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Awesome Comebacks

Thursday, April 29, 2010
I think this is the best retort to a particular brand of conservative argument I've ever heard:

This weekend I was with my quilter friends of twenty years. We come in various shapes and sizes and selected religious backgrounds. For some reason the discussion of abortion and federal dollars came up with all of the hushed voices and somber mightier than thou that goes along with such conversations. I chimed in, 'Stop right there with your comments. For over eight years this country has used my tax dollars to wage a war that has killed innocent children, women and men and has killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in the process. All of this blood that was shed rests squarely on my shoulders and no one gives a damn about that. Don't use tax dollars and abortion in the same sentence again!" The conversation stopped and they looked at me with big eyes and by golly that was the end of it. For a minute there I thought that they could feel my pain. Being the resident peace-niq is exhausting sometimes but I do believe that they got the message. Never give up folks.

(via the inestimable Susie Madrak at Suburban Guerrilla)
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:57 AM

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How Political Disinterest Corrupts the Republic

Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Some people are confused that the Republicans would oppose financial reform when it polls in the 60% range and try to restrict abortion when 60% support Roe vs. Wade. There are a lot of instances of this, where parties push an agenda when the polls would suggest that the majority are against you. Now the obvious explanation would be that they are just supporting their base (big business and the religious right in these cases), and there's probably a great deal of truth to that. But there's more to it than that, and those who are confused are missing an important feature of public opinion by just focusing on the top-line polling reports. It's not just the question of the direction of opinion (are you for or against something), the salience of the issue matters as well. The fact is that Americans really don't pay that much attention to politics - they care if the economy is doing well and don't like scandals, but other than that they just don't care very much. So these polls are misleading in two respects: first, they are based on very limited public information, so the results can be massaged based on how one asks the question; and second - and this is the important point - if a political party defies public opinion they probably won't pay a political price for it. If there is a small number of people who will vote and contribute on an issue because they really care about it, and a larger number of people who hold the opposite opinion but don't think it's that big a deal, then from a cynical point of view it is more advantageous for a politician to do what the first group wants and gamble that the second group won't care enough to do anything about it. This is to say nothing about how easy it can be for the unscrupulous to manipulate public opinion.

And this is why we such a disconnect between public opinion and public policy, and why the system is so dominated by elites and so vulnerable to corruption. Political leaders can defy public opinion because they face an uninformed, disengaged electorate and can get away with it.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:29 AM

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Expertise Is Not A Transferrable Asset

Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Has anybody ever noticed the annoying tendency of experts to claim knowledge in areas outside of their purview? Because academia is so specialized, I see a lot less of this among university faculty, with the glaring exception of economists. In day-to-day life, however, people (usually men) who have gotten used to winning arguments on their chosen field begin poaching in others. Millionaire businessmen are the worst offenders, as they fall prey to the false and invalid syllogism that:
1) money is a universal signal of success
2) success is due to knowledge
3) I have lots of money
4) therefore, I have lots of universal knowledge.

I'm not here to criticize the well-heeled, however. No, it's Charlie Cook that has earned my ire. One of the nation's best-informed election analysts, his most recent column makes the claim that both liberals and conservatives are unwilling to confront the realities of the deficit. According to Charlie, liberals don't accept that a reduction in the deficit will require spending cuts, while conservatives don't accept that a reduction in the deficit will require tax increases. I'll set aside the manifest truths that conservatives a) only care about deficits when they're in the minority and b) don't ever want to increase taxes on the wealthy (they're much more flexible about taxing the poor).

It is, of course, in describing the position of liberals that Charlie gets it wrong. The truth is that liberals are in favor of cutting spending where it will do some good, in both defense spending and (gasp) entitlement spending in the form of restraining the growth of health care costs. A glance at CBO projections and simple arithmetic demonstrates that it is health care and defense costs that are causing structural deficits. And I'll even provide some cover to both camps by reminding the good Mr. Cook that the chief cause of the cyclical deficit is the recession, and that cutting spending in a time of weakened aggregate demand is a wonderful way to further depress the economy and hence expand the size of the deficit.

Why does Charlie Cook get such elementary facts wrong? I don't want to accuse him of the sin of false equivalence by searching for bad liberals to balance bad conservatives - I don't have to. Beyond this lamentable beltway habit, Charlie is doing what most pundits do, and what I did as a 20-year old ignorant but very loud know-it-all that: holding forth on things about which he knows nothing. I'd like to think that I can forgive my previous incarnation, since it was a long time ago and I only annoyed by acquaintances. Unfortunately Charlie is someone that policymakers and opinion leaders listen to, and should listen to, but not about economics and budgeting, where he quite clearly is out of his depth.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:44 PM

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Back From Civilization

Monday, April 19, 2010
As anyone who reads BH's blog knows, we had a lovely time traveling to Europe. Two weeks in France and Spain sounds an awful lot like a dream vacation for anyone, but for me it had special emotional resonance. I've wanted to visit Spain (and in particular Seville) since I was a teenager, so this vacation fulfilled a long-held desire. After building Seville up in my mind for two decades, there was the risk that it couldn't possibly live up to expectations. I tried to prepare for the fact that it might be a great experience, but sadly different than what I'd imagined. But to my delight, it wasn't. The reality of Seville matched my fantasies of it almost exactly.

In visiting Europe I was suspicious of the idea that it would be a life-altering experience. I'm in my mid-thirties now, and I've experienced a great deal over the last decade or so (thanks to my intrepid wife). This wasn't even my first trip to Europe: we went to Italy for twelve days a few years ago. It's hard to imagine a two-week stint have any major psychological effects. But to my surprise, the Old World did have an impact after all. Perhaps it was because we spent to long there, but I developed a taste for the slower pace and more refine palate of daily life in those great old western cities. Walking down the street first thing in the morning for a baguette, taking a siesta in the afternoon, traveling by train rather than by car, enjoying a leisurely glass of wine over lunch - these are all experiences that (admittedly affluent) Europeans take for granted, but seem profoundly alien to pell-mell pace of contemporary Americans. Why are we in such a rush again? Spaniards and Frenchmen are just as productive as we are, have all the luxuries we do, yet have much less extremes of wealth and poverty and appear to have the time and predisposition to appreciate all that wealth.

I'm thinking perhaps the fact that America is an immigrant society is of greater importance than I realized. We are the descendants of people who picked up and left so they could start over somewhere else, who were willing (or forced) to risk everything, who took a grand gamble. Europeans are the descendants of people who stayed put, who patiently built upon what they already had. I'm not going to say that one path is better or worse, but the ramifications of those strategies are profound.

I'm very much an American, and I expect that after a few months I'll return to my old habits, that the frenetic pace of ambitious striving will seem normal once again. But I suspect that part of me will always hanker for that more elegant, more restrained way of life. Finding Europe was in some senses finding out that I'd been doing it wrong all along, and I miss it already.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:39 AM

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