Archive for July, 2019

The Elephant


I’ve spent much of the past cou­ple of years try­ing to explain my polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. It’s hard to do, though, because it’s not par­tic­u­larly simple.

Oh, sure, to most con­ser­v­a­tives I prob­a­bly look like a rag­ing lib­eral, look­ing for­ward to the day when gov­ern­ment owns all forms of com­merce in a nice, lib­eral utopia of col­lec­tivism. I sus­pect I look mighty con­ser­v­a­tive to hard­core lib­eral peo­ple. But all of that turns into caricature.

Part of the prob­lem is that I’m forced to describe my polit­i­cal views through peep­holes. It would take an entire book to describe it in its entirety. And so I end up feel­ing like I write “fan”, “wall”, “rope”, and “tree” arti­cles when I’m try­ing to describe the elephant.

Today I’d like to come closer to writ­ing an “ele­phant” arti­cle, draw­ing upon those pre­vi­ous ones.

I’m quite the fan (!) of free mar­kets. A truly free mar­ket has the fol­low­ing characteristics:

  • No bar­ri­ers to entry or exit
  • Per­fectly avail­able infor­ma­tion to both buy­ers and sellers
  • No affected par­ties in a trans­ac­tion besides the buy­ers and sellers

A truly free mar­ket is sort of like the per­fectly elas­tic bod­ies or per­fectly fric­tion­less sur­faces in clas­si­cal mechan­ics. They’re won­der­ful tools in acad­e­mia to describe fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples. And they make ter­rific start­ing points upon which to layer the imper­fec­tions of the real world, so as to address the inevitable addi­tional com­plex­ity made nec­es­sary by those imperfections.

This means that there is no such thing as a truly free mar­ket, in the same way that there is no such thing as a fric­tion­less sur­face. If we built machines with the assump­tion that there was no fric­tion, the machines would not work. Sim­i­larly, when we build mar­kets assum­ing that they are per­fectly free, they don’t work, either. We should no more be sur­prised that the free mar­kets fail us than we should be sur­prised that machines built for a fric­tion­less world fail us.

At the same time, acknowl­edg­ing that there is no such thing as a truly free mar­ket doesn’t inval­i­date the under­ly­ing the­ory, any more than intro­duc­ing fric­tion inval­i­dates the law of iner­tia. Mak­ing mar­kets work, then, requires acknowl­edg­ing the higher orders of com­plex­ity that we are forced to layer upon the fun­da­men­tal principles.

In many respects, then, good gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion is oil for machines. It reduces the fric­tion that comes from cost exter­nal­i­ties, or imper­fect infor­ma­tion, or bar­ri­ers to entry or exit. Let me pro­vide some exam­ples of each in turn.

I’ll take them in reverse, start­ing with bar­ri­ers. Any time there is a nat­ural scarcity of a resource, there are bar­ri­ers to entry. The whole rea­son com­pa­nies attempt to achieve monop­o­lies is that they are inher­ently insur­mount­able bar­ri­ers to entry for com­peti­tors, which allows for the busi­ness to cap­ture a purely demand-​​based income. That is, the price is based entirely on the demand for the prod­uct, typ­i­cally at the point where prof­its are max­i­mized. When there are no bar­ri­ers to entry, income is supply-​​based instead; prices fall to a point close to the mar­ginal sup­ply cost. As entry bar­ri­ers rise, then, prices move along that con­tin­uüm between the mar­ginal sup­ply cost and the max­i­mum profit price.

In my view, gov­ern­ment should, then, aim to min­i­mize bar­ri­ers to entry, with the excep­tion of intel­lec­tual prop­erty. Since the value is in the idea, rather than the prod­uct, it does make sense for there to be a tem­po­rary monop­oly granted to the cre­ator of the idea. But copy­right law has gone too far when that monop­oly is essen­tially granted in per­pe­tu­ity. It makes a mock­ery of the fun­da­men­tal behind it, which is to encour­age explor­ing new ideas.

How can gov­ern­ment do bet­ter in this area? How about pro­hibit­ing exclu­sive con­tracts? Every exclu­sive con­tract cre­ates monop­o­lies. They sti­fle com­pe­ti­tion. They ulti­mately cost con­sumers more for the same goods, which puts a drag on the econ­omy. Our com­merce laws should aim to min­i­mize bar­ri­ers to entry and bar­ri­ers to exit mar­kets. I rec­og­nize that this pol­icy is viewed as hos­tile toward busi­ness. In a sense, that’s true. Busi­nesses, like the peo­ple who run them, are lazy. They want to get prof­its with min­i­mal effort. When a busi­ness is able to achieve a monop­oly, there is no longer incen­tive to inno­vate. To the extent that monop­o­lies are coun­tered, prof­its are reduced. But we all get more for our money, and we get more rapid inno­va­tion. It’s a ris­ing tide that ulti­mately lifts all boats.

That’s not to say that there is always value in frag­ment­ing a mar­ket fur­ther. To a point, busi­nesses can gain economies of scale and economies of scope by grow­ing. In fact, those economies can lead to lower prices and greater value as well. But that exists only as long as com­pe­ti­tion remains high and bar­ri­ers to entry and exit remain low.

And not all mar­kets are able to sup­port low bar­ri­ers. For exam­ple, it isn’t cost-​​effective to run power lines for mul­ti­ple power sup­ply com­pa­nies in most com­mu­ni­ties (although San Fran­cisco has two com­pletely sep­a­rate power sys­tems: a pub­lic one for gov­ern­ment and a pri­vate one for the res­i­dents). Nor does it make sense to have mul­ti­ple waste col­lec­tion com­pa­nies. So one entity ends up being granted a monop­oly. Per­haps it’s government-​​run, or per­haps it’s a con­tracted pri­vate com­pany. In those cases, though, gov­ern­ment is oblig­ated to man­age the pric­ing and ser­vice, because there is no option for com­pe­ti­tion. Our gov­ern­ment does us a dis­ser­vice when we are unable to val­i­date that we are get­ting the ser­vice we deserve at a fair price. And in order to do this we need access to free information.

And free infor­ma­tion is the next pil­lar of a free mar­ket. If we can­not trust the item we are pur­chas­ing, and com­pare it to sub­sti­tutes, we can­not have a free mar­ket. If we had unlim­ited time to com­par­i­son shop, and unlim­ited capac­ity to learn, we would have a much eas­ier time mak­ing well-​​informed deci­sions. But we don’t. We are forced to take short­cuts. This is why we end up trust­ing spe­cial­ists, whether they work for pri­vate indus­try or for gov­ern­ment. It’s why we should feel threat­ened when politi­cians attempt to under­mine our trust in spe­cial­ists. Reduc­ing our trust in spe­cial­ists makes us poorer eco­nom­i­cally, because it makes us poorer in our eco­nomic deci­sions. It takes us away from freer mar­kets. Gov­ern­ment should be doing every­thing pos­si­ble to encour­age bet­ter infor­ma­tion, par­tic­u­larly since many busi­nesses ben­e­fit by avoid­ing dis­clo­sure. It’s poor infor­ma­tion that led peo­ple to invest in real estate deriv­a­tives nearly a decade ago, and con­tributed might­ily to our worst reces­sion since the 1930s.

And it’s poor infor­ma­tion that leads us to throw our global cli­mate out of whack, which will hurt our soci­ety for gen­er­a­tions to come…a huge cost externality.

I dis­cussed cost exter­nal­i­ties in “Blow­ing Our Inher­i­tance”, where I described tem­po­ral costs — where one gen­er­a­tion is forced to bear the cost that trans­lates to another generation’s ben­e­fit. But these exter­nal­i­ties show up all over the place. When I drive my car, I get the ben­e­fit of quickly get­ting to my des­ti­na­tion. It’s a ben­e­fit to one per­son. The pol­lu­tion I gen­er­ate affects any­where from thou­sands to bil­lions of peo­ple (depend­ing on the type of pol­lu­tion). The costs may be infin­i­tes­i­mally small from my lone act of dri­ving to the gro­cery store, but when you mul­ti­ply that infin­i­tes­i­mally small num­ber by a huge num­ber of peo­ple per­form­ing the same action, the aggre­gate cost is sig­nif­i­cant. So we each gain a large amount of ben­e­fit from each action, while bur­den­ing the rest of the world a small amount, but col­lec­tively we may all be worse off in the end.

What if we had to pay money to every­one in the world for the bur­dens we cause? I’m not talk­ing about a penny to each per­son each time we drive. That would be far too high a com­pen­sa­tion. Imag­ine instead that we had to put our global cost into a bank account, and each of us got a check once a year to cover the cost of what was in the account, based on the par­tic­u­lar bur­den we all bore from the col­lec­tive pol­lu­tion. Then every­one would pay for the bur­dens they cre­ate, and every­one would be com­pen­sated for the bur­dens they received. The closer we can come to achiev­ing this, the bet­ter we address cost exter­nal­i­ties and more accu­rately reflect the true eco­nomic value of a transaction.

Those exter­nal­i­ties don’t exist solely as costs. They also can be exter­nal ben­e­fits. For instance, imag­ine a sce­nario where there is a major street run­ning through a neigh­bor­hood. It has been cracked and pot­holed, and this has made travel down that street very uncomfortable…not to men­tion dam­ag­ing to the cars that drive on it. The res­i­dents band together to pay to have the street repaved. You don’t live in that neigh­bor­hood, but you pass through it on that road every day as part of your com­mute. You get the exter­nal ben­e­fit of a smooth road, while the res­i­dents bore the cost of paving it.

It turns out that much of the Inter­net behaves in this fash­ion. We directly pay for very lit­tle of the net­work over which our com­mu­ni­ca­tions run. We do, how­ever, gain a great deal of exter­nal ben­e­fit by virtue of oth­ers pay­ing for the bulk of the network.

Typ­i­cally, it makes sense for us to col­lect those exter­nal ben­e­fits in cases where it is too oner­ous to directly charge for each use. In those instances, it makes more sense to aggre­gate the costs and dis­trib­ute the col­lected money for the ben­e­fi­cial ser­vices. This is the pri­mary basis for tax­a­tion. Enough of us want those ben­e­fits that we are will­ing to pay for them in a col­lec­tive fash­ion, so as to reduce the fric­tion that would oth­er­wise arise if we had to indi­vid­u­ally pay for each instance of reap­ing the exter­nal benefit.

But how to tax us? Fairly, of course. But fair tax­a­tion means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. It can mean the same num­ber of dol­lars per per­son, or the same per­cent­age of income or wealth per per­son, or the same amount of mar­ginal util­ity per per­son. I am a fan of the mar­ginal util­ity model, but I sus­pect that’s because of the amount of time I’ve spent learn­ing about eco­nom­ics. It’s not a con­cept that most peo­ple are able to under­stand with­out a lot of expla­na­tion. Typ­i­cally, those who under­stand it and con­tinue to oppose it sub­scribe to the belief that pay­ing a lower mar­ginal util­ity tax is just reward for the hard work that led to more wealth.

But there’s another way to view tax­a­tion. Taxes pro­duce drag on the econ­omy. Gov­ern­ment spend­ing that is cov­ered by those taxes stim­u­late the econ­omy. But dif­fer­ent taxes pro­duce dif­fer­ent lev­els of drag for the same amount of tax rev­enue, just as dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment spend­ing stim­u­lates the econ­omy to dif­fer­ent degrees. There­fore, another goal might be to max­i­mize rev­enue per “unit of eco­nomic drag”. That would fund our gov­ern­ment with min­i­mal neg­a­tive impact on the econ­omy. This model ignores any degree of “fair­ness”, but it can make all of us bet­ter off than we would be in any of the ide­ally “fair” mod­els. Would we be hap­pier with more, even if the dis­tri­b­u­tion was less equi­table? Or would we pre­fer a more equi­table dis­tri­b­u­tion, even if it means every one of us is worse off in the end? It’s a good set of ques­tions to ask, but nobody is ask­ing it.

And, much as I wish it weren’t the case, not every­thing can be han­dled with a free mar­ket. Humans are par­tic­u­larly short-​​sighted, espe­cially when they are younger. Monotreme would point out that it’s because of the under­de­vel­oped amyg­dala, but I’m less con­cerned with the why than the what in this case. That short­sight­ed­ness puts us at a social crossroads.

The com­pas­sion­ate side of us doesn’t want us to sub­ject peo­ple to extreme suf­fer­ing, even if it comes from poor deci­sions ear­lier in life. We don’t want old peo­ple to be on the streets, pick­ing their din­ners out of garbage cans until they die of some eas­ily cur­able mal­ady. We don’t want young peo­ple to die after auto­mo­bile acci­dents sim­ply because they don’t have insur­ance to cover the med­ical costs incurred in the accident.

Yet, the per­sonal respon­si­bil­ity side of us (to which I alluded on Sat­ur­day in “Self-​​Doubting Thomas”) makes us want peo­ple to be self-​​sufficient. We want more ants and fewer grasshop­pers. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, a soci­ety of ants will have a more robust econ­omy than a soci­ety of grasshop­pers. To the extent, then, that we shield peo­ple from poor deci­sions, we encour­age more grasshoppers.

How do we, as a soci­ety, address this para­dox? Poorly, to be per­fectly frank. Grasshop­pers tend to col­lect exter­nal ben­e­fits with­out con­tribut­ing to cover the asso­ci­ated costs. But they do so whether they are shielded from their poor deci­sions or left to be sub­ject to them. We could go Jonathan Swift on them, of course. But even the most cal­lous among us seem unwill­ing to go to those extremes. This leaves us with unavoid­able grasshop­per costs. Our options are to focus on the lowest-​​cost ways of deal­ing with them (per­haps a return to the poor­houses of the 19th cen­tury?), or to accept the fis­cal costs of deal­ing with them in a com­pas­sion­ate way. If we choose the lat­ter, we must accept that it will almost cer­tainly increase the num­ber of grasshop­pers. That sim­ply becomes one of the costs of appeal­ing to our sense of compassion.

Nat­u­rally, I lean toward that more com­pas­sion­ate model, in no small part because I rec­og­nize that it is nearly impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate those who choose to be grasshop­pers from those who have grasshop­per­ness thrust upon them (e.g., those who grew up with­out the resources that would have led them to become ants, or had extreme cir­cum­stances that pre­cluded anthood).

This becomes par­tic­u­larly impor­tant when deal­ing with health­care, since it doesn’t fit well into any form of free mar­ket. This is why I noted, so long ago, that “Health Insur­ance Isn’t Really Insur­ance at All”. Health­care is so com­plex, because it deals in so many sub­mar­kets, that we can­not hope to address the costs we have with­out teas­ing the sep­a­rate parts from each other, and address­ing them indi­vid­u­ally, but in a holis­tic fashion.

Ulti­mately, these prin­ci­ples are what led me to align with the Democ­rats. I don’t want social­ism. I don’t want any­thing close to it. But I want to com­pas­sion­ately address our health­care and the social safety net nec­es­sary to sup­port our society’s com­pas­sion for our fel­low humans. I want to achieve the goals of lower crime and bet­ter lives for Amer­i­cans — not just today, but for gen­er­a­tions to come — at the low­est net present cost pos­si­ble. I want to encour­age mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion so as to max­i­mize eco­nomic Dar­win­ism, but do so in a fash­ion that encom­passes the total costs of the trans­ac­tions, so that those engaged in com­merce don’t ben­e­fit by steal­ing from those around them.

While I don’t believe that the entirety of the Demo­c­ra­tic Party Plat­form aligns with those beliefs, far more of it does than does the Repub­li­can Party’s counterpart.

But what I long for most is for these issues to be dis­cussed. We haven’t had many true polit­i­cal debates in the United States in my life­time. It’s too easy to go for the cheap shot, and those who do receive too much ben­e­fit to stop doing it. It was my hope from the start that Log­a­rchism could be a bea­con of light, a place where the issues could be dis­cussed with­out devolv­ing into cheap shots. I think we’ve done bet­ter than most cor­ners of the Inter­net, and I’m proud of that. But I’m also sorry that we haven’t been able to do more.

What does our future look like when we can’t look holis­ti­cally at pol­icy, when we must reduce every­thing to sim­ple solu­tions to com­plex problems…simple solu­tions that we all know (or should know) won’t work? As we approach the 237th anniver­sary of the offi­cial sign­ing of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, I fear for our coun­try. We can­not solve any­thing if we are unwill­ing to con­sider, recon­sider, and rethink that which we already “know”.

That is the real ele­phant in the room.

From the Inside Out


The late Con­gress­man and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, “All pol­i­tics is local.” Even as the national Con­gress seems stale­mated, unable to enact even such vital leg­is­la­tion as a jobs bill or firearm reform or a new immi­gra­tion bill, locked in seem­ingly end­less par­ti­san obstruc­tion­ism — even as inac­tion reigns supreme, state leg­is­la­tures across the coun­try are mak­ing progress, though too often the progress is in tak­ing states backward.

There is some good news. Col­orado will require more back­ground checks for gun sales, and will out­law high-​​capacity ammu­ni­tion mag­a­zines. At least eigh­teen other states, how­ever, have loos­ened firearms restric­tions. As of July 1, for instance, Kansas will allow schools to arm employ­ees with con­cealed hand­guns, and will ensure weapons can be car­ried into more pub­lic buildings.

Are there peo­ple who hon­estly believe that the way to reduce gun vio­lence is to have more guns? Per­haps so; or per­haps much action in state leg­is­la­tures is more par­ti­san than ratio­nal.

The Penn­syl­va­nia state Sen­ate nego­ti­ated with the state’s Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor, Tom Cor­bett, to include the Afford­able Care Act’s Med­ic­aid expan­sion in next year’s bud­get. The mea­sure passed in the Sen­ate on Sun­day night on a 40–10 vote. A key com­mit­tee in the state House, how­ever, stripped that pro­vi­sion on Mon­day from the ver­sion of the bill being con­sid­ered there. This would make Penn­syl­va­nia the 22nd state to turn down these bil­lions of dol­lars in fed­eral aid money.

It is dif­fi­cult to see why a state would reject the expan­sion of Med­ic­aid, since it is being paid for through fed­eral funds, and requires noth­ing from the states for the first three years. After that point, the por­tion paid by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment grad­u­ally reduces to 90 per­cent in 2020. Even with states pick­ing up one tenth of the cost, they will save money, since giv­ing ade­quate health care will mean lower costs for emer­gency rooms. A health­ier cit­i­zenry means fewer missed work­days, fewer med­ical bank­rupt­cies, and fewer unnec­es­sary deaths — thus, higher tax col­lec­tions. It’s a win-​​win, and should a no-​​brainer.

All is not lost for the Med­ic­aid expan­sion. In Ohio, the Repub­li­can gov­er­nor, John Kasich, vetoed lan­guage in the bud­get bill that would pre­vent him from mov­ing for­ward with this pro­vi­sion of the ACA, though he did leave intact oner­ous new anti-​​abortion pro­vi­sions. In Nebraska, 22 state Sen­a­tors pledged to con­tinue work­ing on putting the expan­sion back into the state bud­get, after it hav­ing been stripped out of the cur­rent bill. In all, 23 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia have approved these Med­ic­aid pro­vi­sions that will help mil­lions of peo­ple earn­ing less than 138 per­cent of the fed­eral poverty line, or roughly $31,800 for a fam­ily of four.

Is there any excuse, other than ide­ol­ogy, for deny­ing this cov­er­age? Does with­hold­ing health care for poor peo­ple serve any legit­i­mate purpose?

As men­tioned, Ohio is about to insti­tute severe — and so far, unique — abor­tion restrictions:

Clin­ics must have an agree­ment with a local hos­pi­tal to trans­fer patients there in the case of an emer­gency, but pub­lic hos­pi­tals are barred from enter­ing into those agree­ments… Another way the new law is unusual: the direc­tor of the state depart­ment of health, a polit­i­cal appointee, has the uni­lat­eral power to revoke vari­ances given to clin­ics with­out a trans­fer agree­ment. The direc­tor also deter­mines whether trans­fer agree­ments are satisfactory.

The new law also cuts funds for Planned Par­ent­hood, requires trans­vagi­nal ultra­sounds, and for­bids most med­ical coun­sel­ing that would dis­cuss abortion.

In Texas, an anti-​​abortion bill was fil­i­bus­tered to death — by a real fil­i­buster! — last week in an heroic effort by state Sen­a­tor Wendy Davis. In response, the Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor, Rick Perry, called a spe­cial ses­sion of the state leg­is­la­ture to rein­tro­duce the mea­sure:

The bill would ban most abor­tions after 20 weeks of preg­nancy and would tighten reg­u­la­tions on abor­tion clin­ics and the doc­tors who work at them. Crit­ics said the mea­sure would have shut most of the abor­tion clin­ics in Texas.

Indeed, the bill would leave five clin­ics in oper­a­tion for the entire, enor­mous state. Cur­rently, there are about 40, so that’s clos­ing 88 per­cent of them. At least thir­teen states have passed new lim­its on abor­tions. A bill intended to close clin­ics in Alabama has been tem­porar­ily blocked by a fed­eral judge.

It’s clear that most of these anti-​​choice laws would be ruled uncon­sti­tu­tional in light of Roe v. Wade. Or at least, they almost cer­tainly would be by any­thing other than the Roberts court. A coin flip might be a rel­a­tively accu­rate pre­dic­tor of what would hap­pen if these laws are chal­lenged today.

In other, non-​​health mat­ters, in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court deci­sion strik­ing down an impor­tant pro­vi­sion of the Vot­ing Rights Act, sev­eral states are con­sid­er­ing (or have already enacted) restric­tive new vot­ing laws; Vir­ginia, North Car­olina, Penn­syl­va­nia, Alabama, Wis­con­sin, and Texas are among them.

On the plus side, new leg­is­la­tion in eight states will pre­vent busi­nesses from demand­ing pass­words to social media sites as a con­di­tion of employ­ment. Though, on the down­side, this means in at least eight states, such intru­sive demands from employ­ers were appar­ently com­mon enough that the state leg­is­la­tures felt com­pelled to enact such laws.

An excel­lent sum­mary overview of the action in state leg­is­la­tures can be found here. Some of the new laws will undoubt­edly infu­ri­ate, some will delight, some will make one sit up in sur­prise. My per­sonal favorite is that Ken­tucky has just repealed a Prohibition-​​era law ban­ning election-​​day drinking.

Per­haps we all need that sort of release on elec­tion day, for Amer­ica is that sort of nation — no mat­ter your polit­i­cal point-​​of-​​view, every cycle brings plenty to cel­e­brate and plenty to lament. At the least, this mix pro­vides plenty of rea­son for peo­ple on all sides to remain active. Our multi-​​tiered sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, with elected offi­cials in cities, coun­ties, states, and other regional and local juris­dic­tions in addi­tion to fed­eral, gives oppor­tu­nity for both value and mis­chief of almost infi­nite variety.

On this July 4, as you watch the fire­works and cel­e­brate another can­dle in the nation’s cake, take stock of what the nation is doing, where it’s been, where it’s going. Think about where you want it to go, and where you might be able to make a dif­fer­ence. A nation’s life is not a spec­ta­tor sport.

In Amer­ica, the peo­ple gov­ern. The gov­ern­ment is made up of cit­i­zens, not nobil­ity rul­ing hered­i­tary fief­doms. More, the peo­ple chose rep­re­sen­ta­tives; even appointed offi­cials are selected by rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the peo­ple. That is the whole point of Amer­ica, the pur­pose of the nation, the rea­son it was cre­ated. To the extent that we relin­quish our power to cor­po­rate inter­ests, to monied mouth­pieces, or to pro­fes­sional lob­by­ists, we fail to achieve our national purpose.

If you are dis­sat­is­fied with the direc­tion of the nation, your state, your city, or your county, it is up to you to do some­thing about that. If you don’t see changes you want, look in the mir­ror for the cause.

All pol­i­tics is local. It starts in your home, and spreads from there.

Can We All Get Along?


In March 1991, Rod­ney King was beaten by offi­cers of the Los Ange­les Police Depart­ment. It was cap­tured on video­tape, one of the first viral videos of a new age, and it heated an unsta­ble flam­ma­ble mix­ture. The mix­ture smol­dered dur­ing the year between the inci­dent and the trial of the LAPD offi­cers; when they were acquit­ted, oxy­gen got to the smol­der­ing rags and the Los Ange­les riots, the dead­liest riots in the US in over 130 years, broke out in late April and early May 1992.

Too late, see­ing what his traf­fic stop and beat­ing had trig­gered, King pleaded with Los Ange­lenos: “Can we all get along?”

Look­ing at the cur­rent state of polit­i­cal dis­course, I think the same thing.

I was amazed, dis­mayed, and ulti­mately sad­dened by the treat­ment of Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton by his oppo­nents. The Inter­net was still rel­a­tively new then. There was a World Wide Web, but it wasn’t in wide­spread use, and I got most of my online infor­ma­tion from what were called “Usenet News­groups”. Any­one with a bit of com­puter savvy could set up one of these groups and say their piece. I had fam­ily in Mena, Arkansas, so I was more than a lit­tle sur­prised to find a group called (as I recall) alt.conspiracy.mena. I can’t find any trace of it now, but here’s a sam­ple of the kind of things you’d find there.

Take the entire Vin­cent Fos­ter sui­cide con­spir­acy the­ory. Based on a very thin line of “evi­dence”, it was the most vile, nasty, evil set of accu­sa­tions I had ever seen. Even that thin reed was for­ti­fied by Rush Lim­baugh and his ilk on talk radio and TV.

Again, after 9/​11, my fer­vent hope was that we would band together as a nation and move for­ward based on our man­i­fest com­mon inter­est. Then Pres­i­dent Bush send Colin Pow­ell to present mostly fab­ri­cated evi­dence to the United Nations, and we were at war with Iraq, but at the same time we went back to our war of words (and some­times bul­lets) in what now passes for “polit­i­cal discourse”.

Nate Silver’s FiveThir­tyEight blog was a polit­i­cal breath of fresh air for me. I dis­cov­ered it in early 2008, shortly after Nate estab­lished it, and I found there a com­mu­nity of peo­ple who actu­ally amassed sci­en­tific and ratio­nal data to sup­port their posi­tions. Even the peo­ple I dis­agreed with seemed to be strug­gling to stack evi­den­tiary bricks on their side and we on the lib­eral left attempted to do the same.

When Nate moved to the New York Times and became bound by the Old Gray Lady’s com­ment pol­icy, we knew the jig was up. We tried, first at 538Refugees, then here at Log­a­rchism, to recre­ate what was lost, but Nate’s blog had that inde­fin­able qual­ity that came from his per­sonal and polit­i­cal nous and incred­i­ble intel­lect. We have since attempted to make the same match burn twice.

And so I still long for that place where we use logic, and data, and sci­ence, to feed our thought­ful, rea­soned argu­ment. A sort of polit­i­cal sci­ence forum with the empha­sis on the “sci­ence”. A place where, as the old say­ing goes, “we can dis­agree with­out being disagreeable”.

Let’s be the change we want to see in the world. Let’s go out and make polit­i­cal dis­course the way we want it to be. Slowly, surely, we will turn this wrecked bat­tle­ship around and get back to where we need to be.

Eating Worms


When we were chil­dren and encoun­tered oth­ers in the rough-​​and-​​tumble of the play­ground who con­stantly whined about how mean and unfair every­body was,  we had a sen­si­ble way of deal­ing with them. We taunted them by singing, “Nobody likes me, every­body hates me, I’m going to eat some worms…” These days it seems to me that our con­ser­v­a­tive friends could ben­e­fit from a bit of that same brac­ing grade-​​school rem­edy. Too many con­ser­v­a­tives have become polit­i­cal para­noids who search out, col­lect and brood over any kind of neg­a­tive press, how­ever triv­ial, and cat­a­log it in their minds as incon­tro­vert­ible proof that the whole mas­sive media indus­try is a bunch of big mean poopy­heads who are all totally biased against them.

In the recent Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion their whin­ing, griev­ance and delu­sions of per­se­cu­tion reached such a level that Repub­li­cans actu­ally did start to eat worms. They were so upset by masses of polls show­ing the national unpop­u­lar­ity of their cho­sen can­di­date, they went out into their own back gar­den and dug up a mess of fat, slimy “unskewed” polls, which they all pro­ceeded to chew and swal­low with gusto. Sad and painful belly­aches inevitably fol­lowed… because para­noia makes peo­ple do really irra­tional and dan­ger­ous things.

The meme of “anti-​​conservative media bias” started decades ago with Richard Nixon, the ulti­mate polit­i­cal para­noid. By now it is vir­tu­ally impos­si­ble to con­vince any con­ser­v­a­tive that lib­er­als do not have a death-​​grip on all kinds of media, which they have spent years infest­ing with inerad­i­ca­ble left-​​wing bias. They believe this in spite of much evi­dence to the con­trary includ­ing arti­cles like this one point­ing out var­i­ous con­ser­v­a­tive advan­tages in the media, includ­ing the fact that that the highest-​​circulating news­pa­per in the nation is the staunchly con­ser­v­a­tive Wall Street Jour­nal, the dom­i­nant cable net­work in the land is FOX News, and the top polit­i­cal talk radio pro­grams, Lim­baugh and Han­nity, out­draw the oppo­si­tion by prac­ti­cally an order of mag­ni­tude. But none of this is per­sua­sive to con­ser­v­a­tives, who per­ceive any neg­a­tive report about a Repub­li­can politi­cian (or any praise of a Demo­c­rat) as fur­ther evi­dence of ram­pant bias.

The Neiman Jour­nal­ism Lab has done some fas­ci­nat­ing work on the per­cep­tion of bias. They think much of it comes from our reac­tion to brand­ing, and they pro­vide an illus­tra­tion of how read­ers per­ceive bias dif­fer­ently when the same story is reported under a New York Times head­line and then a FOX News one. The final deter­mi­na­tion of the researchers, unsur­pris­ingly, is that the more strongly we iden­tify with a par­tic­u­lar group, the more likely we are to per­ceive a bias against that group. And since con­ser­v­a­tives not only bond together more strongly than Democ­rats, but also are more likely to share a para­noid view of a world that is always chang­ing too fast for their com­fort, it is unsur­pris­ing that they would per­ceive mas­sive sys­temic bias where it does not exist.

In fact, there are many media ana­lysts and crit­ics who feel that media in gen­eral, pum­meled by these con­stant attacks from the right, is being too zeal­ous with their efforts at “bal­anced jour­nal­ism,” wherein they not only try to por­tray the view from both sides, but to bal­ance a report of neg­a­tive behav­ior from one party by search­ing out some­thing equally damn­ing from the other side. This was evi­dent in the recent elec­tion when Repub­li­can Sen­ate can­di­dates Todd Aiken and Richard Mour­dock made extremely dam­ag­ing com­ments about rape. Con­ser­v­a­tives com­plained that sim­i­lar gaffes on the left were unfairly being ignored. In fact, there were no “sim­i­lar com­ments” from the left to report. What was the media expected to do…dig up and pub­lish unflat­ter­ing high school year­book pho­tos of Demo­c­ra­tic Sen­ate can­di­dates to pro­vide “balance?”

At last it appears a few sen­si­ble Repub­li­cans, stung by elec­tion losses and wor­ried about the image of their party, are finally show­ing signs of being ready to give up their fix­a­tion on “media bias” as the cause of all their trou­bles. Michael Potemra, right-​​wing com­men­ta­tor at the National Review, expresses the view that even some on the right are grow­ing tired of the “media bias” excuse so often trot­ted out by dis­grun­tled Repub­li­cans. Potemra ends his com­ments with this:

I once heard the con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal philoso­pher Hadley Arkes, in a speech, refer to media bias as akin to the “law of grav­ity.” There was much wis­dom in that com­par­i­son: To say that the law of grav­ity is the cause of plane crashes is not espe­cially help­ful, and if air­lines got in the habit of rely­ing on that expla­na­tion, we would have cause for worry.

The Repub­li­can air­craft may not yet be plum­met­ing to earth, but it is cer­tainly expe­ri­enc­ing some scary tur­bu­lence. If their once-​​mighty plane does even­tu­ally crash, grav­ity will be a fac­tor but it will not be the under­ly­ing cause. For that, Repub­li­cans will need to look else­where… not at “media bias” but at the ide­o­log­i­cal stances within their polit­i­cal move­ment that are cur­rently mak­ing it so unpalat­able to a major­ity of Amer­i­cans. And if they want to avoid becom­ing sub­ject to the down­ward pull of grav­ity and its inevitable result, they’ll need to work fast to fig­ure out what those fac­tors are.

And they really need to stop eat­ing worms. That’s just nasty.

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