Kevin Drum

Are Liberals Too Smug? Nah, We're Too Condescending.

| Sat Apr. 23, 2016 6:41 PM EDT

Are liberals too smug? Sure. That's what Emmett Rensin says at Vox, anyway. Unfortunately, his essay runs to a Voxtastic 7,000 words, so there probably aren't too many people willing to read it all the way through. These days, I'm tempted to say that the real problem with liberalism is that we've forgotten how to make a good, crisp point in a couple thousand words. We've fallen victim to the idea that longer essays signal greater importance. Maybe I'll write a 2000-word piece about that someday.

But anyway—smugness. Are liberals too smug? I'd say so, except I'm not sure smug is really the right word. Here is Rensin explaining it:

By the 1990s the better part of the working class wanted nothing to do with the word liberal. What remained of the American progressive elite was left to puzzle: What happened to our coalition? Why did they abandon us?

....The smug style arose to answer these questions. It provided an answer so simple and so emotionally satisfying that its success was perhaps inevitable.... The trouble is that stupid hicks don't know what's good for them. They're getting conned by right-wingers and tent revivalists until they believe all the lies that've made them so wrong. They don't know any better. That's why they're voting against their own self-interest.

....It began in humor, and culminated for a time in The Daily Show, a program that more than any other thing advanced the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy....The internet only made it worse. Today, a liberal who finds himself troubled by the currents of contemporary political life need look no further than his Facebook newsfeed to find the explanation:

....NPR listeners are best informed of all. He likes that.

....Liberals aren't just better informed. They're smarter.

....They've got better grammar. They know more words.

....Liberals are better able to process new information; they're less biased like that. They've got different brains. Better ones. Why? Evolution. They've got better brains, top-notch amygdalae, science finds.

Etc.

Fair enough. But what would you call that? There's some smugness in there, sure, but I'd call it plain old condescension. We're convinced that conservatives, especially working class conservatives, are just dumb. Smug suggests only a supreme confidence that we're right—but conservative elites also believe they're right, and they believe it as much as we do. The difference is that, generally speaking, they're less condescending about it.

(Except for libertarians. Damn, but those guys are condescending.)

In any case, to boil things down a bit, Rensin accuses liberals of several faults:

  • Making fun of all those working-class rubes who vote for Republicans.
  • Spending too much time citing research studies and insisting that simple facts back up everything we believe.
  • Adopting a pose of knowing things that are faintly arcane. "The studies, about Daily Show viewers and better-sized amygdalae, are knowing....Anybody who fails to capitulate to them is part of the Problem, is terminally uncool. No persuasion, only retweets. Eye roll, crying emoji, forward to John Oliver for sick burns."
  • Abandoning the working class because we just can't stand their dull, troglodyte social views.

I agree with some of this. I've long since gotten tired of the endless reposting of John Oliver's "amazing," "perfect," "mic drop" destruction of whatever topic he takes on this week. I'm exasperated that the authors of papers showing that liberals are better than conservatives seem unable to write them in value-neutral ways that acknowledge the value of conservative ways of thinking. I don't like the endless mockery of flyover country rubes. We should punch up, not down.

As it happens, I think Rensin could have constructed a much better case with 7,000 words to work with. His essay didn't feel very well researched or persuasive to me, even though I agree with much of it. Still, the pushback has mostly been of the "Republicans are smug too!" variety:

But this isn't smugness. It's outrage, or hypocrisy, or standard issue partisanship. And as plenty of people have pointed out, outrage sells on the right, but for some reason, not on the left. We prefer mockery. So they get Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, while we get Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart.

You can find a good example in conservative criticism of political correctness on college campuses: trigger warnings, safe spaces, shouting down speakers, etc. They're infuriated by this. They think college kids are cosseted by their administrations; can't stand to be disagreed with; and have no respect for the First Amendment. But they're not usually smug or condescending about it. Most of the time they're scornful and outraged.

Generally speaking, elite conservatives think liberals are ignorant of basic truths: Econ 101; the work-sapping impact of welfare dependence; the value of traditional culture; the obvious dangers of the world that surrounds us. For working-class conservatives it's worse: they're just baffled by it all. They're made to feel guilty about everything that's any fun: college football for exploiting kids; pro football for maiming its players; SUVs for destroying the climate; living in the suburbs for being implicitly racist. If they try to argue, they're accused of mansplaining or straightsplaining or whitesplaining. If they put a wrong word out of place, they're slut shaming or fat shaming. Who the hell talks like that? They think it's just crazy. Why do they have to put up with all this condescending gibberish from twenty-something liberals? What's wrong with the values they grew up with?

So liberals and conservatives have different styles. No surprise there. The question is, do these styles work? Here, I think the answer is the same on both sides: they work on their own side, but not on the other. Outrage doesn't persuade liberals and mockery doesn't persuade conservatives. If you're writing something for your own side, as I am here most of the time, there's no harm done. The problem is that mass media—and the internet in particular—makes it very hard to tailor our messages. Conservative outrage and liberal snark are heard by everyone, including the persuadable centrist types that we might actually want to persuade. In the end, I think this is probably the real point to take away from Rensin's essay. The first law of marketing, after all, is to know your audience. Handily, that's also the first law of journalism.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Chart of the Day: Hillary and Bernie Duke It Out on Soda Taxes

| Sat Apr. 23, 2016 9:32 AM EDT

Finally we have a real difference between Hillary and Bernie. Hillary supports Philadelphia's proposed tax on sugary drinks of 3 cents per ounce. Bernie doesn't. "A tax on soda and juice drinks would disproportionately increase taxes on low-income families in Philadelphia," he said on Thursday.

Clearly this requires data. First off: how much of this tax would be passed on to consumers? The conventional wisdom is that most of it would, but a recent study out of Cornell suggests the real pass-through is much lower. The authors looked at prices of sugary drinks in Berkeley, which passed a 1-cent soda tax in 2014, both before and after the tax was implemented. Then they compared this to the before-and-after price of the same drinks in San Francisco, which voted in favor of a soda tax but not by the supermajority it required. The net difference is shown in the chart below:

The Snapple outlier is unexplained. Apparently 100 percent of the tax got passed through to Snapple addicts. But for most sugary drinks, only a fraction of the tax was passed through. Overall, after doing a bit of fancy math, the authors conclude that an average of 22 percent of the tax was passed through for Coke and Pepsi products.

So how would this affect Philadelphia? A Gallup poll confirms Bernie's general concern: low-income consumers are more partial to sugary drinks than high-income consumers, who prefer diet drinks. A recent NIS study concluded the same, and put some numbers to it. Using their data, I figure that a low-income family of three buys about 3,000 ounces more sugary soda per year than a higher income family. If 22 percent of the 3-cent tax is passed through, that's 0.66 cents per ounce, or about $20 per year for the entire family.

So yes, this is a regressive tax. On the other hand, it's also a pretty small tax, and the potential benefits are large if it cuts down on consumption of sugary soda and thus reduces the incidence of diabetes—a disease that's especially widespread among low-income families. But does it? Since we have virtually no real-world experience with this, nobody knows for sure.

So make up your own mind. It's possible to calculate a ballpark estimate of how much a soda tax would amount to, and although it's regressive, it's pretty modestly regressive. But we have no idea whether it would accomplish anything. We can only try and find out.

Evil Dex Update

| Sat Apr. 23, 2016 6:30 AM EDT

With the evil dex reduced to 12 mg, I thought I'd try taking it in the morning instead of at bedtime. I won't be doing that again. Even at the lower dose and with a sleeping pill, I'm wide awake at 3 am. I suppose I'm slightly less wide awake than before, but that's small comfort.

Oh well. If you don't try, you'll never know. I guess dex reaches its full effect after about 18 hours or so. Keep that in mind in case any evil doctor ever talks you into using it.

On the bright side, this is giving me plenty of time to Photoshop a new bit of desktop wallpaper with a better picture of the furballs. As usual, then, the score is Cats 1, Humans 0.

UPDATE: Here it is:

Suicide Rates Are Up, But the Most Obvious Explanations Are Probably All Wrong

| Sat Apr. 23, 2016 1:18 AM EDT

The CDC reports that the suicide rate was up again in 2014, and the Washington Post immediately offers some possible reasons. I've added numbers for easy reference:

(1) Last decade’s severe recession, (2) more drug addiction, (3) “gray divorce,” (4) increased social isolation, and even (5) the rise of the Internet and social media may have contributed to the growth in suicide, according to a variety of people who study the issue.

But (6) economic distress — and dashed hopes generally — may underpin some of the increase, particularly for middle-aged white people. The data showed a 1 percent annual increase in suicide between 1999 and 2006 but a 2 percent yearly hike after that, as the economy deteriorated, unemployment skyrocketed and millions lost their homes.

David French comments:

There’s much more to say about this, but millions of our fellow citizens — friends and neighbors — are experiencing existential crises that are far beyond the ability of politics to solve. With civil society faltering, families fracturing, and millions of Americans “bowling alone,” the human toll will only continue to rise. God forgive our nation for believing we could build a culture without you.

Let's slow down a bit. The causes of suicide are complex, and correlations are hard to prove. Still, there are a couple of things we can say. First, there should at least be a correlation if you're claiming causation, and second, the purported cause had better come first. You can't blame increased suicide on things that didn't happen until years later.

With that in mind, let's look at recent suicide rates for men. Not only does this help us control for gender, but it's also a less noisy set of data since men commit suicide at nearly 4x the rate of women. It turns out that suicide rates barely budged between 1999-2005, so I'm going to look only at 2005-14. The chart is on the right, with suicide rates divided into three 3-year buckets. Here are some things we can say based on this and other data in the CDC report:

  • The Great Recession (and economic distress more generally) doesn't really fit the facts. The suicide rate went up the most from 2005-2008, before the Great Recession. It went up the least from 2011-14. But if prolonged economic distress was at fault, you'd expect just the opposite: no effect before the recession and the greatest effect after it had been grinding away for a couple of years with no relief in sight.
  • Drug addiction is more plausible—but only modestly. According to HHS, marijuana use is up since 2005, but that's an unlikely cause of suicide. Cocaine, hallucinogen, and illicit prescription drug use is down. Heroin use and heroin dependence are up. Overdose deaths among heroin and prescription opioid users are also up—but they've been rising since 2002 and it's unclear how many of these deaths are suicides anyway. More generally, overall drug addiction rates have waxed and waned over the past five decades, and it's difficult to tease out a correlation between addiction and suicide rates over the long term.
  • "Gray divorce" has been a thing since the 80s, well before the suicide rate started rising. It hit the mainstream in early 2007 with the publication of Calling It Quits, also before the suicide rate started rising. What's more, suicide rates have been flat among the elderly since 1999. It's other age groups that have seen an increase. This is unlikely to be more than a minuscule cause at most.
  • Increased social isolation could be a cause, but the 2006 paper that kicked off this discussion suggested only that Americans had become more isolated between 1985 and 2004. This corresponds to a period when suicide was declining or flat. What's more, a 2009 Pew study that replicated the 2006 research found a substantially smaller—possibly zero—effect.
  • Internet and social media could also be a cause, though I don't really see what the mechanism is supposed to be. And that 2009 Pew study found that internet and cell phone users were less isolated than others.

We also know that suicide is up only among whites and Native Americans, but not among Hispanics or African-Americans. So any theory about the rise of suicide needs to at least engage with what might cause this. Are whites more economically distressed than blacks? That seems distinctly unlikely. Do they have higher drug addiction rates? Higher social isolation? More family fracturing? Maybe, but I'd like to see the evidence. And what about overall life satisfaction rates? They seem to have been quite stable over the past few decades. This doesn't suggest that growing existential angst is the cause.

My point here is not really that the increase in suicide rates can't possibly be due to any of these things. A deeper dive might implicate any of them. What's more, a lot of these possible causes affect a lot of people. But although suicide has seen a large percentage increase since 2005, in absolute terms it's only gone up by about 1000 per year. That's a small number, which makes it really hard to tease out from large-scale effects. A mere 1 percent change in the Gallup life satisfaction index, for example, represents a couple of million people, so it's unlikely to give us much insight into relatively tiny changes in the suicide rate.

So what is my point? Just this: writers need to be careful not to casually project their own sentiments or guesses onto a topic like this. Sure, the Great Recession might be the cause of more suicides. Maybe existential crises and fracturing families are the cause. Opioid abuse could be a factor. But just because these all seem plausible doesn't mean they're true. Likewise, just because you personally don't like the direction of American culture doesn't mean they're true either—no matter how true they seem. None of them should be tossed out casually.

For my money, we flatly don't know what's causing the increase in suicides over the past decade. Based on the size of the numbers and the evidence at hand, if you put a gun to my head I'd probably guess opioid abuse was the biggest cause. But I don't know, and I'm not sure anyone else knows either.

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 April 2016

| Fri Apr. 22, 2016 3:05 PM EDT

Our cats enjoy dark, cozy spots, so a few days ago I thought I'd buy them an enclosed pod to see how they liked it. Have I gone a little pod crazy? Perhaps. But it's a cheap and harmless hobby.

Anyway, the only one I could find locally was a sort of cat yurt, so I shelled out $14.99 and took it home. It was...problematic. But the problem, it turned out, wasn't the yurt concept per se, it was the pillow inside, which was so thick and soft that the cats rolled around on it like drunken sailors. As you can see in photo #1, Hopper solved that problem by burrowing under the pillow and using it as a door.

That worked well, but it caught the eye of her brother, who promptly stepped on the yurt and then decided to camp out on it. He eventually got bored with that, and when it was all over I removed the pillow entirely and moved the yurt. At first, everyone happily had their own pod. The Hilbert decided he wanted to try out the yurt, and as you can see, he eventually got his way.

But he's a little too big for it, so it's mostly a Hopper yurt. I've now customized it further by putting their old red blanket inside. We'll see how that works out.

In Trumpland, Who's Conning Whom?

| Fri Apr. 22, 2016 3:01 PM EDT

Donald Trump is getting a lot of flak from liberals for this confession from his new campaign honcho:

Trump's newly hired senior aide, Paul Manafort, made the case to Republican National Committee members that Trump has two personalities: one in private and one onstage. "When he's out on the stage, when he's talking about the kinds of things he's talking about on the stump, he's projecting an image that's for that purpose," Manafort said in a private briefing.

…The Associated Press obtained a recording of the closed-door exchange. "He gets it," Manafort said of Trump's need to moderate his personality. "The part that he's been playing is evolving into the part that now you've been expecting, but he wasn't ready for, because he had first to complete the first phase. The negatives will come down. The image is going to change."

This is basically being taken as an admission that Trump has just been conning his followers so far, and he'll turn on a dime when he needs to. But that's not how I take it.

First, I doubt that this recording was leaked. Rather, it was "leaked." The Trump campaign wanted it to become public. Sure, it will inspire some mockery from liberals and campaign reporters, but that's never done Trump any harm. And since leaks are usually taken as a glimpse into the real behind-the-scenes truth, this is the most effective way to get his message out to the public in a credible way.

And how will the public respond? Unlike us hyper-engaged folks, they'll just take it as an assurance that Trump can act like an adult when he wants to. More subtly, his current fans will also take it as a hint that his adult persona will be meant primarily not to con them, but to con centrist Republicans. With a wink and a nod, he's telling them he'll do what he has to do in order to appeal to the corrupt establishment folks, but not to take it too seriously.

And if Trump can pull it off, it might very well work: the establishment folks will start to fall in line, impressed by the "new" Donald. They're so certain that only yokels can be conned, it will never occur to them that they're the real marks.

But that's if Trump can do it. Can he?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Raw Data: Occupational Licensing in the United States

| Fri Apr. 22, 2016 1:59 PM EDT

Occupational licensing has been getting a lot of attention lately. Here is Josh Zumbrun writing in the Wall Street Journal:

In many states you can’t so much as get a haircut or have a manicure unless the person performing the service has an occupational license. Last summer, the White House released a report targeting this tangled maze of job-licensing requirements, and saying that trimming the thicket would improve the economy.

One reason [licensed] workers might enjoy a wage and job premium is because they’ve artificially restricted competition in their fields. It’s one thing when a thoracic surgeon must have an active license, but it’s another when an interior designer must have one....Another problem economists see with occupational licenses is that they tend to be issued and regulated at the state level. This makes it difficult for workers to relocate across state lines.

I haven't studied this enough to have a considered opinion on the subject, but I was still curious about which occupations are the most highly licensed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released some statistics on occupational licensing, and the chart below shows every occupation in which more than 20 percent of workers are licensed in some way. I'm not surprised to see medicine, law, and education at the top of the list, but personal care, maintenance, and management? That needs a little more thought.

The Best Way To Promote the English Language Is to Do Nothing

| Fri Apr. 22, 2016 12:13 PM EDT

This won't come as a big surprise to anyone who isn't knotted in fear about Hispanics taking over the country, but it turns out that Mexican immigrants are pretty much like every other immigrant population: the longer they're around, the more they speak English. Here is Pew Research:

About three-quarters of Hispanic Millennials are proficient English speakers — that is, they either speak only English at home (28%) or speak a language other than English at home, but speak English “very well” (48%).... Among Hispanics ages 5 to 17, nearly all of whom are U.S. born, 88% are proficient English speakers, including 37% who speak only English at home and 50% who speak another language at home but speak English very well.

It so happens that I think most liberals give short shrift to fears of official (or effective) bilingualism. My read of history and culture suggests that a common language is a key feature of a unified polity. There just aren't that many Switzerlands.

That said, there's not really a compelling reason to do much about this. I may not have any big objections to making English our official language, but why bother? Far from being unique, Hispanics are just like every other wave of immigrants in American history: they start off speaking Spanish, but the second and third generations end up speaking English. And they do it for obvious reasons: they live among English speakers, they watch English-language television, and it's hellishly inconvenient not to speak it. All we have to do is sit back and do nothing, and Hispanic immigrants will eventually all become English speakers.

Art Museums Should Be Allowed to Participate in Both Sides of the Free Market

| Fri Apr. 22, 2016 11:08 AM EDT

New York City's Metropolitan Museum recently announced that it was running deficits and needed to restructure its operations—most likely including layoffs. Michael O'Hare is agog:

The Met has a collection worth at least $60 billion, thousands and thousands of objects almost none of which (by object count or square feet of picture) is ever shown or ever will be....Selling just two percent (off the bottom by quality or importance, of course, and much more than two percent of it by object count), for example, could endow free admission forever. Selling .3 percent would cover that pesky deficit, also forever. And the smaller museums and collectors who would buy works freed from the catacombs would show it.

Nothing in the Met’s mission statement suggests its purpose is to accumulate as much art as possible where no-one sees it. But the Met and all the other big art museums have insulated themselves from this sort of awkward question by writing a code of ethics that forbids any museum from selling anything except to buy more art.

Rich art lovers....Do not give a penny or so much as a tiny watercolor to any museum that doesn’t recuse itself from this provision of the AAMD rules. When a couple of big ones like the Met show some leadership, things will change, and our engagement with art will improve in many ways.

Selling off artwork is called deaccessioning, and it's become increasingly common—and controversial—in recent years. The AAMD does indeed forbid it, unless the proceeds are used to buy other art, but during the Great Recession several small museums sold off parts of their collection in order to cover operating costs anyway. The AAMD was not amused. When the Delaware Art Museum sold off a William Holman Hunt painting a couple of years ago, the AAMD asked its members to basically suspend any collaboration with the museum.

The art world generally believes that deaccessioning is a horror because art is a public trust blah blah blah. This is little more than meaningless word salad. However, on a more prosaic level, it's probably true that a strong taboo against deaccessioning prevents art museums from using their collections as an ATM machine whenever they run into a patch of trouble. That said, it's hard to understand why art museums, alone among all the institutions of mankind, should be required to never sell anything they own. Perhaps this statement from the AAMD about the Delaware Art Museum's auction tells the real story: "It is also sending a clear signal to its audiences that private support is unnecessary, since it can always sell additional items from its collection to cover its costs."

We can't have that, can we? That would prevent museums from raising money with scary campaigns about shutting down or firing half their staff or cutting hours to the bone.

But what if rules about deaccessioning were abandoned? What would happen? My guess is: nothing much. Museums that gained a reputation for doing it routinely would indeed suffer a drop in private donations, and that would act as a natural brake on the practice. Other museums would benefit, as they were freed to occasionally sell off less important parts of their collection in order to pay bills or undertake other worthy endeavors. And huge museums like the Met, with caverns full of artwork that's never shown and has limited scholarly use, could not only shore up their finances but improve the world by selling pieces to smaller, more specialized museums that would show it. In the end, a free market in art would most likely produce a net increase in public welfare, just as free markets do in nearly every other area.

I'm with O'Hare: the taboo against deaccessioning is way overdone. We should give it a rest.

Hillary Clinton Really Loves Military Intervention

| Thu Apr. 21, 2016 3:17 PM EDT

Here's what's in the New York Times Magazine this week:

How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk

But...no. This piece doesn't really tell us how Hillary became a hawk—and that's too bad. It would be genuinely interesting to get some insight into how (or if) her views have evolved over time and what motivates them. Still, even if he doesn't really tell us why Hillary is so hawkish, Mark Landler makes it very, very clear that she is, indeed, a very sincere hawk:

Clinton’s foreign-policy instincts are bred in the bone — grounded in cold realism about human nature and what one aide calls “a textbook view of American exceptionalism.” It set her apart from her rival-turned-boss, Barack Obama, who avoided military entanglements and tried to reconcile Americans to a world in which the United States was no longer the undisputed hegemon. And it will likely set her apart from the Republican candidate she meets in the general election. For all their bluster about bombing the Islamic State into oblivion, neither Donald J. Trump nor Senator Ted Cruz of Texas have demonstrated anywhere near the appetite for military engagement abroad that Clinton has.

For all intents and purposes, Landler says that Hillary has been the most hawkish person in the room in almost literally every case where she was in the room in the first place. For example:

Adm. Robert Willard, then the Pacific commander, wanted to send the carrier on a more aggressive course, into the Yellow Sea....Clinton strongly seconded it. “We’ve got to run it up the gut!” she had said to her aides a few days earlier.

....After 9/11, Clinton saw Armed Services as better preparation for her future. For a politician looking to hone hard-power credentials — a woman who aspired to be commander in chief — it was the perfect training ground. She dug in like a grunt at boot camp.

....Jack Keane is one of the intellectual architects of the Iraq surge; he is also perhaps the greatest single influence on the way Hillary Clinton thinks about military issues....Keane is the resident hawk on Fox News, where he appears regularly to call for the United States to use greater military force in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan....The two would meet many times over the next decade, discussing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Iranian nu­clear threat and other flash points in the Middle East.

....Keane, like Clinton, favored more robust intervention in Syria than Obama did....He advocated imposing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria that would neutralize the air power of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, with a goal of forcing him into a political settlement with opposition groups. Six months later, Clinton publicly adopted this position, further distancing herself from Obama.

....The Afghan troop debate....Her unstinting support of General McChrystal’s maximalist recommendation made it harder for Obama to choose a lesser option....“Hillary was adamant in her support for what Stan asked for,” Gates says....“She was, in a way, tougher on the numbers in the surge than I was.”

And Landler doesn't even mention Libya, perhaps because the Times already investigated her role at length a couple of months ago. It's hardly necessary, though. Taken as a whole, this is a portrait of a would-be president who (a) fundamentally believes in displays of force, (b) is eager to give the military everything they ask for, and (c) doesn't believe that military intervention is a last resort, no matter what she might say in public.

If anything worries me about Hillary Clinton, this is it. It's not so much that she's more hawkish than me, it's the fact that events of the past 15 years don't seem to have affected her views at all. How is that possible? And yet, our failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere apparently haven't given her the slightest pause about the effectiveness of military force in the Middle East. Quite the opposite: the sense I get from Landler's piece is that she continues to think all of these engagements would have turned out better if only we'd used more military power. I find it hard to understand how an intelligent, well-briefed person could continue to believe this, and that in turn makes me wonder just exactly what motivates Hillary's worldview.