Ten Miles Square


April 13, 2015 5:04 AM What’s In an Announcement?

By Julia Azari

This morning, political Twitter vibrated with anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s completely predictable campaign announcement. This morning, Philip Bump of the Washington Post tweeted, “In all seriousness, can we just pretend the announcement just happened? What will actually change?”

Taken at face value, this is a pretty good question. What difference does an official announcement make? This piece outlines some of the legal reasons why Clinton needs to announce now. And as another political scientist pointed out, not everyone follows politics closely and thus perhaps a formal announcement, and its attendant media circus, brings in different audiences - people who care about big moments in politics but don’t spend most of their waking hours with Twitter, Vox Bloomberg and NYT open on multiple devices (the author is guilty here). I don’t know if it’s true that the Sunday announcement will reach far beyond the ranks of political junkiedom - it’s still very early - but it certainly seems like a plausible thesis.

Nevertheless, the disconnection between Clinton’s formal announcement and the strength of her unofficial candidacy is an interesting phenomenon unto itself. It highlights at least two important aspects of how her candidacy will fit into the larger picture of twenty-first century presidential politics.

The first is that it highlights the “inevitability” narrative (which Rebecca Traister nicely challenges here). Even after Clinton went from “inevitable” to “not the nominee” in about a year during the 2008 contest, the inevitability frame has come back even stronger for this cycle. Why does this keep cropping up? Even if it’s true, it’s boring and undemocratic. One possibility is that it lends an edge of presidential legitimacy to the Clinton candidacy that might otherwise be lacking. This isn’t an indictment of her credentials; plenty of presidents (and candidates) who were extremely well-qualified were never able to establish clear narratives of legitimacy. Clinton seems well-primed to fit into this group. She doesn’t actually represent any clear movement within the Democratic Party (see Nate Silver’s description of Clinton as a “generic Democrat”). The DLC is gone and at any rate she had to emphasize her progressive credentials in 2008, but she doesn’t precisely represent the party’s liberal base either. She is popular with the various factions within the party, but it’s not clear what her candidacy would be responding to or fighting for. (Her announcement video does not provide many clues, although it does briefly raise the inequality theme.) She’s closely affiliated with two Democratic administrations that have ultimately operated like opposition presidencies and spent much of their time defending their agendas from critics. The “inevitability” claim shifts the focus from her political and ideological legacy and toward her qualifications and competence, which is much more solid ground.

The obvious meaning - and the obvious way that she would carry on Obama’s legacy - is by bringing a new demographic group to the office. This was exciting to a lot of people in 2008 and it will be again in 2016. But as inevitable as a Clinton candidacy is media sexism. Emphasizing her own “inevitability” contributes to an image of strength, combating stereotypes of women as weak, flighty, or irresolute. At the same time, stressing the idea that “it’s time” for a woman to run and win allows her to capitalize on the outsider image that women political aspirants often enjoy, and to draw on the positive aspects of a path-breaking candidacy. To the extent that the Clinton announcement today inspires commentary about how we all know she is running, it underscores the “inevitability” narrative, which is important for her candidacy.

The second way that the formal announcement dynamic is important is that it highlights a more general sense that official events and statements do not reflect what is really happening in politics. Richard Skinner has written convincingly here about why authenticity is overrated, and I’ve also made the case that transparency can’t do what we want it to. But the gap between formal statements and informal realities perhaps strains credibility with citizens. In a conference presentation last week on the “post-rhetorical presidency,” Justin Vaughn suggested that presidents “perform leadership while the real business of governing is done elsewhere.” The emphasis on the importance of the invisible primary instead of the formal primaries and caucuses is another example of such a gap. It’s not clear that this is a serious damper on civic engagement - voter turnout has been higher in presidential contests recently. But we all know that civic engagement, political knowledge, and participation are linked with socioeconomic factors. In the political game, wealth and education bring advantage - even if people disagree about how much. The gap between an official announcement and the reality perceived by the most highly engaged citizens perhaps further underscores the idea that democracy works differently depending on who you are. It is a trivial, but perhaps symbolically significant, acknowledgment that elite rhetoric and lived reality sometimes diverge, and that no one with serious influence seems terribly concerned about it.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

April 13, 2015 5:01 AM Bad Guys are Lobbyists, Good Guys are The People

By Seth Masket

Last week on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart interviewed Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on the general topic of influence and corruption in Congress. She described at some length the pervasive influence of Wall Street on Capitol Hill, noting that it’s not just about money, but the omnipresence of lobbyists at every stage of the lawmaking and regulatory process. “The wind only blows from one direction,” she claimed, saying that the playing field is massively tipped in Wall Street’s favor, and that more modest players really don’t have much of a chance. Lobbyists control everything.

But then she described her efforts to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau back when she was just a Harvard Law School professor. She notes that when she shopped the idea around Capitol Hill, she got a lot of discouraging words from lawmakers. But she kept pushing:

We got organized. We started getting groups like… AARP and Consumer Reports and the AFL-CIO and NAACP and La Raza, and they all said, “You know, that’s not our first issue, but this stuff about cheating consumers, it comes somewhere in the things we care about.” They got organized, more than 100 groups got organized into Americans for Financial Reform. They pushed, and we got that consumer agency passed into law. We did it. People did it.

A few thoughts on this:

  • This is precisely how big laws have always been conceived of and passed. They’re never easy to enact — even without the presence of industry lobbyists, our system has a large institutional bias in favor of the status quo. Making substantial change requires reaching out to potential allies and forging coalitions, with coalition members sometimes forgoing their top priorities in favor of a common agenda on which they can all agree and work.

  • Note how this story involves groups like NAACP and labor unions and La Raza changing the laws to benefit their members. That’s not inherently a bad thing. But the groups Warren describes as “the people” could easily be labeled by someone on the other side as “special interests.” Neither of those terms has any real descriptive value, beyond serving as a simple moralistic label. Any group wanting something out of government will pursue change (or protect the status quo) the same way, by building alliances and advocating for its members. It’s all policy demanders.

  • I hate to point this out, but Warren’s coalition actually won, even in the face of money and lobbyists and a massive headwind. Yes, it was hard, and yes, it took an unusual set of circumstances to make it happen, but victories are clearly possible. How easy should it really be to make substantive changes?
  • I have no doubt that the lobbyist saturation of the political system that Warren describes is real. But was there ever a time when making substantive changes in federal law was an easy thing to do? Was there ever a time when the pluralistic chorus didn’t, in Schattschneider’s words, sing with an upper-class accent? It seems to me that she’s not really diagnosing some illness in the American political system, but simply noting, as many have before her, that it’s hard, but not impossible, to change the law. This isn’t corruption. This is a diverse political system with lots of stakeholders who are all working very hard against each other in an institutional arrangement that favors the status quo. Calling your side “the people” and the other side “special interests” really doesn’t shed any light here.

    [Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

    April 11, 2015 8:31 AM The Eight Year Itch?

    By John Patty

    I have no idea if this is a real quote from former president Bill Clinton, or if it is taken out of context, but it piqued my interest:
    “It’s hard for any party to hang on to the White House for 12 years, and it’s a long road. A thousand things could happen.”

    Is it really “hard” for a party to hang on to the White House for 12 years? The obvious answer is, “yes,” it is generally unlikely to that one party will control the White House for 3 terms. But, let’s do some math, with admittedly limited evidence.

    If we accept that George Washington and John Adams were of the same “party,” then the presidency was held by the same party for the first 12 years (3 terms) of the Republic. Then, Jefferson, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams were co-partisans (of the “other” party relative to Washington and Adams) holding the presidency for 20 years (5 terms). Jackson and Van Buren controlled the presidency for the same party for 12 more years (3 terms).

    This ends in 1840, when stuff started to get kind of crazy—-at first slowly and then incredibly quickly—-as the issue of slavery emerged and stretched the nation to civil war. For 20 years (5 terms), no party held the presidency for more than two terms in a row (and, to be honest, the notion of “party” was remarkably fluid during that time).

    Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, and began (for lots of varied reasons) a period of 24 years (6 terms) of one-party control of the presidency. Starting in 1884, we have 12 years of partisan switching, bookended by Grover Cleveland’s (uniquely) non-successive terms in office. We then have 16 years of Republican control of the office under McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Taft.

    Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, served two terms, but surrendered the office back to the Republicans in 1920. The Republicans sent Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover to the White House for one term each, a period of 12 years. They were followed by Franklin Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman for 20 years (4 terms).

    Let’s pause for a second. Up through the Second World War, there were 2 elections in which one party had controlled the presidency for 8 consecutive years and was defeated. On the other hand, there were 5 elections in which one party had controlled the presidency for (exactly) 8 consecutive years and retained control. That’s over 70% success in holding on for 12 years plus.[1] So, to be clear, from a very naive standpoint, early history suggests that there might be some “partisan momentum.”

    Moving to the modern (i.e., post WWII) period, there have been 6 elections in which one party has controlled the White House for exactly 8 years. The other party has won 5 of those. Maybe Bill has a point. Acknowledging this contrast with the regularity of the earlier period, I’d like to offer two points to chew on.

    First, what I term the modern period exactly matches up with the presidencies subject to the Twenty-Second Amendment (limiting the president to two terms in office). This might seem to be a chimera, because only one president served more than two terms (Franklin Roosevelt), but just because few served (or sought three terms) didn’t mean that none of them thought about, or acted as if they might, seek office for a third term.

    Second, of those 5 modern elections in which a party had controlled the White House for two terms but then lost to the other party, there are a number of pretty unusual cases.

    1. The 1960 election was very close and arguably riddled (in important ways) with fraud.
    2. One of these elections was preceded by an eligible incumbent president declining to run (Lyndon Johnson in 1968).
    3. Another was fought by an incumbent who was unelected and succeeded an incumbent who resigned in scandal (Gerald Ford was not elected vice-president).
    4. A third one led to the phrase “hanging chads” becoming a thing and was arguably ultimately decided in the courts (George W. Bush’s win over Al Gore in 2000).

    Thus, we are left with McCain’s loss to Obama in 2008. I’ll leave that as a simple statement, because it’s way too easy to draw unwarranted inferences about future elections from one closely observed presidential election.

    In the end, I don’t think there’s any reason to suspect that the Democratic candidate for president in 2016 will have an unavoidably harder time to reach the White House because her or his party has controlled it for the past 8 years. She or he can run against President Obama almost as easily as running as his successor. My view of the past 60+ years of evidence is that modern presidential elections are simply hard to predict. Former president Clinton’s statement implies more regularity than is warranted by either thoughtful inspection (accounting for idiosyncracies) or simple quantitative averaging. That’s not to say his statement is wrong: I truly think it is clear that it is hard for either party to win the presidency. But I just don’t think it becomes much harder after holding it for 8 years than it is to win it when the other party has held it 8 years.

    [1] This is a conservative estimate in some ways, because the implied logic behind the former president’s claim would suggest that winning a fourth or fifth consecutive term would be at least as hard as winning a third one. This calculation sets those possibilities (which occurred frequently during this period) to the side.

    [Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

    April 10, 2015 9:18 AM Weekend Film Recommendation: The Turning Point

    By Keith Humphreys


    In previous recommendations (The Naked City, He Walked by Night), I highlighted the rising popularity of police procedurals after the war. Recognizing that post-war audiences were gripped by more realistic, torn from the headlines crime stories, Hollywood producers were giddy over the Kefauver Committee’s investigation of organized crime. Many Americans were transfixed by the hearings, both because they provided their first glimpse into the workings of the Mafia and because they were on this new fangled gizmo known as a television. A raft of films followed that were based on the hearings either directly or obliquely (the latter including my first ever weekend film recommendation, Bullitt). Many of the Kefauver films were cheap and unimaginative, but this week’s recommendation is one of the best: 1952′s The Turning Point.

    The strong cast features Edmond O’Brien as John Conroy, a special prosecutor appointed to take down a criminal syndicate run by the slimy, brutal Neil Eichelberger (Ed Begley), who poses as a legitimate businessman (O’Brien was last with us in prior recommendation The Web). Conroy’s hard-nosed childhood pal (William Holden), now a crime reporter, comes along for the ride, not because he believes anything will come of the investigation but because he admires his old friend and also, rather guiltily, has eyes for Conroy’s gorgeous, idealistic assistant (Alexis Smith). Meanwhile, John’s father, a beat cop played by reliable veteran character actor Tom Tully, is also in the mix, but what side he’s playing is a subject of mystery.

    Warren Duff never became famous as a screenwriter, but he was very good in his niche of tough crime stories. He does a particularly admirable job here creating dramatic face off scenes between each pair of principals. Lionel Lindon’s skilled camerawork makes the film pleasing to the eye (love the long tracking shot with Holden and O’Brien early on) as does William Holden, who looks fabulous in a series of tailored suits that the legendary Edith Head picked for him (I guess ink-stained wretches could afford those kind of threads and fashion advice back then). The broad-shouldered screen icon has real chemistry with his equally toothsome co-star Alexis Smith, who puts spine and depth into her character rather than just being eye candy. She and Duff’s script are particularly good at ripping apart the cynical facade of Holden’s character, which is potent stuff for Holden fans given how often he played this type.


    The Turning Point has a few weaknesses. After a gripping first 45 minutes there is a lull in the action at the actual commission hearings, which should have been a highlight of the film, especially with a skilled actor like Ed Begley at center stage. There are also a couple small logical holes and overly worn elements in the plot. As a result, I would not call The Turning Point an all-time classic crime melodrama. But it’s definitely exciting and entertaining, with a cast that is aces right down the line.

    As of this writing, The Turning Point is available for free to Amazon Prime subscribers – just don’t mix it up with the 1977 movie about ballet dancers.

    p.s. Plug ugly Neville Brand, who made a career out of playing nasty thugs, appears at the end as a hired killer. Both he and O’Brien will be with us again next week so stay tuned.

    p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

    [Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

    April 09, 2015 2:12 PM 2016 GOP Contenders Play to Their Base - But Risk Losing Moderate Voters

    By Stefan Hankin

    As the contest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination begins in earnest, candidates are working hard to win the conservative voters who disproportionately influence the GOP primaries.

    Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for example, recently downplayed the backlash over Indiana’s “religious freedom” law, blaming media “hype and hysteria.” Senator Ted Cruz, in the meantime, has continued to get play for his denial of climate change, while Senator Marco Rubio is making headlines for his unrelenting criticism of the newly reached nuclear deal with Iran.

    But while these resolutely conservative stances might play well in the primaries, they risk turning off the voters who actually matter most in the general election: moderates.

    In 2012, according to national exit polls, a plurality of voters (41 percent) labeled themselves “politically moderate,” while 25 percent considered themselves to be liberal, and 35 percent said they are conservative - proportions that have stayed roughly stable for several decades. Assuming these proportions remain consistent and that the next Democratic and Republican nominees perform as well with their respective bases as did Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee will need to win at least 49 percent of moderates to win the general election. (Romney won just 41 percent of moderates in 2012.)

    So far, however, leading GOP contenders don’t appear to be taking positions that are consistent with moderates’ viewpoints on key topics.

    In a recent national poll, the Washington Post surveyed likely voters on key issues such as the importance of bipartisanship, Obamacare, climate change, the nuclear deal with Iran, and immigration. Although responses from liberals and conservatives were fairly predictable on most of these questions, how moderates feel on these topics is especially noteworthy.

    A super-majority (64 percent) of moderates, for example, say they would favor a candidate who mainly “tries to compromise” with the other political party, versus someone who “mainly stands up for his or her side.”

    And in a potential rebuke to the climate denial strategy of Sen. Cruz, 68 percent of moderates say they favor “government action to address climate change.” 53 percent of moderates also say they support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants - in contrast to the stated views of the Tea Party - while 55 percent of moderates support a “negotiated agreement with Iran” - in contrast to Sen. Rubio.

    All else equal, would you like the next president to be someone who….

      All Americans Moderates
    Mainly tries to compromise with the other political party, or mainly stands up for his or her side? Compromises 58% 64%
    Stands with side 37% 34%
    Wants to keep the federal health care law, or wants to repeal it? Keep 49% 52%
    Repeal 45% 42%
    Favors government action to address climate change, or opposes such action? Favors 59% 68%
    Opposes 31% 23%
    Favors a negotiated agreement with Iran, or opposes it? Favors 49% 55%
    Opposes 42% 37%
    Supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, or who opposes it? Supports 51% 53%
    Opposes 45% 42%
    Source: Washington Post

    So what do these trends among moderate voters mean as we head further towards the 2016 election? Ultimately, Republican candidates need to take the long view of their campaign strategies, with platforms that are closer to the ideological center and more attractive to moderate voters. Ultraconservative stances, although helpful in the primaries, are a short game strategy that will eventually make the task any Republican candidate is facing even more daunting. Current trends, however, portend a different result: A self-inflicted disadvantage for Republicans as they head into 2016 and an even stronger hand for Hillary Clinton, assuming she remains the sole potential Democratic nominee.

    So long as she avoids a true fight for the nomination from the left, Clinton will have the luxury to focus on moderate voters and remind them that majorities of this group side with her on issues from health care to immigration. Clinton will enter the race with a built in advantage, and her ability to focus on the long game right off the bat increases her odds of success.

    But for Republicans, the biggest obstacle on the road to the White House might be their own base.

    [Cross-posted at Republic 3.0]

    April 09, 2015 10:55 AM Why Rand Paul is Ridiculous

    By Martin Longman

    I think Rand Paul is a buffoon.

    Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 11.07.55 PM

    I choose that word carefully. It is the best word.


    It’s helpful to read Juan Cole’s assessment of Senator Paul’s foreign policy positions, but there isn’t any consistency there whatsoever, and the reason that nothing adds up is because Rand Paul is not a serious person. He is a ridiculous but amusing person; a clown.

    I don’t just want to dish ad hominem attacks, but I truly believe that the starting point for discussing Rand Paul is to understand that he’s a fool.

    Once you understand this, you can proceed to analyzing how well he is carrying on the neo-confederate legacy of his father and the family’s legions of fanboys. I know he had to fire the Southern Avenger, but let’s not forget that he hired him in the first place and initially defended him with the vociferousness of Dick Cheney.

    In an interview with The Huffington Post, Sen. Rand Paul stoutly defended an aide who, as a radio shock jock in South Carolina, praised John Wilkes Booth, heaped scorn on Abraham Lincoln and wore a ski mask emblazoned with the stars and bars of the Confederate Battle Flag.

    Paul (R-Ky.) stressed that he opposed such views, many of which have been recanted by the Senate aide, Jack Hunter, who co-wrote Paul’s first book in 2010 and who is now his social media adviser in Washington.

    “I’m not a fan of secession,” Paul said. “I think the things he said about John Wilkes Booth are absolutely stupid. I think Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents. Do I think Lincoln was wrong is taking away the freedom of the press and the right of habeas corpus? Yeah.”

    This is a pattern with Rand Paul. He gets caught doing something stupid like plagiarizing and then he apologizes, but he does it in a way that makes clear that he’s not really sorry. If he gets caught flip-flopping, he gets testy and wins points with his base by threatening to challenge the media to a duel. If he gets asked a question about exceptions to his “oh-so-libertarian” anti-choice position, he angrily deflects the criticism onto late-term abortion.

    It should be blindingly obvious that his most racist supporters know that he can’t espouse white supremacy, so all they’re looking for are some signs that he’s simpatico. Does he let a white supremacist co-author his book and work on his congressional staff? Well, yes. Yes, he does.

    The religious nuts who think you can’t get pregnant during a “legitimate rape” know that he can’t say that type of thing without getting Todd-Akined right out of the campaign, so they’re just looking to see if he can stick to their absolutist position or he’ll repudiate it outright.

    On foreign policy, Rand Paul tries to have it every which way. The anti-Semites loved it when he said we should cut off all aid to Israel. Don’t think for a moment that they’ve forgotten that nod in their direction. It allows them to forgive him for suddenly becoming Benjamin Netanyahu’s best friend forever. They don’t worry because he doesn’t clap fast enough to be a real pro-Israeli politician.

    Rand Paul is against foreign interventions before he is for them, and for them before he is against them. A nuclear Iran is not a threat, until a nuclear Iran is a threat. We spend too much on the military until Rand Paul proposes increasing the Pentagon’s budget.

    He tries to be all things to all people, and if you accuse him of anything he can point to an example where he said or did something completely different or opposed to what he normally says or does.

    “No, no, no, he’s not a racist because he’s trying so hard to do minority outreach.”

    “No, no, no, don’t worry about him giving a speech at Howard University because look how he lectured those coloreds.”

    Pick a topic, any topic, and you’ll find that Aqua Buddha has tried out all sides of it. In his hands, libertarianism means nothing or it means everything. In his hands, the libertarianism of someone like, say, former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, is replaced with an exercise in Elmering your Gantry to the religious fundamentalists.

    Under the circumstances, I can only laugh when a journalist like Stephen Collinson muses about whether Rand Paul has missed his moment.

    Rand Paul is facing a prospect that haunts every politician: missing his moment.

    It wasn’t long ago that the Kentucky senator seemed perfectly matched to the times: a Republican who reflected the nation’s reluctance to keep launching wars but clung to a stinging critique of an intrusive, dysfunctional Big Government.

    But for Paul, who formally announced his presidential campaign Tuesday, that balancing act may not be enough to build a coalition that can carry him to the White House.

    The idea here is that Rand Paul temporarily had his bullshit properly aligned with the zeitgeist of the country. But all he ever does is try to align his bullshit with the zeitgeist. That’s why his record looks like a poorly thought out Jackson Pollack canvas.

    He isn’t here strictly to entertain us, and he’s not self-consciously a clown, always crying on the inside. What he is is a trojan horse for the folks who have been with the Paul family for the long-haul.

    If Rand Paul were better at this, he’d be very dangerous. But he’s so ridiculous that he’s simply amusing.

    [Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

    April 08, 2015 2:00 PM Good Results for Community Organizers in Ferguson Elections

    By Martin Longman

    There’s a lot of discussion of the election results in Ferguson, Missouri last night, and many are expressing disappointment that voter turnout was only around thirty percent. But we have to put things in perspective:

    Voter turnout increased substantially from the previous election following a strong get-out-the-vote effort from labor unions and other national organizations. The town that drew only 12.3 percent of registered voters last April had 29.4 percent turnout Tuesday, according to the St. Louis County Board of Elections. That was about double the overall turnout in St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located.

    When it comes to turning out the vote, you don’t expect miracles. Ferguson well more than doubled its turnout from a year ago despite “brutal storms” that included lightning and heavy rain. More significantly, it roughly doubled the turnout of St. Louis County as a whole, and it did this despite underperforming the country as a whole in the past.

    If we’re judging the impact of a get out the vote effort, this was a big success. I’m not sure we can say the same about the voter registration drive, however.

    A strong push was made after the shooting [of Michael Brown] to register more black voters last year, but just 562 new voters were added to the rolls. In recent weeks, the focus has been on getting those who are registered to vote.

    There are a lot more voters to register in Ferguson, and there are still a lot of registered voters who did not turn out yesterday despite all the media attention and hype around the election. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but the city council now has two more black members and the community can see first hand that political engagement can make a difference.

    The “community organizers” done good.

    [Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

    April 08, 2015 12:10 PM How Oxford University Became Such an Argumentative Place

    By Keith Humphreys

    The following anecdote from Oxford University has been recycled many times in debates about campus PC speech codes, most recently by Judith Shulevitz:

    At Oxford University’s Christ Church college in November, the college censors (a “censor” being more or less the Oxford equivalent of an undergraduate dean) canceled a debate on abortion after campus feminists threatened to disrupt it because both would-be debaters were men. “I’m relieved the censors have made this decision,” said the treasurer of Christ Church’s student union, who had pressed for the cancellation. “It clearly makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students who live and work in Christ Church.”

    Andrew Sullivan was one of many other people who also picked this story up and decried how close-minded Oxford “kids these days” have become.

    Knowing the history of British Universities (I have been a professor at two of them) I can affirm that this sort of thing never would have happened at Oxford 200 years ago!

    Because Oxford didn’t admit women then. Or Jews for that matter. Or Blacks. Or poor people. Or, well, you get the idea.

    Of course those of us who spend our days on campus should try to be civil to each other, listen to each other and learn from each other, and it’s a public service to point out when we fail to meet those standards. But the idea that universities today are shutting down debate to an unprecedented extent is risible. For centuries after it was founded, Oxford stifled debate on campus by only admitting a narrow, like-thinking subset of society. When the university quite rightly opened its gates to more a diverse range of students, huge disagreements that were always present in society at last became visible on campus too.

    [Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

    April 07, 2015 10:23 AM Back to the Nineties? Or the Coming (C) 4 Shakedown?

    By Richard Skinner

    With the announcement of Jeb Bush’s 501 (c) 4 organization, Right to Rise Policy Solutions, we are seeing a new assault on the most fundamental principles of the campaign finance system. Jennifer Nicoll Victor provides an excellent backgrounder on this threat. 501 (c) 4 nonprofit organizations are intended to engage in “social welfare” functions; they get their name from the section of the U.S. Code that creates them. Like Super PACs, 501 (c) 4 social welfare organizations can raise unlimited sums from corporations, labor unions, and individuals. Unlike Super PACs, 501 (c) 4’s do not have to disclose their donors. (There are perfectly sound arguments for allowing most nonprofits to keep their donors secret; they do not apply to groups engaging in electioneering).

    At least we know who is funding Super PACs - except when they are themselves funded by 501 (c) 4’s. Since under Citizens United, 501 (c) 4’s can make independent expenditures under Citizens United, we now have a large flow of “dark money” in our politics. $170 million was spent in the 2014 elections by groups that do not disclose their donors. This is the most serious amount of undisclosed funds since “issue advocacy” era pre-BCRA.

    By and large, for-profit, publicly traded corporations have not given to Super PACs. As a Chamber of Commerce official once told me, “Business traditionally doesn’t like politics.” Generally, corporations give as little as they need to in order to secure access and build relationships. PAC giving and some individual donations by lobbyists and top executives do the job. Rarely do corporations have strongly partisan or ideological views. Few want controversy. Few want shareholders raising awkward questions. Few want to risk angering powerful incumbents.

    Giving to Super PACs has been dominated by extremely wealthy individuals, often motivated by strongly partisan or ideological incentives. Many may have pet issues, while others have interests before government. (Sheldon Adelson is a stalwart Republican who loves Israel, hates labor unions, and has numerous gaming interests affected by public policy). Disclosure usually doesn’t bother egomaniac billionaire ideologues, while those who don’t want the publicity can always give to a (c) 4 instead. Super PACs have also attracted donations from privately held corporations (under the control of their wealthy owners, and without any troublesome shareholders), and from labor unions.

    Who gives to 501 (c) 4’s? We don’t know, although there are some signs that for-profit, publicly traded corporations play more of a role than they do in supporting Super PACs. We face two major threats. Since giving to 501 (c) 4’s is completely anonymous, corporations can give without fear of consumer boycotts or shareholder backlash. In turn, politicians (and their allies) are in a better position to push corporations to give as the price of access. Is this going on? There are whispers, but we do not know for sure.

    We are facing the return of two of the worst elements of the 1990s: the unlimited anonymous giving that supported issue advocacy groups like Americans for Job Security, coupled with the “soft money shakedown” in which politicians pressured corporations to contribute unlimited sums to party committees. All in all, I’d rather have a Spice Girls reunion.

    Is there anything we can do? Yes. Congress could pass the SUN Act. The Internal Revenue Service can devise more appropriate rules for political activity by 501 (c) 4 organizations. (There are real issues about dividing electioneering - not part of the “social welfare” mission - from speaking out on issues - which is - so makes the work of the Bright Lines Project so important). The Securities and Exchange Commission could require publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending. The White House could do the same for federal contractors (and what corporation doesn’t want to be a federal contractor?). Disclosure traditionally has been a cornerstone of our campaign finance system, supported by both liberals and conservatives. Nineties nostalgia has its place, but not at the heart of our political system.

    [Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

    April 06, 2015 8:22 AM Be Skeptical of Illegal Drugs as Miracle Cures (Legal Drugs Too)

    By Keith Humphreys

    Like everyone else, I constantly see headlines that the cure for some dread disease has been discovered. On those occasions when journalists interview me about such stories, I have a habit of dispensing cold water. For example, a few years ago, a small clinical trial seemed to show that anti-depressants helped meth-addicted people to stop using drugs. This is what I said to an excellent health reporter, Erin Allday, about the findings:

    “There have been quite a few bombs pharmacologically…those earlier experiences have taught me to be cautious now.”

    Being skeptical about miracle cures is simply playing the odds. As my colleague John Ioannidis pointed out in one of the most-read papers in medical history, most medical research findings are wrong. This is particularly true of small studies, which are usually followed by larger studies that disconfirm the original miracle finding (Fish oil pills are a good example).

    Lately, currently illegal drugs such as LSD, ecstasy and marijuana have been aggressively hyped as miracle cures for a range of serious disorders (cancer, diabetes, PSTD, alcoholism etc.). You may have heard for example dramatic anecdotes “proving” that high-CBD marijuana cures seizures in children. Sounds great, but as more data were gathered by neurologist Dr. Kevin Chapman “the miracle” took a beating:

    Dr. Chapman’s study, which involved a review of the health records of 75 children who took CBD, found that 33% of them had their seizures drop by more than half. However, 44% of the children experienced adverse effects after taking CBD, including increased seizures. Of the 30 patients whose records included the results of brain-wave tests, a less subjective measure of seizure activity, only three showed improvements in those exams.

    “It really wasn’t the high numbers we were hoping for,” Dr. Chapman said.

    No one who understands medicine will be surprised by this result. It happens every day with initially touted legal miracle cures too (e.g., PROMETA for methamphetamine addiction). Alas, legal or illegal, most flashes in the medical pan are pyrites rather than gold.

    [Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

    April 06, 2015 8:19 AM Hey, Weekly Standard: Could You Correct that Obamacare Tax Thing?

    By Harold Pollack

    Kimberly Pinter is a tax attorney in northern Virginia. So her April 3 article in the Weekly Standard, “Obamacare Pinches the Poor,” on ACA’s tax requirements will understandably concern many low-income citizens. She writes:

    According to the www.healthcare.gov web site, you can get an income-based exemption if “you don’t have to file a tax return because your income is below the level that requires you to file.”

    Sounds simple enough, right? Until further investigation reveals that this exemption is claimed directly on the tax return. That’s right - the tax return you’re not required to file.

    While the circular nature of this exemption is ludicrous on its face, its effects are far-reaching and incredibly regressive….

    It’s a safe bet that many members of this population will not be cognizant of their need to file simply to avoid the Obamacare penalty for being uninsured.

    [….]compliance with this behemoth law disproportionately burdens the poorest of the poor.  Like a shark silently stalking its unknowing prey, Obamacare lurks waiting to take a bite out of the unwary. And in this case, it’s the poor.

    Yet another stupid Rube Goldberg application of the Nanny State, right?  Well no. actually. ACA has its share of glitches and complications. But this isn’t one of them. As ACA legal expert Timothy Jost notes over email, Pinter is wrong.

    Indeed here is the government’s actual directions to low-income people. I found this through a quick Google search at a website called IRS.gov:

    If you are not required to file a tax return and don’t want to file a return, you do not need to file a return solely to report your coverage or to claim an exemption.

    This isn’t Nanny State. It isn’t Rube Goldberg. Nothing behemoth. No shark is stalking or biting. It’s not particularly complicated, either.

    The Weekly Standard should run a correction on this important point.

    [Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

    April 06, 2015 8:15 AM Books You Won’t See at the Hugo Awards

    By Henry Farrell

    So apparently the Hugos suck this year, thanks to an organized voting campaign. See Patrick Nielsen Hayden on the voting campaign, which seems to be in part a product of internal disputes within the field (various right wing people upset that f/sf isn’t ‘their’ field any more, and belongs to teh_women/teh_gay/teh_PoC) and in part overspill from Gamergate. I don’t know many of the slate of nominees put up by the campaign, with the minor exception of Marko Kloos (whose self-published book I read and thought was unexceptionable military SF with the usual odd politics), and the unlovely John C. Wright (whose work and political opinions remind me of Gene Wolfe if Gene Wolfe had been subjected to an involuntary lobotomy). I did read and like Katherine Addison’s (Sarah Monette’s) The Goblin Emperor (although I liked her Melusine books even more) but apart from that I don’t have much advice to prospective Hugo voters on what they should vote for. What I do have is opinions on other work that didn’t get nominated but that seemed to me to be worth reading, and I hope that CT readers have too. One of the important functions of awards is to point readers towards good work that they otherwise might have missed. Since the Hugo Awards won’t be doing much of that this year, other people should do what they can.

    Best Novel

    2014 was in my opinion a pretty good year for novels – much better than 2013. Novels I especially liked.

    Jo Walton – My Real Children. Probably not in need of much publicity given Walton’s previous Hugo win, but really, really good. January saw the publication of The Just City which is even better (but obviously was not eligible for awards). It’s one of those books that sounds as if it can’t possibly work – Plato’s Republic as SF, Greek gods, Socrates-as-muops, robots evolving consciousness – but does, gloriously. It’s also – like Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty a book which reads as though it was purposely written to hit Crooked Timber’s sweet spot. And you’ll be hearing more about it here.

    William Gibson – The Peripheral. I’ve written about it already here – this may be my favorite science fiction novel published last year.

    Greg van Eekhout – California Bones. Again, I’ve written about it already. The next book in the series is even better.

    Elizabeth Bear – Steles of the Sky. Write-up here. Really nicely done fantasy in a non-Western setting with fine attention to the underlying sociology.

    Peter Watts – Echopraxia. It pursues many of the same themes as his previous Blindsight but perhaps isn’t quite as disturbing in its bleak view of human cognitive limitations and what they mean for our place in the universe. The characterization isn’t up to much but that is part of the point.

    Felix Gilman – The Revolutions. Write-up here.

    Elliott Kay – Rich Man’s War. A sequel to his Poor Man’s Fight – originally self-published, but now coming out via Amazon’s in-house publishing arm. Has all of the virtues of early Heinlein without the dubious politics. Highly recommended.

    Best Novella

    Daryl Gregory – We Are All Completely Fine. An excellent, sardonic take on HP Lovecraft – what happens when those driven into shrill unholy madness by perceiving the true lineaments of world go into group therapy? His new juvenile, Harrison Squared is a prequel, but doesn’t look to be nearly so creepy.

    Best Short Story

    Ruthanna Emrys – The Litany of Earth. A very different take on HP Lovecraft, which very nicely turns his racism back on itself and just a lovely short piece. I haven’t read anything by Emrys before, but I’ll be looking out for her name.

    Hannu Rajaniemi – Invisible Planets. in Jonathan Strahan ed., Reach for Infinity. I’ve never warmed to Rajaniemi’s novels, but this was really well done – while being more deliberately scientifictional, it captured Calvino’s grave playfulness very well.

    Best Related Work

    Again, Jo Walton. What Makes This Book So Great should not only have been nominated for Best Related Work this year but won it by a landslide. I read all the columns when they were published on Tor.com – but reading them cumulatively makes a big difference. I’ve already bought (and not regretted) Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, and Candace Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine on the strength of her writeups, and want her to start writing about Steven Brust’s Taltos series again, now.

    If there was a ‘Best Short Story Collection’ category, I’d also have nominated Ysabeau Wilce’s Prophecies, Libels and Dreams.

    Those are what I’d like to have seen on the ballot. What about you?

    [Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

    April 04, 2015 8:28 AM Resurrection Art is Hard to Find

    By James Wimberley

    Neither Google nor Bing show a results count when you search images (why not?), but it’s obvious that the number of Christian images of the Resurrection, especially of serious works of art, is enormously less than the number of images of the Cruxifixion. This is to some extent a reflection of the technical difficulty: if a painter can’t make a Cruxifixion affecting, he’s in the wrong business; a convincing Resurrection is hugely difficult. But religious artists basically respond to commissions, and the ratio reflects the unease of Christians with the idea. It was there in the proto-Church, see 1 Corinthians 15:12:

    How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

    And if Christians are honest, it’s still a hard sell.

    It is not then surprising that good Resurrection art is scarce. The works are often the work of oddball artists: Grünewald, whose day job was as a millwright; Piero della Francesca, day job mathematician; and the anonymous painter of the Chora in Istanbul (image, discussion).

    Continuing our little RBC series of Easter artworks, here is one by Bramantino (who he?) in the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, dated to around 1490. Hi-res version on their website.

    Bramantino Risen Christ

    Bramantino takes the unease into outright shock and weirdness. It starts with the corpse-like pallor of the skin and the knife-like folds of the drapery: this isn’t fun. The most striking thing is the face: a head-on gaze, without joy or triumph, but inward-looking rather than judgemental. There is no glory here, and much recollected pain in the twisted mouth and bloodshot eyes. Victory no doubt, but that of a soldier who has survived a bloody battle; a Malplaquet, with no ringing of church bells in celebration.

    The take is I suppose orthodox theologically. In the standard Christian theodicy, God became Isaiah’s suffering servant in the Passion, and suffers still through the ongoing sins of men and women. The eccentricity is in Bramantino’s omission of the joy of reunion, the humour, and the empathy we find in the Gospel accounts of the appearances, and the eschatological hope and triumph emphasised by the other artists in our series. Also in the lovely 8th-century Easter hymn by St. John of Damascus (take note of the hapless mediaeval geography, Ted Cruz):

    The round earth keep high triumph, and all that is therein.

    Enjoy your Easter eggs or chocolate bunnies, everybody.

    [Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

    April 03, 2015 7:54 PM Blessed are the Peacemakers

    By Martin Longman

    The following is an image from an internal CIA report on the successful 1953 coup in Iran that ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and put the Shah back on his throne. I provide it for you here because I want you to note that the CIA quite actively sought to enlist the support of the “powerfully influential clergy.”

    Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 6.47.12 PM

    Of course, twenty-six years later that same “powerfully influential clergy” came to power in their own right during Ayatollah Khomeini’s glorious revolution. You should keep that in mind when you are reading the alarmists who are convinced (or, at least, trying to convince you) that the Iranian clergy is completely intent on destroying Israel and America.

    It’s disturbing that Jay Nordlinger is willing to detail numerous examples where Iranian clergy, military figures, or politicians have threatened Israel or America but he can’t be bothered to provide a single link or even a reliable translation for any of his sources. How are we supposed to know if he’s mischaracterizing what these people have said? How do we know that they even said it?

    And if they did say these things, how seriously should we take their threats? Should we take them as seriously as presidential candidate John McCain’s joking rendition of the Beach Boys classic, “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran”? Should we take them as seriously as Rep. Louie Gohmert’s threats that he made just this week?

    Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said he thinks it’s time to take drastic measures against Iran.

    “It’s time to bomb Iran,” Gohmert said in an interview Wednesday with Family Research Council President Tony Perkins on the radio show “Washington Watch,” according to Right Wing Watch.

    “We need to make clear to Iran: You can play these silly games with our president that buys into them and our secretary of state, but the American people aren’t buying it and you’re going to pay a price,” Gohmert added. “We have got to get that message across.”

    Speaking of McCain, should the Iranians be afraid when he argues on the Senate floor that Israel should go rogue and bomb them even if they come to an agreement with the international community on their nuclear program?

    Nordlinger doesn’t mince around; he goes Full Holocaust right out of the box.

    An Iranian general said, “Israel’s destruction is non-negotiable.” Don’t you think President Obama should take note of that? Don’t you think he should say something like, “I understand why the Israelis are a teensy bit worried”?

    You may remember what the survivor of Auschwitz said when asked, “What’s the biggest lesson you have learned?” He said, “When someone says he’s going to kill you, believe him.”

    There’s no link for those quotes, either.

    What’s clear here is that you can find people on both sides making bellicose threats that are really quite frightening if taken at face value. If you have trouble finding something scary enough for your purposes, you can always paraphrase, put the worst light on something, or simply invent the words that you imagine will advance your argument for war. Some publications won’t even demand that you provide credible citations, or any citations at all.

    What these folks never do is take any personal responsibility for the series of events that have led us to this place. Nordlinger jokes that President Obama will soon be providing nursing care in the Lincoln Bedroom to Fidel Castro, and that’s really about how seriously we should take him, but these drumbeats for war are cumulative. And they send a message to Iran that is probably even more threatening to them than their threats are to us, because we have the means not just to blackmail them but, as Hillary Clinton said in 2008, to “totally obliterate them.”

    “I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran (if it attacks Israel),” Clinton said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

    “In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them,” she said.

    “That’s a terrible thing to say but those people who run Iran need to understand that because that perhaps will deter them from doing something that would be reckless, foolish and tragic,” Clinton said.

    Iran doesn’t really need Hillary Clinton to tell them what our nuclear weapons can do to them. If we’re this scared at the mere prospect of Iran getting one 1940’s era nuclear weapon, imagine how they feel when such a wide swath of the American political scene routinely demonizes them and promises their destruction. This tough talk might deter them from doing something reckless, foolish and tragic, but it could also be their main incentive for pushing ahead for a bomb that will give them a measure of deterrence of their own.

    I don’t want to make it “look like if the campus Left came to power” in this country, but John Lennon was on to something when he urged us to “give peace a chance.” I think it was Jesus who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”

    We don’t have to assign benign intent to the Iranian clergy or think that it would be a good idea for them to get a nuclear weapon. But we shouldn’t magnify the threat out of all proportion or give up on finding a way to resolve our differences without killing each other.

    I don’t know if President Obama will be called a child of God, but I’m pretty sure those that thirst for war will not be remembered fondly.

    Also, someone has to remember our history. Things have a nasty way of not turning out as planned.

    [Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

    April 03, 2015 9:56 AM How a Jazz Legend Handled Discrimination

    By Keith Humphreys

    dizzy gillespie-1-thumb-473x439

    The recent Indiana controversy over whether businesses have the right to refuse service to gay customers reminded me of one of my favorite jazz stories. This one was told by one jazz legend (Oscar Peterson) about another (Dizzy Gillespie).

    “We were traveling down South, in some of the bigoted areas. So it was two o’clock in the morning, or something like that, and we pulled up to one of those roadside diners. And I looked, and there was the famous sign: No Negroes. And the deal was, we all had duos or trios of friendship, so one of the Caucasian cats would say, ‘What do you want me to get you?’ And they’d go in, and they wouldn’t eat in there, they’d order and come back on the bus and eat with us. But Dizzy gets up and walks off the bus and goes in there. And we’re all saying, ‘Oh my God, that’s the last we’ll see of him.’ And he sits down at the counter—we could see this whole thing through the window. And the waitress goes over to him. And she says to him, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t serve Negroes in here.’ And Dizzy says, ‘I don’t blame you, I don’t eat ’em. I’ll have a steak.’”

    [Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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