An online banking application in China has collected more than $66 billion from 81 million customers in less than nine months. The app, Yu’E Bao, which launched last June, gives customers a seven-day annualized return with a high yield of 6 percent, compared to the just 3 percent offered for a one-year deposit at state-controlled banks. With no minimum deposit or mandatory time frame, it also lets customers access their money simply by tapping their phones. It’s understandable then why Yu’E Bao has attracted more than 20 million users in the past 20 days. But with an increase this significant, Yu’E Bao is ruffling a few feathers in the traditional finance community.
The editor-in-chief of CCTV’s Stock and Information Channel, Wenxin Niu, said Yu’E Bao is a vampire sinking its teeth into Chinese banks’ veins. He also called it a parasite living in China’s finance system. Niu and others worry that Yu’E Bao will negatively affect liquidity in the money market and cause interest rates to spike, thus increasing both the cost of production and prices in the larger economy. Niu argues that Yu’E Bao should be regulated and, even better, banned. Are Yu’E Bao’s critics totally overreacting, or do they have a point?
The short answer is that it’s a little hard to tell right now. While Yu’E Bao is growing rapidly, its current share of the market is still infinitesimal. UBS, a Swiss financial service company, estimates that, because of Yu’E Bao’s disruption in the market, Chinese banks’ net interest margin may see a reduction of roughly 0.1 percent. If 10 percent of total bank deposits in China flow into online products like Yu’E Bao and others, UBS predicted that Chinese banks could lose some income from fees, but it’s unclear whether that would shake the big banks, according to a Chicago Tribune story.
Other Yu’E Bao critics worry that the app simply isn’t as safe or stable as state-backed banks. As an online-only service, Yu’E Bao customers’ money and financial information could be the target of attacks from hackers and data thieves.
But it’s important to remember that Yu’E Bao is neither a fly-by-night tech start-up nor unprecedented. The app is owned by a company called Alipay, which is itself an affiliate of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, the largest e-commerce company in China. Alibaba, in turn, operates two platforms online, T Mall and Taobao Mall, where customers pay via online banking services or Alipay (China’s PayPal). Cash drawn by Yu’E Bao goes into a money-market fund, Tian Hong Asset Management Co., in which Alibaba owns a majority stake. Customers can move around money between their online banking accounts, Alipay, and Yu’E Bao and spend their earned interests in T Mall and Taobao Mall via Yu’E Bao.
In 1999, Ebay Inc.’s PayPal offered customers a similar product, but the money-market fund behind the product closed in 2011 after interest rates fell under 0.05 percent due to the financial collapse. Back in the day, it also offered a five percent return.
The way that Yu’E Bao makes money is similar to how banks do: they collect cash from customers and invest the money into something else. The main difference is that Yu’E Bao has a higher yield, is very convenient to use, and offers customers flexibility in accessing and moving around their money. It also collects for the most part much smaller sums of money—deposits that many banks simply wouldn’t bother with. By picking up small deposits of cash here and there, Yu’E Bao has not only dramatically grown its customer base, it’s also lured customers from traditional banks.
While traditional banks and folks like CCTV commentator Niu may be squawking, apps like Yu’E Bao may be good news for many. Chinese President Xi Jinping has worked to advance a free-market agenda and is in favor of liberalizing interest rates. By forcing traditional banks to compete with online products, customers may get a better deal no matter where they invest.
C’est l’histoire d’un homme qui tombe d’un immeuble de cinquante étages. Le mec, au fur et à mesure de sa chute se répète sans cesse pour se rassurer : jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien.
Mais l’important c’est pas la chute, c’est l’atterrissage.
This week’s film recommendation is often considered one of the finest that independent French cinema has to offer: Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995). It’s the story of a man who falls fifty storeys down a high-rise. While falling, he reassures himself by repeating the same words: so far everything’s ok, so far everything’s ok, so far, everything’s ok. But the important thing isn’t the fall. It’s the landing.
The backdrop to the film is a riot that has thrown Paris into tumult, and a young man named Abdel into a coma from a violent altercation with the police. While we never meet Abdel, his story is told for us over the course of a single day by his three friends who live in the Parisian banlieues. Vinz is a Jew with an impetuous streak, played by a young pre-Hollywood Vincent Cassel; Saïd is an Arab with a flair for comedy, and is played by Saïd Taghmaoui, also before his own successful - albeit less illustrious - career kicked off; and Hub, played by Hubert Koundé, is a taciturn black former owner of a boxing gym that was burned down during the riots. During the confusion of the riots, Vinz has picked up a gun left by a policeman and resolves to use it to exact revenge on the cops in the event that Abdel dies.
The three characters drift listlessly through the Parisian landscape, searching for something to do. They have no jobs, no aspirations, and no social network beyond one another. Even the neighborhood they come from is a barren wasteland an hour away from downtown central Paris. They feel disconnected, and they don’t seem to care about it. Instead, they try desperately to eke out some excitement from their day, whether by finding a rooftop party worth attending, or by crashing an art gallery reception, or by embroiling themselves in conflict with either the local skinheads or the cops. But the film doesn’t so much glide from scene to scene as it scrapes your nerves back and forth across broken glass. While you know the characters are trying to achieve little more than ‘getting by’, you also know that l’important c’est pas la chute, c’est l’atterrissage.
The metaphor of the film, of the man falling fifty storeys, reappears frequently. It isn’t entirely clear until the ending - and even then, interpretations can still vary - whether the falling ‘man’ represents the three protagonists or French society. For my money, it represents Vinz, whose pride inexorably leads him into trouble, but watch the film and let me know your thoughts in the comments.
While the decision to use black and white was probably driven by budgetary constraints, Kassovitz does some great work with the camera, and the washed out colors in fact add to the effect of the prevailing sterility of the environment. The dialogue is outstanding, and even in translation La Haine captures the syncopation and lyricism of lower class urban French patois. The characters are all - even the cops - presented both sympathetically and unsympathetically, thanks to the superb acting on all fronts. A standout scene in particular is ‘The Grunwalski Monologue,’ about well, no one really knows what it’s about, but I’ve embedded it below in the hopes of getting you hooked.
Lindsay Holmes has penned a widely-circulated piece on what not to say to people with anxiety disorders. Many people respond to the chronically anxious with phrases like “Calm down”, “Why can’t you relax?” or “Just do it”. As she and I discussed, these well-intended responses often make people feel they have to fight to defend their anxiety to others, which makes their emotional state worse rather than better:
“Obviously if they could overcome this they would because it would be more pleasant,” Humphreys says. “No one chooses to have anxiety. Using [these phrases] makes them feel defensive and unsupported.”
In couple counselling sessions and in life more generally I have countless times listened to one person express a negative emotion and then another well-meaning person respond by tell them effectively that no, they don’t actually have (or should not have) the negative emotion they just revealed. I am sure I have done the same thing, and left suffering people feeling rejected as a result.
The humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers described a paradox of acceptance and psychological change that I often saw validated in my experience as mental health professional. Simply put, the moment people feel accepted in their misery is often the moment they begin to change. “Letting go” of anxiety, sadness, hurt, anger, grief and the like is not easy when someone tries to actively take it from us. Perverse as it sounds, we hang on to our dysphoria more rather than less when someone tries to argue us out of it. Yet when painful emotions are recognized and accepted, letting them go voluntarily suddenly seems possible.
If someone you love is suffering emotionally and you want it to stop, ordering them to change is likely only to generate mutual frustration. But being with them non-judgmentally in their suffering strangely enough can sometimes be the doorway to exiting it together.
There’s a lot to disagree with in Tyler Cowen’s latest post responding to Hans Noel’s piece about the nature of political science scholarship. Basically, Hans was objecting to Nicholas Kristof’s complaint that most political scientists would object to Bill Clinton being hired with a “tenured professorship” in their department. Hans said that of course Clinton should not be hired into such a position, since that’s a scholarly job, and Clinton, for all his intelligence and experience, does not produce scholarship. Cowen responds thusly:
I recently read Noel’s book on political polarization and enjoyed it, especially his discussion of how intellectual elites have led the process of polarization. Still, I would trade in having read that book for a five minute chat with Bill Clinton.
I assume others will weigh in on various aspects of Cowen’s post, but I wanted to particularly comment on the above quote with the somewhat unique perspective of one who’s known (sort of) both Clinton and Noel. (I used to work for Clinton (with many buffers in between us), and Hans and I have written papers together and are currently collaborating on a textbook.) Here goes:
You will learn far more about American politics from reading Hans Noel’s book, even a chapter from it, than you will from a five-minute chat with Bill Clinton.
Hans explores more than a century of political debates in the nation’s newspapers and magazines to discover how ideologies are forged and how they control parties and politicians for decades thereafter. He not only draws out the arc of American partisan development, but also gives us new insight into the nature of ideology, one of the most important but least well understood concepts in political science.
You will not get anything like that out of Clinton. He will tell you some great stories and will quite possibly offer an insight or two about American politics that you hadn’t considered. He’ll flatter you with attention and demonstrate how bright and charming he is. It will be a great five minutes. But the main thing that you’ll get out of the experience is a photo for your wall and a chance to tell your grandchildren that you had a five minute conversation with Bill Clinton. To think that you’ll get as much from that brief conversation as you will out of reading Hans’ book is to reveal that you care more about celebrity than knowledge.
I say this not to denigrate Clinton, who is really quite brilliant and I imagine would have made an outstanding scholar had he chosen that line of work. But he didn’t.
We are all familiar with the spectacle of a dog frantically chasing a car, which strikes us as stupid because, after all, what on Earth would the dog do with the car if it actually caught it?
That’s basically what we’re witnessing with the Republicans’ monomaniacal war on the Affordable Care Act:
The GOP’s message may well evolve between now and November, but the most tangible early indicator — advertising spending by conservative groups against Democratic candidates — shows how intensely it is focusing on the health-care law.
“It has been the predominant focus of both our grass roots and our advertising efforts,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the primary political operation of a donor network backed by billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch.
Of the roughly $30 million the group has spent on ads since August, Phillips said, at least 95 percent has gone toward spots about the health-care law.
Democrats have been tracking that spending to help gauge what their candidates will be facing.
In Senate races, where control of the chamber is on the line, all but $240,000 of the $21.2 million that super PACs are spending on television advertising has gone into attacks centered on the health-care law, said Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The exceptions were ad buys in three states that criticized Democratic senators for supporting President Obama’s judicial nominees.
There is a lot of polling data about ObamaCare, and you can pick and choose which numbers you want to focus on. I like the fact that 57% of self-proclaimed independents think we should either keep the law as it is or make improvements to it, versus 33% who think it should be scrapped. I don’t like that 29% of voters say that they have been negatively impacted by the law versus 17% who say that they have benefitted.
Overall, you could fairly say that the law is slowly becoming less unpopular. This is a victory in itself, considering how much money the Republicans have spent on trashing the law, and how little money the Democrats have spent defending it. If the law were to become popular, the Republicans’ entire midterm strategy would collapse.
As I’ve noted in recent days, the Republicans are so focused on using ObamaCare as a weapon in the midterms that they don’t want to take on tax or immigration reform because either issue would divide their caucus and take the country’s focus off their war on health coverage.
But, I think the public is going to notice that they are like the dog that chases the car. If you elect them to dismantle ObamaCare, they will have no solutions. They can’t do better than ObamaCare no matter what they would like you to believe. Their proposed reforms would cost more money, insure less people, and take away plans from people who like their plans. Everything they claim not to like about the law, they would make worse.
So, while I am nervous about the differential in firepower and resources being dedicated to arguing about ObamaCare, I think the Republicans are putting all their eggs in one basket full of lies and distortion and that we ought to be able to outflank such a clumsy, plodding, charge.
I recently gave an interview (see here or here) to Evan Juska of The Climate Group, an environmental activist organization concerned about climate change. They were interested in the implications of my book for climate change politics.
First, although I’m sure they could do better than to focus on my work, it’s fun to see an organization looking outside their own policy area for lessons in how politics might work.
Second, a common thread in the questions I think illustrates a common perspective we’ve talked about here at MOF a lot. Too many people see the ideological polarization of the parties as if it’s some insurmountable barrier to progress. It might be a barrier to progress, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable.
I don’t want to make the case here that polarization isn’t that bad, although I’m not sure exactly how bad it is. But however bad polarization is, ideological conflict is here, and I don’t know anyone who thinks it is going away soon. So solutions that involve everyone just realizing that they need to “get beyond” their disagreements are probably not going to be very helpful.
What is more, that’s what democracy is about (the disagreement, not the beatings). It’s easy to believe that your policy goals are best for the country, and your opposition is just some special interest trying to undermine everything. But that’s what they think about you. Democracy is designed to give all sides a voice. So there will be conflict. Parties don’t create that conflict, but they do manage it, organizing it, sometimes suppressing it and sometimes amplifying it.
In such a system, Progress doesn’t come by persuading everyone to agree with you. Progress comes by persuading enough people that you have a winning coalition. And parties are ready-made coalitions. If your party is a majority, that’s possibly a winning coalition right there. And even if you aren’t a majority, it’s at least a significant step toward one.
The problem with ideological polarization, of course, is that you have two well-organized coalitions that are always trying to stop other. That’s a recipe for obstruction. But that’s a problem the founders designed for us. At any rate, it’s not clear that you can beat the system by pretending that your opponents are not also playing the same game.
People in this town pay a lot of attention to national races, but for the most part, the District’s politics—the battles and squabbles going on in our own backyards—are overlooked, forgotten and ignored.
Now’s the time to brush up. With the District’s primary mayoral election just around the corner—it’ll take place April 1—and the general election November 1, here’s a quick, basic cheat sheet on all you need to know about local politics in DC.
The Mayoral Race
Incumbent Vincent C. Gray (D), who’s 71 now, is facing five primary challengers and three more in the general election. His only serious rival at this point is independent David Catania, 46, a former Republican who, according to general election polling last November, attracted 38 percent of the total vote (compared to Gray’s 43 percent). Catania, who is running on school reform and providing health coverage for the uninsured, could be the first white mayor of the District. He is also openly gay.
In the crowded Democratic field, the electorate is largely ambivalent. A poll by NBC4, WAMU, Washington Informer and Marist, released just yesterday, indicates that while 56 percent of registered Democrats approve of the job Gray’s done as mayor, 63 percent believed he didn’t deserve to be reelected—a reflection, perhaps, of Gray’s missteps during the 2010 campaign, and the enduring criticism that family homelessness has increased under his tenure.
According to a January 15 Washington Post poll, however, Gray doesn’t need to sweat it too much, marshaling a solid 24 percent of the Democratic vote. He is trailed by council members Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6), all of whom split the remaining Dems with roughly 11 to 12 percent of the vote each.
Muriel E. Bowser, 41, is running on school reform that would “connects the dots” between lower, middle and high schools. If she were to win, she would be the first woman mayor in 20 years. (Sharon Pratt was mayor from 1991 to 1995.) Jack Evans, 60, a career politician known for his role on the council’s Finance and Revenue Committee, is also running on school reform—namely, smoothing out the disparities between charter and public schools in the District. Tommy Wells, 56, has run as a reformer, promising to “rebuild the integrity” of the District government.
The remaining two Democratic candidates don’t stand much of a chance. Andy Shallal, 58, a restaurateur, proposes to close the gap between the rich and the poor in the District, while Reta Jo Lewis, 60, a former State Department official, who polls just under 1 percent of the vote, is running as an outsider. DC Statehood Green Faith Dane, 86, an actress, musician and artist and libertarian Bruce Majors, 53, a real estate agent, are unlikely to draw significant numbers either.
Chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia
Incumbent: Phil Mendelson (D)
Candidate: Phil Mendelson (D) Calvin H. Gurley (D)
Phil Mendelson rose to his current position because the former chairman Kwame Brown resigned and pleaded guilty of bank fraud and a misdemeanor campaign finance violation. He, along with Gray, supported keeping smoking pot in public a crime. Calvin Gurley is much less known and has been lackadaisical in his fundraising efforts. In January’s campaign finance reports, Gurley raised $230.26 compared to Mendelson’s $25,840.
At-Large Member of the Council of the District of Columbia
Incumbent: David Grosso (I) David Catania (I) Anita Bonds (D) Vincent Orange (D)
Candidates: John F. Settles, II (D) Anita Bonds (D) Nate Bennett-Fleming (D) Pedro Rubio (D) Marc Morgan (R) Eugene Puryear (STG) G. Lee Aikin (STG) Frederick Steiner (LIB)
The only member who is running for a second term is Anita Bonds, who came to power in 2012 in a special election after Phil Mendelson rose to council chairmanship. John Settles, who ran against Bonds in the 2012 special election, flamed out after failing to collect enough signatures even though he had raised more than $30,000. Nate Bennett-Fleming is the current Shadow Rep. and is running on similar issues as well as government reform.
Ward 1 Member of the Council
Incumbent: Jim Graham
Candidate: Jim Graham (D) Brianne K. Nadeau (D)
Jim Graham faces challenges from his Democrat opponent Brianne Nadeau, who is backed by at-large council member David Grosso. Graham was said to have improperly intervened on a city contract in February, but he denied any wrongdoing. Another candidate, Beverley Wheeler, withdrew from the race and said he will run as an independent for the Ward 1 council seat in the general election. Wheeler endorses Nadeau. The competition of the Ward 1 seat will be intense.
Ward 3 Member of the Council
Incumbent: Mary Cheh
Candidate: Mary Cheh (D) Ryan Sabot (LIB)
Mary Cheh introduced more than 800 bills and resolutions on issues like education, cleaner energy, business, etc. She also introduced an act that requires the District’s taxis to use GPS, credit card readers and modern meters, uniform dome lights and color schemes. Ryan Sabot is a student at American University and the Chairman of the DC Libertarian Party. He is also a development intern with the State Policy Network at Charles Koch Foundation.
Ward 5 Member of the Council
Incumbent: Kenyan McDuffie
Candidate: Kathy Henderson (D) Carolyn C. Steptoe (D) Kenyan McDuffie (D)
Ward 5 usually attracts much more candidates than this year’s election. In the 2012 special election, McDuffie had a 43 percent plurality, competing with 11 others . He passed a campaign finance reform bill, and the incumbent council chairman Phil Mendelson appointed him to serve as his chairman pro tempore.
Carolyn Steptoe is a Brookland ANC, and Kathy Henderson, an activist who had 2.5 percent of the vote in the 2012 special election.
Ward 6 Member of the Council
Incumbent: Tommy Wells
Candidate: Charles Allen (D) Darrel Thompson (D) Pranav Badhwar (LIB)
The firefighters’ and police officers’ unions are backing Charles Allen while Darrel Thompson by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local chapter. Allen is the former chief of staff to Tommy Wells who is running for mayor this year.
Incumbent: Michael D. Brown, Paul Strauss
Candidate: Pete Ross (D) Paul Strauss (D) David Schwartzman (STG) John Daniel (LIB)
The money Pete Ross has raised is enough for him to enter the race for an at-large council seat. He lost his furniture fortune in the late ‘90s, and later pleaded guilty to a felony tax evasion charge in 2007. Paul Strauss has campaigned on DC statehood, going so far as to solicit support from Hollywood stars Kate Walsh and Tim Daly.
Incumbent: Nate Bennett-Fleming
Candidate: Franklin Garcia (D) Martin Moulton (LIB)
Franklin Garcia, who has appeal among those who would like to see an increase in Latino representation in city government and elected office, used to design websites for politicians, including Hillary Clinton and former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty. Martin Moulton has campaigned on education and limiting sentences for non-violent drug crimes in the District.
District of Columbia Democratic State Committee Offices
State Board of Education
Mary Lord, At-Large Member, President
Laura McGiffert-Slover, Ward 3 Member, Vice President
Patrick Mara (Ward 1) Jack Jacobson (Ward 2) D. Kamili Anderson (Ward 4) Mark Jones (Ward 5) Monica Warren-Jones (Ward 6) Karen Williams (Ward 7) Trayon White Sr. (Ward 8)
The District of Columbia Democratic State Committee is the affiliate of the Democratic Party in the District of Columbia. Its goals are to promote the National Democratic Party, educate voters about the party, increase Party participation in electoral and promote the 2012 Delegate Selection Plan.
Available positions this year will be: National committeeman and committeewoman; Alternate national committeeman and committeewoman; At-large member of the state committeeman; At-large member of the state committeewoman; Members of the state committeeman and committeewoman in every ward of the eight.
If someone wanted to, they could make an amusing video montage of the 2012 Republican presidential aspirants using the words “Ronald Reagan” incessantly in each of their thirty billion debates. Once Reagan left office, the GOP decided to lionize him. They named a Washington DC airport after him. Grover Norquist launched a project to “name at least one notable public landmark in each U.S. state and all 3067 counties after the 40th president.” He’s made real progress in that regard, too. There’s a portion of Interstate 65 in Alabama that has been named the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway, and there is the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, for example. All across the country, theaters, roads, and courthouses bear the name of The Gipper.
What’s fascinating about this is that the 40th president has a much more moderate record, even on taxation, than his Republican contemporaries. But they don’t judge him on his record. They see him as the vanguard of a revolution. His accomplishments were constrained by the fact that he spent eight years dealing with a Democratic House of Representatives and two years dealing with a Democratic Senate.
It wasn’t until the Gingrich Revolution in 1994, long after Reagan had slipped into senility, that the conservatives gained the chance to really exercise “Reaganism.” And the revolutionaries were constrained by the presidency of Bill Clinton, who they soon impeached.
I think the fundamental disconnect between how conservatives view Ronald Reagan and how every one else views him, is that conservatives don’t really care what he actually did, but only what (they think) he stood for.
So, for example, it doesn’t matter that the budget deficit exploded under Reagan or that he continuously raised the debt ceiling. It doesn’t matter that he repeatedly raised taxes. It doesn’t matter he talked about nuclear disarmament. Those things resulted from the necessity of dealing with a Democratic Congress. Either that, or they are overshadowed by the former president’s strong Cold War rhetoric.
We tend to see this is as simple projection. Conservatives impose their own beliefs on a president who may not have shared them, at least not to the same degree. But there is an alternate reality somewhere in which Reagan would have had the congressional support to pursue his “real” agenda. You can say the same thing about President Obama. With Obama, he did have two years where he was able to (mostly) pursue his agenda, albeit only a few months in which he could impose his will. Yet, his agenda never contemplated that he would take office in the midst of the worst economic crisis in more than a half century. Had he taken the oath of office in normal economic times, his first two years would have been devoted to a lot of different things.
I think it’s a mistake to look at the record of presidents and think that they did exactly what they wanted to do. In a sense, the Republicans have a perverse view of Reagan that bears little relation to his actual performance in office. But, in another sense, they’re correct to see him as far more radical than his record. He truly was the vanguard for these lunatics.
For historians, that should not count in his favor.
In Obama’s case, the reverse might be true. And liberals may come to view him less by what he actually accomplished (especially in his second term) than by his significance as the man who ushered in the end of the era of Reagan.
On the other hand, most liberals that I know are more likely to spend their golden years nitpicking Obama’s presidency than working to name their streets and schools after him.
In response to my lament to my lament regarding how some people think watching movies makes them an expert in a public policy area, Kevin Drum sees a broader problem in how people judge what they do and don’t know:
Everyone with the manual dexterity to hoist a beer can regale you with confident answers to all the ills of society, while in the very next breath insisting that you don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to subject X. That’s a lot more complicated than you think.
Subject X, of course, is something they happen to know a lot about, probably because they work in the field. But it doesn’t matter. The fact that they’ve learned to be cautious about the one field they know the most about doesn’t stop them from assuming that every other field is pretty simple and tractable.
It would be absurd to deny this sad phenomenon. Kevin is noting how possession of deep knowledge in some areas doesn’t generalize into an assumption that there is also relevant deep knowledge in areas in which we are not specialists. During some of the hottest cultural debates of recent years, I have been thinking about this same lack of generalization from the other direction: Why don’t we assume we are ignorant in unfamiliar areas when we have the experience of ignorance in familiar ones? I am thinking in particular of our quotidian experience of misunderstanding or misremembering our interactions with other people.
In interactions in which we are personally involved, we often do not fully understand what is going on. We for example might walk away from a conversation with a loved one or colleague wondering “How did they end up as an argument?” or “What was that conversation really about?”. We also of course forget what happened in our personal interactions, even highly significant ones. Separate two spouses and ask for their accounts of a highly significant moment in their shared life (e.g., What was their first date like? What happened on the day their first child was born?) and you will invariably find disagreements about important details.
When we observe but are not part of an interaction, our understanding at the time and our memory later are even worse. The engaging book Wittgenstein’s Poker for example revealed that the Cambridge University denizens who observed a legendary 10 minute dust up between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper could not remotely agree later on what had transpired — up to and including whether a threat of physical violence was made.
We understand and remember our own interactions poorly. We are even worse when we are one step away, witnessing other people’s interactions. So far, so banal, but riddle me this: Why are so many people so regularly consumed in debate about what really happened in interactions of which they were not a part and did not witness? Google on any hotly debated pairing — Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, to name only three — and you will find myriad accounts confidently describing exactly what did or did not happen between them.
Our knowledge of interactions that we learn of third, fourth, or fifth-hand is inherently inferior to our knowledge of interactions which we personally witness or experience directly. But the humbling experience of bumbling through and mis-recalling our own lives never lessens some people’s claims of omniscience about the lives of people they’ve never met.
I take a break from film recommendations this week to address an ethical issue about film reviewing.
Beyond denoting some of my film recommendations as being for children (e.g., Treasure Island) and mentioning in other recommendations that a movie is definitely not for children (e.g., Layer Cake) I don’t provide any warning about content in movies that may be upsetting to viewers. I thought about this recently as I was writing a recommendation of a film about Southern white resistance to school integration (The Intruder, my recommendation of which will appear next month). I spent a few moments contemplating whether I should warn people that, for example, the film shows racist ugliness including violence and many people spouting the N word. I decided, keeping with my usual practice, not to do that. Here are my reasons for not including “viewer advisories” in my film recommendations, to which I welcome reactions and rebuttals.
1. Warnings about upsetting content can ruin a movie’s plot for viewers. I once saw the play - the title of which I will not share so that I don’t ruin it for you - which culminates in a murder after a long, tense build up. Unfortunately, everywhere in the theater and in the program were solemn warnings that there would be a gun shot during the play. I suppose that was intended to protect us in some way from emotional shock, but it’s true impact was to give away the ending of the play. 45 minutes before what was supposed to be the surprising conclusion, I was sitting there realizing “The gun shot hasn’t happened yet, so probably character A is going back to location B to confront character C whom we know carries a gun and then C will shoot and kill him”. That’s exactly what happened. The climactic confrontation scene itself had no tension for the audience from the moment the one character drew a gun. No one was wondering “Will he shoot him?”, rather we all knew he was going to shoot him because of the warnings plastered all over the theater.
Some magnificent movies could be ruined with viewer warnings. For example, if you’ve seen it, you will know that the impact of one terrific American film would be lessened if viewers were told up front: “This film includes a father’s impregnation of his own daughter, so don’t watch it if that is upsetting to you.” (I am not saying which film obviously, so that those who don’t know what movie I am referring to can still appreciate it).
2. It is impossible to know what is upsetting to everyone who might watch a movie I recommend. Depending on viewers’ personal histories and tastes, events in films can be traumatic to some people but not to others. The films I have recommended include some with frank portrayals of war, illness, death, divorce and poverty to name only a few of the things that some people might find traumatic. I don’t want anyone to be traumatized obviously, but I don’t see how I can guess for every or even most individuals what elements of a film might be bothersome.
3. Anyone who is upset by the content of movies does not need to watch movies. In the end adults are responsible for deciding whether they watch movies or not. If they do so, they are accepting the fact that sooner or later they will see something they find upsetting. Film reviewers don’t have the power to prevent that from happening, no matter how hard they might try to issue warnings about this or that. As for the artists themselves, I doubt filmmakers could succeed if they set the goal of creating movies that could not possibly upset anyone, anywhere. But I am sure that if they did try, it would be the death of cinematic art. If we have vibrant film industry, we will have films that are upsetting to at least some people. Anyone who can’t accept that should simply not watch movies.
When discussing North American regionalism one is bound, sooner or later, to explore the stark division of the country between Waffle House and IHOP restaurants, two franchises whose territories almost never overlap. Yesterday over at the Washington Post’s The Fix, Chris Cillizza obliged, demonstrating with state-level data that Waffle Houses are concentrated in states won by Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election:
“Mitt Romney won 16 of the 25 states that have at least one Waffle House. In those 16 — call them Waffle House America — he averaged almost 58 percent of the vote, roughly 11 points higher than he won nationwide. . Of those 25 non Waffle House states , Romney won just eight in 2012: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. He took an average of 47 percent of the vote in those 25 states
But, at the least, the remarkable overlay between Waffle House America and the Romney States of America speaks to the remarkably divided state of the country. The self-sorting/silo-ing of America extends beyond what we read, watch and listen to — it extends all the way to what we eat.”
Indeed, the differences - in this and all other regional divisions - are far more profound if you analyze them based on the continent’s real cultural fault lines, which don’t match state boundaries. The real regional map below is from my book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, and is based on the initial Euro-American colonization patterns, most stemming back to separate colonial clusters on the eastern and southwestern edges of what is now the U.S. For those looking for a cogent summary of these eleven cultures and their characteristics, read this; if you’re really in a hurry, go here.
[Photo: Tufts Magazine, click to enlarge]
Consider this: of the 1661 Waffle Houses in the country, there are exactly zero in New Netherland and the Left Coast, which together have a population of 35 million. There are just 10 in all of Yankeedom, which has 55 million people. Those three nations - the “blue” coalition of contemporary politics - comprise 29 percent of the national population, but just 0.6 percent of all Waffle Houses.
Consider the two “Swing States” with a significant Yankee section: Pennsylvania and Ohio. Of Ohio’s 64 Waffle House locations, only 8 are located in the Yankee-settled Western Reserve. In Pennsylvania, only 2 of 11 locations are in the belt settled by New Englanders, where Yankee and Appalachian settlers once squared off in the Yankee-Pennamite Wars. Not one of Indiana or Illinois’ Waffle Houses are located on those states’s Yankee turf.
Further, Waffle House - founded in Georgia - has taken hold only in the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, and the Midlands. It’s owners have unconsciously avoided aggressive expansion outside of this cultural “comfort zone,” spurning El Norte zones in states where it is otherwise active. There are 99 Waffle Houses in Texas, but not one is in that state’s massive El Norte section. None of Colorado’s 11 locations are in that state’s (admittedly rural) El Norte section, while in Arizona, only 5 of 18 are. New Mexico - a state dominated by El Norte - has but 2 locations.
So yes, our “self-siloing” does indeed extend to where we eat, even if we’re all consuming pancakes and sausage when we get there.
Many middle-class parents were appropriately rattled by Ben Cimons’ powerful account in Washington Post of being a “nice suburban kid” who became addicted to opiods and ultimately almost died of a heroin overdose. The desire of people from “good families” to believe that drug problems are confined to low-income urban communities is understandable, but also false — indeed perniciously so.
Ben and I, along with Wall Street Journal reporter Zusha Elinson and Stanford visiting fellow Markos Kounalakis were on Warren Olney’s To the Point radio program last week to discuss how heroin is making a comeback. Among the key themes of the discussion was that the origins of the recent rise of heroin can be traced directly to the recent and continuing extensive availability of prescription opioids.
p.s. I had a brain freeze when Warren asked me for the common trade names of hydrocodone-containing pain medications; I said Lortab but forgot to mention Vicodin.
After a long and dispiriting day inspecting prisons, I reluctantly filled an obligation to attend a dinner party. After learning how I had spent my day, several of the guests went on at length about what prisons were like, who was in them, and what should be done about it. Almost everything the guests confidently asserted was factually wrong and dubiously sourced: I hadn’t heard so much discussion of Oz since that girl from Kansas and her dog went over the rainbow.
That’s the opening paragraph of my post at politix.com about widely-believed myths of American incarceration. It was stimulated by a recent conversation with a state’s attorney. Both of us had spent a significant amount of time visiting correctional facilities, poring over correctional data and talking to prisoners, wardens and guards. Yet both of us were used to people who had done none of these things giving us their “expert take” on what prisons are like, who is in them and what policies regarding prison should be adopted.
Nobody is informed about all areas of public policy. And most people don’t have trouble admitting that they don’t know anything about, say, the US-Brazil diplomatic relationship, Libor rate management, or sugar subsidies. But for a subset of public policy issues, a large number of completely ignorant people are dead sure they have all the facts (Granted, some arrogant people always feel this way, but put the ego-maniacs aside and look at the bulk of humanity). Prison is one of those areas, and I strongly suspect it is because there is so much fictionalization of it. If I were bored, I am sure I could easily list a hundred movies set in prisons. The Big House is also a common backdrop for TV shows, novels and comic books.
Given the human propensity to be moved more by vivid individual prototypes but insensitive to their representativeness or quantity, a really powerful movie about one fictional prisoner’s experience is probably going to shape public views of prison more than do the weighty Bureau of Justice Statistics tables that I ruin my eyes by reading. Likewise, all the powerful fictionalizations about family farm life, police investigative procedures and military combat probably also shape perceptions in agricultural, criminal justice and defense policy more than their truth-value would warrant.
It’s an impossible study to run, but it would be interesting to know if facts and genuine expertise have greater weight in public policy areas which don’t lend themselves well to fictionalization (e.g., waste water processing, telephonic regulation, pension management) because there aren’t as many people around saying “I know what to do because there was this awesome movie on TV last night ”
As most readers will know by now, Nicholas Kristof today wrote a New York Times column entitled “Professors, We Need You!,” calling upon academics to engage the political world and chastising us for retreating to our ivory towers and burying our findings in numbers and turgid prose.
I’ve seen two types of responses from political scientists so far. One is the claim that Kristof severely misunderstands what political scientists do. The other is that he completely ignores the public activity that many of us are currently doing. I’ll take these in turn.
While there are some public intellectuals among our ranks, for the most part, we are hired to research (at least those of us in tenure-track jobs), and we are promoted and tenured (or not) on our ability to do just that. Research involves examining an area of scholarship that is insufficiently understood and trying to press it forward, usually by developing new theories or building new data sets to test them. Yes, a lot of us use fairly sophisticated quantitative methods in this process. We do so not to be obscure but to be sure that what we have discovered is real. And yes, our language can be somewhat jargony at times, but this is due in large part for our need for precision.
Frankly, any academic discipline is like this, as is basically any profession. Two brain surgeons or two plumbers, when they talk shop, are going to speak in a way that outsiders will have a hard time understanding, and they’ll use tools that may seem alien, or even frightening, to an outside observer. But they’ll do so because they’re trying to fix a problem and communicate with the other person in a way that allows them to move the conversation forward and expand both their knowledge. So pardon us, Mr. Kristof, if the APSR is a bit tough to follow; we didn’t know you were reading.
That said, it may well be that political science has a particular responsibility among the academic disciplines to engage the practical world. Erik Voeten at the Monkey Cage addresses this nicely, noting that many political scientists have been doing exactly that. The blogroll at right lists a number of excellent political scientists who have chosen to write on current public affairs not because their universities demand it, but because they feel an obligation to explain political phenomena to the larger political world and desire to participate in public debates. For Pete’s sake, Kristof’s own newspaper just hired Brendan Nyhan and Lynn Vavreck for this very purpose.
And some might even view our activities as occasionally consequential. My fellow Mischief Greg Koger was among those political scientists who explained to the U.S. Senate that it could eliminate the filibuster with just 51 votes, and they did it (at least on judicial nominations). Other political scientists, including another fellow Mischief, Jennifer Victor, were among those who agitated for restoring NSF funds for the political science program. That happened. I’m certainly not suggesting direct causal links here, but we are clearly engaging the political world.
So I would agree with Kristof that we do have some obligation to reach out to the broader world, but not only are many of us are already doing that, but he has an obligation to reach out to see what we’re saying. It’s not hard, and many excellent journalists, including Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Peter Aldhous, and even once in a while Kristof’s own op/ed pages colleague David Brooks, are occasionally doing it. Check some of the political science blogs. Call one or two of us up once in a while. Maybe attend a conference. If you insist on thumbing through the APSR, try shooting an e-mail over to an author who is writing about a subject you care about. You’ll probably find them less prone to turgid prose when speaking to you one on one. And you might be surprised to find how many of us care about the political world and are trying to affect it.
A frenzy of hospital mergers could leave the typical American family spending 50 percent of its income on health care within ten years—and blaming the Democrats. The solution requires banning price discrimination by monopolistic hospitals. By Phillip Longman and Paul S. Hewitt
The tumultuous decade that followed the Civil War failed to enshrine black voting and civil rights, and instead paved the way for more than a century of entrenched racial injustice. By Nicholas LemannJanuary/ February 2013
As president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe triumphed over a fierce narco-insurgency. Then the U.S. helped to export his strategy to Mexico and throughout Latin America. Here’s why it’s not working. By Elizabeth DickinsonJanuary/February 2012