as "very easy" (if not cheap) by Democrats, might very well end up being the same byzantine nightmare that Part D is for the elderly, what with all the Big Insurance companies hanging around trying to peel off customers with confusing offerings.

      No one expects that to happen; presumably Democrats do not have a contingency plan if it does. If it does happen, then - being human - the Democrats will do their best Pee Wee Herman impression, claiming that the chaos in the exchanges was part of the plan, and touting (alleged) cost savings from competition. Presumably someone such as Jeff would be a recipient of such talking points by some means or another.

      Now suppose our law-abiding friend backyard has to go into said exchanges to get his insurance, and choosing between the exchange and the satellite Big Insurance is a nightmare. Backyard will no doubt feel that he is being forced at bayonet point to obtain insurance in a process that is hellish. Jeff might say well you saved money from the competition and its better than the alternative; backyard will still feel oppressed.

      All of which is fair, only in this case there isn't really an oppressor, at least not in the traditional sense. Its just very difficult to get exactly right the stuff that liberals want to do, and no one ever admits that they might have done some important thing wrong.

      Which to backyard, sounds like they meant to make his life hell.

    8. "What government action could possibly bother someone who believes that threat of death is not radically worse than the threat of one stream of income or warm feelings ending?"

      Good point. Although I think Jeff's view is closer to what most liberals believe -- that government should oppose coercion against the individual in any and all cases (And I realize that Jeff and Backyard also have different definitions of "coercion" here -- I'd probably have a third). What concerns me is that Anastasios' acceptance of coercion is increasingly coming to define liberalism. In many ways, liberalism is in danger of becoming its opposite -- albeit, with important distinctions between "protect me" liberalism and its conservative counterpart.

      I'd agree with some of what Jeff says about government fighting oppression in the past -- but what about today? The war on drugs has caused the systematic coercion of black men, not to mention the very small chance that the FBI will break down your front door with a chainsaw at 4 am (yes, this happened near me). I know Jeff doesn't agree with these actions, but ending the war on drugs seems to be so far down the list of liberal priorities that it may never happen.

      In our day-to-day lives, government is relatively benign -- at least if you're white, it's very unlikely that you fear the government. Even to the extent that it is "coercive," few people will ever be ordered to do something at the point of a gun. Having said that, there are so many laws and regulations on the books that it's almost impossible that most people haven't committed multiple prosecutable offenses (see Harvey Silverglate's _Three Felonies a Day_ ) -- or that our society's most creative trailblazers often find that their greatest impediment is government (see Joel Salatin's _Everything I want to do is Illegal_). We have just way too many laws and regulations on the books for a free society. But to a "protect me" liberal, you have to be a gibbering idiot to want a more limited government.

      Much of the libertarian critique against big government today also rests on an understanding of how markets work. For example, when the government intervenes in the market to encourage home ownership or education, the market price of each will naturally rise -- even to the point of destabilizing the entire economy. There's a similar risk with unsustainable debt. Government is an unbelievably powerful tool -- but when it's not used with discretion, it can cause us all a great deal of pain.

    9. In case anyone is curious about the wrong-door FBI-chainsaw raid:

    10. Way late (and by now off the front page), but Couves, in re: low priority of drug war issues among liberals: when NYS briefly had united Democratic control of government a couple of years ago, one of the first -- in fact one of very few -- important things that the legislature did was get rid of the arbitrary and punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws, including making the repeal to some degree retroactive. The vast-majority Dem Assembly had supported the move for years and years, as had statewide Dem candidates, including active Governors, so it happened as soon as the State Senate tipped from ~52-48 one way to ~51-49 the other. That's only one step in one state, but it probably alleviated a fair bit of unnecessary human misery.

    11. the classist -- that's great, but it's not the norm. Massachusetts politicians overwhelmingly opposed marijuana decriminalization, which 65% of the people voted for. Throughout the country, the people are rolling back the criminalization of marijuana -- in response, our Democratic administration has actually targeted many of these areas for prosecution.

      We may not agree on the right to own and carry a gun, but that's another area where government policy disproportionately impacts blacks and other minorities. Unlike drug laws, gun laws actually change when you enter many urban areas in the US. In some cases, gun permits are issued only at the discretion of local law enforcement. Those who violate these laws for the purpose of self defense (arguably a more fundamental right than getting high) are branded felons. When Massachusetts passed landmark gun control in 1998 there were 1.5 million legal gun owners in the state -- the new law reduced that number to a mere 200,000. Licensing is most restrictive in cities. Nationwide, the rate of urban gun ownership is almost 30%. In Boston, it's a little over 1%.

  11. Its just very difficult to get exactly right the stuff that liberals want to do, and no one ever admits that they might have done some important thing wrong.

    It's not entirely fair to say that no one ever admits this. People are loath to disown efforts that they themselves were personally responsible for, but liberals as a group have revisited many government initiatives over the years. Urban renewal, for instance, is done today with considerably more subtlety and finesse than the mass-demolitions-to-public-housing-projects of the Great Society at its height. Some lessons were learned and applied. I don't see any reason to think that public provision of health-care access won't be similarly tweaked and recalibrated as we go along.

    (That said, CSH, note my clarification above about Colvin. FWIW, I also posted a late message, which perhaps you never saw, grudgingly conceding some of your arguments on the question of terrorists' Miranda rights a few threads ago. )

    1. You're right about my hyperbole. People/liberals do admit such things, and in the event that Big Insurance creeps into the exchange to peel customers back, liberals will admit that's a problem (assuming it is). That reconciliation just presumably won't happen until those with skin in the game are out of the game (which also applied to urban renewal, IIRC).

      But this isn't particularly a fault of liberals, its just how things go, its how we are. If the evolution is initially slow, cause the original bakers are still in the kitchen, its also not unusual that one such as backyard feels like the man is shafting him (at least at first).

      Thanks for the clarifications; I saw both the Miranda and Colvin posts - fwiw I enjoy these "how it works" conversations more than the traditional, partisan, D vs. R stuff. Maybe that's because the R's have lately been infested by pod people. But I think this level of discussion is much more interesting than talking points (at least to me).

    2. Remarkable discussions, I certainly agree with that. :-)


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